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Film puts spotlight on landless estate workers in southern India

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Plantation workers in southern India are the unlikely subjects of a Tamil language film whose director said he wanted to draw attention to their struggles, which remain largely unchanged despite the country’s fast economic growth.

Merku Thodarchi Malai (The Western Ghats), shows the daily lives of workers on cardamom estates in the hills on the frontiers of Tamil Nadu and Kerala states, and explores themes of landlessness, migration, caste and human-animal conflict.

The film is the latest regional-language flick to focus on social issues that India’s big-budget Bollywood movies generally shy away from.

Director Lenin Bharathi said he grew up in villages like the ones in the film, with his parents working on a cardamom estate. He said he was influenced by the tough lives of the labourers.

“Nothing has changed for them, even though everyone says globalisation has improved everyone’s lives,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone.

“In fact, conditions are worse, because there is automation – so there are fewer jobs, and most workers have no job security. There are also more migrant workers who get lower wages and are too scared to complain,” he said.

About two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people depend directly or indirectly on the land for their livelihoods.

Farmer unrest has risen recently over poor output prices and the lack of adequate government subsidies.

Workers on India’s tea, coffee and cardamom estates are generally indentured, and often face exploitation and harsh conditions in remote areas with limited access to welfare services, rights groups say.

Landlessness in India is tied to an entrenched caste system, Bharathi said, despite laws banning caste discrimination, and government efforts to redistribute land.

More than half of India’s lower-caste population is landless, official data show.

Landless Dalits are at the bottom of the age-old social hierarchy, making them vulnerable to bias and deadly attacks by upper-caste Hindus.

Bharathi said keeping some of the population landless is in the interest of the wealthy class.

“If they get land, then who will do the dirty, low-paid work?”

While politicians and corporations speak of improving the lives of future generations of poor people, widespread prejudice continues to hold them back, he said.

“For the workers that I saw growing up – their children were never able to access better education or job opportunities because of those biases,” said Bharathi.

The cast of the film, which is Bharathi’s directorial debut, is made up mostly of villagers from the area with no acting experience, he said.

The film was released in India last week. It has made the rounds of several international film festivals, where it has been well received, Bharathi said – including a special screening requested by farmers in rural southern France.

“The themes of the film resonated with them, too,” he said.



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