Wild Bias

The inescapable casteism in the backlash against "Sairat"

What truly makes Sairat singular is that it is a stinging indictment of caste made by a Dalit—a very rare combination in Marathi cinema, as in other Indian film industries.
01 July, 2016

Sairat, written and directed by Nagraj Manjule, premiered in Indian theatres on 29 April. It quickly became a phenomenon. Within two weeks, Sairat brought in over Rs 52 crore at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing Marathi film ever. Videos of people dancing in cinemas to the film’s soundtrack went viral on social media; kids mimicked scenes from it; theatres in Maharashtra’s Satara district scheduled extra screenings at three in the morning.

Sairat tells the story of two lovers—Parshya, a Dalit man, and Archie, an upper-caste woman—who elope from their village in south-eastern Maharashtra and are eventually murdered by the woman’s family. This makes the film’s success particularly exceptional, since Marathi cinema typically shies away from portraying the injustices of caste. Also exceptional was the fact that the film was made by Manjule, a Dalit filmmaker from a Maharashtra village in an industry dominated by upper-caste, urban people.

As the film continued to gain attention, Sairat and Manjule received tremendous praise from audiences on social media, and from prominent figures in the Marathi cinema and theatre worlds. However, much of that adulation noticeably avoided commenting upon caste. Alongside the plaudits, there was also public backlash online, much of it shot through with casteism. Meanwhile, in private, many film and theatre insiders were far from complimentary of Manjule and his creation, and their views revealed caste prejudice too. Looking closely at the reactions, it was clear that the discourse surrounding Sairat, just as the film itself, was centred primarily on issues of caste—and that, whatever the public appearances, casteism remains deeply rooted in the Marathi film and theatre industries.

Within days of Sairat’s release, messages inspired by the film were being widely forwarded on WhatsApp. One of these told people “not to idolise Archie,” and instead follow the example of Tina Dabi, a 22-year-old Dalit woman who recently topped a nationwide recruitment exam for the civil services. “Did you not see what happened to Archie and Parshya at the end of the movie?” the message read. “If you learn, only then you’ll survive, otherwise you’ll die just like them.”

Besides such warnings, there were also messages saying that Manjule had abandoned his wife for another woman. These emphasised that the woman was a Kulkarni—a Brahmin—in effect accusing Manjule of violating in real life the taboo against inter-caste romance that Sairat’s protagonists defy on screen. Soon, stories along similar lines appeared in mainstream media too.  The 13 May edition of Lokmat, the highest-selling Marathi daily, carried a report headlined “Nagraj Manjule’s wife is working as a maid.” “After becoming successful, Nagraj Manjule left the person who supported him through thick and thin, says his wife,” the piece began, before revealing several details of Manjule’s personal life. The story failed to mention that Manjule and the woman in question had gotten divorced in 2014, and included no comment from Manjule himself.

In the coming weeks, numerous other newspapers and websites also carried pieces on this topic, some accusing Manjule of domestic abuse. The filmmaker remained completely silent. Of course these accusations deserve serious attention, and if they are proven true then Manjule—just like any citizen, regardless of identity—should face trial and penalty under the law. A good number of public reactions to these accusations, however, called not for fair investigation and due process, but rather for the kinds of vigilante violence commonly perpetrated against Dalits by the upper castes.

This was apparent on Facebook on the day the Lokmat article was released. That morning, Bhaiya Patil, who describes himself as a “social activist and journalist” on his social media profiles and has over 10,000 followers on Facebook, posted an image of the article on his wall, accompanied with a caption. “It’s easy to talk about women emancipation in films,” Patil wrote, referring to progressive themes in Manjule’s work, “but it’s difficult to follow the same principle in one’s own life. A woman toiled for 15 years so that her husband could become successful, but once he won the National Award, he forgot her. And then became wealthy by becoming Kulkarni’s son-in-law.” Comments poured in. One read, “Nagraj should be beaten on a crowded street.” Another, “How do these idiots get National Award? This haraamkhor”—scoundrel—“should be beaten with shoes.” When one user suggested that it would be wise to reserve judgment until Manjule told his side of the story, another replied, “This guy has maligned the reputation of Maratha mothers and sisters, and you’re saying we should not interfere?”

Some in the Marathi film and theatre circles held similar views, and were not afraid to air them among their peers. In late May, I spoke about the reactions to Sairat with a writer who has strong connections to those circles, and has produced scripts for a couple of Marathi films. (Like all those I spoke to for this story, the writer asked not to be named for fear of losing future work, and also that the industry figures mentioned in our conversation not be named to prevent anyone deducing the source of my information via prior professional associations.) The writer showed me a message that appeared earlier that month in the WhatsApp group of the Natya Anudan Samiti, a body that selects plays to be funded by the state government. The same message was also shared on the WhatsApp group of the Malika Natika Chitrapat, a group of Marathi film actors, directors and screenwriters. Its author, a theatre professional, cited the use of the word “sairat” in the Dasbodh, a seventeenth-century Marathi text by the spiritual poet Samarth Ramdas, where he claimed it meant “undisciplined” and “out of control,” rather than “free” or “liberated” as Sairat’s makers must have intended. He added that Ramdas, in the Dasbodh and other writings, used the word to describe an animal gone wild. Then he continued:

Now the decision is in the hands of the youth, whether they want to be Sairat or not. So should you follow what the great saints have said before, and put the country’s enemies in their right place, hoisting the flag of Hinduism everywhere, or should you be uncontrolled and harm yourself, at a time when you should be studying or creating a good life for yourself?

