The Churning of a Caste: A sociological review of Manthan

Manthan or “The Churning” is a 1976 Hindi film that provides a fictional narrative of the formation of Amul in India and the ushering of the White Revolution. The film was financed by over half a million farmers who donated Rs. 2 each and became India’s first crowdfunded film, this story of the might of the milkmen and farmers was brought to screen by those very milkmen and farmers themselves. It had a very large impact on the masses and the title song of the movie was later used as the soundtrack for Amul commercials; it continues to hold an important place in telling the story of rural India.

A complex story set around the caste and class politics of a rural village in Gujarat, Manthan tells the story of Dr. Rao, a young veterinary doctor who comes to the village with the purpose of setting up a cooperative society dairy which the villagers would own and collectively manage. They face hostility from the village folk for various different reasons but he wins over their trust by testing their milk and paying fairly for it, earning the ire of the local dairy owner, Mishraji who had been cheating them out of money. The Dalits are hesitant and against joining the co-operative as they fear the higher caste like the Panch of the village and his followers would usurp it as well. In the end, a Dalit representative and head, Bhola win the re-elections and all of them erupt in joy. He alongside others from the village continues the work for the co-operative while Dr. Rao takes his leave after setting up the board and committee to go take care of his wife who has fallen ill.

There are two major sociological ideas that can be seen in this movie, that of Shrinivas and of Desai.

M.N. Shrinivas’s explanation of the dominant caste is clearly present in the story; at one point during a meeting, Dr. Rao is having with the villagers to explain the workings of the co-operative; one speaks up to say “par Saheb, hum toh Harijan hote hai” meaning “but sir we are Harijans”. It is followed by Rao saying that regardless they can be a part of the society and that no differentiation would be made. It lays out the inner workings of the village distinctively, the Panch or village head is a man from a higher caste Thakur community and the Dalits, while there are a large number of them, they are not the dominant caste in the region. Srinivas’s concept of dominant caste refers to the caste in a particular area who enjoys having economic and political power and authority, whose customs are largely followed and tend to be larger in population. While this may not necessarily be the ritualistically higher caste, the movie shows that the Dalits are not the dominant caste and face the discrimination that comes with being in the lowest circle of caste hierarchy. They are cheated out of milk yet do not hold the power to be able to speak out about this injustice or demand change.

A.R. Desai’s understanding of the formation of the modern state in India can also be called to analyse this film, it touches upon the inequality between classes and the owning of resources by the elite. For him, it was a passive revolution that took place in replacing the British and that we what we see in the pre-existing power structure of the village. The Indian bourgeoisie were weak and due to the colonial status of India, it was not a complete overthrow of power structure and authority but rather became just a transfer of power from outsides to locals. In Manthan, we see how politics used caste and class issues in mobilizing the masses. It also brings to light how monopolistic organisations focused only on their gain over that of the populace in the form of Mishraji who spares no effort in trying to hinder the progress of the cooperative.

The set-up of the society itself can not be said to be very realistic, the character embodies the stereotypes of the roles they have to play; the power-hungry sarpanch and the greedy zamindar being some of the obvious ones. Even Bhola, the hot-headed yet brave Harijan young man who wants what is best for his people is a character type often seen in Indian cinema. This however does not mean that these are not true to society but rather perhaps can be understood as exaggerations of the common reality of the people. Such representation has been long used in Hindi cinema, especially for people to be able to connect closely with the heroic character or protagonist and then themselves recognise or assume what the image of a certain profession should be.

Manthan is a great example of a film that portrays how India was perceived post-independence. The unit of the village continued to be important and hold is value as integral to what India represented. The caste and class divide and their intricacies are shown through their socio-political interplay and power relations. In itself it also carries forward the idea of a well-educated man being the saviour of the community, the one who takes the first initiative to challenge the status quo and take steps to bring about change and give power to the exploited; but by its ending it establishes a sense of hope into the common people that they too can bring about change and live their lives not subjugated by other.

References –

Deshpande, S. (2007). Fashioning a Postcolonial Discipline: M. N. Srinivas and Indian Sociology. In P. Uberoi, N. Sundar & S. Deshpande (Eds.), Anthropology in the East: Founders of Indian Sociology and Anthrothropology (pp.496-536). Permanent Black.​

Benegal, S. 1976. Manthan [Film]. Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Ltd.

Patel, S. (2007). Towards a Praxiological Understanding of Indian Society: The Sociology of AR Desai. In P. Uberoi, N. Sundar & S. Deshpande (Eds.), Anthropology in the East: Founders of Indian Sociology and Anthropology (pp.417-443). Permanent Black.

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Hello! It’s Alex, I am a student at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, pursuing English, Sociology and Film Studies. I currently head the college’s poetry club as well as a volunteer at the NGO Yasham which provides educational and vocational services to underprivileged children and mothers. For me, it is interesting to explore the formation of gender identities in different cultures through out history and the queer culture that has survived. In general I like to discover differences and communalities in cultures as well as how they come to be. I enjoy a variety of films and film analysis as well as fictional books, especially queer ones with diverse representation, and run a bookstagram, @booksandmorewithraj, come and say hi!