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Film review: ‘Satyashodhak’ — A missed opportunity

Satyashodhak movie poster

The highly anticipated Marathi film on Jotirao Phule titled ‘Satyashodhak’ released on January 5, 2024. Two Brahmin actors, namely Sandeep Kulkarni and Rajeshwari Deshpande, have enacted the roles of Jotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule. It was no surprise then that the film had already managed to create a buzz around issues pertaining to caste and identity even before its theatrical release.

If we go by popular hearsay, the film seems to have been resoundingly approved by masses and critics alike. What seems to have been embraced wholeheartedly is the portrayal of Phule as an unwavering critic of the Brahmin stranglehold on the everyday lives of farmers and workers. To be fair, there are dialogues and monologues that could come across as a pleasant surprise. In one scene, Phule rages against the Brahmin-authored Vedas and Manusmriti. In another scene, he is teaching schoolchildren about how the Aryas came from Iran and connects it to the popular story of Parshuram defeating the Kshatriya inhabitants.

Even the one-note characterisation of villainous Brahmins, who constantly eulogise the bygone Peshwa rule and spew venom on the Phule couple at every given opportunity, helps in making their cruelty become more accessible. However, I would like to highlight a few things that the film either deliberately attempts to obfuscate or to be more critical, purposefully revels in a strategic portrayal of political ambiguity.

Students of the Satyashodhak movement are aware of Lahuji Salve’s role in imparting physical training to Jotirao Phule in his childhood days. However, Salve’s portrayal in the film, which is true for many other characters and subplots, is an overly dramatised depiction of his valour and heroism. So much so that every time Phule and his colleagues find themselves trapped in vicious episodes of stone-pelting by Brahmins, Salve miraculously appears to save the day. The caricaturing is played to the hilt. Perhaps for viewers unaware of Salve, this entire picturisation of Salve’s heroics could come across as his troop being a private militia of Jotirao Phule.

Furthermore, Salve’s politics is shrouded in secrecy. In one scene, Salve delivers a thundering dialogue saying, “We have to remove the Britishers and replace it with Peshwai again.” It is unclear if this was meant to be a historically accurate portrayal of Salve or if this exposes the political ambiguity of the film. In another scene, Salve is shown to express concern for the future of his Shudra students in his akhada but reiterates his belief in how there is no reason to worry as these are ‘our children… the children of a Tiger’. Perhaps the tiger reference is Salve’s gesture to Chhatrapati Shivaji but more importantly for our purpose over here, Salve seems to identify himself as one among these Shudra students.

At once, Salve is depicted as a warrior hoping to revive Peshwai whereas he is also shown to have a caste allegiance with the everyday Shudras. His on-screen heroism conceals his political fault lines. Moreover, as a matter of historical fact, Salve was also a guru of physical training for figures like Vasudev Balwant Phadke and even BG Tilak in his early days. Unfortunately, Salve’s one-dimensional depiction is used only for mass entertainment and predictably distances itself from such political and historical complexities.

There are certain relationships in the film that deserve more attention. Once again, students of the movement know that Phule and Krishnarao Bhalekar shared an uneasy relationship. There were tensions especially in terms of the role newspapers were supposed to play in enlightening the masses. The film registers Bhalekar’s temptations for starting a newspaper and Phule’s reticence for the same. However, the film seems to suggest that Dinbandhu was already started by Narayan Meghaji Lokhande in Bombay and that Bhalekar had started Dinbandhu later as a response to Vishnushastri Chiplunkar’s critique of Phule in his Nibandhmala. In fact, as has been observed by Arun Shinde in his book Satyashodhak Niyatkalike and others as well, Dinbandhu was started by Krishnarao Bhalekar in 1877, which made it the first Satyashodhak newspaper. This historical fact contradicts both the depictions in the film i.e., Dinbandhu being started as a response to Nibandhmala critiques and it already being a newspaper run by Lokhande from Bombay.

As much as there are film-making liberties and historically dicey formulations, it is difficult to overlook the perfunctory character building of both Jotirao and Savitribai. The film entirely revolves around Jotirao. Throughout the film, it seems that Phule was the ‘leader’, and all his colleagues were playing second fiddle to his larger-than-life persona. When Phule walks, he always strides ahead of everyone in all scenes, almost suggesting that Phule was always keen to lead the way and others meekly followed. For any student of the Samaj’s history, this portrayal of leadership becomes jarring. Put simply, even when there was ample reverence among all the colleagues for Phule’s vision, they never identified Phule as a demigod. Perhaps this comes across as one of the limitations of a biopic done with a mainstream gaze.

More importantly, the film struggles with striking a balance between Phule the reformer and Phule the writer. This is perceptible even in Phule’s childhood scenes. As an attempt to highlight Phule’s capacious outlook, the film excessively labours on portraying Phule’s group of Brahmin friends. Even though it is a well-established fact that Phule had Brahmin friends in his childhood days, it is frustrating to see that the film seems to suggest that all his friends were Brahmins. The scenes where Phule spends time with his friends show us how practically all of them were wearing the sacred thread. It made me feel that Phule had no Shudra friends and was only empathised at that tender age by like-minded Brahmin friends.

