How a farmers’ servant painted the nation white

Shyam Benegal relates how Verghese Kurien’s Operation Flood washed onto the silver screen.
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Updated on Sep 09, 2012 11:19 PM IST
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None | ByShyam Benegal

When someone as extraordinary as Verghese Kurien passes away even at the age of 90, it doesn’t fail to shock you. He was one of the most towering Indians to live in Independent India.

Marginal farmers would do milk farming on a meager subsistence basis, and it was Kurien who put a finger on the problem. The farmers did not know how to market their products, and what Kurien achieved by bringing them together Wunder a co-operative (Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation) was extraordinary. He led the farmers to make India one of the largest milk producers in the world with Operation Flood (White Revolution).

I first interacted with him during the late 1960s when I was working with Advertising and Sales Promotion, an advertising agency for Amul milk products, which Kurien would make from surplus milk. I made several ad films for Amul. After I moved on from advertising, I made occasional documentaries for him, including the two-part series on Operation Flood.

In the process, I picked up an immense amount of information on Kurien’s cooperative movement and its impact. By then, five lakh farmers had joined the movement. Kurien would often say “I am a servant to the farmers”, and he meant it.

While I made several documentaries for him, I realized that it was not reaching the people, and they were still not convinced about the cooperative movement. So, I approached him for a feature film. However, he was apprehensive about who would fund the film, which needed approximately R10 lakh. When he approached the farmers with the idea of the film, they decided to invest Rs 2 each and hence became the producers of the film.

I then asked late Vijay Tendulkar (noted playwright) to meet Kurien to discuss the script for the film, and when he came back, he was extremely charged up. For two and a half months, Tendulkar traveled to meet the farmers and understand the cooperative project before he wrote the script for the film. We then shot the film, titled Manthan, over 45 days. However, we were worried that no one would want to watch a film about milk farmers.

Kurien said he would first release the film in Gujarat, since it was about the farmers there. In the first week, farmers came from across the state in lorries to watch the film, making it a big success. When Manthan was released across the country, it did very well, even in the cities.

Manthan went on to be used as an example across the country on how to set up a cooperative. The National Dairy Development Board, of which Kurien was founder-chairman, introduced the film to several African and Latin American countries. It was also screened for the United Nations Development Programme. The then PM also sent a copy of the film to the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Though I lost touch with Kurien after he retired about 15 years ago, I never lost my admiration for him.

Shyam Benegal directed the film Manthan in 1976, which was co-written by Verghese Kurien, and was based on the White Revolution.

(As told to Mugdha Variyar)

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