I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
Where generations of urban and upper-class/caste Indians have been able to appreciate the pain articulated by Shakespeare in the Merchant of Venice, Fandry, the Marathi language film written and directed by Nagraj Manjule locates the sentiments of the grievously wronged Shylock within the setting of the Maharashtrian Deccan through the story of Jabya. Born into an untouchable caste, Jambavant (Jabya), demonstrates the universality of the human experience when he experiences a boyhood crush on his classmate Shalu. The problem, however, lies in the fact that not only does Shalu seem completely oblivious to Jabya’s feelings for her, but that this possibility does not even cross her mind since she belongs to the area’s dominant castes. What is heart-wrenching in this story is that Jabya recognises that the gulf between their social circumstances would play a role in Shalu refusing to consider his love for her, and yet, continues to hope against hope, that she will indeed fall in love with him. Given that there is no harm in seeking the aid of higher powers, Jabya is also engaged in a hunt for a black sparrow, since he has been convinced by his older friend, Chankya, played by Manjule, that sprinkling the ashes of this bird on the object of one’s affection will make ensure that they fall in love with their admirer.
There are a plethora of reasons why Fandry stands out as an exceptional film, the foremost of which is that it manages to turn our gaze on the ruthless operation of the caste system and the associated social structures by seducing us into following this universal story of first love, and empathising with Jabya’s situation. There is no preaching, no moralizing; Jabya’s story unfolds matter-of-factly, humorously even, with all the quotidian humiliation, and challenges that would face a young untouchable in any mofussil town or village. The film locates the school as the space for change, the space that will enable India to realise its republican dream and challenge the oppression of the caste system. It is the school that permits Shalu and Jabya to inhabit the same space and allow Jabya to be enamoured of his girl. It is also the fact of his going to school and being forced to interact with others as an equal that spurs Jabya to refuse to fulfil the traditional obligations of pig-catching that his caste, and his father (nicknamed Kachru, or rubbish, by the dominant castes of the village) in particular are forced to fulfil. Indeed, the film makes it quite obvious that if caste persists in India, it is not because it is a remnant of some ancient system, but because it is physically enforced by dominant castes across the country and acquiesced to by impoverished Dalits with no other option. Into this miserable reality, it is schooling that provides a possible way out.
It is not as if the school is without its problems. Jabya’s best fried Piraji is prevented from sitting next to an ‘upper’ caste boy because this boy pinches him. Jabya is similarly threatened, and humiliated, by an ‘upper’-caste classmate who sees Jabya’s interest in Shalu and makes it clear that this interest will not be tolerated. It is in fact this burden of curbing Jabya’s self-assertions that by this Patel boy that lays the ground for the dramatic conclusion of the film, when Jabya demands a revenge no different from that of Shylock.
This conclusion comes at the end of the capture of the village’s pig (Fandry) scavengers that Jabya’s family are required to engage in. After having captured the audience with the universality of the human experience it is this dramatic hunt that brings into sharp highlight the various institutions that operate against the Dalit. There is the humiliation of not merely individuals, but entire families as they are forced to do work that others consider degrading. Having engaged in such work for over a lifetime, individuals such as Kachru begin to lose their self-respect. It highlights the threat of rape by dominant caste men that continuously hangs over Dalit women. Most importantly, the film mocks the rituals of nationalism that rather than aiding the lives of Dalits, in fact add to their burdens.
Fandry is a marvellously thought-provoking film that must be seen, not merely for the manner in which it awakens the audience to the silent ways in which the caste system operates in this country, but for the manner in which it elegantly highlights the pain that results when we deny that the Jew and Dalit are as human as the European Christian and upper-caste Indian.
(A version of this post was first published in DNAindia.com on 13 Dec 2013)