nagraj manjule

This essay was first published in Reverse Shot on September 27, 2018. It is part of the publication’s “15 Rising” symposium, which highlights the work of 15 ascendant filmmakers from all over the world.

Everyday Anthem
Devika Girish on Nagraj Manjule (Fandry)

Shyam Benegal’s seminal Ankur (1974), a searing drama about feudal oppression in rural India, ends with a famous act of defiance. After the brutal whipping of a low-caste potter by the village landlord, a nameless young boy hurls a stone at the landlord’s window, furtively planting the ankur (Hindi for “seedling”) for a soon-to-come revolution. Released 40 years later, Nagraj Manjule’s 2014 debut feature Fandry (Pig) recreates that final scene, but with a key difference. Here, too, the catalyst is an instance of public humiliation: 13-year-old Jabya is relentlessly mocked as he and his family of Dalits (the bottom-ranked “untouchables” of the Hindu caste system) chase a rabid pig through the village. But when Jabya finally picks up a stone to attack his upper-caste harassers, he hurls it straight at the camera. Unlike Benegal, who contemplates the atrocities of caste and the promise of revolution from a critical distance, Manjule tells his tale from the inside out: he affords his Dalit protagonist the privilege of direct address, implicating cinema—and its spectators—in his condemnation of casteism.

Manjule’s metacinematic gesture—a staple of political filmmaking, from Godard to Spike Lee—asserts a much-denied voice in Indian cinema. In a mainstream dominated by upper-caste aesthetics and narratives, the Dalit has historically been a marginalized subject; only six of the 300 Bollywood films released in 2013 and 2014 featured Dalit protagonists, according to a study by The Hindu. On the other hand, independent films that put the experiences of the lower-castes at their center have mostly been helmed by upper-caste filmmakers, from Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959) and Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati (1981) in the Parallel Cinema era, to more recent examples like Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court(2014) and Bikas Ranjan Mishra’s Chauranga (2016). As in matters of politics, the Dalit has been an oft-tokenized figure in Indian cinema—mined for humor and pathos (think “Kachra,” the disabled pariah in 2001’s Oscar-nominated Lagaan), but rarely allowed any structural representation, whether in front of or behind the camera.

Manjule is something of a modern-day pioneer in this regard, as a Dalit director making unabashedly caste-centric films that have acquired both critical and commercial acclaim. His debut short, Pistulya (2009), a moving account of a poor village child’s futile attempts to attend school, was awarded India’s prestigious National Film Award; Fandry also received a National Award and a host of other festival prizes, which led to a significant, studio-backed theatrical run; and Manjule’s second feature, Sairat (2016), a caste-inflected take on Romeo and Juliet, premiered at the Berlinale before becoming the highest-grossing Marathi-language film ever, earning over a 100 million rupees at the box office. So unprecedented is Manjule’s success that, according to him, it has emboldened several members of the Marathi and Hindi film industries to “come out” to him as Dalit in private.

None of this, of course, says anything about the films themselves. Questions of representation aside, a correspondence between lived experience and subject matter doesn’t by itself ensure radical (or even good) art; a too-forced agenda, on the other hand, often leads to bad art. And yet Manjule’s first-hand, deeply psychological experience of caste—and the formal precision with which he renders it on-screen—is central to both the cultural and aesthetic significance of his films. His is an extraordinarily affective mode of political filmmaking (as emblematized by the seething angst of Fandry’s concluding shot), and it gives palpable shape to something Indian cinema has sorely lacked thus far: a distinctly Dalit cinematic consciousness.

This specificity comes in part from Manjule’s vivid evocation of milieus rarely depicted in film but exceedingly familiar to the director. Fandry, which he has described as a somewhat autobiographical film, exemplifies this. It is set in a small, poor village in southwestern Maharashtra not unlike the one Manjule grew up in; Jabya (Somnath Avghade), much like Manjule, belongs to a community relegated to menial tasks like stone-crushing and pig-catching. Shooting on-location and with mostly nonprofessional actors (including Avghade, a Dalit boy from the director’s own hometown), Manjule eschews sensationalist depictions of caste discrimination. Instead, aided by the internalized, lived-in performances of his actors, he zeroes in on the everyday gestures and socio-spatial relations that affirm and perpetuate caste hierarchies: the matter-of-factness with which the villagers’ address Jabya and his father Kachru (meaning, literally, “trash”) simply as “the untouchables”; the latter’s instinctive, stiff obsequiousness in the presence of upper-caste folk; and the wariness with which both father and son navigate public spaces, careful not to trespass where they’re unwanted.

Jabya yearns to rise above his social standing, an aspiration that Manjule distills into something far more universal (and cinematic): romantic desire for someone out of one’s league. Jabya’s infatuation with fair-skinned, upper-caste classmate Shalu (Rajeshwari Kharat) is typical of coming-of-age dramas; however, his attempts to impress her are repeatedly denied in ways that reinforce his particular structural disadvantages. He is eager to do well in school, but has to often stay home and help his dirt-poor family with their day-to-day labor. He desperately wants a pair of jeans, but his parents, struggling to scrounge money for his sister’s dowry, can’t afford it. When he hangs around Shalu’s house hoping to catch her attention, he’s asked by a domineering neighbor to fish a dead pig out of the gutter. (He refuses, much to the neighbor’s shock).

