Questioning Sairat’s politics
By Firdaus Soni
25 July 2016
The caste and gender dynamics of Nagraj Manjule’s ‘Sairat’.
At a time when caste consciousness is seeing an unprecedented resurgence, Director Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat uses the typical narrative framework of ‘star-crossed lovers’ to deconstruct the inhumanity of caste and the misogyny that prompts ‘honour’ killings. Yet amidst all the acknowledgement of the film’s take on caste and gender and praise for the way Sairat depicts it, there are some questions about these representations that emerge.
But first, a story I heard while discussing the status of Maratha women within their community: A few years ago, a journalist had called up a Maratha politician, whose wife had been elected as the Zilla Parishad Adhyaksh, to get her photograph for his newspaper. The man replied: “Ab kya hamari auraton ka photo paper me aana baki reh gaya hai?”(Is this what it has come to now? Our women’s photos coming out in the paper really is the last straw.) It is said that this woman was represented by her husband everywhere and never allowed to venture out in public – not even for the election campaign. In newspapers, when the photographs of various politicians were printed, there was always a blank box in place of her face, with just her name underneath it – a clear indication of the oppressed status of women within orthodox Hindu communities.
If we go back into history to look at anti-caste struggles, we will come across Tarabai Shinde. A radical figure, who wrote the provocative essay titled ‘Stri Purush Tulana’ that compared men and women in a colonial society. Her essay was the target of much vitriol from members of her caste and community. In the end, it was Jyotiba Phule, an Indian activist, social reformer and writer, who publicly wrote in her defence in 1885, supporting Tarabai Shinde’s stance and analysis. Apart from this phenomenal essay, there is little else that is known about her. Her essay remains her only historical legacy.
These two stories set the context of what the movie deals with – the fact that Maratha women are mostly prevented from actively participating in the public sphere. The upper-caste Marathas forms one-third of the total population of Maharashtra and they have been politically and socially dominant. The community continues to be steeped in feudal relations and values. To repeat an oft-stated fact, the nature of the oppression and the manifestation of the upper-caste Hindu self is deeply interlinked with the oppression of women. And so, even though a Maratha woman may wield power over both men and women from ‘lower’ castes, she continues to be oppressed within her own community. ‘Maratha-ness’ is not possible without these unequal gender roles and power relations, manifesting as control over the sexuality and mobility of women. Keeping their families’ ‘honour’ intact is the primary responsibility of the women from this dominant caste.
Archana Patil or Archie from Sairat definitely does not represent the norm when it comes to Maratha girls. More so, because she eventually falls in love with Prashant Kale, a Pardhi boy. The Pardhi community is a Denotified Tribe (DNT), deemed a “criminal tribe” by colonial authorities. Prashant, nicknamed Parshya, is depicted as charming and confident. His character is able to break (to an extent) a certain notion of masculinity, because, even though he looks like a typical hero, we see him get thrashed by Maratha men time and again, unable to resist or hit them back. In the second half of the movie, when the tension between the lovers escalates, their struggles and frustrations take over their rosy imaginations of love and life. Eventually, we see Parshya doubting and hitting Archie. He is unable to resist the upper-caste men or the men who harass him on the street, but he can physically, and ‘rightfully’ abuse his lover because he is a man. The relationship between caste and masculinity, with respect to Parshya’s character, plays out effortlessly throughout the movie – in the beginning, in his relationship to upper caste men, and later, with Archie when his frustrations emerge as violence.
But he is also a character whose credibility is restored through his ‘merit’. There is a moment in the beginning of the movie where Archie is impressed by his marks in the classroom. Similarly, there is a scene where he wins a cricket match for his team. One wonders if these references to his meritorious nature are scripted to make him more likable to audiences. Does it ‘purify’ his community status? The intention of the storyteller remains opaque in the movie.
Archana Patil’s character, however, presents a much more complicated story. Her character is atypical as it fails to represent Maratha women – especially those from land-owning families with huge political stakes, who are ever mindful of their reputation. Marriage is one of the most important aspects of their lives, as it is linked to land, political power and, of course, ‘honour’. In the many instances of caste-motivated atrocity that happen in Maharashtra, there are numerous cases of Maratha girls or their non-Maratha partners being targeted by the community. Even when reported, the stories of these girls are erased.
