A still from Kastoori. (courtesy: YouTube)
Vinod Kamble's Kastoori (The Musk) uses his own experiences as the raw material for a powerful, unflinching examination of how the caste system works to disempower the already marginalised.
In the story that Kamble tells, social ostracism dents the psyche of a boy from an impoverished family of manual scavengers in insidious ways and compels him to seek escape from its stench.
The film uses the young protagonist's search as a means to spotlight all that is blatantly wrong with socially-enforced oppression and exploitation.
While the independent Marathi-Hindi film, shot in and around the village in Maharashtra's Solapur district where the director grew up, pulls no punches, it does not hurl stones at the boy's tormentors nor does it holler at the top of its voice to grab the attention of those that turn a blind eye to dreadful, deep-rooted inequities.
All that Kastoori seeks to do - and does successfully - is make us feel the horrors of the caste system. It views a harsh reality through the eyes of a schoolboy who, in his innocence, believes in the myth that musk can help him get rid of the malodourous effect that his caste-assigned calling has on his body and clothes.
That apart, Kastoori, scripted by Kamble and Shivaji Karde, delves into the complex, intractable nature of the social shackles that prevent those that are disadvantaged on account of their birth from shaking off the roles perniciously foisted upon them.
Kastoori has made it to the multiplexes after a long wait that highlights the plight of personal cinema in a distribution system that cannot see beyond money. The film is presented by Anurag Kashyap and Nagraj Manjule. Incidentally, it is Manjule's hard-hitting Fandry that emboldened Kamble to tell his own story in a manner that does not resor to any manner of soft-pedalling.
Fourteen-year-old Gopinath Chavan (Samarth Sonawane) accompanies his grandmother to religious discourses. At one such gathering, he hears a story about a deity who emerged from cow dung. He asks his granny: Wasn't he stinking? No, she replies. He is a god and, therefore, smelled like musk, she adds.
Nothing could be further from Gopi's circumstances than stories of gods in which all impediments are magically wished away, but the teenager becomes obsessed with how he smells after all the hours he spends cleaning toilets, helping his alcoholic father cut up bodies in a hospital morgue and burying the unclaimed dead.
With his classmate and best friend Adim (Shravan Upalakar), he resolves to acquire musk, make a perfume from it and dispel the stink around him. That is a tall order for the two boys.
Raising the money to buy musk from a local supplier is the biggest challenge. But Gopi, egged on by Adim, resolves to find a way to get what he wants. He has had enough of the troubles that his caste identity has caused him.
Discrimination is an inescapable everyday fact of Gopi's life. In the film's opening sequence, we see him in his school uniform cleaning a toilet. His vial of perfume is empty but the boy cannot bring himself to throw it away.
His classmates subject him to casteist slurs. One of them sees him help an older cousin, Mangal (Ajay Chavan), clean gutters. Gopi is mocked at school the next day. Mangal nearly suffocates to death in a septic tank but, unsurprisingly, he himself is blamed for the near-tragedy.
His school education is impeded when his debt-ridden father loses his job at the morgue. The doctor enlists Gopi as his assistant, a job that leaves him with no time to attend classes. He insists that he wants to focus on his studies but his mother, Asha (Vaishali Kendale), tells him that marks do not feed anybody, work does.
No matter how much you study, you will still be a sweeper, she says to Gopi. The screen goes blank at this point and remains dark for a while. So, is this where it is all going to end for the academically gifted Gopi? As the opportunities slip away, Gopi can only rue his fate.
In one scene, Asha rips a textbook into two when Gopi refuses to miss school and go to work. He is not at liberty to defy his mother. The work that Gopi does in the morgue is obviously not pleasant. But Kamble does not show limbs and body parts, using sound effects instead to convey the chilling mature of the post mortems that Gopi assists his father and then the doctor with.
Trips to a shop of perfumes owned by Adim's uncle are a source of excitement, no matter how short-lived, for Gopi. All through the 100-minute Kastoori, Adim is by Gopi's side, lifting his spirits or giving him a reality check. The world them is unforgiving, but the duo does not give up.
Marathi is the language of the village but Gopi and Adim communicate in Hindi with each other. Gopi's family, too, speaks Hindi. Othering has several layers and several reasons. Caste, religion, language, profession - the two boys have to contend with many degrees of separation. But they soldier on cheerfully.
Gopi wins a Sanskrit essay writing competition. The prize ceremony is scheduled for Republic Day. Adim is thrilled to bits but Gopi isn't sure he'd be able to make it to school. He does not have much time to acquire the musk that he is looking for.
Much of Kastoori's power springs from its eschewal of fancy technical flourishes. It is a simple film about a complex reality. The first-time director knows exactly what he is out to articulate. He uses his resources, including the two young actors, with kind of skill and precision that belies his lack of experience.
If you care about cinema that has something to say about the world you live in, Kastoori is essential viewing.
Anil Kamble, Samarth Sonawane, Shravan Upalakar