Nagraj Popatrao Manjule's first film, Pistulya, won a National Award. His second film, and first full-length feature, Fandry, has charmed audiences and critics, and picked up the Grand Jury award at the Mumbai International Film Festival. The 35-year-old director is as grounded as he's talented, earnest when he discusses his ideas, and honest about his naivete and lack of exposure to world cinema. His self-deprecatory sense of humour shines through in personal interaction, just as the comic timing in his script relieves the intensity of his film. In an exclusive chat with Sify.com, he speaks about what drove him to make Fandry, the reactions it has received at screenings and his engagement with social prejudice. (This interview has been translated from Hindi).
I like how you've captured an adolescent crush. It's something all of us go through, and it seems so serious and important at the time. But what struck me was that, even at that age, when everything seems possible, someone is held back by caste, even though he goes to the same school as the other kids, and does the same things.
Yes, all of us go through that phase of adolescence, and Fandry is, to a large extent, my own story. It is also the story of lots of people whom I know.
The village where I grew up, there were two castes who used to eat pigs. Obviously, there were no toilets in villages, and the pigs grow up on this garbage dump. When you eat pig meat, of course, your izzat (dignity) isn't rated too highly. And caste is such a pertinent issue everywhere – the perception that Brahmins are superior, and there are certain castes in the middle, and then, at the bottom of the pecking order, there are Dalits. The stigma is a very relevant one.
My father worked very hard to make sure I studied. What happens in Fandry is not exactly my story, but I've seen this happen to a lot of people around me. But I should make it clear that what happens in the last scene is not something I have actually done. (Laughs) And it's not something I want to do, either.
The Dalit issue has been brought up in many, many Marathi films, and documentaries based in Maharashtra. Even at this film festival, we saw the screening of Jai Bhim Comrade by Anand Patwardhan. And despite all the documentation, the films, the popular outreach, it remains a pertinent issue.
Yes, and it's not only in Maharashtra, but across the country. I don't think it's an issue that can be solved easily. We live under the illusion that people who have got over things like caste, that they have become open, that we're all modern. But then, caste – jaati – is something that is always there. It's felt more intensely in the villages, but discrimination is there in cities too, and the rang-roop may be different, but it's there.
I don't think caste is something that will ever stop being important to the Indian psyche. You think once someone is educated, it won't matter so much, but then I'm not convinced. You see it all the time, even when people ask you your name. They want your surname too, so that they can guess your caste. In fact, there are people I know who use initials instead of their surnames, so that people won't know they're Dalits. It happened with one of my own crew members. He told me suddenly, while working on the post-production, that he really liked my film, and could relate to it, as a Dalit, and that he felt for the first time that he was represented in a film. That's when I knew he was Dalit.
The word 'dalit' itself is Marathi, so one would expect that that the resistance would be somewhat stronger there.
Well, yes, and there's Dalit literature, and Babasaheb Ambedkar's movement started there. It's true that there's a lot more awareness in Maharashtra, and people want to come out of it, that Dalits want to better their lifestyles, but caste prejudices do get in the way.
Yes, and that was portrayed so well in your film. I found the scene where a boy who goes to school like everyone else in the village is asked to remove a piglet that's caught in the drain especially telling. But worse, it's not just oppression from other people, but from within his own family. It's as if they're their own worst enemies in some senses.
See, people need to learn to read and write. The more you study, the better your life becomes, the more you can make of yourself. We Dalits have our enemies from outside, but it's also true that we are our own enemies. We don't think the way we should, we don't prioritise studies the way we should.
Even if we do, there are certain prejudices that become very hard to get over. Inter-caste marriage is not easily accepted. They say it's a question of roti-beti, in Marathi. If you can eat together and if you can inter-marry, maybe cast will be eradicated.
But then, there's another sort of problem when you look at reservation. If we do away with castes entirely, which is what people tend to campaign for, what relevance will reservation have? I think it's very problematic to look for simplistic solutions, from either side.
