The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas inverts everything you think about films on caste: Rajesh Rajamani

The Discreet Charm of Savarnas has been presented by Pa Ranjith under his banner Neelam Productions.

Casteism is not what happens to people, but what people do to others. It’s this simple yet nuanced idea that forms the crux of filmmaker Rajesh Rajamani’s debut short, The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas. Through a story of three storytellers on the hunt for “an actor who looks like a Dalit,” Rajamani turns his lens on casteism.

As The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas, presented by acclaimed filmmaker Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Culture, continues to earn praise, Rajamani speaks to indianexpress.com about the trigger for the satire, how the film is an antidote to mainstream Hindi films on caste and why the homogeneity of Bollywood filmmakers needs to go away if the industry wants to tell anti-caste stories.

Why did you choose satire to tell this story?

It was a culmination of a lot of things. One was that I used to write a comic series, Indelible India, where I used to use Ravi Varma’s Kalighat paintings and make them talk on contemporary social issues like caste, gender. Because it was a comic strip, I often used humour to make these characters talk on these issues, so I was familiar with satire. When I wanted to make a film, it was natural for me to think that it would be a satire. In some ways, it’s a continuation of what I used to tell.

So, these three characters have a straight face. They say serious stuff, which the audience finds funny. Often we see that films that are trying to have a conversation about caste, they are very sad and depressing. You watch them, and you are like, “God, I need some rest from this.”

I thought as a filmmaker it will be interesting to change everything about a film on caste, in the sense that it will be colourful, funny, have lively music and is set in a big city. So, everything that you think about a film on caste, we have inverted that.

Was a reason to say these things through a satire also because you thought it would make people invest in it and think about it?

It wasn’t such a conscious decision. If it reaches more people, I am happy about it, but it’s not that explicitly done with the thought – ‘I will make it funny because I want it to reach more people.’ It was a very natural decision and I wanted people to have conversations, if nothing else. If that happens, that’s a great thing a film can do.

But I was certainly against the idea of making a depressed, sad film. That’s something I was opposed to because that’s a convenient thing. You see poor people, lower caste people suffering in a film and you feel sad about it, and it’s almost like it’s happening somewhere far away from you. You see all the dark things happening, and then once you are out of the theatre, you are back to your life. It was also very boring, something that didn’t interest me.

What was the origin of the story?

I had quit my job in the banking sector and thought I would make one short film, and if it’s not good, I will go back to banking. I was thinking of ideas and around that time, I came across this advertisement from a Mumbai casting group on Facebook. There was an agent that had put up the ad, saying, “We are looking for an actor who looks like a Dalit.” A lot of people criticised it, and it was taken down after a few days. But there were screenshots of the ad online. By the time I saw, the original post wasn’t even there. But that sort of stayed in my head. I found it very assuming, bizarre.

Honestly, the person who put it up probably did it in all seriousness. He is not doing it to mock or hurt anybody. He was doing it with utmost seriousness. Of course, it was called out, but this casting call was a reflection of how people perceive things. Then I saw a few films where three characters were running to catch a train, and I thought what if they were running all across the city to find an actor who looks like a Dalit so that they can cast him in a film tomorrow.

This reminds me of the scene early on in the film, when one character mocks the other saying, ‘He thinks being a Dalit actor and an actor playing a Dalit character are two different things.’ He says this in all seriousness, not realising how wrong he is. You have remarkably captured the indifference of the upper caste.

In that sense, you have used the tropes of not just urban casteism but also the shallowness of privileged feminism, at how the female character takes offence to inappropriate usage of terms like “b****h” and “mad” while being casually casteist.

When I wrote these characters, I didn’t want to attach any particular tag to them that they represent this or that politics. For me, they were three well-meaning, progressive and privileged people. They don’t see themselves as problematic at all. It draws from a lot of people you see around yourself. Like a woman would able to understand gender very well, the other character dives into African-American writers, so he understands race.

