I watched Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat (2016) almost eight months after its release. Simply put, I was not prepared for what Manjule and his team offered. Set in rural Maharashtra, Sairat is a beautiful, honest, touching, and gritty love story of a Dalit boy, Parshya, and a Maratha girl, Archi. The film’s narrative honours their love to its tragic and gruesome end. To describe it as a story of inter-caste love that ends brutally would be to do grave injustice to Manjule’s portrayal of a slice of contemporary India.
Sairat is a Marathi expression for wild. From the beginning of the film there is a hint of the elemental that haunts the viewer. Even in the most beautiful and endearing moments of the film, Manjule never lets go of an unspoken sense of dread. His rural India has a completely different feel than any Indian village we have encountered on-screen. Sairat is no Ankur or Manthan. Nor is it Sadgati or Elipathayam.
There is no left-wing, romantic, emancipatory reformism here; instead what is let loose on this landscape of contemporary India is a certain kind of wildness, a metaphor for the demise of the rule of law.
More recently, Peepli Live portrayed the region that is proximate to the one depicted by Manjule. But the villages of Karmala and Bittarganv that are shown in Sairat are not stricken by drought. They are lush and verdant. At the same time, the rural lives here never let us forget that we are situated in liberalising India. Here, despite stark economic divisions the young couple can chat idly with cheap talk time. Archi goes to college on an Enfield motorcycle with her girl friend riding pillion behind her. This is what we would like for the country to look like: Free interaction of people across caste and class lines, young women speaking their mind without the wiles of a Bollywood romcom heroine. Yet, despite all this and the beautiful location shots in abandoned monuments in the Solapur region, it is impossible to settle into the rhythm of Parshya and Archi’s love affair. Without dispensing a single word about what is to come, Manjule keeps the viewer in taut anticipation as the narrative surges ahead.
The foreboding that something fatal is about to take place comes to pass in what begins as a routine scene in the college. A professor delivering a lecture on Dalit poetry is forced to pause because one student is speaking loudly into his cellphone. When questioned about his action by the professor, the student slaps him on the face before announcing nonchalantly that he is Prince. The narrative’s pace accelerates from this point as we learn that Prince is Archi’s brother, the couple is caught and beaten up by the politician father and his goon squad, the couple and their friends make a run. Eventually Parshya and Archi escape from the village, but the whole time they run you cannot help feel that there is no place for a couple more lonely and inhospitable than India.
I don’t know why Manjule has the couple take a train to Hyderabad. Was this a way of memorialising the fate of other Dalits in that city in 2016? Whatever it is, their settling down in the city lulls the viewer momentarily into thinking that all may, after all, turn out to be well. They live like any other unmarked citizen subjects in a progressive, fast moving, modern society where toil and honesty bring peace and prosperity. Or so you think until you realise that the memory of the family always haunts the figure of the citizen.
I did some reading on the internet and learned that the film was a box office hit in Maharashtra, that it had raised the hackles of some Maratha outfits, and that a well-known Bollywood director has now bought the Hindi rights to the film. But what I have been wondering without any good answer is what Sairat represents? I would like to think of it as a new beginning for India cinema from which many will draw inspiration to give life to a new Dalit aesthetic and rage on the Indian silver screen. For now, however, what is accomplishes is a vivid portrayal of an image of a wild, uncontrollable India that can nonetheless be rendered on screen and therefore made visible and thus