My Mirror column for 22 May, 2016:
Sairat delivers both a compelling tribute and an astutely-aimed punch to decades of Indian film romance.
At a tense moment in Nagraj Manjule's Sairat, a middle-aged garage-owner (whom the film's youthful couple have called on for help) turns on them with a wan exhaustion at the prospect of what they want from him. "Movies and real life aren't the same thing," he says with a gesture of helplessness. "What your parents teach you, and what you do..."
It is one of the sharpest moments in Manjule's consummately-executed film: simultaneously embedded in the on-screen lives of its characters, while also addressing the dense, criss-crossing matrix of filmi and real that constitutes our relationship to romance. Manjule, whose powerful first feature Fandry was a 2014 festival favourite, has taken a remarkable leap from that recognizable realist aesthetic into something gloriously hybrid: young love, complete with songs both slow-mo and zingy, into which reality seeps darkly. That's the thing that makes Sairat so clever. Through it, Manjule is speaking to us in both capacities — as a country of wannabe-lovers, a people who celebrate the idea of romance in every film we make a hit — and as a country of real-life haters, a people that responds with practiced violence whenever some poor delusional souls actually decide to take that idea to heart.
So much of the sparky, filmi appeal of Sairat lies in the fact that its protagonists—brilliant first-time actors Akash Thosar and Rinku Rajguru, playing the teenage lovers Prashant 'Parshya' Kale and Archana 'Archie' Patil—refuse to play by the rules of "real life", which for most people in India is the same as "what your parents teach you". And yet Manjule makes it very clear that their gumption is foolhardy; that real life will have its way. Right from the opening, when Prashant sweeps his flailing village cricket team to effortless victory, we are made unmistakeably aware of the hierarchies that shape this world: the Dalit boy can win a cricket match, but the trophy will be awarded by the local political boss, a Patil (who turns out to be Archana's father).
Later in the film, there's a remarkable scene when this caste hierarchy easily overturns another of the hierarchical pieties ostensibly honoured by Hindu tradition: respect for one's guru. Patil's son and heir—literally called Prince—is asked his name by an irritated teacher who sees him talking on the phone in class. He doesn't answer. He slaps the teacher. In another schoolyard scene, Prashant is being roughed up by Archana's cousin Mangya for no good reason. He is pinned to the ground, holding onto Mangya's collar—but still holding off on hitting him back. The words we hear Prashant say reveal both his anger and his fear: "You may be a Patil but I'll beat you up."
Hindi cinema used to specialise in star-crossed lovers, but they were either shown to belong to two equal and opposite clans (this is the tradition in which we might place Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, or more recently, Ramleela)—or two different religions (most recently, think Ishaqzaade). If they had unequal social statuses, it was always class. Of course there are some exceptions — Love Sex Aur Dhokha, and more recently Masaan (which also contains a Facebook-search scene very like the one in Sairat)—but caste on the whole is that which dare not speak its name. Unlike the zillions of other life-and-death romances that Indian cinema has given us, Sairat takes caste head-on.
And yet the reason it has been able to reach out to so many people—the film is reportedly hitting the 60 crore mark, the highest ever for a Marathi film—is that it delivers its unvarnished truths alongside all the things people go to the movies for: laughter, suspense, drama, music. The songs are particularly lovely, and memorably picturised, putting the green depths of stepwells and the verdant shadows of sugarcane and banana-groves believably to work as romantic oases in the arid landscape of Sholapur.
The cinema also appears as fantasy outside of the songs: a sleeping Prashant sees Archana tiptoe out of her house and walk down to his, in the middle of the night, in a spangly off-shoulder dress. As she demands to be kissed, Prashant panics. "You'll wake everyone!" And then we see that he already has. As his family alternately giggles and grumbles their way back to sleep, the camera pans to show us the small poster above him: filmstar Alia Bhatt in the same dress.
And when love actually happens, the lovers' fantasy is the same one we've seen at least since Maine Pyar Kiya—"You'll go to work," says Archie to Parshya, as they gaze into each other's eyes. "I'll do the cooking." But unlike a Maine Pyar Kiya, when these two do run away and set up house together, the fantasy is brought to life in a very real slum, with the all-too-real stink of garbage. Without making a big deal of it, Manjule gently reverses gender roles. The boy tries going to work and getting the girl to shop and cook, but she has no idea how to. So she gets the factory job, he does the cooking.
At their most vulnerable—having arrived in the city but with nowhere to go and no-one to help—Manjule's young lovers must spend the night in public places, scarcely sleeping from discomfort and fear. After such a night, the bright light of day is welcome —but almost too harsh. So they go to the cinema, in whose dark embrace they find a few hours of solace. It is a marvellous scene. Manjule's protagonists may find an undisturbed peace in the cinema. But he has ensured that his audience does not.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 22nd May 2016.