Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Cast the last stone: on Nagraj Manjule’s brilliant Fandry

The black sparrow. The trapped piglet. The makeshift kerosene lamp. The pair of jeans. The carrom board. The talcum powder. The broken bicycle. The village school with a painting of Ambedkar adorning its wall. The girl viewed from a distance. The sensitive boy, afraid of being mocked. The stones.

These are some of the constituent elements of the Marathi film Fandry, written and directed by Nagraj Manjule. By themselves they mean little, but their use here – how they accrue, deepen, add layers to our understanding of the central character – makes this one of the most powerful films I have seen in the past year. Fandry is about a Big Subject, the evils of the caste system, but it doesn’t achieve its ends through lecture-baazi: it observes, focuses on minutiae and lets us into the lives and emotional states of its characters until the horror of a situation hits home. The protagonist, a boy named Jabya (Somnath Avghade), is written and performed with careful attention to detail, and so is everyone else in the film: Jabya’s family and friends; the scornful (or wary) upper-caste people in the village; the girl, Shalu, whom Jabya watches shyly, like a version of Gatsby staring at the green light. Even the black pigs – which have become a local menace and are considered so filthy that a student must go home from school because she accidentally brushed against one of them – are an organic part of this setting, though their symbolic function seems obvious when you think about it (this is very much a story about the dangers of being contaminated through touch).
 

Through a series of languid, slice-of-life scenes, we learn things in increments. The way Jabya uses his proper name (the imperial-sounding “Jambawant”) while signing a love letter to Shalu. How traumatised he is at the thought of having to join his family in catching pigs just outside the school, where his classmates might see him. His relationship with a man named Chanakya (played by Nagraj Manjule himself), who could be an oddball living on society's fringes, or a savant who wants the boy to continue dreaming and hoping**. Or a marvelous little throwaway moment where we realise (though we really should have known if we had stopped to think about it) that Jabya’s father cannot read. At intervals, Jabya and a friend try to catch an unusual bird that lives around a tree in the wilderness just outside the village. They speak of the “need” to catch it and wonder if what they have heard about it is true. It isn’t until more than halfway through the film that we learn why this bird is so important to Jabya, and when the revelation comes it isn’t presented in big bold letters, it is simply dropped like a pebble in a lake – but the ripples travel a long way.

Throughout, there are reminders of the huge gulf between the fantasies and realities of the unprivileged, and they arrive just when you’re in danger of getting complacent as a viewer and thinking Jabya isn’t so badly off (at least he is getting to go to school, he has a good friend he spends time with, and this is a sweet coming-of-age tale after all). When a truck runs over the cycle he has been using to peddle ice lollies, the suddenness with which this quiet, dreamy-eyed boy is reduced to a wailing wreck comes like a bucket of cold water in the face, as does the shot of the mauled vehicle being carried aloft as if in a funeral procession.

Other brilliantly observed sequences include one where a boy’s family comes to see Jabya’s elder sister, and a pointed but non-abrasive conversation takes place about the dowry required – with shots of the groom’s side whispering to each other, and our knowledge of how much hinges on their decision. I also liked the short scene where the family talks to each other while cutting wood from trees – it seems homely and unremarkable until a man comes hollering at them from a distance and they scuttle off with the few pieces of wood they have stolen from his land. The film is getting us to know these people closely, to feel invested in their problems, but for a very brief instant we see them as this man does, as anonymous, nuisance-creating intruders. And this is done with economy and lightness of touch.

I know it seems like I’m just listing scenes, but then this is a film of vignettes, poetically woven together (and punctuated by a gentle music score that carries the slightest hint of menace – a hint that a dam inside Jabya, as he struggles so hard to maintain his dignity, might burst some day). It is only at the very end, with a Fourth Wall-demolishing final shot that an explicit statement about discrimination and injustice is made. And the biggest compliment I can pay Fandry is to say that in my view, even though that hard-hitting final shot is just the thing to get an audience applauding as the screen darkens, I don’t think this film really needed it. Everything that went before is so effective on its own terms.


