The boy says, “He calls me shorty,” and the entire class laughs.
The girl giggles while saying, “A pig touched her.”
When Jabya and his family are catching the pig the villagers laugh.
The villagers are watching Jabya’s suffering like watching IPL.
A stone is thrown at the villager.
We burst out laughing when Jabya hides under the basket that he is selling in the market when he spots Shaalu around and doesn’t want to be spotted selling the basket.
We burst out laughing when the National Anthem is sung and Jabya’s family has to stand in attention position and forego their attention from catching the pig while it is almost caught.
We burst out laughing when Dadasaheb Patil uploads the photo of Jabya’s family catching the pig on Facebook.
We too are watching, like the villagers, at the ‘show’ which is Jabya’s life.
The final stone comes at us- the audience.
In his autobiography A.K. Hangal writing about his days in IPTA speaks about his association with Annabhau Sathe who, when Hangal read out one of his plays on untouchability, said, “Tear this play Comrade. You were born in a Brahmin family. You cannot feel the pulse of the Dalit.”
Interestingly the Director of the film Nagaraj Manjule who plays the role of Chankhya in Fandry has a photo of Annabhau Sathe in his shop. The film and the filmmaker, through Jabya’s stone pelting at the villagers and us say the same, “You cannot feel the pulse of the Dalit.”
The rich may understand
Poor man’s sufferings
But his anxieties, humiliation and helplessness
Are nothing to them but mere stories.
– P. Lankesh
Nagaraj Manjule’s film Fandry is a film which like the text of B.R. Ambedkar – Annihilation of Caste- is directed towards the privileged-caste audience to say to them what it means to be a Dalit and that to be an untouchable is not just to be denied of water and public space like temples, as we are all told by our text books, and suffering due to poverty.
In one of the earliest scenes in the film we see Jabya in the classroom. Note, he is not made to sit separately. There is no visible discrimination as such. Yet caste operates invisibly in the very same space where things appear to be normal and everyone equal.
The teacher while taking attendance calls the entire name of the students where their caste name gets revealed. Teacher also refers to students by their second name as “Mr. Patil” and “Mane.” Caste name becomes the identity in school and one starts becoming schooled into caste without realizing it.
Soon after this the teacher starts teaching an Abhang (a form of devotional poetry which is sung in the praise of Lord Vittala usually referred to as Vitobha) by the Dalit saint of 14th century- Chokhmela.
As the Abhang of Chokhmela is being taught, Jabya sitting in the class is trying to get a glimpse of his muse Shaalu without her noticing it. As he is trying get a glimpse of Shaalu he is threatened then and there by the Sangram. Jabya immediately, though unhappily, turns his gaze away from Shaalu.
While this is happening Jabya’s mother is just outside the classroom collecting firewood. She comes close to the class to see her son in school. As she nears the classroom Jabya is informed by his teacher about his mother and when Jabya walks to the door the mother moves towards the window and the entire class laughs.
Parking this scene aside for a while let us look at Chokhmela and Ambedkar. Though Ambedkar dedicated his book ‘The Untouchables: Who They Are And Why They Became Untouchables’ to the memory of Chokhmela (along with Ravidas and Nandanar) he was very critical about Chokhmela. In 1929 he had presided over a meeting at Trymbak where building a temple for Chokhmela was to be discussed. The meeting decided that, “A real memorial consisted in devoting themselves with unflagging energy to the removal of the blot of untouchability.”
One of the reasons why Ambedkar was not very fond of Chokhmela is because the saint had not really challenged the caste system. Chokhmela lived as a Mahar and died while performing one the traditional duty of a Mahar- building a wall (at Mangalvedhe)
Ambedkar believed that , “They (saints) were not concerned with the struggle between men. They were concerned with the relation between man and god. They did not preach that all men were equal. They preached that all men were equal in the eyes of the god- a very different and very innocuous proposition, which nobody can find difficult to preach or dangerously believe in.”
The abhang of Chokhmela that is being taught in Jabya’s class is:
Oos Dongaa Pari Rasa Nohe Dongaa | Kaaya Bhulalaasi Varaliyaa Rangaa
Kamaan Dongee Pari Teer Nohe Dongaa | Kaaya Bhulalaasi Varaliyaa Rangaa
Nadee Dongee Pari Jala Nohe Donge | Kaaya Bhulalaasi Varaliyaa Rangaa
Tsokhaa Dongaa Pari Bhaav Nohe Dongaa | Kaaya Bhulalaasi Varaliyaa Rangaa
A sugar-cane may be twisted and ugly, but the juice is not, it’s still sweet
The quiver may be disfigured and misshapen, but the arrow is still straight and true
A river may be twisting and contorting, but its waters are not so
Tokha may be grotesque and repulsive, but his mind is not impure
Here Chokha, as Ambedkar rightly points out, is not challenging untouchability or the caste system. As pointed out by Eleanor Zelliot, “The spirit of most of the abhangs is delight in the Lord, delivery from life’s suffering through devotion. Even though agony is there the central message is that Chokha, even though a Mahar, could experience the grace of God.”
