‘Archiving’ the 2020-21 farmers’ protest

Two recent documentaries, Trolley Times and Farming the Revolution, stand as counter-archives to what the state refuses to show.

Published : May 16, 2024 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

A still from Trolley Times (2023) directed by Gurvinder Singh. 

A still from Trolley Times (2023) directed by Gurvinder Singh.  | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

There was a stir in the audience. A woman asked a question, one that soon took the shape of a grievance, an accusation, aimed at the director Gurvinder Singh, who was screening his two-and-a-half-hour documentary on and around the 2020-21 farmers’ protest, Trolley Times. I was moderating the discussion and was sitting next to Singh.

The film, divided into four parts, is a meandering portrait of a time and place, not so much an event, although it hinges on one. It begins with pristine, meticulous shots—Singh’s visual hallmark—of the titular newspaper’s printing press, a bulwark against the state-sponsored and state-complying news. The film’s first three parts are tied to the protest site to which journalists and filmmakers flocked, some producing reportage, others state propaganda.

The film trails along to Singh’s attention and intuition and not so much to the rhythms of the protest itself. For example, Singh stops shooting when the farmers are on their way to the Republic Day fracas, which is the last footage we see of the protests: of farmers charging ahead; of being rounded up in rallies where they are told of the things they must keep in mind, the dos and don’ts; the leaders telling some farmers to stay back at the protest site to protect their belongings while they storm the capital.

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The film itself does not go with the farmers to the capital and bids them farewell as they set off. There is both grief and hope in these shots of the farmers surging ahead, not taking with them the camera’s gaze… perhaps, also fear?

Focus on the personal-political

Singh instead turns his gaze at this point to Tatariewala, a village in Punjab, for the rest of the film. Here, the families of 12 men are waiting for their children, many of whom have been jailed unfairly by the police, to return from the protest. From the broad-political, the focus of the film becomes the personal-political, and the protest site is discarded as the stage on which the film expresses itself. The events of January 26—what exactly happened—are filtered through the testimony of these family members.

Asked about the decision to swerve away from the protest site to this village, Singh said: “If there is no juxtaposition, there is no meaning. The farmers’ protest had to be juxtaposed with something—and what a village was feeling about the protest 300 miles away was the right thing to juxtapose it against.” While the protests went on until November, Singh, back in Tatariewala, shot the harvest and the sale of wheat in the mandi in April—thrilling, hypnotic shots of process, production—and decided his film was done.

There is an enviable clarity here that could also be construed as indolence or structural constraints. Singh shot only 50 hours of footage. For context, Nishtha Jain, whose documentary Farming the Revolution just won the top prize in the International Competition at Hot Docs and who also had a larger team on the ground, had to parse through 500-plus hours of footage.

A still from Farming the Revolution directed by Nishtha Jain.

A still from Farming the Revolution directed by Nishtha Jain. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

This is what irked the audience member. As someone close to the movement, it hurt her to see an incomplete portrait that followed the whims of the director and not the winds of the movement itself. She said it was irresponsible of him as a filmmaker to take up this subject and not do it “justice” with this incomplete portrait. But every portrait, every film is incomplete, Singh responded.

There is a strange demand on non-fiction filmmaking to do “justice” to a topic. This stems from news not doing what it is supposed to do, and it becomes a pressure that non-fiction filmmakers neither asked for nor are capable of shouldering. Because while “doing justice” means something neater and more objective in the legal sense, in the artistic sense it is a vague feeling we arrive at, based on our proximity to the subject as well as on the subject’s mutating facades.

Asked why he only focussed on the Tikri border and not Singhu, Singh was clear that he did not want his filmmaking to get entangled in questions of Khalistan as Singhu had. “I am not a journalist,” he said. “I was not there to do coverage. You cannot make anything without omitting.” Besides, his team was sparse and could only be in one place at a time.

Capturing the daily grind

There is a thorny ask here. How does one archive a movement, especially one as pronged and percussive as the farmers’ protest?

For Farming the Revolution, Jain decided that the film would focus entirely on “the ethos of the farmer-protesters as expressed through their poems, songs, speeches and conversations”. She wanted to capture “the quotidian—the daily grind, the organisational, strategical, and motivational aspects of the 13-month-long occupation”. Much like Prateek Shekhar’s Chardi Kala, which also decided to eschew demands of comprehensive completeness, this film, instead, provides fractured immersion.

“There is a strange demand on non-fiction filmmaking to do “justice” to a topic. This stems from news not doing what it is supposed to do, and it becomes a pressure that non-fiction filmmakers neither asked for nor are capable of shouldering.”

It was difficult to find the conventional “protagonist” because people’s presence in the protest was ephemeral; they would go back to their village and someone else from their village would take their place. Besides, there was a widespread suspicion of the camera itself. It produces a film where there are a lot of people speaking to the camera, aware of it and its implications.

It is when this awareness slips that films emerge into full focus. In Farming the Revolution, you see an old man shelling peanuts. He is joined by a younger farmer, who is a bit disillusioned by the lopsided attention some of the protesters are getting. When the older farmer offers him the peanuts, the younger one tells him to take some first. The older farmer says he does not have teeth. We realise in that moment that the whole time he has been shelling the peanuts for others, and the idea of “seva” gets a surge of power, a physical incarnation of a cultural tenet. Films need to chase this kind of observational power.

Also Read | When documentary films get the cinematic treatment

In one sense, the artist has, without their consent, without their inputs, invariably become an archivist, by choosing to show what the state refuses to. Both the films end with texts on the screen that reference the farmer deaths—over 700—that have taken place.

Since Jain’s film is closer to the ground, to the material circumstances in which the farmers spent those hot summers and cold winters of protest, these deaths—from disease, sickness, and not necessarily violence—are contextualised. On the other hand, Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar told Parliament that there was “no record” of deaths and therefore no question of government aid. These films then, whether or not they understand their role, their power, stand as counter-archives to the state.

It is their destiny, or perhaps their ill luck, that they have to practise their artistry at a time when we seek from this art a different flavour of rigour, when we displace our hopes of truth from elsewhere to the artist. That the artist’s shoulder will crumble is certain—they can never be fully right, fully responsible, fully true to their subject and their art simultaneously. The question then is, how much crumbling will keep the artist intact? Until when do we have, until they, too, dissolve? 

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online.

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