Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi film, Sairat is breaking box-office records. Even though we have progressed to a great extent, caste remains a major dividing force. Which is why so many of Bollywood love stories have the theme of a ‘zaalim zamana’, a cruel world that conspires against true love.
One of the earliest romantic films with this theme of caste as the enemy of love was way Acchut Kanya, made in 1936; it seems in the interim 80 years little has changed in a section of Indian society.
In Acchut Kanya, Ashok Kumar played Pratap, an upper caste boy man and Devika Rani, was Kasturi, a lower caste girl. They grew up together and there was no parental objection to their childhood friendship, since their fathers were friends, but their romance was severely frowned upon. There was no way a film in that period could have shown a Brahmin-Dalit marriage. There is also a kind of village chorus of men, who uphold the caste system and cause the two families to undergo much misery.
So Pratap gets married to Meera (Manorama), and she to Manu (Anwar), after some tear-shedding. They try to make their marriages work, but trouble comes in the form of Manu’s first wife, who gets jealous of her husband’s new bride. Kajri poisons Meera’s mind too and they both plan to disrupt Kasturi’s life.
They scheme to make Manu believe that Kasturi is still meeting Pratap on the sly. The angry husband attacks Pratap, and during their fight on the railway tracks they do not notice a train coming towards them. In trying to save them Kasturi gets run over by the train and dies. The villages make a monument to her so that her sacrifice is not forgotten. In fact, an old man narrates the story to a couple and saves their troubled marriage. The husband had been planning to kill his wife, and changed his mind, so, as the wife says, Kasturi continues to save lives years after her death.
Based on Niranjan Pal’s story, The Level Crossing, which he adapted into a screenplay, Achyut Kanya was a hit and struck a chord with young people of the time, when the movement against the caste system was starting to gather steam. Legend has it that this is the only film Mahatma Gandhi saw, because of its anti-untouchability theme.
The producer Himashu Rai was an early movie pioneer, and the film had the best technical crew possible; Franz Osten as director, Josef Wirsching as cameraman, Karl Von Spreti as the art director, Madame Andree as the make-up woman and Saraswati Devi (real name Khorshed Homji) as the composer of its hugely popular music. Devika Rani, Rai’s wife was a great beauty and was also involved in the running of their production company Bombay Talkies. The film remains a classic, and if Sairat is appealing so much to audiences today, then the 1936 film remains relevant.