Reversing the upper-caste gaze: Rajesh Rajamani on his vision for The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas
Conventionally, caste has been a sombre topic in pop culture that chiefly deals with Dalit characters. Rajesh Rajamani reverses the gaze on Savarnas, and inserts humour into his film.
A few years ago, a film production house shared a casting call on Facebook for ‘an actor who looks like a Dalit’. It caused furious outrage on social media and the post was eventually taken down. This real-life incident sowed the first seeds of the now viral short film The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas, written and directed by writer, film critic and comic artist, Rajesh Rajamani.
Presented by Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Productions, the film alludes to Luis Buñuel’s movie The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. It follows a trio of upper-caste filmmakers from South Bombay on an urgent quest to find a protagonist who, in their words, ‘looks like a Dalit’ for their film shoot the next day. Over 20 brief minutes, this ingenious satire takes a hard look at caste dynamics in contemporary society while also regaling viewers with the failings and hypocrisy of its characters. The radiant cinematography by Vinay Aravind and a mellifluous background score from the Imphal Talkies add to the film’s light and breezy vibe.
As a prominent anti-caste voice in the media, Rajamani had a lot to say about the film.
Conventionally, caste has been a sombre topic in pop culture that chiefly deals with Dalit characters. What made Rajamani reverse the gaze on Savarnas and insert humour into his film? His response is two-fold, “I think increasingly in academia, news media and popular culture, caste has become synonymous with Dalits and it’s almost as if the rest of society is distanced from caste. Films on caste too are obsessed with dark and depressing themes like honour killing, sexual violence or, at times, reservations. For instance, Article 15 is like a collage of atrocities on Dalits. Mainstream cinema is obsessed with the death of the Dalit.”
Citing the focus of anti-caste leaders like Phule, Dr Ambedkar and Periyar on Brahmins when talking about caste, he adds, “In reality, caste is not about Dalits, they are its last symptom. Caste comes from the power centres which comprise the Brahmins or Savarnas. But today, instead of talking about them, we talk about the people who have the least control over the structure of caste. Dalits are a product of caste — not its creators. So I thought, why can’t we do the opposite of this? I felt it was important to put the limelight on those upholding the structure and reverse the treatment too, so we made it a fun movie with colourful clothes and happy music. We inverted everything a caste movie is generally about.”
Characters from marginalised communities are often depicted as one-dimensional beings drowning in their victimhood – mere caricatures. In upending this gaze I ask Rajamani if he too intended to caricaturise the upper-caste characters in an act of celluloid justice that reinscribes power hierarchies. But Rajamani insists that he wanted to maintain a balance between realism and caricature. “We wanted the audience to have that conflict, to think this looks exaggerated and comical, but it also looks very real,” he considers.
Mainstream popular culture is slowly waking up to the reality that caste-based oppression is a dominant socio-political force in India. However, when upper-caste filmmakers have broached the subject of caste, they have often met with severe criticism. Is it harder for privileged filmmakers to tell effective stories about caste? And is there more room for subversion and innovation when stories are told from marginalised perspectives?
“I think there is a lot of scope for both Bahujan and upper-caste filmmakers to make important commentaries on caste. The latter have access to places that Bahujans can’t even enter. They are better suited to understand, reflect and critique it," replies Rajamani. And yet we don’t see this happening because engagement with these issues remains superficial. “Unfortunately stories on Adivasis, Dalits and Muslims have become very commoditised. It’s become an easy way for upper-caste filmmakers to seem progressive and popular when they tell these stories. If one honestly engages with the issue, it will reflect in your work in any case,” he adds.
The film sharply captures the popularity and perhaps flippancy of wokeness in contemporary discourse. One character drops endless references about Black intellectuals while another is a feminist who constantly updates her male colleagues on political correctness. However, their wokeness stops short at caste sensitivity. “I think the most progressive and radical upper-castes understand the problem of race which is kilometres away from them, they understand gender issues and climate change, but often they don’t see caste – a structure on top of which they stand. Many discover caste in their later years, in contrast, I don’t think any Bahujan person has that luxury, they’re forced to know about the violence and vulgarity of caste from a young age, even before they’re prepared to do so,” Rajamani says.
When asked if he faced any obstacles or censorship in filming such a sensitive topic, Rajamani reveals that the short was self-funded on a shoestring budget that eventually escalated. The generosity of the actors in accepting small fees or even acting for free because they liked the storyline, helped in adhering to the tight budget. As a fan left a comment on YouTube saying that Netflix India should consider the film a pilot for a series, I had to ask Rajamani if he had hopes of such stories being picked up by larger platforms. “While the industry seems to be stuck on sad caste stories, I think production houses will pick up on what seems like good business. So perhaps this is a matter of time,” he hopes.
Adivasis, Dalits, women and gender non-conforming persons are frequently subjected to unflattering portrayals of themselves in mainstream cinema. Conversely, in this film, it is upper-caste people who would probably be made uncomfortable. Rajamani is unconcerned about this as his primary goal was to make films for fellow Bahujans. “Often films telling Bahujan stories only depict violence. The idea was to make a film where the gaze is not on Bahujans, but rather on the ruling classes. I also think Savarnas are powerful enough to digest whatever discomfort you throw at them and move on to supersede you,” he quips.
At a promotional appearance Rajamani was asked what some believe is perhaps the film’s most pressing question – what does a Dalit look like? “I don’t want to answer that, the movie deliberately chooses not to explain that at all. We don’t use any adjectives or explanations except for the Black face right at the end, which is also a reflection of what happens in mainstream cinema. But apart from that we don’t point to anything because I think that stereotype already exists in the Savarna imagination,” he asserts.
In fact, except for two lone scenes, the film doesn’t show a Dalit person. “I feel even as we critique Savarnas we shouldn’t end up mocking Dalits or Bahujans to create humour. It would have been tempting to show that in trying to find a Dalit-looking person they approach a gardener or a watchman or poor people in the area. We deliberately didn’t do that because then the humour would have been at the cost of the Bahujan,” says Rajamani.
This film then is not concerned with what these notions are, but rather why and how they exist and continue to be perpetuated. Interestingly, a mainstream online publication shared a link of the film with the caption, ‘This short film highlights stereotypes associated with Dalits’ and missed the point by a mile. Contemplating this misinterpretation, Rajamani says with a chuckle, “In spite of my deliberate measures I’m very amused that they’ve managed to make it about that.”
Watch The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas:
Nolina S Minj is an Adivasi feminist writer and researcher. She tweets at @knowleena