Run time: 2hr 23 mins
Director: Shailesh Baliram Narwade
Writer: Shailesh Baliram Narwade
A disclaimer to start with: this is not a movie review, but an attempt to think along with the politics, art and possibilities that cinema can create. So, read on dear reader, if you would like to think along with us.
In the times of aggressive demands for Maratha reservations, Bahujan leaders betraying party affinities for fascism and a proportionately large section of the Brahmanetar communities consciously choosing to go the Hindutva way, Jayanti is an interruption in making a critical element of the anti-caste movement, a young Bahujan man, think.
‘Santya,’ the film’s protagonist, is everything that could be possibly ‘wrong’ with the youth today: he drinks, loiters, throws around his weight because of his proximity to the local MLA, sexually harasses the heroine, doesn’t take education seriously, is ready to start a fight at the smallest encroachment on his fragile masculine–upper caste ego, fancies himself as a king of his small vasti in Nagpur, and takes pride in being Chhatrapati’s mavala in his narrow masculinist and communal understanding of Shivaji.
Director Shailesh Baliram Narwade, has taken the first 45 minutes of the film to introduce all of Santya’s vices and shortcomings. And yet, something fundamentally shifts in Santya that makes him choose Ambedkar, Phule along with Shivaji — encountering Love, Truth and Thought. This character arc is what makes this film a truly Ambedkarite film as it goes beyond inevitable tragedy, token symbolisation and essentialising caste-based identity. Jayanti opens up an egalitarian possibility for the slippery politics of the ‘middle’ in the caste order — in terms of thought, love, choice and association as a force to create an Ambedkarite world.
The film opens with a shot of a mountain of garbage, with local varieties of ‘angry young men’ asserting their prowess in a physical fight for the sake of it. As Santya’s character develops, we realise that he comes from not just an Other Backward Class (OBC)/Shudra but also an anti-Ambedkar family. In a scene where a matchmaker mentions why great men like Phule and Ambedkar insisted on education, Santya’s mother, played by Anjali Jogalekar, turns visibly hostile and outright asks the matchmaker whether he’s one of the ‘Jai Bhim’ people. Santya’s mother who cares about her son but doesn’t mollycoddle him, has internalised the logic of Hinduism and caste. Despite having Dalit, Adivasi friends, Santya chooses to remain antipathetic to Ambedkar, except for collecting donations for Ambedkar Jayanti — a communal event, which is critical to maintain his Dalit MLA boss’ hold over the vasti. The MLA, played by Kishor Kadam, is a corrupt politician who uses Bahujan icons superficially for Bahujan votes, reminding us of electoral politics’ limitations in creating a social democracy that Babasaheb Ambedkar himself had alluded to.
Characters that bring in the conflict and advances the journey in the films include Rekha Tekam — a hardworking Adivasi woman who dreams big for her son, whose rape and murder serves as a critical incident that fleshes out conflict and complexities of caste and patriarchy; a Baniya businessman, who is also the rapist, who is confident that the system can be bought; an idealist OBC teacher, Mali Sir, who believes in the power of Ambedkar’s slogan of educate, organise, agitate; and Pallavi, the protagonist’s love interest.
Love as a radical force
On Ambedkar Jayanti, Santya is compelled to reflect on his thoughts when confronted by Pallavi as the community continues to celebrate on the eve of Rekha’s death. Popular anti-caste film-makers Nagraj Manjule and Pa Ranjith’s films have not yet portrayed Dalit women with agency and voice whose character arch grows and thrives. Narwade’s Pallavi, played by Teetiksha Tawade, proves to be an exception.
The character moves beyond the problematically confined representation of either ‘Dalit’ or a ‘woman’: she is a thinking, agile person who is truly loyal to Ambedkar’s thoughts and politics. Pallavi decides how to construct her own life — studying Ambedkar, becoming a teacher, making something noteworthy out of herself and forming associations that create constructive politics. She is vocal and unafraid to make critical demands out of Santya who claims to love her — educate yourself, make something out of yourself, read history, break the shackles of Slavery and encounter Truth. She is more evolved than the man, who is in essence, above her in the graded hierarchy of caste.
