Nagraj Manjule | Pigs can fly
A coming-of-age story that enfolds a one-sided romance, casteist taunts and pig capture—Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry is unlike most Marathi films set in the countryside. Based on the director’s hardscrabble childhood, Fandry squarely confronts the challenges of growing up Dalit and dirt-poor in an armpit village in Maharashtra. The punch-powerful 1-hour, 45-minute drama, starring Kishor Kadam alongside mostly unknown actors, was screened at the recently concluded Mumbai Film Festival (MFF) and is travelling to other events, including the International Film Festival of India, the Dharamshala International Film Festival, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and the Pune International Film Festival.
At first glance, Fandry appears to faithfully mirror the end-of-innocence concerns that have engaged debutant film-makers the world over. From the Tamil film Pasanga to the Marathi film Shala, Indian film-makers too have mined their childhood memories to explore identity, sexuality, family relationships (especially with fathers) and the difficult journey into adolescence and eventually adulthood. Love, for a classmate or a neighbour or an older woman, is usually the spark that ignites self-awareness, and it’s no different for Fandry’s Jabya, whose heart skips several beats whenever he spots his classmate Shalu.
The twist in this tale is that Shalu is from a higher caste, while Jabya is no innocent and lives in a hut on the edge of the village, beyond the ruins of a fort that serve as an open-air toilet. Jabya’s father, played by Kadam, hustles for money through odd jobs and the occasional pig capture, since the upper-caste folks won’t touch the beasts. Animals and birds are recurring motifs for Jabya as he negotiates romantic and social landmines. He is ashamed to be seen as a pig-catcher, but also has his eye on a black-tailed bird whose sacrifice, he believes, will encourage Shalu to reciprocate his love.
Manjule drew on his own experiences of growing up as a member of the Warda sub-caste in Jeur village in Solapur. He too was in love with an upper-caste girl in school, while his late father broke stones, worked on construction sites and reared pigs. The film-maker had a troubled childhood, not unlike the juvenile delinquent played by Jean-Pierre Léaud in François Truffaut’s 1959 French New Wave classic The 400 Blows. “I liked an upper-caste girl too—she was in the eighth and I was in the fifth—but I got slapped once and the love story ended there,” says the 35-year-old film-maker, who appears in the movie as a bicycle shop owner who encourages Jabya to follow his heart. “I ran after a black bird for one-and-a-half years. I drank as a kid, had a lot of bhang, watched blue (erotic) films. But I also loved listening to stories, especially from my aunt.”
To announce himself as a Warda in his village, he says, was to attract derisive laughter. “I had friends whose fathers had names like Dagdu and Kachra—they didn’t even have the chance to select good names for themselves,” he says. “The biggest thing about caste is that it attacks your self-confidence. It’s not about what you are not capable of—some things are just not meant for you. It took me 30 years to gain confidence.”
He was rescued by his love for spinning a good yarn. Manjule started writing short stories and poems when he was 15. His inspirations include Marathi literature set in rural Maharashtra and Daya Pawar’s autobiography, Balut, written in 1978. “From Balut, I understood that you can narrate your own story in your own way,” Manjule says. He has an MA in Marathi literature from the University of Pune and a mass communications degree from a college in Ahmednagar. While in Pune, he worked as a night watchman and ironed clothes to make ends meet (Fandry has a comical reference to ironing in a couple of scenes).
The stark poverty of the village and Manjule’s excavation of the rural Dalit experience mark Fandry as a deeply political film even though it doesn’t overtly set out to be one. The walls of Jabya’s school have murals of leading Dalit intellectuals, including Jyotiba Phule and Bhimrao Ambedkar. Casteist slurs are casually flung about. Jabya’s family speak the local dialect Kaikadi among themselves rather than Marathi. The film’s title is the Kaikadi word for pig.
The personal-as-political theme was inevitable, given the movie’s autobiographical roots, says Manjule. “When I think about myself, by default I am thinking about my caste,” he says. “I have my caste, my village, my condition, my language, the people around me, the clothes they wear, and their traditions.”
Armed with a Universal certificate from the Central Board of Film Certification, the Rs.1.6 crore-production is targeting a January release. Fandry’s misleadingly uplifting climax, with a superbly judged final shot, caps a narrative characterized by quiet anger rather than bitterness. “I have experienced a lot of sadness, but I can’t give people a bouquet of thorns in revenge,” Manjule explains. “I will try and give them flowers, but they must also be aware of the thorns in the bunch.” His upcoming movie, Sehrat, is a “hard-core love story”, which will also explore caste issues, “but in a different way”, he promises. “There is a lot of bitterness and oppression in life, but in my quest to be a human being, I must go ahead and take people along too,” he says. “Caste is an artificial creation—people are the same everywhere.”
At the MFF screening, a section of the audience unwittingly tittered at the casteist jibes and vigorously applauded the closing shot, which is a culmination of Jabya’s simmering anger at a system that has condemned him for no fault of his. “The film is not my own anymore, and it belongs now to everybody,” Manjule says. “It’s like something (Bhakti poet) Tukaram said—you feed an idea to the wind and then it belongs to the wind.”
Fandry will be screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival today.