Sairat and The Violence Within
Gautam Chintamani | 8 oktober 2016, The Hague
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. The sheer degree of how this violence has come to coexist with us in both an emotional, as well as a physical plane, is scary for nothing seems to move us and yet when the same is reflected in our films people seem to have an issue accepting it.
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 that could be 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 and 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 get by with the help of a Suman, a lady from the nearby slum, who first meets them when she intervenes and saves Archi from being raped by some local goons. 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 somewhere come to believe that no matter how angry their parents might be they are not that bad that they would kill them, the audience, too, is taken in by the way Manjule builds up the narrative to the point. Post-Fandry, Manjule’s critically acclaimed debut film whose title means ‘pig’ in Kaikadi language and that 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. Judging by the reception the film enjoyed one can safely say he managed much more than that. 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 an audience that understands the universe Sairat operates within when the film reaches its climax. Using the song and dance template, another area where Sairat excels, can be a risky proposition to tell hard-hitting stories and 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. Manjule says that no one, least of all young lovers like Parshya and Archi feel that things won’t work out and adds that they believe in their own goodness and the goodness of others around them. But there is no denying what the narrative is building up to; Manjule’s characters nonchalantly mention things like ‘her father will kill you when he finds out’ or ‘forget her she is from an upper caste.’ 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 the film’s music infuses might suggest that the audience could have missed the point that Sairat 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 but perhaps Indians are so surrounded by realism in everyday life that somewhere they chose not to talk about the ‘point.’ In the west, the culture of watching films juxtaposed with the luxury of a certain kind of calmness is what makes the audiences react perhaps more organically to films such as Sairat observes Manjule. 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 react and 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… and comes to the conclusion that perhaps he does need to be more outspoken. He validates this by putting a thought in front of the audience – Manjule chooses not to highlight the reason way Archi’s father ultimately decides to kill his daughter and hopes that people would get to the conclusion on their own. He feels that had Archi’s father not lost the elections on account of people probably not voting for him for his daughter ran off with a lower caste boy he wouldn’t have resorted to killing them. Everyone had come to terms with what had happened but the narrow lane that societal pressure forced Archi’s father into could only end at one place. Manjule cannot help but say that even though Parshya’s father discards his son but had he been someone who could ‘get away’ with murder or if he had that much aukaat or status he, too, would have done something similar.
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 and there is no question that things are slightly better than what they were yesterday. But like fashion, no matter how good or bad has a tendency to repeat itself, he hopes a thing like casteism that separates people doesn’t become follow the same route.
A born cinephile who has been writing on cinema for over a decade. Hailing from a literary tradition that runs deep on both sides of his family, Gautam specializes in writing on Hindi as well as World cinema.