In the language of memes, Bharathiraja walked, so Pa Ranjith could fly. While the former, a Tamil film director, wasn’t overt about the Dalit politics of his cinema, Ranjith very much is; this is seen in his films Kaala, Kabali, Madras, and Attakatthi. Neelam Productions became his space to incubate such content. And it is here that writer, director, and film critic Rajesh Rajamani decided to make his satirical short film, The Discreet Charm Of The Savarnas in the tradition of Ranjith—overt, and stinging.
The short film is about a savarna (caste Hindu) trio of film-makers who have one day to cast (no pun intended) a Dalit character. They contemplate potential actors, but none fit the character—one looks “too sophisticated”, or “too middle-class” or “too beautiful”. They need someone who “looks like a Dalit”.
Based on a casting announcement Rajamani had seen on Facebook back in early 2018, this story has them plod their way across Mumbai, crowded due to Amedkar Jayanti celebrations, to find “the” actor. (The film they are making is titled Mahanagar Din Ratri, a mashup of two films—Aranyer Din Ratri and Mahanagar, both by Satyajit Ray, himself an upper caste man who attempted to highlight caste violence in his short film Sadgati.)
Rajamani’s impetus was to subvert the idea that political humour in India is just Modi-bashing, which is easy if not passé. Instead, he holds up a mirror to the savarna gaze, making the Modi-bashers the object of his humour—those who, under normal circumstances, would be creating political humour. So we have Dilip, a Toni Morrison reading man; Aruna, a woman who is very clear about what is sexist, and what isn’t, what is ableist language, and what isn’t; and the man heading this trainwreck—Swami, who has no compunctions calling a woman a “bitch” but insists on differentiating between a dalit actor and an actor playing a dalit character. (Of course he is sleeping under a framed poster of Vertigo when we first encounter him.)
The humour here is in the limitations of our political correctness. When Dilip asks the taxi driver if he has read Ta-Nehisi Coates, you see that despite spending endless hours educating himself on race he has no grasp on class, and later caste.
I loved this ‘Olympics of despair’, which made the point clear—being disadvantaged in one sense, doesn’t make one disadvantaged in all senses, and being educated in one sense, doesn’t make one educated in all senses. This is where the biting criticism against communism in India being unable to grapple with caste fits in. Reading Toni Morrison, and standing up for Black Lives Matters doesn’t inoculate one from complicity in other forms of injustice.
There’s a silly moment when a Dilip makes conversation with a Palakkad Brahmin asking which sub-caste he belongs to. The Brahmin, about to answer him, stops himself in anger—he was just asked to play a Dalit character because he is dark complexioned, but even the idea of that affronts him.
It is in this humour that the film makes its point, but the stiffness and contrived circumstances make it a slightly awkward watch. Especially given that the Rajamani noted in an interview that “I wanted [savarnas] to think, ‘this is embarrassing but it is exactly like me.’”
Exaggeration is different from contrivance. But the goofy aftertaste of these lines hit home in the last frame when we find who they actually cast(e) in it. The deeper issue of the caste cartel networks that makes it difficult to hire and thus see dalit actors is mined for maximum humour.
The more salient point however, I think, is the need to have a “dalit character” as an overt marker of something. Mostly grief, violence, decrepitude, anger. We only see marginalized characters through their trauma, never their joy. So when Dilip is told their “Dalit actor” is “gone”, his first assumption is that he is dead. It’s funny because of, well, the expression on Dilip’s face, but it is also tragic because even innocuous words, like “gone”, when associated with Dalits or people playing Dalit characters, can mean something else altogether. (I am reminded of a conversation with a queer academic, also an academic who is queer, Brian Horton, who described his thesis as “What do queer people do when we are not suffering?”)
Watching Pariyerum Perumal alongside Article 15 will make this point clear. This is why we need Dalit people telling Dalit stories, women telling women’s stories, trans people telling trans stories. The entry point can’t just be grief and despair.
You can watch the 21 minute short film below.