There is a scene in Marathi film Fandry, where two young boys, stand against Dr. Ambedkar’s painting on a wall and watch some girls play, waiting to see if one pretty girl in particular, glances as much in their direction. One of the boys is dark skinned Jabya. More about this scene later.
Every night before Jabya sleeps, he writes this girl’s name on his slate: Shaalu. This is his sole, blissful secret moment after a day’s exhaustive labour of digging soil with his mother.
Jabya, besides religiously completing his school homework daily, has a love letter ready for Shaalu. The letter says he may not be handsome, he may be poor and he may belong to a caste lower than hers, but there is no one in the world who loves her as much as he does. Just to what length he goes to, in order to win Shaalu’s love, we see throughout the film.
Every day, Jabya and his friend walk and cycle across long miles of dry, arid land, in search of a rare mythical bird, a black sparrow with a long tail. A well-meaning older villager, Chankya, has told him that if he catches the bird, burns it and sprinkles the ashes on Shaalu, she will fall for Jabya. Chankya is the only adult in the village who understands Jabya’s feelings. For he himself was once in love with someone ‘unattainable’. Today he is an alcoholic. But Jabya has faith in black sparrow magic. His days are either spent in search of the elusive bird or in following the pretty girl in school.
So as he stands against the wall with Dr. Ambedkar’s painting on it, his friend, Pirya, tells him, Shaalu looked in his direction. To make sure, they change places. Just to see if she turns and looks. And she does. Jabya smiles happily to himself. Pirya is happy for him. Love is in the village air.
Suddenly a pig runs by. Shaalu screams out that the pig touched her friend and laughs. The girl rushes to the mother who instructs the girl to bathe instantly. Then she sprinkles cow urine on the girl to ‘purify’ her of the pig’s touch. Shaalu continues to laugh.
Sadly, this is no laughing matter for Jabya. His triumphant smile fades. Love is no longer in the pig stenched village air. After all, his father (Kishore Kadam) belongs to that Kaikadi tribe of Dalit or ‘untouchables’; who is called by the villagers to catch pigs and get rid of them. They are not even called by their names. The common name assigned to them is Fandry (a type of wild pig).
Much as Dr. Ambedkar may have fought for them, boys like Jabya are caught in this inherent caste war in rural India. Written and directed by Nagraj Popatrao Manjule, the film unfolds frame by frame, drawing you in completely. Vikram Amladi’s cinematography is as sharp and hard-hitting as the moments shown. Every single detail captured by the lenses, tells the story of abject poverty. Be it the free cow dung that Jabya’s father takes home to cover the cracks on the walls and colour it blue in preparation of Jabya’s sister’s wedding. Or in the ‘lota’ (jug) of hot water used to iron a shirt. Or in the desperation of livelihood, in the way the women steal some cane, weave baskets which Jabya sells for Rs. 100 each. Or the frenzy of total despair as Chankya dances away his woes at a procession and Jabya stands carrying a heavy light on his young shoulders.
The film comes together in the most powerful and deliberately long pre-climax pig chase. Again, both the director and the cinematographer deserve a huge applause for carrying off this feat. The gripping sequence brings together the entire village in its relentless reality: the father who ignores both the cruel villagers around and his tearing knee pain in order to earn his living; the women whose dignity hangs by a thread at every village loafer’s taunt; and most of all, the boy who tries his best to hide from jeering school mates, mainly Shaalu, as he is pushed into his family duties.
Watch out for the moment when Jabya does come within aiming distance of the black sparrow. This is peer pressure, agony of young love, classic use of the pig, the existing caste system and fantastic storytelling; at its heart wrenching best.
Every single actor right from the young Somnath Avghade (Jabya), Suraj Pawar (Pirya), Rajeshwari Kharat (Shaalu) to Kishore Kadam (Kachru), is so real in both looks and performance that you forget, this is acting. Nagraj himself plays Chankya with a casual style that reminds you of Nana Patekar.
If you fail to watch Fandry, you will be doing a disservice to yourself living in this caste based society, to the little boy who has desires like you have, to the Marathi film industry telling far richer stories than the Hindi cinema and to that next Pork Vindallo you dig into.
Not watching the film, will be a slap bigger than calling a boy ‘Fandry’. His name happens to be Jambuwant Kachru Mane.