- Yamini Nibhanupudi
“Listen, I have this friend who studies in TISS… He is doing a research on Dalits, so maybe I can ask him if he knows a Dalit?”.
The moment this line I came in the film, the water I was drinking shot out of my nose as I giggled uncontrollably, but director and writer Rajesh Rajamani expertly drags this situation forward when the character who says the line calls her friend and says “Tiwari…” indicating exactly how so called upper caste this friend is. Rajamani’s film “The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas”(TDCS) is filled with little gems like this, both which seem to be taking the point with humour, but at the same time, hits it directly on the nose.
The film is a take on Savarna filmmakers who attempt to push their idea of a Dalit person’s narrative in this country. It is a (actually not-so-subtle) dig on upper caste filmmakers who have for years expressed their ideas of what it is like to be a Dalit.
Who is the intended audience for this film though? We have in the past, seen films like Article 15 which are supposedly there to show the ground reality of caste in this country, however these films are for upper caste viewers. Usually such films have a majorly Savarna caste and crew, and rely on Savarna guilt while simultaneously pointing out that only the upper caste hero can be the saviour. The core ideas of these films itself come with an upper caste gaze. I would say that like Article 15, the intended audience for "The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas" in fact are Savarnas only, however, unlike that film, TDCS differs in the perspective; that it is not made through the gaze of a Savarna, rather, it acts as a mirror to Savarnas to show us how foolish we are when it comes to depicting Dalits in any form of media.
It explores how Savarnas stereotype Dalits, so much so that they are astonished at the fact that a Dalit woman can be so beautiful. Moreover, the film also delves into the mindset of upper caste men, especially in a scene where the three central characters go to meet an “acting enthusiast” who appears to look “Dalit enough” for the role, only for him to feel insulted by the fact that they want him to play a Dalit while he comes from a “proud identity” of a Palakkad Brahmin. Being a wonderful comedy writer though, Rajamani is able to extract every bit of comedy from this scene as the moment this man exclaims which family he is from, one of the characters asks him “Palakkad Brahmin? Vadama or Brahacharanam?”, dragging forward this hilarious yet absolutely rooted-in-reality interaction between two Savarnas.
It also takes digs at a major population which exists on social media today, that of the ‘Liberal UC Feminist’ - A person who continues to speak about women's rights, points out the casual sexism and ableism of men and exists as the ever ‘woke’ voice to the group, who in sensitive enough for everything else but caste; and at the same time talks about how “The local trains are messy and unsafe” and is a part of this group to find an actor who “looks like a Dalit”.
This is not the only trope which Rajamani explores - he explores the character of Dilip - a man who is constantly expressing his intellect and how well-read he is, but at the same time, is unaware of the Chaitya Bhumi celebrations happening in Mumbai and says “some fringe group or the other always stalls Mumbai”. To top this group off is the director of their film - Swami. Swami does consider himself to be informed, after all, he knows the difference between a “dalit actor” and an “actor playing a dalit”.
That is where it ends though. He clearly believes that people should stay in their roles, as seen in a small sequence where the characters are singing and smoking together wearing sunglasses in a cab, and the moment the driver puts on his sunglasses to jam alongside them, Swami is the only one to react to that with a poetically put “dude, what the fuck?” Rajamani makes sure that the mindset of these characters are indicated through every single action or dialogue of theirs. The three characters together exist to show Savarna activists where their politics actually lie when it comes to filmmaking in this country. Through this process of searching for their actor though, what eventually happens is pretty much what happens with every actor playing a Dalit in an Upper Caste production - some dirt is smeared on them, and they are deemed bold for delving into such topics.
I could go on and on about all the incredible and intricate details of Rajesh Rajamani’s film, produced by one of the greatest voices of resistance in cinema - Pa. Ranjit. However, the point of this film is not just to laugh with it and think about how ridiculous these characters are, rather, it’s to take a look around and understand how many of our so-called Savarna ‘woke’ icons who appear to be allies and flag bearers of intersectionality are like this; and for fellow upper-caste people, to take a look deep within and introspect how we in fact are actually like this and how we have historically contributed to this view in society.
Yamini is a screenwriter and editor who has worked in both Bombay and Hyderabad. She holds a Masters degree in Media and Cultural Studies from TISS, Mumbai.
She loves analysing films and hopes to break into film writing soon.