Skip to main content

The Farmers Have Persevered and So Did We: Nishtha Jain Discusses Her Hot Docs-Winning ‘Farming the Revolution’

By Ishita Sengupta

Three older men read a newspaper.

Farmers reading the Trolley Times. Image credit: Akash Basumatari. Courtesy of Nishtha Jain

In September 2020, amidst a global pandemic, the government of India passed three farm laws which met with resistance. Nishtha Jain’s new documentary Farming the Revolution chronicles the resulting farmers’ protest, from 2020–2021; the contentious agricultural reforms, pertaining to regulating the pricing and sale of farm produce, were peddled as beneficial but viewed as exploitative by the farmers. Indian farmers, especially from the agrarian states like Punjab and Haryana, staged widespread protests against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been in power since 2014, by marching up to the capital, New Delhi, and camping at the borders while braving extreme weather conditions, violent retaliations from the police, and a raging Covid-19. They continued for a year till the laws were repealed in November 2021. The prolonged skirmish outlined two contrasting portraits—one, of the indomitable spirit of the farmers and the other, of the unyielding hubris of Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP party that has accumulated the legacy of intolerance toward dissent. In February 2024, the farmers resumed a second round of protests on the grounds that the government allegedly failed to fulfill their promises, though these recent protests are not in Farming the Revolution.

The film records the civil disobedience and engages with open-eyed curiosity to underscore the more crucial aspects of the farmers—patience, fortitude, and resilience—which emboldened them to rebel even when the opposition was unrelenting and the finishing line was not in sight. In Jain’s hands, the outing becomes a moving memoir of a movement. In addition to its urgent documentation of the farmers’ protest and telling evidence of the apathy of the current Indian government, Farming the Revolution is also a vivid portrayal of the alarming state of media in the country, where the majority is couched in complicity with Modi and his party. Jain and co-director Akash Basumatari (also the DoP) keep their gaze firmly on the resistance, showing us first-hand what was happening on the ground. But they also put forth the many ways in which the protest was misreported by mainstream media. We hear media reports undermining the farmers and linking them with “Khalistanis,” a reference to a turbulent movement for an independent Sikh homeland in the late 1980s and early 1990s called “Khalistan.” They all add up to a pressing rendition of India which is currently riven with failing journalistic practices.

The documentary recently premiered at Hot Docs and won the top prize in the International Competition. I spoke with Jain over Skype to understand how she went about shooting the protest at a time when staying indoors was the compulsive norm. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: You shot the documentary during the pandemic which was rife with uncertainty and unsafety. I am eager to understand if it was a professional call or ethical compunctions that made you do it?

NISHTHA JAIN: It was what preceded the farmer’s protests. In December 2019, the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, a draconian law that accelerated Indian citizenship to persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but excluded Muslims, had started and culminated later into riots in Delhi. Following this, the human rights activists were arrested. And then during the lockdown, millions of workers were forced to walk home. The morale of the nation was already down. Then farm laws were passed amid the pandemic hoping the lockdown would discourage mass-resistance. But they underestimated the farmers who came out in full force defying the lockdown. All eyes were on them instantly.

When the farmers marching to Delhi were stopped outside the state borders, I asked my collaborator Akash Basumatari to go and see what was happening on the ground. I was in Mumbai, and he was in Delhi. At that time, we were working on a narrative script. Akash made several trips to meet the farmers at Singhu and Tikri borders. Based on his reports, we decided to start filming. I landed in Delhi next week. What we saw there was the beginning of self-sufficient protest cities. We still had our masks on, but not the farmers. Eventually, during the filming, our masks too came off as we wanted the farmers to see who we were because, at the time, there was a lot of distrust in the media which was misrepresenting them.  The strangest thing is that over 13 months of filming, none of us, including the farmers we were filming with, got Covid. It was a miracle.

D: It must have been a task to assemble a team during the pandemic. Your usual collaborator, cinematographer Rakesh Haridas, has not shot this film. 

NJ: Well, Rakesh lives in Mumbai and even if he agreed to film during Covid, I could not have afforded him.  Initially, it was hard to get a location sound recordist. A couple of them cited safety reasons, understandably so. I finally managed to get Lohit Bhalla, a young location sound recordist from Delhi, and through him, we found Jaskaran Singh, an assistant camera person who also ended up translating, and sometimes driving for us! For a whole year, this team persevered. We shot for 135 days. I have never shot that long but we could not predict when the protests would end. At one point, during the summer of 2021, Akash asked me how long we would continue doing this. It can get boring and repetitive. I said that the farmers have persevered and so should we. We need a conclusion for the film. We have to carry on till we reap the harvest, very much in line with farmers who cannot give up and have to return to grow another crop even if the previous has failed. 

