Looking at our cities, our homes, our places of work or just our newspapers, there cannot be any doubt that violence — in some form or the other — has permeated into our consciousness.
Being an Indian, one has the ability to stand in the midst of something as visceral as caste-based violence and honor killings, and still manage to function as if this is a part of everyday existence.
Ever since its release earlier this year Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat (2016) has come to be seen as a statement of sorts that evocatively captures this somewhat schizoid state of mind. A classic tale of romance in the Romeo & Juliet mold, Sairat follows the story of Parshya (Akash Thosar), a low-caste young boy, and Archi (Rinku Rajguru), the daughter of a rich ‘upper caste landlord’, who fall in love knowing very well that no one would like it.
Parshya excels in academics and is the mainstay of the local cricket team while Archi is a strong-willed girl who does not shy away from expressing herself or doing what she pleases; one of which is driving a Bullet.
Sure enough, once the elders get to know about their relationship, all hell breaks loose. Archi’s politician father’s goons beat Parshya, and Archi is forced to marry someone else. Unable to stay apart both elope but are caught by the police, who charge Parshya and his friends with kidnapping and raping Archi.
When Archi learns about this she tears the complaint and forces the police to release them. On the way back Archi sees Parshya and his friends being beaten by her father’s henchmen and rage engulfs her. She intervenes and soon both Archi and Parshya run away. They escape to Hyderabad and a few years later they have both managed to save enough to buy a home and even have a child.
Archi gets back in touch with her mother and her bother comes to meet her in the city. Just when the two think that things might get back to normal Prince, Archi’s hotheaded brother hacks them to death leaving behind the toddler.
The last shot of Sariat hits you like ton of bricks. Much like Archi and Parshya, who have come to believe that their parents might angry but they are not that bad to kill them, the audience, too, is taken in by the way Manjule builds up the narrative to the point.
Manjule’s critically acclaimed debut film, whose title means ‘pig’ in Kaikadi language, revealed the hardships a poor family faced as they lived outskirts of a village whose social and economic structure is dominated by members of savarna communities.
Manjule wanted to tell a story that was a little more commercial. Sairat opened to packed houses and such was the demand for the film that in Satara district two additional shows — one at midnight and another at 3 am — were introduced. The film became the first Marathi film to gross over 100 crore worldwide and is soon to be remade in Kanada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, and Punjabi.
The film has also generated an exceptional response in the west. Screened at the 66th Berlin Film Festival, it’s revealing to see how a foreign audience that is far removed with the harsh reality of how casteism operates in India, is as shocked as the Indian audience with the climax.
Another area where Sairat excels is using the song and dance template.
This can be a risky proposition; Manjule feels that even though a film is open to interpretation, sometimes people miss the point the basic point a filmmaker is trying to tell. Although the undercurrent of violence is inescapable in Sairat right from the word go, the bleakness is often relegated to the background with the help of songs that are bursting with energy and hope.
As a storyteller, Manjule was clear that his challenge was to pepper enough hope that people would live the same life as his characters and later when he shows the bloody end, he hoped that people would recall the real evil that exists around them.
The joie de vivre with which Sairat’s music infuses in the film might suggest that the audience could have missed the point it probably was trying to make. But Manjule does not believe that. He is clear that people know the point and are aware right from the moment they hear about the film.
"Perhaps Indians are so surrounded by realism in everyday life that somewhere they chose not to talk about the ‘point'," he observes, adding, "In the west, the culture of watching films juxtaposed with the luxury of a certain kind of calmness is what makes the audiences react more organically to films such as Sairat."
Screened as the opening film of the Indian Film Festival The Hague, Sairat left the Dutch audiences shocked and many of them walked up to Manjule to tell him that the final image of the film continues to haunt them even after a couple of days.
Back in India during a screening, a woman in the audience was so taken in by the imagery that she screamed ‘someone please take the baby away’ when Parshya and Archi’s infant baby sees them in a pool of blood.
In a day and age when audiences find films like Fandry or Court to be a tad too real to connect with but have no qualms in sharing videos of someone killing someone on YouTube or WhatApp, is it too much to ask that those watching these films get the message?
Manjule feels that sensitivity across audience irrespective of their nationality is what makes them react the way they do. While people have reacted positively to Sairat, he still questions the manner in which such stories are told.
"Does one need to be more vocal while talking about the things that Sairat talks about?" ponders Manjule. He swiftly comes to the conclusion that perhaps he does need to be more outspoken.
Watching people respond the way they have to Sairat, Nagraj Manjule is not unsure that his messaging is reaching people but he continues to wonder if it strikes them. He is hopeful that the present generation of Indians has it in them to do what it takes to weed out the evils of caste system.
There is no question that things are slightly better than what they were yesterday.