They are sensitive to racism and sexism in the West, but blind to the blight of caste in their own society.
It is 1983. You are the Savarna director Saawan Kumar Tak. You are a little “progressive”, so you decide to cast a Dalit character in a lead role in Hindi cinema after a long time. But you face a dilemma: how do you portray a Dalit on screen? How do you make your Dalit character look, well, Dalit?
There are literally no Dalit actresses around in the industry, so you decide to cast an “upper caste” woman, Padmini Kolhapure, as the Dalit character. But she is fair of complexion and so doesn’t conform to your idea of how a Dalit woman looks. Perhaps, you can find one actor “who looks like a Dalit” to play her father. You don’t have time, though, so you get a fair-skinned “upper caste” man, Shriram Lagoo, and literally blacken his face. Voila! you have a father and daughter who look how you image a Dalit family looks. And you have a blockbuster film, Souten.
Thirty seven years on, if you want to visualise the “problem” faced by Saawan Kumar Tak during the casting of Soutan, you ought to watch the writer and filmmaker Rajesh Rajamani’s short film, The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas.
The film, produced by Pa Ranjith and streaming on YouTube since September 26, not only exposes, in a “charming manner”, the indifference and nescience of Savarna filmmakers but also the stereotypes they have about caste.
The plot revolves around three filmmakers frantically searching for a “Dalit actor” after the one they had signed leaves them in the lurch. What transpires in the next 20 minutes is a comical yet hard-hitting satire on Indian film industry and its incapacity to deal with matters of caste.
Indian filmmakers would have read criticisms of their works from anti-caste writers – Rajamani himself is an excellent movie critic – but this is perhaps the first time they have been satirically exposed through their own medium of film.
The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas – Rajamani’s second short film after Lovers in the Afternoon, released in 2019 – lays bare three key problems of Savarna filmmakers.
Sensitive to race and gender, blind to caste
If there’s one thing that the Indian film industry has spoken out openly about of late, it’s racism and sexism in the West. But ask them about caste, and they will likely show ignorance about the arguably the most pressing problem of their own society. Indeed, even the horrific murder and alleged gangrape of a teenaged Dalit girl in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, hasn’t moved Bollywood in the way the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by the police in the United States, did.
In Rajamani’s film, Aruna, one of the Savarna filmmakers, is shown to be very sensitive about mental health and gender bias, but does not know enough about the Dalits. She has to reach out to one Tiwari, an upper caste academic doing research on the Dalits (They never seem to do research on the Brahmins or the Thakurs, do they?), to get the whereabouts of “such people”.
Her colleague, Dilip, reads Toni Morrison but doesn’t know April 14 is Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, describing those celebrating it in Mumbai as some “fringe group”.
Stereotyping Dalit men and women
The portrayal of Dalit women in Indian films made by the Savarnas has been appalling, to say the least. In Souten, the Dalit woman, who doesn’t study or work even though she lives in Mauritius, is surrendered to a married Savarna. In Chauranga, Bikash Mishra’s highly objectionable movie made with help from the National Film Development Corporation, a Dalit mother engages in adultery with a married Brahmin man.
In Article 15, Anubhav Sinha got the dusky Sayani Gupta to play the Dalit character Gaura. She was not dusky enough to look like a Dalit, apparently, so Sinha made her darker still.
In Izzat, Dharmendra is blackfaced to play Adivasi Shekhar, the half-brother of the fair-skinned Shekhar played by Dharmendra in a double role.
In Priyadarshan’s Aakrosh, the Dalit man’s character goes to the dark-skinned Ajay Devgan rather than the fairer Akshaye Khanna.
Having grown up with films such as these, when Aruna, Dilip and the third filmmaker Swami – played, respectively, by Kani Kusruti, Rajagopalan Ganesan and Mathivanan Rajendran – finally find a Dalit woman to play the Dalit character, they are shocked. She is not their stereotype of the Dalit woman!
Publicly progressive, discreetly casteist
In India, movies depicting the lives and struggles of the Dalits are often made by the Savarna filmmakers who clearly have limited, if any, understanding of the country’s subaltern peoples. Why do they do it then? It gets them the “progressive” tag in the film circles, and some are even invited to TV talk shows and conferences on caste discourse.
Aruna, for instance, is keen to make a movie on the Dalits but does not even know where to find “such people” in Mumbai. She and her Savarna filmmaking colleagues do eventually find someone to play the Dalit character – only it is not a Dalit actor but a Shriram Lagoo.
Commenting on the short film, the documentary maker Somnath Waghmare says, “It is a very positive short film made in satire that exposes the Savarnas. At the screening of my documentary on Bhima Koregaon, one elderly Savarna lady asked me if the Dalit professor interviewed in it was indeed Dalit because he didn’t look like one.”
In a recent discussion about the film, Rajamani said, “Indian cinema dealing with caste is always depressing, violent or sad, and is about lower castes, almost as if Brahmin Savarnas are casteless so they have to reach out to the lowest in the caste hierarchy to document caste. Why can’t they document themselves? That would be the documentation of caste itself but it doesn’t happen. That’s why I had been thinking about showcasing the lives of the Savarnas. The ignorant people are great material for laughter and I wanted them to be charming and likable so that Savarna people watching can relate to them and say, hey this feels like me. But they also get a light slap!”
Rajamani is right. In Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15, the protagonist, played by Ayushmann Khurrana, is a Brahmin cop who is totally unaware of caste whereas the Jatav cop is biased towards fellow Dalits.
In the backdrop of the Hathras horror especially, it would do a world of good to the understanding of every Savarna to watch Rajamani’s short film, including filmmakers who have made movies on caste or the Dalits. You will like the charm of the Savarnas, believe me, and you won’t even feel the slap!
The media must be free and fair, uninfluenced by corporate or state interests. That's why you, the public, need to pay to keep news free. Support independent media by subscribing to Newslaundry today.