One such incident occurred in April 2014 – the caste-motivated killing of Nitin Aage, a 17-year-old Dalit boy in Kharda, Ahmednagar. There was a lot of agitation that followed the killing, with bike rallies and anti-caste marches that were attended by big politicians. Yet, there was no news about what happened to the Maratha girl who Aage was seen with. In most atrocity cases, the violence directed at Dalit men or women is highlighted because ‘honour’ is restored only when Dalits are publicly humiliated. But what happens behind the guarded doors of Maratha families never comes to light. It is not even known whether the women live or are killed. Archie, however, seems to present an exceptional case. Even a fantasy. We see that she is mobile and fearless, riding a Bullet motorcycle and, on one occasion, even a tractor.
But there is a nagging feeling about this ‘boldness’ of hers. The ‘well scene’ in the movie makes it clear that her audacity to challenge the men in the scene stems from her caste-based feelings of superiority. Even her laughter over the torn underpants of one ‘offender’ reflects this caste dominance. (It should be noted that instances of single, upper-caste women being out in public for recreational or leisure purposes are frowned upon, especially in mofussil towns.) Her father also wields considerable influence within his community and the immediate societal milieu because he is a politician, prompting viewers to wonder if Archie’s fearlessness also stems from the fact that she is her father’s daughter. Her agency cannot be seen as feminist since it has more to do with caste and class privilege, even though Archie herself does not seem to recognise this. Though we can see her actions as challenging gender norms – she is in effect claiming the same status as her brother by riding a Bullet, and exercising her choice to love who she wants – the challenges she issues stays firmly in the context of her own family (and therefore her own caste paradigm). In fact, later in the film, she reverts to stereotypical gender norms when her ‘love’ compels her to forgive Parshya’s abusive behavior.
The history of caste atrocities in the state is evidence to the fact that such an incident in real life would have invited a very strong spate of violence, compared to the impact shown in the movie of their “affair”, both on the boy and his family. In present times, police atrocities are one of the most immediate and recurring cruelty that the Pardhi community faces. In a real-life situation, the entire community would face a lot more violence, both from the police and the Marathas, because they are vulnerable targets.
In any case, we feel relieved when the two reach Hyderabad. The two then have to face the harsh reality of living in a slum. The differences between their backgrounds play out even more starkly in this portion of the film. But we see Archie struggling with issues that come, not with caste, but class differences like the problems in accessing water or a proper toilet; these are problems that would be faced by anyone living in a shanty who comes from a middle- or upper-class background, irrespective of caste. Here the tension between the two seems to play out over class and gender. Caste is visibly absent.
Another recent movie, Masaan, has explored the same issues of love and caste. Masaan is also a story of a Dalit boy and a Baniya girl who meet in college – like Archie and Parshya. In the film, the experience of inter-caste love forces the girl to think about her own caste privilege. One of her family members makes a casteist remark, saying that the food at a hotel was good because the owner came from their own caste background. This is shown as a moment of disillusionment and realisation for the girl. However, in Sairat, it is shocking to see Archie tell her mother over the phone that they are calling their child “Tatya”, after her father. While this can be seen as a reconciliatory gesture on the part of Archie, the caste reality of the boy doesn’t find expression in the film. We don’t get to see Parshya react to his son being named after his tormentor who, earlier in the film, used his clout to have Parshya and his friends beaten up and arrested on false charges of rape. Isn’t the idea of calling their son ‘Tatya’, for Parshya, symbolic of the dispossession and violence he has faced his entire life?
While on one hand the couple has, at this point in the narrative, come a long way – facing caste violence and threat to their lives – there is no ‘loss of innocence’ when it comes to Archie’s character. There is no rude awakening or understanding of the insidiousness grip of caste, and a subsequent disillusionment with the power structures that support it. It is important to remember that women too are carriers of caste and caste pride or privilege. This point has been raised loudly and clearly by Dalit women over and over – that ‘women’ cannot be slotted in a unified category, since all women also represent their caste and class locations as well.
The film has led to a lot of praise and discussion around inter-caste “love”, but hardly any discussion around what this ‘love’ would look like if the gender and caste relations were reversed in the story. What if a Maratha man fell in love with a Pardhi woman instead? How should desirability be understood? These are also questions that need to be considered. In Manjule’s previous (and first film) Fandry, an autobiographical story of the boy, one finds a similar one-dimensional portrayal of Dalit and upper-caste women. Sairat, as the director himself has claimed, is a female-centric film. However, Dalit women are absolutely absent from its purview. Apart from five scenes, where they hardly speak and are always present in the context of the upper-caste girl, their worldview in both the movies remains a dark unexplored space, that is relegated to irrelevance. So even though Sairat succeeds in making visible the everyday reality of caste, can it really be celebrated as a film that questions anti-caste patriarchy as its director and fans claim?
~ Firdaus Soni is a student at the University of Hyderabad. She is currently pursuing her MPhil in sociology.