Against the Grain

Ratik Asokan on Randeep Maddoke’s Landless (2018)

Randeep Maddoke, Landless, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 68 minutes.

MIST BLANKETS LUSH YELLOW FIELDS. Mud paths and canals snake between neatly ordered plots. The juddering of tractor engines is drowned out by the plaintive horn of a freight train, which slowly crosses the landscape. The wind picks up and is answered by the murmur of wheat stalks. An aerial shot shows a grid of closely planted holdings, stretching to the horizon.

This opening sequence evokes a familiarly bucolic image of Punjab, described in developmentspeak as “India’s breadbasket.” There will be other glimpses of the state’s agrarian prosperity: close-ups of dew on paddy stalks; long takes of canals dyed red at sunset. The charm of these segments is hard to resist, though it comes with a bitter aftertaste. In each instance, the film cuts abruptly from the scenery to the Dalit (“outcaste”) laborers who work the fertile fields, which belong to upper-caste Jat landlords. They recount stories of wage theft and debt bondage, daily humiliations with echoes of untouchability, and landlord violence, which goes unpunished by the police. This harsh contrast—of natural beauty amid social barbarism—lies at the heart of Randeep Maddoke’s extraordinary documentary Landless (2018).  

The film grows out of personal experience. Now in his forties, Maddoke was born into a family of unlanded Dalit laborers and grew up in a tiny Punjabi village. (Dalits make up more than 32 percent of the state’s population but own only 4 percent of the land.) Forced to give up education after high school—his family could not afford the token college fees—he toiled as a field hand through his youth and later joined a left-wing farmworkers union as an organizer. All along, Maddoke recently told me over the phone, he wanted to be an artist; painting union posters was the next best option. At thirty, he sold a small plot of land that fell into his hands and enrolled in a BFA at the Government College of Art in Chandigarh, where he found his way to photography. “The camera allows me to continue my activism,” he says. “I want to use to it depict the humanity and oppression of marginalized communities.”

Randeep Maddoke, Left Behind - 1, 2018, black-and-white photograph.

Maddoke’s life story offers a glimpse of the barriers that have largely locked Dalit aspirants out of filmmaking, even in the progressive world of documentary. While there have been serious, well-funded studies of caste and land struggles, these are mostly by upper-caste directors like Anand Patwardhan, K Stalin, and Amar Kanwar. Prateek Parmar and Somnath Wagmare are two other young Dalit directors, from Gujarat and Maharashtra respectively, breaking the caste glass ceiling.

Though he has shot in other parts of the subcontinent, Maddoke’s focus remains rural Punjab, which has a largely Sikh population. Sikhism preaches equality, but village relations are poisoned by casteism all the same, the line drawn sharply between landowning Jats (confusingly described as of the “peasant” caste) and landless Dalits. This inequality was exacerbated by the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s, when high-yielding seeds and chemical fertilizers were introduced by the government to rapidly increase food production. The benefits of this program went almost entirely into the pockets of Jats, entrenching their feudal power. Maddoke alluded to this history in a 2005–17 series titled “Paradox of Prosperity,” which is made up of stark, tender black-and-white portraits of Dalits in southern Punjab, depicted laboring and in their modest homes.

Randeep Maddoke, untitled black-and-white photograph, 2018.

Maddoke has brought a photographer’s eye to Landless, his debut documentary. The hour-and-eight-minute-long film unfurls in a series of slow, brooding takes, often lingering on people after they have stopped speaking. (“Silence also has sounds,” runs a line from a heart-stopping poem by Maddoke quoted in intertitles. “Gunpowder was mere earth / Before the blast / Like people.”) Their testimonies make clear that Jats hold down the levers of state power: overriding labor laws, denying Dalits access to common grazing areas, stealing from their meager welfare provisions. “We don’t get paid for our work in government schemes,” one woman exclaims. (She is referring to state-sponsored labor programs for the rural poor.) “We worked for so many days but didn’t receive a rupee.” Jat men assault Dalit women with impunity; like lower-caste women across India, they have no recourse against dominant-caste males. As Maddoke listens to these stories, which largely go unreported in the press, the film takes on a tremendous moral force, implicating the Indian state and upper-caste viewer without spelling out its fury.

At one point, Dalits organize to gain grazing access to a village’s common land, which is their state-given right. In response, the Jats enforce a “social boycott,” cutting the Dalits off from mills, wells, and even shops. In a terrifying expression of caste power, they also organize a Jim Crow–style attack on the Dalit basti (neighborhood), assaulting elders with sticks and stones, leaving one woman with a broken leg. The police don’t intervene, later arresting Dalits for protesting—another story played out with sickening regularity in India. Yet the film ends on a hopeful note. A Dalit union in another village acquires land, which is farmed collectively. “I don’t feel like a servant here,” one member of the cooperative says. “There is a lot of respect in this work. Here we have the support of our brothers.”

Randeep Maddoke, Landless, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 68 minutes.

Today, Punjab’s Jat farmers are in the news for leading a historic agitation against the right-wing Narendra Modi government. As I write, their peaceful encampment on the Singhu border (just outside New Delhi) has gone on six months—and been met with tear gas and police batons. The farmers are opposing a slate of laws, known as the Farm Bills 2020, that amount to a mass deregulation of the agricultural sector. While Dalit participation is still marginal, union leaders have of late made vocal appeals for “farmer-labor unity.” Landless is a chilling reminder of the barriers to solidarity.

For his part, Maddoke has been at the protest site from the outset, shooting with plans to make a documentary. Naively, I ask him why he bothers about a movement led by casteist landowners. “The fight against Hindu fascism is a first-order contradiction,” he explains to me, as if addressing a foolish child. Privatization, whatever its effect on farmers, will hurt Dalits even worse, making labor prospects more precarious. “First we have to defeat Modi,” he continues. “Then we will return to the long battle against caste.”