The ongoing farmer agitation has brought back memories of days when the farmer was central to our cinematic narratives
The ongoing farmer protest has brought the peasant back into the popular imagination. As “Pagri Sambhal Jatta, Pagri Sambhal Oye” echoes from the protest sites, it takes us back to times when farmer used to be the protagonist of popular cinema and poetry.
The Punjabi song became a symbol of defiance against the British government in 1907 as peasants protested against the discriminatory Colonisation Act and Bari Doab Act.
The song written by Banke Dyal, the editor of Jhang Sial newspaper, was used by Sardar Ajeet Singh, Bhagat Singh’s uncle, to consolidate farmers beyond communal and caste lines as pagri (turban) became a symbol of dignity. Old-timers say the word Jatt didn’t refer to the caste but the profession of the tiller. It spiralled into Pagri Sambhal Jatta Lehar, a movement aimed at outclassing the British on the 50th anniversary of 1857. The song goes on to say the damned government doesn’t pay heed to our demands, why should we pay heed to its acts…Mandi na Galla Sadee, Ih Bahree Sarkar Vo, Asse Kyon Manniye Veero, esdee Kaar vo.
A version of the song was composed by Prem Dhawan with Hindi lyrics for Manoj Kumar-starrer Shaheed in 1965. Sung by Mohammed Rafi, it became a rage among youth. In the song Sardar Ajit Singh played by Krishan Dhawan stops a peasant from putting his pagri at the feet of a landlord. Years later, a peppier version was composed by A.R. Rahman for Ajay Devgn’s Shaheed Bhagat Singh. This time Sukhwinder Singh powerful voice made it a booming success. Both the songs caution the farmer: tera lut gaya maal, oye! (you have lost your goods/belongings). The lesser popular versions of the song also featured in Amar Shahid Bhagat Singh and 23rd March 1931 Shaheed where it was rendered by Mohd Aziz and Veer Rajinder.
Call it romanticising or creative expression of reality, the farmer did become the muse of filmmakers and poets when India was breaking free from colonial rule. In his nazm “Kisan”, Josh Malihabadi beautifully describes a farmer as somebody who nourishes culture and is the frontrunner of evolution. It is his toil that makes the ‘garden of indulgences’ blossom. He goes on to write it is on the farmer’s touch that the mistress of earth takes turn in her sleep. Interestingly, Hindi poet Maithli Sharan Gupt also wrote a poem called Kisan where he held the social and government structures responsible for emasculating the desires of the farmer.
Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) continues to be a stark reminder of times when land reforms had yet to take root and the farmer was in control of the private player called zamindar. The song “Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke, Beej Bichcha Le Pyar Ke, Mausam Beeta Jaye”, written by Shailendra and composed by Salil Chowdhury remains fresh as it creates compelling imagery of a tiller at work.
In Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957), “Chundariya Katati Jaye Re, Umariya Ghatati Jaye Re”, a rare collaboration between singer Manna Dey and composer Naushad, captures the plight of a farmer. Shot imaginatively with Raj Kumar and Nargis ploughing the field and harvesting cotton, one feels the sweat and blood that the farmer puts in the field.
Dilip Kumar, the superstar of the 50s and 60s, often played the son of the soil. From Naya Daur (1957) to Gopi (1970), he donned various shades of a village boy, proud of his roots. Who could forget the timeless number “Ye Desh Hai Veer Jawano Ka” from Naya Daur. It is still played in wedding processions in North India to celebrate the bonds with village life even if they have moved to the city. Written by Sahir Ludhianvi and composed by O.P Nayyar, it was rendered by Mohammed Rafi and S Balbir who made a career as a supporting singer.
At the cusp of the Green Revolution, Manoj Kumar tried his bit to give us a sense of Bharat when he made Upkar (1967), in which an educated hero prefers to be a farmer, he sings, “Mere Desh Ki Dharti.” As the stories shifted to urban spaces, stars also lost touch with the ground realities of rural India. In a parallel universe, Shyam Benegal, Goutam Ghose, and Ketan Mehta did keep flagging the farm issues. Manthan’s (1976) “Mera Gaam Karha Parey”, composed by Vanraj Bhatia in the voice of Preeti Sagar became the voice of the Amul movement.
Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Lagan was perhaps the last time when the farmer found a voice in mainstream cinema. Javed Akhtar’s reassuring and uplifting “O Mitwa” where he says “Is Dharti Ka Hai Raja Tu, Ye Baat Jaan Le Tu” plays in the mind as farmers patiently wait for the reddressal of their concerns.
Notably, beyond the pale of Hindi cinema, rural India remained central to cinematic narratives. Lijo Jose Pelliserry’s Jallikattu, India’s entry to the Oscars, is the latest that shows rural need not be retro.