A Poetic Documentary About India’s Largest Protest : ‘Farming the Revolution’ Review

Nishtha Jain's real-time chronicle captures the long, resilient road to change

Published Time: 09.05.2024 - 08:31:36 Modified Time: 09.05.2024 - 08:31:36

Nishtha Jain's real-time chronicle captures the long, resilient road to change.

Nishtha Jain‘s “Farming the Revolution” — winner of the best international feature documentary prize at Hot Docs — captures the vast emotional scope of revolutionary movements. Chronicling the lengthy stand-off between Indian farmers and the Modi government, during which tens of thousands of Sikh and Punjabi farm workers occupied highways and state borders, the film is remarkable in its audio-visual inquiry into protest as a cultural movement, and in its excavation of the emotional highs and lows involved in making lasting change.

Over eight months between 2020 and 2021, millions of people would weave in and out of these caravans of trucks and makeshift houses surrounding New Delhi, in the hope of curbing new laws that would open Indian agriculture to predatory corporate interests while plunging farmers into poverty. Jain captures the sweeping magnitude of the protests through overhead drone shots and careful compositions on the ground — she often shoots large crowds from just above eye level, in order to capture them extending endlessly — but her narrative focus remains more on individual stories. Even if she rarely sticks with a single subject for too long, each protester makes an impact, whether through some quirk of character or through silent, soul-stirring stares right down the camera’s lens.

A bustling sense of community and camaraderie radiates through the screen, and the movie seldom shies away from the political history on which the farmers draw. Many of them find inspiration in past protest movements, such as those led by anti-colonial leader Bhagat Singh, whose image frequently appears on picket signs and whose slogan, “Inqilab zindabad!” (“Long live the revolution!”), is repeated ad nauseum (it’s even reflected in the film’s Punjabi title, “Inqilab Di Kheti”). Just as often, Jain matches the audio of protesters quoting and reciting 15th-century Sikh poems with scenes of people and vehicles in motion. History and tradition become the fuel to their fire, as poetry becomes part of the score, and part of the cinematic fabric.

The bifurcation of sound and image seems, at times, like the only way to adequately capture the sheer breadth of a story this vast. Responses from the Indian government, and news reports that label the protesters as terroristic agitators, play over nighttime scenes of the farmers gathering, eating and caring for one another as they recharge for the next day’s demonstrations. It’s a ste -

rn cinematic rebuke of the aforementioned smear campaigns meant to dissuade support. By refusing to cut away to news anchors or government talking heads, it also ensures the audience’s immersion in the movement and its communal environment.

Before long, the film settles into a comfortable rhythm, practically welcoming viewers to tour lengthy parallel rows of trucks and tractors on the Delhi outskirts. As solidarity grows across unions and professions, and folk singers show up in support, the film begins to exhibit a pacier, montage-like quality, as though the movement had taken control of time itself. However, this temporal trick is soon subverted when it becomes clear just how long the Indian government is willing to hold out on its harmful policies. Celebration turns to silent despondency, as the movie’s rousing highs are replaced by a purgatorial limbo, as though time were standing still.

Through shots of changing seasons — of people being enveloped by winter fog and summer dust as sunlight peeks into the frame — Jain uses the natural environment as an integral part of her storytelling, depicting the harsh realities faced by the farmers as the world continues to turn. Without leaving their side, her camera captures a sense of cruel indifference toward their concerns, as they wait patiently for reprieve that may never come. But by taking the air out of the room, the film becomes inspiring in its radical honesty. “Farming the Revolution” is as much about resilient farmers as it is about the cost of their resilience, toward which the movie harbors a righteous fury.

There are 10 lows for every high, a dozen setbacks for each victory and a need to dig deeper into personal and collective memory for musical and poetic inspiration when all seems hopeless. From depicting the movement’s silent growing pains to capturing the farmers’ lucid political demands, the film runs the emotional gamut, and takes an unflinching look at the toll that committed protest and solidarity can extract from those on the front lines.

‘Farming the Revolution’ Review: A Poetic Documentary About India’s Largest Protest

Reviewed online, May 5, 2024. In Hot Docs film festival. Running time: 105 MIN. (Original title: “Inqilab Di Kheti”)

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