Harsha Atmakuri, a medical practitioner, quit his profession to become a vegan activist. Maa ka Doodh is his documentary about the cruelties inherent in dairy farming. The first-time filmmaker’s effort won four awards at the 2023 Jaipur International Film Festival and appears to be getting traction on YouTube. Maa ka Doodh blows the lid off ethical, cultural, environmental, religious, economic, and health issues that surround the consumption of dairy products in India. The film records the history of dairy in the country, the relevance of cows, and the White Revolution and its dark side. It points to cattle being a bigger environmental pollutant than vehicles or industry.
It took Atmakuri two years of intense research and 20,000 km of travel to gather data on all aspects of dairy. The result of his work is a measured, sensitive, and factual film that leaves viewers questioning how dairy became so entrenched in Indian culture. The film’s surprise package is Atmakuri’s insightful study of Indian spiritual texts that collectively say milk consumption results in cruelty to animals. The filmmaker produces several instances where Big Dairy uses its might to kill policies that promote plant-based proteins. Speaking to Frontline, Atmakuri said his intention was to make people understand that along with the harm caused to living beings, the aggressive efforts to promote dairy are in fact causing severe environmental damage.
The documentary gives insights into all aspects of the dairy industry, its link to the beef industry, the environment, and to our health. What triggered you to make the film?
An accidental visit to a slaughterhouse made me a vegetarian overnight. I began reading Mahatma Gandhi, Vivekananda, and other philosophers; I learnt a lot about vegetarianism and veganism. I realised there was a lot of cruelty in dairy. I knew I had to stop consuming it. Initially, I thought I would quit only commercial dairy and consume gaushala or ahimsa milk. However, one day I entered the back gate of a well-known temple and found a truck unloading commercial dairy products. I felt deceived as the temple had told us they only used ahimsa milk in their kitchens. When I questioned them, they mocked me.
An outreach awareness programme in Mumbai on animal cruelty was my first exposure to activism. I then decided to make a video on the subject even though I was not a filmmaker. It went viral in Mumbai and Gujarat. So, I spent a lot of time making videos and learning the craft. I decided to quit my job and become a full-time animal rights activist. I wanted to focus on a major project. From experience, I knew that it was easy to understand cruelty in the meat industry because of the slaughterhouses. When it comes to dairy, people have different perceptions. I decided to investigate the dairy industry in the country. The more people I met a pattern emerged, and the link between the beef and dairy industries became clear.
What do you hope to achieve with the film?
Maa ka Doodh is an attempt to help consumers make informed choices and empower people with the information needed to fight abuse, malpractice, and exploitation of animals. Most people might not know that the animals which give us milk are often slaughtered for meat at the end of their milk-producing lives.
You speak critically of the White Revolution. The cooperative sector was created to help the farmer. What made you take on giants such as Amul and expose the negative side of dairy cooperatives?
I do not want to go against people from a commercial point but from an ethical view. My appeal to the cooperative sector is since they already have the infrastructure and resources, why not begin R&D in plant-based alternatives? We are not saying stop making money. The message I want to give Big Dairy is that as an activist I am not against the livelihood of anyone. But explore more humane options. There is a huge potential in alternatives. My aim is to empower consumers. I want to provide information on how the industry operates and how milk comes to their homes. When consumers demand more plant products, we may see big cooperatives such as Amul sell those products.
India ranks first globally in milk production. It is also among the largest exporters of beef.
I asked farmers what they do with animals when they are dry or grow old. Most say they sell them. They cannot afford to look after them. The fact is that the more milk is consumed, the more animals are slaughtered. Another revelation was that at every dairy farm, less than 5 per cent of the herd is male. Tragically, males are done away with. Artificial insemination has replaced the bull, so they need just a few bulls to collect semen and impregnate thousands of females.
It is a strange paradox that cows are revered in India, but, as the film exposes, horrific acts of cruelty are committed on the cow.
In theory we treat the cow as sacred and as a mother figure, but in practice that is not the case. The commercialisation of dairy has desensitised people. When we met dairy farmers, we found the desensitisation so deep that until we pointed it out [about the cow and calf being separated] they did not even see this as cruelty. Dairy farmers see it as clinically as separating two vegetables.
The Plant Based Treaty
The film maintains an even tone on religion.
We tried our best to be as neutral as possible, without hurting any religious sentiments or communities. We focused only on the animals. My mission is to express the truth. Truth is neutral. You need to see the positives in each religion and not point out the negatives. It is a form of constructive criticism. Religion is not the problem, people are not the problem. It is the conditioning of society, of commercialisation and speciesism.
Dairy is entrenched in our culture. But you are asking for a major shift in consumption and living habits.
As activists we are already seeing a steady shift in consumption. It will take time but at least let’s start talking about it.
How did you film disturbing scenes, especially the ones in slaughterhouses?
All slaughterhouses are extremely strict about allowing cell phones into the premises, for obvious reasons. I tried my best to film with permission. The animal rescue committees told me not to risk it and instead use footage gathered from other NGOs. I reached out to Animal Equality and Animal Save Movement, who have done vigils and investigations in slaughterhouses. We used verified and credible footage from multiple organisations. Without them, I could not have made the film.
Do you expect a backlash?
We are submitting the documentary to film festivals. The recognition is growing. Colleges and education institutions have approached us for screenings. It is a free film. Our goal is only to raise awareness. In the end, it is not just about animals, but the future of nature and our next generation. Fortunately, even after multiple screenings, we have not yet received any backlash.
- Dairy production and consumption is not native to India.
- The Indian strain of tuberculosis comes from the Brucellosis bacteria found in bovines.
- Abandoned bovines found wandering on the streets could have up to 30 kg of plastic, nails, metal, and other rubbish in their stomachs.
- It takes 1,062 litres of water to produce one litre of milk.
- To produce five litres of good quality milk, a cow needs to eat 35 kg of green grass a day.
- One bovine releases 500 litres of methane gas a day, which is worse than emission from vehicles and industries.
- A range of interviews with experts, doctors, scientists, and spiritual leaders adds depth to the film. The film is not for the faint-hearted. Its hard-hitting imagery and commentary are meant to jolt the viewer.