Your film is hilarious in some places, and very poignant in others. But, at the screening, I found that people were laughing at what seemed to be the wrong times to me. Do you think it's because it makes them so uncomfortable, or are they really so insensitive that they find this funny?
There were some scenes where I heard a lot of the children in the audience laughing, and there are times when I was also laughing with them. But then, I think it's important to look at why we're laughing, and when we're laughing, and what we're laughing at. We need to think about how the things that we find funny will affect the people we're laughing at.
Do you find that across film festivals and across age groups, people find certain things funny which you don't?
Well...I screened the film in London recently, and there too, people were laughing. There was a lot of laughter in Mumbai also. I think we should accept the fact that we will all see films differently. For example, in London, a girl in the audience told me she sympathises with Jabya's father in the film, but she doesn't like Jabya. I thought maybe she didn't quite get his character.
What I'm trying to say is, our reactions depend on whom we relate to. Those who relate to the ones who taunt Jabya will laugh at things I don't find funny. The ones who laugh at Jabya's antics, and the parts I find funny, are thinking about things from another angle. It's also possible that someone may be laughing and feeling upset at the same time.
I'm sure people come up and speak to you about how the film has affected them, at festivals. Has there been any reaction that stayed with you?
I met a Dalit family in London – a couple and their children, and they spoke to me about how they were never accorded any dignity in India. They say things are so much better in London, because no one cares about their caste. They say they hated their life in India.
There are several activists – and even filmmakers – who have tried to showcase Dalit problems. But this happens to be the first film I've seen on the issue by a Dalit filmmaker. And I get the sense that the way you've shown what it really is to be from this background, the struggle to be like everyone else when no one is willing to forget your caste, is something a non-Dalit can't quite capture.
Well, it's possible for someone to imagine it. But to be born into a Dalit family, and grow up in it, I guess it's a different experience altogether. It is possible for someone to make a film with so much sensitivity that the viewers will think he or she is Dalit, even if that's not the case. In my case, it was as simple as wanting to tell my own story.
And I really don't like this idea of classifying something as 'Dalit literature' and giving it that tag. At the end of the day, it is a story of someone's life, someone's growing-up days maybe, or someone's love story, or whatever. It's about human beings, just like any other story. There's no need to give these things a black and white label. I don't think that's a good idea.
I wonder what it is about the Marathi film industry that produces filmmakers with such sensitivity. In fact, just last year, I watched this film called Babu Band Baaja, which won several National Awards. Do you think it has something to do with growing up watching films that make you think?
(Laughs) Well, there are some pretty bad Marathi films too. Only they don't get shown at these festivals, and that's probably why you've missed them. Babu Band Baaja is one of those really good films; I like it a lot too.
But it also isn't a given that if you see good films, you end up making good films. (Laughs) If my film's good, there's probably another reason for it. What you're saying is right, that there are many, many good films in Marathi, as compared to the Hindi film industry. I think maybe that's a relatively recent phenomenon, though. There are many directors who are doing very interesting work.
And what films do you yourself watch? What movies did you grow up watching, what do you watch now?
Well, I watch very few films. (Laughs) Actually, I mostly watch Bollywood films. I've watched all of Amitabh's films, and Jeetendra and Mithun, and Govinda...all of those. (Laughs)
That's really funny, because I was sitting with someone, and we were talking about how your style of filmmaking reminds us of Iranian films.
(Laughs) I've watched Iranian films too, but all of that's quite recent, you know. World cinema wasn't accessible to me back then. I recently watched Bicycle Thieves and Children of Heaven. I loved Children of Heaven. With Bicycle Thieves, someone told me my short film Pistulya reminded them of that, and I was worried that someone would accuse me of stealing the storyline though I hadn't seen the film; so I watched it to see what it was all about, and I really liked it. I found Cinema Paradiso very appealing too, because that's essentially my life story.
You spoke about how the plot of the film draws from your own story, and you too are from a small village. It's a gutsy thing to do, to dream big, to put all your hope and faith in filmmaking.
