Q&A: 'Sairat' director Nagraj Manjule on the duplicity of Indians on love

Q&A: Sairat director Nagraj Manjule on the duplicity of Indians on love

When “Sairat” (Unfettered) released two years ago, the film’s director Nagraj Manjule found himself in the middle of a pop-culture phenomenon. The tale of star-crossed lovers grossed more than one billion rupees ($15 million) at the box office - unprecedented for a Marathi film.

When “Sairat” (Unfettered) released two years ago, the film’s director Nagraj Manjule found himself in the middle of a pop-culture phenomenon. The tale of star-crossed lovers grossed more than one billion rupees ($15 million) at the box office - unprecedented for a Marathi film. The actors were mobbed, lines from the film are quoted verbatim even today, and it inspired the creation of a network to protect runaway couples in a country where marrying outside one’s caste is still taboo in many places.

The film was remade in Kannada; and Telugu, Tamil and Hindi versions are in the works. The Hindi remake, named “Dhadak” (Heartbeat), is being produced by Karan Johar and has Bollywood scions Jhanvi Kapoor and Ishaan Khatter in the lead.

Manjule’s next full-length film, “Jhund”, a Hindi film with Amitabh Bachchan in the lead, is yet to go on floors, but the filmmaker has moved on to other things. His short film, “Paavsacha Nibandha” (On Rain) won him the Golden Lotus for best director in a non-feature film at this year’s National Film Awards. He spoke to Reuters about what “Sairat” did for him, and what role he sees for himself as a Dalit filmmaker. The interview was conducted in Marathi and translated to English.

Q: Why did you want to make a short film (“Paavsacha Nibandha”) after “Sairat”?
A: I always wanted to make this film. In fact, there are three or four short films that I have written and want to direct, but for some reason they kept getting delayed. And when you have made a feature film, your priorities change. You know there is no commercial viability to short films and you push it to the back of the list. After “Sairat”, I got caught up in it for a long time. Then, I started writing the film that I want to do with Mr. (Amitabh) Bachchan and I found that I had some time on hand. I hadn’t shot something for a long time, and my entire team was very insistent that I do. They all prepped for the film because I was preoccupied with other things.

Q: You said you got “caught up” in “Sairat” after it’s blockbuster release. Did you enjoy the period?
A: To be honest, it was beyond me enjoying or not enjoying it. It would be fair to say that I experienced it, more than anything. Some parts I liked, and some I didn’t. Some things happen that are beyond your control and you have to face them, whether you like it or not. There were many ups and downs – lots of success, lots of praise, lots of comments from many people and a complete lack of privacy.

I wanted to be by myself for a while but I found that I was surrounded by people all the time. I told myself that it was part of life now. I know what happened with “Sairat” was exceptional. Earlier, no one recognised me. Now I cannot walk the streets by myself. Not just in Maharashtra, but even outside the state. People know me and recognise me. I find that interesting, but I rue the lack of privacy.

Q: What did “Sairat” do for you?
A: It did so many things for me. It gave me recognition, it gave me confidence. I always felt that Indians should watch the kind of films I wanted to make. My first film “Fandry” went to a lot of international festivals, was screened in a lot of universities and colleges abroad and got a lot of awards, but not as many Indians saw it as I would have liked. “Sairat” fulfilled that dream of mine, and it gave me confidence. I didn’t want to make a commercial film that would be superficial and engineered towards people watching it. To make a film in my style, and still have people like it, is what I wanted. If you ask me, “Sairat” is a sensible film. It went to the Berlin Film Festival, it won awards abroad, and yet, our audiences liked it.

Q: Your next film with Amitabh Bachchan has been delayed. Did you think that things would get easier for you after “Sairat”? That doors would open automatically?
A: The thing is, filmmaking isn’t like a government job that once you get it, you are set for life. Film is one of the mediums, like journalism, where you can do new work every day. You don’t have to hold on to that one success for the rest of your life. Every day there are new challenges.

Q: But after delivering Marathi cinema’s most successful film, surely things should have gotten easier for you?
A: A Marathi film was easy for me even the first time I made it. This one is a Hindi film. It has Mr Bachchan. The scale is bigger. There are many things. Sometimes, the path we choose is rocky and tough. It’s childish to think that there should be no challenges and that everything should be easy. The truth is, you have to endure it, navigate the ups and downs.

Q: “Sairat” is being remade in Hindi, but at least in the first poster, there is no mention of you or the film. Are you okay with that?
A: If it is based on “Sairat”, then I am the original writer of that film. They should give me credit for that. That is all I think. Maybe they will give me credit later in the film. Even if they don’t, it doesn’t matter to me. My “Sairat” is the one I made in Marathi.

Q: But the fact that someone is taking characters you created and changing it, or playing around with it – doesn’t it bother you?
A: To be honest, no. I am happy that someone is trying to recreate this world… So many times, we remake films from other languages in Marathi, but this is the first Marathi film that is being remade in so many languages. How they do it is entirely up to them. I am happy that someone like Karan Johar is making my film. And I want to focus on my work, my film, which I need to get off the ground.

Q: In an environment where we are seeing Dalit voices being amplified, how do you view your responsibility as a filmmaker?
A: I have never hidden where I have come from or what I am. I like that I am able to tell these stories, narrate these experiences. That people who have so far been suppressed relate to my films, gives me happiness.

But what I talk about in my films, or the themes I want to put across, it doesn’t come from a place of responsibility. I am not responsible for reforming society, but I think we should start a conversation. When people watch my film, they should think about it even when they leave the theatre and remember it, during good times and bad. That is what I hope for.

Q: Both your full-length feature films, “Fandry” and “Sairat” speak about social evils, but through the lens of man, woman and love. Why is that perspective important?
A: Without man and woman, there is no meaning to this world. We Indians are so twisted, that we oppose lovers in real life but love to watch them on screen. It is a sign of split personality. The same people who will stone lovers on the street will whistle and dance when they see lovers on screen. There is a strange duplicity to this and I find that interesting to talk about.

Even if my film is about love, I want to say a lot more through that. Also, these are the stories that have come to me so far, so that could be a limitation of mine. There are many more stories that I want to tell, and I will do that as time and my intelligence permits me to do.

Q: You have never worked with seasoned actors before. In “Fandry” and “Sairat”, you choose leads who had never faced the camera. Why did you choose to work with a star for your first Hindi film?
A: It’s not that I had a desire to work with stars. But I wanted to work with Amitabh Bachchan. I have been a fan of only one person since childhood and that is him. I am doing this film because this is a story I feel strongly about and because he is in it. Otherwise, I would have wondered what kind of work I could do with him.

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