Filmmaker Nagraj Manjule talks about the success of Sairat and facing issues of caste and discrimination, questions the depiction of women in Bollywood and says his heroine was different, argues Censor Board treats filmmakers ‘like they are in school’, and explains why it is difficult to love in India.
ALAKA SAHANI: Sairat is the highest grosser of all time in Marathi films. Did you expect these numbers when you were making the film?
To an extent, I did think that people would enjoy it very much. I could tell that from the reaction of the people when I narrated the script for the first time, and from how much I enjoyed writing it. Everyone told me that it was outstanding. And once the film was made and I showed the rough cut to my friends, my core group, they nearly woke up the neighbours with their whistling and clapping. At the first public screening of the film, which was in Berlin, the audience was all German. But even that sophisticated and reserved audience applauded loudly. That’s when I knew that people would love it. We used social media a lot. We were confident, given the music, how the film was made and how it looked, that word of mouth would work for us. Of course, I didn’t expect it to be such a big hit.
ALAKA SAHANI: This is a very different film from Fandry, in content and style. With Sairat, you have entered a commercial space, even though you are subverting the commercial tropes.
That was my intention. I wrote this story even before Fandry (2013), but I didn’t know how to tell the story. Then Fandry released and I saw how people reacted. They complained about how despite a song being used for its publicity, there were no songs in the movie itself. The Indian film industry is 100 years old and over time we have internalised the idea that films should have songs. So it becomes difficult to make films like Fandry and Court, which have no songs. I wish more people had watched Fandry. Fandry is a simple story of a boy’s struggle. There was not too much philosophy, nothing that would make you think too much. You can read more meaning into it, but that meaning is not an obstacle in enjoying the story. I wrote the script for Sairat after a lot of deliberation: I will tell my story, but I will tell it your way and then you will watch it.
It is difficult for every filmmaker. It’s not as if making a film in Hindi means you will automatically get appreciation. But Hindi cinema is a bigger pond, so regardless of whether the impact is good or bad, the ripples can travel further. Whether or not they get appreciation is a different issue. Hindi is the national language, so Hindi films make national news. We have the habit of dividing even news into national and regional. Perhaps, this is the first time, I’m being seen on a bigger scale, because I’m a fish from a small pond doing well in a big pond.
We, Marathis, think of Hindi as our language, and anyway, we have been watching Hindi films since we were children. But I don’t believe that it is easier to make a good film in Hindi than in regional language. Making a good film is difficult in any language.
KAVITHA IYER: You mentioned that people are scared of ‘reality’. In the wake of Udta Punjab’s run-in with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), do you think that it is the board which is most scared of ‘reality’?
Absolutely. Looking at the positions that the CBFC takes, it seems as if we are still in school. At a school, teacher says don’t use cuss words. Yet, everyone uses them, including the teacher once outside the school. It is very normal to say a certain expletive in my village. People ask me why do you use expletives that make references to mother or sister. My answer to them was that I do want to use those that refer to male relatives too, but those terms are not commonly used. In Highway (a 2015 Marathi film), there was a dialogue: ‘Tumcha danda uchla’. I don’t know what the CBFC made of it but they wanted the word ‘danda’ removed. The Censor Board perhaps thinks that filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and I can reform people by not using expletives. It does not work that way. The government gives permission for making and selling liquor and later says that people die of it.
PRASHANT NANAWARE: Even though you share your personal experiences in films, did you ever feel the pressure to draw on literature also?
I look at literature and films very differently. Katha (story) and patkatha (script) are very similar words, but very different concepts. That is where the confusion comes in. A story might be great, but whether it can be converted into a good script is a different issue. There is lots of good literature in Hindi and English too. I don’t see how we can say that we have lots of great Marathi literature, so we can make good Marathi films. It comes down to how you interpret a story when you are adapting it for a script. Now, look at Slumdog Millionaire. It is based on an Indian novel called Q&A, and we didn’t even know that it exists. Or, consider Inception. Now, I could say that I want to make a film about how to plant an idea in someone’s head. It would be difficult to write as a story, but it is possible to turn it into a script.
