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Sunday, July 22, 2018

The truth about forever

Everyone is in love with Archie. A Sairat marriage group has sprung up to help brave lovers. How a Marathi film has crossed over from the reel to the real in rural Maharashtra.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza | Updated: June 5, 2016 1:10:22 am


Archie: Oye, nigh baher! (Oye, get out!)
Parshya: Sorry sorry
Archie: Sorry sorry, cha ladkya. Nigh baher! (Sorry, sorry, my foot. Get out!)
Parshya: Mala mahitach navhta. Baghitlach nahi me. (I didn’t know. I didn’t see you all.)
Archie: Ata baghitla na? Nigh baher (Now you have seen us, right? Get out now)

About 190 km away in Karmala, the village in Maharashtra’s Solapur district where this now-popular scene from Sairat was shot, a bunch of boys is busy acting out the exchange. Ganesh Kamble has placed himself a few steps below Bajrang Santosh Veer, who is playing the part of Archie. When he walks past Veer, their friends who are sitting at the edge of the well, capturing the exchange on their mobile phone, crack up. “I’ve watched the film four times,” says Veer. Along with his dozen-odd friends, the 24-year-old resident of Barshi village, 60 km away from Karmala, to see the well and shoot the video, one of the many crowding the internet since Sairat’s release on April 29.

The water in the well has nearly dried up, but for the 30-odd visitors from various parts of Maharashtra who have driven down to see and click selfies against the vihir where Parshya and Archie, the film’s lead, have their first, and not so loving, exchange, it does not matter. Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, which means “frenzy”, has emerged as the biggest Marathi blockbuster, collecting over Rs 75 crore in five weeks, a massive figure for a regional film with new faces and a release limited chiefly to one state. This, many theatre owners, such as Digvijay Talkies’ Arun Tukaram Kandle will tell you, could have been much higher had the censor copy of the film not leaked out. “The film released in the season of jathras and yatras in Maharashtra. The leaked copy ended up being screened in many villages on LCD projector screens,” says Kandle, who had to run midnight and 3 am shows of the film to meet the demand in the first two weeks of its release.

Chandrakant Sutar, a carpenter from Rahimatpur, has been a regular at the 9 pm show. In fact, he watched the film each day since its release. “I come for two reasons: to dance to the songs and for Archie,” he says, admitting that his family gave up after attempting to dissuade him from spending Rs 40 every day from his income of Rs 400.

But Sutar will find company, and rivals, in grown men across Maharashtra who are openly and eagerly professing their love for 15-year-old Rinku Rajguru’s character Archana aka “Archie”. “She is feisty and bold,” says Veer. He believes Akash Thosar, who plays Prashant or “Parshya”, could have been replaced by anyone, “even me”. But, he also admits, it won’t be easy to “handle” a girl as quickwitted and “forward” as Archie. “She cannot cook, now how is that possible?” asks Veer.

It’s not just that the film is a realistic depiction of village life or rural romance. Its power is that it speaks to the lived experience of many more Archies and Parshyas.

Last month, on a whim, Vinayak Shankar Kadam decided it was time to return to Gajavdi in Satara, for the jathra in his village. It had been four years since he had eloped with and married Usha and settled in Navi Mumbai, to avoid her parents. While they were aware that Usha’s family was still unhappy, little did they expect to find themselves in a situation reminiscent of Sairat’s climax. “We arrived in Gajavdi on May 10. The next day, my husband was away with his friends. I was home with my in-laws when my father, uncle, mother, grandmother and a few others arrived at our doorstep, armed with a steel pipe and a sickle,” says Usha, her voice trailing off as her eyes well up. Vinayak’s father and uncle sustained injuries on their faces and head while protecting Usha, who was severely beaten up by her family. “They would have killed her had I not arrived in time,” says Vinayak, who managed to escape with Usha. Their two-year-old son was luckily taken away in time by Vinayak’s aunt.

Weeks after the release of Sairat, an inter-caste couple in Hadapsar, committed suicide on the railway tracks. The incident inspired a group of young people to come together to help couples who run away from home to marry but find no support system to back them. Formed a little over a month ago, Sairat Marriage Group (SMG) is an informal organisation with close to 100 volunteers across Maharashtra. The group chiefly operates through social media, asking couples to seek them out instead of taking any drastic step. Most of the volunteers, like 34-year-old Jagdish Sandanshiv, have a day job and pitch in with help as and when a “case” comes up. “We have been getting all sorts of calls. Recently, a Hindu-Muslim couple eloped and the parents of both the kids were after them. We have helped them go underground. When the matter cools off, we will have them married in court,” says Sandanshiv. The group has already helped five couples get married.

