Award-winning Indian filmmakers take on Monsanto

June 3, 2016

“When one farmer kills themselves you can call it suicide. But when a quarter of a million farmers kill themselves, how can the government call it suicide? It is genocide. These farmers are being killed by design.”

So opens Cotton For My Shroud, a documentary about embattled Indian farmers and the assault on traditional rural agricultural life waged by Monsanto and the political class in its pockets.

Produced by Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl of Top Quark Films, it won the 2011 Best Investigative Film in the Indian National Film Awards. Saxena and Bahl are activist documentarians who recently visited Australia to show Cotton For My Shroud and Dammed at the invitation of Melbourne's Monash University.

Green Left Weekly spoke to them about their films and the battles against environmental destruction in India.

“We both studied literature and journalism at Delhi University and then worked in establishment media outlets,” Bahl said. “I worked at the Daily newspaper Indian Express for seven years while Nandan worked for television news organisations.

“But we were sick of inane stories and plugs for politicians and corporations. We quit our well-paying jobs, to take the road less trod.

“We started with environmental documentaries focusing in on the human story. Our first film profiled the Agaria — an aboriginal tribe — who produced stronger iron than the British and Swedish iron during the Raj in their clay furnaces.

“Since we formed Top Quark Films in 1996, we have produced more than 40 documentaries, working with progressive organisations like farmers unions, aboriginal communities, students and environment groups.”

Saxena said that the success of Cotton For My Shroud in 2011 “left people wondering about what happens next when the farmers take their own lives. We made a sequel — Candles In the Wind to focus on the widows of the farmers.

“Strategically, we chose Punjab as the backdrop, to expose the myth of the so-called 'Green Revolution'.”

Punjab, the food bowl of India, has been the poster-child of the Green Revolution. Behind the smokescreen of the Bollywood images of happy farmers dancing in lush wheat fields, is real smoke — from smouldering funeral pyres. Candles tells the story through portraits of five strong women — the widows of farmers.

Saxena said: “The Indian government and the think-tanks in the West see the agrarian economy of India as an anomaly, which needs correction. They see India as a provider of trained manpower for the tertiary sector — say the back-rooms of the IT companies and the staff of call-centres.”

In this vision, the Indian farmer has no role.
Saxena said government polices had systematically made farming financially unsustainable, noting: “The hybrid seeds and the agrochemicals initially brought the vision of a bountiful crop, but the mirage slowly faded into the stark reality of impoverished soils, depleted aquifers, and plummeting produce.

“The introduction of genetically-contaminated seeds from Monsanto proved the proverbial nail in the coffin for our farmers. From a self-reliant traditional farming where the farmer owned the seed, and used farmyard manure to grow sustainable crops, we have been forced into a paradigm of debt.

“Politicians and scientists knew that after the first seven-year honeymoon of bountiful harvests, the soil would degrade. Today, the soil is infertile and sometimes toxic. Nothing grows if chemical inputs are not added, making famers dependent on the vicious cycle of chemical agriculture.”

Saxana added that this was occurring at the same time as 1.2 billion Indian people depend on farmers for survival.

Bahl said: “Farmers take loans for the seeds and expensive agrochemicals, then the produce is far below the promised yield, and market prices are controlled by corporations. Slowly the agrochemical dealers — who stock Monsanto seeds and also provide the loans — end up gobbling up their land. When the farmer commits suicide, his wife does not even know how much he owes the moneylenders.”

Candles in the Wind won a special mention at the 2013 National Film Awards, as well as the John Abraham National Film Award for Best Documentary at the Signs film festival in the Indian state of Kerala in 2014.

On the critical response to their work, Saxena said: “Sometimes, we get criticism about not being 'balanced'. After seven years in establishment journalism, we quit our jobs to give voice to the voiceless people, to stand in the underbelly.

“We don't give any space to Monsanto in our documentaries. We don't want to sit in the centre and go back and forward between venal corporations, a farmer, a politician, an agricultural scientist — like a yoyo.

“Monsanto owns the government they have advertisements and plugs everywhere — 'buy seeds, buy pesticides'. No, we are not going to give them one iota of space.”

He added: “We were told that Monsanto was toying with the idea of suing us, that we would need the best human rights lawyers. But Cotton For My Shroud won the 2011 prestigious National Film Award for best investigative film in India, which the President of India conferred upon us.

“So far Monsanto has not come for us.”

Their 2014 film Dammed, was screened recently at Cinema Nova in Melbourne and provoked a good discussion. Based in Madhya Pradesh in the Khandwa district, it looks at the 30-year fight of the community against the mega-dams on the River Narmada, which is submerging thousands of hectares of prime fertile land and pristine forests.

Their latest short documentary I Cannot Give You My Forest also received the National Film Award last year. It gives us a window into the aboriginal community of the Kondh adivasis from Rayagada in Orissa, who are rising up against commercial plans for their forests.

Saxena said: “Activism is the rent every human has to pay for living on Mother Earth. If we let the corporations and puppet governments kill the farmers and the aborigines, then their blood is on our hands too.

“There is an agrarian movement against Monsanto. In many countries, farmers are burning down genetically contaminated crops. Vietnam threw out Monsanto, the Hungarian government burnt all the GM foods to stop cross contamination. Within the EU people are refusing GM foods. There is hope.”

Saxena and Bahl train students, community activists and NGOs to tell their own stories through cinematic documentaries on a budget. Quark Workshops help sustain their independent filmmaking. They are offering a Cinematography Workshop at Mullumbimby in Northern NSW on May 26.

“Cameras don't take pictures and computers don't write books,” Saxena said. “People do. We open new ways of looking at the tools — using phone cameras, HDSLRs and SONY Mirrorless cameras, you can even make a feature film.”

“We are seeking community funding for our next film, Cancer Express,” said Bahl, “It is about the cancer epidemic in Punjab caused by Monsanto's pesticides.

“There is not one speciality cancer hospital in Punjab and so each day 50,000 people get on trains to another state — Rajasthan, to go to a specialist hospital.

“We are farmers, dropping seeds of thought. We want people to question the paradigms of career, success and money, which have been planted by capitalism, to create an army of enslaved people who believe they are free,” said Saxena as he takes a deep breath.

“Documentarians are historians, chroniclers of our times,” Bahl concluded. “The strength of our films are the testimonies of the people. People can check the graphs and numbers on the internet. In our work the real people are telling their own story.”

[To show a Top Quark film, get information about training sessions or interview these citizen journalists, contact them at]

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