Sairaat doesn’t focus only on caste identity, but an intersection of identities
Months before the release of the film Sairaat, the Director of the film Nagraj Manjule had said, in an interview to The Hindu, “Love is such a simple thing but it has turned complicated in these times. It has become difficult to find love, to love somebody,” hinting that the film is about the difficulties in/ of love. And when asked if caste is present in the film, like it did in Fandry, Nagraj Manjule had said, “Caste is the foundation of our society, discrimination is in the air we breathe. These are our realities,” hinting that caste plays a role in the film, before saying, “I didn’t include them deliberately but could not have avoided them either.”
Sairaat, to simply put it, is a love story between Archie (Archana Patil), an upper class upper caste girl and Parshya (Prashanth Kale) a lower class lower caste boy.
Love between the two blossoms in their village, Bittergaon, and especially their village school, which is administered by the political family of Archie. It blossoms despite the hesitant, timid nature of Parshya and quite a strong, turning arrogant at times, personality of Archie. Their love for each other is spotted by Archie’s father and is met with the disapproval of Archie’s family. The politically influential upper caste family not just beat up Parshya but also make sure, by threatening him and his family, he does not continue to live in the same village. Archie’s family try to get her married to another boy but she elopes from home and then with Parshya.
Two of Parshya’s friends accompany the couple till the four are tracked down by the police and a false case is booked against Parshya his father and his two friends. On realizing the false case Archie rebels, at the police station, making sure Parshya and his people are freed. But on her way back home she sees that though freed by the police, goons hired by her father beat up Parshya and his friends. She runs to the rescue of Parshya and following some fight and firing the couple run away to Hyderabad.
Once Archie and Parshya reach Hyderabad they have to face the problem of shelter. A dosacart lady, Suman, who happens to be a Maharashtrian, shelters them in their slum. Archie faces problem in adjusting to the slum life and in living without privileges. Plus, Archie also starts missing her family. The Marathi lady also helps the two get a work to sustain themselves. Slowly the man inside Parshya awakes in the form of insecurity and suspicion about Archie’s loyalty towards him. Following it the two get separated for a while to realize it is impossible to live without each other. On this realization the two get married and also have a kid. They both get better jobs too.
While all these things are happening in Hyderabad, in Bittergaon, Parshya’s family is made to leave the village, Archie’s father looses face in his political party and Parshya’s father is struggling to get Parshya’s sister married.
When the child of Archie and Parshya- Aakaash- is a year or two old, the couple goes and books an apartment which indicates their life gaining equilibrium, after all these years and all these struggles. At this stage Archie’s family members visit Archie and Parshya, with sweets, dress and ornaments sent by Archie’s mother for Archie, Parshya and Aakash.
Aakash at that point of time has been taken to the market by a neighboring lady. When Aakash returns, with the neighbor, we see through the eyes of the year old child we see Archie and Parshya having been slaughtered to death in their very house. Aakash runs out of the house crying, leaving behind footprints of blood.
What on the outset looks like the popular Romeo-Juliet trope reminding cine-buffs of Alaipaayuthey, Kaadhal, Qayaamat Sey Qayaamat Tak etc. in its heart is not just a love story modeled in the same mold.
The shyness of Parshya and the confidence of Archie, at times turning into arrogance, doesn’t stop love from flowering. The affection they feel for each other sails them through. The economic disability of Parshya is not allowed to become a hurdle. With the help of a friend’s phone the two build on the essential intimacy. The violence of political-police nexus in a semi-feudal set up is answered by the use of counter-violence and thus love is taken to another coast. The couple with the help of a Suman, who earlier had eloped with her lover, finds shelter in the urban space after the two find it impossible to find a roof without the required ID proof. Archie manages to adjust to the new setting- unclean toilets, cooking etc- for love. The two also find job and thus achieve the economic independence. The suspicion of Parshya, at one point, stemming from insecurity and immaturity which is aggravated by technology, also gets resolved. All the hurdles are crossed.
When Nagraj Manjule says it is difficult to find love and to and to love somebody, probably, these are the kind of difficulties he is mentioning of. But none of these difficulties kill the couple nor kills their love for each other. These difficulties when crossed just enhance the love the two have for each other.
The class difference, economics, the cruelty of urban space, feudal set up, political-police nexus, linguistic barrier, omnipresent gaze of the society causing humiliation, inability to adjust to a new setting, letting comforts go off, suspicion and insecurity; which, though not correct, is quite natural to humans, misunderstanding triggered by technology etc., all problems get resolved and the two get evolved.
Yet in the end they can’t survive caste. Caste kills them.
Caste kills them when the two have come far away from the village and have travelled much in time and after a lot of water has flowed in the river. Even after those long years the ghost of caste is still angry and blood thirsty!