SMITA NAIR: When you thought of depicting romance in Sairat, what was going through your mind?
There are many elements in the film that are based on real experiences. Like when Parshya (the male protagonist in Sairat) jumps into the well. We’ve done it many times. We would jump in, and then say ‘sorry, sorry’. But that was it. We never dared to look into the girl’s eyes. We would be happy that they at least shooed us off. But an artiste always colours these experiences with his imagination, to enhance it. Like the scene where Parshya is running through the fields. That’s pretty run-of-the-mill, but I wanted to take an ordinary thing like that and transform it into something special for the big screen. So in this whole story, yes, many of my experiences are there, but many others have also had these experiences. After watching Sairat, many of the reactions I got were, ‘You have told my story, except the end’.
PRASHANT NANAWARE: When you watch international films, what are the differences you notice in their language—both visual and verbal—vis-a-vis the censorship in Indian movies?
According to me, we Indians have split personality. If you show a kissing scene in a film, people will be dismissive or it will be censored. However, the way women are depicted in movies and the way they are made to dress is worse. People will relieve themselves on the road but not kiss. That’s the mentality in all Indian movies.
ALAKA SAHANI: Did your movies Sairat and Fandry face any censorship issues?
Although my films didn’t have too much that could come under the Censor Board’s scrutiny, there were little things. In Fandry, we were asked to remove a colloquial word which could be an expletive. In Sairat, there were a few scenes where the characters are seen chewing tobacco. The filmmaker is actually trying to spread the message that don’t chew tobacco or taunt people with disability. But some people in the CBFC asked us why we had used the word ‘langda’ in the movie. The point is people don’t understand the message and make an issue out of anything. When a character is using an expletive, it is more than a word. It’s an expression, an emotion. You can remove the expletive, but the emotion remains. If you ban the expletive, as a filmmaker I will look for an alternative. I can use the word ‘cup’ as an expletive. ‘Cup kahinka or chaai kahinki’. The meaning remains. Will CBFC ban the word ‘cup’ too?
ZEESHAN SHAIKH: Caste and discrimination have been central themes in your films…
When you travel by local trains, you want to talk about the population. When you travel by car, you want to talk about traffic. These are the things you experience on a daily basis. I am trying to tell the tales that I have personally experienced. Why should I talk about the moon or aliens when caste issues and discrimination are what I have experienced. Maybe someday I will do a movie on aliens but that will be when we as a country are rid of social evils.
ZEESHAN SHAIKH: You have been criticised for showing the girl from an upper caste in Sairat. What do you have to say about caste politics?
Nothing like that. Discrimination on the basis of caste is very much existent. You, too, will see it if you look closer. Casteism is as real as the ground we walk on, which is why we can’t avoid it. It definitely exists although the way it is experienced is different. The takeaway from Sairat is that don’t kill anyone. Lovers shouldn’t be subjected to violence. I am not against any particular caste, I am against discrimination. I believe I don’t belong to any caste. The film did well, so I am assuming that people have understood my point.
RESHMA RAIKWAR: There has been a lot of discussion about Sairat on the social media.
Before the film’s release, we had put out a few posts about it on social media. After the release, I decided to let the movie do all the talking. I enjoyed the fact that whoever watched the movie had something to say about it. Some were against me and some supported me. The fact that no one’s caste is better than the other’s is correct. People who forward WhatsApp messages are anonymous and shouldn’t be taken seriously. It is dangerous to believe these anonymous messages. Social media, too, is quite dangerous. People will live better lives if you take away mobile phones and Internet from them. Also, people shouldn’t take films too seriously. These are films and let them remain so.
SMITA NAIR: How do you go about writing your films?
I think a lot. I had thought about the story of Sairat long ago. When I wrote it in 2009, I found it boring and left it. Then I started working on Fandry. When Fandry was getting edited, Sairat came back in my mind. Script-writing is a very complex process. I first think of a story, plan it systematically, and then narrate it to myself and others. Then I finally write the script.
