(2013, Marathi with English Subtitles)
Dir.: Nagraj Manjule
The title of this film means “pig” in Marathi. Jabya (Somnath Awghade), the young protagonist, comes from the lowest of the lowly classes – the untouchables, people who live not on the fringe but outside of society, his fathers job is to keep stray pigs off the dirty mud tracks in their village. Pigs are strange creatures, for Muslims it is a sin to eat pork since pigs are considered exceedingly dirty while upper class Hindus in India extrapolate it to be synonymous with the untouchable caste who do all their dirty work including handling human excreta.
But modern India is a brave new world, where age-old divisions of caste and religion have been swept aside by the law but the practice of segregation remains alive. Jabya studies in the same school as the rest of the children in the village and falls hopelessly in love with an upper caste girl, Shalu. The logical question of whether Shalu loves Jabya back is the least consequential question here, but the director does provide a very devastating answer towards the end of the film.
The film uses the physical space of the school very effectively, it is adorned with portraits of the stalwarts of the Dalit emancipation movement – from Ambedkar to Jyotiba Phule. The teacher tries to engage his teenaged pupils with the words of a reformist poet. But during this lesson, Jabya suddenly curls up into an invisible ball when he notices his dishevelled mother cleaning the courtyard outside, an extreme example of “uncool parents at the PTA”. Jabya may have a seat in the same class as Shalu but he can never enter her home.
Ultimately Fandry is about shame, the way it has been baked into the DNA of every ordinary Dalit trapped in a feudal, rural setup. Jabya in his quest to woo the unattainable Shalu, experiences the dilemmas that any adolescent, giddy from a rush of hormones, experiences. But he has the additional burden of history on his wobbly shoulders. His shame at what his parents do and what they expect him to do is constantly at odds with the hopes and desires of a young boy in modern India. Rather then rely on agitprop tropes, Fandry draws its power by peering deep within a Dalit family unit that is deeply divided on what being an untouchable means in 21st century India. Mr Manjule never gets preachy, but stays close to a young boy who wants to don a new pair of jeans and go on a date to a fast food restaurant with the girl of his dreams.
When a piglet gets trapped in a drain and Jabya refuses to pull it out on the orders of an upper caste man, his father quickly steps in to apologise for his sons impunity and does what is expected of him. Mr Manjule, immediately cuts to the hut where Jabya lives with his parents and sisters – the piglet is now dinner, and one cannot help but think that within this grave social injustice is the gift of nutritious food that others reject as filth.
In the most intriguing sub-plot of the film, Jabya tries to capture an elusive black bird. His grown-up friend, an enigmatic man played by the director himself, also low-caste, convinces him that capturing the bird, burning its body and then sprinkling the ashes on Shalu will make her fall in love with Jabya. Jabya is unsure if this will work, but his friend says it’s all in the mind, if Jabya is convinced – it will work. Jabya does come close to catching the black bird but never succeeds. Perhaps this bird is a metaphor for the unattainable solution to the Dalit problem in India. There are too many solutions, too many false starts, too many Dalit politicians peddling the snake oil of emancipation to the electorate.
Although the theme of social oppression in Fandry is universal, we must distinguish it from a situation wherein say a black boy from an inner city neighbourhood falls in love for a college educated white girl in Chicago. Caste unlike race is a philosophy and sometimes even an ideology that has survived millennia of opposing influences from Islam to British colonisation. There is a powerful shot at the end of the film, a guard of honour or sorts as Jabya and his sister walk past a mural depicting the entire pantheon of India’s social reformers, a pig hanging upside down from a pole balanced on their delicate shoulders. This is a cross that Jabya is doomed to bear for the rest of his life, a lesson that his father, a man well broken-in by the system has been trying to teach his wayward son.
Fandry has no clear villains, the upper caste village folk are not being cruel in any new or perverse way( from an Indian standpoint of course) on Jabya and his family. Fandry takes us inside a family of pig catchers and allows us to experience a perverse kind of creeping paralysis. One may walk away shaken and moved by the final gesture of anger from Jabya but ultimately he will be tamed. He will face the dire consequences of his rebellion and fall in line. This is because his family does not belong to what is referred to as the “creamy-layer ” of the lower castes, the thin sliver that has learned to game the system of lucrative job reservations.
In terms of his imagery Mr Manjule mixes lyricism and realism expertly and shows us an utterly confusing world from a pint of view that is consistently Jabyas. I saw this film about a year after its release and wanted to write about it immediately. However I decided to give it time and examine how the film ages in my memory. Revisiting Fandry I can confidently enter the film into the club of the finest Indian films ever.
#Fandry is available on DVD and on Netflix.