Moreover, how the film handles the depiction of Phule’s literary oeuvre is more concerning. In fact, throughout the film, ‘books’ and the ‘content’ in those written works has received a shoddy treatment. The opening credit of the film informs us that “books have been consulted from the Maharashtra government library.” We are never told which these books were. Moving on, Phule’s written works get invoked as abrupt punctuations. For example, there is a scene where a young Phule is reading Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Barring a few poorly edited voiceovers reflecting certain observations from the book, it largely comes across as an exercise of documenting this event in his life. There is no attempt at a more nuanced enquiry of the impact of this writing on Phule’s life.

This continues with how Brahmananche Kasab, Gulamgiri and Shetkaryacha Asud receive scurried one-line descriptions, failing to invite the viewers to think and reflect on what these writings actually entailed. This is also true for Savitribai Phule’s character, who remains a dedicated teacher and a supportive wife of Jotirao Phule and is never allowed to blossom as a writer. It is perplexing to see Savitribai getting relegated to the confines of the four walls of her house even in 2024, when there is path-breaking research happening even in the English language on her writing styles, creative poetic imaginations, and her radical conceptual propositions.[1]Novetzke, Christian Lee. “57″Mother English”: Savitribai Phule on Caste Patriarchy and the Ideology of the English Vernacular.” In Language Ideologies and the Vernacular in Colonial … Continue reading

This half-hearted engagement with Phule’s writings is arguably more pronounced in the depiction of his last work, Sarvjanik Satyadharma Pustak. It is surprising that a film that builds up to the crescendo of the conundrum of ‘what then is the solution to Hindu dharma’, has absolutely nothing to say about what exactly was written in the book. The film begins with the image of the cover page of this book, and through its fluttering pages we are transported to Jotirao’s childhood days. However, for anyone who has read this book, it is not merely a summation of all his lifelong ideas. Phule’s last work was an astonishingly original philosophical enquiry on different facets of everyday life.

The film takes a politically guarded position in so far as it ingeniously refrains from commenting on the actual content of this book. This is very much in line with how the category of ‘religion’ is invoked in the film. ‘Brahmani dharma’ and ‘Hindu dharma’ are used interchangeably. There is no attempt to explore this nuance of when and how did ‘Brahmani dharma’ eventually became visualised as ‘Hindu dharma’.

In fact, there is insufficient background work in terms of how Phule’s thought process evolved over the years especially vis-à-vis religion. In one scene, Phule registers his disapproval of Dinbandhu’s preoccupation with Christianity. Phule retorts by saying how Dinbandhu should focus on the downtrodden of their own religion instead of speaking about Christianity. For a film that claims to have used historical books for their reference, their depiction of Phule distancing himself from Christianity in such a way is disingenuous to say the least. To just give one example, renowned scholar S G Malshe had written an article on Phule and Christianity, which was based on Phule’s writings on Christianity in Dnyanoday.[2]Reference included in Ugale, G.A. Dnyanoday ani Mahatma Phule, Candid Prakashan, Jalna, (2004), p. 78. In this period especially, it seems that Phule was actually encouraging Mahars and Mangs to convert to Christianity. Even Thomas Paine’s book Rights of Man, which Phule is shown to be reading in his childhood days, was critical of Christianity, especially of the position of the priestly figure as a middleman between the masses and the almighty. In any case, an incredibly complex period in terms of the evolving discussions and debates on religious beliefs and the issue of conversion gets whittled down to Phule’s passing reference of him talking about the superfluity of entertaining a discourse on Christianity.

The movie ends with a somewhat aging Dr. B.R. Ambedkar perusing a copy of the Sartyadharma book. This comes across as unconvincing as Ambedkar by this stage had already embarked upon his own journey of searching the ‘true religion’. Staying true to its histrionic film-making, Ambedkar is shown to have finished reading this book and immediately goes out of his room to address a small public gathering. This attempted seamlessness, from Phule to Ambedkar, also conceals the more complex period between the two. It makes the viewer feel that it was only because of Ambedkar that there was perhaps a modicum of possibility for this book to have an afterlife. Much like the entire film, this last scene makes you ponder over the constrictions of mainstream film-making.

Surajkumar Thube is a DPhil student at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford. Thube has contributed book reviews to Scroll, The Book Review, LSE Review of Books and the Oxford Review of Books.

Notes

Notes
1 Novetzke, Christian Lee. “57″Mother English”: Savitribai Phule on Caste Patriarchy and the Ideology of the English Vernacular.” In Language Ideologies and the Vernacular in Colonial and Postcolonial South Asia, 1:57–74. 1st ed. Routledge, 2024.
2 Reference included in Ugale, G.A. Dnyanoday ani Mahatma Phule, Candid Prakashan, Jalna, (2004), p. 78.

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