SMITA NAIR: Which are some of the films that you like or feel that you should have made it?
Cinema Paradiso (1988) is one film I believe I have made. It resembles my life and character so much. I also liked Bicycle Thieves (1948) and I still believe I should have directed it. I was so happy after watching it that I kept smiling for days.
MOHAMED THAVER: You mentioned in an interview earlier that Bollywood movies usually portray a class difference — the female character might be rich and the male poor. Such films do not usually touch upon the caste issue though. Is it because the issue is controversial or because the director is not experienced enough to talk about it?
In India, people do not want to enter the sensitive zone. But, there are some people who do not care about others’ opinion. It is also easy to relate to the class difference. Even the rich sometimes think that they relate to troubles of the poor. But, when you show a Dalit character, people cannot imagine themselves in the same situation. They would think, ‘That’s not me, I’m not Jabya (the lead in Fandry)’. To sympathise, you have to be of the same caste. There should be such films that point out who you are: the one who throws the stone or the one who gets hit by it.
MANASI PHADKE: Though Sairat is largely script-driven, the last scene seems to have some effects to enhance the shock value.
The last scene has no special effects. The shock it gives is life’s shock that two people who are in love and happy can die suddenly. People say I treated the first half of the film differently from the second. This is funny because the ‘interval’ is an Indian concept. I did not think about it while writing. People want an interval. But, life can change anytime. In the last scene of the film, there is only one effect: Silence. You might think the visuals have been given effects but the trick is only that you see the characters laughing at one moment and suddenly you are shocked. When I was writing, I thought the story can end there.
POOJA PILLAI: What were your interactions with the lead actors like? How did you brief them?
My lead actors need to have confidence. I make sure that I train them on technical fears of facing the camera, light and other things. I train them to believe they can do it. Before I started shooting for the film, the actors were with me for at least three months. We would converse or talk about the script and rehearse daily.
NEHA KULKARNI: The character of Archana Patil is a feisty girl. How did you train Rinku Rajguru to play it?
In Bollywood, I find a girl’s character very weak. She is slim-trim, different from common women. She is portrayed as a stupid girl. All men have six-pack abs. I would think that this is not the truth — a woman would be in distress and a man would come to her rescue. So I wanted to keep my characters different. I made Archie do the things that men do, of running around, etc. In the film, I like Parshya’s character. He is sensible and capable. I like that shift, of imbibing good qualities of women in men.
SMITA NAIR: You say it is difficult to be a lover in this country. Can you elaborate?
When I watch a movie, there are always these romantic songs of ‘Laila’ and ‘Majnu’. I hear the line that love is blind. But in reality, this does not exist. People are scared to love, and even if they love, they do so secretly. Marriage is a far-away prospect. In India, blind love is not possible. I see a lot of men who fall in love after confirming that the girl is from their community.
SADAF MODAK: Symbolism is often used in your films…
The thought behind a scene should be expressed effortlessly. For instance, if two characters talk about casteism directly, it would look weird. The characters should talk about general stuff they do, and what I want to convey should be incorporated in the conversation so that there is scope for interpretation. The aim is to give a context. Visuals give more meaning and interpretation than dialogues. A wall can have so many interpretations. I aim to use as less words as possible.
ALAKA SAHANI: Some people found the film too long. Also, the interval comes after almost two hours.
The length was not a coincidence. I don’t want to reduce the length just for the sake of it. If it bores the audience, then it is a different matter. I had decided on the length after a lot of planning and editing. The second half is much shorter than the first one. I believe the length is not physical but psychological.
ZEESHAN SHAIKH: If you could change one thing about Indian society and politics, what would it be?
We should look at ourselves as Indians. Right now, we are divided by caste, sects, gender and other things. We are everything but Indians. We should have the Indian identity so that we are identified even outside the country.
Transcribed by ENS Mumbai