Born to the families of teachers, Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl always wanted to 'change the world'. Moving from English literature to mainstream journalism to independent film making, the husband-wife duo has developed a valued understanding of India's development model and how it fails us. Their film, 'Cotton For My Shroud', which focussed on suicides by cotton farmers in Vidarbha, got recognition at the 59th National Film Awards. Here they talk about their motivations, urban-rural divide, GM food and why we need to question the constructs foisted on us.
Q What was the first trigger which got you thinking on 'Cotton For My Shroud' and how did it develop into that feeling that it has to be done and it has to be done by me?
In 2006, a farmer was killing himself every 37 minutes in India. P. Sainath was writing about the situation in Vidarbha like a lone warrior as no other national media house was giving much coverage to the tragedy except for single column news here and there with twisted facts. We were also reading and getting worried about the constant inflow of such news. After some time we got so fed up with our own inaction and decided to pack our bags to visit the villages. When we reached there this realisation dawned upon us that the situation was extremely terrible and the news was not reaching Delhi. We decided not to wait for funding and start making the film. It was the right decision because may be nobody would have funded this film. We ended up spending Rs 25 lakh on its making but this is not a project for us from which we need to recover the cost or make profit.
When we reached there this realisation dawned upon us that the situation was extremely terrible and the news was not reaching Delhi. We decided not to wait for funding and start making the film. It was the right decision because may be nobody would have funded this film.
Q What was the transition you went through during the making of this film from the very first field visit to the time you finished making it?
We went there twice. First, during the sowing season and then when the cotton is plucked. We followed up lives of certain families and completed the shooting in two years, 2006-07. But when the editing started, we fell into a depression going through those moments, especially the funeral scenes, again. It had moved us so much that we decided to take a break which extended to two years. In fact, when the farmers and people working on the ground used to call us enquiring about the progress made, we had no answers for them. They stopped calling after a while thinking we might have been bribed by the politicians not to pursue the subject. Then in second half of 2009, we decided to start editing again as there was a promise we had to keep and condition of farmers had only worsened.
Q How difficult it was to earn the trust of people as a filmmaker?
When we first called up Kishor Tiwari of Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, he scolded us saying you media people are just doing stories over the phone without coming over to see the ground reality. On meeting us, the first question he asked was when were we leaving. He was surprised to know that we had not got our return tickets as his experience with journalists was that they always arrive in a hurry, thrust mikes at a few people before flying off. We told him we were not TV journalists but documentary makers and would stay there. He took us around and helped meet people.
Q Isn't it ironic that your film got the national award but the government still propagates Bt Cotton?
The film is not targeted at policy makers since they already know what wrong they are doing. The film is directed at people who should know how politicians and corporates are profiteering at the expense of those who are feeding us. Now Sharad Pawar is saying that Bt Cotton has failed and we should work on developing indigineous Bt. Failure of Bt Cotton should not be taken lightly as it is India's first commercial genetically modified crop and if we don't take a stand today, genetically-modified food will be on plates pretty soon resulting in more health issues.
Failure of Bt Cotton should not be taken lightly as it is India's first commercial genetically modified crop and if we don't take a stand today, GM food will be on plates pretty soon resulting in more health issues.
Q Has there been any change in the cropping pattern or return to traditional farming among these farmers?
They don't have traditional seeds since big corporates selling Bt Cotton have shrewedly taken over the small seed companies. There are seed banks saving traditional seeds but they can't replicate them at a large scale without institutional support. Vandana Shiva is a lone warrior in this field. Earlier, in every village, there used to be women who were traditional seed keepers. This practice needs to be revived across the country. After watching this film, many farmer groups have approached us seeking traditional seeds. They do want to get out of the Bt trap but have no means.
Q What kind of impact the film has made so far?
Lot of people ask do you think suicides are going to stop or your film will make a tangible change. These films are meant to create awareness. We say we are like farmers. Like them, we also sow seeds. The only difference is they do it in soil, we sow them in minds of people. Lot many youngsters have taken our films to their colleges. Many of them ask us what they can do for the farmers. We tell them next time you take a vacation, don't go to Goa or Manali, go to villages and you will find your own way. Also, we should not go with mentality of a giver. There are many things we can learn from them. They are much wiser than us.
Next time you take a vacation, don't go to Goa or Manali, go to villages and you will find your own way. Also, we should not go with mentality of a giver. There are many things we can learn from them. They are much wiser than us.
Q Coming to the urban-rural divide, how can this be bridged?
The problem is that urban Indians think they are the lords of this country and rural people thinks they are the beggars. The equation is just the opposite. Only because you can throw money to buy food does not give you a right to rule over those who grow that food. Our farmers are toiling in the fields facing harsh weather and harsher government policies which are forcing them to commit suicides. On the other hand, there are several changemakers in this country working at different levels without waiting for support from the government or funds and we don't even know about them because the media gives us the news where either government or corporates are benefiting. But even this is old news. Today we have internet, who can stop us from seeking information, who can stop us from going to our villages and taking a stand for greater good?
Q Being successful journalists with big media houses, how did you decide to go your own way?
The two years we spent in north east changed our lives. Being city bred never been away from our families, we were exposed to several problems at one go. There were so many tribes, people literally living with nothing and nothing being done for them while insurgency was at its peak. We realised that these people have fallen off our radar and in fact, we are excluding them by choice. We used to constantly fight with our editors since they were not interested in the kind of stories we wanted to get published.
We got clear that the people who own the media are not the agents of change, they are the agents of satan. They are constantly hijacking agendas so that the ordinary as well as thinking people are always caught up in wrong dialogues and nobody questions the government or the corporates. Constructs like nationalism, religion, ethnicity, caste, reservations are brought into limelight to divert attention from poor governance. A little deviance is allowed so that the illusion remains.
Constructs like nationalism, religion, ethnicity, caste, reservations are brought into limelight to divert attention from poor governance. A little deviance is allowed so that the illusion remains.
We decided we don't want to be tools in hands of a few people. However, it was not easy. The first two years were tough since as a worldly person, you are always caught up in the struggle for survival. In 1996, we started independent work, also covered elections and made documentaries for others to make the ends meet and gradually moved to our kind of work. Our attitude has developed our time but this is not something new to our country. Before 20th century, career and success were not discussed here. These are constructs developed by the people who want to control resurgent minds.