Q: Is Fandry’s story based on your childhood?
MANJULE: Fandry is a coming-of-age story about Jabya, a boy belonging to the Kaikadi community. His family survives by doing petty jobs in the village and also has the extra responsibility of catching the pigs in the village. I was born in the Wadar community in Solapur’s Karmala area. Our profession was to break stones. Though my father never caught pigs, we were actually expected to do that. As a schoolboy, I was ashamed of this reality. Fandry is the word used for pigs in my village and they used to commonly call us too by the same name. Nobody saw anything wrong in this. It was an insult to me, but I had no idea why it was me who was suffering. As a student, my caste was imprinted on me even in school.
Q: Why did you pick caste as the theme for both your first films?
MANJULE: Caste is the reality of our society. Those who don’t suffer the discrimination feel there is no casteism. Just because the middle class thinks that casteism has vanished doesn’t make it a reality. Take the very simple example of marriage. Does a Brahmin groom voluntarily look for a Dalit bride? Caste has become a part of our routine life. Look around you, check among your friends and close circles. I have not tried to profess anything in the film; I only wanted to show the reality.
Q: In an industry where people are hesitant to take a stand on any issue, don’t you think you will be sidelined for your strong views?
MANJULE: Being an Ambedkarite is an honour and there is nothing wrong in it, nothing to hide. He professed the ideology of equality; and was not for any particular caste. He showed the way that every progressive person would like to follow. What’s wrong in following him? I am really not bothered about being sidelined. I was never on the centre stage so how can I be sidelined?
I don’t have high aspirations of being part of the glamour world or the talk-of-the-town. I want to tell my stories to people in my own way. I have my friends, who will be with me in future. I am happy with them.
Q: Many think that Fandry’s end supports violence. What do you think?
MANJULE: If you think that a small boy throwing stones amounts to violence, how do you evaluate society’s treatment of that boy and his family before that? Wasn’t that violence? As a society, we have the habit of calling any retaliation by the oppressed section as violence. We conveniently ignore the oppression and choose to see it as a way of life.
Sumitra Sen - “Aaj Jyotsna Raate” (কোমল গান্ধার Komal Gandhar, 1961)
yesudas - “nee madhu pakaroo” (moodal manju, 1970)
GANGAR: The ‘archaeology’ of Indian cinema has very few relics of ‘independent’ cinema in the context of the cinema of prayoga. How independent is independent cinema in India?
AVIKUNTHAK: Historically once the studio system collapsed after the World War II, Indian films have been independent. That is, if you define independent cinema like the American Independent cinema. But I think this term ‘independent’ cinema, has no meaning in India. Indian cinema has always been part of capitalist modes of production, and therefore, very conservative. Politically, in the late 40s and early 50s, in the immediate wake of the country’s independence movement and freedom, some radical cinema happened but that was co-opted by the rising commerce.
Then it was only the state funded cinema that offered possibility of producing radical cinema in the 70s, because perhaps they were beyond the logic of capital and commerce. Along with the political pessimism of the post-Naxalite India, the state funded cinema did produce some exceptional cinema, but I think that radicalism was only limited to the type of subject matter chosen. Like most of the commercial stuff, they just wrote different scripts, and attempted to tell a story which was not often seen on the screen in Indian cinema theatres. Other than Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, G. Aravindan and John Abraham, I don’t see any filmmaker attempting to experiment with narrative, form or content. In the Indian context, the genealogy of the cinema of prayoga only comes, according to me, from these four filmmakers, who were in some way indebted to Ritwik Ghatak for their cinematographic radicalism.
The documentary short filmmakers who are part of Vikalp can be called the independent cinema in India, they come closest to the idea. However even with documentary cinema, the “genrification” has taken roots, and it has become a hybrid between television aesthetic and propaganda."
