Director: Anuj Gulati
Cast: Yogesh Tiwari, Mukesh Pachode, Ram Chandra Singh, Indira Tiwari, Yogeeta Yadav
“First daughters are God’s gift,” the Sarpanch (chieftain) of this remote village – an India we hope will go away if we ignore it long enough – announces into the microphone. For a moment, he turns to look at his ancient-looking council members behind him. “But the second is a man’s blunder,” he prompts, as if first convincing himself of their archaic traditions. The elders nod their head in agreement. He is referring to the “situation” of Karia (Mukesh Pachode), the village potter, who is also an untouchable. Karia has failed to have a son. He is “weak”. However, nobody comes forward when the idea of generously impregnating Karia’s wife is proposed. The way this scene plays out, we almost feel frustrated with the locals for being such narrow-minded classists.
We get a sense of why the Sarpanch (Yogesh Tiwari) is a little reluctant. He is not only younger than the council members, but is also on the verge of being in poor Karia’s position. He already has one daughter, too, and his wife is pregnant for the second time. Tiwari’s performance is the key for us to access this film. He never looks completely in control of his surroundings. He looks torn between two eras. He looks confused, suspicious, perpetually worried, and oddly sympathetic to Karia. There is some “good” in him, even as he presides over the “elimination ritual” of the baby – one of the most stunningly conceived scenes of the year.
Nobody in The Manliest Man is actually a decent person; they live in an inherently backward environment where female infanticide is rampant. And yet, Gulati’s short thrives on the different degrees of “bad”
The concept of his nobility sounds bizarre, and perhaps that’s the intention of Anuj Gulati’s skillfully crafted short film. It messes with the rules of human morality, not unlike most Anurag Kashyap sagas. Nobody in The Manliest Man is actually a decent person; they live in an inherently backward environment where female infanticide is rampant. And yet, Gulati’s short thrives on the different degrees of “bad” – the caste system is apparently a bigger evil, which is why we automatically tend to favour the few characters willing to “help” Karia. It is temporarily lost upon us that this kind of help, too, is criminally repulsive; still, Gulati somehow convinces us that it’s the “intention” that matters.
It invokes a viewing experience similar to that of the Haryanvi indie, G Kutta Se (2017), where we end up empathizing with a young Jatt man for being hesitant, and not as stubbornly brutal as the elders occupying this culture. He is forced to uphold the region’s patriarchal ways in order to not seem like a hypocrite – to set an example – especially as the situation falls upon his own home.
This is a strange feeling: taking sides in an atmosphere where nobody is winning, and where everybody is his own villain.
Midway through this 22-minute film, though, Karia – the victim so far – delivers a fairly long monologue to the Sarpanch. The story he tells isn’t as important as the purpose of this scene. It’s here that we are meant to realize that Karia, in fact, isn’t the protagonist. He plants the seed of doubt in the Sarpanch’s mind. There’s an Omkara-esque Shakespearian-ness to Karia’s behavior.
This sudden transformation and verbosity doesn’t quite go with his unhinged body language. It doesn’t quite fit into a film about quietly conflicted minds. It’s like Karia has suddenly been told to be a self-aware Vishal Bhardwaj adaptation instead of a haplessly disillusioned pariah. By the time the film ends, his words sort of make sense, even if the execution and timing didn’t. And maybe it says a lot about Gulati’s short – one of the best I’ve seen in 2017 – that even its “flaws” are being written about in context of India’s most accomplished directors.
Watch The Manliest Man here: