casteism feminism

Sairat: Thoughts On The Social Commentary Behind The Blockbuster

Sairat, Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi feature film after the national award winning Fandry, has been wowing audiences in Maharashtra ever since its release. With a powerful score by Ajay Atul, music that has been topping charts and a charming lead pair, Sairat would give any mainstream Hindi love story a run for its money.

To many who’ve seen the film, Sairat may not offer anything new in terms of storyline- we have had many Indian films showing young couples fighting their families and the society for love or being persecuted for entering into relationships outside their social standing. The inherent message then, is that love conquers all and renders all barriers inconsequential. However, more than a star-crossed lovers’ romantic drama a la Romeo Juliet, Sairat is a film with a striking commentary on society and the caste and class backgrounds of its protagonists.

Set in Bittergaon in rural Maharashtra, the film introduces us to this place with sound alone. As credits are being rolled on the screen, we hear a man doing  commentary of a local cricket match. The opening sequences establish the chaotic setting- the people, their language, the vast fields of sugarcane, and the political mileu. All of it looks very real, like setting foot in the village ourselves and the actors look like they’ve lived the lives of the characters they’re portraying.

The male protagonist Prashant, fondly called Parshya is a lower caste boy and son of a fisherman, who has a crush on the rich, landed, upper caste, local political leader’s daughter Archana (Archie).  The feisty, tractor and bullet-riding Archie, who pushes out a group of boys from a well because she wants to swim in it with her friends, is used to having her way. This sequence follows her father mocking his political opponents for not keeping a firm hold on their women, showing a society that places its collective morality in their absence of agency and sexual fidelity. When she sees Parshya trying to pursue her, she reciprocates with enthusiasm and saves Parshya from being beaten up. While she is the female protagonist in the film, this is quite uncharacteristic of the romantic interest of a male lead. She continues to subtly break such gender stereotypes even later, when we see her drive her husband around in a big city, a minor yet refreshing change from watching women in the forefront, rather than the background.

Aiding in the diversity of the social setting are Parshya’s friends, Pradeep (langdya), a boy with bowlegs and Salim (Salya), a Muslim – all of them marginalized in some way in their village. Even as we see Pradeep rationalizing his feelings not being reciprocated by the girl he likes as an inevitable consequence of his slight disability in what is a wonderfully done scene, Parshya and Archie revel in their affection for each other, the difference in their backgrounds not coming in the way of their budding romance. There are symbolic references to it though, like in the scene where Archie is seen dancing in a balcony on the top floor, while Parshya is dancing on the ground.

Dodging Archie’s family and narrowly escaping the witch hunt that ensues after they are caught together, they flee to Hyderabad. This is when the difference in the stature of the two is magnified. Both find adjusting to their new surroundings difficult, especially Archie, whose circumstances see a drastic fall as compared to her life at home. We see some friction between the two, with Parshya even showing an abusive streak. But it is only when they leave their prior identities and the social hierarchies inherent in them behind, that they start their life together from scratch.

If you’ve not seen the film, please stop here as spoilers follow.

Just as we are relaxing in our seats from the tension of the chase sequences from before and preparing for a happy ending, that the final blow is delivered. A flock of birds appears in the background, an omen of impending events that we see throughout the film, and a sudden change in tone of the film follows- one moment you have a group of guests quietly drinking tea, browsing through the couple’s albums, playing the part of relatives and friends on a normal visit, and the next moment you find the couple lying in a pool of blood.

Thus, what seems like an innocent, young love story at first, is actually a slap in the face of a society that still witnesses caste related honour killings. Such instances are often dismissed as isolated events from the dark corners of our country, but are in fact part of a well-oiled system that has institutionalized caste-oppression. Along with succeeding at the box-office, one hopes that the film also succeeds in provoking thought and introspection among its viewers.

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  • When a film is made with a social context, it reflects the common people’s thoughts. Commercial success of films may depend on exotic scenes and artificial settings but public success is ensured only when films entertain with thought-provoking themes and effective dialogues and lyrics to keep the public engrossed in the film and engaged in the story – line. ‘Sairat’ is one such experiment which came out with flying colours and critical acclaim.
    There have been films depicting caste discrimination and inter – caste love in various languages with commercial formula. Balachander made Tamil film which later re- made in Telugu (‘maro ‘charitra’ ) and this was re- made in Hindi (‘Ek dujhe ke liye’ ) . Another Telugu /Tamil blockbuster was ‘Rudraveena’ . The famous doyen of Telugu communist brand cinema Madala Ranga Rao had always projected caste harmony and inter-caste marriage in his films with hit songs. The famous song of Sri Sri in ‘ viplava sankham’ is an immortal one to this day:
    “Kulam kulam ani kushchitalu penchukoku
    O… kutiki leeni vaada !
    Matam matam ani matsalyam tenchukoku.. ”
    O… Samataa manavudaa ….”
    (Don’t grow jealousies among yourselves by harping on caste you who do not have food to eat!
    Donot strangulate love on the name of religion! You who are a secular being!…) Free Translation.
    Films with songs and punching dialogues are, thus, commercially viable. Similarly, ‘ ‘sairat’ has the story of caste and gender discrimination woven into a love story ending in honour killing. This once again reiterates the fact that thought-provoking films can have commercial value. This is also a sharp critic on the ‘masala’ films depicting violence and unnecessary sexual exploitation which contribute to the decaying personality of youth. More of such films should be produced in language of local regions. Social problems should be dealt in effective way to appeal to people. R. Narayana Murty’s ‘dandakaranyam’ depicting the horrors faced by forest dwelling adivasis has a great public appeal with lyrics of great writers including Gadar.
    Such films may not boost large record breaking revenue collection but they have the potential to move people and succeed commercially and give the film unit some money , if not bounty.

  • I see no reason for recommending a casteist film. There is a scene of College Class in which the brother of Archie, Prince slaps the teacher for interfering in a mobile conversation in the class. The father later tells the College Principal to tell the teacher who was slapped to adjust to the reality of village system. The ruling caste is shown malevolent and intolerant.

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