Manthan (1976)

Manthan

Shyam Benegal, 1976
Runtime: 134 minutes
Language: Hindi, with some English
Starring: Smita Patil, Girish Karnad, Naseeruddin Shah, Amrish Puri

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Synopsis from Wikipedia:
Manthan (English: Churning) is a 1976 Hindi film directed by Shyam Benegal, inspired by the pioneering milk cooperative movement of Verghese Kurien, and is written jointly by him and Vijay Tendulkar. It is set amidst the backdrop of the White Revolution of India. Aside from the great measurable success that this project was, it also demonstrated the power of “collective might” as it was entirely crowdfunded by 500,000 farmers who donated Rs. 2 each. The film traces the origins of the movement through its fictionalised narrative, based around rural empowerment, when a young veterinary surgeon, played by Girish Karnad, a character based on the then National Dairy Development Board chief, the 33-year-old Verghese Kurien, who joined hands with local social worker, Tribhovandas Patel, which led to the setting up of a local milk cooperative, in Anand, Gujarat.

Lauren: I got a distinctly Norma Rae vibe from this film – but it’s not a standalone film about labor rights or the power of collective bargaining. And it’s definitely not a film that can be understood out of context from Indian history. It takes place during the “White Revolution” of the 1970s when India was ramping up dairy production (eventually positioning India, decades later, as the number one dairy producer in the world) and shifting the control of production into the hands of Indian dairy farmers.

Gaurav: The first scenes in the film show us just how pessimistic India still is in the aftermath of colonial rule. There’s a lot of distrust of change. The villagers in the film only know one way of thinking, one way of doing things. If the only sky you’ve ever seen is cloudy and gray, it’s difficult to comprehend that it can be blue; that any other shade can exist. That things can be different. I think this inability to believe in change – this struggle between Idealism and Realism, of the India We Want versus the India We Have – is a big theme of Manthan.

“When you get a thought in your brain, is that the only thought that you can understand? The only way that you can think?” Dr. Rao (Girish Karnad) asks this of Bindu (Smita Patil), a strong-minded Dalit woman in the village, when she resists his offer to help. Dr. Rao is a veterinarian and a young idealist who arrives from the city with the intention of helping the dairy farmers form a milk cooperative. The milk cooperative, he tells them, will help them get a fair price for the dairy they produce. It will build a system where there’s funding available for roads, schools, and even the cost of caring for their cattle.

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But the villagers regard him with skepticism. They don’t want change. They’re comfortable with how things are, even if it might be harming them.

This feels like a legacy of colonialism. This idea of we do things a certain way, this is our way, do not question it, do not challenge it, don’t rock the boat. Change is what risks disrupting the equilibrium. Aren’t things working? Why would you come in and upset the “natural” order of things?

Dr. Rao – moreover, the concept of the milk cooperative itself – introduces revolution. The villagers view revolution as dangerous because it moves them outside of their comfort zone. The community leaders and wealthy dairy buyers see all of this as a threat because the milk cooperative is giving ideas, power and agency to people who don’t normally have those things. Long ago they did, before colonial rule. But it’s been so long that they’ve gotten used to the way things are. Living under the heel of Mishra Ji (Amrish Puri), the local businessman and ostensible diary lord.  Mishra Ji sets the prices. He influences local politics, buys votes, and buys their love.

Lauren: Am I understanding you correctly that you’re saying the reason that many people in post-colonial India are resistant to change is because they saw their world steamrolled by colonial rule and oppression?

Gaurav: This may be too reductive, but I think of it a bit like an abusive relationship. Indians living in the shadow of colonial rule are accustomed to a certain kind of abusive power and authority being lorded over them. And it’s hard to break free from that. Does that make sense?

Lauren: I don’t think that’s reductive. It just gets to the essence of the relationship. It’s a sick system. Colonialism is a sick system. Abusive relationships are sick systems. In a sick system, you’re so exhausted that you become comfortable with what you’re familiar, even if it’s not healthy for you. Even if it’s not what you truly want. You just begin to think you want it, because your abuser has convinced you that you need them – and their guidance, or whatever artifact of that guidance – to keep you on the straight and narrow.

Gaurav:
Let’s go back to Dr. Rao’s first interactions with the villages – in particular, Bindu.

Right away there’s a sense of distrust. You don’t belong here. Who are you? What do you want? Why should I give you the milk I’ve worked hard to farm? There’s an usversus “themdivision, discord, disharmony.


What are your thoughts on that first sequence with Dr. Rao asking Bindu for a sample of her cattle’s milk so that he can analyze the fat content?

