Kastoori is based on a true story and autobiographical experiences. Director Vinod Kamble has drawn on his own childhood as a manual scavenger even if the character of Gopi is modelled on a real boy named Sunny Chavan, who began assisting his father when he was in Class VIII in doing postmortems and is still at it till today. Kamble himself has been brought up in a family of manual scavengers and has assisted his father in conducting several postmortems. This gives the film a strong sense of rawness and stark authenticity that works ever so strongly in its favor.
The title Kastoori or Musk, as is commonly known, is a secretion from the popularly known as Musk Deer found in the Himalayan mountains. The film is titled so because it throws up a unique perspective on the psyche of a 14-year-old boy, Gopi, who is a manual scavenger and is also initiated into the work of doing postmortem on unclaimed bodies. He is almost obsessed with the bad odour on his body that keeps his classmates away and he feels terrible about it.
Gopi’s father is an alcoholic and is thrown out of his casual job. Gopi’s mother forces him to replace the father in conducting postmortems and his schooling stops automatically. His only relief comes through his friendship with his class fellow Abid, whose father is a butcher and he, often, is called upon to help his father. Thus, both Gopi and Abid are social outcasts but Kamble does not emphasise their marginality in your face. The word “Dalit” or “Muslim” is not uttered once in the entire film and that reveals the genuine purpose of the film – to focus on a school boy’s determination be accepted by the other boys in school, a few of who do not bother to hide their contempt for a boy from the scavenger class.
Gopi is very keen on attending school but his mother and grandmother, who know nothing about schooling, are not bothered. He even gets the first prize in an interschool essay contest in Sanskrit. This speeds up his determination to get rid of his body odour by the 26thof January when he will be awarded the prize in a public function. He takes on overtime jobs of doing post-mortems to buy a piece of musk from a young boy from the Pardhi tribe who lives on the fringes of the village and sells stolen goods and pigeons. It is not easy because for every post mortem, Gopi has to hand over his earnings to his struggling mother who gives him a cut and the morgue attendant who demands a bottle of hooch for every corpse as his ‘commission’.
Gopi and Abid love to catch pigeons and let them free to fly away whenever they are free offering a glimpse into the minds of two young boys deprived of their childhood and fun and games. Gopi uses a discarded medical cylinder and tube to water the plants outside his room as water is difficult to come by. He attends the religious sermons at the temple with his grandmother sometimes and it is here that he learns about the fragrant quality of the kastoori.
The date of the school’s prize distribution function – 26th January can be taken as a satire on the condition of the small neighbourhood that forms the central space for the film’s unfolding. 26th January, 1950 is the date when India declared itself to be a ‘sovereign, democratic republic’. Seven decades later, India perhaps remains the only country in the world where manual scavenging still exists. Why should a 14-year-old school-going boy be forced to to do manual scavenging and conduct postmortems on unclaimed bodies? Kamble could have made use of melodrama to draw our sympathies towards Gopi and Abid but he does not. He tries to fictionalise what he has experiences in real life without investing the story with the glamor it does not demand.
In fact, the most outstanding quality of the film is its authenticity. Kamble auditioned 500 local boys for Gopi and Abid before he was satisfied and the two boys, not having faced the movie camera before, are incredibly natural and spontaneous. The close bonding their share is another sub-plot of the story. Kamble achieves this without trying to underline the communal identities of the two boys because it is there for all of us to see directly in the film.
The cinematographer, Manoj Sanjay Kakade, had a good chance to explore a very down-graded neighbourhood we do not normally venture into, much lower than the neighbourhoods where even our domestics live. The open spaces offer a good contrast to the narrow, enclosed spaces of the room in which Gopi lives with his mother and grandmother and even takes care to get the old woman her regular dose of ‘gomutra’ from his friend Abid. He misses school and is determined to go back but his mother is adamant about this because she fears the loss of income if he goes back to school. There is a sad touch when we find Gopi stitching up his textbook his mother had torn to pieces using the same stitches he learnt at the morgue. He is determined to go back to school. The editing is so smooth and undisturbed that one does not even notice it. The musical score is very restrained and subtle which just adds to the rhythm and flow of the narrative without disturbing the emotional richness of the goings on.
The art direction by Atul Lokhande is so realistic that it takes your breath away. The narrow lanes of the dirty slum, the butcher’s shop with pieces of mutton and beef hanging from large hooks, the terrible neighborhood where Gopi lives, the shoddy interiors of their one-room chawl, the vast expanses of the dry fields beyond the slum and the school in which the two boys study. The two boys are always seen in their school uniform as most probably, they do not own any other form of clothing.
Kastoori won the Best Actor Award for Samartha Sonawane, who plays Gopi, and also The Special Mention Jury Award at the 2020 edition of the Aurangabad International Film Festival. It has screened to extremely positive responses at various other film festivals as well including the recently held virtual edition of the New York Indian Film Festival.
Marathi, Drama, Color