Ambedkar explaining the failure of the saints failing by saying, “The masses have been taught that a saint might break the caste, but the common man must not. A saint therefore never became an example an example to follow. He always remained a pious man to be honoured. That the masses have remained staunch believers in caste and untouchability shows that the pious lives and noble sermons of the saints have had no effect on their life and conduct, as against the teachings of the shastras.”
This critique of Ambedkar is turned into a scene here where the teaching of Chokha is in the air and as and when it is being taught (by the same teacher who schools the students into caste in a subtle way of calling them by their second name suggestive of caste) we see a caste Hindu boy threatening a Dalit boy and a Dalit boy feeling ashamed of his mother, his identity being revealed, which is laughed at by the rest of the class. Chokhmela’s abhangs speaks of god-man relationship and that doesn’t change anything in the man-to-man relationship, even when listening to/ being taught the teachings of Chokha. Nagraj Manjule is packing Ambedkar’s criticism in the scene while setting the grounds for the story to unfold.
The above mentioned scene is also Nagaraj Manjule’s criticism of our text books. Chokhmela gets incorporated because he doesn’t challenge the existing system and the ever challenging Ambedkar is reduced just as a Dalit leader and father of Indian constitution in our text books.
In the following scene we see Jabya, at home, questioning his mother aggressively why she had to come near the school. The mother says she came there to get education and become a “Madam.” This response, which invokes laughter in Jabya’s sister, shows the inaccessibility/ denial of education for women and also speaks of the aspiration for education. Jabya then threatens not to attend school if she is seen anywhere around. The mother quite sarcastically answers in the beginning but then says, quite angrily and sarcastically, “Ok your Highness, I won’t come [near your school]”
When Jabya threatens his mother to not to come anywhere near the school we realize that he is trying to escape the humiliation that is being caused due to his identity. Neither the mother nor any member of the family understand this and to them it appears like Jabya is being arrogant and education and exposure is giving him that arrogance.
When Jabya goes missing while catching the pig his father says, “Don’t you know who your father is? You think you are a hero?” A similar comment is made: “Don’t strut around like a big shot’s son,” when Jabya refuses to pick the piglet from the ditch near Patil’s house which is brought to the notice of the father by Mr. Patil. Here the father thinks that Jabya is behaving like “a big shots son,” and Mr. Patil thinks Jabya has “attitude” when he refuses to pock the piglet from the ditch.
Jabya’s attempts in ensuring his dignity doesn’t crumbled gets repeatedly understood as his arrogance. Jabya is being considered as arrogant from both his family and the society. From that which he wants to escape and from that which he wants acceptance as a normal human.
When Jabya asks his mother not to come near school he is only trying to escape his identity and not his family or family members.
Jabya understands the condition of his family and knows he has to give a helping hand and is also willing to give a helping hand. Hence he is willing to catch the pig on a Sunday. He is seen, in the earlier scenes, going to help his family in construction work. But he knows that giving a helping hand can also cost him his dignity and he has to escape it and at some points and after some points he has to cut himself off from the family. Hence he hides behind the wall, in an initial scene, on spotting Shaalu around and hence he escapes from the site of pig hunting when his schoolmates are around.
Jabya is in a difficult position. Jabya is continuously seen trying to balance the tight rope between being there for the family and escaping from the family identity and the humiliation that comes with it.
He is caught between his homework and the construction work his father has taken. He is caught between burning the midnight oil and his father’s angry suggestion to not “waste” the kerosene oil. Caught between understanding the family’s need for Jabya’s hand and his own need to escape the family/ caste identity Jabya makes negotiations and compromises and struggles with it.
Though his attempt is just to escape humiliation and not the family, ironically and unfortunately any attempt in escaping the identity and humiliation, distances him from his family and that is a tragedy.
Not just in his conscious running away, like hiding behind the wall and escaping from the site of hunting but also in his attempts to assert his agency, like his refusal to pick the piglet from the ditch, him refusing to work with his father on a holiday, he becomes slightly distant from his family.