When his object of affection publicly questions him about his lack of knowledge of Shivaji’s egalitarian policies for his people, Muslims and women, Santya is shaken. This moment is when we witness love as a radical collision of worlds. As French philosopher Alain Badiou would say, love, as a force that ensures both parties do not remain the same after they encounter it. To really make himself worthy in his or his loved one’s eyes, Santya is compelled to choose love’s emancipatory bedfellow — thought.
Drunk with rage (and alcohol) Santya tries to beat up Rekha’s rapist, but lands up in jail instead. Pallavi’s confrontation is just the starting point of transformation: Santya’s anger at the injustice needs to be tamed and channelised. It’s up to the teacher to become the guiding light. The teacher, played by Milind Shinde, is sadly a one-note character, but is a teacher who goes beyond formal classroom teaching.
It is interesting how Santya is introduced to the thoughts of those who challenged the hierarchical system and fought for justice. While activists, students, journalists, Dalit-Bahujans and Muslims are quite ruthlessly treated by the justice system in real life, sometimes simply for reading political literature and questioning injustice, Narwade consciously takes an imaginative leap: he paints the prison as a space which can make reformative justice possible, a veritable use of cinema’s power to make impossible images appear possible. The film portrays a violence-free prison, where the wardens co-conspire with the teacher and choose a reformative approach over a punitive one. The teacher insists on a resistant Santya reading Govind Pansare’s ‘Shivaji Kon Hota’ and Dhananjay Keer’s biography of Ambedkar while he is jailed.
A hero who reads
The film takes its time to show Santya’s growing inclination towards reading, his change in opinions, his initial hesitation towards reading Ambedkar, as unlike Ambedkar, Santya is neither a Dalit nor a Mahar and has inherited antipathy towards Ambedkar through his family and community. It’s in this precise moment that Santya takes on even more radical steps for becoming a subject to truth — self-reflection, responsibility for actions and the decision to see Ambedkar as not only a ‘Dalit leader,’ but as a truth-seeker. The film portrays reading as a radical act of transformation of self and society. Throughout the film, at different points in his struggle, we see Santya reading books on/by Tukaram, Phule, Pansare and Ambedkar. Santya’s reading list gradually evolves from autobiographies to revolutionary literature.
The pressing question of the OBC/Bahujan
The film engages beautifully with the ‘middle’ that today faces a critical decision — Buddhism or Hinduism, Ambedkar or Hindutva, Vaidik or Avaidik beliefs, rationalism or superstition. It’s an important film at this volatile political moment, which shows a Shudra person decidingly climbing down the ladder of graded hierarchies instead of climbing up, as the theory of Sanskritisation would dictate. And why? For he has now encountered both, the truth of inequality and an axiom of equality.
Santya gets a backlash, is ostracised by his own family and is also laughed at by society. When his Bahujan and casteist mother finds him (ironically) reading Ambedkar’s ‘Shudra Purvi Kon Hote,’ she asks him to choose either Ambedkar or a roof over his head. Santya replies, ‘I would’ve thrown out the book six months ago had I not read it, now that I have, I can’t go back to looking at life the same way.’ A goosebump moment is when he looks back at the family who has just ostracised him and says, ‘You want rights. But not the person who gave them to you!’ Santya has made a decision — to put everything at stake, for he’s seen Truth and cannot unsee it anymore.
From hollow pride to a Satyashodhak
Reading radical thinkers, social reformers and poets, punctures Santya’s ego, falsely inflated with caste pride. Inspired by their struggles, he understands his responsibilities towards himself and society. As his understanding of equality and justice deepens, his behaviour and attitude towards his family, friends, women, coworkers and community members changes remarkably.
