Sairat and the Making of a Dalit Hero

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Sairat (wild/free) has now earned the reputation of a master craft in the history of Indian cinema along with being the biggest commercial blockbuster in the Marathi industry. The film is a bold statement against the fashionable mainstream Marathi and Hindi cinema that often buttress the middle class-upper caste sensitivities. It is an audacious and subversive attempt in many ways. The director, Nagraj Manjule, adopts the conventional form of love story narration but disturbs the story by infusing realistic social contents. ‘A poor boy meets rich girl love story’ is situated in a poor village in Maharashtra where the traditional power hierarchies based on caste statuses are still functional. A sincere attempt is made to cultivate a new idea of Hero, divorcing it from the macho-sexist imagery perpetrated by the commercial cinema.

The protagonist Archie/Archana Patil (Rinku Rajguru) is a rich upper caste (Maratha) girl with a lot of class and feudal attitude in her body language. Her raw personality is defined by her family status (Her father is landlord and the local MLA). She is not a submissive feminine beauty that attracts the male patriarchal gaze but in contrast she is bold and feisty feminist hero. Her caste and class values provide her the needed courage to act independently and courageously at the times of crises. She is outspoken, fearless and acts as a rebellion to build her desired future.

Archie’s male counterpart, Prashant Kale/Parshya (AkashThosar), is a Dalit, born in a poor fishermen community and has friends mainly from the Muslim and another low caste background. However, the director placed Parshya against the given stereotypes of being the ‘depressed Dalit’ and presented him as a regular likable young man. Parshya is smart, intelligent and charming teenager with a lot of courage and conviction. He is the star player of village’s cricket team and he is equally good in studies. His low caste identity is reminded to him by his friends so that he could not fall in love with Archi, but against all the advice and threats, he woos her.

Archie and Parshya love blossom soon but only to get disturbed by Archi’s hotheaded family members. In the crises that follow, Parshya is powerless and insignificant. He is indecisive as he is repressed under the brutal conditions where he has the only choice to become an appendage to the female lead. At the end, both meet a tragic death, making the audience realised the impossibility of a happy life after an intercaste-marriage against the norms of casteist-patriarchal society.

Fantasy and realism

Sairat is a radical entry in the populist-fantasy ‘love story’ genre. Bollywood and most of the regional cinema has dwelled in this space by placing the craving lovers in two different camps. Most often the lovers has to challenge the class status (Mughal-e-Azam, 1960) traditional family rivalries (Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, 1988), poor-rich divide (Pyar Jhukta Nahi, 1985), communal divisions (Bombay, 1995), linguistic barriers (Ek Duje Ke Liye, 1981) and even the national boundaries (Veer Zara, 2004) in order to quench the thirst of love. The idea that upper caste male falls in love with lower caste woman also figured on occasions in the mainstream Bollywood films like Achhut Kanya (1936), Sujata (1959), and Ganga-Jamuna (1961) whereas in Eklavya: the Royal Guard (2007) and Aarakshan (2011), the upper caste girl falls in love with the Dalit protagonist. These films do deal with the caste issue sympathetically and does advocate a space for exogamous marriages but often under the dictates of populist liberal reformism and without engaging realistically to the social milieu. Sairat is one step ahead of such films as it tweaks the fantasy of love story with crude weapon of social realism in a very uncompromising way.

Manjule successfully crafted an impressive counter-narrative and showcases the shallowness of mainstream cinema which had dealt with the love stories in the past. He prepares a ground for a surreal experience and brings in your face the cruel and brutal actualities of the caste society which we often dismiss as the thing of a forgotten past. The director situates a love story in a village conditioned by caste hierarchies, the lower castes live in wretched conditions, the school teachers are vulnerable and the politician-police nexus rules the legal system. His urban portrayal (Hyderabad) is similar to the village experiences where the dirty slums, criminals and abject poverty rule the city. In the midst of such violent conditions, the love story of Archi and Parshya took shape.

A romantic-fictional hero often represents the deep emotional quest for his/her lover which makes him a rebellion, ready to face great dangers, including a threat of tragic death. Archie and Parshya, thus represent the values of those epical romantic heroes, who are forced by natural bonding, reject the standard guidelines of the society and adhere to their own code of morality and ethics to remain together. This romantic value governs the core of the story. However, the director rooted the romance of the film in the realist social sphere and never allowed the wishes or euphoria of the characters to dominate the living conditions. The village or the urban slum are not the choices for the characters but are overarching conditions under which each one has to operate. The characters do have the capacity to dream in order to change the conditions; however such dreamers win only in the fictions. More often, it is the oppressive social conditions that will have the last laugh in such battles. Sairat, represent the cruel part of our ordinary life where we are just the tools in the hands of powerful external forces.

Feminist hero and new Dalit self

The idea of a mainstream hero lies with his/her capacity to get entangled in difficult crises in order to resolve them for a greater good. A positive fiction is ingrained with this method. A normal everyday life of the protagonist meets crises only to get resolved by his/her heroic efforts at the end. He/she is not a mere commoner but holds an unconventional character thus differentiating oneself from the crowd. The crises entered in his/her life only to check his/her capacities as a ‘capable person’ which he/she proves by killing the villain or by winning the heart of his/her love interest or by saving the nation from a grand terrorist attack. Without a good end, the story of a vigilante hero is half told or incomplete.

The Hero in the mainstream cinema represents similar characteristics, more often with the male counterpart. Sairat promises at the beginning that Parshya is not a commoner but a confident person who can swell easily against the odds. He enters in the field when his team is about to lose the cricket match but his heroic batting makes his team a winner of the tournament. Second, his wretched social and class conditions do not deter him from becoming a good student. Finally, he decides to fall in love with Achie, knowingly well that the social norms will never allow such accident to take place. Thus, the director prepared a dynamic space in which the Hero can enter and can raise his sword to battle the villains in the most heroic way. A good fiction would have allowed Parshya a heroic macho substance to display, however the director decided not to fictionalize the male character to that extent and kept him under a realistic surveillance.

From the very beginning of the film, the female character takes a dynamic lead and gives the story a feminist-heroic tilt. Her courage and power is more male-like, vocal and aggressive than Parshya and his two friends. Her heroic posturing and confident outlook make her the lead hero of the film while pushing others to the periphery as dependent characters. The director allows Archie’s character to break the stereotypes of a village girl but on the other hand asserts the power of her feudal-upper caste lineage. However, similar considerations are partially applied to her counterpart Dalit characters.

Waiting for a Dalit hero

Sairat is not merely an attempt to challenge the dominant methods of the mainstream cinema in presenting a love story but in its core lies the refusal to wear and respect the social attire and cultural values. In the majority of the films, the hero represents the name, habits and cultural values of the upper caste male. When such hero beats the villain or resolves the crises, he does not hamper the societal foundations but keeps the male upper caste authority intact and functional. However, if you replace the social status of the hero with a Dalit or female identity, it challenges everything fundamentally. By giving voice to a Dalit and feminist character, Nagraj challenges the core values by which a mainstream narrative is constructed. However as a critical supplement, I will argue that Sairat does reflect a subtle fear of the Dalit voice and therefore portrayed its radicalism under the guise of upper caste feminist hero.

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