50 years of Manthan: A Benegal masterpiece that stirred India’s social conscience

The 1976 classic offers a nuanced take on caste dynamics, patriarchy, and rural development, showcasing Dalit characters as agents of change.

Published : Jun 27, 2024 17:38 IST - 6 MINS READ

Smita Patil and Girish Karnad in Manthan, one of the first Hindi films to showcase a newly independent India struggling to engage with modern ideas of economic development and social reform.

Smita Patil and Girish Karnad in Manthan, one of the first Hindi films to showcase a newly independent India struggling to engage with modern ideas of economic development and social reform. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Any discussion of Shyam Benegal’s classic Manthan (1976) often focusses on the fact that the film was crowdfunded by half a million milk producers of rural Gujarat and that it narrates the inspirational story of Verghese Kurien, the maverick persona behind India’s “White Revolution”. On the film’s 50th anniversary, when it was digitally restored and released at the Cannes Film Festival in May this year, most reviewers highlighted the same facts and celebrated it as one of the finest jewels of parallel cinema. Though these are certainly important anecdotes, such celebration often misses an in-depth engagement with the film’s content and characters.

Manthan can be reviewed as one of the first Hindi films to showcase a newly independent India struggling to engage with modern ideas of economic development and social reform. In this reading, the dairy cooperative movement emerges as a metaphor for India’s model of economic development, but the film really advances far beyond this economic reading.

To offer a critical reflection on complex subjects of modernity and tradition, it examines social inequalities and exposes the domination of the feudal-Brahmanical order in rural society. Importantly, it introduces powerful Dalit characters as parallel heroes, distinct from the stereotypes attached to the conventional Dalit identity.

Examining the Dalit question

Hindi parallel cinema of the 1970s and 1980s emerged as an alternative to commercial popular cinema or masala films. Directors like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Goutam Ghose, and Saeed Akhtar Mirza elevated the culture of cinema to a socially responsible art form that engaged with the social and political realities of contemporary times in a meaningful way. It was seen as a courageous intellectual medium, often associated with the critical Marxist school that dealt with issues of feudal exploitation, unemployment, patriarchy, and crises of urban development, and one that critically reprimanded the ruling classes.

Importantly, in several films, the caste and Dalit questions were also examined realistically, showcasing caste atrocities (Paar, 1984), patriarchal violence (Nishant, 1975), inhumanity (Sadgati, 1981), and the powerlessness of the victims (Damul, 1985). Benegal’s Manthan offers a critical reflection on similar themes, exploring the experiences of Dalit lives, patriarchy, and the Brahmanical caste order.

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Manthan is the story of a small village in Gujarat named Kheda. The rural landscape sees a radical churning in its economic and social life when a young and progressive entrepreneur, Dr Rao (Girish Karnad), enters the village to start a milk cooperative. Rao sees the social customs and conventional class relationships as fundamental hurdles that disallow modern ideas of development to be nurtured in the village. Society is divided between poor Harijans and feudal social elites, a long-standing relationship that is disturbed by Rao’s passionate commitment to start a milk cooperative. (Gandhi coined the word Harijan to identify the former “untouchables” and the word was used frequently in Gujarat and its neighbouring regions.)

The village economy is controlled by the ruling Sarpanch (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) and a cunning businessman, Mishraji (Amrish Puri), and both detest Rao’s idea of a milk cooperative as it will alter the established norms of political power and class relations in the village. Vijay Tendulkar, the screenplay writer, brings important nuances to the story, showcasing the vulnerabilities of the poor villagers, the treacherous power of the ruling classes, and the inability of the modern urban elite to bring any dynamic shift in the conventional roles of rural people.

Interestingly, the story is not biased towards the Nehruvian model of development. Instead, by presenting Chandavarkar (Anant Nag) as an immoral urban character, the film showcases how modern education and class mobility do not make a person an ethical being.

Depicting caste equations

The most interesting part of Manthan is its depiction of caste relationships. We see that the Harijans, though poor, are the major stakeholders in the village economy. Bindu (Smita Patil) is a complex Dalit woman character, surviving along with her toddler son as her husband has abandoned them. However, Bindu is not passive or vulnerable. She is aggressive, free, and loud. She is competitive and does not hesitate to falsely accuse Rao of raping her when Mishraji manipulates her.

Rao, in despair and frustration, decides to leave the village, but the climax goes beyond the village as an unchanging slate filled with corruption and treachery. Bindu emerges instead as a conscientious person and helps Bhola restart the abandoned milk cooperative project, thus challenging the conventional patterns of work associated with her caste people. Compared with other Dalit women characters in Hindi cinema, who often appeared on screen as powerless victims, Bindu’s character is layered, rational, and heroic. 

Actors Naseeruddin Shah (centre left) and Prateik Babbar (right, son of Smita Patil) on the red carpet for the screening of Manthan at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17.

Actors Naseeruddin Shah (centre left) and Prateik Babbar (right, son of Smita Patil) on the red carpet for the screening of Manthan at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17. | Photo Credit: KRISTY SPAROW/Getty Images

Similarly, we see Bhola as an angry and disillusioned Dalit man. He detests reformist urban men because he has had a terrible experience with their wrongdoings in the past. He is also staunchly against the traditional ruling elites as they discriminate against Harijans. But in the company of Rao, he emerges as a leader of the community who understands the workings and advantages of a milk cooperative.

Bhola confronts the feudal elites, organises the Dalits to contest elections against the Sarpanch, and finally becomes the leader of the milk cooperative. The story presents a Dalit character as someone with robust heroic entitlements who becomes a change-maker, rather than simply as a recipient of change wrought by a privileged-caste benefactor or reformer. This is interesting, as in the early 1980s (a few years after the release of Manthan), the Dalit Panthers Movement in Maharashtra was developed along similar lines to build an image of revolutionary Dalit youth.

Complex dualities

Tendulkar’s screenplay uncovers the hidden sides to the characters, showcasing their self-centric concerns and their lack of moral direction. We see the complex dualities within each character and are made to realise that both Dalit powerlessness and the outsider’s passionate reforming zeal are equally impermanent. Rao escapes the village to avoid more trouble, while the Dalits take on the responsibility of the milk cooperative and restart the project. The film offers these overlapping variations to depict the class-caste dialectics, but it also sees a progressive culmination with Dalits arriving as new leaders of social and economic change.

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There is today an emerging genre of Dalit cinema that engages with caste and the Dalit experience. Recent films such as Aarakshan (2011), Guddu Rangeela (2015), Manjhi: The Mountain Man (2015), Dhadak (2018), Article 15 (2019), and Shamshera (2022) have a range of Dalit protagonists who are associated with popular heroic credentials and have emerged as inspirational characters.

Five decades ago, Manthan offered similar possibilities with a story set around class-caste contradictions that allowed Dalit characters to play influential roles. Manthan continues to be relevant today for the way it tackled pressing issues of social and economic injustices, and for its prescription that even the worst-off social groups can adopt modernity as a means of self-reliance and emancipation. The film has not aged and shows how cinema can portray social realities with authenticity and a vision for social transformation without losing artistic beauty.

Harish S. Wankhede is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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