'Marching in the Dark': Film about the widows of the farmer suicides crisis in India

A group of women meet to cope with grief for their husbands, trying to break the cultural stigma of being a widow

Warning: This article discusses the topic of suicide which may be sensitive for some readers.

Filmmaker Kinshuk Surjan dedicates his film Marching in the Dark to the more than 400,000 Indian farmers who have died by suicide in the last 20 years. Centred around young widow Sanjeevani, the film shows her desire to provide a better life for herself and her children, joining a discussion group of other farmer-suicide widows.

As Surjan described to Yahoo Canada in a Zoom interview, during the 2024 Hot Docs Festival in Toronto, this was a subject he felt passionately about, because there hasn't been significant representation for famers, both in documentaries and in fiction. He says that created a "huge separation," which made the filmmaker feel like there was a space to create something that shed light on this underrepresented group.

Marching in the Dark
Marching in the Dark

In Marching in the Dark, we meet Sanjivani in rural India, coping with the loss of her husband, largely attributed to low profits and volatile market prices which led to significant debt.

Now becoming part of her brother-in-law's family. But Sanjivani hopes to break the cultural stigma of being a widow in a world where it's expected that men speak for them.

That's when she secretly joins the discussion group with other widows, who share their experiences with farmer suicide, how they've persisted following their husbands' deaths, and their current struggles, including having to repay their husbands' debts. It's a celebration of resilience, a form of healing and a way to establish friendships.

The group is led by Dr. Milind Potdar, an activist and a psychologist who has been conducting workshops with farmers in India around depressions since 2014.

Kinshuk Surjan
Kinshuk Surjan

As Surjan stressed, Sanjivani's journey was difficult to film.

"You can't just have someone speak their trauma, and then how do you say goodbye?" he stressed. "So that's a very difficult proposition to enter into."

It was through the process of learning about Dr. Potdar's work, and meeting women in Maharashtra, that started shaping this film.

"There were women who almost felt suicidal themselves, because they were being blamed for their husband's death, and not able to deal with their own grief," Surjan said. "It's such a patriarchal [system]."

"Then we come up with this idea of a meeting space, supported by NGO MANAVLOK. ... Together we start inviting [women]. ... We just started speaking about, what is depression. ... There was a sense of realization, happiness, guilt, all mixed together. We continued these meetings, we continued for quite some time, and slowly the meetings also transformed and my relationship also got deeper with everyone. ... Then more questions, more taboos started being challenged. ... They started exchanging advice, where to send your kid for school, ... even making fun of each other sometimes."

Through his filmmaking, a core learning for Surjan is that a film can be born out of a process that is bigger than itself.

"There's a myth about filmmaking, that films can change the world, ... at least that's what you're taught in film school," he explained. "But then you see nothing. ... We wait for the screening and we wait for the festival, which is out of our control."

"What is in our control is if the process could be made in a way that is more reciprocal, especially when I am way more privileged. ... The only way we can do it is to have a collaboration, or [we] can write the story together, which we did in this film."