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Kastoori: The scent within

Updated on: 03 December,2023 04:31 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Meenakshi Shedde |

Made in Marathi and dubbed in Hindi, it will be released widely at least in Mumbai, Maharashtra and Delhi, and will be available on Bookmyshow

Kastoori: The scent within

Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeVinod Kamble’s debut feature Kastoori—The Musk, in Hindi, is a powerful, deeply moving film that addresses caste issues. Presented by Anurag Kashyap and Nagraj Manjule, it releases in theatres on December 8, the week of December 6, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s death anniversary. The film is a stark mirror to upper castes, who are often staggeringly ignorant, have absolutely no idea how the other half lives, yet are quick to denounce and attack lower castes, caste reservations, “those jaibhimwallahs,” and in ostrich-like denial about caste realities. Kastoori was at 13 film festivals, including the Sydney Film Festival, Jio MAMI Mumbai and Dharamshala film festivals, and New York Indian FF, and won the National Award for Best Children’s Film. Made in Marathi and dubbed in Hindi, it will be released widely at least in Mumbai, Maharashtra and Delhi, and will be available on Bookmyshow.

I’ve long had an interest in caste issues, and had curated The Die is Caste for the Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2017, a package of films and music on caste from all over India. We had screened Bikas Mishra’s Chauranga (in Khortha), Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat (Marathi), BV Karanth’s Chomana Dudi (Kannada) and (the Malayali) John Abraham’s Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Donkey in a Brahmin Village, Tamil). And later complemented the films with live music performances by Dalit protest singer Bant Singh and his daughter Baljit Kaur (Punjab), Tamil Parai artists Manimaran, Magizhini, Samaran and Iniyan (Chennai), and the Karinthalakoottam indigenous folk troupe from Thrissur, Kerala. Kastoori adds to a solid body of films on caste, that includes Masaan, Article 15 (Hindi), Court (Marathi, Hindi), Pa Ranjith’s Kaala, Kabali, Sarpatta Parambarai (Tamil), Rajeev Ravi’s Kammati Padam (Malayalam) and more. 

In Kastoori, Gopi, a lovely village boy, 14, who goes to school, is forced to clean the school toilets because of his low caste. Worse, his father Jaggu, who is called to clear up after post-mortems in the local hospital, and ordered by the police to bury unclaimed bodies, is an alcoholic and often missing at work. So when the hospital doctor threatens to sack Jaggu, Gopi’s mother begs him to nominally give her the job instead, and forces Gopi to drop out of school and do his dad’s job instead. Gopi is keen to learn Sanskrit, and loves attending community sessions where traditional Sanskrit epics are sung. When Gopi protests that he wants to attend school, his mother, anxious to pay the family bills, rips Gopi’s books in a rage, and orders him to work instead.

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One day, after he is spotted with his manual scavenger friends who are clearing a blocked manhole sewer, he is “outed” by his classmates as Dalit/low caste, and taunted. They hold a handkerchief to their noses when he attends class; they refuse to sit near him; they scrawl “bhangi” in the toilet. Nonetheless, he gets the top prize for Sanskrit in the district, and will be awarded on Republic Day, and becomes obsessed with finding some Kastoori scent by then, so he can mask the filthy smell of his body. The satisfying climax philosophically explores the metaphor of Kastoori, even as the younger generation values (Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s message of) education as a crucial means of advancement.

Writers Vinod Kamble and Shivaji Karde weave in many issues, including how parents often exploit their own children as child labour; Dalit-Muslim solidarity, as Gopi’s best friend Adim is the son of a Muslim leather tanner; of enmity between various marginalized groups, including Dalits and Pardhi tribals. Kamble, an engineer, has a decent cast of non-actors for his debut feature, led by Samarth Sonawane, who is wonderful as Gopi, with his understated performance and slow smile; Shravan Upalkar as Adim is good too. Cinematographer Manoj Kakade is especially powerful in the postmortem scenes, where he keeps the horrors mostly off screen, and lets suggestion do the rest. Shrikant Choudhari’s editing, Jaibhim Shinde’s background music, and Shoaib Maneri’s sound design are effective. Eight women and a man are debut producers too: 

Dr Payal Dhoke, Dr Anjali Akhade, Dr Asmita Gaikwad, Dr Swati Gupta, Dr Amita Kamat, Prabhavati Akashi, Sushma Pazare, Vaishali Dhoke and Vijay Dhoke. 
Don’t miss this engaging film: It will reveal a lot more about you than you suspect.

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. 
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