Two popular films of our times, Angamaly Diaries and Kumbalangi Nights, have also dealt with the process of masculinity reflecting on itself. However, what is it that essentially changes in Santya? An encounter that goes beyond gender. He has made a decision to become a subject to truth. Satyashodhak! This is a process of debilitating the masculine ego; and Narwade has taken a route that is rooted in both subjectivity to the truth of inequality and emergence out of the allegorical ‘Plato’s Cave.’
Santya — A responsible entrepreneur or a capitalist?
Santya’s sense of responsibility motivates him to be self-reliant and prosper financially. How do we see this move? We debated quite a bit: is succumbing to the capitalist order the only option for those who choose to also be Ambedkarites? Afterall, the protagonists’ financial success seems a bit unrealistic, selling the neoliberal myth of self-made hardworking individuals.
However, aspiring to live a good life must not be dismissed as counter-revolutionary. At one point in the film, Santya discards markers of superstitions he’s been holding on to after reading Phule’s Gulamgiri. A Satyashodhak move from transcendental destiny to being one’s own guiding light (atta deepa bhava), not only does Santya hone his entrepreneurial skills but creates opportunities for his friends (belonging to other marginalised castes and communities). He’s in a position to extend resources to a struggle for equality and justice.
We want to see this move as an aspiration that creates possibilities of ‘leisure for thought’ for his loved ones and comrades who also want to think and live with dignity. A move from precarity to creating a certain ‘excess’ for fellow thinkers that can create possibilities to radically transform self and symbolic orders. Through Santya as a role model (who is felicitated for his contribution to the community), the filmmakers subtly urge the Dalit-Bahujan youths to look at possibilities where they can financially prosper and give back in meaningful ways rather than only being activists in the movement, a prototype of which is celebrated by socialists and the left in India, often at the cost of Dalit-Bahujan dreams. The late Vira Sathidar makes a cameo as an entrepreneur who has made an identity for himself by breaking caste barriers that wanted to keep him confined to sewage cleaning and extends a thought-based camaraderie to Santya to follow his own dreams.
Alas, the film is not without its limitations. With prosaic and forgettable songs, music and lyrics add nothing to the narrative, just a verbal description of what one can already see on the screen. Neither does it break the mainstream format, where the one male protagonist is central and the rest serve as supporting characters to him. Although he has shed his ruffianism, he has to pack a punch towards the end. The scene is also used by the filmmaker to emphasise that they do not subscribe to the Gandhian notion of non-violence, but assert a defensive violence.
Following the mainstream format, the protagonist must be rewarded, awarded and also get the girl at the end. Although Pallavi shines in one of the crucial scenes in the movie, her character just has four speaking scenes, three of which are centred around praising and adoring Santya. Like a typical hero, he has to save the day single-handedly, which in a way negates the efforts of other activists who have given their years to the Rekha Tekam case. In pursuing the idea of a role model, the film can get didactic too. The film has undertaken a sociological and political reading of Ambedkar than Ambedkar’s move to Buddhism. Nonetheless, within this mainstream format, the film presents us with possibilities of reimagining politics of emancipation.
Jayanti insists on rigorous thought, coupled with transformed action. Each line is politically well-crafted: it speaks of a difficult contestation between OBC, Adivasi, Dalit and Muslim politics. Uses of ‘we/me/us/them’ also go beyond identities, but engage with larger dialectical calls for unity of Brahmanetar/non-Brahmin castes as well as Muslims, especially socially and economically marginalised Muslims, by imagining something common against the tyranny of the socially, economically and politically powerful. Narwade and team have used portraits and book titles as a strategic device to show Santya’s voyage in thoughts and (r)evolutionary assertions. Dear reader, we will neither reveal the names of the books nor the names of the subjects of the portraits. It’s a veritable joy to discover them for yourselves! We insist you enjoy this journey too.