When Harphool Singh Mandola (Pankaj Kapur), one of the three titular leads in Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2013 black comedy Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola expounds the dream city that he intends to build, he practically lays out the very mechanics of a capitalist society. Imagining large swathes of construction labourers toiling away in far fields he owns while large machinery moves, Mandola says fills his heart with a sense of hope. The unpleasant noise of bellowing chimneys and howling furnaces in distance feels like music to his ears. Mandola thinks of the supermarkets and malls where he entraps his subjects into a culture of consumerism. Gullible people overspending on luxuries in the name of aspirational lifestyle is Mandola’s idea of economic progress.
But it is not the easiest of dreams to realise. Mandola needs the villagers to sell their lands cheap. He further needs to collude with powerful politicians who help him attain a Special Economic Zone status for the lands, which grants him complete autonomy to do as he pleases. The biggest obstacle in his path is Hukum Singh Matru (Imran Khan), a leftist revolutionary posing as Mandola’s trusted confidante but secretly working on sabotaging his boss’s evil plans.
The villagers are caught in a precarious position. The agriculture economy on its own is quite seemingly inadequate to elevate their standard of living in the long run but they still cannot bring themselves to buy into what Mandola is offering. The sinister design of a politico-corporate nexus is not lost on them despite their perceived naivety. Their obsession with holding on to the lands does not simply stem from a place of emotional attachment. They are convinced they will be left with no bargaining chips once their lands are taken over by wealthy capitalists. And once landless, their misery is only going to compound having to migrate to cities and working in subhuman conditions without any robust laws of labour protection.
This brief plotline of the film released a little over eight years ago feels uncomfortably familiar to what the Indian farmers have been trying to communicate for the better part of the last two months. Scores of farmers have raised their objections to the three newly passed laws in the parliament last year that they believe will potentially unsettle the very structure the farm economy has operated on for the longest time. Interestingly, none of the three laws even remotely propose changing the ownership of lands. And yet, the protesting farmers have repeatedly raised these fears. The devil as usual lies in details.
Grabbing the farmers’ lands by crippling their economic sustenance is not the only aspect of crony capitalism that Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola could accurately foreshadow.
The sentiment common among the several farmer unions currently agitating outside Delhi is, once the big businesses are offered greater control of buying agricultural produce, the farmers shall gradually lose their negotiating muscle. With the new law, the government is quite cleverly shirking the liability to offer the minimum support price and this farmers think will inevitably trap them into a cycle of indebtedness eventually being forced into distress selling of lands they own.
This scenario is hardly a far-fetched one; a majority of farmers will be forced to resign to their plight once they are caught in this vicious cycle. In the film, Bhardwaj employs a very clever metaphor to illustrate this point. Mandola, who spends his days wheedling, cajoling, and at times even threatening the farmers into agreeing to his demands, joins them in their protests during the nights in an inebriated state. He sings revolutionary songs and does not mind invoking the spirit of Mao Zedong while leading protest marches against, well, himself.
This is a cruel reminder of the complete monopoly the powerful enjoy over resources where they control the policymakers, the bureaucracy, and even the courts of arbitration. And for the sake of some occasional self-indulgence, they may even encourage the protests. After all, they are confident of the impunity their power lends them. The farmer, in the end, has nowhere to go.
Even before the new farm laws were bulldozed through the parliament, the farmers in Punjab and Haryana had started raising their voices opposing them. The Indian state, to this day, hasn’t actively quelled the agitation but has instead been setting the terms for what’s permissible in a protest. It is fairly easy for it to label protestors anything it pleases and quash them whenever they appear too threatening. But until then, just like Mandola, the establishment too finds no harm in letting the aggrieved make some noise.
The farmer, in the end, has nowhere to go.
But grabbing the farmers’ lands by crippling their economic sustenance is not the only aspect of crony capitalism that Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola could accurately foreshadow. It goes much beyond that and the rot runs fairly deep. At a point when Mandola runs out of tricks to lure the farmers into his subterfuge, he eventually decides to wield his power and has his influential friends in the government reject the farmers’ seasonal produce in the name of quality control. Having clipped all their legal recourse, Mandola is confident the farmers will be forced to play ball and surrender to his terms.
And this exactly is another major bone of contention among the farmers today. The law on contract farming that facilitates corporations to directly deal with the farmers for a crop of certain specifications, they fear, poses a similar threat. Under this arrangement, if the big businesses for some reason reject a batch, farmers have very little legal mechanisms for arbitrage left at their disposal. With the mandis getting progressively weaker courtesy the other laws, the farmers suspect they will inevitably be forced to then sell their produce at a price well below what was agreed upon. And it only takes a handful of such deals going bad before the farmer is completely drained out of resources to sustain and well, forced to sell his land cheap.
At one point in the film, Chaudhari Devi (Shabana Azmi in a riveting cameo), the powerful politician Mandola is in bed with, explains to her son the impending necessity for her personal growth for the benefits to eventually trickle down to the peasantry. The country, Chaudhari Devi says, is a mere reflection of its leader at a particular point in history and is only as strong or as weak as its leader. In one truly engrossing monologue that follows, she whitewashes the entire idea of cronyism and concludes the country only stands to gain from her own pie growing bigger. Quite a twisted sense of self-importance but one the wealthy and powerful continue to view the rest of the world with.
Eight years back, the film came and left without much fanfare, not least due to the unusual storytelling pitch that the mainstream audience isn’t quite used to. At the time of its release, the farming sector was hardly in the best possible health but given the point to which the situation has unraveled today, it certainly has appreciated in relevance and almost feels prescient.