The film Fandry, directed by Nagraj Manjule is a Marathi film surrounding the themes of repression, caste and sexuality. Several subversive and implicit themes in the film enrich this story of unrequited love from a lower-caste boy Jabya towards an upper-caste girl Shalu, in the Maharashtrain village of Akolner. The film relies heavily on symbolism to convey to the viewers the protagonist’s attempts to dabble with the actualization of his being while being a member of the only family of Untouchables in their village.
In the film, the pig or ‘fandry’ symbolized caste, and the unprecedented, unwarranted hindrances it creates in the life of the lower castes. The term is also used in a derogatory manner to address Jabya’s family, as synonymous with being ‘worthless’, ‘smelly’, and ‘dirty’. The pig created havoc in the village – while some ran amok with its unexpected arrival, the others bathed in fear of having made physical contact with the pesky and filthy animal. The constant superimposition of caste as being the predominant identity of Jabya’s family, is similar to the prioritization of the catching of the pig – regardless of the event being close to Surekha’s wedding or for it turning into an embarrassing spectacle surrounding Jabya’s school. The rest of the village tirelessly coerces Jabya’s entire family towards the eradication of the pig, and several other menial odd jobs in the village – without any consideration of pay, adequate notice or their will to engage in the same.
The black sparrow in the film, instead is the fleeting symbol of desire that deludes Jabya with its fleeting presence. Jabya is determined to catch it, for the ashes of the rare bird are meant to act as a mesmerizing entrapment to charm Shalu to fall in love with him. In his several attempts to spot and then catch the bird, it flies away but creates anticipation, for Jabya dreams about the life-altering consequences the bird might hold. In one of the most riveting scenes of the film, while Jabya is hiding from his classmates during the pig chasing, he spots the black sparrow within his realizable reach. At this very instance, his furious father finds him and publicly beats him up, while violently rebuking him for not participating in the pig chase. The intersection between the frustrating moments of caste oppression and the glimmering hope surrounding alleviation made me realize that the latter takes the backburner. His final embrace and advertisement of belonging to the lower caste manifests through an explosive moments and colors his entire being, in the stone pelting scene to combat the slurs thrown by the village bullies.
Desire is a theme that runs as an invisible thread in the film. On a keen perusal of the film, I realized that this very invisibility of desire for the lower castes is much like Jabya’s undelivered love letter for Shalu. Right till the film ends, Shalu remains oblivious to Jabya’s intentions and in that regard, there is no manifestation of desire. In every attempt made by Jabya to get one step closer towards the attainment of his desire, there are obstacles like the broken bicycle, the pig-chasing, the holding of the lamp in the procession and his constant summoning to work by his father as opposed to going to school. Caste has such a powerful overriding factor to Jabya’s life. Further, Jabya’s desires are also molded by what is considered to be desirable for the upper castes in his every attempt towards visibility in front of Shalu. He applies powder to attain fair skin, and gazes at a pair of jeans on a mannequin while looking at an image of a model that may be the ‘ideal man’ he strives to be. Lastly, the invisibility of his desire is not only through Shalu’s ignorance of Jabya’s desires, but also is superimposed by Jabya himself, who continuously hides from her in instances when his caste is apparent, i.e. chasing the pig. His attachment of shame subsumes his confidence to approach her, because all his instances of looking upper-caste, i.e. dancing in the village fair, or wearing new clothes – are rare and fleeting like the Black Sparrow’s appearance itself.
The movie also very clearly indicates towards the failure of exceptional cases of members of the lower caste. The character of Chankya, as played by the film’s director Manjule, is someone who tried used the trope of the black sparrow to temporarily enchant a beautiful upper-caste girl. Jabya admires Chankya’s usage of Tantrism to actualize his desires and his sporadic mingling with upper-caste males. Jabya’s father highlights Chankya’s example of non-conformity as a failure, and cautions Jabya to stay away from him, perhaps in his belief of the complete incapacity of social mobility.
The juxtaposition of imagery is very powerful in this movie. The teacher in the school recites a poem by Saint Chokhamela, who belonged to the Mahar caste, while Jabya’s mother is seen collecting wood right outside the classroom – only to invoke laughter by the rest of the classmates. In the school playground, Jabya and his friend Pirya are always lurking around the portraits of B.R. Ambedkar, Savitribai & Jyotirao Phule. They are on the margins both literally but also because from here, they may observe the rest of the children frolicking around, while also Jabya pines for Shalu as she obliviously chats with her friends. Another is the scene where Jabya’s widowed sister pauses for a water break during the frantic pig-chase, in a home where the radio blares a governmental policy concerning free education for all – irrespective of their caste, class, gender or disability. The irony around these scenes is the parallel coexistence of these two worlds. First is the common knowledge and assertion of a historical discourse surrounding the need for the annihilation of caste, contrary to which lays the lived realities and responses to caste – which in contemporaneous times are discriminatory and exploitative.
Finally, I don’t know if I may have the liberty to queer the relationship between Jabya and Pirya – the latter is supportive and ever-present in Jabya’s grueling attempts; in Jabya’s dreams of making money to buy jeans and a t-shirt by selling ice-lollies he cycles with him to the town, navigating the lengths of the dry desert to catch the black sparrow and flattering him by boosting his confidence to approach Shalu. Finally in his weakest moment, he is the only one who stays till the end of the pig chasing while everyone either disperses, or merely sticks around to mock Jabya or be entertained by him. In Jabya’s attack of the village bullies, Pirya urges him to stand up for himself. Further, Pirya vehemently denies his interest in any girl, perhaps suggesting the complete devotion towards Jabya. Whether this relationship may be read into as queer or not, I found the same extremely endearing for the solidarity and empathy shared between the two.
This movie review has been contributed by Katyayani Sinha, Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat.