Cast: Somnath Avghade, Suraj Pawar, Kishor Kadam, Chaya Kadam, Sakshi Vyavhare
Director: Nagraj Manjule
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
Shylock (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1)
Where generations of urban and upper-class/caste Indians have been able to appreciate the pain articulated by Shakespeare in the Merchant of Venice, Fandry, the Marathi language film written and directed by Nagraj Manjule locates the sentiments of the grievously wronged Shylock through the story of Jabya, set in the Maharashtrian Deccan.
Born into an untouchable caste, schoolboy Jambavant (Jabya) falls in love with his classmate Shalu. The problem is, however, that not only is Shalu completely oblivious of Jabya’s feelings for her, but that this possibility does not even seem to cross her mind as she belongs to the area’s dominant caste.
Poignantly, Jabya recognises that the gulf between their social circumstances would be a factor in Shalu refusing to consider his love for her. Yet, he continues to hope she will return his feelings.
Given there is no harm in seeking the aid of higher powers, Jabya becomes engaged in the hunt for a black sparrow, after he is convinced by his older friend, Chankya, played by Manjule, that sprinkling the ashes of this bird on the object of one’s affections will ensure they fall in love with their admirer.
There are several reasons Fandry stands out as an exceptional film, the foremost being that it makes us aware of the ruthless operation of the caste system and the associated social structures by seducing us into this story of first love, and empathising with Jabya’s situation. There is no preaching, no moralizing; Jabya’s story unfolds matter-of-factly, humorously even, with all the quotidian humiliation and challenges that a young untouchable in any mofussil town or village would face.
In the film, the school is the space for change, the space that will enable India to realise its republican dream and challenge the oppressive caste system. It is the school that allows Shalu and Jabya to inhibit the same space, and where Jabya becomes enamoured of this girl. It is also going to school and interacting with others as an equal that spurs Jabya to refuse to follow in the footsteps of his father (tellingly nicknamed “Kachru”, meaning rubbish, by the dominant caste) and take up the traditional jobs, like pig-catching, that the people of his lower caste are forced to do.
The message that the film sends is that caste persists in India, not because it is a remnant of an ancient system, but because it is physically enforced by dominant castes across the country, and the impoverished Dalits have no option but to acquiesce. The only way out of this miserable reality is education.
It is not as if the school is without its problems. Jabya’s best fried Piraji is prevented from sitting next to an upper caste boy because this boy pinches him. Similarly, Jabya is threatened and humiliated by an upper caste classmate who sees his interest in Shalu, and makes it clear that this interest will not be tolerated.
It is this clash between Jabya and the Patel boy that lays the ground for the dramatic conclusion of the film, where Jabya demands revenge no different from that of Shylock.
This incident occurs after a dramatic chase through the village to capture pigs (or “fandry” in Marathi), which sharply brings to light the humiliation that the lower castes have to face. After a lifetime of degrading work, individuals like Jabya’s father begin to lose their self-respect. It highlights the threat of rape by men of dominant castes that continuously hangs over Dalit women. Most importantly, the film mocks the rituals of nationalism which, rather than aiding the lives of Dalits, add to their burden instead.
Fandry is a marvellously thought-provoking film that must be seen, not just for the manner in which it awakens the audience to the silent ways in which the caste system operates in India, but also for the way it elegantly highlights the pain that results when we deny that the Jew and the Dalit are as human as the European Christian and the upper-caste Indian.
Jason Keith Fernandes describes himself as an itinerant mendicant, traversing disciplines and locations in search of sustenance. He has a formal training in law, sociology, anthropology and cultural studies. When not travelling he is based in Goa. His other writings can be found at dervishnotes.blogspot.com.