The most cited aspect of Sairat in the context of the film’s departure from the conventional romantic film is its ending. This figures easily, considering it concludes in a swift swoop: a single gut churning moment that flashes by in a blink. It is a device that, with two films to his credit, Nagraj Manjule has established as his own moniker. Sairat ends in a manner similar to his ending of Fandry - a singular explosive moment designed to evoke a strong reaction from its audience. Yet, while the ending to Fandry aptly distills the truth of everything that has led to it, the ending to Sairat belies most of the rest of the film, to the point where it, while intended to be a cruel reminder of the sickening realities of caste in India, seems like a gratuitous slap across the face.
Sairat engages the deeply entrenched regime of caste in Maharashtra through the device of forbidden love. Prashya is the lower-caste son of a fisherman, and Archie, the daughter of a powerful politician of the Patil caste. Their romance blooms in a consciously typical manner: there is scorn, there is teasing; soon enough, a slow warming to and eventually, full-fledged infatuation. This cycle takes an hour and a half of the film, at which point, Manjule effects an intermission.
In its structure as part love story, part social commentary, the film proves to be unfocused, tone-deaf, and poorly sustained. It is a film of two halves that are completely different from each other, with Manjule treating the budding relationship of Prashya and Archie like a full-tilt mainstream musical and then adopting the tone of grave social commentary while discussing caste. He fails however to blend these two, with the ending being particularly false and as with all Indian films that take it upon themselves to lament ‘society’, schematic.
Infact, Manjule reduces caste to a plot-twist. If the intended effect of the denouement is to shock, then it is merely an accomplishment of the narrative (of sentiment, of plot) and therefore, as social commentary, entirely impotent. If however, it is meant as a political lament, then it is rhetorical, rid of nuance, entirely bland. The fact that the murdered lovers are revealed through a point-of-view shot of their infant walking into the kitchen (and therefore: the reveal! a twist!) is an unfortunate aesthetic choice. If caste is a given, then murder too should be a given, why must the film feign surprise at it? For comparison, consider Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Kooth(2015), where the event of the final murder is not merely inevitable, but also a product of the larger doom that permeates through the environment. In that film, an image of a policeman shooting a dog off-screen at the behest of a senior is followed, a few scenes later, with the image of the dog, still alive – the idea of the sequence, and indeed, of the larger film being that even within the environment laden with paranoia, fear, suspicion and murder, there are possibilities of compassion, generosity and preservation. In Manjule’s pre-determined, hermetically sealed vision of the world, there is no space for such complexity.
It is almost impossible to believe that Prashya and Archie did not have an inkling from the beginning that they were walking on eggshells. Various commentators have identified Archie as a strong female character; but it is essential to note that the film effects this trait by assigning her activities traditionally thought of as masculine: she drives a tractor, rides a motorcycle, makes the first move – a bit like Anurag Kashyap’s films, where heroines wear dark shades to convey sexual liberation. This isn’t subversive as actually, an odd reinforcement of tropes (in the mould of say, Ki and Ka – a feature-length game of roleplay). One may attribute her confidence and entitlement to the fact of her upper-caste background, but in the case of Prashya, Manjule seems to have forgotten the rules of his own setting. How is it that – in a location ridden with caste-based factionalism for years – an individual discovers such supreme individual agency that he doesn’t wonder even for a second about the possible consequences of his love affair? While teenagers may indeed be forgiven for not paying heed to social norms they feel they are exempt from, a film that purports to be honest about caste must not be lost in its own illusion of their euphoric abandon.