Guest post by RITA KOTHARI
“Woh kam-jaat ladka hai. Phir kaise uske saath bhag gayi? Sochna tha na pehle?” (He is a low-caste boy, why did she elope with him then? Shouldn’t she have thought of this?”)
Vimala’s judgment was unequivocal. She was talking about Hansa, her neighbour and my former ‘help.’ Hansa is a young girl , perhaps seventeen, and she recently eloped with a boy. I stopped myself from saying anything facile, as yet.
“Ab pyaar poochhke to hota nahin, “ I said to her. Love seeks no permission.
“To bhugatna bhi padta phir.” Then be ready to suffer, Vimala quipped.
She went on to tell me about an incident she had witnessed in her village, about 30 kilometers away from the big town of Dungarpur in Rajasthan. A Rajput girl and Sewak boy eloped. They settled down in some city, and ten years went by. Meanwhile the girl had a child and was carrying her second baby. Her family had managed to track her whereabouts and convinced that she would be welcome home. The couple returned to the village for a visit. One night the girl’s brother put out lights in the entire village. The young couple was killed.
“Poore gaanv ki bijli band kar di, aur maar dala dono ko. Humne dekha apni aankhon se,” Vimala said.
I stood transfixed. What was more accurate here, fiction or life? I had just returned from watching the Marathi film, Sairat.
I had come away from the film shaken by the quiet brutality of the end. How can something be so shocking and so inevitable at the same time? With unhurried pace, the long film takes us through the life of a boy and girl, the wooing, the denial, the blossoming of romance, the elopement, its attendant violence, threatening presence of law, the move from village to city, filth-infested slums, the waning of romance as well its acceptance. Such detailing of a life, interacting with caste and patriarchy, of ever-present feudal men and never-present people at work is not exactly the stuff of entertainment. And yet, it could easily have been a consummation of romance, for it was not structured like a Benegal-made, parallel film in the 1970-80s. Sairat could have ended at many places, but it didn’t. With relentless repetition and mundane details, it chose to make the audience deal with the ordinariness of love and violence.
Caste lingers as a character in the film in both its rural and urban milieu. It wears the garb of class quite often, and ever so often reveals itself in small and large ways. It is present in the things Archie has and Parshya does not, in the leisure of her life and the labour of his, in the quiet assurance of her gait, the hesitant steps he takes, in her natural dismissal of impure water, and his ease at hawking and speaking in a local language in a new city. Archie is admittedly a strong woman character, however, her strength is inseparable from the capital that informs her defiance, teetering quite often on masculination. In that sense the deeper context animating Sairat is one of caste, of which gender is one of the sites on which it plays out most brutally. Like its predecessor Fandry, Sairat is one of the few departures from the norm. The norm (in Hindi cinema at least) has been to make caste deliberately absent, or pretend that the upper-caste characters are casteless.
How then do I respond to a couple of articles that expose the misogyny in the director’s personal life? How should I be modifying, if at all, my response formed without the knowledge of this article, for instance? The author Deepika Sharma asks an astute, not altogether unfamiliar question – why do we cut creative men slack? Why does the knowledge of misogyny among acclaimed writers not disturb us enough? An illustrious galaxy of creative writers, sculptors, film-makers are known to have done the doublespeak, to put it mildly. Legends about husbands ‘sensitive’ to women, other than their wives, lie galore in memory. A persuasive piece, and a question that requires response, especially of someone who takes cinema to the classroom frequently.
As a student of humanities, one has often encountered the conundrum about biographical context of a writer that supposedly enhances the experience of art on one hand, and also heard announcements of the death of the author. Does knowledge of disturbing truths about a writer or artist vitiate the experience of art, and call upon us to take a moral-political position? I believe that it does, however, we also need to be aware of falling prey to an easy vigilantism and blanket policies. A fictional representation is easier to separate from the origins of an author, than say ideological pronouncements and claims made by a social scientist who does not live up to his/her claims. A living author is more likely to evoke ire than a dead one. Despite reservations about the complicit silence maintained by creative writers in times of siege in Gujarat, I have found it harder to accept the hollow polemics of ‘thinkers’ and columnists than writers and film-makers. This is not to say that their literary practices are absolved of politics, but that the fictional landscape begs for a different assessment. Additionally ever case, theoretical or real, fictional or academic comes with its own combination of factors. As for Sairat, it is an important document of our times, even if it supposedly fails to bear testimony to the actions of its creator in a biographical context.
Deepika Sharma’s question has triggered off memories of texts I have refused to appreciate for precisely the doublespeak that characterized the lives of writers – both men and women. Simultaneously I have also allowed texts to speak for themselves, and on occasions lived with the knowledge of bricolage, and un/knowing gaps between real life and fictional representation. Perhaps on those occasions I have veered towards a view that the author is incidental, if not dead, while some other occasions have left me too cold to separate artistic representation from the men and women who create it. The responses, I am afraid, are personal and instinctive, made along a spectrum than a fixed position. To come back to the case at hand, I have chosen to trust my instincts in both things – Sairat is a staggeringly close experience of the relentless nature of caste (particularly) and patriarchy. And secondly, the allegations made by Manjulkar’s ex-wife Sunita have a ring of truth to them. If we believe that this is a contradiction or fence-sitting, and allegiance must be an either/or in nature, I probably fail the test. Meanwhile, I hold back words of wisdom and do not tell Vimala that caste is archaic, and she ought to embrace modernity. The choice is not hers to make.
Rita Kothari is Professor, Translation Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar. She wishes to thank Sarvar Sherry Chand for valuable feedback on this piece.