Manthan: Churning a revolution

Manthan was second in the series of rural trilogy of Shyam Benegal, the other two being Ankur and Nishant. With the most unconventional idea and the most unconventional sources of fund at hand, Shyam Benegal made this rural drama showcasing the success of cooperative dairies in Gujarat.

Inspired from the life of Varghese Kurien, Manthan talks of the life of Dr. Rao, a vet, who visits a village as a member of National Dairy Federation to popularise the growth of dairy cooperatives in India. The village poses many hurdles along his path. The mukhiya, or village headman (Khulbhushan Kharbanda) who is insecure about losing his clout with the arrival of the cooperative, Ganga Ram Mishra (Amrish Puri), a dairy owner who exploits the villagers with a low price on the milk, Bhola (Nasseruddin Shah), a dalit who sees every city dweller with suspicion as his mother was sexually exploited by a man from the city and umpteen tiffs and age-old battles that have left deep scars in the society. He encounters Bindu (Smita Patil), a Dalit milkmaid whose resentment slowly morphs into a liking and awe for Dr.Rao. After facing stiff opposition initially, he is finally able to convince many villagers to move towards the cooperative fold. Meanwhile, he also develops a soft corner for Bindu, who supports all his initiatives. But troubles begin when the head of the cooperative society has to be chosen. The sarpanch wants to become, by default, the head of the cooperative as well, which does not go down well with Bhola and the other Dalits. They field their own candidate feels threatened by a parallel power structure in the village. But Dr. Rao is thrown into real quandary when Bindu’s husband returns and orders her not to meet the doctor. Bindu’s buffalo dies but her ego is hurt upon meeting Dr. Rao. Unwillingly she borrows money from Ganga Ram and signs a court paper, unknowlingly, accusing Dr. Rao of rape. The sarpanch, meanwhile, meets the higher ups and gets Dr. Rao transferred. After the exit of Dr. Rao, Bhola is shocked to find the people back in the dairy of Ganga Ram. “Who will run the cooperative? The society people have left” counters a villager. But Bhola exhorts them to return and shows them the dream of a better tomorrow, when they will not be ruled neither by caste nor money. As Bhola moves towards the society, one by one, groups join him and they move towards a hopeful tomorrow.

500000 dairy farmers sponsored the movie by contributing a rupee each to Benegal. The movie was a tribute to the victory of the human spirit and the cooperative movement, which was eventually replicated across India. Girish Karnad was the Chairman of FTII, Pune. Legend goes that he was miffed with the behaviour of one of his students and sent him to Benegal so as to get rid of him from the college. Little did he know that he would have to work with that very student, whom we know as Nasseruddin Shah, in Manthan.
Girish Karnad, with his author backed role brings his magnetic presence to the screen and churns the emotions, not only of the characters, but also the audience. Smita Patil with her earthly fervour plays the feisty Bindu with flair and makes her mark in a movie meant for Karnad. Nasseruddin Shah, in the second half takes over as the empowered Dalit and gives Karnad a tit for tat through his performance. A strong support has been provided by Amrish Puri and Khulbhushan Kharbanda.
The Gujarati folk Mero gaam katha parey sets the tone for the entire movie and the different moods are brought out with a brilliant use of different instruments. Preeti Sagar won the Filmfare Best Playback Singer award in 1976 for this song and it was later used for the Amul Commercial.

Many scenes stand apart in Manthan. In one scene, Dr. Rao flirtatiously watches Bindu wash her legs in a water pump and she too returns the feelings, when she asks “Are you married?” to which he replies in the affirmative. Her expressions change instantly and she politely asks him to move away. She has no intention to walk on a cul-de-sac.

In another scene, when Dr. Rao hands out to Bindu some money for free when she asks for a loan to buy a buffalo, she bolts out with suppressed tears. Her ego has been hurt when even the sensitive Rao has treated her as a beggar.

In the brilliantly shot climax, Benegal uses a young boy ala Ankur, to conclude his movie. Bhola walks away to the cooperative with a handful of villagers. Leading them is a young boy- a symbol of tomorrow. He has rejected the current system and has chosen self-empowerment over dependence. Spot on!

Manthan is a story of dismantling of old institutions and the emergence of new ones. It is the story of a bloodless revolution – where the wrongs of caste is undone with a level playing field of the cooperatives, where the dominance of the Panchayat is countered by the power structure set up by the villagers and where the age-old exploitation is tossed out of the window by an empowered group of villagers. Today it is studied, not only in Film Institutes, but also in B-Schools where it has become a text book of Rural Marketing. The story of churning a revolution lives on and the cream of it is visible in countless success stories which propel the Indian farmers to step out of the dark ages.

(This review was published in Passion for Cinema)

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