In a scene which looks funny also underlies this tragedy of the rupture between Jabya and his famliy. The father spots the love letter Jabya has written for Shaalu. While we think Jabya is in trouble his father hands over the letter to Jabya asking, “Why are your belongings lying everywhere?” The father being an illiterate hasn’t realized that it is a love letter!
Jabya being the first generation of literate from his family is entering a new world and the family clearly doesn’t understand this new world and has no access to that world. There is a rupture between the family and Jabya.
While Jabya feels humiliated performing this duty his father believes it is their duty and performs them without hesitation without questioning. When Patil complains about Jabya to his father saying, “He doesn’t behave like your son,” he is angered by Jabya not obeying and not being submissive. The father agrees with that notion of Patil and hence reminds Jabya of his identity. When the marriage proposal comes from Jabya’s sister the father mentions that the children do not speak native tongue that of Kaikadi community and we see the father speaking to the guests in the Kaikadi dialect. While the system has made the father accept and submit himself to the identity and the oppression the son wants to break it. While the father cannot imagine a life without the identity and the duty attached to the identity the son cannot imagine a life roped in that identity and the duty attached to the identity.
Jabya not just refuses to pick the piglet but also tells the Patil boy to not refer to him as “blacky”. But his father accepts his life with no rebel no retaliation. Once when he is drunk and the villagers, “have fun” with him by referring to him as “worthless” he is angered slightly but when he comes face to face with the upper caste men his anger melts and he repeats the word, “worthless” as though agreeing with them. Anger is swallowed by the father while it is not taken bent down by Jabya. He wants to fight this bias, he wants to fight the discrimination, and he wants to fight the humiliation.
When his family cannot get him a Jean pant he starts to sell ice-lollies and earns to buy a jean pant. But when his colourful dream gets crushed under a truck he asks Chankhya how much does he owe for the cycle. Later when at the village fair Jabya’s father offers to buy him a new shirt he refuses initially. This shows the self dignity of Jabya which refuses to cut a sorry figure of his poverty or his caste identity and gain anything by it. It plays against the popular construct of a Dailt where the Dalit is portrayed as desperate for help, begs for sympathy.
His longing for a jean pant is not just a simple desire that of any adolescent boy. It has to be seen within the framework of his caste identity. To understand this we should look at the semiotics of Gandhi and Ambedkar’s dressing. While Gandhi moves from blazer to dhoti Ambedkar moves from worn out clothes to blazers (and then to the attire of a bikkhu.) Prasunna, a theater activist and writer from Karnataka, points that for Gandhi it was necessary to undo the blazers on him and for Ambedkar it was necessary to wear a blazer for their politics. Else, he argues, Gandhi would have been lost among other blazers and Ambedkar would have been lost among other worn out dresses. He adds that both, in the end, were voices/ gestures of protest.
So when Jabya wants a jeans pant it is his protest against the poverty he is facing and the image of poverty which is pinned to his being. A brief moment which Manjule focuses that of Jabya applying talcum powder on his face is to be seeing with his longing for jeans for its emotional value and for the message of it. Jabya’s longing can also be seen as the standardization of beauty/ fashion by the ‘mainstream’ which the marginalized has to meet to become an equal and is impossible to achieve.
Jabya’s longing for jeans is also a protest against the dress code designed by the society which doesn’t accept certain kind of dresses being worn by the ‘have not’ section of the society. It is also his aspiration to look different from the people of his caste, his aspiration to escape his identity. It is also his aspiration to stand out and become visible.
This desire for visibility is also a protest against/ refusal to be ignored, rejected, sidelined, and marginalized. At the village fair where Jabya wants to wear the jean pant where he wants to dance in complete visibility and play the tambourine it is the desire for visibility and also the desire for one’s being one’s presence being acknowledged and desire for acceptance.
But any sort of visibility works against the Dalit. A Dalit speaking good English invites nasty comments from the people around. A Dalit riding a bicycle (eg: Priyanka Bhotmange) invites trouble. A Dalit wearing good clothes invites nasty remarks from the people around (eg: the case in Tsundur and Orissa documented by Kalpana and Vasanth Kannabiran ). The visibility, when gained, with great difficulty, the system tries to show them their position. When Jabya starts dancing at the village fair he is being pushed away by the Patil boy and his friend. Finally when Jabya gains visibility it only makes it easy for his father to spot him and make him carry the lamp on his head as tears roll down his cheek endlessly seeing the Patil boy and his friend mock him by dancing right in front of him.
He gets pushed aside. He gets humiliated. All when he wants to be accepted, he wants to belong, he wants to be treated as an equal, he wants his being acknowledged, he wants the touch of humans, touched as a human and wants to be loved.
