Fandry – A Poignant and Thought-Provoking Story

Fandry (2013 Marathi film, directed by Nagraj Manjule).

The two films of Tamil director Vetrimaaran discussed in the preceding articles involved a shift from an unashamedly “popular” style of film to an attempt, if not precisely to produce an “art film”, at least to woo a more international audience, an attempt that, despite its success in certain quarters, led in my view to the production a less authentic and quite simply less good film. In the two following articles I want to look, this time in the order they appeared, at the exactly opposite phenomenon. Marathi director Nagraj Manjule first became known as something of an “art” director but subsequently (with the 2016 film Sairat) has achieved wide acclaim a “popular’ director.

Fandry was his first feature film. It pursues the theme, already present in his earlier award-winning short film Pistulya (2009), of the difficulties faced by a young boy growing up as a member of  a disadvantaged caste, a theme he would reprise yet again in Sairat.  It is a problem that Manjule understands well, coming himself from just such a background in a remote village near Solapur (where Sairat is set), the son of a stone-breaker. Jabry (Jambuvanath) in Fandry belongs to a rather different community, the Kaikadi, in another remote area of Maharastra (Akolner near Ahmednagar), even more humiliatingly associated with “pig-catching” (“Fandry” is the Kaikadi word for “pig”). The Kaikadi, like many lower-caste communities, were once semi-nomadic.peoples whose traditional craft was basket-weaving (one sees the grandfather basket-weaving in the film). It is an important reminder, if one were needed, that, in modern times, or following “settlement”, the situation of such communities has often worsened rather than improved, a fact also highlighted in the 2015 Hindi film, Masaan, previously reviewed. Caste is sometimes regarded, to quote a commentator on the internet, as “an age-old monster” but, in many cases, it is actually a relatively modern imposition.

Pistulya had focused on the problem of access to education and Fandry continues that theme as related to the lives of the poor (work versus school) but it also has a more romanesque and even poetic quality (Manjule is also well known as a poet).  Jabry is in love (at a mute distance) with an upper-class girl and dreams of capturing a legendary “black sparrow” that is said to have the power to make dreams come true. The unreal fantasies and the superstitious belief are encouraged both by his playmate and by an adult friend Chankya, played by Manuule himself,  who said of the role that he thought it “abominable to be an unrealistic dreamer like Chankya”..

The thing that strikes one immediately about the film is the high quality both of the cinematography (by Vikram Amladi) and of the excellent musical score (by Alokananda Dasgupta). It is an exceptionally beautiful film both to watch and hear. The performers are largely non-actors and this unquestionably enhances the authenticity of the performances and the immediacy of its impact. The pace is slow, but appropriately so, and the pacing is excellent, in that it builds to an enthralling climax, often as humorous as it is ghastly, where the various issues of school versus work and of dreams versus reality that have run through the entire film are dramatically visualized. A reluctant Jabry, his eye on the moment when school will commence, is obliged to join his entire family in the catching of a particularly stubborn porker that has been annoying the good folk of the village, themselves of course unwilling to demean themselves in any attempt to resolve the problem.  Jabry’s family stand alone in what becomes an epic battle between man and beast and their humiliation is completed by the jeering crowd that gradually gathers to observe them, including Jabry’s schoolmates and the girl who is the object of his private fantasies.

The dilemma facing the boy is a poignant one.  One can readily sympathise with his desire to hide and distance himself from the almost ritual humiliation that the imposed pig-hunt inflicts upon his family.  One can equally empathise with the anger that slowly begins to rise in him against those who are responsible for that infliction – in effect everyone else – and it is the tension between the two tendencies that produces the final defiant note upon which the film ends.

Fandry is not only a very realistic depiction of the cruelty of caste-discrimination, (much more realistic than most films that purport to deal with the subject), it is also a film that invites one to think quite hard about the complexity and intractability of the problem.  As Manule has pointed out in interviews when asked about whether he sees the situation changing, one of the principal problems is that “discrimination is internalized”, as much by the victimized as by the victimizers and this aspect is very well brought out in the melancholy picture painted of Jabry’s family and their attitudes, a theme very much continued in the rather similar depiction of the dalit Parshya’s family in Sairat.

Fandry is a film that moved and affected me more than any other Indian film has done for a long time.  It is not a feel-good film and offers few solutions but it poses many important questions.  Yes, individuals have a right to live their own lives as they wish, free from questions of class and caste, and here, whatever the difficulties, those typical modern remedies, education and urbanization, may perhaps offer a valid and effective route of escape, but such escape is only an answer for the individual.  It does not genuinely resolve the problem.  Traditional communities as a whole also have a right to maintain their values and their life-styles and to live in comfort and with dignity, and here modernity often offers little comfort.  The miseries of caste and caste-discrimination can easily be compounded and made more bitter still by a growing emphasis on class and class-consciousness. There is certainly hope for the individual but for the community as a whole, the outlook often remains as grimly pessimistic as ever.