There’s much in Sairat, Nagraj Manjule’s second movie, that is reminiscent of the director’s impressive debut, the 2014 Marathi film Fandry. Just like Fandry, Sairat is about a particular kind of yearning, a young man pining for the attention and love of his classmate. If Fandry’s hero, Jabya, went to school, then Sairat’s Parshya (Akash Thosar) is a first year student in college. Just like Jabya, Parshya, too, belongs to a lower caste. Just like Fandry, Sairat has a heroine who, besides being affluent, belongs to an upper caste. A few differences, however, set the two films apart. Unlike Shalu, Fandry’s female lead, Sairat’s Archana (Rinku Rajguru) doesn’t hold herself back; she’s frank and confident; she can hit on a guy; she can also drive an Enfield and a tractor. Unlike Fandry, where the hero’s love remained unrequited, Sairat makes its leads meet, fall in love, and elope.
Manjule, whose Fandry was one of the better Indian movies of 2014, has the ability to find the remarkable in mundane, beautiful in ordinary, and humour in squalor. Sairat is no different; however, this time, quite notably, just like his protagonist, Manjule allows himself to have some fun. When Parshya, on a boat in a lake, helping his father catch his daily quota of fish, hears that Archana is only a few meters away on the other end of the lake, he turns his head in slow motion. He then dives into the lake and swims towards the shore in — what else, but — slow motion. Love is magical, Manjule seems to be telling us, it can defeat the invincible; it can, for instance, slow down time. This scene is filmy, even formulaic, but when it comes from a director who can make the artsy compelling, it leaves you with a soft chuckle.
Or, for instance, the scene where Pradeep (who’s not called by his first name by his friends, but a “cripple”, a harmless joke referring to his physical inadequacy) picks up a piece of crumpled paper thrown by a girl, someone he’s been eyeing for the last few weeks, in the hope that it may contain a romantic message for him, is heartbroken to find that it contains her clipped nails. Pradeep is dejected but pragmatic. Why would an attractive girl fall for a cripple? He tries to reason. Just then, another crippled man passes by; Pradeep smiles at him, and says a polite hello. His rejection has made him accept himself, his disability. And then a few seconds later, we see Pradeep himself walking slowly in the frame, very hero-like, all by himself, his face not visible, only his back — his ambling devoid of grace but not dignity. Like Fandry, Sairat values its moments, lives in them.
But unlike Fandry, Sairat, especially in its first half that clocks around 100 minutes, does feel repetitive and drawn out. It’s refreshing to see Manjule film songs, which, composed by the famous musical duo of Marathi cinema, Ajay-Atul, are fairly engaging, but by the time we are on to the third and fourth song, they fail to add anything new, just like the film’s narrative that begins running around in circle after a point. Sairat has quite a few token plot points and scenes: the different stages of falling in love, the cat-and-mouse game between the lovers and the acolytes of girl’s father, a bunch of hoodlums trying to sexually harass the girl, and she and her boyfriend ultimately rescued, and given shelter, by a kind helper. We’ve seen snatches of these scenes in many Bollywood films. Which does make you wonder: Why would someone like Manjule, a director who’s quite gifted, want to remake his first film, or, worse, make something that we’ve seen before? What explains this, laziness? A tendency to take the audience for granted? However, even when Manjule’s telling a predictable story, he still manages to make his movie compelling and entertaining. But you’re still looking for something extra, something that a filmmaker of Manjule’s caliber can deliver. And that extra, that missing piece in the puzzle slowly starts acquiring shape in Sairat’s second half.
If the film’s first half is about the magic and naivety of love, then its second half is about the restrictions imposed on relationships by the outside world. Archana wants to live with Parshya, but she also longs for the luxuries her family can afford. In Parshya, she’s found a companion who is understanding, loving and caring, and yet she feels unhappy and shackled. Only discontent is unto itself, Manjule seems to be telling us now, not love, love is never enough by itself.
But we eventually begin to understand that Manjule was setting us up all along: those sweet nothings between Parshya and Archana, those overlong songs (as if mocking the very notion of happiness, that it can indeed seem stretched out, for, at best, it’s momentary), the innocence that equates running away with escaping, the futile hope of forgetting your past and reimagining your future. Manjule, it finally becomes clear, is attempting to understand something else: how love is extrapolated, how memory works and how it informs our understanding of love and forgiveness, and how difficult it is to reverse tradition. There’s one particular scene in Sairat — I won’t tell you which and where it comes in the movie though (because it’d be unfair to you and the film) — that is so masterful that it encapsulates the entire film, spans past, present and future in one effortless stroke, and delineates a predator-prey relationship seldom seen on our screens. Indian filmmakers rarely do angst well; they may write characters who seem angry and repressed, but you don’t usually feel the anger, frustration and despair of the filmmaker himself. In Sairat, Manjule, who, as a Dalit, battled the horrors of caste system while growing up, shows us his scars. Don’t be surprised if they make you gasp.
A slightly edited version of this review was published in the Wire.