The role of SMG, however, doesn’t end once the couple is married. So, when Ambernath residents and college sweethearts Chhaya and Aakash Gotise eloped two weeks ago, they came to SMG only after they had formalised the wedding. “Chhaya’s upper caste family has political connections and we were worried. I was of the opinion that she and I go to her parents and tell them the truth but SMG advised us to take the legal route. We first went to the police station and submitted proof along with a letter stating that we are adults who have chosen to marry. The police then informed her parents. The advice worked in our favour,” says 25-year-old Aakash, a civil engineer.

Slain activist Dr Narendra Dabholkar’s organisation Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (ANiS) has a large network of members across the state who double as volunteers with their inter-caste and inter-religion marriage bureaus as well. “We have been running the bureaus for nearly 20 years now and have 310 such bureaus, with volunteers in almost every tehsil and taluka,” says Prashant Potdar, who oversees ANiS in Satara district.

Potdar accepts that Sairat’s release has encouraged couples to seek help, escalating the number of cases they receive. “In 2010, the Maharashtra government introduced a scheme wherein couples opting for inter-caste marriage are given Rs 50,000. Apart from this, the system does little to help them. Often, the police often sides with parents or turns the couple away saying it is a family matter,” he says. In the absence of any government organisation, backing or guidance, ANiS has worked out its own informal ways to deal with inter-caste and inter-religion couples.

When ANiS receives a distress call, they first ask the couple to come in for consultation. A trained volunteer meets the couple to understand if they are in the relationship with the same objective. “In most cases, we dissuade them from eloping immediately and ask them to wait for six months. It allows us time to see if they have the patience and to make arrangements for them, such as sourcing documents like birth certificate for the court marriage,” says Potdar.
A lot of cases fizzle out but the genuine ones are backed every step of the way. “It is crucial that one of the two in the couple is working because financial pressure can be immense, as we see in Sairat, too,” points out Dr Suresh Ankur Vyavahare of ANiS’s Solapur wing. If not, the organisation uses its network to help them get a job, find a place to stay on rent and even provide financial aid of a few thousand rupees the first few months. In most such cases, however, the couple is forced to stay underground from at least a month up to a year.

In many cases, the parents come around within a few months or after the couple have had a child. But often, the problem isn’t limited to the families alone. Sneha and Ganesh Kumbhar, born and brought up in Kumte village in Solapur district, were childhood sweethearts who eloped to get married. “We lived in Satara for a year before moving back to our village. Our parents, by then, had accepted the relationship. But the villagers and extended family, in particular, believed we had brought shame to them and they boycotted our families,” says Ganesh.

It was eventually Sneha who took a stand, reaching out to AniS, to stand up against the villagers. After initial talks with the panchayat failed, under guidance from Potdar and his team, she filed a police complaint under the caste atrocities act. “Ganesh would ask me to give the matter time but I just couldn’t watch my children being treated badly. They were never invited for birthday parties, if my daughter fell and hurt herself, no one would even look her way. I could not go on seeing the children being victimised like this,” says Sneha, breaking down. The two are aware that the truce is a forced one, but there’s been a difference. “My cousin and aunt may still not play with my children but, at least, they have begun to acknowledge their presence,” she says.

Not too far from the well in Karmala, in the backyard of the fortress in Devlali stands a two-pronged tree. It has recently become the centre of attraction as scores of visitors now climb it and pose for pictures in a redux of a romantic scene between Sairat’s dreamy-eyed couple.

The glee at the sight of the tree and the temple that feature in the film is unmistakable on Manisha Ajit Gaekwad’s face. A Kolhapur resident, she has travelled over 250 km with her seven-member family, to see the shoot locations. Gaekwad’s 22-year-old son admits he has watched Sairat five times. “For Archie. I love how she is fearless and quickwitted,” he says. Would he ever risk his all for someone like Archie? “I have friends from other castes and religions but one doesn’t need to look outside of community for such a romance,” he says, as he goes back to clicking selfies.

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