The film is not just about the will of the heart to celebrate love and live it but also the will of the caste system to ensure that love doesn’t flower. It is about loving passionately and hating dispassionately.
The cane fields which is responding to the beauty of love during the initiation of love and also helps the lovers and friends to hide is turned into a trap by the caste mentality which sets fire to the cane fields. The birds which dance in unison and in rhythm cry and lose their rhythm when caste tries to separate the lovers.
In spite of the support of friends in the rural space and strangers in the urban space and the participation of entire nature in love’s breathing, love can’t escape the violence of caste. To that extent the poison of caste is stronger than the coming together of hearts which is supported by friendship, camaraderie and nature too.
Caste like it is in our daily lives is almost invisible yet omnipresent in Sairaat.
In the title song sairaat zhaala jiwe see Archie coming out of temple and finding roses being placed on her footwear. She knows it has been placed by Parshya and looks around for him. She spots Parshya sitting quite far and Parshya when sees Archie looking in his direction bends and enacts like touching her feet.
What looks like a simple innocent expression of love here has a strong undercurrent of caste. Parshya, who earlier has gone and jumped into the well to catch a glimpse of Archie in spite of knowing he will be kicked out, does not enter the temple while Archie does.
But it is not just that because we see Parshya’s expression of love, being similar to the expression of devotion by upper caste. We see how hierarchy works and those on the lower ranks imbibe upper caste ways and methods.
Mangya, cousin of Archie, who is said to be a street bully, is dominated by Parshya and others on the sports field and even in other mundane things. Parshya and others are shown as much stronger people in terms of their personality and also in their game. But when Mangya comes to beat up Parshya all he does and his friends do is to stop Mangya, when it wouldn’t have been difficult for them to beat Mangya up together. What stops them? What makes all others in the school premises just be a silent spectator? Why is it that only Archie can stop him?
Parshya and his friends know that to assault Mohit Patil alias Mangya means to invite trouble because he belongs to an upper caste. Let us not forget that he is not taken seriously by Archie’s extended family for Parshya to fear his political connections. It is purely caste which is making Parshya and his friends stop from attacking Mangya even as self defense since the consequences of beating up an upper caste boy can cost them a lot.
When Archie comes on a tractor near Parshya’s house his mother is taken aback when Archie asks for water. When Mangya comes to meet Parshya in Karmala the granny there asks Salya to ask if he (Mangya) wants water and Salya says, “He is a Patil,” indicating he might not take water given by them. Archie’s friend Aani, who is also on the tractor, refuses to drink water at Parshya’s house. In a passing moment when Archie, in the song sairaat zhaala ji, goes to Parshya’s mother’s fish fry shop, her friend Aani who is in the corner of the frame is shown to be closing her nose and squeezing her face in disgust.
Archie’s confidence, inclusive of arrogance, comes partially because of her caste. It is that which gives her the courage to pick a fight with the police in the police station. And that was the reason for her to be unshaken when the police spot them at the bus stop. In contrast to her unshaken behavior is the reaction of the boys on seeing the police, scared and nervous. Their response is coloured by their caste identity!
When Archie and Parshya run away the family of Parshya has to leave the village and it becomes difficult to find a groom for Parshya’s sister. On the other hand Archie’s father looses face in the party and sidelined. These are direct consequences of Parshya and Archie’s inter-caste love and eloping.
Interestingly while showing both parents as victims of society’s caste consciousness which makes them also pay for the transgression of their children Nagraj Manjule shows that it is not the same for people from different stratum in the caste hierarchy. While Archie’s father expresses his anger by pulling down and breaking the photos of Archie, Parshya’s father expresses his disappointment and anger by slapping himself.
Parshya’s father falling at Prince’s (Archie’s brother) feet and later slapping Parshya, even when he is already wounded because of Prince’s beating, for “messing up with the upper caste people,” also underline how caste operates.
Caste is not just an inhumane force, in Sairaat, which kills love and attacks innocents. It is also a force which makes the victims blame themselves for the attack on them and see themselves as undignified beings.
Equally important is Sairaat saying that caste is a dehumanizing force. Lokhande, the teacher who has been humiliated by the caste people turns insensitive and is seeking revenge, even if it is through another person from his caste!
All of this happens in a space where boys and girls of all caste swim in the same well, go to the same school, which can come across as a symbol of caste being non-existent!
Caste in the world of Sairaat is not just impacting the lower caste. We see caste dehumanizing even the upper caste people also.
The striking difference between Parshya’s sister, who is in favour of Archie and Parshya’s affair, and Archie’s brother Prince’s response to Archie-Parshya love story makes it clear that when smitten by caste one only turns inhumane.
