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Fandry (2014) is the sensitive portrayal of a 13-year-old Dalit boy infatuated with an upper-caste girl

Fandry: a searing indictment of caste in modern India

In a society obsessed with notions of purity and pollution, pigs occupy a special position of filth. Deriving its name from this creature at the very bottom of the animal hierarchy, Fandry (slur for wild pig), a Marathi drama, is a scorching critique of the casual casteism that pervades post-modern India, discrimination that’s often hidden in plain sight.

The mantle of showcasing the lived reality of Dalits, largely ignored by contemporary Bollywood in favour of glitzy aspirational themes, has been taken up recently by talented filmmakers in the regional cinema: Gurvinder Singh in the Punjabi Anhe Ghore Da Daan and Nagraj Manjule in Fandry.

Debutante director Manjule adopts an approach similar to Iranian neo realist cinema in his choice of the protagonist: Fandry depicts the world according to Jambuvant (aka Jabya), a sharp, studious thirteen-year-old Dalit boy infatuated with Shalu, an unattainable upper-caste girl in his class.

An unreciprocated infatuation

During the course of the movie, Jabya gradually warms up to the hateful prejudices of the world around him. Acutely aware of his low status, he tries hard to catch Shalu’s attention, he even plans to buy a pair of jeans by selling popsicles on a bicycle, but Shalu looks right through him in the way the unimportant remain invisible ghosts for the eminent.

He roams around the surrounding hills with his friend Pirya, Jabya’s sandpapery post-pubescent voice cracking when he fantasizes about Shalu. Together, they make a fine pair, slingshots in hand, chasing an elusive black sparrow with a kite-like tail supposed to possess the magical power to grant wishes. Jabya’s most ardent wish is Shalu.

Jabya’s family, consisting of his parents, grandfather and two sisters, lives on the fringes of Akolner, a village nestled in the Sahyadri hills. Belonging to the Kaikadi community, a lowly nomadic caste at the bottom of the Hindu food chain, they seek out menial jobs in the village and are often tasked with disposing of untouchable wild pigs that create a nuisance and evoke disgust among other villagers.

They are willing accomplices in their dehumanization, as is in the nature of the caste system, kept under the thumb by upper caste villagers using the implied threat of excommunication. They are too ashamed to even speak their native tongue, a Dravidian language, in favour of Marathi. Jabya’s father Nana aka Kachrya, played by Kishor Kadam, is particularly submissive, ready to spring into service at the slightest mention of his name. Jabya is more proud, or naive; on one occasion, when the village landlord orders him to remove a pig trapped in the ditch, he refuses outright. Nana, who eventually removes the pig, admonishes him saying, “I still want to live in the village.”

 Newfangled forms of caste

Nana’s subdued rage at the casteist machine is just under the surface, finally erupting in the powerful final sequence of the movie: his entire family is engaged in trapping a rogue pig on the sarpanch’s orders; a crowd, including Shalu, is jeering at their futile attempts. However, like most emasculated men, he lashes not at the perpetrators, but at his wife and children.

Eschewing the anachronistic feudal brutality of 80s parallel cinema which evokes hopelessness and bafflement among urban viewers, Fandry tackles the modern mutations of caste humiliation more subtly. During the final sequence, a spectator captures a photo of Jabya’s family’s attempts at capturing the wild pig and posts it on a Facebook chat group, to widespread hilarity.

Also, unlike recent movies like Masaan, which feature progressive caste-crossed lovers who believe education and a good job to be adequate springboards for jumping across caste divides, Shalu in Fandry firmly upholds the status-quo. When a girl is accidentally knocked down by a pig in the schoolyard, Shalu is the one who approaches the teacher seeking permission for her to go home for a ritual bath.

Almost every frame in the village bears the imprint of caste: the sarcastic shot of a classroom lesson about Chokhamela, a medieval untouchable saint in Maharashtra, who preached that a man’s qualities, more than his caste, determine his true worth; the manner in which villagers hesitate to touch Jabya’s family; Jabya rushing off to a Brahmin boy to inquire about the next day’s homework when he misses class to dig ditches with his family; Jabya being bullied and heckled by a rich Patil boy who jealously guards Shalu from Jabya’s longing gaze.

The world of the dispossessed in Fandry is shown with great sensitivity: Nana asking around the village for odd jobs, his frustration under wraps; Jabya ironing his shirt to impress Shalu using an improvised copper bowl containing hot water; a heartbreaking shot of Jabya staring longingly at a pair of jeans in a swanky Van Heusen store, his gateway to Shalu’s heart.

The cinematography is stunning, the brown leafless landscape around Jabya’s mud hut contrasts sharply with the general prosperity of the village, where people have motorcycles and live in well-painted bungalows. The lilting theme music accentuating Jabya and Pirya’s escapades is effective in evoking innocence and fraternity.

The performances are commendably authentic, naturalistic to the extent of seeming documental. Kishor Kadam shines as the servile Nana, resentment simmering in his eyes and hopelessness pervading his body language. He’s almost unrecognizable as the violent police officer in Black Friday who takes perverse pleasure in roughing up convicts during interrogation. Jabya is played to the hilt by Somnath Awaghade, his expressive eyes so honest that you can’t help but completely empathize with him. You feel for him in the throes of unrequited love, you root for him when he finally lashes out at the villagers hurling casteist slurs at his sister.

In the most potent scene of the movie, Jabya & his family momentarily cease their desperate attempts at capturing the pig in deference to the national anthem, exposing the farce of an egalitarian Indian nation-state in the face of unchanging discriminatory attitudes. Attitudes which ensure Jabya never does manage to kill the slippery black sparrow, a metaphor for the unattainable things in Jabya’s world: things like love, respect and dignity, which are still denied to the majority in India.