Inter (Caste) Love Stories: Experiential Eye (I) in Fandry and Sairat

Prashant Ramprasad Ingole (prashant.ingole@iitgn.ac.in) is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.
1 March 2022

To read anti-caste context in cinema one needs to have an experiential eye. The ones at the receiving end of caste-based discrimination and thereof inflicted humiliation by the orthodox social codes find resistance as the only way to achieve “liberty, equality and freedom.” In this relation, the paper focuses upon two Marathi films Fandry (2013) and Sairat (2016) directed by Nagaraj Manjule. The paper seeks to present the experiential perspective about Dalit visuality which has started to gain a wider recognition in interdisciplinary studies from verbal to the visual literature.

Contemporary regional cinema from the margin, specifically in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu is becoming more influential because of their everyday cultural anti-caste politics. This has been reflected not only through literary mediums but also by making its presence on the screen. In Marathi and Tamil cinematic depiction, caste discrimination resembles the way Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar have radicalised the social problem of caste. Suraj Yengde calls it “Dalit cinema,” arguing that it has a “potential to be among the pioneers of modern artistic resistance.” Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry (2014), Sairat (2016), Pa Ranjith’s Kabali (2016), Kaala (2018), Sarpatta (2021) Mari Sevaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal (2018), Karnan (2021) are the recent examples through which the problem of caste is represented. Fandry and Sairat projected how education, labour, anti-caste relationships and aspirations of Dalits are seen in Indian society. Kabali and Kaala bring Ambedkar’s emancipatory agenda through different visual modes of projection where we see the fusion of the mainstream and the margin.  Pariyerum Perumal brings inter-caste relationship in caste-ridden society of Tamil Nadu.

To read anti-caste context in cinema one needs to have an experiential eye. The ones at the receiving end of caste-based discrimination and thereof inflicted humiliation by the orthodox social codes find resistance as the only way to achieve “liberty, equality and freedom.” In this relation, the paper focuses upon two Marathi films Fandry (2013) and Sairat (2016) directed by Nagaraj Manjule. The paper seeks to present the experiential perspective about Dalit visuality which has started to gain a wider recognition in interdisciplinary studies from verbal to the visual literature. In a visual set-up, cinema mirrors the society and may provide for a better society than any other medium.  Saikat Bhattacharya says, “I believe that cinema and cinema alone can bring about the desired emancipation of the masses by awakening them to the maladies of our society” (Bhattacharya 2008).  What we see is that earlier the mainstream cinema has mostly showcased a particular class of society and was consumed by the elite classes but in contemporary times, its consumption has been transformed, expanding its reach to the marginal sections of the society. However, it has failed to capture the lived realities of the people belonging to the margins.

In a documentary titled The Invisible Other: Caste in Tamil Cinema (directed by Suresh E T [2014]) students of the American College of Madurai are interviewed to know their opinion on representation of caste in Tamil cinema. The diverse opinions documented unequivocally establishes that mainstream Tamil cinema has an uncomfortable relationship with the marginal castes. Relying heavily upon the heroic and iconic role of the intermediate castes, Tamil cinema (by and large) reduces the lower castes to non-existence or objects that are hidden behind the glory of the more politically established caste. This is not only the story of Tamil cinema, but also of mainstream cinema across the regions. The ideological role of caste and their counters (anti-castes) in cinema in India is surprisingly an underserved subject. The documentary mentioned here was made in 2014, and it is important to think that no such documentary has hitherto been made on the representation of caste in “Hindi cinema” which is a much larger industry and with longer history. The anti-caste movement succeeded in drawing the attention of society towards the sufferings of backward castes through literary writings emerging from the margins known as “Dalit literature.” This literariness has now shifted in visual mediums such as graphic narratives, movies, raps, short films and so on.  In changing cinematic scape of the present anti-caste cinema has started to make its cultural and political impact on the society at large. It brings the caste and the quest of the margin on screens which mainstream cinema continues to ignore.  

 

Screening the Non-Brahminical 

Manjule is a successful Marathi Dalit film-maker. He debuted in the ‘cultural industry’ by making a short film called Pistulya in 2010.  In terms of commercial ground in Marathi film industry, there is much celebration and discussion going on around Sairat not because it is a first Marathi popular movie in contemporary times thatbroke all box office records, but because it brought to light the issues of inter-caste marriage and caste-based discrimination through  the fusion  of verbal and visual aesthetics. It is worth mentioning here that though Sairat brings global recognition for Manjule, his film Fandry wins all the hearts. 

