Amal & The World According to Monsanto

Amal & The World According to Monsanto featured image

By Marc Glassman

Amal Richie Mehta, director and cc-script w/Shaun Mehta. Starring:
Rupinder Nagra (Amal), Naseeruddin Shah (G.K. Jayaram), Seema Biswas (Sapna Agarwal), Koel Purie (Pooja Seth) Roshan Seth (Suresh)

Canadian drama is becoming more global as the first generation of artists born here from Asia, Africa and South America come of age. Just as it was pleasurable to see the Luminato presentation of A Midsummer’s Night Dream dramatized as Indian populist theatre where the white Canucks (like me) were in the minority of an audience made up mainly of Asian-Canadians, it’s a step forward in our history to see films that represent Toronto’s multicultural reality.

Amal is a drama set in New Delhi by Richie and Shaun Mehta, Indian-Canadian brothers who were born in Toronto but clearly know life in their ancestral home as well. The story, which unfolds like a fable, concerns Amal, an uneducated but idealistic auto rickshaw driver. He is so sweet tempered that even the cantankerous G.K. Jayaram is impressed—so swayed, in fact, that he decides to leave his fortune to the simple young man. One day, Amal’s favourite customer, the beautiful Pooja, is robbed by Priya, a street-wise young woman. When Amal gives chase, a car hits the desperate Priya, causing near fatal head injuries.

The ever-kind Amal spends days by Priya’s side, impressing the doctors and Pooja, who is initially dismissive of the street hustler. Meanwhile Jayaram dies, leaving the controversial will, which is earmarked for Amal one month after the old hotelier’s death is announced. Two dramas unfold during that month. Jayaram’s ungrateful children try to gain control of the fortune and Amal puts himself heavily in debt to obtain surgery for Priya. Throughout, Mehta demonstrates a fine ability with actors, notably Koel Purie as Pooja and Rupinder Nagra as the titular hero, Amal.

The film itself developed in an organic way. First a story by Shaun Mehta, it was made into a poetic short film by brother Richie before becoming a feature. A success at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Amal went on to be included in the prestigious year-end Canadian Top Ten tour. Now, it will have its feature film release. My recommendation? Catch it on its—likely—all too brief cinema run or rent it later on DVD. It’s a good tale well told—and there’s no doubt that the Mehta brothers will be heard from again.

The World According to Monsanto A documentary feature by Marie-Monique Robin. An NFB/Arte France/WDR co-production.

When you were a kid, do you remember shuddering at the first sight of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula—such a poor disguise for a vampire!—or serial killer Freddy Kreuger in Nightmare on Elm Street? It may not be the same thing but if you’re a liberal, Monsanto can provoke the same kind of shudders.

Baby boomers will link the name of the St. Louis based corporation with Agent Orange, the defoliant that destroyed much of Vietnam’s rain forest, causing the death of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese—and, it turned out, a haunted crowd of US soldiers from cancer after the war was over. When we hear the name Monsanto, the words “cancer, rapacious capitalists, corporate malfeasance, bald-faced lying,” and “disregard for human life” echo in our ears.

Just like Freddy and Halloween’s Jason and ol’ Drac himself, Monsanto never dies. It’s back in a new identity as a purportedly eco-friendly agricultural firm. Many of us—young and old—will find the corporation’s latest incarnation hard to believe. Documentary filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin has set out to prove that those old fears are justified.

Replacing Agent Orange as Monsanto’s “spray of the century” is Round Up, a supposedly biodegradable herbicide. After losing two court cases, the corporation has given up called the terrifyingly named herbicide—Holocaust imagery anyone?—“biodegradable.” But that hasn’t stopped them from spraying fields from Mexico to India with its deadly chemical fumes.

What has Monsanto become this time? Robin investigates—and comes to the horrifying conclusion that the corporation wants to control seeds, crops and food—the whole enchilada as our Hispanic comrades might say.

None of this is funny except in a black comic way. And Marie-Monique Robin is no comedian. She shows us a funeral ceremony in India where a 25 year-old farmer committed suicide by drinking pesticide because Monsanto’s chemicals had destroyed his crops and way of life. In a small Alabama town, we discover that the poor African-American community died in unprecedented numbers because the corporation dumped vast amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into their eco-system. Relentless, our French Diogenes filmmaker finds honest men in Mexico and Paraguay who explain how Monsanto’s genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are devastating the natural crops in their countries.

It seems that bio-diversity and independent farms are likely the losers in Monsanto’s inexorable move towards world agricultural domination. A tough journalist, Robin marshals expert “talking heads” in science and politics to back up all of her allegations. By the end of the film, the only response may be an ethical one.

Back in the McCarthy era, when the bullying US senator held freedom of speech at ransom, an attorney named Joseph Welch summoned the courage to ask, “have you no sense of decency, sir?” It’s a question that should be asked of Monsanto, a rouge corporation if there ever was one.

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