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.