By Surabhi Sharma
P SAINATH, Rural Affairs Editor at The Hindu, quotes Zhavandia, a Vidarbha farmer, “We want to be born as European cows. India exported food grain at the rate of Rs 5.45 per kilo while selling the same to us at Rs 6.40. The exports were meant for the European cow.”
Deepa Bhatia’s film Nero’s Guests tracks the expansive work of P Sainath on farmer suicides. She follows him into villages, conference rooms, convocation halls and Parliament. Sainath’s written text and spoken words carry urgent, biting accusations, “I have covered suicides where farmers could not get Rs 8,000 at a decent rate of interest. And I, as an urban middle-class professional, am offered a Mercedes Benz at 6.5 percent interest, no collateral required.”
Deepa Bhatia does not distract from the moral outrage that Sainath demands as he lists statistics and juxtaposes data. Nor does she dramatise the stark reality. The drama and the horror lie within the words of the journalist; the filmmaker in her quiet editing and controlled sound design frames him and his speeches.
Text is keyed onto the screen: “836 million Indians live on less than 50 cents a day. Nearly 2,00,000 farmers have committed suicide since 1997, driven by debt and distress. Yet the mainstream media hardly reflects this reality.” Sainath berates Nero’s guests, the ones who attended the greatest party ever and feasted while criminals and prisoners burnt at the stake to illuminate the party. There is no doubt that he counts today’s mainstream media as Nero’s guests. Sainath considers it his moral right to question his fraternity. As a filmmaker, the challenge was to critique — in parallel — the mainstream media that she belongs to. By not doing so, she fails to inject her own bite and anger at the unacceptable horror unfolding in our villages. Nero’s Gueststhen ultimately packages Sainath’s dense arguments into an account of a fine journalist’s anger at injustice. It is a compelling narrative made palatable at the cost of details of the argument.
The film has been screen – ed at prestigious international festivals and was awarded a special mention at the recently concluded Mumbai International Film Festival.