A boy from an “untouchable” caste strives to impress a socially superior schoolmate in Nagraj Manjule’s exceptional feature debut, “Fandry.” Beautifully constructing his narrative to form a multidimensional picture of a village in Maharashtra state, the scripter-helmer movingly captures the yearning and humiliation of his young protag along with the societal and family constraints that shackle him. Just when the story becomes most warmhearted, Manjule strikes with a finale of shocking power, testifying to his sophisticated understanding of nuanced storytelling. Winner of the Mumbai festival’s jury grand prize, “Fandry” (the title refers to a type of wild pig) should be nabbed by fests worldwide.
Jabya (Somnath Avghade) and his family come from the Kaikadi tribe, a traditionally nomadic people considered “Dalit,”or untouchable. They eke out a bare existence selling wicker baskets, but Jabya’s father, Kacharu (Kishor Kadam), is frequently called upon for all the tasks deemed beneath the town’s dignity, including getting rid of pesky feral pigs considered particularly unclean. Jabya cringes at the humiliation, especially as he’s become enamored of classmate Shalu (Rajshree Kharat), from one of the higher-ranking families.
Jabya is dying for new clothes, but each time he thinks mom Nani (Chaya Kadam) will give him some change to buy a pair of jeans, she says they can’t spare the dough. Together with friend Piraji (Suraj Pawar), Jabya tries to capture a mythical black sparrow: He’s been told that you can hypnotize a person by throwing black sparrow ashes on them, and he’s keen to try it out on the unattainable Shalu. But the bird (glimpsed in computer-animated form) remains forever out of reach.
Pressures on the family mount when they have to come up with a dowry for Jabya’s sister Surki (Aishvarya Shinde). Increasingly irritable and accustomed to the contempt of those around him, Kacharu doesn’t recognize his son’s dreams or his embarrassment in front of classmates; only Chankya (helmer Manjule, impressive), the eccentric, alcoholic bike repairman, treats Jabya with respect.
Adolescent crushes are usually sappily handled onscreen, but Manjule keeps the sugar levels down, supplying just enough to generate a sweet glow, especially in a beautiful montage sequence in which Jabya reads aloud a love letter he’s written to his lofty dreamgirl. However, it’s the sense of balance in “Fandry” that is most notable, as the film alternates between the usual scenes of kids being, well, kids, and Jabya’s particular burden as the sole Kaikadi in town.
The pacing occasionally flags, especially in a late scene of the family trying to kill a pig, but then the film climaxes with a gut-wrenching closing shot whose ramifications about bullying and violence, with a David-and-Goliath twist, linger in the brain after the final credits have rolled. Also to be singled out is an terrific sequence at the town fair, edited to an increasingly driving rhythm, with Chankya dancing in a disturbingly frenzied manner. In some ways it feels out of place — what’s the message exactly? — but it’s too good to over-scrutinize.
Editing by Chandan Arora (“Krrish 3”) expertly builds scenes throughout, and while the pig sequence is too long and repetitive, the full running time doesn’t stretch beyond that of the average international indie pic. Visuals are attractive, with great use of the surrounding countryside such as a long shot of the flaxen plains, though tonalities tend to get washed out in bright daylight, at least in the DCP. Computer effects for the pig are a bit weak when seen on a large screen, yet few will gripe. Aloknanada Dasgupta’s compositions are pleasantly restrained, even if Manjule occasionally cuts the music off too early.