Hindu right-wing groups have successfully forced the postponement of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s historical Padmavati. Meanwhile, an award-winning Marathi movie narrowly managed to meet its November 17 release date after Brahmin groups tried to hold it up over allegations that it portrays members of the caste negatively.

Through the story of a boy named Bhanya, Sandeep Patil’s directorial debut Dashakriya shows how members of the Kirvanta Brahmin community, which performs last rites for Hindus, financially exploit bereaved families.

The Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasabha and Hindu Janajagruti Samiti objected to the film on the grounds that it portrays Brahmins in a “bad light” and “creates hatred among castes”. The organisations had demanded that the producers organise a special screening to obtain their consent before the release. Representatives of Brahman and barber communities also moved the Bombay High Court seeking a ban on the movie, claiming it hurt their sentiments. The court turned down the petition on Thursday, a day before the scheduled release.

“Through the film, I just want to express that it is time we set ablaze undesirable customs and traditions in our society,” Patil said. “Dashakriya does not merely refer to the rituals that are performed on the 10th day after a person’s death, but it is the burning of hypocritical attitudes, and some old customs that don’t have a place in society today.”

Dashakriya begins with Keshav Bhatji (Manoj Joshi) extorting money from mourners, claiming that the soul of their deceased relative will not rest in peace unless they give him gifts. The scene sets the tone for the film, which is resolutely moving even as it occasionally slips into caricature.

Dashkriya (2017).

Dashakriya is set in Paithan, the village in Maharashtra that is considered holy by Hindus because of its proximity to the revered Godavari river. Beautifully green but filled with contradictions, Paithan is as much a character in the film as the protagonists. Dashakriya deftly demonstrates how the cultural fabric of a place gets eroded when religion becomes its most profitable activity.

While Brahmins such as Keshav reap the financial rewards of Paithan’s popularity for last rites, boys such as Banya (Arya Adhav) profit by rummaging through the ashes of the dead. The bright and mischievous Banya patches together a living for himself and his family with the aid of the iron sieve he rents from Patre Savkaar (Dilip Prabhavalkar), the local landlord. The sieve is a metaphor for Banya’s life: riddled with problems, but robust and resilient nonetheless.

Dashakriya is an adaption of Baba Bhand’s 1994 novel of the same name. The screenplay was written by Sanjay Patil, who has previously adapted novels for Jogwa (2009) and Pangira (2011). Dashakriya won three National Film Awards this year: for best feature film in Marathi, best supporting actor (Manoj Joshi) and best screenplay.

Although the film and the novel are set more than two decades ago, the situation in Paithan has not altered much, Patil said.

“As long as birth and death remain earthly realities, these rituals will persist, basically because each human has their own opinion, faith and belief system, and no one has the right to oppose them,” he said. “This subject is such that it will never cease to be current no matter when a film on it is made.”

Jagnyache Deva, Dashakriya (2017).

The movie is preceded by a lengthy disclaimer. Since the film features a couple of casual mentions of Bhanya’s marriage, it is also affirms that it does not support child marriage. Patil said they had decided to incorporate the disclaimers since the inception of the film, but he had not anticipated protests by Brahmin groups. Most of the opposition was by organisations in Pune.

“I never expected that people would tell me that I have insulted people of a particular class or caste,” he said. “A lot of people have been calling me to ask me how I could even deign to make such a film. I still speak with them, because I feel I should.”

Some of the questions he is being asked leave the director baffled. “Just yesterday, a person asked me, ‘Is the Dashakriya ritual yours? It is ours’.”

The Central Board of Film Certification had already cleared the movie with a U certificate. “If someone doesn’t want to watch something that offends them and wants to boycott it, it’s their freedom, but who are they to stop people who actually want to watch the film?” Patil said. “If a novel can be written about this subject, why can’t it be adapted into a film? If someone has taken the brave step to make a film about this, then let the producers breathe, please. If this continues, there will be no scope for new content at all.”

Patil and his team were initially meant to work on the Marathi remake of the Tamil film Vennila Kabaddi Kuzhu (2009), about a group of rural boys who want to win a kabbadi tournament. When the project was abandoned, Patil decided to work on an adaptation of Dashakriya. He procured the movie rights from the author, but by then, the producers were no longer on board.

“The earlier concept was commercially viable, while Dashakriya was trying to say something about social realities, and the hypocrisies of society,” Patil said. “This film doesn’t set out to hurt the sentiments of people of any class, caste or religion, but everyone has their own mind and their own thought process, and the producers backed out because they did not want to be associated with a film addressing a social issue.” Eventually, Rangneel Productions agreed to bankroll the movie.

Banya (Arya Adhav) in Dashakriya. Courtesy Rangneel Productions.