In a scene from Randeep Maddoke’s documentary film Landless, a woman is drinking tea from a metallic dish. After she is done, she picks up a handful of the soil and with it wipes its insides clean. The scene, enmeshed with the many silences of Maddoke’s film, quietly embodies a metaphor and the circumstances of its subject. The land, the soil to her is a transaction that like air, she must return because she doesn’t own any of it. It is ironical that something so ubiquitous, so endless as land, can be the cause of someone’s oppression. But so has been the history of India’s royalty, its landlords and merchants, even its colonial takeover — land is more than just land, it is privilege. Consequently, the ones who do not own any are the poorest and therefore, the weakest. Maddoke’s documentary gives the landless Dalits of Punjab a voice that statisticians and data collectors often fail to.
Maddoke, currently teaching in Jalandhar, is a painter turned still photographer. “I have risen from the same level. After finishing High School in 2004, I worked on farms for some time as a labourer. But my physique, my body, my strength just wouldn’t allow it. I wanted to study, but my family did not have the money to pay a paltry college fee,” Maddoke says. In 2005, Maddoke began capturing the countryside, mostly the areas of South Punjab that he was familiar with. “At a point, we did not even have twenty-five rupees for a fee. We had to borrow. Luckily I was always into art, I used to paint, so I could think and find ways of doing other things,” he adds. Maddoke went on to study at the Government College of Art in Chandigarh. His film is the culmination of a photo project that began way back in 2005, while he was still a student. “I have been amazed by the potential of this medium. My photos brought some recognition, but the film has done so much more. It doesn’t stop now,” he says.
Though Maddoke only hesitatingly refers to himself as a filmmaker, he believes it offers a lot of possibilities. “Photography was a very static medium. I enjoyed it, but every time I went to shoot, it were the stories that I heard when I spoke to people that told me this needed to have a voice, their voice,” he says. Of the landless farmers in Punjab 70 percent are Dalits. To even call them ‘farmers’ is perhaps an injustice to their actual role of labourers. These men and women work on farms they do not own, are barely protected by government intervention and are penniless at the end of it all anyway. To which effect, Maddoke’s camera is incredibly staid and still, at times ruminating over landscapes and pondering over the people disenfranchised by them. “There is a lot, I think, that stillness and silence can say. I know people watch documentaries where one after the other person speaks and scenes change rapidly, but here, the issues we talk about need patience, perhaps that quiet,” he says.
Maddoke has dedicated nearly a decade to making Landless. His own struggle, he says, was part of what made him gravitate towards people that are his own in more than one way. “I used to travel from Chandigarh to a lot of these places, Bhatinda, Patiala etc. I did not have money for a personal vehicle and I did not have flashy equipment either. I would take the bus and call some of these people and they often sent a bike or an auto-rickshaw, which was a loving gesture. People need a heart, that is all there is,” he says. For the majority of the filming of this roughly hour-long film, Maddoke has worked alone, travelling, he says, with a bag full of clothes and one with is tripod and camera. Has it helped the film that he was one of them? “I never overtly conveyed the fact that I was either landless or Dalit. I just went and sat next to them, ate and drank, talked and listened. That was enough. It probably helped that I did not arrive with an entourage, a team or fancy equipment. That would have scared them more, perhaps,” he says.
Landless is not easy to watch for it intentionally hovers over moments of both pain and discomfort. It begins with the rhetorical question ‘Do scarecrows have their own land?’ In one scene a woman explains how several upper-caste men peed on the walls of her house in broad daylight. In another, a mother bellows her disgust for justice that hasn’t arrived even years after her daughter was raped and murdered by upper-caste men. Though the wailing women, the tears of those who are by definition powerless, chokeholds you, it is really the quieter scenes, the ones that linger with substantially provocative silence that are particularly difficult to get past. Maddoke not only offers a voice, he also offers an image that is as irrationally accessible as it is distant and alien to the people in them. As for the film’s impact on its maker, Maddoke says “I have opened up as much as the people in film opened up to me.”
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