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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sairat - A bird and a fish may fall in love, but where will they build a home?

Bitargaon is like any other village in Maharashtra, the western-India province that has a long coastline along the Arabian Sea. Insular, hierarchical, and segregated along caste and class divide. The economy is agrarian, and has been for centuries.

What has changed in the last century is the rise of sugarcane. The cash crop has given rise to an omniscient sugar lobby that controls every aspect of people’s lives. Sugar economics is the lifeblood of Maharashtra’s hinterland, integrating it upwardly with the powerful political centres of the state. The population is a mix of all castes, no different than any other village in India.

It is a society where an accident of birth into a specific caste determines (even in the 21st century) one’s status. The Maratha caste – a middle caste – is predominant in these villages and also in the state, wielding unmatched political power. This is true for other provinces of India, too, where middle castes have seized political power through democratic means.  

Grassroots democracy has transformed these villages in a small but important ways. While hierarchies are enforced rigidly, there is enhanced social interaction between different castes. Cricket, popular cinema and satellite television bring everyone together albeit temporarily and help forge an identity that is pan-Indian in its outlook, even as it stays firmly local in its behaviour, habits and attitudes.

Even today, it is inconceivable in such a milieu that a girl and a boy from different caste would fall in love. It is impossible that if perchance they did, they would be allowed to live a life together. A bird and a fish may fall in love, but where will they build a home? 

In such a social setup, Nagraj Manjule's Sairat's Prashant (Parshya, Ajay Thosar), a young man from the Pardhi community, falls in love with the haughty daughter Archana (Archie, Rinku Rajguru) of the village’s Patil. The Patil, a Maratha chieftain, is directly linked to the sugar lobby, and is the richest man in the village. He has deep political links and strong political aspirations.

Such a love story will naturally be fraught with uncertainty and perennial tensions. Sairat (meaning: wild, passionate, frenzy; take your pick) is an unlikely love story set in a rigid caste structure that doesn’t have the patience for young lovers who are willing to risk everything just to be with each other forever.  

It is narrated in a simple and straightforward manner. The lower caste boy knows he has no hope in hell to do anything about his infatuation for the girl. Fortunately for him, the girl, raised to be independent by her family, more than reciprocates, and love blossoms.

Parshya is a regular guy who is good at his studies and great at cricket (known as the Dhoni of the village). He whiles away his time like any regular teenager with his friends Langadya (meaning: cripple) and Salya (Salim). Archie is an arrogant, self-confident young woman who has little qualms being assertive, thanks to the intangible power her caste status gives her; but she is innately earthy and a rustic trying hard to appear sophisticated.

The film narrates with charm and innocence the growing love between Parshya and Archie, but then they are discovered and have to face the wrath of Archie’s father. The Patil knows only two ways to deal with the situation – beat the boy and get his daughter married. 

The boy’s family, dismayed and unable to comprehend their son’s wanton transgression of the caste divide, just can’t take the pressure and leave the village. The boy and the girl don’t give in and elope – not to Pune or Mumbai, which are larger cities, but to Hyderabad, a city that is culturally better connected to southern Maharashtra and the Marathwada region.

Post-interval, the story picks up with the boy and the girl now living together in a sprawling Hyderabad slum, slowly but determinedly moving ahead with their life together, more assuredly after they overcome their initial discomfort of their new situation. 

After all the buildup, the audience’s expectation is belied unexpectedly and shockingly in a horrific dénouement.

Sairat is to date the highest grossing Marathi language film (having earned the Indian benchmark of US$15m at the box office). Released in April 2016 in India, it became a sensation for its songs (music Ajay-Atul) and the lead pair of first-time actors. 

The song Zingat has captured India’s soul (just as Why This Kolaveri Di had a few years ago). The frenzied lezim beat is mesmerising 

Sairat was screened at the 20th Reel Asian Film Festival in Toronto earlier this week to a near-full house comprising mostly non-South Asian audience.

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