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A lesson for Bollywood: How regional films are tackling land rights, championing farmers

A number of regional-language films such Kaththi, Khaidi No 150, Sarrainodu, Adibhumi, which have gone on to become blockbusters, deal with issues such land-grabbing, big corporates and farmers’ rights.

regional-movies Updated: Jan 28, 2017 10:55 IST

Thomson Reuters Foundation, Mumbai
Kaththi (knife), staring Vijay, has been directed by AR Murugadoss.
Kaththi (knife), staring Vijay, has been directed by AR Murugadoss.

A villainous company. Corrupt government officials. A heroic defender of farmers emerging victorious from a fight over land. This is far from a typical storyline for Indian film, which more often promises movie-goers a diet of syrupy romances, family dramas or all-action flicks.

But a slew of regional-language movies has made unlikely heroes of those who defend Indians’ land rights, showing how the fight over land now influences the country’s popular culture, which generally shies away from contentious issues.

“At this moment in time, the bad guy in the movies is the one taking land from the poor farmer or villager,” said SV Srinivas, a professor of cultural studies at the Azim Premji University.

While land rights have featured in small-budget, regional films in the past, at least half a dozen recent, big-budget movies from the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have been about land. India’s voracious movie-going public has also seen popular actors starring in the top roles, with the underdog emerging on top.

Khaidi No 150 was the official Telugu remake of Kaththi.
Khaidi No 150 was the official Telugu remake of Kaththi.

“Seeing the hero beat up the land grabber or put him in jail is the winning formula now,” Srinivas told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Conflicts related to property have risen as demand for land for industrial projects has grown to boost development for India’s 1.3 billion citizens.

Legislation passed in 2013 was meant to protect the rights of farmers, ensuring consensus in any land transaction, rehabilitation for those displaced, and compensation up to four times the market value.

But several states, including Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, have since introduced laws to make acquisitions easier. Earlier this month, a Telugu language film Khaidi No. 150, starring popular actor Chiranjeevi, took more than Rs 1 billion ($15 million) on its first weekend, the definition of a blockbuster in India.

The film is a remake of the Tamil film Kaththi (Knife), about farmers committing suicide after their land is acquired for a factory. It was one of the biggest Tamil films of 2014.

Another Tamil film, Rajapattai, featuring popular actor Vikram, told the tale of an old man forced to give up his home. The 2015 Odisha film Adibhumi (Ancestral Land), about a family forced out of their village for a steel plant, is loosely based on the unrest caused by South Korean firm POSCO’s plan to set up a steel plant in the eastern state in 2005.

Violent protests ensued as indigenous communities resisted the takeover of forest land for what was then India’s biggest foreign investment deal of about $12 billion (Rs 8,18,52,00,00,000).

“I am no activist, but I was deeply affected and wanted to show how our land acquisition policy is flawed, and how it affects poor, marginalised people most,” said Satyabrata Dwibedy, the director.

Earlier this month, a popular classical singer starred in a music video appealing for the protection of common lands.

Other Telugu movies with land as a theme include last year’s blockbuster Sarrainodu (Right Man) and Racha, about land taken for mining.

($1 = Rs 68.2166)

(Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.)

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First Published: Jan 28, 2017 08:49 IST

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