'Fandry' director Nagraj Manjule's 'Sairat' puts Bollywood love stories like 'Baaghi' to shame
Marathi cinema's romance with innocent love continues.
Films in the recent past, such as Shala, Timepass, Balak Palak and even Fandry, show young souls experiencing the heady, all-consuming rush of feelings that accompany even the mere mention of that one special person (admit it, we've all been there). And each of those films have left an impression.
Hindi cinema, on the other hand, has been trying to get screen romances right for decades, but has miserably made mediocrity the only benchmark; because here's the thing: there's a difference between real love and reel love.
Take this Friday's other release, Sabbir Khan's Tiger Shroff-starrer Baaghi. The first half of the film is an attempt at a cute budding romance between the lead pair, and it does have moments that could have worked had they been crafted around real youngsters; unknown actors playing well-rounded characters. Instead, the only thing you take away from it is Tiger's perfect tan. (Clearly, he didn't count Mississippi-ly.)
Alternatively, Nagraj Manjule's second film Sairat is a remarkably complex love story; it's a film that might seem to exist only on the surface for much of its (ultra-long) runtime, but it digs deep and stays with you well after you walk away from it.
The conflict in Sairat's love story is class & caste, which doesn't seem new in itself. In fact, there is little in this film, in terms of plot, that you haven't seen before. One could go so far as to say that the film doesn't ever shy away from clichés to drive the story. But here's what's important — love is never about the story, but about the people involved. And you're never quite able to tell if Manjule is falling for clichés or subverting them. (The answer to this question probably lies in Fandry.)
Sairat is about young Prashant and Archana (or Parshya and Archie). It's about how they are as people, and about how the era of social media has democratised the process of falling in love. Archie is the daughter of a local political bigwig, so she grows up as an entitled princess, in a palatial home named after her. She's bold, fearless, and can stare down the unwanted male gaze effortlessly. She also rides a Bullet and threatens to break the face of anyone who even touches the guy she likes.
Parshya, on the other hand, belongs to a family of fisherfolk. He also happens to be the local cricket captain and does well academically. This set up of the love story may seem familiar from a plethora of Hindi tripe from the 90s, but Manjule has the ability to let moments breathe and play out in the only way they could, if those characters were actual people interacting in real life. He then sprinkles some masala on the top, perhaps for 'commercial' effect. (The headline of this piece is a small tribute to Manjule's treatment of Sairat, you'll see.)
Watch, for instance, what makes Archie first acknowledge Parshya's existence apart from him being some guy out of many. Or the manner in which she lets him know for the first time that she's interested in him. Parshya, on the other hand, borders on turning into a stalker a la Dhanush in Raanjhanaa, but refrains from reading more than necessary into the girl's gestures. Consent, surprisingly, seems to be an actual thing for him. ("She can't possibly feel the same way about me," he feels, when Archie thinly veils her reciprocating interest with sass.)
The first half of the film is filled with such moments; it is, for the most, a gently floating tale of two souls discovering feelings that they don't fully understand. After a point, you're waiting for the conflict to rise, but it forces you to be patient. Ajay-Atul's terrific music helps in this regard - this kind of texture in a music score has never been seen in Marathi cinema before. But more than anything, it is the characters of Archie and Parshya that keep you glued to the film. (Archie, in particular, is someone you can't help but root for.)
When the conflict does arise, however, the film changes tracks significantly. From a dreamy, slow-motion romance involving kids, it becomes a story of young adults on the run. It still keeps the clichés going, though.
The second half of Sairat is about what films rarely touch upon - what happens after the conflicted couple gets together. Suddenly, Parshya and Archie discover each other beyond just the feelings. They get to know each other as individuals. And that's when they realize that the feeling is just the first step of a romance. It's only later that metaphorical waste from the abyss of love begins to hit the roof. (Their lives are so far apart from each other that one of them needs mineral water to drink, while the other couldn't care less about what bucket they dip their cup into.)
For a change, we also get to see what happens to the respective families after the couple runs away, and it's not pretty. This is pretty much what Manjule does through the film. Every time you feel that the film is heading towards predictability, he shows you a little something to bring you back to reality.
The caste divide is real. Urban poverty is real. The regressive mindset that pervades every class of society even today is very, very real. The film pretends to not delve too deeply into these issues, but it does all along. And all of this comes together to hit you in the final scene of the film, which, again, is treated like a cliché. And even then, it's a punch to the gut.
It takes a true thinker, a true risk-taker, to walk the thin line that Nagraj Manjule treads on with his writing and craft in Sairat. It could well have fallen on its face, particularly since in only his second film, he ventured so far out from his first.
The irony is that Sairat was released on the same day as an old-as-the-hills masala action romance pointlessly named Baaghi; perhaps Nagraj Manjule can show Hindi filmmakers a thing or two about being a rebel.