Both Fandry and Sairat depict contemporary rural Maharashtra and the way Dalits are subjected to humiliation by the upper castes. Both the films focus on the functionality of caste in the modern Indian context. In addition, they also bring the issues of education, caste-based occupation, and marginalisation of the downtrodden community. 

Fandry visualises undignified labour and suffering of the poor.  In comparison, Sairat’s main focus is to show inter-caste love relationships and the patriarchal structure of the society. Sairat depicts the love story of Parshya (Aakash Thosar) who belongs to the lower-caste community and Archana (Rinku Rajguru) who comes from a high caste affluent background.  Sairat highlights the issue of the honour killing of the couple who desires to live their life happily but for the society and pride of Archana's father, Parshya and Archi’s life becomes a ‘sociological danger'. In the words of Gopal Guru (2009:14), “within the Brahminical mode of conceptual construction the untouchable represents the combination of multiple stigmatised images which make him/her untouchable, unseeable, unapproachable. It is in this sense that the untouchable’s body is perceived and treated as a ‘sociological danger.’”  Caste thus triumphs over love. In a patriarchal set-up, caste-pride becomes more important than somebody’s’ life, as can be clearly seen in Sairat

Both Fandry and Sairat represent an anti-caste ground. Manjule not only is trying to bring the voice of the downtrodden in (Marathi) regional cinema but also visually present the sufferings of the marginalised sections at large. As Aarti Wani writes, “Nagraj Manjule’s intelligent and not humourless film-making creates a world of boyish aspirations as experienced by ‘Jabya’. Indeed, this is an unequal world where extreme poverty sits cheek by jowl with relative wealth and privilege, and where caste discrimination and hierarchy are normal” (Wani 2014: 73). ‘Jabya who plays the main character in Fandry is performed by Somnath Awghade. Jabya belongs to the Kaikadi community who tries to break the traditional barriers as the community suffers from untouchability and humiliation because of the upper-caste hegemonic attitude.  Although Jabya’s family practised caste-based occupation of being swineherd, Jabya aims to formally educate himself. Living in a village with no electricity he still dreams to study which he knows will give him a certain kind of liberty to live his life differently. Jabya and his family live on the periphery of the village so that they cannot pollute other castes residing in the village. Jabya's father Kachrya is an illiterate and works as a village servant. Fandry therefore successfully. It is important here that we see works of Sharankumar Limbale (2004: 13) who writes:

 

The Hindu religious order has considered the Dalits' shadow, touch, and speech to be impure. It has regarded the untouchable guilty from birth. Dalits should not accumulate property of wear gold ornaments; they should live outside the village and own only donkey and dogs. Furthermore, they should partake of food only clay utensils, only shrouds for clothing and take inauspicious and crude names. 

 

From the centuries Dalit lives are deprived of basic necessities by the upper castes. This kind of Brahminical civility has been operative since centuries. It would not be wrong here to call such civility inhuman. Fandry and Sairat clearly depicts the supremacy of religious(manuvaad) order and how caste still continues to haunt the lives of the marginalised. These lived realities of Dalits, which has been showcased in the above-mentioned movies, exists even today. Even in today’s constitutional democratic set-up, Dalits continue to live outside the villages and are considered impure. Both the films challenge the Brahminical hegemonic order by reclaiming the rights of the individuals, against the everyday discrimination. 

 

