Sairat : A Shocking and Emotional Experience

Sairat (2016 Marathi film, directed by Nagraj Manjule). 

For those brought up in the Hindi tradition of film, any film that deals with the subject of caste and inter-caste marriage appears to be a great innovation but for us who are lucky enough to live in the South, where, let us not forget, the majority of Indian films are made, that in itself is nothing so very extraordinary. With Sairat, according to the Wikipedia entry, Manjule aimed  to make a more commercial films than his previous films (my italics) and one can well believe it, but one is entitled to ask what such an intention on the part of a film-maker actually means.  What does a director do to try and ensure that a film is “popular” (which sounds on the face of it rather a cynical exercise) and are those things actually desirable or necessary?

What is striking about Sairat, in comparison with Fandry, especially in the early scenes of the film, is how relatively poor both the cinematography and the soundtrack are.  There are all the customary cheap tricks (camera far too close, needless use of slow-motion, use of music to quite unnecessarily underline the action rather than merely to accompany it) as well as the usual bland set-pieces to accompany the songs. The implication of this – that a supposedly “popular” audience will only enjoy a film if it is badly shot and crudely scored is disturbing because it means that the director, who one knows from Fandry to be perfectly capable of better things in both respects, is deliberately patronizing his audience – playing down to what he supposes to be their more trivial predilections. It is not that one is watching two different ways of making a film of equal quality.  The quality is distinctly worse.  Something poorer is being offered, despite presumably a much higher budget, because it is thought that the target audience cannot appreciate anything better.

More than one reviewer in The Times of India praised this aspect of the film as an attempt to  cater to (I would say “pander to”) the tastes of Hindi filmgoers, the so-called “pan-India Hindi audience”, but excuse me if I am not convinced that this is, or should be, a good director’s role, especially one who has been much touted for his for his “honest style of film-making.”  Manjule himself, rather defensive on the subject, argues that the “story has romance, humour and fun. So it had to be shot that way, with songs and all” but this is a very questionable point of view. An audience does not have preconceptions about films because there is in reality no such entity as “an  audience” There is no such “necessity” except in the minds of producers and seemingly, in this case at least, in that of the director too.

It is true that different genres of cinema often set up expectations for stylish gimmicks that please largely by their familiarity. One found the same for instance in the 1970s with “spaghetti” westerns with their deliberate bad dubbing and their not quite so deliberate bad acting which became a kind of trademark. And much the same has become true of the so-called “masala” film. But when a genre reaches the point of saturation where it is seen to require the films to be made badly, it is surely time for the genre to be consigned to the recycle-bin of history (such monsters will always tend to come back) or at least to be subject to a complete rethink.  There are in fact some signs that such a rethink is slowly taking place in Hindi film itself, so it is rather ironic that “the Hindi film” should be used as an alibi for “masala” treatment of a film from another tradition.

I have sometime heard Sairat described as simply a “masala movie” right up until the powerful ending, but this is unjust. Quite early in the film, there is a scene that makes one sit and pay attention – the really very unpleasant episode where the brother slaps the school-teacher, an action condoned and even, if anything, commended by his odious father. This scene is just as shocking in its way – if less sensational – as the famous finale. The scenes of escape and pursuit are exciting and accompanied at moments by a very noticeable and welcome improvement in the quality of the cinematography.  As for the second half of the film, set mainly in the slums of Hyderabad, the treatment here is far darker and more realistic (once again with an improvement in the cinematography) and is, oddly in a way, since Solapur was where Manjule himself grew up, quite the more convincing part of the film if occasionally spoiled by the intrusive over-sentimental music score. It is also during these scenes that the two youngsters (Rinku and Akash) really show that they can act.

Much has been said, too, of the role of Archie as some kind of  challenge to gender stereotypes and Manjule himself seems often to have gone along with this pseudo-feminist account (“I am fed up of the male-dominated culture”) but it in fact does a disservice to the film (and to the actress) to regard the role in this way. Archie’s “liberated” attitude reflects her upper-caste background.  In the early scenes, she does not really treat other characters (male or female) as equals; she treats them rather more like servants, and her belief (albeit mistaken) that she can flout conventions and take a dalit lover if she wishes is in good part the over-confidence of a spoilt rich girl, the counterpart of her brother’s appallingly arrogant behaviour. When there is seeming role-reversal (Parshya doing the cooking and cleaning), it is not so much an ideological choice but a function, even exiled as they are from their homes, of their difference in caste and class.

Viewed in this way, the characterizations are not revolutionary in any way but they are much more nuanced and much more true to life. As we have already seen in Fandry, the way in which caste and class attitudes are “internalized” is an important them to Manule and it  is the persistence of such attitudes that the couple has to try and overcome after not before their flight and which also to some extent precipitater the final disaster. As for feminism, if there is a genuine feminist heroine in the film it is the doughty Sunan Akka (very well played by Chhaya Kadam) who aids the couple in Hyderabad who better deserves the epithet.

There is no doubting the success enjoyed by Sairat nor the importance of that success but one may perhaps question its profundity. Despite its shock-ending it is neither as realistic nor ss pessimistic as Fandry and it is far less thought-provoking.  One is slightly dismayed to hear that “the Big B.” is all set to star in Manjule’s next film in Pune.  Manjule’s ex-wife (a conventional arranged marriage apparently) complained that, as he became famous, the husband got lost in the film director.  One hopes that the poet and fine film director of Fandry is not getting lost in the same way in the successful showman.