A sharp, damning cry against societal indifference to the increasingly dire circumstances of India’s farmers, Nero’s Guests is energized by the righteous outrage of the truth-teller at its center, P. Sainath. The award-winning rural affairs editor for a large English-language daily, Sainath is the journalistic conscience of a nation that, amid its booming modern economy, neglects the multiplying debts of the 60% of its population that makes an agrarian living; the reporter sees the cultural indifference surrounding 200,000 suicides of farmers in the last dozen years as the byproduct of “a politically free media…imprisoned by profit.” Gently interviewing the survivors of farming patriarchs who have killed themselves, Sainath is an experienced observer of the poor under duress who, upon returning to his Mumbai home, points to his colleague’s photo of a fearful son burdened by the inheritance of his family’s engulfing crises: “Do you see his eyes?” Rural wives are seen struggling to offset their families’ poor crop yields by commuting to menial servitude jobs; dawn-to-midnight days make strangers of their children.
Not a mere humanist, Sainath expertly ties together Indian poverty statistics and summarizes Western powers’ ruthless strategies (such as America’s gargantuan subsidies for its cotton industry) at public lectures meant to awaken middle-class consciousness. Director Deepa Bhatia smoothly trails Sainath through a myriad of settings, painting his restlessness as the fuel of a desperate mission to correct a tragic moral imbalance, and augmenting his crusade with the poems of one of the crisis’ victims (“My death, too/Will surprise you like untimely rain”). Sainath’s freely expressed anger, whether directed at a European member of the documentary crew (“You fuckers don’t grow coffee!”) or consultants who recommend government subsidies for corporate agribusiness (“assholes from the Kennedy School”), is refreshingly forthright, and even penultimate scenes of politicians putting together rural-aid legislation, and grabbing photo ops with impoverished farmers, can’t be mistaken for even the prelude to a happy ending. Concise and passionate, Nero’s Guests drives home the title’s metaphor for comfort enjoyed at the mortal expense of the hopeless with empathetic grit.
Nero’s Guests will play on June 14, 15, and 24 as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. For more information click here.