Sairat: Casteism in Bubble Wrap

BJP leader Tarun Vijay was beaten up by a mob when he was coming out of a temple in Uttarakhand with a Dalit leader he had taken along. Besides this obvious criminal act, some have dismissed the episode as drama; others have called Vijay’s a bold move.

The problem is that such gestures negate the Dalit; it indicates that Dalit purity is dependent on the high-caste. That Dalits cannot do anything without such magnanimity and constant appraisal of their position.

I had similar thoughts upon watching the Marathi film Sairat. It is the highest-grossing film in the language, already chalking up Rs.65 crore. There are stories about its impact. In rural areas they have extra shows at 12 am and 3 am.

Is a film that manages to become urban folklore also capable of ushering change? 

City folk, especially non-Marathi speaking ones, are fascinated by these anecdotes. We love a small one growing into something big, and wish to become a part of it, and dance along with it as the amazing music plays. And then there is director Nagraj Manjule’s own background as the son of a stone-breaker in a Maharashtra village.

As a regular entertaining film genre, it is at times brilliant and always cinematically beautiful. But going by the rash of analyses one would imagine that this one film can bring about change, and that it has in fact overturned many stereotypes.

For me, Sairat gives us casteism in bubble wrap. This gift is being hailed for it's message.

The story is hackneyed for anybody accustomed to the rich girl-poor boy scenario. Here, the boy Prashant (Parshya) Kale is from a low caste fisherman family and the girl Archana (Archie) Patil belongs to the high caste Maratha family, her father also being a political bigwig in the village.

There is the obvious power play between rich and poor. In villages, as in cities but to a lesser extent, the caste divisions are palpable. There are clear markers. In Sairat, they are indicative. To call this subtlety would be false. I find this rather worrying, for by giving casteism in slow motion the director has made it appear fictional.

The two of them elope and set up a home in a slum in a different city and not in sylvan surroundings as in mainstream cinema. These are indeed realistic touches, but they are props. This is the story of many migrants.

It would seem that some have watched the film with only a caste template in mind, and so caught up are they in this that they've decided to ignore the typical commercial film reductionism.

Parshya has a Muslim friend and a lame friend, both disadvantaged in many ways. It is a boys’ club of the relegated where women and erotic dreams are discussed with abandon.

In the beginning, along with his buddies, Parshya stalks Archie; as she plays with her pals, he stares at her rather unnervingly. She confronts him. And then, with a wicked half smile, she conveys that she likes it. For some years now, there has been vocal opposition to such projection of 'eve teasing', which is in fact violation of a woman’s space. So why does it not come under the radar in a ‘message’ film?

Rather intriguingly, some have chosen to see it as a feminist film. The girl rides bikes, makes the first move, and works while her husband cooks. These would be good points in any other film. Here, if the take-home package is caste, does it not override gender considerations? The director shows Archie in a factory job. Is it because a menial one would reduce her as a character or because the caste division needs to be maintained? Does she not order the boys to get out of the well so that she and her gang can swim? In fact, she is a benefactor throughout. She reprimands Parshya and Salim for referring to Pradeep as Langdya, the lame one. Archie is asserting her high-born right, as she has been accustomed to since birth.

The end is gut-wrenching, made more so because the action takes place off camera. They play host to her brother who has come with a motive. To kill them. He does. All we are left with are their child’s silent cries. Cinematically profound.

However, this and the other incidents point at not merely pessimism but reality. Sairat is portraying and reaffirming the status quo. Therefore, it seems odd that it is being projected as a film upsetting the roles. The director, recounting his own experience said this in a recent interview: “Growing up in a village in Solapur, I could only picture myself as the villain in Bollywood. Only villains had names like mine. Not only was I from a lower caste, I was also dark and not conventionally ‘good looking’.”

This is laden with innuendo about how he perceives those from such a background. It is also rather telling that his hero is a pleasant-looking, quite light-skinned chap. Archie falls for Parshya, the best student and cricket captain. This is the problem whenever there is any attempt to patronise the disadvantaged. They are expected to excel to be acceptable to those who might not even be mediocre.

Such catering to type while addressing an elitist audience ensures returns. We have seen how in recent months Dalit/caste-watching has become little more than a spectator sport.

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