On May 11 this year, Kausalya tried to kill herself by consuming poison. Earlier in March, her husband was hacked to death in broad daylight in Udumalpet in Tamil Nadu. In full public view. The accused are from Kausalya’s family. This is the year 2016 and this tragic tale isn’t fiction. It is not even unique.
The media reported this as an honour killing – Kausalya belongs to the powerful Thevar caste while her husband, Sankar, was a Dalit. Many, however, felt that the media should have downplayed the caste angle. Wasn’t this kind of ‘sensationalist’ reporting only dividing society more?
Our mainstream movies, too, will have us believe that caste is hardly a factor in a love story. It’s an uncomfortable and volatile obstacle, so we stick to simplistic class politics. The poor man woos the rich girl. It’s easy for the plot to progress – he either becomes rich quickly through intense hard work and brain power or she embraces poverty with all piousness. Caste, however, is tricky. How does a person from a low caste move higher up the ladder? No can do.
And as a society, we’re extremely defensive about it. From denying that such a thing as caste even exists, we will go up to pointing fingers at other societies that also have similar hierarchies and exploitative systems. We like to keep up the pretense that we hardly think about it, that we hate politicians who play vote-bank politics, that it only perhaps matters when we choose a life partner…and even then, it’s about the comfort of familiar cultures. Never to do with outdated, brutal ideas of purity and supremacy.
Given all this, it’s not surprising that there have been very few films that have boldly touched upon the caste angle in romantic relationships. Sairat (Marathi), which has been receiving rave reviews, is among the rare films that explores this thorny path that has seen only seen the occasional, intrepid traveller. This story is about a young boy and girl who dare to step across the boundary lines drawn for them by an ancient, unforgiving system that has survived the IT revolution, Mangalyaan, and more.
It could have been just another film made on the subject of forbidden teenage love but the maturity with which Nagraj Manjule has crafted his characters and narrative is breath-taking. Parshya (Akash Thosar) belongs to a low caste but he’s a new millennium kid who doesn’t think he must curtail his ambitions because of this. He is a star cricketer (in his village anyway), studies well and desires Archana (Rinku Rajguru), a girl who is clearly well above his station in every social respect. Archana isn’t your average giggly heroine. She rides a bullet to college, drives a tractor when she goes for outings, and is unafraid of owning and displaying her sexuality. Archana is from the Patil family – politically powerful and the richest in the village. So what do you expect when this unlikely pair fall in love? Fireworks and lava.
Sairat, however, goes beyond showing us the ardour of young love. It plunges deep into the highly patriarchal nature of the caste system. There is a telling scene in the film when a professor tries to console Parshya, who has been beaten black and blue by Archana’s family with the following words: ‘So did you defile her? You should tell everyone that you did. After all, they are always defiling our girls, aren’t they?’
Though Archana defies every stereotype of a heroine that we’ve grown up watching (she even repeats her outfits!), she is still female. Her transgression is all the more serious because of her gender – she is the property of an upper caste family and if she is ‘defiled’ by the touch of a low caste man, it is an insult to the honour of the entire community. Her consent in the issue is of no importance whatsoever. And it is not just her upper-caste family that believes this, it is everybody. She is repeatedly referred to as ‘bitch’ and ‘whore’ for her ‘mistake’ by everyone around her. This is why her family cannot let it go despite the fact that she’s a much loved daughter. The house is named after her but she too, is property at the end of the day.
Films like Kaadhal (Tamil, 2004), Sasneham (Malayalam, 1990), Fandry (Marathi, 2013), Masaan (Hindi, 2015), NH10 (Hindi, 2015) have all portrayed upper caste women and lower caste men in tangled relationships. While it is not easy for an upper caste man to marry a woman from a lower caste either, society is more forgiving because of his gender identity. He is seen as a subject who can make such a decision and not as an object who has no say in the matter. The lower caste woman may never be accepted as an equal by his family but she cannot make him ‘impure’ because the ‘ability’ to defile is a male privilege. This is why a lower caste woman is more likely to be shown as the rape victim of an upper caste man than as a person who is in a consensual relationship with him.
Sairat is a brave, brave film that gets to the root of the matter. Manjule could have stopped with showing us a successful elopement but he doesn’t. With great sensitivity, he proceeds to show us the pressures and insecurities that weigh heavily upon a young romance that has bloomed in the midst of such granite opposition. In the process, we see the complexities and intersections of caste, class, gender, and location play out in riveting detail.
The ending is shocking despite the audience expecting it all along. Is it hyperbolic? Sadly, no. It is happening somewhere as you read this. And it will happen again. All in the real world.