Now for starters, I have not seen this movie Sairat. But as will be obvious, everything I have written below will remain the same after I see the movie. The fact that the director Mr Manjule is from our Ambedkarite community, working in a medium with hardly any representation from us dalits, let alone at the directorial level, implied a duty for all of us to promote his effort through social media such as Facebook. But then when I saw the folks on my friendlist going over the top about this promotion, I was a little worried.
I had seen Mr Manjule's international award winning Fandry on a flight to Canada as it was presented as a movie in the Air India entertainment menu. The avant garde film making by the director made him a favourite to watch out for in the future. This liking of his art had nothing to do with my identity as an Ambedkarite but more to do with my interest as a movie buff interested in cinema of substance. So when I saw this over the top promotion of Sairat on Facebook I was a little uncomfortable, because you generally sell a product over the top only if its not saleable. I just felt uncomfortable that an avant grade film which has been nominated for international awards was getting such emotional advertisement, instead of letting it shine on its own merit. That this movie turned into a blockbuster was something so surprising to me that I had to call up my parents in India from Germany to confirm what I was hearing from friends on Facebook.
This is almost unheard of in Indian movie making: that a movie that could be classified as art cinema becomes a blockbuster, that too through word of mouth publicity for most part. So this props up a very interesting question. How is it that an art movie turns out to be a blockbuster? Why is it that the Shyam Benegals etc., with all the media and intelligentsia support, couldn't get their movies to be blockbusters, ending up with only limited viewership? What is special about Mr Manjule that he could create a movie that was avant grade cinema while being appreciated by the masses?
In order to attempt an answer, let me briefly describe the art film movement. It all started with Italian neo-realistic directors such as Rossellini, Pasolini etc., who wanted to portray real life the way it is, instead of resorting to the exaggerated fantasy oriented storylines of Hollywood. In order to portray this reality, these directors even worked with untrained actors, leading to movies that transposed human realities into subtle ephemeral layers in archetypal themes of varied abstractness, instead of producing animated exaggerations that were the realm of Hollywood. These movies, even though they used reality as a medium for artful expression, they deployed it to express an abstract viewpoint of sorts, not necessarily reflective of the lived experience of individuals.
This art form, because of its emphasis on subtleties, became the favourite of the academia and intelligentsia the world over and was hence adopted by the savarna crowd. In order to mimic the neo-realism of Italian cinema, they ventured into using the reality of dalit bahujans to express their own ideals of human experience and its mappings in some archetypal abstractness. These Benegals, Bhattacharyas etc., may have won awards but never won hearts. It was the non-mass appeal of their endeavors that created a illusion that the art cinema movement was not made for mass consumption. This illusion is shattered to its very core by the likes of Sairat.
The issue at fault is the idea promoted by the likes of Benegals that depiction of reality is unfit for mass consumption. What Sairat says instead is that it is the messing up of actual reality by the elitistic biases of the Benegals that makes the reality of the masses unfit for consumption by the masses themselves. The director Mr Manjule completely differs from the likes of the Benegals because his version of reality is fashioned by his lived experiences that he expresses in his cinema.
While the Benegals just use bahujan reality as a vessel to express their own attitudes towards life (attitudes gained from their own lives which obviously are boring and hence the indulgence with the dalit bahujan reality), so the end product just becomes a body with the wrong soul. With Mr Manjule however, the medium of art cinema comes up with the very soul that lives in the reality he presents on the screen. It is this very soul of the dalit bahujan experience that then strikes an immediate chord with the mass audience, that is dalit bahujan, turning a movie without the academic, media or intelligentsia support of the Benegals into a whopping blockbuster that has shattered box office records.
The success of Sairat hence makes for a very important lesson for Indian cinema in general. It is a well known fact that Bollywood for all its big budget production is seen as a joke by the rest of the world. But then, even in popular entertainment you come up with the same quagmire: Bollywood's product made for mass consumption by the dalit bahujans is created by an industry that has no presence whatsoever of the dalit bahujans.
Will this film industry or its investors really think deeply about actual profits along with respect for the medium internationally - which could lead to exponentiated profits - by taking heed of the success of Sairat? Or will the prime objective of perpetuating caste hierarchies in the entertainment industry override all profit motives?
Vaibhav Wasnik is a researcher and he blogs here.
Images courtesy: the net