Fandry is a 2013 Marathi film which explores the practices and effects of the caste system from the point of view of an adolescent Dalit boy. The movie shows how caste oppression, at the structural and individual level, continues; but, there are changes in the attitude of the lower castes in bearing the brunt of this enduring system. The emerging assertion of lower castes is conveyed, mainly, through the differences between the father, Kachriya, and the son, who is the protagonist – Jabya.
The argument often made by liberal elites is that caste doesn’t ‘exist’ or ‘matter’ anymore in the modern nation-state of India. However, the film shows us that caste is not so easy to annihilate because its structures of inequality are reproduced and re-entrenched through modern institutions rather than eroded.
At the beginning of the movie, we see that even though Jabya and his Brahmin classmate have ‘access’ to the same education in that they go to the same school, Jabya falls behind in his academic work because he has to miss school and help his family work to earn a living. This shows how structural inequalities of class, which are imbricated with caste, cannot be evened out only by providing uniform ‘access to education’. Equality inside the classroom cannot be separated from the inequality outside it.
Jabya’s family works odd jobs in the village, doing construction work, cleaning, and making baskets. When a litter of pigs disrupts the village activities, the task to catch them also falls on Kachriya, as his is the untouchable family in the village. Kachriya’s task of chasing the black pigs and Jabya’s desire of catching the black sparrow drive the plot of the film and symbolically convey the reality of caste and social mobility.
The black pig represents the status of Kachriya and his family because pigs are considered impure according to local custom. It also shows the humiliation that untouchable castes are subjected to, by being treated the same way that pigs are. On the other hand, the black sparrow, which Jabya is intent on catching but which is always out of his reach, represents the position that upper castes occupy. The father chasing the pig and the son chasing the bird represents their differing attitudes towards their status as lower castes.
Kachriya accepts his fate and is submissive to the orders of the upper castes in the village. This is, of course, not so much a ‘choice’ as it is driven by compulsion and fear. Jabya, however, is angry towards the upper castes and is more resistant to accepting his oppression. That he is even dreaming of a relationship with an upper-caste girl shows that he aspires to reach beyond what the constraints of his caste allow. This could also represent the changes at the political level, with the increasing mobilisation and assertion of lower castes.
But the film makes clear that the reality for Dalits is not improving, even if their attitudes might be changing. A nightmare that Jabya has, of him drowning in a dark well from where the light of the sky is visible but unreachable, also seems to suggest the inescapability of his caste or the improbability of moving beyond it.
Throughout the film, we see his reluctance to help his family with work, which consists of manual labour, and his shame at being associated with them. As an adolescent boy, he resents his parents for passing onto him the burden of their caste and is embarrassed by them, which strains relations between them. This shows how caste relations in society affect interpersonal relationships even within the family. He is torn between wanting to hide his caste and having to accept the realities of it.
Jabya studies Sant Chokhamela’s poems in school on how one’s caste does not define their character, and yet, outside the classroom he is defined by his caste. The film raises the question of the role that education plays in challenging or fortifying caste prejudices among the upper castes. There are portraits of Ambedkar, Jyothiba Phule and other anti-caste activists painted on the walls of the school, but this lip-service does not seem to cause any change in practice.
In one of the film’s best scenes, when Kachriya and Jabya are almost about the catch the pig, the National Anthem begins to play from the school ground. Jabya stops and silently stands to attention while his father, though standing still, is restless. This is an important moment that makes the viewers reflect on nationalism and ‘national’ identity. We are tempted to ask: who is the Nation helping and the ideology of nationalism serving? Why should Jabya’s family stand to the national anthem when they are marginalised in the ‘national’ institutions and imagination? Does the fact that Jabya is more willing to stand for the anthem than his father reflect the indoctrination of the education system? The anthem, in a sense, paralyses them. This perhaps represents how ‘national’ identity is used to co-opt marginalised groups such as Dalits into a system which does not work for them, and how it is used to upbraid lower-caste assertion.
At the end, humiliated and heart-broken, Jabya pelts stones at the upper-caste men who taunt him. Jabya’s act of pelting stones is an act of rebellion. He flings a stone at the camera, toward the audience, as a scathing indictment of ourselves, for inflicting and being indifferent to the injustices of the caste system. It shakes us, the audience, out of our complacency and leaves us with a sense of shame and a need to reflect. The film shows that the oppressive caste system persists despite our ‘modern’, ‘secular’ institutions, and offers hope that real change will only come from below, with the changing attitude of the marginalised castes towards their own oppression.