In conversation: Ashish Avikunthak with Amrit Gangar [“Cinema Prayoga: Indian Experimental Films 1913-2006”]
শ্যামল ছায়া Shyamol Chhaya, The Land of Peace (2004)
It is important to note that more than any other period in the history of Tamil culture, the non-conjugal sexuality of devadasis became problematic during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Again, as Soneji notes:
On the one hand, the male body needed to be secured from pollution and corruption, strengthened by its commitments to (and control over) the world of monogamous, domesticated female sexuality. On the other hand, economic security and power continued to be expressed through displays of nonconjugal female sexuality that were emblematic of engagements with colonial authority and traditional expressions of sexual virility… (R)einventions of masculinity and citizenship from both within and without the devadasi community led to their (devadasis’) disappearance from public culture and rendered hegemonic the authoritarian morality of the patrifocal domicile. (Soneji, 2012, pp. 94–95)
Thus, the moral and sexual economies of nationalist modernity could not accommodate either the dasi or her art.2 Consequently, the dasi was pushed to the cultural margins of Tamil society, and her art was sanitized and “revived.” Respectable upper-caste—read Brahmin—men and women took up this task of revival—but that is another story, a story that most of us know.3
It is against the backdrop of reforming and domesticating the dasi outlined above that we need to examine the modern discourses on the dasi-figure. While the denigration of the dasi as a spoiler of the conventional family goes far back into ancient times, the particular figuration we witness in early Tamil cinema is an entirely modern phenomenon. But first a quick look at the pre-modern discursive scene. Classical Tamil literature belonging to the Sangam corpus (circa 300 BCE–300 CE) abounds in references to parattais, dasis placed apart from the class of “family women.” While the epics also depict the life of dasis, it is particularly the twin epics of Cilappatikaram and Manimekalai (circa fourth century CE) that treat the subject in quite an elaborate fashion. The story of Kovalan, Kannaki, and Matavi is an archetypal myth of South India and Sri Lanka and has been told and retold in numerous versions and variants.4 The fact that Kannaki has been valorized as a goddess and a variety of cults have been associated with her explains the immense popularity of this story. It is told as folktales, sung as ballads, and performed as plays up to this day.
Cilappatikaram, the finest Tamil epic and authored by the Jaina monk Ilanko Atikal, hailing from the Cera dynasty, narrates the tragic story of Kovalan and Kannaki, both of them born into wealthy families of the mercantile class in the Cola city of Kavirippumpattinam. The epic opens with their grand marriage. Thereafter, they lead a happy married life for some years, before it is interrupted by the introduction of Matavi, a dasi, in Kovalan’s life. Matavi performs her maiden dance performance in the city and the highly amused king gifts her lots of gold. Matavi’s necklace comes for sale and whoever buys it would get the privilege of living with her. Kovalan buys the ornament. He then starts living with Matavi and slowly abandons Kannaki. Matavi dedicates her whole life to Kovalan, whom she comes to love intensely. Years pass until an incident occurs which causes a permanent separation between them. In the meantime, Kovalan has spent all his wealth on Matavi and is now penniless. Returning home, he repents on his past life with Matavi. Shortly afterwards, Kovalan and Kannaki leave for the Pantiya capital Madurai in search of a fortune. Eking out a living in Madurai, Kannaki gives her anklet (cilampu) to her husband to sell in the bazaar. The vicious designs of a goldsmith lead to Kovalan’s arrest and subsequent execution for theft of the queen’s anklet. In a state of despair and fury, Kannaki accuses the King of grave injustice. She breaks her other anklet and shows that it contains rare gems, unlike the queen’s which has pearls in it. Realizing his error and bad judgment, the king collapses and dies on the spot.
In the twelfth century hagiographical epic Periya Puranam or Tiruttontar Puranam,5 the bhakta-saint Cuntarar marries a dasi named Paravaiyar in Tiruvarur. Later, he falls in love with Cankiliyar, a Velalar girl of Tiruvorriyur, and marries her, promising never to leave her. However, driven by his desire to see Paravaiyar and her dance in Tiruvarur, he breaks the pledge and leaves, to suddenly find he has lost his vision. In extreme torment, he begs Siva to restore his sight. Siva makes him undergo a series of trials before he completely restores the bhakta’s vision. While this is a classic case of the God appropriating the devotee’s vision in order to tame it, it is also one of the early instances in which the dasi, her sexuality and her dance are linked to the motif of the loss of vision.6 I shall deal with this thematic in detail later in this article.
The dasi as a locus of all doom for the “family man” also figures in other medieval literary traditions like the viralivitu tutu,7 a genre belonging to the class of prabandha literatures and the nonti natakam,8 a dramatic genre of the late medieval times. Further, Tiruppukal, a collection of bhakti hymns by Arunagirinathar and Tanippatal Tirattu, an anthology of poems by many individual medieval poets, contain verses on dasis. Arunagirinathar particularly regrets his early years with the dasis, and vehemently abuses them in his poems for ruining his life (Alagarsamy, 2011, pp. 75–81).