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** Reading in a interview that Fandry was an autobiographical  story gave me a new perspective on the Chanakya character played by Manjule - though the character is very much part of the narrative, it also feels like the writer-director, in an act of wish-fulfillment, has cast himself as a sort of guardian angel looking over his own younger self.

14 comments:

  1. very soft on your touch on such an explosive subject just as the movie you go on to speak of !

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  2. Nice piece, although I didn't dig the film much. I found it too vague and square and thought that the climactic stretch ends up making a carousel out of the family's misery. One bit, perhaps the only one in the film, that did work for me was the sprinkling of "gomutra" (cow-urine) as a means of purification when someone accidentally touches a pig. Cow - pig. Prejudices. Upper caste - lower caste.
    A piece Manjule wrote for a Marathi newspaper really hit me hard though, conveying exactly what the film seemed to be trying to, albeit much more effectively. The English translation can be read here: http://moifightclub.wordpress.com/2014/03/01/dreams-dont-have-labels-of-caste-and-religion-nagraj-manjule-reminsces-about-his-life-and-fandry/

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    1. thanks for that link - very moving.

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  3. 'And the biggest compliment I can pay Fandry is to say that in my view, even though that hard-hitting final shot is just the thing to get an audience applauding as the screen darkens, I don’t think this film really needed it. Everything that went before is so effective on its own terms.' Agreed!

    Also you might want to check out other fantastic marathi films as well like Gabhricha Paus and Vihir, if you haven't already. High quality films both of them are.

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  4. Another scene which i loved was when Jabya is made to carry a lamp on his shoulder by his father in the mela. It moved me quite a bit.

    Have you checked out other marathi films like Vihir and Gabhricha Paus? I am sure you won't be disappointed.

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    1. Another scene which i loved was when Jabya is made to carry a lamp on his shoulder by his father in the mela.

      Yes, and his clear anguish at being turned into a "beast of burden".
      No, haven't seen those films yet, though have heard a lot about Vihir in particular. Will look out for them.

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  5. Reading in a interview that Fandry was an autobiographical story gave me a new perspective on the Chanakya character played by Manjule - though the character is very much part of the narrative, it also feels like the writer-director, in an act of wish-fulfillment, has cast himself as a sort of guardian angel looking over his own younger self.

    That's nicely put. But there's an added layer of real life-reel life mixing if you consider the fact that there was actually a Chanakya-like person Manjule knew in real life when he was a child. He has said so in an interview.
    Incidentally, I thought the shock-value of the ending worked quite well, forcing the viewer, as it does, to examine his/her own complicity in caste discrimination.
    Another fascinating aspect: Manjule told the person who plays Jabya's father (a respected Marathi actor) during the shooting that it was important that he didn't speak Marathi the 'correct' or 'proper' way (let's call it the Pune Brahmin style!) and that's worked wonderfully for the film. His halting, dialect-heavy Marathi is a masterclass in actor-handling.

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    1. forcing the viewer, as it does, to examine his/her own complicity in caste discrimination

      Yes, of course - that's why I said it broke the Fourth Wall. It IS very effective.

      Thanks for the info about the dialect.

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  6. Also notable imho were the upper class village men using Facebook in the chase and capture scene. Subtle social commentary there.

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    1. Yup. I have actually been thinking about doing a column sometime about the use of FB/other social media in films, especially in situations and settings where you wouldn't expect to see them.

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  7. Do you think there's any connect between 'chimni' and Jabya's love pursuit - in the dream he hunts it down and also gets the girl while the upper caste jaw drops.

    Also felt the final hard-hitting shot was more a kind of chastising the rest of us in society for being numb to his (and their) fate.

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    1. Also felt the final hard-hitting shot was more a kind of chastising the rest of us

      Vijay: yes, of course - have discussed that in one of the earlier comments. The whole point of that shot is to implicate the viewer.

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    2. And yes, the pursuit of the "chimni" is directly linked to his pursuit of Shalu - he believes she will be his if he can sprinkle the ashes on her.

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  8. I really liked the scene where they are desperate to get hold of the pig and national anthem plays in the nearby school. The boy stands still, followed by his father who is two minds about what he should do. And you think, what has this nation given them that they should respect it?

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