Youngsters have been lining up at 3 AM in parts of rural Maharashtra to watch Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat. The Marathi film, about a young inter-caste couple, has become the first to earn Rs 60 crore at the box office.
It’s been drawing unprecedented crowds of non-Marathi speakers across the country, including in Delhi-NCR, Kolkata and Goa, since its release three weeks ago with English subtitles.
Despite only minimal marketing, hashtags on Facebook and Twitter are driving those who haven’t seen it yet to make advanced bookings at theatres where it is still running to packed houses.
Director Nagraj Manjule (of the critically acclaimed Fandry, 2013) says he saw this coming.
“When I first narrated the plot to family, friends and people in the film industry, I saw how it moved people,” he says, of this story of young but unbridled love (Sairat is Marathi for ‘wild’) between a first-year college student from a low caste and the daughter of a Maratha politician. “So I decided to let the story shine in an entertaining and honest narration. I think that’s why it’s clicked,” says the National award winner.
Sairat premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.
Back home, the film has prompted students and ex-students of the Savitribai Phule Pune University to form the Sairat Marriage Group to advocate for inter-caste marriages. On the flip side, the Akhil Bhartiya Maratha Mahasangh has protested because they feel their community has been unfairly villainised as casteist.
“My personal experiences of contemporary India inform my scripts,” says the 38-year-old. “I’m not an overtly political person, but when you are part of a system, doing nothing is also a political act. So I reflect my reality in my scripts and my films.”
That reality has an interesting back story. Manjule is technically from the Warda (stonebreaker) caste. His father was a stonebreaker at construction sites.
“Growing up in a village in Solapur, I could only picture myself as the villain in Bollywood. Only villains had names like mine,” he says, chuckling. “Not only was I from a lower caste, I was also dark and not conventionally ‘good looking’.”
At the same time, watching Hindi cinema became like taking an anaesthetic. “The on-screen reality is usually so smooth, the happy ending so assured, that you can safely escape into it,” he says.
While the stories seemed glib and repetitive, the medium grabbed Manjule. “I wanted to tell stories, but actually I wanted to be an actor,” he says, smiling.
He headed to Pune, where he got an MA in Marathi Literature; then he studied mass communication in Ahmednagar.
To fund his Masters, he manned a telephone booth, worked as a watchman, and ironed clothes.
His first work, a short film titled Pistulya (2009), was made with Rs 20,000 borrowed from his two brothers and friends.
It won two National Awards. He then raised Rs 1.75 crore for Fandry, which won the National Award for best directorial debut, among several other accolades.
He acts too. Manjule played small parts in Highway, Silence and Baji, last year.
He and his two brothers -- Bharat, 35, a police constable, and Bhushan, 30, an actor -- all feature in Sairat (Nagraj as a a cricket commentator). Bharat also pitched in with the dialogue.
“We keep it authentic by drawing on real people, people who grew up in rural Maharashtra,” says Nagraj. “The adolescent characters I had imagined could only be found in the villages. You don’t find youngsters like that in the cities.”
So both Sairat’s leads are teenagers, first-time actors and grew up in small-town Maharashtra. The female lead, Archie, is played by 15-year-old school student Rinku Rajguru from Solapur.
The woman is the protagonist, Manjule adds. “She’s breaking boundaries. She rides a Bullet and a tractor with equal ease. She’s not just beautiful, as most Hindi film heroines tend to be. And she’s plump with a wheatish complexion. That’s so true to life.