'Naal' is a sparkling gem, but it oversells idyllic village life (Column: Bollywood Spotight)
Enough has been said and written about "Sairat". In 2018, we even saw a shoddy remake of what we all declared to be the game-changing classic of Marathi cinema.
"Sairat" was probably all of this, and more. But when I saw the film again I found its class conflict, no doubt engendered by the director's own feelings of persecution as a Dalit, to be too impressed by its own portrayal of brutality. The ending seems specially manipulative. I felt as if Manjule wrote the ending (with the brutal honour killing of his protagonists) first and then went on to weave the rest of the story.
In "Naal", the tender sweet innocent film about rural Maharashtra, childhood fantasies and their negation in the clutches of reality, the "Sairat" director is just a producer. He lets a new director -- Sudhakar Reddy Yekkanti -- do the needful. Sudhakar, God bless his untarnished soul, loves rural Maharashtra.
He sees the tiny village in the plot as a stress-free haven, a place where poverty is not stressed. Everyone has enough to eat. The men drink at night, and the women are either cooking or running after their vaguely naughty children. No serious problems of poverty, migration or demonetisation are found here.
The central character is Chaitya, played by an astoundingly unspoilt, sun-soiled child actor Sreenivas Pokale, a boy in a bucolic bubble who one day comes to know that he is an adopted child. Chaitya decides he must meet his real mother who lives in an adjoining village. The scenes in which he begins to act standoffish with his non-biological mother breaks your heart because these moments are built organically into the plot. They also break your heart because they seem to suggest a cruelty that the film does not seem capable of inflicting on its narrative.
But then we get other moments that are not so unselfconscious. The cow and the calf tied outside the mud-and-mortar house get to have their own little metaphorical nook in the plot before Chaitya takes off on a magical journey with his father (played by Manjule) and grandfather. The difficult journey by bullock cart through slush, water, sand and rocks is made to seem like a deglamorised version of a Walt Disney odyssey.
This is where the problem with "Naal" becomes clearly decipherable. This is the world of childhood innocence and an oblivion to rural poverty that Satyajit Ray inhabited in "Pather Panchali". The lyricism worked within the film's given social context, as the director's gaze never floundered/ even as his imagination soared to the skies.
In "Naal", the ‘lyricism' is forced into the creative mindspace of the plot. We are constantly reminded of the film's naturalism. Once you force your way into being ‘natural', it is no longer convincing. "Naal" seems to be designed for film festivals. Sure, the child actor wins you over with his absolutely unaffected presence. But his co-actors seem burdened with their responsibilities of being inheritors of Ray's world. It's a hard cross to bear.
I loved "Naal". But I would have enjoyed it more if it didn't seem like a tourist brochure for ideal rural living. Here you can smell the cowdung without flinching. No one here wants to escape from the near-static life of a village. And that idyllic state of existence in itself becomes a form of escapism.