Medium and the Message

How the first Chhattisgarhi film questioned caste

A still from the movie Kahi Debe Sandes, in which a landlord talks to a priest about a land dispute.
A still from the movie Kahi Debe Sandes, in which a landlord talks to a priest about a land dispute.
Photographs and Text By Aayush Chandrawanshi
01 December, 2022

The 1960s witnessed some remarkable changes in the Indian film landscape. Several regional films were being made in local dialects, such as the first Bhojpuri film Ganga Maiya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo, directed by Kundan Kumar. The 1963 film was an instant hit and became an inspiration for filmmakers who had been trying to make indigenous cinema. This led to films in dialects such as Marwari, Magadhi, Rajasthani, Nepali and Chhattisgarhi.

It was during this time that Manu Nayak, a young film enthusiast in Chhattisgarh, then Madhya Pradesh, decided to make the first Chhattisgarhi film and base it on a subject close to his heart—caste discrimination. Kahi Debe Sandes, which translates to “convey the message,” was released while the film industry was dominated by Hindi films. Nayak’s film depicts a love marriage between an inter-caste couple—a boy from a Scheduled Caste community and a Brahmin girl. The premise of the film outraged a section of the Brahmin community in Raipur. They threatened to set fire to Manohar Talkies, the theatre where it was slated to be released, and called for the movie to be banned. However, the film premiered in April 1965, and was shown in theatres and village fairs across Madhya Pradesh. It is regarded as a classic.

Over the course of two weeks in the summer of 2018, I interviewed Nayak about the process of making the film and his own life story. Nayak was born in July 1937 in Kurra, a village in the Raipur district. He told me that he had a rough childhood. His father died because of health issues when he was two years old, and his mother raised him. During his high school years, he said, he lived with friends and would regularly look at film magazines at book stands. They kept him updated on what was happening in the world of cinema.