Bollywood Superstar Aamir Khan Shines the Spotlight on What's Caused an Estimated 150,000 Farmer Suicides in India
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A tangible consequence of India's shift to a neo-liberal economic model has been the flood of suicides among farmers. The vast majority of the world's second most populated country still farms for a living, but are caught between deep debt and the erratic nature of seasonal change. Lured by the promise of greater production, farmers are pressured into mortgaging their farms to purchase genetically modified seeds, pesticides, and fertilizer from American companies like Monsanto. Since GM seeds are patented by Monsanto, their repeated use each year requires constant licensing fees that keep farmers impoverished. One bad yield due to drought or other reasons, plunges farmers so deep into debt that they resort to suicide. One study estimates that 150,000 farmers have killed themselves in the past ten years.
A new feature film written and directed by Anusha Rizwi and produced by Bollywood megastar Aamir Khan, called Peepli Live, tackles head on this grim topic. The story is set in an Indian village named Peepli where one young debt-burdened farmer named Natha is talked into taking his own life after he learns that his family will be financially compensated through a government program created to alleviate the loss of farmers taking their own lives. What unfolds is a dark comedy of errors when a media circus descends on the tiny village, followed by corrupt politicians wanting to make use of the planned tragedy. Khan's credits as an actor and producer include Lagaan, the 2001 Oscar-nominated film about Indian resistance to the British occupation. His latest film 3 Idiots released last year became the highest grossing film in Indian film history.
Text of Sonali Kolhatkar's interview follows (with video and more information about Khan's film at the bottom of the article):
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Sonali Kolhatkar: The film Peepli Live tackles a number of issues in rural India which aren't always portrayed in Bollywood films. How important was it for you to make such a film about an issue that's not very well known especially outside India?
Aamir Khan: I feel that Peepli Live is not really a film about farmer suicides [but] that farmer suicides are a backdrop because the film doesn't really go into the issues that farmers are facing or why this epidemic really has been spreading for so many years now. It's a film that's more about the growing divide between urban and rural India and how as a society we are concentrating all of our energies, our resources, our wealth towards cities and are ignoring our villages and the rural parts of India which is where the bulk of our population lives. As a result our villages are not life-sustaining in a healthy manner. And that in turn results in a lot of migration from villages to cities. So in villages we don't have schools often, medical facilities, even basic stuff like water and electricity. I think this is what the issue in the film really is.
On a certain level it's also a film about survival. While it's a satire about civil society today and takes a humorous view of the administration, the political scenario, the media, or civil society in general, it's also on a certain level a story about survival. Each one of us: politician, journalist, civil servant, or a district magistrate, or even Budhia (a character in Peepli Live), who's a farmer, a villager - each one of us in our own environment, in our own situation, is doing what he or she thinks needs to be done in order to survive.