'Fandry,' A Rural Tale Of Caste Oppression, Paints A Necessary Portrait Of India

(Welcome to A Passage to India, a new series where we explore great works from all over South Asia for unacquainted viewers, all of them available to stream.)

Nagraj Popatrao Manjule seems like a born filmmaker, though he only gravitated towards the profession in his early thirties. His reason, in part, was to reflect his own experiences, those oft unaddressed by the Indian mainstream. His 2011 short Pistulya, for instance, focuses on a child from a Dalit family — a community frequently oppressed within India's long-standing caste hegemony — in a film about hoping and, in some small ways, fighting for an education. This story of searching for a better life, while exposing the perils of rigid social hierarchy, lends its DNA to Manjule's 2014 debut feature, the Marathi-language Fandry, a sublime, hard-hitting tale of longing and circumstance.

In Fandry, Manjule crafts, with every tool at his disposal, what may well be one of the best-directed first features in recent memory. A soulful portrait of character, place and memory, told from the lens of a tumultuous childhood. It builds, incisively, to a stunning, saddening and perhaps even enraging climax, holding accountable those who would uphold the perceived normality of caste oppression. On its way to this potent destination, it takes us on an intimate journey alongside its thirteen-year-old protagonist, Jambhuvant Kachru Mane, AKA Jabya (Somnath Awghade), drawing influence from the likes of Vittorio De Sica's Italian neorealist staple Ladri di biciclette, though maintaining a rhythmic, pulsating energy unique to India's contemporary indie scene. There is, quite simply, nothing like it.

Jabya’s Story

While Fandry employs the cinematic language of the love story — the plot is framed around Jabya's crush on Shallu, a fair-skinned, "upper caste" girl in his class — the film is far from romantic. Jabya and his family, of the nomadic Kaikadi tribe, are the only "untouchables" in (or rather, on the outskirts of) their village of Akolner, not far from Manjule's own hometown of Jeur. Jabya's mother Nani (Chhaya Kadam, Nude) works two labourious jobs to support her family of five — most pressingly, her eldest daughter, whom she hopes to marry off into a better life. Jabya's father Kachru Mane (Kishor Kadam, Black Friday) serves as an all-purpose peon for the village, expected to perform menial tasks unbecoming of the more privileged, like taking care of the town's pig infestation. Jabya is expected to fall into line, though he refuses the orders of those who label him and his family "fandry," the Kaikadi word for "pig." The animal, like Jabya's family, is considered unclean, and coming into physical contact with them requires ritual purification.

Jabya is carefree during the fleeting moments he can afford to be. We see a close up of his slingshot before we ever get a close up of his face — like a David preparing for some unseen Goliath — as he's introduced during what feels like a woodland adventure. The camera floats between the trees, untethered from concern, scored by a pleasant melody that feels like it ought to rise further about twenty seconds in. It doesn't. Soon, Jabya is chastised for having fun, his very presence encroaching on the nothing-in-particular of a random Akolner denizen. Upon returning home, Jabya's reality sets in (for the boy himself, and for the audience), as he's made to skip school for a third straight day to help his family work.

Time is unkind to Jabya on his days away from the classroom. He and his family begin digging at dawn. Mounds of dirt begin to pile up around him by noon. The dirt is as tall as him by dusk. Unlike the film's energetic intro, the camera doesn't move even an inch as it chronicles this day in the life of the Mane family; instead, the frame constricts them. School however, is a different story. While it means putting up with a spoiled "upper caste" bully, and kids who readily call their darker-skinned classmates names like "untouchable," Jabya gets to look upon Shallu from his secluded corners in the classroom and on the playground. He's accompanied by his only friend Pirya (Suraj Pawar, Pistulya), one of two characters in whom he confides. The other is the town's wayward drunk, cycle shop owner Chankya (Manjule himself), who lends Jabya and Pirya bicycles so they can sell popsicles at a nearby town, and who gives Jabya superstitious advice on how to win Shallu's favour. Though, as Jabya mentions in his secret letter to Shallu, people finding out about his advances could have dire consequences.