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Lauren: The moment she sees him she doesn’t trust him. He’s an outsider from the city. She thinks he’s there from the government to tell her to stop having kids. “The Have-Less Children People Already Came and Went!” she shouts. She’s someone who doesn’t have any fucks left to give when it comes to authority.

I especially loved how when he asked Bindu, “Where is this child’s father?” she shouts, “His father is right here!” She’s talking about herself. We don’t see a man around. (Her husband becomes an issue later.) Our introduction to Bindu is an independent woman who runs her home like a business and on her own terms. She hasn’t quite realized yet how much she may be losing because her community continues to kowtow to the dairy lords lowballing them on the price of milk.

Gaurav: I also appreciate her no fucks left to give attitude. She’s bold, honest, and confrontational.

We’ll examine her story arc over the course of the film later on.

One thing I want to say about Bindu and Dr. Rao is that for all his good intentions – his dream of empowering the villagers to stand up against Mishra Ji, make their own money, settle on their own terms – he still betrays Bindu. Immediately. In that first scene.

When he asks her for a sample of the cow’s milk, she declines. She doesn’t give him permission. So he steals it. Even if Benegal is still romanticizing Dr. Rao as an idealist who knows what’s good for this community, he’s still showing us how even someone looking out for the greater good can abuse their power and wield their agency against those with less.

It’s also a man stealing from a woman – using her for her labor and claiming it as his own. These gender politics are a whole other part of the film.

Lauren: That’s a great point. The film never really examines that moral ambiguity with Dr. Rao again, does it?

Are we supposed to just accept that? As if his choice to steal is based on his ultimate “ethical” goal to show this community how they can run it themselves?

It’s also questionable how he administers care to a sick child in the village when he’s only licensed as a veterinarian. Although – once again with the “greater good” argument – he saves the child. So the action that his own colleague called out at the time as “unethical” is something that we’re now manipulated into accepting as admissible behavior.

Gaurav: It sets a tone for the film. There are a lot of different men who claim to be doing right on behalf of other individuals – for the greater good. And yet this “good” is born of something not quite right. The theft of milk; the use of medicine that is not sanctioned. It’s tainted. It’s sour.

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Lauren: I wonder if that’s what Benegal wanted us to see. Or if he really just wanted us to see it as a doctor with good intentions, who “stumbles” a bit but ultimately gains the trust of the community.

Do you think Benegal cares about moral ambiguity? I feel like acknowledging moral ambiguity is a mark of cinematic realism.

Then again, one of the things that you and I agree is a big issue with this film is that Benegal fails to explore so many of the problems at which he only starts to pry.

I wonder if this film is a bit more romantic than it is realist.

Gaurav: I think it wants to be a bit of both.

He wants to humanize these individuals as people who are flawed and working within a broken system. That’s realist.

But he also romanticizes Dr. Rao’s journey. I think the film spends too much time with him, and not enough time with the true heros of this story, Bindu and Bhola (Naseeruddin Shah), the Harijan or Dalit community leader. Bhola is given a lot more space and character growth than Bindu, especially in the second half of the film.

Still, so much of the film watches Dr. Rao struggle to convince these villagers of the power he’s enabling in them by showing them how to form a milk cooperative. I mean it’s great that he’s doing this, that he’s bringing this knowledge to them, but it’s still through Dr. Rao’s gaze – a gaze that is more urban than rural, more privileged than populist.

What do you think?

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Lauren: We see much more of Dr. Rao’s inner life and internal deliberations, than we do of Bindu’s and Bhola’s. Absolutely. It still seems to reinforce the notion that those with education, wealth, power, access and social capital are the only people who can be intriguing and complex.

So, while the milk cooperative still uplifts these villagers, who are Dalits and looked down upon by nearly everyone else around them, the film still serves the very social stratification that it believes it’s subverting.

I don’t really know that it succeeds in subverting it, ever.

Do I love the fact that the film was financed by crowdfunding from half a million farmers?

Yes.

But its narrative approach is problematic.

Gaurav: That’s a good point and I think we can explore this in a scene that I think is central to this film. I’d like to set the stage for a moment.

Mishra Ji, upon learning that Dr. Rao is there to establish a milk cooperative, warns him that the milk cooperative will only create problems. He tells Dr. Rao that it won’t work because the villagers/locals aren’t capable.

We meet Bhola, a Dalit community leader who is largely silent for the first half of the film, and we also meet the local Panchayat headman. These two aren’t fans of each other. They wield power in different ways; both of them have different visions of how the milk collective should be run and their place in society. Caste politics play a big part in this dispute.

The scene I want to discuss is when they vote to elect a head for the cooperative. Dr. Rao had told everyone in the village, early on, that once the milk cooperative is in swing it’s going to be a democratic process thereon – they’ll elect a leader and work together to determine how prices are set, et cetera.

