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.

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