Similarly when Parshay’s friends dance with him in his romantic high and otherwise (while train passes) Archie’s friends feel embarrassed when she dances and refuse to join her in the dance. The upper caste codes do not let the upper caste to live freely, express freely thus tightening the noose around their neck, adding pressure of social grace on them.
But here it is not just caste operating but also gender.
Though caste is the main undercurrent, Sairaat doesn’t focus only on caste identity. The writer director knows that individuals are an intersection of identities.
It is not just in friends of Parshya and Archie, we see it also when Archie who overpowers her brother Prince when he questions her about the bike, the same Archie who brushes aside her mother’s suggestion to cut short her talks with friends loses her strength and power when she is spotted with Parshya.
We see Salya’s religious identity forming a connection with Shahid in a different town and we also see the Marathi linguistic identity becoming the reason for bonding between the Suman aunty and Archie-Parshya.
Interestingly the religious identity does not become a shelter or a shield for lovers but linguistic identity does, in Sairaat, which is probably because language is more natural to human society formation than religion and caste.
But still the linguistic identity can cause friction and a kind of rupture which we see when Archie is watching Television, a Marathi channel, at Suman aunty’s house and the boy changing it to Telugu channel. A similar thing happens in the end when Archie’s relatives come to their house. When they switch on the TV what they see is a Telugu channel playing, indicating the house members were watching it before switching it off. The relatives immediately change the channel to watch DD-Sahyadri, a Marathi channel.
In the rural space Archie who orders boys to get out of the well and who just through gesture asks her teacher to mind his business is a very strong person while Parshya, in the rural space is quite a weak and vulnerable character, though good at sports and academics.
In the urban space Archie becomes vulnerable and Parshya’s caste and class makes it a bit easy for him to adjust to the urban space. While Parshya can easily drink the water from the drum Archie needs mineral water. While Parshya can cook Archie has to learn. While Parshya doesn’t find the toilet and bath facilities in the slum problematic for Archie it takes time to get accustomed to them and also the dust and bad odor in the air. The English flaunting Archie goes almost silent when met with the roughness and toughness of an urban life, a slum life devoid of privileges.
Both rural and urban space has its own strengths and limitations in the world of Sairaat each strengthening and dis-empowering its characters in various ways. While rural space pins them to their identity (Parshya’s maternal uncle spotting him in the bus-stand) the urban space gives them a certain kind of anonymity, making living a bit easy. But the same urban space steals away from them the luxuries and comforts of life. The urban space though has different codes, the codes like asking ID proof for staying in lodges, are equally anti-love and humiliating.
These spaces hold within themselves the strength to nurture and also kill, like the cane fields which helps them hide can turn into a trap and technology which makes the two connect also sows the seeds of disconnect. To say every character, human, space, nature, technology, is round in nature holding opposite energies within itself and hence lively adding life and also posing challenges but never killing.
The only flat characters in the film are those high on sperm (boys in Hyderabad), those high on power and those high on caste. Not surprisingly all the three; caste, sperm and power are interconnected. It is these forces, specifically caste, which poses only killing powers and also kills.
Caste is omnipresent and is what drives the story to its end to make it an anti-caste film. But interestingly the protagonists of the film; Archie and Parshya, are not anti caste. They have not waged a war against caste system; annihilating caste is not their concern or preoccupation at all. They are just in love and their fight is for their right to love. But unknowingly and unconsciously their love breaks the caste barrier.
This shows the intolerance of caste towards anything which bends the system even if by an inch. One need not challenge the caste system and wage a war against the entire system or pledge to annihilate the caste system. Just breaking it, even if unknowingly, is enough for the caste system to take offence and punish one for the transgression or even wage a war against those who cause a crack in the system.
Caste punishes even if you fall into the same system after bending the system slightly. Archie, at the time when she is assassinated, is more domestic like an upper caste lady; she puts rangoli in front of the house which is quite an upper caste practice. Yet, the transgression which shook the system by an inch will not be tolerated by the caste system. It will punish without hesitation.
The cosmos that Nagraj Manjule creates in Sairaat is full of life in various colurs and various shades. The barren trees, the flock of birds dancing in the wind, crippled humans, minorities (Muslim), Lilliput (though just passing by the road while Archie dances) all find a natural place and have a respectable place too.
Details like these enrich Sairaat throughout.
The college Principal who should be taking action against Prince for slapping a teacher dances in the birthday party of Prince, Archie’s house is named Archana but the name written on the house is removed when she elopes, when Archie fights in the police station and later when Archie and Parshya fight on the streets of Hyderabad there is an omnipresent gaze of a strangers, the influence of urban/ corporate world on the rural world and the latter’s desire to imitate the earlier in form of having Bittergaon Premier League on the lines of Indian Premier League, the impact of Urban sense of fashion and beauty making way in to the rural dream (Alia Bhat’s dress) are some details in passing which not just enrich the film but also add to the larger theme of the film.