This election is such a microcosm of India, post-colonial politics, caste, and patriarchy. It’s set up very much like a mini stage play in the middle of the film.

There’s class warfare. We have two groups who see each other from very different perspectives. The Dalits feel as if they’re always being taken advantage of, looked down upon. The Panchayats feel like the Dalits are beneath them, uneducated, dirty, poor.

Mishra Ji is the wealthy landowner who has power over both of these groups. He sets the price of milk and rents out his cows with a high interest rate.

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Lauren: What was it in the election that most provoked you?

Gaurav: Right off we see some of that abuse that’s become structural in the legacy of colonialism.

The Dalits at the election say, “We’ll do as Bhola say. All Dalits will vote the way he does.”

The Panchayat say, “If the Dalits are going to vote that way, then we’ll just convince the village to vote the way our headman does.”

There are accusations and fear of how higher caste people won’t support those in the lower caste, how they’ll trick “us”.

It’s all well and good for Dr. Rao to step in and say, “There is no caste or creed in the milk cooperative. We all benefit equally.” He’s in a place of privilege where he doesn’t have first hand knowledge of what it’s like to be on the underside of that class warfare. Dr. Rao also is quite patronizing here. Describing the villagers as children who squabble. Threatening to terminate the democratic process by getting rid of the vote. Which he does until the villagers come around to the idea and he reinstates voting. So we see him wielding his own authority and privilege with arrogance and impunity.

Lauren: It’s difficult to parse this. Dr. Rao is an idealist. And we know from the film’s onset that idealism is something that is mocked as a youthful error. Mishra Ji laughs and says to him, “Young people want to change the world overnight. This idealism is sheer nonsense. Experience comes with age. This country badly needs dedicated youth.”

It was interesting to me how, after the vote, the Panchayat leader who lost the election tries to negotiate with Dr. Rao.

He begs him to announce that he had won the election, even though he hadn’t, so that he could then “resign” or politely decline to be the leader. He wanted to preserve his dignity.

And Dr. Rao said no.

Gaurav: Status matters so much in this film. Class and caste are markers of privilege and power.

Lauren: And without your social class, the only other thing you have left is your dignity.

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Gaurav: This feels like a good time to mention that so much of this power is bound up in who’s allowed to speak. Which brings us back to Bindu.

You and I have bandied about a lot of thoughts on how she’s used in the film. And make no mistake, she is used.

Lauren: I mean, I feel like Benegal does a bait and switch with Bindu’s character.

She’s introduced to us as outspoken, strongheaded, deliberate, and unyielding.

We laughed when she refers, to the men who are there to buy their milk, as “pimps.” She’s so brash. It’s a delight.

Gaurav: She really is a bright spot in this film. Bindu has so much fire and energy.

It’s a shame that Benegal extinguishes her fire, if I’m being kind about it, and passes over Bindu’s story in favor of Bhola’s. It feels like a theft.

Lauren: Benegal’s narrative in Manthan suffers from a lot of plot holes. Maybe weak storytelling is a better way to describe it.

In the film’s first half, we get this uncompromising version of Bindu. She spars with Dr. Rao. There’s tension and chemistry. Benegal digs into that and gives us one of the film’s most gorgeously paced scenes. He gives us this deeply erotic interaction – deeply erotic even in the absence of nudity or touch – between Bindu and Dr. Rao. It crumbles when she asks him about his wife; they both become uncomfortable and he changes the subject.  

Both are curious about the other. But there’s the dramatic difference in caste. And both are already married.

It’s a subplot with a lot of really compelling potential that Benegal decides to just fizzle out.

Gaurav: There’s some lovely tension built in those early scenes with Bindu and Dr. Rao but you’re right, it’s not allowed to go anywhere.


Lauren:
The closest we come to seeing it explored is through Dr. Rao’s colleague who has an affair with a Dalit woman, resulting in the Dalit woman’s husband beating her and Dr. Rao kicking out his colleague for abusing his power and interfering in the villager’s private lives. When Dr. Rao’s wife – who comes to stay with him in the village –  finds about him expelling his colleague and asks why, he tells his wife, “You wouldn’t understand.” I suspect this is a subtle way of showing that Dr. Rao feels attracted to Bindu, who he knows he can’t be with because she’s a Dalit. It’s really personal for him. The last person he wants to explore that with is his wife.

Gaurav: Benegal introduces Rao’s wife midway through the film. It seems like with her arrival, and Dr. Rao mostly ignoring her, we’re meant to see how devoted Dr. Rao is to the villagers and the milk cooperative. But also how his devotion to social change is creating discord in his own family. It doesn’t work, though. His wife feels like a cardboard cut-out. We’ve both remarked on how vacant her character feels.

