Director: Rajesh Rajamani
Rajesh Rajamani’s The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas, produced by Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Productions and streaming on YouTube, is a comedy of manners that reveals the mechanics of privilege blindness, and the true beneficiaries of art that is made with an upper-caste gaze. The film is about three filmmakers who need to recast a Dalit part when the actor initially supposed to play the part leaves. They’re looking for a certain “type”— a victim their art can emancipate. Unwittingly, in the process of making the film, they are reinforcing a version of the caste-divide: people-like-us get to make art about people-like-them.
Towards the end, when the trio meets someone who’s Dalit, who is confident, well-educated and good-looking, it shatters a metaphorical ivory tower — they had implicitly assumed that sophistication and articulation was the monopoly of people like themselves. This image of the other is also notional, as India’s greatest intellectual had pointed out.
What they’re really guilty of is reserving for themselves the universal position— to search for an “ideal Dalit” — to stand outside caste and, as neutral observers, set the narrative for this conversation. What this effectively does is obscure the fact that the ability to assume this position comes from having benefited from the system’s inequities, however indirectly. By thinking of themselves as outside of the system, they lose their ability to have a real conversation, and consequently, their art has the effect of casting them as the emancipator.
The film is a study in economy — it doesn’t feel the need to speechify its themes, but finds a way to dramatise them. Bright colours set the tone for a comedy, but there’s also the way the film uses space. Early on, shots in their homes use a lot of negative space. Later, when they’re crammed in the back of an auto rickshaw or in a Mumbai Local, the contrast gives us a sense of how discomfited they are by the life outside their bubbles.
One of the primary reasons for the potency of its comedy is the performances — especially that of Kani Kusruti. Her self-righteous indignation is played completely straight, without winking at the camera, and this allows the film to mine humour in the way the trio’s bubble collides with the world around them. Towards the end of the film, they sit, cooped up in a cab stuck in traffic, ranting about the “fringe groups” outside obstructing their search for the ideal Dalit , ignorant of the fact that what they are passing through is the Ambedkar Jayanti processions at Chaitya Bhoomi.
That the film is set in Mumbai is significant. One often hears of how caste and other antiquated ideas disappear in the urban parts of India. This film picks at that lie, and other lies we have told ourselves with a scalpel. It’s a short with a lot of bite, and dare I say, oodles of charm.