This post contains some spoilers about the films Achhut Kanya and Sairat.
I saw Sairat, the Marathi love saga currently in theatres, four days back. A lot happened in my life in between: I went from Mumbai to a town near Vadodara for work, stayed there for two days, and now I am in my native Chiplun (in Konkan) enjoying the greatest summer distraction of all -- Alphonso mangoes. Nevertheless, Sairat has been constantly whirring through my thoughts all these days. Not surprising, though, since this 2-hour-54-minute-long epic is so multi-faceted that a film buff will keep discovering newer and newer insights about it.
Both films have a young woman and man passionately in love but forbidden from continuing their romance as they do not belong to the same caste.
Like its subtle public health messaging about tobacco being a bad choice; or the gentle admonition that it isn't cool to call a person with limb deformities a 'cripple' (langdya), even if innocuously; or the splendid similarities between the Jatin-Lalit love anthem "Pehla Nasha" and Ajay-Atul's "Yad Lagla" (i.e., beautifully-shot slow-motion videos capturing a smitten hero, with stunning locales in the background); or the fact that years back another maverick bearded director, like Sairat's Nagraj Manjule, had converted his sophomore venture into an extravagant magnum-opus of forbidden love (Sanjay Bhansali with Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam).
Perhaps the most significant aspect, however, is how Sairat does a cool job of providing the 2016 status update to a cinematic discussion that began with the release, in 1936, of what is considered the first Indian movie to explicitly handle inter-caste relationships, Achhut Kanya (The Untouchable Girl). And well, the status update clearly reads: Hardly any progress.
Achhut Kanya (we'll call it 'AK' henceforth) is considered by many as one of the great Indian classics. It has been extensively commented on by cinema scholars: for example, the oft-repeated grievance that an upper-class, Anglicized, 'glamorous' actress, Devika Rani (a grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore), played the female lead, a poor rural 'Harijan' -- the term Dalits were identified with in the 1930s. While for its time AK was enormously bold and relevant, Sairat has interestingly revived its rustic importance in the so-called 'modern' India of today: because while evaluating the crude realism depicted in Sairat, AK provides the perfect cinematic 'baseline'.
AK treads a line probably appropriate to its time: the lovers finally give in to external pressure and marry persons of their own caste.
Both films have a young woman and man passionately in love but forbidden from continuing their romance as they do not belong to the same caste. AK treads a line probably appropriate to its time: the lovers finally give in to external pressure and marry persons of their own caste. Sairat on the other hand shows what many such couples are forced to do today, in real Indian lives -- a frustrating and precarious elopement.
In an interview about his film, director Nagraj Manjule said: "Love is such a simple thing but it has turned complicated in these times. It has become difficult to find love, to love somebody." One gets a feeling the makers of AK felt similarly. Perhaps they were even wishful that, spurred on by the film, Hindu society would collectively bring about progress in the future with respect to caste and love. They probably felt it was too radical (for 1936) to depict a frank inter-caste marriage, but were also reformist enough to make the point that such lovers marrying other people only for the sake of caste is generally a cruel, unsustainable option.
In AK, the lovers lead depressing lives with their respective spouses after marriage. All is not well, despite the fact that they married in accordance with tradition, and with the happy approvals of family and society. Passion, yearning and longing dominate their minds. At one point the Brahmin male lead (played by thespian Ashok Kumar) voices his frustration through a prayer that certainly must have made 1936 moviegoers gasp in horror: "Bhagwan, tumne mujhe bhi achhut kyu na banaya (God, why did you also not make me an untouchable?)?"
[Both] films, one of 1936 and another of 2016 reach the same depressing conclusion -- that however strongly inter-caste lovers feel for each other, such love is "forbidden"...
Alas, even 80 years on, and 68 years after attaining our vaunted "freedom", we're still trapped in caste cages when it comes to love and marriage, and still make our youth cry out similar utterances in heart-rending frustration. This 2016 realism is what Sairat successfully drives home to viewers, many still naive about caste in India. Even today, young Indians are so scared of "family tensions" they will check for caste-compatibility before "getting serious" in love. Of course there are instances of families "allowing" inter-caste relationships and marriages, but a phenomenon which should by now have been spontaneous and commonplace, remains drawn-out and only an exception. To make things worse, recent years have seen the appearance of regressive tendencies like bans/censorship of books and films dealing with caste issues, and in some cases an altogether denial of the existence of caste-based oppression.
It is noteworthy that two Indian films, one of 1936 and the other of 2016, both reach the same depressing conclusion -- that however strongly inter-caste lovers feel for each other, such love is strictly "forbidden" in the grand scheme of things in our society. Four years ago, the TV show Satyamev Jayate also famously made us aware of the raw realities of caste in India. For a nation that lately has taken to an overaggressive aspiration for 'greatness', especially on the basis of 'past glory', this embarrassing social stagnation over an 80-year-long arc (cinematically) is urgent food for thought.
[T]his embarrassing social stagnation over an 80-year-long arc (cinematically) is urgent food for thought.
One only hopes that Sairat catalyzes such a change in our collective mindsets, as a nation and as a community, so that the next realistic movie on inter-caste relationships doesn't end the way it does, or Achhut Kanya did. It is high time we gave love a free rein in this country. As Manjule said in another interview, "Love is the only hope. It can erase the shackles we are bound in."
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