In September 2020, the Parliament of India passed three farm acts, triggering nationwide protests by agricultural workers and their unions. These bills, dubbed “anti-farmer laws” by protestors, would deregulate government-run markets, ending price floors for crops and leaving them at the mercy of private corporations. Over the subsequent months, hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers, predominantly from the states of Punjab and Haryana, reached the borders of Delhi and resolved to stay there until the farm acts were repealed.
In his documentary feature Trolley Times (2023), Indian filmmaker Gurvinder Singh chronicles the largest sit-in protest staged in the world from its nucleus, constructing a narrative in four parts: “Trolley Times,” “Vox Populi,” “The Republic,” and “A Village Waits.”
The first part, set in December 2020, captures hoards of farmers who had coalesced on the Delhi-Haryana border, living in tents. The dissemination of Trolley Times, a newsletter started by a group of activists to disband false propaganda dished out by state-controlled media, informs them of the social and political progress of their protest. Here, we see farmers reading it and having conversations among themselves.
“Vox Populi” is the most vivacious and politically charged section of the film, with farmers singing patriotic songs in groups, speakers relating the heroics of legendary Indian revolutionaries, and female leaders educating other women about the exploitative capitalist tactics of the government. Singh juxtaposes scenes of orators addressing large crowds through loudspeakers with those of gatherings in small groups, emphasizing the importance of every voice. The farmers exhibit a remarkable understanding of the machinations of politics, including the government’s disproportionate expenditure on publicity and waiving off of the piling debts of corporations that fund elections.
Singh’s vérité filmmaking renders the angst of elderly farmers who’ve served the nation in military wars palpable: The camera, at an arm’s length from them, situates the viewer amid their rant. They express their anguish over the government’s acute apathy, the exploitation of farmers that has pushed many to abject poverty, and the lack of grassroots implementation of laws supporting farmers. In one scene, for example, a farmer in a crowd looks into the camera to explain that, with the exception of those in Punjab and Haryana, agricultural workers were not paid even the Minimum Support Price guaranteed by law for their produce.
“The Republic” reflects on protests on January 26, 2021, the 71st anniversary of the nation becoming a republic. In the film, farmers progress into Delhi on their trucks and tractors, raising slogans of unity while proudly waving the National Flag. The eponymous newsletter plays a critical role in cautioning the farmers to remain vigilant about the nefarious tactics the government could deploy to demonize the protesters as rioters, conveyed via a female voiceover reading the news aloud in Punjabi.
In “A Village Waits,” the final segment of the film, Singh shifts his gaze to the village of Tatariewala in Punjab, where the family members of protesting farmers await their return. We experience the agony of dispirited parents and weeping grandparents whose children are unjustly languishing in jail. An elderly farmer sermonizes in a disgruntled tone: “The state should realize that by wanting to possess and control everything, they could lose what they already have.”
On November 19 , 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the repeal of the three farm acts, and on December 11, the farmers declared an end to their agitation — but not before more than 670 protestors, ranging in age from 20s t0 70s, died. (The government informed the parliament that it has “no record” of deaths, refusing to provide financial assistance as a result.)
In that final section, Singh injects cello music into the village environment, signaling the imminence of a hopeful future. The camerawork becomes more fluid, mobile, and relaxed. He closes Trolley Times poetically by intercutting visuals of wheat being harvested with footage of the eponymous newsletter coming into being at the printing press. It’s a provocative reminder of the paramount importance of both food and truth for life: One feeds the body and the other the soul.
Trolley Times is on view at Film Festival Rotterdam through February 4.