It appears that Nagraj Manjule has a thing for depicting birds in flight flocking together in a pattern, a phenomenon known as ‘murmuration’ when used for starlings. It’s a leitmotif that is visible several times in his sophomore Marathi language feature Sairat, a follow-up to his award-winning debut Fandry (2014) that scooped up over 60 awards at various festivals around the world and earned him a National Award nearly four years ago.
Perhaps the idea of ‘birds of a feather flocking together’ as a visual metaphor is something that best describes his approach to telling stories. In Sairat, just as in Fandry, Manjule takes a look at young love through the translucent veneer of caste. Set once again in a small village in Maharashtra — Karmala, in Solapur district — a young boy from a lower-caste family falls madly, hopelessly in love with a privileged, upper-caste girl, who — this time around — reciprocates his feelings. They’re two birds of different feathers who want to break out of their respective flocks and create their own patterns.
Just as nature comes with its own unwritten laws, so does society. “Very early on, you learn that there is a difference between ‘you’ and ‘them’,” he says, in a phone conversation on the eve of his film’s release on Friday. “It’s almost a part of your education. You don’t question it, because it is not something you’re supposed to say out loud. It just is.”
While Fandry was a calm, mature, and unhurried exposition of village life, shot mostly vérité-style, Sairat is its juiced-up, protein-shake-drinking younger sibling. Manjule sheds his ‘arthouse’ tag and gives us a rip-roaring, near-three-hour-long musical that could easily be classified as ‘commercial’. The production budget for this film is four times what it cost to make Fandry. The visual language now incorporates the usage of RED Epic cameras, jimmy-jibs, and flycams, amongst others. The music, composed by Ajay-Atul, includes a number of songs whose arrangements include folksy percussion and a full-on live string ensemble that’s often led by a heart-rending baansuri — a sound we’ve come to know as ‘Ilayaraja-like’.
For 38-year-old Manjule, this was an attempt to lend the bombast and grandeur of on-screen romances to experiences from his own life. “Why can’t the love story of a village boy be just like those we see in Bollywood movies?” he asks. “Why can’t he be portrayed the same way Shah Rukh Khan is portrayed?”
Debutants Rinku Rajguru and Akash Thosar in a still from 'Sairat'
In Sairat, he uses fresh-faced debutants to convey those aspirations. Young Akash Thosar, playing the male lead Prashant Kale (known to everyone as Parshya), dives off a boat and sprints towards a well when he hears that Archana, referred to as Aarchi, is there. Young Rinku Rajguru, who won a special mention at the 63rd National Awards for this spirited performance, plays her. Unbelievably, she is only 15 years old; yet, her lovely, nuanced work suggests the emotional maturity of a much older girl.
She was even younger — around 12 or 13 — when Manjule first set eyes on her, in 2013. “I was in Akluj [a small town in Solapur district] conducting auditions,” he says. “Her mother, who is from my village, had come there to visit me and gotten her along. Despite her age — she was in seventh standard then, I think — I knew she was my Aarchi.”
The film had its world premiere two months ago at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival, competing in the Generation 14-plus category. While it didn’t take home any awards, Manjule says the reception was overwhelming. “People were laughing, clapping, and whistling during the movie,” he says. “And these weren’t even Indians; and the few Indians who came for its [three] screenings were often non-Marathi speakers. It was a very heartening experience.”
Even when you figure out how the story is manipulating you, it ceases to matter because you have spent enough time with those characters to feel like you’ve lived them a little.
It must be said, though, that Sairat is one of those films that either charms you or doesn’t. Its biggest strengths are its performances — props especially to the actors who play Parshya’s best friends Salya and Pradeep, as well as the actress who plays the couple’s generous benefactor in the film’s second half, set in Andhra Pradesh. Manjule, acutely aware of the nuances that define caste- and class-boundaries, gender divides, and politics in rural Maharashtra, comes up with a number of beautiful moments that are sometimes funny, sometimes heartwarming, and occasionally gut-wrenching.
There is much joy to be gained from the way he turns the oldest story in the book — star-crossed lovers a la Romeo and Juliet; a reinterpretation of Mansoor Khan’s Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak for a new generation — on its head. From a ‘hero’ who is rarely heroic in the traditional sense to a firebrand girl who makes all the moves, Sairat defies convention even while sticking to established tropes.
Those unaffected by its spell could well complain that the film, at 165 minutes, is about 20-25 minutes too long. One could also complain about certain aesthetic choices, an overuse of slo-mo, as well as a few convenient time-jumps in the story that gloss over certain obvious, practical questions. Parts of it may even remind viewers outright of Habib Faisal's Ishaqzaade (2012).
But approaching a film like this cerebrally, which one might be tempted to do since it is from the maker of Fandry, is probably the wrong way to go about it. This is a film of simple pleasures based on astute insights, in which young men break out into dance upon hearing a silly ringtone for so long that they miss a highly anticipated call and don’t have enough pre-paid balance to call back; in which a girl asserts her ability to speak English as the final word to win any argument in her hometown, but finds herself tongue-tied in a city where English might have helped her communicate, possibly because it was an empty threat she could afford to make as an individual of privilege, which doesn’t exist anymore.
Even when you figure out how the story is manipulating you, it ceases to matter because you have spent enough time with those characters to feel like you’ve lived them a little. The ending, which, like Fandry, feels like a bottom-line powerful moment the film has been building up throughout its run-time, works even though some may see it coming from a mile away.
“You know, everyone has been telling me the story is like Romeo and Juliet, but I’ve never even read it,” says Manjule, with a laugh. “I’ve just tried to show, in an entertaining manner, what I think is the reality of the world. And it will continue being the reality until we banish it from our hearts and our heads — never mind laws.”
'Sairat' is playing in theatres in Maharashtra as well as a few in Delhi, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Indore with English subtitles.
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