Monday, May 9, 2016

Sairat: Keeping it real

(Wrote this for the Lounge website a couple of days after Sairat released. A close reading of the film, so there are spoilers.)

In an interview with The Hindu, Nagraj Manjule spoke about the linguistic subtleties of the word “sairat”—Marathi for all-consuming passion or obsession, and the name of his new film. “The word can have both positive and negative connotations,” he said. “For you, it might imply freedom of thought, liberation and progressive ideas but to another person, it could mean sheer wildness and recklessness.”

Though Manjule’s films are built on progressive ideas, recklessness tends to have the upper hand in them. His first feature, 2013’s Fandry, was about a lower-caste boy infatuated with an upper-caste girl who goes to his school. In one wrenching scene, the boy and his family chase after a pig as the villagers gather around and make fun of them. The film ends with a stone hurled at the camera, the consequences of which are unspecified, but almost certainly dire. The warning was there for all to see: Manjule was unafraid of following his stories through to their logical, unhappy conclusion and hurling these conclusions at us, the audience.

Though Sairat is also about a lower-caste college-goer, Parshya, in love with an upper-caste girl, Archie, its initial stretch bears little resemblance to Manjule’s first film. Our first glimpse of Parshya—mid-leap, staring sideways at the camera, as if itching to break the fourth wall—encourages the idea that this is a commercial film, with all its attendant suspensions of disbelief, and not a bare bones indie like Fandry. Had Sairat ended with Parshya and Archie on the run, having escaped her politician father’s goons, it would have been a fairly standard, if uncommonly charming, film about how young love overcomes all obstacles. The first hour and a half is close to wish fulfilment—gutsy heroine, sweet-natured hero, selfless friends and enemies who can be outrun and outwitted.

But when Sairat returns after the break, it’s a very different film. If the earlier half was about the impracticality of passion, the latter half reminds us that for love to survive in the real world, practical considerations are of the utmost importance. In Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey, remade in Hindi as Saathiya, viewers were shown what happens when the excitement of new love is replaced by the real business of making a life together. Manjule’s film is even blunter, turning a commercial musical comedy, swooping camera movements and all, into a kitchen sink drama. Ajay-Atul’s buoyant music is replaced by silences that weigh heavy on the characters, and on us. Archie, so decisive in the village, becomes withdrawn, and the hitherto unsure Parshya takes charge. The film begins to ask questions we don’t want answers to, like whether Archie, who’s used to a comfortable life, will stick it out with her husband in a slum. There’s a huge fight, and though it’s eventually resolved, Parshya comes close to hanging himself. As the contrite lovers embraced, I noticed the very deliberate framing of the scene, with the noose hanging down beside them. It felt like a warning.

Looming in the back of my mind as I watched Sairat were memories of Ek Duuje Ke Liye and LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhoka, part of a small group of films that remind us how, nine times out of 10, tradition will snuff out free love in this country. I was also reminded of Michael Haneke’s unremittingly bleak Funny Games. Though Sairat may seem miles away from the cold brutality of that film, both derive their sting from the way they play with audience expectations—raising hopes, dashing them, then raising them again. After Parshya’s near-suicide, Manjule compresses the couple’s next few years into a montage. He finds work in an auto service shop, the factory she works at promotes her, they have a child together, and life seems impossibly happy. Impossibly.

Parshya and Archie’s toddler walks in on his unsteady bare feet and finds his parents lying on the floor, exhausted but happy. They hug him and say, you’re going to meet your grandfather. A couple of weeks later, they’re in Archie’s home in the village. Father and daughter have made up, and son-in-law has been accepted as part of the family. There’s a quick song, then end credits. And the audience gets up, says, phew, that was a close one, he almost killed himself.

This is the ending we’d want. But we know it isn’t the right one. There’s something wishful about a headline that reads “Eloping lovers welcomed back by parents”. “Inter-caste couple hacked to death by family” is far more realistic. What is truly shocking isn’t the way Sairat ends, but the idea that a film like Sairat could end this way. All those songs and dances, the bravado and hope, is revealed to be an elaborate smokescreen, a way to reel audiences in, to lull them into complacency. Then, just like that, Manjule snaps his fingers and says, wake up.

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