Well, the way I see it, if you really want to do something, and want to do something good, your willpower and the motivation to see it through is your trump card. We keep saying oh, you need to have connections in Mumbai, you need to rough it out there, or you need to be from a family that has roots in Bollywood. But it's not always the case. If you write well, and you work hard, you can see your dream through. There are good people too, who want to do good things, facilitate good films.
I wrote the script, and I felt there was something in it, and I just started working. I didn't worry about what would happen. I met a lot of people. I had no connections, and I am from a small village. But then, I suppose the fact that my short film had won a National Award convinced some people to put some faith in me – they probably thought all right, this guy has done some decent work, and we can trust him with this project. That's how I got my producers.
I really loved the music in this film. The opening scene just has this boy wandering around with a boomerang, and the music, and it simply gets you.
The entire credit for that goes to my music director, Alokananda Dasgupta. We thought about what kind of music we need. My producer said let's not put the typical Marathi music in here. All I told Alokananda was that it has to go straight to the viewer's heart. I don't know much about music. As far as I'm concerned, good music is what speaks to one's heart right away. And that's what Alokananda did. I loved it, and I'm glad to hear you say you did too.
>Tell me about the young actor who plays the main character, Jabya.
Well, actually he's from my village. He's working for the first time. I had gone back to the village for a function, and I saw him there, and something about him convinced me that he would be the right person for the role. Incidentally, he's a Dalit too. But he wouldn't agree to act in a film, and it took me three months to convince him and his family to agree to this. And I really like working with non-actors because I feel like they're not acting the way professionals do; they live the character's life.
There's a scene in the film where Jabya starts crying. I felt the tears were real, the humiliation he felt was real, and you hadn't had to resort to glycerine.
Bilkul. We did try to make him use glycerine at times, but the boy is a non-actor, and he said he was living his life in this film. What the character goes through is what he goes through. And he told me he wanted to seep into the character, and do this all on his own. So, it turned out that his performance was very realistic and very powerful.
You said you had waited three months, convincing that boy to act. Were your producers willing to wait that long?
Yes, I did take three months to convince him. And the producers hadn't come into the picture yet. I had already done the location scouting and the casting before they got involved. When I got the National Award, I got a cash award of Rs 1,50,000. I spent one lakh of that on the location hunting and casting, and the rest of it on supporting my own expenses. So, by the time I found the producers, I had already done about seventy percent of the casting.
You made some very subtle points in your film, for instance the unrealistic dowry demands people make. When a groom's party comes to see a girl, her father says her older sister's life is already ruined because they couldn't get her married on time. And it struck me what a vicious cycle it becomes – when you need money, you end up taking on the most menial of tasks just to make that money.
Yeah, people say women are daliton ke bhi dalit – the Dalits of the Dalits. And this is not just in India, it's across the world. Women have always been treated like Dalits, always been oppressed. And I wanted to bring that into my story. When people who themselves have been oppressed also treat women badly, it's quite upsetting.
There was a very interesting character in your movie, the one you played – Chankya. He's friends with this school boy, and he's also a mentor figure. And though he's perfectly nice to the kids, he's disliked by their parents, and they're warned against befriending him. Was there someone like this in your life too, when you were growing up?
Bilkul. Absolutely. There was a man like that, whom I knew when I was a child. He was much older than I, but he was my friend. He used to tell me, "These bade log keep talking, but their talk is all bakwaas. Don't ever think that these people are elders, or that these people are superior." His way of thinking, his ideas, were unique. He had a carrom house, just like Chankya in the film, and he used to play carrom with me. He was into black magic and all of that. I learnt a lot from him, about the magic as well as the carrom. (Laughs) And it's special to me that I played the character. He was a real person, and the people in my village used to say this guy is barbaad, paagal – he's mad, he'll ruin you, he'll corrupt you, stay away from him. But I found him very likeable, and he was a close friend of mine.
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The author is a writer based in Chennai.
She blogs at http://disbursedmeditations.blogspot.com and tweets at @k_nandini