Anyone who thinks that modern India is largely free of caste biases should take their head out of the sand and read the news of a Dalit girl who passed away yesterday after allegedly being gangraped and strangled by four upper-caste men in Uttar Pradesh. Such injustices in our country still ring out as loud and clear as a bell at the entrance of a temple.
But when it comes to the arts, the subject — more often than not — is viewed through a grim lens of honour killings, manual scavenging, violence against marginalised communities and other such grisly tropes (think of Sairat, the excellent Marathi film). Humour is rarely employed as a weapon to annihilate caste biases. That’s why a new short film called The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas is a breath of fresh air, since it pokes fun at the narrow worldview that even so-called upper-class ‘liberals’ suffer from, sometimes unknowingly.
The plot deals with three people who are racing against time to cast a Dalit character in a short film they are about to shoot. The original choice has packed his bags for his village without warning, leaving the trio in the lurch. So, now, they have 24 hours to find a replacement before it’s time for lights, camera and action.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the stranded filmmakers go to bizarre lengths to find the missing link for their story. This includes faking a Tinder meet-up to woo the potential date for the role, since he is an ‘acting enthusiast’ who looks like a Dalit. The only problem is that he turns out to be a Palakkad Brahmin who is outraged at the prospect of being cast in a role that he feels is below his dignity. “He has a stereotype in his mind about what a Dalit person looks like and his sense superiority is fed to him by his parents from a young age,” says Vatsan M Natarajan, who essays the character. The plot to woo him thus falls flat and the filmmakers go back to the drawing board.
The twist lies in the way they eventually overcome this obstacle. But the humour is embedded in their cluelessness about the depth of their own privilege. There is a scene where they are travelling from SoBo to Borivali, wondering why there is a massive traffic jam on the way. The irony is that the upper-class trio making a film with a Dalit character has no idea that it’s because of a rally meant to mark Dr BR Ambedkar’s death anniversary. And what’s even worse is that one of them fits the phrase ‘woke millennial’ as neatly as a row of fair-trade food lined up on a supermarket shelf. This is the same girl who proposes that they weather the traffic jam in the cab instead of taking a train, since it gets messy and “my mum says it’s very unsafe”.
Writer-director Rajesh Rajamani tells us that his intention, from the beginning, was to put the spotlight on the ruling classes. “They are the ones who are perpetuating the caste system, so why does a film on the subject have to be about the marginalised? I wanted to invert that spectrum,” he reasons, adding that he went about the casting with this intention in mind.
The result is a short film that forces the viewers to look into the mirror and assess their own roles regarding how we reflect as a society. Caste bias is an all-pervasive aspect of our lives that threatens to bring our country down like a wrecking ball demolishing a large building. And it’s high time we did our bits to stand up against it in whatever way feasible, so that one day, Dalit girls can enter fields in remote villages feeling safe that their dignity won’t be violated.
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