LAST EVENING I had the satisfaction of seeing my friend Randeep Maddoke’s documentary Landless A few years back, when I was travelling Panjab for my book, I had met Randeep who until then was a photographer whose work I much admired. At that time, Randeep was making a documentary. He had very graciously invited me to accompany him on one of his shoot schedules and we had spent 5-6 days together.
I was interested in seeing how a still picture artist starts composing a moving picture but beyond that, my interest was caste – how it plays out in Panjab. We spoke a lot and he showed me the dynamics of caste in Panjab. It was a huge education for me. Naturally, I wrote about him in my book but I deliberately kept out a lot because those are Randeep’s material. Any artist, any writer, any film maker, is defined by the stories they tell and these were Randeep’s stories.
Landless is a film about the lived reality of the farm labour in Panjab – their issues and their struggles. Each frame, each scene of the film carries the message of how this labour faces the brunt of both:
a) Earlier, the inequality inflicted through thousands of years of being the lowest and resourceless in the stratification of the society.
b) Now, the huge inequality caused by the Green Revolution where the labour finds themselves as absolute have nots.
Randeep captures many stories leading to a focus on how the Dalits face Jutt brutality and social boycott when they rise to ask for their right in the Panchayati Land. This is land granted by law but hegemonized by upper castes with the connivance of the police and other state machinery.
I was now aware of caste but for many in the audience at Suchitra Film Society, Bengaluru all this was absolutely new. It was a very different face of Panjab romanticised by Bollywood and Panjabi pop-culture songs and music. Over the last few days, Randeep has had a good viewership in Bengaluru. He was telling me he is getting more and more invites to show his film and might have to extend his stay.
This brings me to an important point also raised by an audience member. What is the response in Panjab? I was disappointed to note – zilch, nada, zero. In the last year and half since Randeep has been ready with the film – which has been appreciated in Kolkata, Delhi, now in Bangalore, and some other cities – he has not got a single invite to show his film in Panjab.
I learnt from Randeep that at the one screening he held in Chandigarh, some Jutt Sikh audience called the film anti-Sikh because Randeep shows how the call to boycott the Dalits at village Jhaloor was made from a Gurdwara. Randeep is correct, even I have reported on it and have written about it. The progressive groups are unhappy because Randeep shows how the marginalised Dalits are treated by the land owning Jutts the same way the bigger Jutt farmers are treated by moneylenders and the state. This upsets the class consciousness and unity around poverty these groups are trying to evoke between the small and marginal Jutts and the Dalit labour.
As far as Gurdwaras are concerned, Randeep’s portrayal must inspire the Sikh religious community – rooted in equality and justice – to probe why Gurdwaras are misused and prevent their misuse. As far as small and marginal Jutt farmers and landless Dalit peasantry is concerned, no doubt, there is now some unity between communities as displayed in the many of their recent solidarity and coming together for protests but Randeep’s take on the differences cannot be overlooked. The questions the film is raising cannot be evaded. The irony is, between these two factions, the film has fallen through the cracks. There has been no boycott, no trending against the film, but Randeep has just not been invited from anywhere in the state to show the film. He and his film have simply been ignored.
Being ignored is the worst fate an artist can face. That the artist’s work is not acknowledged at all is worse than even being censored or boycotted. In censor and boycott, at least the artist’s work is acknowledged. When ignored, the artist is consigned to the dungeons of pubic space without even a hearing. It is erasure of the artist, it is death. It saddens me immensely that Panjab has ignored Randeep and Landless. However, upon seeing the film, I believe ignoring Landless is entirely Panjab’s loss. Randeep’s filmshows a major issue and unless Panjab acknowledges it, understands it, empathises with it, we can’t even begin to solve it. That is why it is my appeal to all forward looking people and groups in Panjab to screen Landless, to discuss Landless, to participate in the conversation that Landless is trying to begin. If we in Panjab do not do it, we are committing a grave injustice to our land and to our people, and ultimately to the idea of Panjab.