Comedian Manjeet Sarkar announced his upcoming documentary film Untouchable: Laughing Out Caste via Instagram earlier this month. The trailer for the documentary is set to release on 28 January, with a special screening at the Indian Music Experience Museum in Bengaluru, followed by a comedy performance and a moderated Q&A session.
Directed by Sarkar, the documentary follows his journey from Chattisgarh’s conflict-ridden Bastar district to becoming one of the leading Dalit comedians in the country. He also explores the process of finding humour in sensitive topics including mental health, caste discrimination and religion in the film. The hour-long documentary will feature footage from his 2023 national tour, alongside conversations he’s had with friends, relatives, Dalit artists and fellow comedians.
“I talk to various people about different topics and then it cuts to me on stage trying to find the humour in the same subject,” said Sarkar. “For example, I spoke with Varun Grover about mental health and he had a lot to say. The next scene includes footage from one of my performances where I’m giving my perspective about it.”
Other than Grover, most of the other comedians featured in the documentary hail from the Bengaluru comedy circuit, including Harman Preet Singh, Ameer Peeran and Anamika Haridas amongst others.
The documentary will also serve as a tribute to Sarkar’s friend Krutikaa Jawanjal, whom he credits as the first Indian Dalit comedian. “She was the first person I saw speaking about being Dalit on stage,” recalls Sarkar. “She was a Bengaluru-based comedian and used to run a room. She was also my first friend in the scene. A few months into the process of shooting the documentary I realised I have to pay my dues.”
Sarkar—who had hinted at the documentary during his episode of the DeadAnt Chatroom—began shooting a year ago, while he was touring the country with his special Untouchable. He shot many performances during this period to gather the footage required for the documentary. He could have opted for the vlog-style approach, shooting the film on his phone. But he wanted his first documentary to look slick, so he splurged on a proper camera setup.
“I did not know movie wagerah banane mein itna paisa lag jaata hai (I did not know making a movie requires so much money),” he laughed. “If you rent out equipment it’s like INR 5,000 right there. Then you have to pay the people who are helping you. Each show that you record can cost you anywhere between INR 12,000-15,000. In addition to that you’re travelling, you have to bear the expense of the crew’s meals. So I quickly noticed that the biggest obstacle when you’re making a film is capital.”
Monetary challenges aside, Sarkar also noticed that his writing was taking a hit. One of the motives behind touring the country was to add more jokes as he workshopped his material. The special, which started off as an hour-long set, had evolved into a 100-odd-minute show after adding jokes while on the road. But during his fourth and final tour in November, when he was focused on figuring out the narrative flow of the documentary, he realised he wasn’t trying out new material.
“I barely got any new jokes out of the last tour because I wasn’t fully focused on the performance,” he said. “I kept performing the set I had already but I barely tried anything new because my mind was preoccupied with the documentary.”
In addition to some original tracks that were produced for the film, Untouchable: Laughing Out Caste will feature music by Indian hip-hop artist Prabh Deep. “We had to go through a lot of chats with Azadi Records but I was set on using Prabh Deep’s music because I have always liked his art,” said Sarkar. “He is a rapper who made talking about caste cool.”
For now, Sarkar is busy ironing out the final details with Boston-based cinematographer John Mike Jr—editor for the film—whom he met through his girlfriend. The film is set to premiere on 2 March at an event organised by the Sumanasa Foundation in Chennai. After that, he’s jetting off to Canada on 14 March for a screening at British Columbia University, among other events. He also has screenings lined up in Europe and the United Kingdom. The comedian is also vying for a showcase at the United Nations office in Geneva as a part of an event which highlights social impact films from across the globe.
All the screenings will be followed by a new one-hour show, which will include riffs on his experience performing at the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Bangkok last year, his first international trip, and some new material he’s written on the topic of mental health.
Sarkar is slightly nervous but also excited for this new chapter in his life. “I have been struggling with self-doubt constantly,” he said. “I’ve never felt like this while doing standup comedy. I’ve never made a movie before. The movie is also already getting some good traction, so I have that baggage to deal with. I’ve never even released a video and this documentary includes so many of my beloved jokes. I’m constantly thinking, ‘Will I justify this?’ This is the first documentary by a Dalit comedian. It’s also the first documentary about a Dalit person which is not sad.”