Indian cinema and the Dalit identity: The groundbreaking defiance of Nagraj Manjule's Fandry

Fandry is a rigorous cinematic exercise for viewers to contemplate on: what kind of society we have become; what kind of cinema this society has produced; and what kind of society cinema has constructed, in which a man is denied love just because he is Dalit.

Yogesh Maitreya July 15, 2020 08:46:49 IST
Indian cinema and the Dalit identity: The groundbreaking defiance of Nagraj Manjule's Fandry

Historically, Indian cinema exploited the labour of Dalits in its making, whilst erasing or appropriating their stories. This was not an accidental practice. When their stories were told on screen, it would be by savarnas who also played their characters with patriarchal, sexist and casteist undertones.

The scenario has slowly changed, and the identity of Dalit characters in cinema — directed by a Dalit (and a few non-Dalit) filmmakers — has become explicit, transcending boundaries of caste and class. These filmmakers have helped shape visual storytelling that combines “justice with aesthetics”.

“Justice with aesthetics” was rarely present in cinema made by savarnas, or it was seldom honest. Dalit-Bahujan filmmakers have filled this gap, while creating a new wave of cinema that is more appealing to a Dalit-Bahujan audience.

In this series, we examine 10 Indian films that count not only among the finest cinema the country has produced, but are also intertwined with justice, politics, and aesthetic.

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When I was five or six, my father — then a driver and a movie buff — would take me to watch Bollywood films every Sunday at single screen theatres across Nagpur. For me, entering those darkened cinema halls was like entering a new world, one that seemed alien from my real world — a Dalit basti and the harsh life there. That sense of alienation stayed with me for a long time.

I came to Mumbai in 2013 to pursue an MA. The very next year was when Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry was released. I wasn't a fan of Marathi cinema, but having heard about the film from a few people, decided to watch it in the theatre. It was the most beautiful and nuanced cinematic imagination I had ever witnessed unfolding in a film hall.

Did everyone feel the same after watching Fandry? Of course not. Why? Because, viewers in India watch cinema with the baggage of our caste, and our experience of a film depends on how our caste-conditioning makes us see the world.

For me, after watching Fandry, the alienation I had felt for so long in relation to cinema came to an end. Fandry brought many ‘I’s on screen, giving them the confidence, personality and purpose that had been ripped from us by Bollywood movies.

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In 1913, Dadasaheb Phalke, a Marathi Brahmin also known as “the father of Indian cinema”, made the first Indian feature film: Raja Harishchandra. It was a silent motion picture. Almost all of Phalke’s movies are based on a Hindu-Brahminical mythological imagination of India and its society. The initiation of the Hindu-Brahmin myth into cinema technology was not accidental: Phalke — being a Brahmin whose social position meant having very little contact with a vast swathe of society and its stories — grew up alienated from the pains and virtues of the masses. This alienation reflected in nearly all Marathi directors and their movies. Only a handful of movies were truly “sensible”, in aesthetic and politics. However, all were products of the Brahminical imagination; caste as a cultural location in their cinema was subverted, manipulated and often appropriated as per convenience. Nothing changed on these lines for a hundred years in Marathi cinema.

Then Fandry was released in 2014. Its frames, camera angles, screenplay, background music, storytelling, noises, even silence — all broke rules Marathi cinema had followed thus far. As I got up from my seat in the theatre after the final scene — as the stone pelted by the protagonist Jabya fills the entire screen — I felt numb, speechless.

It took me a while to realise just how enriching the experience of watching a work of art can be. Fandry is undisputedly among the masterpieces in the world cinema: Not because it has a Dalit protagonist or director, but for the way it translates social reality into cinematic imagination. Great cinema helps the masses to integrate in it, it appeals to their pain, virtues and aesthetics; it isn’t servile to the tastes of a few bourgeoisie. It is these qualities that make Fandry a cinematic masterpiece.

Indian cinema and the Dalit identity The groundbreaking defiance of Nagraj Manjules Fandry

Still from Nagraj Manjule's Fandry (2014)

Interestingly, the early movies of Raj Kapoor had some Leftist or liberal undercurrents — largely because those screenplays were written by Left-leaning screenwriters and their immortal songs were written by Shailendra, a Dalit, whose profound lyrics are unparalleled.

In Fandry, the camera is neither sympathetic nor pitiful towards its protagonist, nor is it artificially rebellious. It is anxious; it is beautiful; it is in search of a dream; it aspires to be normal amid abnormal caste-realities. It is not larger than life, but it is life — one paralysed by the society and cunningly defamed in cinema in India. This life, the life of Dalits, is revived and provided a meaning in the cinematic imagination for the first time in India.

Fandry re-introduces a hero who is “dead” in history and erased by cinema from the lives of people. So far, Indian cinema had chosen to remain in ignorance when it comes to Dalit lives. Out of pity, in a few movies (from the parallel cinema movement) some facts or behaviour about Dalit lives were portrayed by savarna directors — that too negatively.

Frantz Fanon writes in his book Black Skin, White Mask: “What is essential to us is not to accumulate facts and behaviour, but to bring out their meaning.” Fandry brought out the meanings of Dalit life. It is beyond any political state ideology.

Fandry’s protagonist Jabya, or Jambuwant Kachru Mane, is a dreamer, a man of letters, a lover and more importantly, sensitive to the world around him. This does not mean he is submissive. He is smart, hardworking and aspires to follow his dreams, his love. But his caste-reality fractures the wheel of his aspirations. He has to respond to it.

When Jabya is subjected to humiliation, he remains calm and tolerant. But he is, in the climax, humiliated in front of his love, school mates. Moreover, his sisters are too humiliated and despised for their “smell”. This is what he cannot tolerate and responds with aggression — with a stone cast towards his upper caste harassers in the film. Jabya is an uncommon protagonist because no Indian filmmaker had previously put the centrality of a movie in a Dalit man. In Fandry, a Dalit man arrives at a vision of life, and through his eyes, the audience sees the world, now and thereafter. Herein lies the brilliance of Nagraj Manjule.

Fandry revived Marathi cinema. Apart from its stellar cinematic language, Fandry speaks to us as an enigmatic poem whose purpose is to teach us about the value of life, make us feel the agonies that our ignorance about each other begets, and destroy the false consciousness that the cultural industry has created throughout so many years and decades. Fandry is also a rigorous cinematic exercise for us as viewers to contemplate on: what kind of society we have become; what kind of cinema this society has produced; and what kind of society cinema has constructed, in which a man is denied love  just because he is Dalit.

When I look back on the day I watched Fandry for the first time, I feel that something in me changed forever in relation to cinema. I knew then that no matter how small it may be, but I too have a space in the cinematic imagination of this country. I know that whenever people like me watch Fandry, they too feel that they are telling their story to a world which ignored them so far.

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Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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