It’s grim stuff, but Manjule admirably steers clear of the ethnographic pretensions to authenticity that have historically characterized social-realist dramas about caste (or class) oppression. As scholar Harish S. Wankhede writes in The Wire, Parallel Cinema films like Sadgati, Ankur, and Benegal’s Aakrosh (1980) revolve around the idea of the “wretched Dalit”; they fixate on the abject material conditions of the Dalit character’s existence and often culminate in images of bodily suffering—rape, abuse, beatings, or death. Manjule, although unflinching in his depiction of the concrete realities of Jabya’s life, foregrounds his protagonist’s subject-perspective instead, transcribing the boy’s emotional realities onto the screen with tender romanticism.

In the film’s opening sequence—a lush montage of swaying trees and grass against a piercing blue sky—Jabya chases a bird through the woods. It’s the long-tailed black sparrow, whose ashes are supposedly capable of casting a love spell, and so Jabya and his friend Pirya (Suraj Pawar) go traipsing through the sparse, sunlit forest every day with a slingshot in hand. The barely glimpsed, elusive bird inflects the film with an element of the fantastical; it also becomes a reification of Jabya’s hopes and desires, which Manjule visualizes in some of the film’s most striking sequences. In one such montage, Jabya reads aloud a letter to Shalu in voiceover (another instance of direct address in the film) as the kids attend the village fair; melting into the colorful, soft-focused images of the fair, his gentle voice aches with the idealism and anxious thrills of teenage love. Later, he dreams of successfully catching the black sparrow and finally uniting with Shalu. Holding hands, they walk in slow-motion through a tree tunnel, wind rustling through their hair, and lie down in a bed of flowers, as if in a Bollywood film. In these scenes, reminiscent of the work of Iranian director Majid Majidi, Manjule beautifully marries the rhythms of melodrama with meticulous, almost precious, formal compositions—a combination that he realizes more fully (and to very effective results) in Sairat.

Manjule’s background as a Marathi poet might explain his lyricism and ear for rhythm, although poetry also enters his films in far more prosaic ways. In both Fandry and Sairat, there’s an instructive moment in which a teacher recites some lines of anti-caste poetry only to be interrupted in a manner that ironically reinforces its themes. In Sairat, a college professor discusses the reformist Marathi poet Keshavsut (“I am a brave soldier of the new world; I’m neither Hindu nor Brahmin”) when he’s humiliated by a higher-caste student; in Fandry, it’s the famous Dalit saint Chokhamela who’s quoted in the classroom (“Chokha is untouchable but his feelings are not”) when Jabya’s mother stops by, provoking snickers amongst the students. These are unsubtle ironies, but they underline a discursive and pointedly critical tendency within Manjule’s work. Portraits of seminal Dalit visionaries like Jyotiba Phule, a social reformer, and B. R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution, are ubiquitous in Fandry, creating a wry backdrop against which the villagers enact their caste prejudices. Elsewhere, Manjule stages juxtapositions that articulate Ambedkarite critiques of Hinduism: when Shalu’s friend touches a pig by accident, she’s sent home to clean herself; later, as Jabya, a pork-eater, watches in dismay, Shalu’s mother sprays cow’s urine on her to “purify” her of any possible contamination. The entire caste system is built upon such specious ideas of sacredness and impurity, and here, the bluntness with which Manjule calls them into question takes on a different edge. In an India where the right-wing, Hindutva establishment has banned beef in several states on religious grounds, such critiques risk the wrath of the country’s censor board.

The film’s most audaciously political moment comes towards the end, when Kachru and family are tasked with catching a feral pig right next to Jabya’s school. After a protracted chase, during which a jeering crowd gathers around them, Jabya and Kachru almost have the pig cornered—when suddenly, the nearby school starts playing the national anthem, and everyone in the area immediately straightens up and freezes out of respect. Jabya and Kachru comply, too, squirming with agony as the pig scurries away, but the tragic irony of the moment is writ large on their faces. The anthem acts, funnily enough, like some kind of great equalizer; as Manjule cuts to various faces—the school bullies, Pirya, Jabya’s sisters—everyone mouths the song in unison, backs straight and faces slack. It’s common practice in India to stand at attention for the anthem, but it looks utterly farcical in context, an absurd, unthinking commitment to the symbols of nationalism in the midst of a total upending of its values.

“We believe in the tokenism of standing up, but what are we doing to uplift the citizens who are beset with ugly, caste-based prejudices?” asked Manjule in an interview. It’s an especially pointed question at a time when the Indian government is leaning increasingly into jingoism; it recently tried (and failed) to pass a law requiring everyone to stand up for the national anthem in the cinema, of all places. If the final sequence of Fandry is any indication, Manjule won’t be standing up for either—the nation or the cinema—until they finally stand up for India’s Dalits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s