The Marathi Blockbuster 'Sairat' and Ambedkar's Idea of India

In challenging Brahmanical hegemony, and class and gender norms, Sairat reflects Ambedkar's vision of a just and egalitarian society.

Sairat  is a groundbreaking blockbuster Marathi movie that has become a success both critically and commercially. It has been praised for its handling of caste issues, but what has gone relatively unnoticed is how it dismantles the Brahmanical ideas that both define the Marathi film industry and hold it back.

The movie positions the issues of caste discrimination and caste-based violence centre stage, which have often been denied or overlooked by mainstream Marathi movies. It breaks away from the dominant Brahmanical perspective that even today defines the mainstream Marathi worldview.

These ‘Brahmanical ideas’ involve the juxtaposition of the lead roles—thus, one protagonist could be from the upper caste community, such as a Brahmin or a Maratha, while the other is shown as hailing from an ‘opposite’ community. The latter is generally portrayed as lower-caste, Muslim or an ‘outsider’ such as a Gujarati, Bihari or South Indian.

The best examples of this formula can be seen in recent musical hits like Lai Bhaari (2014) and Katyar Kaljat Ghusli (2015). These films are also notable for the proliferation of Brahmanical symbols of worship in them, such as gods and goddesses like the popular Vithal or Ambadevi – a representational choice that negates the existence of other faiths and beliefs in society and embodies a lack of effort to depict society as diverse.

Apart from these lacunae, Marathi movies in general – with a few exceptions – continue to narrate the lives of the people of Pune or Mumbai, with all the characters either migrating to these cities or residing in them. Historically, Puneri Marathi has been regarded, by the Brahmin minority in Pune that speaks it, and in popular opinion, as the pure form of Marathi, superior to other forms of the language.

Marathi theatre has been popular in these two cities for a long time, and it is only recently that it has begun to draw crowds in regions such as Marathwada and Vidarbha. So it is natural that the values of the film industry are those of actors and audience members coming from these dominant regions.

The success of movies like Mumbai-Pune-Mumbai (2010) shows that, even today, the two cities continue to dominate the imagination of the Marathi mind. One could say that Marathi movies have been portraying Saras Bagh, a public park located in Pune, as the only beautiful place to take a girl or boy on a date, or catching a crowded local train to find your loved one as the only act of adventure in one’s life. These are just two of several instances of everyday life in these two cities that these films regularly employ.

Sairat is not the first film to challenge this depiction of city life. Several new movies, especially post-2000, have made an effort to counter stereotyped representations and to bring the lives and issues of people in other parts of the state into the spotlight. However, what is interesting and significant about Sairat is how deeply and thoroughly it dissects the nature of Brahmanical hegemony.

Apart from the rest

When it was released, the movie raised the bar not just for mainstream Marathi but also other, Bollywood films, by breaking down the idea that blockbuster ‘masala’ movies cannot be socially conscious.

The movie was a great success, making around 12.50 crore rupees in just the first week – an astonishing earning for any Marathi movie that does not feature the industry’s popular lead actors. In fact, Sairat has now gone on to become the highest-grossing Marathi film ever. Its shows are still running in packed theatres in the state.

I have personally experienced the magic of Sairat by being among the audience in two different cities in Maharashtra – Pune and Chandrapur – with friends of entirely different age groups. In Pune, I attended the show at INOX at Bund Garden road and found that most people I talked to were at the multiplex for the first time. These people were from either nearby villages or the poorer neighbourhoods of Pune. This was evident from their astonishment at the high prices of snacks like popcorn, cake and samosas. Many of them argued with the vendors at the theatre over the unexpected prices they had to pay. When informed that these prices were normal for a multiplex cinema hall, some reacted by declaring that this was a complete swindle and expressing amazement at how anyone could afford such expensive food. Witnessing all this made me realise that the fame of the movie has outreach – even for those who, because of economic constraints, never enter the markedly expensive middle and upper-class sphere of the multiplex. For me, this experience turned out to be a joyful break from the upper middle-class milieu of the typical multiplex, where the audience usually considers maintaining silence and not reacting to anything a sign of intelligence and sophistication. That day I enjoyed every reaction of the people around me – from their whistling for Archu, to their appreciation for Parsha and their anger for Prince.

The actual achievement behind Sairat’s foot-tapping songs, and of its director Nagraj Manjule, goes much beyond that of any typical, commercial movie. Manjule, in a very subtle way, challenges the caste, class and gender consciousness of minds both young and old. He attempts to deliver Ambedkar’s ‘idea of India’ to the largely ignorant audiences of the country, as well as the world (the film was screened at the inaugural session of the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival in 2016). 

Ambedkar’s idea of India has been discussed and debated time and again among academics, social activists and politicians. It is, in simple terms, an idea of a society free of caste, class and gender biases, one that creates the conditions conducive to the individual being able to exercise his or her basic rights, such as the right to love and be loved by anyone at all.

