Director: Nagraj Manjule
Cast: Meghraj Shinde, Gargi Kulkarni, Sheshraj Manjule, Rahi Manjule
Streaming: Zee5 (Marathi)
Pavsacha Nibandh, which translates to "an essay of the rain," opens with picture-perfect frames. Overcast skies. A green valley surrounded by hills. A quaint Maharashtrian village. Children in school. A shack next to a stream. Goats getting wet. And incessant rainfall. It's all very soothing – a visual essay of the monsoons in a nation that is conditioned to romanticize rain by equating it with nature. Which in turn explains the first real scene of this 24-minute short film. A teacher explains the latest assignment, an essay on rain, to his class of students. "We are blessed to be born in a country with so much beauty. We don't deserve to live if we don't write about it," he declares, like a brainwashed parrot who was once told the same thing by his childhood teachers. It's pouring outside, and the kids get drenched by the happy aesthetics of their surroundings.
It's also the kind of visual language that director Nagraj Manjule consciously adopts for his film, as if to juxtapose the privileged, upper-caste gaze of a season with the direness felt by the lowest rung of society. Young Raja (Meghraj Shinde) is the only one who grins at the teacher's dramatic speech. Perhaps he's the only student who recognizes the irony of the adult's words. He looks at water very differently. For the rest of the film, Raja's life is marred by the heavy rains. All he wants to do is write an essay. But his father is a drunk, his mother is hassled by the weather, his little sister is hungry, and the roof of their "shack" is leaking.
At one point, we see the woman herding the buffaloes to safety minutes before herding her own unconscious husband back home. Raja observes all this, before dutifully placing bowls all over the floor to catch the drips, while his mother gathers wood to cook dinner. All they can hear is the wind lashing against their hutment. A single lamp can aid only one of the two activities: the mother's cooking or Raja's homework. It may sound like it, but nothing about this sequence reeks of poverty porn – it's a very matter-of-fact routine in a household trying hard to plug the holes of their existence. The film concludes in school, too, with a lovely scene where words ring hollow after a night of desperate action. For Raja, empty vessels truly make the most noise.
The film looks and sounds beautiful – almost in a #MonsoonChai sort of way – only so that it can subvert our cultural perception of rural life. A white tourist couple visiting the village ask for directions to the waterfall, too. It's not the first time the director has weaponized the heightened visual language of a genre to make a silent point. The Marathi-language Sairat, too, wore the Bollywood song-and-dance template of love in the first half only to jolt us with the pragmatic darkness of companionship in the second. Pavsacha Nibandh thrives on a similar sort of duality, designed to pull the rug out from under the viewer's feet. The result is both elegant and effective. And the snapshot of social inequality feels more dignified – and therefore more tragic – than a film with a background score. It doesn't tell us how to think, unlike the teachers who want their impressionable students to think – about rain, national pride, nature, love – a certain way.
However, I was quite amused by the "this film does not promote corporal punishment" disclaimer when Raja is made to kneel outside the classroom. Given Manjule's powerful sense of satire, I was half-expecting a "this film does not promote heavy rainfall" disclaimer pasted across every other frame. We wouldn't want our children to think that beautiful things can be harmful, would we?