D: When you started filming, there was no roadmap to this. The government was refusing to relent and the farmers were not budging. How did you navigate the unpredictability?

NJ: The farmers were ready to be there till the elections in 2024. [Laughs.] By January 2021, I already knew my artistic approach to the film, and it is apparent from the title, Farming the Revolution. My intent would be rooted in the idea of resistance, resilience, and perseverance. I wanted to portray the stoicism of these people. These were no “country bumpkins,” and even the illiterate amongst them, articulated their feelings, poignantly, often in a song or a poem. These were people with deep roots in their soil. However, my application for film funds throughout the year only met with rejections. I guess no one was interested in a protest film with no conclusion in sight. But inspired by the farmers, I continued persevering. I had poured my life’s savings into shooting the film and I still owed Akash most of his salary! Desperate, I asked an academic friend to do a fund-raiser toward the end of the year and it sustained me for a couple of more months. It was only after the farmers were victorious that the film funds and co-producers were interested in boarding the project. 

D: Millions of farmers protested but the people you chose to focus on included others. There is this young woman, Veerpal Kaur, who shyly confesses that she works at Reliance Industries, the Indian conglomerate that the farmers suspected to be one of the corporate firms the government wanted to favor by passing these laws. There is also this young man, Gurbaz Sangha, who gets sucked into the protests during the runtime of the film. How did you decide on these focuses?

NJ: Finding the characters was difficult because thousands of farmers were at the protests. When I met Veerpal, I immediately connected with her honesty. She was there with her entire family, including her elder sister Beant. Both sisters were well-informed, articulate, had a sense of humor, and, most importantly, could be natural in front of the camera.

It took me longer to make Gurbaz open up. When the protests began in Punjab, he was not clued in. But he gradually began participating and learning more about why protesting against the farm laws was a matter of survival. He arrived at the Delhi border on the very first day of the protest. In him, I saw a seed planted by the protest. We see him grow, and evolve during the year. And that is so crucial to the documentary’s form. 

D: Yes, his ideas were lofty, which was almost...

NJ: Idealistic? Absolutely. And it was not just him. Thousands of young people had fashioned themselves after Bhagat Singh, the Indian revolutionary who fought against British colonialists and was hanged to death at the age of 23.

D: Protests are performative by nature. The farmers were similarly aware of the camera’s presence. Did you negotiate your filmmaking any differently to adapt to that?

NJ: The farmers were using alternate media (including documentary filmmakers) to get their voices across because the mainstream media was portraying them as troublemakers or terrorists. I was happy to be able to be a medium through which we could see their experience, and understand their perspective. But of course not without criticality.

We reached there on the third day of the protest. In the early days, some of the farmers were uneasy with our observational filming. They were wary of the media because it misrepresented them. They would insist we ask them questions, not only to assess our intentions but also to control their answers. We spent a lot of time not just filming but also just being with them. Trust was “farmed.”

Gurbaz attended our premiere in Toronto. When he came up on stage, the audience gave him a standing ovation. He said something important that day: After a while, they also knew which people they could trust. He said they needed people like us to convey their story to the rest of the world because the mainstream media was not doing it.

D: There has been a rise in politically charged documentaries from India, like Vinay Shukla’s While We Watched (2022), Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021), and Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s Writing with Fire (2021), which present the current state of affairs with more bravado than mainstream media has been able to achieve. Do you think nonfiction filmmakers in the country are, by default, doubling up as journalists?

NJ: Journalist Ravish Kumar [the protagonist of While We Watched], who worked with NDTV at the time, did more than 70 episodes of at least 40-minute duration each on the protests, and Ajit Anjum started his own YouTube channel to cover the farmer protests! A documentary cannot cover so much ground or go as in-depth as news can, but it does something different. The challenge for me was how to do a film on something that is so well reported by the alternate media. At the same time, I realized that people outside India who do not follow vernacular media or those who only follow the mainstream media were pretty clueless about the on-the-ground reality of the farmers’ protests. This is the gap that documentary filmmakers like me try to fill. But a documentary is not reportage, it is a creative take on reality. So both forms are equally important.

Ishita Sengupta is an independent film critic and culture writer from India. Her writing is informed by gender and pop culture and has appeared in The Indian Express, Hyperallergic, New Lines Magazine, etc.