In Vinit Chandrasekharan’s Bodhi, a tussle between a manipulative pastor and a headstrong atheist unfolds against the backdrop of weighty contemporary concerns such as farmer suicides, religious conversions and caste discrimination.

Chandrasekharan’s directorial debut will be premiered in the competitive India Gold section at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 25-November 1). The Marathi-language movie stars Shashant Shende as Father Benedict Deddario, who tries to get Vinya (Ninad Mahajani), a local Dalit leader, to convert to Christianity in exchange for money. The cast includes Ketaki Kulkarni and Lucky Singh.

“We wanted to honestly show the Dalit condition in villages,” Chandrasekharan told Scroll.in. “There is a lot of pressure on farmers there. The weather condition is harsh, the water and electricity is an issue but people still survive. More importantly, the religious aspect was to show the individuality and how it is tough to retain that.”

Bodhi. Courtesy Vinit Chandrasekharan.
Bodhi. Courtesy Vinit Chandrasekharan.

Bodhi was conceptualised as one part of an anthology film with five stories. But when producer and writer Vaibhav Ghodeswar approached Chandrasekharan with the idea, he latched on to the story and decided to expand into a feature. “I realised that there was a lot of potential for drama in this story,” Chandrasekharan said. “One was a staunch person who wants people to believe what he believes in through conversion. And then there is Vinya, an atheist who is very nonchalant.”

As part of his research, Chandrasekharan referred to P Sainath’s work on farmer suicides and Deepa Bhatia’s Nero’s Guest (2009), a documentary on the acclaimed journalist. He also spoke to a pastor from Kolhapur who he said helped impoverished people if they convert to Christianity. “People call him The Convertor,” the filmmaker said. “He was very matter-of-fact about it and he spoke to us about it very openly. He told us that he helped people in return for conversion. It was very simple.”

The intention was not to demonise religious conversion or any belief, the filmmaker clarified. “For me all religions are the same,” he added. “I just wanted to depict that without any judgement. We are not trying to say anything is good or bad. The film is about people who are living on the margins. It is about people who do not have a place in society. We just wanted to show what is happening.”

Given its emotive subject matter, a lot of deliberation went into every aspect of the script. “We had long conversations throughout,” he said. “We thought about everybody’s perspective and then did a scene. Because our idea is not to critique a particular religion or sympathise with another religion.”

Bodhi. Courtesy Vinit Chandrasekharan.
Bodhi. Courtesy Vinit Chandrasekharan.

Chandrasekharan realises that some people may take offence nonetheless. Still, he hopes the film gets a theatrical release after its festival run. “I know that this will make a lot of noise as it depicts a relationship between a inter-caste couple,” he said. “But we definitely want to release it. It is tough to get people to believe in it the way we do. We knew it would be an uphill climb since the beginning. The biggest break was when we got Shashank Shende as he has done some really nice films [Kaminey, Stanley Ka Dabba, Beyond The Clouds]. We needed a face that people knew.”

Chandrasekharan said that he is drawn to stories about oppression, a theme also explored in his short film Unborn (2017), which examines discrimination against the girl child, Miransha Naik’s Konkani film Juze (2017), which he produced, about migrant workers in Goa and their abusive landlord.

Vinit Chandrasekharan.
Vinit Chandrasekharan.