Mumbai, 04 Nov 2018 13:00 IST
Updated: 05 Nov 2018 14:30 IST
A priest and a young Dalit leader go up against each other in a battle of will and power in this fine debut by director Vinit Chandrasekharan.
The startlingly honest Marathi film Bodhi (Buddha) opens in 2002 with a suicide. This is not a spoiler, but an alarmingly growing statistic emerging out of Maharashtra's Vidharbha region where water is scarce and opportunities are almost non-existent.
The man who hangs himself is Vinya's father. The poor boy has to watch the body hanging from a noose amidst a crowd until a faceless adult man arrives and drags him away. The story moves to 15 years later when young Vinya has grown up, but his troubles are far from over.
As a child, he makes the acquaintance of Father Benedict (Shashank Shende). Vinya reads out the Bible verses and passages in Marathi to the priest's Dalit parishners. But even as a child, Vinya refuses to convert to Christianity. Many of the Dalits of Vinya's village do convert from Budhhism as the church offers them 5 acres of land to farm.
Father Benedict sees great potential in the boy and hopes that he would learn English one day. The priest leaves the village and goes off to build more churches and bring in more people into the flock from other impoverished villages of the country.
He returns 15 years later to find an older and charismatic Vinya (Ninad Mahajani) who is a rising leader amongst the current Dalit political party. The priest has arrived to quell an embarrassing problem for the Church. The Irish owner of the land, on which the Dalit converts have been farming for all these ago, wants to sell it. The farmers are now left in the lurch.
They come to the political party, and to Vinya, for help. He gets many of them to band together to sign a petition opposing the sale of the land. The church, meanwhile, puts pressure on Father Benedict. He is asked to negotiate the sale of the land, appease the aggrieved people and only then return home to Kerala.
Since that has been his ultimate goal from the beginning, the priest begins his campaign on Vinya, trying to figure out how to get him to relent. Like a chess master, Father Benedict surveys his options and goes for the queen — Vinya's wife Swati (Ketaki Narayan).
Swati is a divorcee who marries Vinya for love and the couple have a tumultuous marriage. She is unsatisfied with Vinya's lack of ambition and dislikes his need to help his people.
Thus begins the tussle between the priest and the free thinker. Vinya often says, "Religion is for man. Man is not for religion," and Father Benedict pursues him nevertheless, luring him with opportunities he can't ignore. However, both men take drastic decisions leading them on a path of no return.
Vinya is a fascinating character. He admires the teachings of Dr BR Ambedkar and has educated himself in English. The late social reformer believed the language was like the milk of lioness; he who drank it, roared. Vinya tells this to Father Benedict as well, but despite his education, he hasn't managed to progress much. Instead, he labours in his soya bean fields and digs to find water.
Father Benedict undergoes a drastic transformation from the beginning of the film to the end. The confident man is reduced to near madness, due to his work for the church. Eventually, we realize that both the Benedict and Vinya were played like pawns, in the larger order of things in the village. The upper-caste land owner who buys the tainted land and the church both have what they wanted, leaving ordinary men to suffer their fates.
Both Shashank Shende as the priest and Ninad Mahajani as Vinya bring out the nuances of their characters in poignant scenes, where their silences speak volumes. Ketaki Narayan as Swati and Luck Singh as Father Benedict's helper, Schezwan (cruelly nicknamed, and we never learn his real name) stand out as well.
Bodhi is an urgent, necessary story by producer Vaibhav Ghodeswar, and written by Mahajani. Highlighting a long-standing issue in the state of Maharashtra, the makers focus on their helpless situation, where the odds are stacked up against them from all sides.
Director Vinit Chandrasekharan, who earlier co-produced Juze (2018), is pragmatic in his approach to the story and characters. Both Father Benedict and Vinya are men on a mission, with intentions that get manipulated by others. It is heart-breaking to watch.
Chandrasekharan and cinematographer Dezvyn Douglas Tinwala frame the characters against the starkness of their landscapes, making for striking scenes. The colours and tones of their backgrounds also depict their differences.
In the question and answer session after the film's screening, the team revealed that the film was shot in 18 days and edited in seven by Shreejit M Nair. The feature has incredible polish for what it's trying to say.
Bodhi is a jarring reminder that life is cruel, unrelenting and unjust, and often there's no happy ending or rainbow waiting at the end for some characters. Do seek out this film.
Bodhi was screened at the 20th Mumbai Film Festival on 30 October 2018.
Related topicsMAMI Mumbai Film Festival
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