Manthan was the third part in a trilogy of films dealing with rural oppression and it is a film which framed Benegal as a fiercely political voice in Indian cinema. Not only does the film have one of the finest ensemble casts you are likely to come across in parallel cinema but also brings together a typically brilliant crew made up of Kaifi Azmi (dialogue), Vanraj Bhatia (music) and Govind Nihalani (cinematography). Manthan is Benegal at the peak of his creative powers and it is a masterful work that focuses on the efforts of liberals Dr. Rao (Girish Karnad) and his men to help rural farmers establish a Milk cooperative. Based on the true story of the ‘white revolution’ – the world’s biggest Dairy development programme that took place in India during the 1970s and beyond, Benegal roots his story in a truth and approaches the political contestation of the village through a neo realist prism that serves to dignify the poor farmers/peasants as new egalitarian citizens. At first, the villagers are suspicious of the ‘city folk’ and the ambivalent character of Bhola (Naseeruddin Shah), an oppressed Dalit who becomes a metonym of casteism, is reluctant to allow his people to join the cooperative. Bhola’s reluctance stems from his experience with people from the city who he views as exploitative, greedy and hypocritical – characteristics that are explored in the film with a degree of ideological complexity. The villagers are beholden to Mishraji (Amrish Puri), a greedy Dairy distributor, who exploits particularly the Dalits, paying them pittance for their milk.
Although the Milk cooperative at first seems like an Utopian impossibility, its eventual implementation is later questioned by Dr. Rao as a flawed enterprise since the poorest farmers which it is supposed to help the most remain excluded from equal participation and ownership. For Dr. Rao, this flaw in fact masks a failure to grasp the historical complexities of the different castes in the village. It is a liberal failing that such inequality stems from a history of casteism in which the Dalits have been mistreated and enslaved as sub-human. Bhola reminds Dr. Rao of such a discriminatory and painful past, pointing to the continuing exploitation and mistreatment of Dalit women by singling out Chandravarkar (Anant Nag) as perpetuating such a bind of oppression. Since the cooperative doesn’t discriminate against caste makes it an ideological entity that threatens to destabilise the hegemony of Sarpanch (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), the self designated headman of the village and symbol of the higher caste. The status quo of the village is challenged directly when elections to contest the post of chairman are won by Moti, a Dalit. The Dalits claim the victory of Moti as a personal triumph and Bhola’s attempts to overturn an age old hegemonic tradition reclaim a human dignity for the Dalits and oppressed alike by rejecting the notion of inferiority perpetuated by Sarpanch and Mishraji. Sarpanch is outraged by the victory of Moti. In retaliation Sarpanch ensures Dr. Rao is transferred out of the village so that his radical politics can be suppressed. However, Sarpanch is unable to comprehend the infectious revolutionary ideals have already been embraced by Bhola. Even though Dr. Rao fails in his original aim of starting a Milk cooperative embraced in a totality by the villagers especially the Dalits, his radicalisation of Bhola is an ideological achievement that should be read as a counter hegemonic consolidation of a peasant insurgency. Such an explicit final political position unites Manthan firmly with Ankur and Nishant.