The village's upcoming Diwali fair presents Jabya and his family with opportunities. Kachru, indebted to the family who have agreed to marry his daughter, has the chance to earn enough money to pay for the wedding and dowry by getting rid of all the nearby pigs. Jabya, who wants desperately to impress Shallu, has the opportunity to purchase a pair of jeans; Fandry captures, subtly but succinctly, the historical and contemporary trickling down of western clothing and western standards of beauty into Indian class norms. Jabya's dark skin is the butt of his classmates' jokes, and he even spends time with a clothespin on his nose to force it into a more slender shape.

Jabya's classroom and the walls of his school playground are adorned with paintings of Dr. Bhimrao "Babasaheb" Ambedkar, an economist and Indian freedom fighter. In many government-mandated school curriculums, Ambedkar's politics are often left unspecific (like those of Mahatma Gandhi, whose anti-blackness and caste-ism go mostly unmentioned), though Ambedkar's key focus was the liberation and empowerment of Dalits and people of "lower" castes. Were these teachings a key facet of Jabya's classroom, one assumes his peers might've treated him better. This Ambedkar's skin however, is lightened to a significant degree; a re-enforcement of what skintones are seen as desirable in Akolner. These light-skinned Ambedkar portraits are constantly framed in proximity to Jabya, either during his longing for Shallu, or during the discrimination he faces. The general refusal to portray Ambedkar or his words in an authentic light appear to have rendered the scholar powerless, even as he gazes upon the goings on of the playground. The past can't help Jabya when it's been whitewashed by the present.

On Caste

The portrayal of "upper" castes in Indian cinema, especially in Bollywood, is often an unspoken default, much like whiteness in the West. This is part of the reason films like Fandry are a necessary counter-narrative — Lagaan for instance, which briefly mentions caste and untouchability, does so unsubstantially. In Fandry however, the structural and economic manifestations of caste are made painfully apparent, even the more implicit ones; Jabya is expected, almost as a matter of fact, to remove a piglet from a nearby sewer, inheriting his socio-economic status from his father.

For a more accurate, more nuanced unpacking of issues related to caste, I turn you over to the folks at Round Table India, whose proximity to experiences like those seen in Fandry make for much more informed reading. In his article "Fandry: The aesthetics of our lives," Yogesh Maitreya writes:

"After watching Fandry, I remembered my grandfather who died a few years ago. The movie suddenly brought back his memories alive, in front of my eyes. An 'untouchable', his name was Gariba (poor). He used to break stones, all his life, to earn a few rupees with which he raised a large family. At the end, I had seen him dying in deprivation and poverty. After a long time I succeeded in acknowledging the reality that he and many others like him were victims of the caste system."

For a detailed look at how the caste system affects many Indians today, I'd recommend the extensive documentary web series Project Heartland directed by Parth Jani and Pratik Parmar. (All five episodes are available on YouTube)

Framing Freedom: Mobility and Visibility

A key facet of caste is that its trauma is inter-generational. Inherited, like the class systems of the west, though with far less flexibility to ascend (in which case affirmative action reservations become a necessary corrective). The ideas of mobility and visibility are of special interest to Manjule, whose visual and thematic framing constantly keeps in mind its characters' social dynamics. In-groups and out-groups are a key visual facet of nearly every scene; the implicit separation of characters made apparent through blocking.

Kachru, for instance, waits diligently outside the town meetings, only allowed to enter to serve the other villagers. Manjule humanizes even these monsters; those who look down upon on Kachru, Jabya and their family are often introduced in positions of vulnerability. Bathing. Changing their clothes. Clipping their toenails. Even worrying about money. These sordid souls are just like the rest of us, which is what makes them all the more terrifying. They're normal people, re-enforcing a status quo that, to them, is as normal as their daily routines.