Other interesting details that Nagraj Manjule knits into his narrative are the ways in which Archie gets emotional about having left her family behind, which in a way could be a certain kind of guilt which one develops because of conditioning. She giving blank calls to her house and later asking about her father to her mother and her brother are reflections of the love she has for home and father and also her inability to leave them behind and not to miss a kind of guilt which she tries to cleanse by speaking good about her father to a colleague of hers, though it is because of her father that she had to elope in order to save the life of her lover and her love.
While Archie realizes her powerlessness in the urban space slowly she kind of regains her power when she starts working and becomes economically independent. We see her restoring her power when in the end she is seen riding a scooter again.
But then something has changed. She, while driving back home, along with Parshya sees couple being beaten up by the Hindutva goons and the police, a reference to innumerable immoral attacks and operation majnu, which is similar to the way in which Parshya and his friends were being beaten up after being released from the jail. Back then she had risked her life to save Parshya but now though she and Parshya both are shaken by the attack they witness, do not intervene. Struggles of life can bring a certain kind of fatigue.
Such details uplift the film making the narrative have a worldview and not just ideology.
Though caste seems to be so prevalent, Sairaat is a love story. In a broader sense we can understand Love as the protagonist of Sairaat and caste as the antagonist.
Love, in Sairaat, is innocent which includes silliness of sending letters through a child and mentioning about letters- letter writing being taught in class, kings using letter as a medium of communication- while Archie is around. To love, Sairaat says, is to have the liberty to be silly.
In the title track Parshya is seen holding a stone to guard himself from the Holi colour. But when he sees Archie passing by he throws the stone away. Archie throws colour at him and his friends follow it up with more colors. Now it is Parshya’s turn to coloir Archie and he does. To love, in Sairaat, is let go off all guard and become playful.
Parshya throwing away the stone is similar to Pradeep throwing away the ghutka when Archie asks if Parshya eats ghutka. Love, Sairaat says, is a humanizing process. It makes Prashya call his friend Pradeep by his name on Archie’s insistence after years of calling and referring to him as a cripple.
Archie, when they elope to Hyderabad and start living together, slowly learns to cook. The girl who did not know the rates of vegetables in the end is discussing with her mother about savings and buying a new apartment. Love, Sairaat says, is about being in tune with the mundane and dailiness of life.
When Archie leaves Parshya and takes a train Suman tells Parshya that she too had eloped for love’s sake and that her husband abandoned her when she was three month pregnant. With this parallel track Sairaat says love is about taking up responsibility and growing up to being a responsible person and attaining a maturity level which can sustain life.
When all the class students in the playground are doing exercise Archie and Parshya miss the steps purposefully and do their own steps. Love, Sairaat says, is about finding your own rhythm in the crowd. It is to find your own self and your own tune and your own steps!
In constructing his narrative Nagraj Manjule subverts quite a few stereotypes. His subversion begins with the way he constructs his central characters Archie and Parshya.
Archie is not the stereotypical heroine but a very strong girl who orders boys of her age to get out of the well and it is the courageous she who plans eloping and executes it. She makes the police release Parshya and his friends and also saves their lives later by taking gun in her hand.
On the other hand we see that it is Parshya who is blushing, as Archie stares at him in the class and runs away from the classroom. In the end when the two are going back home after booking an apartment we see Parshya taking care of the child while Archie is driving the scooter.
The beauty of Sairaat, to me, in the end, is the way Nagraj Manjule carries a large portion of the film in such a ‘normal’ way. Archie, while playing khoko, sees Parshya staring at her and goes on to question him why he is looking at her. But in the same conversation she says she doesn’t mind being watched. The scene which is the first hint about Archie’s love for Parshya is presented without any underlining in a matter of fact way. Archie in the cane field saying she loves Parshya too is presented like a matter of fact.
There is so much dailiness to everything in the film (falling in love, crossing all sorts of hurdle for the sake of love and in the process of being with the beloved) that in the end we are forced to ask as to what is the ‘motivation’ for the violence? In normalizing love and the struggles of love Nagraj Manjule makes the audience think what is the ’cause’ for the violence in the end of the film.
The answer is not in the film, actually. It is outside the film from where the film emerges. The answer is within us. In more than one ways, we are also a part of the ’cause’.
The effect of it is not just a cold-blooded murder of love, through the murder of lovers, but also a new life being orphaned and being orphaned in a way that every step of his will be coloured with the blood of love’s assassination.