Winner of the Jury Grand Prize at Mumbai Film Festival, “Fandry” tells the not-so-innocent love story of a Dalit boy in a Maharashtra village. Its director Nagraj Manjule talks about depicting childhood, finding his protagonist and the problem with laughter

Looking at a film festival’s programme can often be an exercise fraught with self-conflict, especially if the festival in question offers too much of that wonderfully deceptive luxury – choice. This was the case at the recently concluded Dharamsala International Film Festival. Held at two venues — the auditorium of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts and a screening room in Club House — with simultaneous screenings, the festival presented some difficult choices to its patrons.

On the third day, it pitted “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer”, a strongly reviewed documentary about the trial of all-girl band Pussy Riot in Russia, against Nagraj Manjule’s “Fandry”, a Marathi film which just won the Jury Grand Prize at Mumbai Film Festival. It was a tie eventually resolved by intuition, rather than any calculation, in favour of “Fandry”.

Set in Akolner, a village near Ahmednagar, “Fandry” tells the tale of Jabya, a Dalit boy in love with his schoolmate Shalu, an upper caste girl, and his coming of age. Fandry means pig in Kaikadi, and is hurled as a slur to denigrate the protagonist several times in the film. Caste is a physical and psychological barrier for Jabya, and constantly thwarts his love. Anxious about his looks, he writes letters to her which he is afraid of posting or even signing. When he is not busy dreaming about her, he helps his mother out in her basket weaving, or by vending for her at the market whenever she is ill. His only companion through this journey is a friend with whom he rides around the village selling popsicles, hoping to save money to buy a pair of new clothes.

He lives with his family on the fringes of the village, and his father does odd jobs for its residents, including catching the pigs that threaten to overrun village functions. Jabya is embarrassed of his father’s profession, and wants to have nothing to have to do with it. He is instead busy chasing a black sparrow, whose capture and sacrifice he believes will enable him to win over Shalu. This is all in vain though, as the dreamer in Jabya is eventually forced to confront, and assert, his reality.

“A lot of people told me this is the first Dalit film they’ve seen. It is a happy feeling for me, but also a strange one…we are backward in every sense. We struggle with our educational and financial problems, so maybe creative expression comes much later…A journalist asked me what is your feeling that Indian cinema has completed 100 years, and I could only say ‘it took me 100 years to make this film’,” says Manjule, also an acclaimed Marathi writer.

The film draws from the director’s experiences of growing up Dalit in Jeur village in Solapur, where his father worked on construction sites. He too was besotted with an upper-caste girl in school and faced humiliation. “I speak well now, and can present my thoughts well, but for the longest time I had no confidence in myself. I used to make my teachers read my poems on stage. It took 30 years for me to get that confidence. Because of my work, my looks, there was a complex in me. And the complex starts in that age when we are on the cusp of childhood and adulthood. There is a little bit of maturity and a little bit of immaturity. In that age, things hit you hard and stay with you for a very long time, affecting you. So I thought it would be the right age to depict,” says Nagraj. “This was my story and I needed to look inside, not outside, to tell it.”

Jabya is played by Somnath Avghade, who belongs to a caste of drummers, and was selected after the director saw him at a village function. After being chased for three months with Manjule’s prayers and pleas, he relented. Several other actors in the film are also debutants. Manule plays Chankya, a drunkard who owns a cycle repair shop, and one of Jabya’s few friends in the village. “I like working with non-actors because they don't act, they start living the character,” Manjule adds.

Manjule has mined his own life earlier in a short film called “Pistulya”, which fetched him the National Award for Best First Non-Feature Film. It tells the story of a child who dreams of acquiring an education in the face of poverty. “People in my community are often irresponsible towards education, but my father wanted me to study. I had no interest in studies, and I was scared of Maths, because there was no one at home to teach me. I failed in tenth once, and then I resolved to study. I read Phule, Ambedkar, Kolatkar, Dhasal, Dhoomil, Uday Prakash…and once I got exposure, then I realised how unjust I was to myself.”

One of Fandry’s highlights is the way it implicates its audience. An elaborate sequence of pig capture, where the whole village gathers to watch the fumbling Jabya in action and laughs at him and his family, got some laughs at the screening too, setting up an uncomfortable parallel between the spectators on screen and those watching the film. “The film had its world premiere in London, and it recently played at Mumbai. People were laughing at both places. But I think that laughter shows where you belong, where your sympathies lie…If we are laughing in these situations we have probably felt like the spectators. But if you can empathise with Jabya, you will not laugh,” says Manjule.

The guilt of the audience surfaced in cathartic questions about what could be done to change the situation the film depicts. Manjule was circumspect in his response. “Change is a very long process. It’s not like in the films where Amitabh grows up while running on the streets. But I believe that change can happen at the individual level. If even ten of us resolve to change our attitudes, a change will have begun.”