If some of your friends have recently gone Sairat, then share this information with them and earn blessings.

The message ended by saying, “We should judge Nagraj for the hypocrite and wife beater he is.”

The writer told me that people in the film industry “take a safe stand on public platforms and say, ‘It’s great that a boy like Nagraj can come from a village, have a dream, and it can actually come true.’ … But it’s nothing, no? It’s a non-stand. The entire industry says this. Nobody will touch upon the issue of caste. So you keep a safe, neutral front, but inside all of this is going on.”

As an example of this, the writer pointed to a radio appearance in mid May by a well-known Marathi film and stage actor. The actor had praised Manjule in general terms and said Sairat was important for the amount of attention and debate it had generated, but claimed not to have seen the film herself. “I know for a fact that she has seen the film,” the writer said. “But if she says that she has, then she would have to say something more, she cannot be that non-committal. And she is being non-committal, I am sure, because she has friends in the industry who wouldn’t like it if she says something in favour of the film.”

It is not unusual for a film to divide opinions in the film and theatre fraternity, or to draw public praise and private criticism. But, from what I was told by the writer and several other sources, the attacks on Sairat have been especially vicious. The writer related a meeting in which a renowned Marathi producer disparaged the rural dialect of the film’s two lead actors, both complete newcomers picked from Manjule’s native district, and wondered how they would get future parts speaking as they did. Last month, I spoke to a production member of an upcoming Marathi film who recalled hearing the project’s director equate the looks of Rinku Rajguru, who played Sairat’s female protagonist when she was just 14 years old, to that of “a south Indian porn star.” A person who was on this film’s sets told me of a discussion where the director had ridiculed Manjule because “he can’t talk,” and had called him a “gaonti”—a villager. At the same discussion, this person said, the film’s producer had complained that “it’s like anyone can enter the industry, make a film, and it’ll become a hit,” and had declared, with affected humour, that if he were exempted from punishment for murder he would have Manjule killed.

Another widespread grievance about Sairat inside the industry, the writer told me, was that Zee Studio, the production house backing the project, “had sold Nagraj,” leveraging Manjule’s background to promote the film. A well-known lyricist and screenwriter had complained to the writer that Zee Studio “sold the story of an unprivileged Dalit boy who comes to the city to pursue his dreams.” To “use Nagraj in such a way,” the writer recalled him saying, “is no less than prostitution.” The writer also told me that many film and theatre people were privately taking the line that Sairat “didn’t deserve such huge commercial success, only the marketing strategy helped it get attention and create frenzy,” and that “had it truly been a film that deserved to be this successful we wouldn’t have been affected.” The lyricist echoed this, and complained that Sairat “wasn’t a deep film,” just an “out-and-out commercial film.”

To call Sairat a commercial project isn’t off the mark. Manjule’s filmmaking in Sairat—and in Fandry, his acclaimed debut from 2014, which was also centred on inter-caste love—is much more appealing to a popular audience than that of other Marathi filmmakers who have tackled caste. For instance, his plots follow the tropes of the tragic romance, and he doesn’t shy away from using a catchy soundtrack. Compare this to the art-house approach of the director Jabbar Patel, who has made several films on caste issues since the 1970s but has never achieved mass appeal.

But to attribute the backlash over Sairat’s success primarily to Manjule’s style is misleading. What truly makes the film singular is that it is a stinging indictment of caste made by a Dalit—a very rare combination in Marathi cinema, as in other Indian film industries. The writer told me that the backlash against the film was really down to this combination, and that most of the criticism was a “caste thing, where a lot of industry insiders feel threatened—that is, how can an outsider come and be so successful? That anger is there in Marathas, too, because they see it is as an anti-Maratha film.” And if people claim that their criticism “is not about caste, but simply because it is a commercial film, then isn’t that a contradiction? … There are so many successful commercial films out there—they don’t rub you the wrong way. Then how is it that one filmmaker, one film, creates such a furore?”

Tanul Thakur is a Mumbai-based film critic and independent journalist. He has written reviews, features and opinion pieces for, among other publications, GQFountain InkMan's World, Yahoo! India, the Wire, Firstpost, and OZY. In 2015, he received the National Film Award for Best Film Critic and the Mumbai Press Club Award for Best Lifestyle and Entertainment Story. He's on Twitter as @Plebeian42.