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Manthan: A deeper churning

Updated on: 26 May,2024 06:53 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Meenakshi Shedde |

This is how India became a world leader in milk production, and film was directly used as an agent for social change.

Manthan: A deeper churning

Illustration/Uday Mohite

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Manthan: A deeper churning

Meenakshi SheddeIt’s been a great year for India at Cannes with 10 films from India and South Asia/India-origin or India-related, including Anasuya Sengupta winning Best Actress for The Shameless in the Un Certain Regard section, and first prize for Chidananda Naik’s Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know in the La Cinef section for film school films, in this case the Film and Television Institute of India, FTII Pune. The winners in the Competition section— where Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine As Light played— are yet to be announced at the time of going to press. But another Indian film that shone brightly was Shyam Benegal’s Manthan (The Churning, 1976), starring the late Girish Karnad, the late iconic film actress Smita Patil, and Naseeruddin Shah, among others. Its print, painstakingly restored by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur of the Film Heritage Foundation, was shown in the Cannes Classics. What’s more, the restored film (Hindi with English subtitles) will be screened on June 1 and 2 across 50 Indian cities, by the Film Heritage Foundation and the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd. in collaboration with PVR-INOX Ltd. and Cinepolis India. What a treat that will be for three generations of film lovers.

Benegal, who turns 90 this year, and is one of the key pioneers of the parallel cinema movement since his Ankur (The Seedling) in 1974, has directed an impressive body of about 75 fiction features, documentaries, series and shorts, the last being Mujib: The Making of a Nation in 2023, astonishingly directed at the age of 89. Manthan is a remarkable film on how a milk cooperative in Gujarat, spearheaded by Dr Verghese Kurien and partly inspired by his work, revolutionized milk production, turning India from a milk deficit nation to the world’s largest milk producer. Shyam Babu (as he is fondly called) had already made two documentaries on the subject and suggested to Dr Kurien that he make a feature for reaching those beyond the already converted. In a brilliant coup, Dr Kurien suggested that the 5,00,000 milk farmers in the cooperative each contribute R2 to fund the film. That’s how Manthan became India’s first crowd-funded film. Initially, the film, released in Gujarat, was a resounding success because unusually, its largest audience was also the film’s producers, arriving in truckloads day after day. Then Dr Kurien made 16mm prints of the film, and used the film, accompanied by a vet, a milk specialist and a fodder specialist, to persuade other milk farmers to create cooperatives all over the country. This is how India became a world leader in milk production, and film was directly used as an agent for social change.

The story is of Dr Manohar Rao (Girish Karnad), a veterinarian, who goes to Sanganva village in Gujarat to help the villagers establish a milk cooperative (“sisoti” as locals charmingly call it). This is a revolutionary idea, as it is run by the milk farmers themselves, headed by a team that they themselves elect, and all members have an equal vote, irrespective of class, caste, status or gender. Thus, the traditionally powerful people, including the sarpanch and main milk businessman Mishraji, feel threatened and do everything to disrupt the democratic process. Finally, Dr Rao is transferred out, but by then the cooperative movement has taken root as Bhola the local Dalit hothead (Naseeruddin Shah) and Moti, the Dalit leader, understand that the cooperative is entirely in their benefit, and unity brings its own power despite challenges, and dramatic social change. 

Benegal’s direction is impeccable, of course, with stellar performances by Girish Karnad, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah and an ensemble cast. Vijay Tendulkar’s screenplay positively crackles, with sharp dialogues in Hindi and a Gujarati dialect by Kaifi Azmi. Govind Nihalani’s cinematography captures the essence of dusty, small town India as well as its feisty women, and the film is well edited by Bhanudas. Vanraj Bhatia creates wonderful music, including Preeti Sagar’s popular song Mero Gaam Katha Parey, and superb sound design by Hitendra Ghosh. The producer is Shyam Benegal’s Sahyadri Films for the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd. The women crew, even for a 1976 film, include Shama Zaidi (art direction), playback singer Preeti Sagar and Kalpana Lajmi (direction assistant). The Film Heritage Foundation has restored the film in collaboration with the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd, NFDC-National Film Archive of India, Prasad Lab Chennai and L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna. Manthan has already inspired a white revolution; I hope its restored version, screening widely in India and Cannes, now inspires a film revolution, with film cooperatives revitalising the indie film scene. Absolute must-see.

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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