Sairat and power of ‘realism’

Updated - November 17, 2021 04:15 am IST

Published - May 22, 2016 12:00 am IST

For the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing broadly two kinds of viewer responses to Sairat , Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi film that’s shattering box-office records in India (more power to that, and may it shake the 100-crore Bollywood club out of its arrogance). One view is a slightly carping: “It’s like two different films in one!” The other is unequivocal admiration about how real the film is and how great an example of realism in cinema. (The predominant response, of course, is the unpretentious adulation of the regular cinegoer who’s made Sairat the smash hit it is.)

The first response, about the film being disconcertingly different before and after the interval, isn’t unexpected. Swept by the mood and inching conflict of the first half, viewers expect the movie to proceed towards a heady climax, but are slightly disconcerted when it instead settles into a sort of bleak neo-realistic groove portraying the young couple’s eye-opening life post the euphoria. There have been love stories like this before, the best known perhaps being Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey , remade later as Saathiya. However, it did not alter its core sur as radically as Manjule does. The fact that it unsettles us betrays something about us as an audience: we’re too pleasure-seeking, too used to pre-digested, pat storylines to be able to take a drastic changing of tracks in our stride.

The second viewer response — about how Sairat is a great example of realistic cinema — was what interested me more. There’s no textbook definition of realism in cinema — it’s a contentious issue among film theorists — but there are a few givens. A lack of contrivance (obviously), no songs and dances (duh), non-professional actors, unobtrusive camerawork, no mechanical plotting and a social fabric that is larger than the ‘story’. Sairat has a couple of these points. It is based on a bitter s ocial truth and has very real locales and non-professional actors (truly amazing ones). The narrative, however, is fairly plotted — apart from the deliberately Bollywoodish first half with its songs and slo-mo picturisations, even the ‘realistic’ second half has the jarring plot trope of a stranger coming out of nowhere to rescue the young couple from imminent danger and giving them shelter. However, the mix of styles is clearly intentional. Manjule, by blending the Bollywood treatment of the first half with the verisimilitude of the second, and strewing larger social observations and subtext through both, achieves something greater than kitchen-sink realism.

World cinema has types and types of realism, some of the more experimental varieties bordering on the outlandish. Andy Warhol’s 1963 film Sleep , for instance, only had footage of his friend sleeping for five hours (not surprisingly, half of the nine people who attended the premiere are said to have walked out). Abbas Kiarostami’s 2008 film Shirin was just a series of close-ups of women watching a film. Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s The Idiots encompassed deliberate continuity errors and glimpses of a boom mike and the movie camera in the frame — the idea presumably being that even filming the truth was manipulating it, and hence the audience had to be let in on the very process of making the film.

Indian cinema, even the experimental variety, has by and large shunned such radical interpretations and stuck to a safe, audience-friendly realism. From Bimal Roy, who was set on the path by Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves , to filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan down to Manjule, Chaitanya Tamhane and other present-day filmmakers, each one has blended realism with a uniquely Indian cinematic aesthetic. All very different from one another, these filmmakers aren’t pure realists — they use non-diegetic sound, whether songs or background score, plotted narrative (even as realistic a film as Pather Panchali , I’ve observed to my surprise, has timed plot points) and other elements extraneous to realism. Most are seen as realistic filmmakers because of two factors: believability and authenticity of locale and character (played by either a credible actor or a non-professional) in their films.

The believability factor

Kiarostami, in a recent interview, remarked that good cinema is something that we can believe and bad cinema is that which we can’t. Very many would disagree because cinema, or any art form for that matter, isn’t merely about realism. But it is a fact that the believability factor — something that’s lifelike and close to our personal or social experience — is compelling. That’s why so many offbeat and middle-of-the-road films of the 1970s and 80s stood their ground against escapist blockbusters even though the latter were the opiate of the masses.

In the present day, when artifice has increased manifold, it’s not difficult to see why people are loving and commending Sairat for its “realness”. Jaded as we are with the terminal fakeness of ad films, TV soaps and mainstream Bollywood, a film like this jolts us back to a reality we’d almost forgotten on the screen. As a friend put it, watching Sairat ’s love story was like tasting real strawberries with all their sweetness and tartness after a lifetime of artificially-flavoured, cloyingly sweet candies. Indeed.

The author is a freelance writer and editor

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