The following is based on the cut of the film screened at the Berlinale this year. And yes, spoilers ahead…
In Nagraj Popatrao Manjule’s first film, Fandry, a dark-skinned, poverty-stricken Dalit boy tried to get the attention of a fair-skinned upper-caste (and upper-class) girl. What if he got her attention? What if she started liking him back? What if he were the fair one, and she a few shades darker? You’d get Manjule’s second film, Sairat. But in other ways, Sairat is a very different movie. While the (one-sided) love track in Fandry was just a part of the bigger picture, which was a lung-collapsing cry against casteism, Sairat is a full-blown love story, reminding us of the many shades of romance in our movies. It begins like Bobby or Alaigal Oyvadhillai, then transforms into an Alaipaayuthey/Saathiya, then veers off to become a Kadhal. The rich, English-speaking girl from a powerful family, the poor boy who dreams of her, parental opposition, elopement, the discovery that living with someone is very different from loving someone – it’s all in here, capped, again, by a cry against castesim. Only this time, it’s not lung-collapsing so much as heart-crushing. There’s more sorrow than anger. Manjule really likes climaxes that shock his audiences, even if these climaxes can be seen coming. Still, it’s hard not to flinch, which is what Manjule wants.
The surprise in Sairat is the discovery that Manjule is a terrific mainstream movie-maker. Most of our filmmakers have forgotten how to tell love stories, and in most films, you want the love angle to get over quickly so that we can get on with the actual story. But for the longest time in Sairat – and this is a long movie, almost three hours – the love story is the actual story. Manjule shapes the simplest of occurrences (staring, sending letters back and forth) into epic subplots. For someone who gained an overnight reputation, after Fandry, as a “serious” filmmaker, Sairat is something of a master class for commercial filmmakers on how to make the audience laugh, cry, swoon, eat out of your hand. The difference, of course, is that commercial filmmakers don’t usually give us orange-robed RSS-types beating up lovers in public. They don’t give us a holy man, clad in saffron, as one of the guests at a local cricket match. Remember the national anthem scene in Fandry? For Manjule, the commentary is as important as the cricket.
And commercial filmmakers don’t usually give us scenes like the one in which Archana Patil (who’s called Archie, and who’s played by Rinku Rajguru) comes to Parshya’s (Akash Thosar) house. It’s a hot afternoon. She asks for water. His mother hesitates. Back in their Marathi-medium college, a professor urges them to read the poetry of the Dalit activist Namdeo Dhasal. Manjule lays bare the insidious and multi-pronged nature of caste-based dealings in society. When Parshya’s father finds out about Archie, he slaps his son for getting mixed up with “those upper-class fellows.” He’s simply afraid. He knows Archie’s family can crush them. But note the professor’s reaction. “You slept with her. Now let her go.” It’s shocking to hear this from a man who’s supposed to be shaping young minds, but he’s suffered too much under people like Archie’s father, and he’s enjoying this “revenge” by one his own. After all, “the Patils don’t think twice before defiling us.”
And in the midst of all this, a magnificent soundtrack by Ajay-Atul, reminiscent of the symphonic heydays of Ilayaraja. (As always, the subtitles are a problem during the songs. This flame has flourished through heavy downpour / showing grey skies their nightly place. A bit of the magic dies right there.) Parshya gets a solo number that explores his infatuation. Then Archie gets a solo number that tells us she’s in love too. Then they get a duet. All these songs unfurl in slow motion, suggesting an amber-preserved dreaminess, a parallel universe where emotions have transcended the laws of space and time. And then, we get the song where they are found out, during the birthday celebrations of Archie’s brother (appropriately named Prince). The slo-mo transforms into regular rhythms. The dream is dead. The love that was their own is brought kicking and screaming into a world where others exist. I can’t remember the last time I saw a filmmaker use songs to such effect.
And the tone of the film changes. We are reminded of a line from earlier, when someone said movies and life are two very different things. So far, Archie and Parshya were in a Bollywoody movie-version of life. Now, it’s just life. It’s the Fandry version. And it becomes clear why the “movie” portions were so overblown, so filled with slow motion, so drenched in lush music. Because we need to see the contrast. Because now, all of that vanishes. The music vanishes – there’s practically nothing, not even a background score. The slo-mo vanishes – the only time it returns is late in the film, during an intensely romantic stretch in which Parshya searches for Archie. (He rediscovers his love for her, the love from the slo-mo songs.) From a “movie,” we are thrown into a “documentary.” If you’ve wondered what Alaipaayuthey/Saathiya would be like if shot by a documentary crew on a zero budget, you have your answer. Among the many fascinating things about Sairat is the question whether the echoes to older love stories are intentional or inevitable. Do these love-story clichés – like finding a parent-substitute benefactor, who has a love story of her own and keeps advising the pair like the landlord in Alaipaayuthey/Saathiya – exist because all love stories come with clichés, or is Manjule, ever alert to class and caste subtexts, saying that this is what those older love stories would have been like if they’d bothered to be more than just “movies,” if they’d chosen to engage with reality?
