Nagraj Manjule grew up as a Dalit, an untouchable, scorned by a caste system that he says never lets you forget how low you are. The short-film director channeled the shame and the ridicule of his childhood into his first feature film, “Fandry” (“Pig”) which won the Jury Grand Prize at the Mumbai Film Festival last month.
The movie is about a Dalit schoolboy named Jabya (Somnath Awghade) who lives on the outskirts of a village and struggles against the caste system by daring to dream, and eventually rebelling against the perpetrators of that system.
He harbours a crush on a fair-skinned, Brahmin class-mate, dreams of buying fancy new blue jeans, and uses talcum powder to try to make his dusky face fair. Through scenes with his father, his best friend and the village maverick who becomes friends with Jabya, Manjule tells the audience that little has changed. The powerful climax gives the audience a glimpse into Jabya’s insecurities, his reluctance to accept his identity, before he finally snaps, retaliating against those ridiculing him and his family.
“You are constantly told you are no good, and never will be. In some way or the other, there is so much humiliation, that after a while you begin to believe that what is being said about you is true,” Manjule said in an interview.
His childhood was much like Jabya’s. One difference was his father, who, unlike Jabya’s somewhat tyrannical father, wanted him to study. Manjule devoured books, reading Marathi and English literature whenever he got a chance. His ticket to a better life came when he left his village to study Marathi literature at the University of Pune.
“But that resentment stays with you, for a while, and you don’t know whom to blame. At some point, I think I realized that no matter how I looked or behaved, I would never be able to deny who I was, and nor would I be allowed to forget it,” said Manjule, who spoke in Hindi and Marathi throughout the interview. “Earlier, I would try to speak English, but then I realized it didn’t matter. Now, I just tell everyone, I don’t understand English. I have stopped trying to live up to what I thought I should be.”
“Fandry” reflects many of the problems of the caste system, which began as a way to classify people by occupation, and became a vehicle for discrimination and abuse of lower classes and Dalits, the untouchables who are considered to be outside the caste system.
Jabya’s family lives on the outskirts of the village, and is allowed to do only menial work, such as catching and killing rabid pigs that infest the village. Being untouchables, they are the only ones allowed to touch the pigs, seen by Hindus as unhygienic and therefore, unholy. Higher-class villagers avoid any contact with the animals. If someone so much as brushes past a pig, that person must be purified with holy water. The rest of the villagers, despite the service that his family provides, treat them with contempt, calling them names, jeering at their profession and never allowing them to enter their homes.
“We think that it doesn’t exist among educated, urban Indians, but scratch the surface slightly, and you will see, that even in an innocuous question like ‘what’s your surname,’ the underlying questions about caste and race crop up,” he said.
Caste and race are touchy topics in India, where the system is banned. Despite that, evidence of it is widespread, from honour killings, in which families sometimes murder their children if they marry outside their caste, to assaults on Dalits for drawing water from the same well that other castes drink from. Caste also can play a role in buying a house and other financial decisions.
Manjule noted that many mainstream Indian films avoid the topic. Many Bollywood films in fact emphasize unity among Indians, regardless of religion or caste, even at the expense of reality. In popular film, characters are often shown to have vastly different backgrounds or different castes, and still manage to have a mostly unfettered life, something that would be unlikely in real life. Prakash Jha’s 2010 film “Aarakshan” showed Saif Ali Khan playing a Dalit professor who is in a relationship with a woman from a higher caste.
Traditionally, Bollywood films, which have the biggest reach, either show characters from the same economic and social strata falling in love, or pretend that those differences don’t exist at all, skipping prickly issues like caste, discrimination and social inequality altogether. Barring a few examples, film-makers don’t portray poverty, preferring either to romanticise it or creating characters that belong to prosperous families.
“Indians don’t need to see poverty on screen – they see enough of it in their daily lives,” Bollywood director Madhur Bhandarkar said a few years ago. But Manjule disagrees.
“I find it hard to believe that our films are always about Sharma’s and Kapoors. Why are we always talking about the affluent classes? “ Manjule said.
“Fandry”, which has been chosen in the competition section at the International Film Festival of India, likely will debut in theatres in early 2014.