Comedy, Drama, Films, India, Recommended posts, Reviews

The Last Farmer

A surprisingly funny portrayal of a society, highlighting absurdities in the justice system and the importance of tradition…

A few years ago, one of my favourite retrospectives of the IFFR happened: a programme strand dedicated to the Tamil New Wave (which led me to discover such filmmakers as Ram, Bala and Vetrimaran. Sadly, there hasn’t been as much follow-up on that programming in subsequent years, although last year there was the excellent Tamil film Nasir (2020). This winter edition of the festival (it’s been split up in two, with the latter half taking place in June) is a little different: each of the two main competitions boasts an excellent film from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. One of the low-budget arthouse variety, Pebbles (2021), and one in the tradition of the Tamil New Wave: The Last Farmer (2020).

It’s not exactly surprising that The Last Farmer could’ve easily fit in that programme strand from a few years ago. After all, director M. Manikandan’s debut feature The Crow’s Egg (2014) was produced by none other than Vetrimaaran and his muse, actor Dhanush. Both his debut and his latest are arthouse films, but with some popular appeal, including songs (albeit old classics rather than new ones). Straddling the divide between commercial and arthouse films is what sets the Tamil New Wave apart and made it so successful.

The Last Farmer starts by establishing the daily routine of said farmer, and then during the credit sequence shows the natural environment surrounding him, showing through rhythm in movement and editing just how much both are in tune. He is Maayandi, the last active farmer of his village and community. Alone he chooses to stick to his old way of life. His land, his crops and his two cows are enough for him, he has no need for money or electricity. After a tree is struck by lightning during an extended drought, the village elders decide a locally traditional religious ceremony is in order, that hasn’t been performed in 15 years. Because Maayandi is now the only farmer left, he is asked to grow the crops to be offered to the local deity.

This seemingly simple plot is used to explore a myriad of issues, while also revelling in beauty. The beauty of the landscape, but also the beauty of work and the beauty of simplicity. Which has to combat against land grab schemes, caste prejudice, police abuse of power and bureaucracy of the court. One subplot deals with the other farmer of the village, who has given up farming after selling his land, of which he used the money to buy an elephant. Apparently, this is quite the cash cow, though it was never clear to me just how the elephant earns the family money. The buyers of the land, meanwhile, try various tricks to get our last farmer to sell as well –  he is the last holdout. Through plotlines like these, The Last Farmer also becomes a portrait of a community.

While Maayandi starts growing his crops, his family is heavily involved in other preparations for the religious ritual, including convincing people from a neighbouring village (and another caste) to provide their drummers on the day and to join in the prayer. The leading village elder has decreed that their god will only be placated if everybody prays together, no matter caste, colour, gender or age, to the dismay of a different set of village elders. Their casteism is the reason the ritual hasn’t been performed for 15 years.

This seems to be going alright, until real trouble comes along. Maayandi finds 3 dead peacocks on his land, the national bird. He quickly buries them, so as not to alarm the village (it’s a bad omen). But then he is arrested for murdering the birds, and the wheels of justice slowly start to turn. Very slowly. Despite it being very clear very soon that he is innocent, he has to spend weeks in jail while his paperwork is being processed. And then another few weeks. But, who will take care of his crops in the meantime?

In a way, The Last Farmer feels like an ode to simple farming, the (very) old fashioned way, which slowly turns into almost a parody of the Indian justice system, highlighting one absurdity after the other. At the same time, there’s so much more going on. Including a subplot about a cousin, who is probably crazy but also maybe enlightened, who provides some of the most delightful moments of the film, including a wonderful bit of magical realism. The different kinds of religion, or at least of beliefs within the same religion, fit with the vision of society M. Manikandan creates here. In which there is room for all interpretations of religion, all castes and kinds of people, including a stubborn, deaf 85-year old farmer (played by an actual 85-year old farmer). Yet that ideal is beset on all sides by greed, simple-mindedness, bureaucracy, jealousy and a whole of absurdity. Which ultimately makes The Last Farmer a surprisingly funny portrayal of a society and a people with one foot in the past, tradition and simple village life, and one foot in modernity, complexity and changing society.

The Last Farmer has its international premiere at the winter half of the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021, which takes place online this year.

About the author

Kaj van ZoelenKaj van Zoelen Kaj van Zoelen
Part Vietnamese, but mostly Dutch, Kaj doesn't remember when he didn't love cinema. Of all kinds, but Asian especially. Over the last decade he became increasingly invested in Indian cinema, but still maintains that Edward Yang's Yi Yi is his favourite film. Besides easternKicks, Kaj runs the film publication Frame.land, dedicated to the unknown and the unloved. Served on juries as a member of FIPRESCI.
Read all posts by Kaj van Zoelen

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