Manjule could be telling us that had Alaipaayuthey/Saathiya been more “real,” it would have had scenes like the ones in Sairat, where we don’t just see the couple grappling with their problems, but also what their running away has done to their parents. In the pond that is India, ripples are far-reaching. Parshya’s father is forced to renounce him before the village elders and move elsewhere. It’s heartbreaking. He doesn’t have a phone. He doesn’t have Parshya’s address. They may never meet again. And Archie’s father, who’s a politician, loses face in the party, which cannot afford to pin its hopes on a man whose daughter has eloped with a Dalit boy. Movies have contrivances. Real life has consequences. The suspecting-the-spouse plot point, too, feels more organic here than it did in Alaipaayuthey/Saathiya, because Parshya feels Archie is out of his league and fears that she may prefer her boss to him. These feelings, these fears are entirely in character. Even with Archie and Parshya, we get the sense that their actions have had consequences – not just in the realisation that life as a couple, living together, is far more difficult than life as lovers meeting on the sly, but also in personal terms.
And the tone of the film changes again. We are now in the realm of a character study. Manjule zooms in on Archie and shows what this new life does to her. With Parshya, there’s no change. He was poor then. He is poor now. But Archie lived in a house that had her name at the front and now she’s walking out of a public facility that has the word ‘Sulabh’ in front. She is now in Parshya’s world, even if she drinks from a mineral water bottle at a roadside food stall. (Parshya just dips a mug into an open container of water and drinks up.) The bathroom has no door. There’s sewage running nearby. But worst of all, she loses the most important advantage her birth had bestowed on her: power. With this power, she was like a man, which is the highest compliment in these parts. (Her meek mother would agree. Archie snaps at her the way her husband does.) Archie rode a Bullet. Archie defended Parshya when others were beating him up. (Even her words are all man: “Touch him and I’ll break your face.”) When she drove a tractor to Parshya’s house his mother said, admiringly, “You drive that tractor like a man.” Archie even brandished a gun when attacked by goons.
But now, she’s one of the women. Sairat talks not just about the realities of caste and class, but of gender too. Now, kids – boys! – grab the remote control and change channels, barely registering Archie’s protest that she was watching that programme. She doesn’t know how to be a woman, the way women are expected to be in these surroundings. She doesn’t know how to save pinch pennies. (When asked to buy ingredients for cooking, she also picks up a poster.) She cannot cook either, and Parshya makes fun of her – good-naturedly, but she breaks down because she’s probably never been in a position where she was this helpless, clueless, useless, and yes, powerless. Rinku Rajguru – a lovely, brown, un-skinny girl with a lovely, girl-next-door smile – is simply wonderful at conveying Archie’s journey, from cocky self-possession to deep infatuation to panic and desperation to peace. In comparison, Akash Thosar comes off as somewhat bland, but they work very well together, especially in a long, verité-style scene in which they keep walking and arguing. There were times I wished the cinematography had yielded better compositions, particularly in the “movie” portions, but the apparent lack of polish really adds to the “realism.”
Archie gets a job at a bottling plant, makes friends (darker-skinned friends than the ones she had back home), begins to place flowers in her hair, begins to wear earrings like the ones worn by the girls around her – and once she fits in, she regains power. Soon, she’s driving the scooter, while Parshya sits behind, holding the baby. Manjule makes the most minor characters memorable – like Salim, the bangle-seller’s son who’s a cripple. When Parshya teases the latter’s limp, Archie stands up for him. The relationship dynamics in this small moment are beautiful. There’s Parshya teasing a childhood friend, good-naturedly but also with unthinking cruelty. There’s Archie asserting herself (with Parshya) and also endearing herself to Salim, while showing she’s the kind who’ll stand up for her beliefs. As for Salim, Manjule keeps filming him amidst other crippled men, sometimes in the vicinity, sometimes at a distance. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there’s something resonant here – maybe not something as vulgar as a metaphor, but something.
There were many moments I found myself fighting an “is that all?” feeling. I’d say, “There are parts that are too banal, that we find in every damn love story.” And then I’d say, “But doesn’t the film transcend these banalities? Doesn’t it make a mockery of the clichés we find in other films?” I’d say, “It’s too bloody long.” And then I’d say, “But it needs this length to lull us with its rhythms, so we don’t just skim through these lives but live along with them.” You don’t just leave Sairat in the movie hall. You take it home with you. I still haven’t been able to shake it off. The more I thought about it, the deeper it sank in. The individual subplots may be familiar, but they come together in a very affecting way. And what about that climax? It’s the film’s sole contrivance, the only scene that exists just for effect. If a neighbour takes a child for an outing, she’d make sure, after returning, that she delivered the child to his parents. She wouldn’t just set him down outside the house…. But then, we need to see the end through the child’s eyes. We need to sense innocence being lost at that incredibly young age. We need the sobering thought that the child’s journey is going to be filled with bloody steps. We need to feel the irony of his name, Akash, how boundless it sounds and how bound he already is by the rigid rules and beliefs of the social order he’s born into. That’s another thing that sets Manjule apart from a typical commercial filmmaker. He takes your money and sends you home with a slap on the face.
- Sairat = passion
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.