Thursday, May 26, 2016

On Sairat, and the importance of a good poem

[From my Mint Lounge column]

It isn’t easy to identify the precise moment when the tone of Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat goes from lilting and upbeat to dark and disturbing. The gentle slapstick of the opening scene, a village cricket match with Manjule himself as a droll commentator – a director presiding over his mise-en-scene – is followed by vignettes from a soft-focus love story between two likable young people: Archana (wonderfully played by Rinku Rajguru) is a plucky upper-caste girl while Parshya (Akash Thosar) is the swaggering hero of the match, hitting fours and sixes to rescue his team. It’s all warm and sunshiney at this stage, but if you have experienced Manjule’s earlier feature, the excellent Fandry, you suspect it won’t last.

One turning point is a scene that doesn’t directly involve the Archana-Parshya romance. It is set in a classroom where an adolescent named Prince – the son of a powerful sugar baron-cum-local politician – slaps the new teacher who told him to stop talking on his cellphone. Earlier, during the cricket match, Prince was presented as an object of mirth, striding up to the pavilion like a little nawab, but now this image is swung on its head (in the same way that Parshya will go from being a cricketing hero to an underdog in life). Much like the Fourth Wall-breaking last shot of Fandry, where a stone is hurled straight at the camera and the screen goes black, the classroom scene comes as a bucket of cold water in the viewer’s face.

The suddenness of the violence apart, why is the moment so unsettling? What we are seeing here is the unchallenged hegemony of the powerful over the weak, a version of many familiar sights in the real world – such as the one of the rich, entitled kid getting off his big car in the middle of a city road and slapping the rickshaw-driver who has scraped past him (or even just glared at him a little too long). But the scene also depicts a subset of the privileged-underprivileged relationship: the bullying of those who don’t care about culture or art over those who are trying to teach, learn or just think. 

The teacher was talking about modernism in Marathi poetry when he was distracted by the sound of the boy on his phone. He was giving his students context, history, something they should be able to relate to; he was probably about to share poems and discuss how to read and absorb them. But this process of sensitization, of education in the arts – and in the art of reflection and empathy – is savagely ruptured by a boy who has no use for such trifles.

This episode is a reminder that though Sairat is likely to be categorized as a film about caste relations – that’s what the forbidden love story hinges on – it is about other power equations too, in the realms of class, gender and family. And a question raised along the way is: when certain prejudices are firmly embedded in a society’s consciousness, what happens to education and culture? One of the film’s most poignant sights is the face of the teacher in the next scene, where he goes with the school principal to the sugar-baron’s house. If you’re naïvely optimistic, you might think this scene will be about Prince being reprimanded, but of course it is about the teacher being shown his place: the principal is apologetic (“he didn’t know, he is new here”); the father doesn’t even have to raise his voice; and the teacher seems a little awed, as if he has received a valuable lesson in social propriety. The master has become the student – no way he’ll make a rookie mistake like that again.

Though these characters live in a specific, circumscribed milieu (Prince and his father are the big fish in a small pond), there is a clear link between these scenes and larger goings-on in the country: where influential people can have a book or film banned because it offended their sentiments, where authors are coerced not to be “anti-national” in their writings, and are silenced or even murdered (usually by people who have never read, much less tried to understand, their work). Where textbooks are rewritten or bowdlerized to ensure, as an education minister in Rajasthan recently put it, that no defiant Kanhaiya Kumar-types are born in the state; where another minister manufactures a “degree” out of a six-day stint in a prestigious American university (this is fitting in an era of tweet-sized conversations!), and anti-intellectualism becomes something to wear on your sleeve. In such situations, the sensitizing role of literature, and art in general, becomes both imperiled and more urgent.

Good education – of the sort the teacher in Sairat was trying to impart – can take the form of appreciating a novel, or poetry, that challenges long-held assumptions, and the introspection this involves can make powerful people uncomfortable: no wonder old Hindi cinema has so many authoritarian fathers who can’t stand the thought of sons doing “unmanly” things like leaving the family business to pursue a career in music or art. The uneasy relationship between power and creativity is a theme in other cinemas too. In the Oscar-winning German film The Lives of Others, a hard-edged police captain named Wiesler, assigned to monitor the activities of a playwright suspected of dissidence, finds himself undergoing a transformation, the catalyst for which is art: he is stirred by the playwright’s piano-playing, and by a Brecht essay that he chances to read. “Writers are engineers of the soul,” someone says in this story about a soul-crushingly totalitarian regime. By the end of the film, Wiesler has been elevated; his own soul has been saved.

Others are more resistant to change. A few days after watching Sairat, I happened to see the first episode of the sharply written British-American television series Episodes, in which Friends star Matt LeBlanc plays himself (or rather, a version of himself). The show had an actor auditioning in front of a TV executive, and reading from a scene where a headmaster tells a well-off but empty-headed student to stop trying so hard, because “intelligence can only come in your way”. This is played for comedy, but the series repeatedly comments on the ignorance and crassness of authority figures: the money-minded producer, who controls so much of what viewers around the world get to see, doesn’t watch any TV himself and has little interest in creative processes.

The line about intelligence being a liability reminded me of a startling exchange in Sairat. Learning that his son has been romancing an upper-caste girl, and that the family is in deep trouble for it, Parshya’s father beats his head and laments: “What was the point of educating him?” So hopeless are this man’s circumstances that for him, the purpose of learning is to maintain status quos, not to broaden horizons. In other words: what does education do? It makes you intelligent. If you’re a lower-caste boy trapped in this medieval-era district, what does being intelligent mean? It means being smart enough to know your place in the world, and not to cause trouble or lock eyes with your “superiors”. QED.

Let’s hope too many of our writers and historians don’t internalize that lesson.

[A post about Manjule's earlier film Fandry is here. And a piece about The Lives of Others is here. Also see this comment by my friend, the writer Karthika Nair, about the importance of freedom of artistic expression]

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