How ‘Manthan’’s depiction of class, caste and gender hierarchies remains relevant

Restored by the Film Heritage Foundation with 4K technology, Shyam Benegal’s ‘Manthan’ made a splash at the Cannes Film Festival. Ahead of its theatrical re-release, a look at how the landmark film speaks to today’s agrarian economy

Updated - May 29, 2024 04:08 pm IST

Published - May 29, 2024 11:54 am IST

A still from ‘Manthan’

A still from ‘Manthan’

A fictionalised account of how India’s dairy movement took root, Manthan combines social drama and commentary to deliberate on the difficult process of deepening democracy. Almost five decades after it made it to theatres, the title reflects the churning of caste and class that is going on in our participatory democratic process even when we have entered the much-publicised ‘Amrit Kaal’ of our freedom from the colonial yoke.

A product of the times, when parallel cinema was building a bridge between art and commercial movies, director Shyam Benegal refuses to decorate his cinema with false hopes and sermons. He posits an outsider into the stark reality of rural life and through him taps into the spirit, ignorance, and enterprise of village folks.

Like the innovative idea of crowdfunding, Mr. Benegal proposes that social progress and profit can coexist on the same page. On the surface, it is inspired by eminent dairy engineer and social entrepreneur Verghese Kurien’s remarkable experiment but a deeper look reveals the fissures of caste, class, and corruption that are still stopping India from becoming one big cooperative society.

The narrative

The film gives the idealism of youth a chance to blossom. Early in the film, when protagonist Dr. Manohar Rao (Girish Karnad) reaches Sanganva village to build a dairy cooperative, the local businessman Ganga Prasad Mishra (Amrish Puri) who buys milk from villagers for his private dairy crosses his path. Mishra takes pride in building the economy of the village. Rao doesn’t contest his claim but adds that it is time to move on to a more equitable system where the arbitrariness of the pricing and the milking of caste and class hierarchies to satiate one person’s greed is done away with. This means reducing the role of the middlemen who make the villagers dependent by doling out loans to them in their time of need and then deciding the prices according to their interests. This pernicious cycle of exploitation still exists, albeit in different forms, as we discovered during the farmers agitation. Trains that go through Punjab are getting inordinately delayed because a section of farmers are still protesting.

Smita Patil in an image from ‘Manthan’

Smita Patil in an image from ‘Manthan’

Manthan sparks this train of thought because economic exploitation marked by systemic challenges continues to haunt the agrarian economy and collective action and advocacy for the empowerment of the underprivileged are seen with suspicion both by the system as well as a section of the community.

Interestingly, as the locals arrive to receive the suited-booted vet who had gotten down from the train, the first sentence we hear is, “Maaf kijiye, gaadi time par aa gayi” (excuse us, the train has arrived on time). Made during the time of Emergency, the film retains its independent voice and makes a sharp comment on the dark period for democracy when it is said that trains had suddenly started running on time. The train sequence segues into a harsher reality where the vet, after alighting from a train, refuses to board an overloaded horse carriage.

Entrepreneurship and caste

Vijay Tendulkar’s screenplay and Kaifi Azmi’s dialogues tear open the class and caste structures that make the democratic process difficult to realise at the grassroots. Rao’s insistence on equality threatens to disrupt the existing power structures in the village. The cooperative is formed but the swaggering Sarpanch (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) still insists that Dalits form a separate line while selling their milk. Rao’s educated wife Shanta also has a casteist outlook and shows little interest in her spouse’s battle against injustice.

Unpaved roads, lack of basic health facilities and gender hierarchies are seen alongside lopsided development shown through Govind Nihalani’s long shots of the farm and huts with thatched roofs, and the familiar village sounds created by Vanraj Bhatia — all of which disrupt stereotypes of village life. Preeti Sagar’s ‘Mero Gaam Kaatha Parey’ kept Manthan alive in memory when Hindi cinema had moved on to western shores for inspiration.

The film’s heart is on the left but it doesn’t give a blank cheque to bookish idealism and keeps questioning the motives and gaze of the urban outsider in the rural milieu. Rao’s motives are not only probed by the smarmy Mishra whose milk business is expected to take a hit because of the cooperative but also by Rao’s well-meaning friend Deshmukh (Mohan Agashe) who is not as emotionally invested in the task as Rao is.

Tendulkar creates an interesting contrast between the playful city guy played by Anant Nag and the committed urban that Karnad essays with his innate grace and poise in perhaps his most convincing and moving performance. Both develop a soft corner for the village girls, or the honour of the community one could say, but their motives are different.

Bindu played by Smita Patil is a complex character played with irresistible conviction. She seems to be yearning for freedom from the shackles of patriarchy but hasn’t developed the confidence and the vocabulary to take the next step. Rao, too, is in two minds. Mr. Benegal has beautifully portrayed the unsaid between the two. Their silences and simplicity haunt us long after the credits roll and question the fundamentals of feminism and fidelity.

Naseeruddin Shah’s Bhola represents the anguished Dalit, who has almost lost his voice because of feudal structures and doubts the concerns of the doctor until Rao shows him the possibility of a level playing field through the power of vote.

Naseeruddin Shah in ‘Manthan’

Naseeruddin Shah in ‘Manthan’

Eventually, when Bhola addresses his community to say ‘soch vichari se vote dalna’ (think before you vote), it rings a bell.

The actor who believes in Method once told this journalist that he lived in a hut, learnt to make cow dung cakes, and milk a buffalo. He would carry buckets full of milk and serve the unit members to get the physicality of the character right.

The power of crowdfunding

In 2016, in an interview with this journalist, Mr. Benegal, while underlining that the common Indian has always supported good cinema, said that in Manthan the source of funding was much more organised and publicised but it was not the only time he worked with the money of common people to tell their story to a larger audience.

In Antarnaad (1991), which was based on the Swadhayay movement or self-reliance, the fishing communities of Maharashtra collected money and approached Mr. Benegal. Before that in Susman (1987), handloom cooperatives contributed to bringing Mr. Benegal’s vision of the plight of weavers to life. The tragic irony of the weaver later found its way into Prakash Raj’s Kanchivaram (2007) as well.

Before the Film Heritage Foundation came into the picture with 4K technology, Manthan was digitally restored in 2011 by Pixion and Cameo Restoration Sound, and that ‘restored version’ is available on YouTube.

However, the poor prints of Susman and Antarnaad are waiting for an Amul to have a new lease of life.

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