Love as a Tool to Challenge the Notion of Caste

The unsettled love stories in both of these films, be it Jabya's love towards Shalu (a female protagonist character in Fandry performed by Rajashree Kharat), is unexplained and narrated through a certain kind of distance but in a symbolic way. Jabya expresses his love through gestures because verbally, it is not possible as caste plays a divisive role. Jabya is shown as an individual who aspires and desires for a better life which his family was unable to access. In a similar way, we find in Sairat Parshya's love for Archi (who belongs to an upper-caste affluent family). There is one particular movie scene where, in the morning, Parshya is seen helping his father to catch a daily quota of fish. The moment he comes to know that Archi is on the other end of the same lake where he and his father are fishing, he turns his head in slow motion and dives in the lake to swim towards the other end of the lake. This madness in love has been beautifully captured in the song Yad lagal (became crazy). This scene is portrayed like ‘magical realism’. Manjule might want to convey that love is an emotion that can break all the sociocultural barriers (Thakur 2016). The portrayal of love and (inter)-caste relationship in a hierarchical society complicates the idea of love and as a result the protagonists suffer from the hatred and misdeeds of the upper caste. If we see in Fandry Jabya's aim is to see Shalu in ‘jatra’, similarly Parshya also goes to see Archi on her birthday party. Jabya is shown as a labourer holding a lamp for others which gives him a sense of humiliation. In Sairat, during the birthday party, Parshya along with Archi and his friends are seen by Patil, and as a result relatives and workers of Patil beat Parshya and his friends cruelly. In this way, Manjule tries to capture the feeling of humiliation and suffering in different ways. Therefore, it can be argued that earlier movies had depicted ‘love’ from an upper-caste perspective by making it as otherworldly without showing the continued marginalisation and social understanding about the lower castes which Manjule tries to highlight. Fandry delves deeper into the idea of humiliation exercised by upper-caste landlords to suppress the marginalised sections of the society. Irrespective of the progress and growth the society is witnessing, humiliation and shame is being inflicted upon the marginalised sections in different forms. As Suhas Bhasme writes, “Manjule, in a very subtle way, challenges the caste, class, and gender consciousness of minds both young and old. He attempts to deliver Ambedkar's ‘idea of India' to the largely ignorant audiences of the country, as well as the world (the film was screened at the inaugural session of the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival in 2016)” (Bhasme 2016). In Fandry, Manjule through the story of Jabya shows that the ideal of social justice is yet to be achieved He shows the irony through the graffiti of B R Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule, and Sant Gadge Baba painted on the walls of school which Jabya misses to go to perform his traditional caste-based work. This is the everyday story of many downtrodden boys who live in villages of the India. However, in Sairat, Manjule shows that although the couple (Parshya and Archi) tries to break the barriers of caste, their suffering never ends. Ultimately, Parshya and Archi are murdered by the relatives of her father. The cinematography of the ending scenes captures the intensity of the situation.   It shows the dead bodies of Parshya and Archi without showing the process of killing and their little child walking outside with bloody footprints, but no one pays attention to him and there is pin-drop silence. 

Sairat and Fandry also reflect humiliation experienced and the sufferings of women which takes a gendered aspect. Fandry portrays the suffering of Jabya's mother and sister when they try to catch a pig on the order of the village head (sarpanch). At that time along with Jabya and Jabya's father along with his mother and sister runs behind the pig in open latrine area. The scene is depicted early in the morning where upper-caste youngsters with their privileged attitude insult Jabya's mother and in a similar manner, ridiculously insult Jabya’s sister too. Echoing a similar contention, in Sairat, when Parshya and Archi run to Hyderabad, goons try to rape Archi and also beat up Parshya. This happens because of linguistic differences. But, when another woman comes with the weapon to rescue Parshya and Archi; speaking the same language of these goons, they run away.  A woman gives them a place to stay because Parshya and Archi were from the same region and same language background. The woman also understands the suffering of this couple. Moreover, the movie also takes a step forward in breaking the gendered stereotype of women doing household work and men working in industry or doing the job in the city; where in the movie, the male protagonist Parshya actively participates in household activities of cooking, sweeping and cleaning. Further, he enhances his cooking skills with the help from the women who helped the couple. Archi joins the cold-drink industry. But, in the prevalent hegemonic culture where it is not easy for a woman to work in an industrial culture is also depicted in the movie; where Archi's husband keeps keen observation on her activities from checking her mobile phone, inquiring about the conversation with her colleague and suspecting her character as an effect of patriarchal consciousness. 

 

Conclusions

One can conclude by arguing that Nagraj Manjule through Fandry and Sairat portrays social (in) justices, imagined and the real. This paper argued that there are two ways that love is depicted: one is through the eye of an upper caste, and second, through the eye of a lower caste. Love for an upper caste society is an otherworldly feeling, but for a lower-caste community, it is a process to develop equality and freedom from the caste-controlled mechanism. In addition, Manjule has shown that marginalised communities constitutionally may have access to exercise their human rights, but the idea of caste and gender is rooted deeply in the society, one cannot do away with it so easily. Manjule's cultural criticism of an unequal social structure is an attempt to disseminate emancipatory ideas in society. 

Prashant Ramprasad Ingole (prashant.ingole@iitgn.ac.in) is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.
1 March 2022