Chankya, played by Manjule, offers Jabya a quick-fix solution for getting Shallu to like him: the capture, burning and ash-scattering of an elusive black sparrow. The black sparrow is said to be a carefree creature, coming and going as it pleases, making Jabya's quest to capture it about much more than Shallu's attention. It's the rare animal in the vicinity that's both dark and desirable, travelling from town to town without hurdle; a freedom just out of Jabya's reach. The bird ascends. Jabya, on the other hand, is told harshly to descend from the tree branches upon which he attempts to spot it. Touching the bird, Jabya is told, would be akin to touching an "upper caste" Brahmin; the impurity of his touch would lead to the bird being excommunicated from its tribe.

Jabya moves around the school playground to see if Shallu's eyes will follow him, though he's intimidated and shooed off by his territorial bully before his question is answered. Whether or not Shallu even sees Jabya is a matter of uncertainty, though when Jabya dreams of capturing and burning the black sparrow — as if ritualistically imbibing its most attractive qualities — he imagines the scattering of its ashes to have an immediate effect. In his dreams, Shallu looks right at him, unmistakably, recognizing a soul that yearns for nothing more than love and freedom. Jabya knows that jeans, or perhaps a new shirt, will help him be seen on his own terms, though he willingly returns to the anchor of invisibility when the situation demands it. He wants Shallu to see him leaning against a market well, hair combed to the side, smirking playfully at her, handsome as ever. However, he doesn't want her, or any of his classmates, to see him as he helps his parents with menial tasks, like selling their handwoven baskets. He wants to be seen for who he is, not for the status imposed on him.

While Jabya dreams of being visible to Shallu, his nightmares are of immobility. He finds himself trapped at the bottom of a well, unable to ascend and reach the light at the end of its narrowing mouth; a freedom and status he can see, but one placed outside his reach by circumstance. His physical mobility, via the bicycle lent to him, offers him economic mobility; the freedom to earn on his own terms. Though when that freedom is threatened and his bicycle is damaged, his emotional breakdown feels immediately, almost instinctually warranted. Manjule's direction is so deft, his care for the wordless crafting of character so deep, that the damage may as well be to Jabya's sense of hope. 

Whether a pair of wheels, a pair of jeans or a pair of wings, the freedom Jabya craves seldom comes his way. The Diwali festival provides him a rare chance to feel this freedom among the beating of drums and the movement of people lost in the music. In their midst, and despite being physically pushed aside, Jabya moves. Vigorously. Joyfully. His energy envelopes the screen. For Jabya, this movement isn't just momentary enjoyment. It's the feeling of freedom despite being told not to move to the music. It's the feeling of liberation by claiming movement itself, carving out a space to exist unburdened. To simply... be. But circumstance, once again, drags him away from this momentary deliverance, as he's forced to stand still amidst the writhing crowd, balancing a lantern on his head so that the more privileged can enjoy themselves after the sun sets. He is, once again, invisible.

Final Moments

Minor spoilers to follow.

When the film reaches its climax, Jabya wrestles with his visibility, his mobility and his yearning for freedom in a thematic crescendo. On paper, it's a rote sequence of a family catching pigs together; some might even call it comedic – though their immobilization as the National Anthem plays speaks to the structures that bind them. On Manjule's thoughtful screen, the scene is staged as victims of circumstance descending into a valley of ruins — an unkind, uncaring history — as they're surrounded by fellow villagers looking down at them, making light of the very hell they themselves have forced the Mane family into. Jabya, like the pigs he's doomed to chase, feels surrounded by the leering eyes of his classmates; their very gaze reeking of detached condescension.

Even in a scene as simple as a contained pig-run, the stakes feel monumental. On one hand, Jabya has the opportunity to help his family improve their circumstances if they catch every last "fandry." On the other, he's on the run like the pigs themselves, trying to protect the final shreds of a dignity that, in an ideal world, would be a given. Instead, the silent, complicit gaze placed upon him is one of mockery and scorn. And in the film's final moments — without giving much away — Jabya finally decides to turn, perhaps heroically against that very gaze, knowing full well the cost, rendering Fandry a soul-splitting experience.

Fandry is available on Netflix.