The first draft of the love letter that Jabya writes for Shaalu begins with, “I know I am not handsome.” But the final draft of it reads, “My dear Shaalu, I don’t have the words to express how much I like you. I know I am poor and not of your caste. But honestly no one could love you as much as I do. Not even your mother. I’m ready to do everything it takes to win your love. If you asked I would lay down my life for you. I care for nothing in this world but you. I think of you all day and night. Trust me this one time. Shaalu if you don’t like me tear this letter and throw it away. I will understand. But please don’t tell your parents about it. Don’t show it to anyone and embarrass me. And if you love me too please write to me or when you come to school tomorrow braid your hair in two plat. I will understand that you love me too. I eagerly await your reply. Only yours- Jambawant.”
The caste identity cripples the morale of the human so much that the complex created by caste identity seeps into every thought and every expression. Poverty, as A Roy argues, is not just about not having money but having no power. Here poverty and caste identity both strip Jabya of his inner strength and make him powerless where he cant have the luxury of writing a love letter which is divorced of the preoccupation of his identity and the fear of consequences.
Jabya knows what possibly can happen if the ‘society’ gets to know of his love for a upper caste girl and him expressing it to her. To love is also denied for an untouchable (See: Amruta Byatnal’s report)and when one loves one cant but be preoccupied by the consequences s/he must face because of the feelings flowering in the heart. Hence the love letter of Jabya says, “Don’t show it to anyone,” and pleads to save him from any kind of embarrassment and humiliation and also violence. And when Jabya dreams of throwing the ashes of black sparrow and winning Shaalu’s love, immediately, in his dreams, the faces of people around him parade before his mind’s eye. Even in his dreams he can’t escape the fear of society and the presence of society which is because of his caste.
But the complexity that the caste identity creates comes across in a much profound way when the entire love letter becomes a soliloquy! The fear is finally such that it doesn’t give the strength or power to Jabya to give the letter to Shaalu. His love letter becomes a soliloquy.
Jabya’s father couldn’t understand his inner and world Shaalu will never know his inner world. Between the inaccessibility of the father to Jabya’s world and inaccessibility of Jabya to Shaalu’s world Jabya struggles. Caste system is knit in such a way that the one struggling to get out of its clutches becomes more and more untouchable and the system keeps pushing the one struggling to come out back into the system.
The father fails to understand the humiliation that Jabya will experience if made to stand with the light on his head. Jabya with that loses, to an extent, his chance to be a part of the world, to be a part of Shaalu’s world, to be accepted by the world to be accepted by Shaalu, to win the love of the world to win the love of Shaalu.
But the final blow comes when Jabya is dragged by his family to catch the pigs next to his school. All his efforts turn a waste here and finally the pessimism of the situation triumphs over his optimism of the will.
The father is told by the head of the village, “your pig created havoc,” [emphasis mine] and instructed to get rid of the pigs before the village wrestling tournament. When said it is difficult to do it alone, suggesting the need for extra hand, he is told to take all his family members. With the wedding of the second daughter around the corner the father is desperate for work and money and hence drags the entire family next day for hunting pigs.
Jabya reluctantly walks with his family to the empty site next to the school where the pigs reside. Jabya who until then has always hid himself carefully from Shaalu spotting him with his family or all the works his family does is now fighting against all hopes of being spotted and the ultimate humiliation of being spotted while catching pigs.
Jabya’s father looking at his family standing and waiting for instruction from him asks, “Are you here to watch the circus?” The anger of the father makes the family enter the site and that is when the school gates open and students start coming to the school. As Jabya’s family starts hunting the pig and the students- fellow students of Jabya- and some villagers start watching the pig hunting as though it is a circus.
When the pig is first being chased Jabya is quick to follow it for it provides him with an opportunity to run away from the site next to school and the sight of his fellow students. And he escapes when the pig runs back near the school, not wanting to be seen by his fellow students and the villagers. In his absence his father is struggling to catch the pig and is calling for him continuously. He can hear his father’s voice and he understands that it is becoming difficult for his father but this time and in this situation having not to forego his dignity becomes more important while being caught between being with his family and wanting not to be humiliated. When he comes back when the school bell rings and all students enter the class, his father threatens him and he gets back to pig hunting. He escapes once again when its break time at school.