I guess there’s not much more we can say except that she’s there just to show us how devoted Dr. Rao is and that his family is suffering. We’re asked to see his suffering.. It’s not even his wife that we’re asked to care about, but Dr. Rao. We see Benegal using a woman as a lense through which to more clearly see a man.

It’s kind of awful. The women in this film are treated atrociously.

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Lauren: Bindu ends up in the same discarded territory as Dr. Rao’s wife. Eventually, Dr. Rao tries to see Bindu at her home. That’s when Bindu’s husband – who we never saw up this point, it felt like Benegal had been building her up as a single mother – interferes. He’s angry, wielding a weapon, and telling Dr. Rao to stop coming after “their” women.

Bindu’s husband later tries to force her to have sex; she refuses. Their child is present. He beats her in full view of their child. She fends him off. We see her slink to the floor. It’s dark.

He leaves her, for the time, but not before poisoning their cow. Their one cow. Which is their sole source of income and nourishment.

We see her weeping at the death of the cow.

And that’s when she’s broken.


Gaurav: That’s the death of her voice. Her power. Her ability to provide. She’s effaced and from this point onward, when Benegal shows her on screen, he uses a mournful song of lament and suffering (“I am so weary!”) to tell us what she’s experiencing. He gives her barely any dialogue at that point.

Lauren: I think Benegal acknowledges the trauma that her husband and the death of her cow has caused her, but at the price of her entire personality. He gives her no resolve. No internal struggle. Just guts her.

Gaurav: She’s reduced to a symbol – a tool.

Lauren: Bhola, her male parallel in the film, then goes from being a silent, grunting man of few words to the sudden victor and champion of the village’s collective bargaining movement.

Bindu withers. The most we see from her is a scene where she is manipulated into giving her thumbprint (as a signature) on a document that she cannot read – she is illiterate – because she’s been told that if she signs it, Mishra Ji will give her a new cow. Except the document is actually a false rape accusation against Dr. Rao. She desperately needs this the cow to survive and care for her child. She has no idea what she’s actually signing. It destroys any threadbare connection she may have still had with Dr. Rao.


Gaurav: I’m excited that Bhola steps up. We see him and his part of the community win the election, and this is good, to see this kind of agency given and taken.

Mishra Ji steps back into the film. (I guess he was drinking milk for the last hour).

The false rape accusation comes out. Dr. Rao is cowed. Someone sets the village on fire. Bhola and his caste are round up and thrown in jail, then let out by Mishra Ji, only to be sold back into indentured servitude. It’s a pretty fast walk downhill at this point. Mishra Ji sets a lot of things into motion at the end.

The last third of this film sees Bhola witness a lot of suffering, but also shows him really stepping up, asserting his voice and challenging authority. This is a big contrast to his grave silence in most of his early scenes. He’s finally seeing the benefits of the milk cooperative and how it’s worth fighting for.

We see Bhola’s suffering and we’re meant to be inspired by it, but it also feels a bit exploitative and sensational.

The ending of this film is also really abrupt. We suddenly see the villagers measuring their milk, setting their own prices, taking control of their destiny. There’s change but it’s incremental. It feels like a hollow victory. What are your thoughts?

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Lauren: I don’t think it’s hollow. I think it’s complicated in light of some of the missteps we’ve seen throughout the film, like with Bindu or with Dr. Rao’s patronizing of the villagers, but we see a community that has been taught how to advocate for itself.

And, as you stated at the time, big changes come in small steps. Radical change does not occur overnight.

After Dr. Rao leaves, we see one of several first steps toward the liberation of that community, on their own terms.

Gaurav: You’re right, it is more complicated than it is hollow. I guess we should say it’s fragile, this passing of power to a people who don’t normally wield or have the agency to control their own lives.

Lauren: Why is it fragile?

Gaurav: Because we saw how easily their power was taken from them again by Mishra Ji, how it’s still under a larger capitalist and classist system, how that other system was able to easily reassert and establish itself.

That may just be the pessimist in me though.


Lauren: Should we trust that what Benegal is telling us, though, is that even though it’s fragile, it’s worthwhile? And that sometimes progress doesn’t always happen in forward steps? Sometimes you back step, or side step? The point of the end is that the seeds have been planted and are growing. There may be droughts, pests, nutrient poor soil. But over time, these things adapt to their environment and become a stronger version of itself.

Gaurav: It’s hopeful. And it’s a powerful statement that Benegal funded this film from money from actual dairy farmers in India. I applaud Benegal for that, but he undermines a lot of his good intentions with the film’s systemic misogyny and dismissal of women. As you said, two steps forward, one step back – or sideways.

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