The plot of the film follows a simple Romeo and Juliet framework. A lower-caste boy Parsha (Akash Thosar) falls in love with an upper-caste girl from a powerful Maratha family in the village, Archi (Rinku Rajguru). The film’s simple love story depicts the animosity that exists between the two castes and classes and the way that the young couple is denied the right to love, as can often be observed in Indian society.

But Manjule’s use of detail interestingly and effectively delivers the message of Ambedkar’s idea of India. For example, a fair-skinned actor represents the lower-caste Parsha, a dusky girl represents the upper-caste Archi and a short, dark actor represents another upper-caste male character – choices that challenge the specific caste-based color standards ingrained in the Indian mind. Identifying caste on the basis of skin color is so prevalent and naturalised a practice in Indian culture that there is a popular phrase, mostly heard in North India – “gora Dalit par aur kala Brahman par kabhi bharosa nahi rakhna chahiye” (“one should never trust a white-skinned Dalit or a black-skinned Brahmin”). A “white” Dalit is taken as wholly implausible or, at best, an accident or anomaly. Even though this skin colour-based conception of identity is clearly absurd (it is unnecessary to point out that a range of skin colour exists across caste groups, with absolutely no correspondence between the two), it has never been challenged strongly by the Marathi film industry or Bollywood. The best example is the movie Aakrosh (2010), directed by Priyadarshan, in which the dark-skinned Ajay Devgan plays a lower-caste police officer, while the pale Akshay Khanna plays an upper-caste officer. The truth is that the skin colour-caste alignment is maintained by the industry and is one manifestation of its Brahminical worldview.

A still from the official video of 'Zhala Ji' from Sairat. Credit: Youtube

A still from the official video of ‘Zhala Ji’ from Sairat. Credit: Youtube

Challenges to ‘stronger’ and ‘smarter’

Another admirable aspect of Sairat is its portrayal of its lead character Archi. Archi not only challenges dominant ideas of gender roles, but also presents strong solutions for the collective struggle of women (of upper castes and classes) and men (of lower castes and classes) against the dominance of upper-caste men.

Archi challenges established gender roles from the beginning of the film. On the first day of college, she enters campus riding a Royal Enfield Bullet, catching the eye of each and every person around her. This is followed by her asking Parsha to be her boyfriend.

Throughout the film, Archi takes on each challenge and fights back – including the time that she shoots at her cousins to protect herself and Parsha. It is evident that belonging to a wealthy upper-caste family plays a considerable role in her sense of agency and the choices she makes. However, her character embodies an idea – of a challenge to stereotypical gender roles and also an initiation of a collective struggle of society’s marginalised sections. Her character conveys the larger message of struggle and of the oppressed, which includes both marginalised men and women and upper-caste women, carving out their own world that is devoid of hierarchies and inequalities. This world is not simply economically prosperous but full of love, care and respect for every individual.

The third interesting aspect of the film is its exploration of ideas of intelligence. In the film, it is Parsha who is regarded as more intelligent than Archi, because he has scored 72% in his class 12 examinations while Archi has scored 52%. In fact, in the scene in which the students first introduce themselves to each other, Archi is impressed by Parsha’s high marks. It is clear that Archi’s attraction to him is partly rooted in his intelligence.

However, when it comes to real life, it is Archi who copes better than Parsha. In the second half of the film, when the couple runs away to Hyderabad and has to adjust to the new challenges of urban life, Archi learns the local language before Parsha, establishes a good social network among her colleagues and gains the position of Manager in her factory within a short time. The director rightly conveys that intelligence is not marked by one’s performance in Class 10 or 12 but is rather a quality that manifests over extended periods in one’s life.

In his directorial choices, Manjule also addresses the popular debate of merit, apart from challenging established norms. Through offering roles – in Sairat and also in his earlier movie Fandry (2013) – to new actors with no prior training and who are not aiming to become stars, Manjule has initiated a new practice in the industry and has challenged the established norm of kinship that exists at both the regional and national level.

The leading British-Irish stage actor Peter O’Toole says in the animated movie Ratatouille (2007), while giving voice to the character Anton Ego, a restaurant critic: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

The idea that ‘a great artist can come from anywhere’ is what is behind Ambedkar’s belief in state-sponsored affirmative action. Intelligence does not belong to one particular caste, community or gender. The state needs to provide and protect the conditions that nurture the intelligence and talents of individuals.

Through his film, Manjule is engaging with Ambedkar’s core idea of creating the equal opportunities that allow individuals to compete and prove themselves in society. He is engaging at a personal level with Ambedkar’s idea that one particular caste or community cannot manipulate merit to its advantage. All of us, as individuals in society, need to contribute towards creating conditions that nurture, and not destroy, new talent.

Suhas Bhasme is a post-doc fellow at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.