The Marathi film Fandry is a debut film by Nagraj Manjule that categorically exemplifies the reality of caste in modern India. The rural aesthetic and the sombre background score solemnly introduce us to the transgenerational experience and resistance of the Mane family against caste oppression in the Akolner village of remote Maharashtra.
Manjule uses exemplary metaphors throughout the narrative and displays powerful imagery that expose the farce claim of India as a ‘modern’ nation. The central plot of the story is an unrequited love story at the intersection of caste between the protagonist Jabya (played by Somnath Avaghade) who belongs to the Kaikadi caste – an oppressed caste community and Shalu (Rajeshwari Kharat) who belongs to an oppressor caste community of Maharashtra.
The plot opens with Jabya and his school friend Pirya (Suraj Pawar) armed with a slingshot trying to catch a black sparrow with a distinctive forked tail in the wilderness of Akolner. Manjule uses the myth of a black sparrow as a poetic metaphor, the interpretation of which is left to the audience.
Throughout the film, Jabya is seen chasing the black sparrow, the purpose of which is revealed during the climax of the film. According to local legend, it is believed that the ash obtained after burning the black sparrow, if sprinkled onto someone, hypnotises them to fall in love with the person sprinkling it.
From a personal imagination, the shrewd killing and burning of a black sparrow represents an assertive resistance against caste oppression and struggle. Similarly, by sprinkling the ash onto Shalu, Jabya wishes her to reciprocate his love. It empowers Jabya with the courage to defy caste norms and to seek love from Shalu.
Moreover, the rage against being reduced to a Dalit identity is consistently present in Jabya’s character. Jabya is shown as fierce while also struggling with his own inhibitions and inferiority complex derived from his caste identity and occupation. A youthful vengeance and rejection of his Hindu caste identity is manifested throughout various scenes in the film.
In one particular instance, Jabya refuses to follow the instruction of the village Patil, an oppressor caste village patriarch who asks Jabya to remove the piglet stuck in the drainage right opposite to his courtyard. The scene captures a transgenerational struggle and awakening against one’s Dalit identity as Jabya bluntly withdraws from performing the menial job.
Patil observes the job as a moral obligation and duty of the Kaikadi family. However, Jabya does not succumb to the supposed moral duty, thereby rejecting to perform a job that has historically been a sight of caste bound labour.
Manjule symbolically investigates the Kaikadi word ‘Fandry’, literally meaning ‘pig’ by using it as a metaphorical device that assigns the casteist virtue of ‘impurity’ and ‘pollution’ to the Dalit body and labour. This is particularly observed in a scene when Shalu, Jabya’s Savarna love is seen mocking her classmate for being touched by a pig and requests the school teachers to take her home for re-purifying her.
This process of re-purification is done by sprinkling gomutra (cow’s urine) onto her body after having a shower. Certainly, the logic and gymnastics of caste practices are ridiculed here. Furthermore, during the climax, we also see some upper caste villagers mocking and calling out Jabya as ‘Fandry’. Thus, when a Fandry strays around and accidentally grazes over an oppressor caste being, that person has to be re-purified.
The narrative of the film and the depiction of Jabya’s character is divorced from the Savarna gaze, that stereotypically assigns victimhood to its Dalit characters with a mandatory saviour complex present in its story arc. Jabya is seen as a ferocious rebel, who also has some personal reservations about his identity. Manjule genially depicts the character of a young Dalit boy who attempts to transgress the ascription of caste onto his life.
Moreover, Awghade’s prolific acting and the coarseness in his voice make him an appealing watch. Fandry is representative in the sense that some of the lead actors in the film are non-actors belonging to the marginalised caste communities.
The film exhibits elements of irony and cynicism at particular instances. In one of the scenes, when Shalu is shown mocking her friend for being touched by a Fandry, we see images of Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule in the background. This is a critical reflection of the brutal reality and omnipresence of caste in a supposedly modern nation.
It tells us that the ideas promoted by these anti caste revolutionaries exist only in theory and are restricted to their posters and portraits. There is hardly any dialogue that seeks to realise their anti-caste ideals. Furthermore, an irony is demonstrated when a village school that teaches the abhangas (devotional poetry) of Sant Chokhamela who belonged to the Mahar community (oppressed caste) of Maharashtra is ignorant to the reality of caste existing in their own classrooms and corridors.
The film also bursts the myth of ‘merit’ indicating the bounded conditions in which oppressed caste persons choose to pursue education. It also tells us the pressure exacerbated by caste and caste hierarchy onto an individual’s life, from which they persist to free themselves through education. Nevertheless, education in ‘modern’ India divorced from critical reflection and inclusivity further entraps oppressed caste individuals.
In scenes that depict the activities in the Mane household, Manjule brings forth the intersections between caste and gender. He throws light on the struggle of oppressed caste women who are expected to work and perform wage labour along with their parents. Hence, while Jabya is conditionally permitted to seek primary education after consistent persuasion, his sisters in the Mane family do not have the space to execute a choice. Thus, the film manages to show the manifestation of patriarchy within the Mane household.
Manjule brings a detailed emphasis and focus in the last scene of the movie. At a particular instance during the jatra (village fair), we see that the pigs bump onto the sacred palki (palanquin) thereby causing it to turn impure. The village pandit, disgusted by the accident, claims it to be inauspicious. Taking this into account, the upper caste Panchayat head demands that Kachru (Jabya’s father, played by Kishor Kadam) makes sure that fandry is effectively slaughtered the next morning, to avoid any future nuisance. In return, Kachru is paid some amount from the money collected for the village fair.
The next morning the entire Mane family assembles around the wasteland outside Jabya’s school in order to hunt and kill the pig. Thus, Kachru who had once given up this form of caste bound labour is compelled to return to it. This instance tells us how the Brahmanical society never fails to remind and reiterate oppressed caste individuals of their caste identity.
The family becomes a source of entertainment for the upper caste villagers who ridicule and poke fun at the Mane family as they mimic an ‘IPL match’ while hunting for the pig.
In one particular shot during this hunting process, Manjule powerfully crafts a moment wherein both Kachru and Jabya have to let go of the trap and stand straight up on hearing the national anthem recited during the school assembly. The frustration on Kachru’s face is a sharp and a critical commentary on the revivalist nationalism of the upper caste forces that is isolated from the material reality of caste.
A persistent expression traced throughout the film is Jabya’s refusal of his identity. At every instance, when Jabya is expected to comply with his lower caste identity, we see a staunch resistance in his actions. Thus, the fictional film captures the vivid shades and implications of caste in a rural setting without resorting to the stereotypical images of violence and atrocities that take centre stage in most films around caste.