When he is standing far away from the site of pig hunting and the sight of his fellow students he keeps continuously hearing his name being called and he being referred to as Fandry. There is no escape from humiliation completely. However fast he runs or far he runs he fails to run away from his identity. But the pig chasing father spots Jabya and brings him back to the site and within the sight of his fellow students and slaps him asking, “You think you are a hero?” While he is being hit by his father the villagers call his name and also whistle and also say, “He managed to catch this fandry after all!”
Jabya now knows that he is being watched by everyone including Shaalu. He is humiliated and helpless and angry. His anger is further accelerated by helplessness finds an outlet in him attacking the pig in the hole with stones. He displaces all his anger on the pigs. When Jabya is yelled at by his father for going missing while hunting, his sister laughs. Jabya who silently listens to his father yelling at him displaces his anger on his sister. While Jabya becomes the subject for his father’s anger to be displaced Jabya’s anger is displaced on his sister. Women, we see here, becoming the oppressed of the oppressed as they are the bottomest of bottom. In the end also we see that while Jabya can express/ vent his anger at the villagers, his sister who also has been mocked at by the villagers has to just swallow her anger and the insults hurled at her.
The pig finally gets caught. Shaalu’s presence breaks Jabya even the more and being humiliated by his work his identity and by the villagers in her presence makes him realize that he can never ever win her love, win the love of the world. He will never be accepted by Shaalu, by the world. He will never be treated as equal by the world, by Shaalu.
Shaalu is the same girl who tells her fellow classmates to not touch the girl who is not touched by the pig. Shaalu is the same girl who stands and watches Jabya and his family chasing the pig. Shaalu is the same girl who laughs when Jabya’s mother comes near the classroom and laughs when Priya complains of him being called as “shorty.” Shaalu, without her knowledge, like her fellow classmates, is being/ has been schooled into caste and the center of education- school- has been the site where kids are being schooled into caste.
While Jabya and his family are hunting the pig we see a friend of Shaalu saying, “come let us go home,” and in response Shaalu says, “Let us watch for some more time.” Schooled into caste she doesn’t realize the violence through spectatorship.
Shaalu is not seen uttering a single word throughout the film and the audience is closest to the character Shaalu because while watching Jabya the audience too is silent and has silently taken part as spectator without realizing the violence of spectatorship and violence on the ones being watched for we, as audience, too are schooled into caste.
Defeated, along with Jabya, we realize is all the icons we saw in the film who form the legacy of Dalit movement- Chokhmela, Annabhau Sathe, Mahatma Phule, Savitribai Phule and also Ambedkar. All these icons of Dalit struggle featuring in Fandry traces the history of the Dalit struggle and movement. The fight of Chokhmela as a part of the Bhakti movement, the fight of Sathe as a part of the communist movement, as an artist and the democratic radical fight of Phule and Ambedkar all seem to have not been enough to break the caste chains. Manjule locates his film within the history of this very struggle and as a continuation of the same legacy, hence he has the photo of Sathe in his shop, an artist who fought through art.
As we mournfully look at Jabya walking by the paintings of Ambedkar and Phule, Ambedkar and Phule look mournfully at us almost asking, “Haven’t you become humans yet?”
Finally when the village boys mocking Jabya and his family while they carry the pig angers Jabya beyond limit and he throws the stone at the villager. This is seen by Shaalu and Shaalu gets scared seeing the angry Jabya and runs away. Shaalu is scared of seeing violent Jabya and runs away. Somewhere we as audience too are scared by the violent Jabya.
The tragedy is that neither for the villagers, Shaalu or for us the audience Jabya being humiliated by the villagers through comments/ remarks is violence. Neither the villagers nor for the audience realize that watching Jabya’s humiliation is also violent on him. The violence of humiliation doesn’t scare us. Plus somewhere deep inside we expect more ethical and sophisticated behavior from the oppressed and not the oppressor. This insensitivity is a shame and the most shameful part is that nobody is ashamed. So the first stone is hurled at the villager and the final stone comes at us, the audience.
PS: In one of the interviews prior to the release of the film the Director had said, “The film had its world premiere in London, and it recently played at Mumbai. People were laughing at both places. But I think that laughter shows where you belong, where your sympathies lie…If we are laughing in these situations we have probably felt like the spectators. But if you can empathise with Jabya, you will not laugh.” If we are untouched by the tragedy of the film the film appears comic at places and if untouched and laugh we are being party to the practice of untouchability. If we are touched then there is no humor, no comedy in the film but only black humor which is a tragedy and we will not laugh. If touched and we recognize the tragedy probably there Fandry has sown the first seed in us to touch the untouched and wake ourselves, at least now, to fight untouchability. Untouchability, we realize, in the end, continues exists because we are too thick skinned to be touched by the tragedy.