Nagraj Manjule suddenly finds himself the claimant of the enviable position of being the director of one of the highest grossing Marathi films of all times. He denies being inspired by Bollywood love stories 'Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak' and 'Ek Duuje Ke Liye', and says Bollywood taught him more about what not to do in his cinema.
'Sairat', a searing indictment of caste discrimination, features two absolutely unknown untried faces in the lead. Made at a reported cost of Rs 4 crore, the film has already grossed over Rs 50 crore, and is still counting.
"So many interviews have put words in my mouth. I've never said 'Sairat' is a homage to these Bollywood love stories. I've grown up watching Bollywood films. Rather than being inspired by them, I've absorbed the pitfalls of commercial cinema and how to avoid them in my cinema. So I'd say Bollywood has taught me what not to do rather than what to do in my cinema," he said.
A shy person, Manjule, no stranger to fame as his first feature film "Fandry" was highly acclaimed, is not comfortable with the sudden upsurge of public attention. His phone is switched off during most of the day as he has strangers calling up to discuss the film and characters.
"Maharashtrians have embraced the film as if they own the characters. 'Sairat' is not a film for them. It is a part of their lives," he said in an interview.
What surprises him especially is the way non-Maharashtrians have taken to the film.
"This is most unexpected. I knew the film would make an impact. But I never knew it would cross the language barrier so easily and in such overwhelming numbers. Today when Aamir Khan or Irrfan tweets about the film, it's a huge thing for me."
Manjule, who comes from a very humble background, says 'Sairat' was a story that had to be told.
"I knew it would make an impact because this is not justa story written to accommodate a film. Its theme of inter-caste relationship and marriage connects with our entire country. So I won't pretend the success was unexpected."
"In fact, I had warned my two lead actors that it would be near-impossible for them to step out of their homes alone once the film is released. I told them to enjoy the freedom of movement as long as they were shooting," he said.
How the director chose two completely unknown untried faces of Akash Thosar and Rinku Rajguru to play the lead is another story.
"My brother saw Akash on the street and told me he is the boy I am looking for to play Parshya in my film. I met Akash. He was so shy he could barely mumble a few words. But it didn't take much persuasion to get him on board."
"As for Rinku Rajguru, she is the daughter of a lady I know in my village. I knew she was Archie (the character) the minute I saw her."
Manjule worked extensively with his two principal actors to ensure they got the rhythm right.
"It was important for them to not look like actors. They had to transform into the two protagonists Akash and Archie. Luckily for my film, this is exactly what happened. Audiences see them as the characters."
Though many moments in the couple's courtship and togetherness have a ring of authenticity, Manjule says he hasn't borrowed that much from his own life this time.
"Yes, I am from a backward section of society, just like my hero. In some way or another both my films have touched on caste discrimination. But my first feature film 'Fandry' was far more personal. It was almost like my own story."
"'Sairat' is far less personal. I haven't borrowed from my own life, except that I've been rejected in love because I was unworthy of the girl. The sequence where Parshya places flowers on Archie's chappals when she is inside the temple, is taken from my own life. Yes, I've done that for a girl. It's amazing what love can make one do."
Manjule hopes to do many more films about social inequality. There is talk of remaking "Sairat" into various languages, but at the moment, he has shot down all such speculation.
"Right now, we should just allow 'Sairat' to grow. Its reach has exceeded anything any of us had ever hoped for. We are now sitting back to see where 'Sairat' is heading. We are enjoying the journey."