Episode 2 of VICE on HBO premieres tomorrow night at 11PM! Sneak peek
Your Clothes Are Making Indian Cotton Farmers Commit Suicide
In the same month that 125 Bangladeshi fabric workers died in a factory fire, a film aiming to expose the tragedy of unrestricted globalized fashion called Dirty White Gold reached its Sponsume target of £18,000(about $27,000). The film begins by examining the hundreds of thousands of Indian cotton farmers who, saddled with economic hopelessness, have taken their own lives. It’s a jolly little piece.
A Center for Human Rights and Global Justice report describes the root of the problem: At the turn of the millennium, Indian farmers who had been given access to a wider range of products after India’s market liberalization started buying genetically modified Bollgard Bt cotton seeds from the Gates Foundation-backedMonsanto corporation. The seeds were able to resist and kill the common American Bollworm cotton pest, making them an instant hit, with 85 percent of cotton grown in India being Monsanto-controlled Bt cotton by 2009.
However, the seeds were expensive, and spiralling prices (coupled with planting restrictions from the multinationals selling the seeds) led to farmers approaching money lenders for hefty loans that eventually turned into unmanageable debt. Almost 300,000 cotton workers have committed suicide to date, some of them by drinking the same insecticides they were sold by multinationals. And those suicides also bring up wider questions about the ethics of the fashion industry as a whole, in that this cotton is used in the clothes that end up absolutely everywhere.
India’s embrace of the free market opened the floodgates for international money and, perhaps predictably, the corporatization of agriculture vanquished the need for the small-to-medium scale farmers who used to own and control the productive process. For roughly 100 rupees per day (about $1.80), these people are now contracted to spread toxic insecticides and fertilizers, often with little or no protective clothing. I called up the director ofDirty White Gold, London-based journalist Leah Borromeo, to see if the situation could possibly get any more depressing.
Leah Borromeo interviewing Hanuman, an indebted cotton farmer
VICE: Hi, Leah. How far along into the film are you at the moment?
Leah Borromeo: Some days I feel like I’m a quarter of the way done, and other days I feel like I’m only an eighth of the way done. It’s going to be out in 2014, toward the end of summer. I’ve got a deadline, so I’m trying to get everything done by then, but I can’t rush nature—quite literally, in this case.
What made you want to work on this topic in particular?
I was doing it as a straightforward magazine article, but I ended up bringing a camera with me and found so many stories within that surface story. Then I found there was a real, genuine chance to express globalization, capitalism, consumerism, and all the wider political and social arguments through the medium of this story.
Yeah, you could look at it as a single issue, but obviously the problem is vast, and arguably a consequence of global capitalism.
It embodies absolutely everything. Fashion is the one piece of art that people tend to consume either consciously or unconsciously. The two best foils for relating to consumerism are through food or fashion. Food is quite a niche thing, because not everybody eats meat, but everybody—for the most part—seems to wear clothes.
Life of Heems
I’m a little preoccupied with race. The first time someone suggested I read Life of Pi, the novel by Yann Martel about an Indian boy and his journey across the ocean with a Bengal tiger, I took a look at the author’s name, and my race wheels started turning. I thought, What does this guy know about India? I tried to read it, I swear. I read the first 30 pages or so and put it down. It bored me. When a friend asked to borrow the book, I gave it away and have never seen it since.
Two months ago I saw an advertisement for the film version of Life of Pi featuring an image of a shirtless Indian male with a turban-like scarf wrapped around his head. That image reminded me of Mowgli and Sabu, those first representations of South Asians to the West, and I wondered if the South Asians were about to be set back. In recent years, South Asians have been all over American screens. And we’re no longer limited to roles as turbaned savages or man-servants or Kwik-E-Mart owners or taxi drivers or even just doctors and engineers. Actors like Aziz Ansari and Mindy Kaling are playing roles that aren’t quite as reductive. Stripped away of some of the stereotypes and clichés about South Asians, the roles these actors have taken, or in Mindy’s case written for herself, are turning more than half a century of otheredness on its head. Life of Pi troubled me.
Visibility of South Asians in Western film, American particularly, has a long but limited history. It started with Sabu Dastagir, who at the age of 13 was given the role of an elephant driver in the 1937 film Elephant Boy, based on a story by Rudyard Kipling. In 1942, he played Mowgli in a film adaptation of The Jungle Book, also by Rudyard Kipling. In the 1940s and 1950s, a man who went by Korla Pandit became America’s “Godfather of Exotica,” except he was born John Roland Redd, an African-American. In the 1960s, a young man by the name of Sajid Khan starred alongside Jay North in a film called Maya. It was subsequently spun off into a series on NBC of the same name from September 1967 to February 1968. Around this time the mystique of South Asians in the West peaked when the hippies discovered Ravi Shankar.
In the 1980s, all we had was Fisher Stevens, who said he went to India and learned yoga to be “method” about his role as Ben Jahrvi in the Short Circuit movies. In the 1990s there was a guy in the Sprint commercial who counted “one minute, two minute, three minute.” That actor also lost his arm when a train suddenly stopped in a Rice Krispies Treats ad. I think he’s on Glee now as a principal. With the 2000s we finally saw a somewhat humanized depiction of South Asians with actors like Mindy Kaling, Kal Penn, Aziz Ansari, Danny Pudi, and Maulik Pancholi on TV and in films. All this is to say, we’re relatively new at being portrayed on television and in film despite our history here since the mid-1960s. I’m a little protective of how we’re put out there.
I got a chance to see Life of Pi at the 50th New York International Film Festival back in October, but I missed the press screening and had to attend the official premiere. Everyone was in a suit. The women wore fancy dresses. The only people of color I saw in this colossal room were myself, Suraj Sharma, the lead actor in the film, and Ang Lee, the director. I looked for Irrfan Khan, an old-school Indian film actor who was also inSlumdog Millionaire, but he was nowhere to be found. Ang Lee spoke about his film and about storytelling, and I got excited.
A couple of months ago, on a humid afternoon in Mysore, South India, I was invited on a brothel raid by local anti-sex trafficking charity, Odanadi. This is what happened.
Read the rest at Vice Magazine: MY FIRST BROTHEL RAID - Viceland Today