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‘Fandry’ – A love story that spells caste as it exists in India

Nagraj Manjule’s lesser known debut Marathi film shot to fame after it bagged the Indira Gandhi award for the best debut film of a director at the 61st National film awards in 2014. It addresses intricate issues related to caste, love, power and emotions. Nidhi Shendurnikar-Tere on what makes Fandry a must watch.

What happens when a boy from a lower caste falls in love with a girl from a higher caste? Usual Bollywood fare tends to treat caste and caste based discrimination in a non-serious manner by projecting important societal issues as trivial love stories of the “rich girl, poor boy/rich boy, poor girl” types. What follows is parental opposition amidst which the romance blossoms eventually culminating into drama, violence, parental acceptance, marriage and a happy ending. Very few films have attempted to address caste based discrimination in a serious but subtle manner. Fandry is one film that stands out for its deft and subtle handling of an issue that has plagued the fabric of Indian society since centuries, but remains hushed off and rarely discussed by popular culture especially television and cinema. Baring a few film such as Achhut Kanya (1936), Lagaan (2001), the issue of caste has been comfortably ignored and side-tracked in mainstream cinema. Thus, when a regional film takes over such a politically sensitive issue, it comes across as a surprise. A critique of caste based discrimination is at the centre stage in Fandry – a story beautifully interspersed with love, power, anger and ambition.

Set in a remote village in Maharashtra (Akolner near Ahmednagar), Fandry starts off as a story of the boy next door – Jabya Mane (played by Somnath Awghade). The story of Jabya’s family - his parents and two sisters, one of whom is back from an unsuccessful marriage; the other of marriageable age, is a struggle for survival. The parents, oblivious of Jabya’s dreams and ambitions to make it big are busy carving out a living from through odd jobs in the village. The family stays at the fringes of the village (away from the mainstream) signifying their low status in the hierarchical caste order. Jabya’s father Kachru Mane (Kishor Kadam) is responsible for catching pigs that stray into the village, thereby not letting the pig menace affect upper caste families. Fandry - a Maharashtrian slang for ‘pig’ is used derogatorily by upper caste villagers to demean Jabya’s family and the job they are engaged in. Quite in tune with the established caste order, the lowest rung of jobs in the village are reserved for Dalits (untouchanbles) as they are dominated and humiliated by upper castes owing to a hegemony of power, position and resources.

Fandry addresses the issue of caste through a love story that develops between Jabya and his classmate Shalu (Rajeshwari Kharat) who belongs to a well-off upper caste family in the village. That however, does not deter Jabya from falling in love with her, being mesmerized by her beauty and remaining lost in her thoughts. He makes every possible effort to woo Shalu, though the girl herself is unaware of Jabya’s romantic adventures and feelings for her. It is a love story that is quite not a love story in the obvious sense since there are no songs, no dancing around trees and neither any romantic scenes. It is through Jabya’s desire and expression of love for Shalu that the film mocks at the way our society treats the lower caste and shuns them to a life of marginalization and despondence. Though aware of his social inferiority, Jabya’s desire for love is strong enough to make him forget that he is no match for Shalu as per standards set by the society. This is evident when Jabya is warned by his fellow classmate (an upper caste boy) to not look at Shalu the way he does, his desire to dance in the celebrations at the ‘Jatra’ (annual cultural and religious fair organized in Maharashtra’s villages) which is discouraged by his father who instead instructs him to carry lamps so that others can dance. He defies his caste identity at every moment – be it through his desire for social mobility by buying a pair of jeans – which his parents neither seem to understand nor can fulfil and his obsession with the magical black sparrow that is supposed to bring him luck but is actually a metaphor for his ambitions.

Jabya does everything he can to remind himself that his caste cannot be a barrier – he tries to impress Shalu by wearing ironed clothes even as a pair of jeans and shirt is a luxury for his family busy pooling in money for their daughter’s dowry. All through the film, Jabya makes attempts to overcome his caste identity (he even writes a letter to Shalu stating that despite caste differences his love for her knows no boundaries). The way the lower caste are treated with contempt and ridicule (the climax of the movie depicts just that – the humiliation that Jabya faces in front of the entire village as the lowly work done by his family is revealed in front of Shalu), stands true for not just rural but urban parts of India as well – where inter-caste marriages are looked upon with contempt, where honour killings are rampant and where modern and educated people still keep separate vessels for their lower caste servants. Even as he is angry with his identity, Jabya knows that he is helpless and can do nothing about it. He knows he is condemned to live the way he is and his dream of marrying Shalu will remain just that – a dream. The anger simmering within Jabya and his outburst towards the end is a tell tale of the discrimination that still persists in our society – on issues such as caste, language class, gender – differences which one thought would be trivialized with the advent of modernity and globalization.

Fandry successfully addresses complex issues related to caste, identity, love, emotions, power and social status in a manner that hits the bulls eye, yet makes one guilty and conscious of the hypocritical times that we inhabit – the dichotomy most evident when Jabya’s school teacher is teaching students about values of equality and justice, even as they mock at his (Jabya’s) lower caste status. As a critique of the caste system and the society’s double standards, Fandry drives home the powerful message that the vision of our Constitution makers – the vision of a fair, equal and just India is far away from realization as long as the dreams of Jabya and his ilk continue to be crushed in the name of caste. Fandry also ably demonstrates the power and creativity of regional cinema in striving from entertainment to social change. A process that for Marathi cinema began with the Oscar nominated and critically acclaimed Shwaas (2004) has indeed blossomed with a film such as this.  

Published on The Alternative - July 5, 2014


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