Nagraj Manjule’s sophomore film Sairat is similar to and yet radically different from his multi-award-winning, hard-hitting debut Fandry . Like Fandry, it is set in rural Maharashtra. Its protagonists are young adults. However, despite the familiar tropes of a mainstream love story, it engages with the tricky issues of caste and gender.Even with these bitter pills, Sairat has emerged as an unstoppable force at the box office. Having amassed over Rs. 12 crore over just one weekend, it could well become a blockbuster. Such has been the Sairat craze that two additional shows — one at midnight and one at 3 a.m. — have been introduced in a hall in Rahimatpur in Satara district.
One of the most significant young voices in contemporary Indian cinema, Nagraj himself had to contend with the ugly realities that he portrays in his films while growing up in a poor, backward family in Jeur village of Solapur district. He wears his Dalit identity on his sleeve and speaks of it in his poetry, writing and cinema. In his flat-cum-office in Warje, Pune, crowded with family, friends, cast and crew, all gathered together to celebrate the exceptional success of the film, he spoke to Namrata Joshi. Excerpts:
You seem to be perennially engaged with the issues of love and caste in your films.
They say love is blind, it doesn’t see caste. But the question of caste always creeps in. It isn’t so easy to fall in love in India without the spectre of caste looming large. Caste is the foundation of our society. It’s a reality that you need to have a special talent to avoid. Bollywood has that talent, I don’t. The only divide there is in Bollywood — where love stories are material — is of class.
Sairat is also significant in the way you have overthrown gender stereotypes. The heroine Archie takes the lead in love. The camera dwells on the female gaze. You give the hero Parshya the softer love song.
Sairat is Archie’s story. The hero, Parshya, is secondary. I am tired of this world created by men, ruined by men. I want a woman now to build the world or mess it up. I also realise that a woman is the Dalit in every case. Even when you look at savarnas [forward castes], the woman is secondary. Even a Dalit man would look down upon a savarna woman. Yet, the fact is that half the world is populated by women. We are fighting small fights — Hindus versus Muslims, Dalits versus upper castes. Gender is the bigger battle. I am tired of the man within me. I also want to change. You get unconsciously trapped in male values. You are superior only because you happen to be a man. I want a break from this male-dominated world.
Do you believe in love as a disruptive force, as an agent of change?
Love is the only hope. It can erase the shackles we are bound in. And I am not the only one; every poet, saint, litterateur has said so. Marathi poet Kusumagraj called love the solitary hope that can turn the world into a beautiful entity.
What I found interesting about the film is that you have used all the familiar tropes of a mainstream love story, yet you have questioned and subverted them. The college campus, the friends… they are all real and not glamorised.
I would put it the other way round. I have just shown reality. Bollywood subverted the real to create stereotypes and myths. And now we are so surrounded by lies that if someone speaks the truth, we get surprised. I have watched a lot of Bollywood but never felt it showed me on screen. If I open my arms like Shah Rukh Khan and stand in the middle of the road, people will beat me up. And here I have been getting responses from people in the interiors of Maharashtra saying that for the first time they are seeing themselves on the screen in Sairat .
But you do use the song-and-dance element to the hilt.
Yes, there are songs in my film, but they are usually in the background and to articulate inner feelings. The music directors have responded to the script and the characters. Music knows no boundaries of caste, creed or religion, so Ajay-Atul have used western symphonies but the lyrics are all in a rustic, rural lingo. The language of the film and the songs is the same. Otherwise, in most films, songs are the segments where the characters suddenly become poets.
There seems to be a definite tenor to the film. The first half shows the joy of love while the second gets serious and mellow.
I find that the interval is a very childish construct in Indian cinema. If there was no interval how would you have divided the film? I don’t think of the interval while writing. It is thrust on my film later. The tone and tenor is not based on the interval; it is a factor of the change in life itself, for the protagonists.
The viewer is aware where the love story is headed, yet the end comes as a shock. But there is more to it than the rage of Fandry ; there is disgust and sadness.
Basically it’s a deep sadness. You just express it in various ways. Sometimes you get angry, at other times you become silent. I wanted to hear the audience in the silence at the end of the film. We read about tragedies in papers but are unmoved. I wanted to see whether people would hear themselves, their own sobs in that silence or not. I wanted to wring that out. I wanted to see whether those dancing to the song Jhingat will go out in a contemplative mood or not.
You appear in the film as a commentator in a local cricket tournament. It is a caustic, sarcastic commentary on society rather than the game. Do you see that as the role of a filmmaker — commenting on society?
Not just society, I often laugh at myself too. These days, even on Ambedkar Jayanti we have started making these statues with moving heads. I laugh at the childishness. It’s good to laugh at ourselves. I just like making films. I am not doing anything consciously. I am just talking in a certain language. I don’t know or care anything of its grammar. Sachin [Tendulkar] played because he had to play the game, not because somebody had to comment on his game. He didn’t play to give a lot of data to Harsha Bhogle.