On a Thursday evening, you are out to watch a film at a multiplex in the suburbs of Mumbai when loud cheers from an adjacent screen distract you. On digging a little deep, you find that Sairat—a Marathi film directed by Nagraj Manjule—is playing, and the audience has just broken into an impromptu jig to 'Zingaat', a peppy number from the film that's on its way to becoming the party anthem of the season.
That night, Sairat completed two weeks of its release and the theatre still had above 90 per cent occupancy. The film that opened in 400 cinema screens with 8,500 weekly shows on April 29 managed to get 491 cinema screens and 13,040 shows in its third week. It is not surprising then that exhibitor and distributor Akshaye Rathi seems clueless when quizzed about the number of theatres the film is running in. “Honestly, after the first week, I have lost track,” he says. “The number of screens has grown by 25 per cent and the theatres still have 93-94 per cent occupancy.”
The film, which has made 055 crore in the middle of its third week, tracks the story of two star-crossed lovers—Archie (Rinku Rajguru) and Parshya (Akash Thosar)—in the backdrop of caste discrimination. Sairat, which, loosely translated, means boundless, has surpassed box-office collections of recent Marathi blockbusters like Timepass, Lai Bhaari, Timepass 2 and Natsamrat. There have been requests for private screenings in the United States as well. And, the appreciation keeps pouring in from the entire film fraternity—from actors Aamir Khan and Irrfan to directors Subhash Ghai and Anurag Kashyap.
Aamir even messaged Nagraj, praising him for the concept, storyline and treatment. Nagraj, however, responded to him much later. No, he wasn’t acting pricey! Rather, the incessant phone calls forced him to go incommunicado. “For the first two-three days, I loved the response, the attention and the numerous phone calls,” says Nagraj. “But then, the frequency increased. I had to be on the phone six to seven hours a day. It started taking a toll on my health as I was also travelling for the promotions.”
But not everyone is surprised with the response. Atul Gogavale, of the Ajay-Atul music composer duo, says the response, though overwhelming, was expected. “The way we had worked on it, we knew this would be the response,” says Atul. And, while some found the 2-hour 55-minute film a little long, Atul says, “It was even longer—three and a half hours. And many of us tried convincing Nagraj to cut it short. But after the final editing, he refused to budge. He knew what he had made and what would work for the audience.”
Nagraj's biggest strength, says Nitin Keni, who produced the film with Nikhil Sane, is his understanding of the rural milieu in which the film is set. “His approach towards the subject he chooses is very realistic,” says Keni, CEO and founder of Essel Vision Productions (a part of Zee Studios), which has distributed the film. “We couldn’t even imagine the nuances that he brings out in his stories. Whether in Sairat or in his first [feature] film, Fandry, he has dealt with issues that he completely understands.”
Nagraj agrees: “There’s a part of my life in every story I tell. And, there’s a part of me and people around me in every character I write.” His films run parallel to his life. A dalit, he wears his identity on his sleeve, and each of his films—from his first, Pitsulya, a short film, to Fandry and now Sairat—revolves around caste discrimination. He grew up in Jeur village in Karmala taluka of Solapur, which became the location for Sairat. After his master's in Marathi literature, a course in mass communication on a friend's insistence introduced him to filmmaking. But, he had hardly seen any movies beyond the masala Hindi films. It was much later that he was introduced to classics like Bicycle Thieves, Cinema Paradiso and Cast Away.
It was during this time that he discovered films made by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Satyajit Ray. “But I have immensely been interested in literature and that has helped me evolve as a person. The influence of literature and the struggles in my own life led me to write poems, too,” says Nagraj, who has won the Bhairuratan Damani Sahitya Puraskar for his book of poems.
Nagraj says he can find a story anywhere, in anything. “That’s his immaculate quality—to find the right story at the right time and weave it in the best possible way,” says filmmaker Avinash Arun. A friend of Nagraj, he directed the highly acclaimed Killa. “While his filmmaking skills are superb, there’s a soul in his story and that is what resonates with the audience,” he says. It is this soul that has made the film what it is today, says Rathi.
Though stories came easily to Nagraj, money didn't. He had to borrow from his two younger brothers to fund Pitsulya. But since then, there has been no looking back. Thanks to strong scripts with well-etched-out characters, he now has the backing of film studios.
Each of Nagraj's lead actors—from eight-year-old Suraj Pawar in Pistulya and 13-year-old Somnath Awghade in Fandry to Rinku, 15, and Akash, 23, in Sairat—have been his discovery. “I like looking out for people who perfectly fit into the characters I have sketched,” he says. Rinku won a Special Mention from the jury for her portrayal of Archie at the recent National Film Awards. Archie is not your stereotypical village belle, but a headstrong girl from an upper caste family—inspired by his bua (paternal aunt), says Nagraj.
The simple yet unconventional film, no doubt, has struck a chord. In the Solapur belt, people have been requesting additional screenings. “There have been shows running for these groups after the last show of the day, shows that have begun at 3am and 6am,” says Keni. “We saw such a phenomenon last time with Gadar: Ek Prem Katha .” With the film running houseful even in Indore, Goa and Karwar, it is now being remade in Tamil and Gujarati. Like Keni says, “It just makes sense to give a nice story to the audience.”