So, they are able to understand race, gender and mental health issues, but when it comes to caste, they are sort of in a bubble and totally indifferent to what’s happening around them. The broad idea was to capture that.

So, I thought one character would be a race expert, and it will be ironic to have this face blackened in the end. The other one would speak on mental health and gender. But now I am also understanding along with the audience that this is how they are reading the film now.

The mainstream films on caste are far removed from what happens in urban centres. In fact, urban areas aren’t even considered casteist. I liked how you put in centre these three characters, who are regular, urban and somehow feel they are the victims of every situation. Not for once does it feel the story is unfolding in some faraway place because the space they inhabit feels too real and close.

It’s something that I have experienced in the comic strip, like people often say, ‘I find it funny but I think this guy’s also mocking me.’ I really like that thought because people are finding it funny and they are also seeing themselves in these characters. It is both funny and discomforting at the same time. It also allows the audience to reflect on themselves. So, I thought it will be a great thing to achieve with the film as well.

The twist in the end accurately describes what happens most of the times in the film industry, when directors say they didn’t get the “right kind of actor,” so they went with a popular choice, or when you ask them why they have blackened the actor’s face instead of taking an actor of that skin tone and the excuse given is “merit”. That happens when one goes searching for talent on the basis of stereotypes, exactly what your characters were doing.

Also, in the climax, when the director is lauded for the film, it’s hilarious again because it’s the reality and one realises how the so-called progressive politics in the industry really play out behind the screen. Was this how the film was always supposed to end?

The end was already in my mind. So, I knew they had to search for a character, and I thought it would be interesting if they don’t find anybody at all. So, what will they do? What does Indian cinema do? Indian cinema blackens somebody’s face not just to show a Dalit character but also if the character’s poor or an Adivasi.

That’s what Indian cinema does, so I thought it would make sense to have these characters do the same thing. It reflects what we do regularly. Of course, they are living in a bubble, and they are going to think like that.

You have also been a film critic. In your experience, where has the Hindi film industry failed when it comes to telling stories on caste or perhaps the lack of it?

The biggest problem with Tamil cinema and Bollywood is who are the storytellers. If you have much more diverse storytellers, there is a possibility of filmmakers to converse with each other through their films. We have a very homogeneous set of filmmakers. Some of them might border on the right or left-wing, but if you see the socio-economic demography, they are mostly Brahmin-Savarna filmmakers.

It’s very upper caste, upper class sort of filmmakers. Because the filmmakers are homogeneous, our stories also end up being very similar. They superficially may look different, but at the core, they are very similar.

Yeah.

They might be well-meaning just like the characters in my film, but unfortunately, because of the homogeneous group, we don’t get varied stories. Tamil Cinema, not just now but even since the ’80s, has been slightly more democratic than Bollywood. You have a lot of Bahujan filmmakers. They might not claim these identities, but because they are from the average working class, the cinema has somewhere documented that life.

They may not have a clear anti-caste stance but if you actually go back and view their films, you will realise they have told varied, interesting tales, which also have a social commentary running even if it’s not articulated the way it’s today. Only in the last five-six years, the articulation on anti-caste with regards to cinema has become popular. It didn’t exist a decade or two ago, but the films still had such commentary.

Diversity also provides an opportunity for Brahmin-Savarna filmmakers to understand, ‘Oh, we are lacking in these areas.’ If there are examples of other films happening, it gives them a chance to reflect and take it back to their work.

Even the question of diversity faces resistance in the industry. When the mainstream laps up a piece of art and someone tries to point out the problems in it, that’s met with resistance. The first response is mostly defensive. That I believe is a result of the saviour complex the upper caste-upper class has, which makes them feel, ‘We at least did this much.’

I agree with the fact that one of the defences that’s made often is that we are at least doing this much. We aren’t perfect but it’s still better than nothing. That’s also unfortunately because these filmmakers are such a small, homogeneous group that we are forced to accept whatever is thrown at the audience.

Secondly, what has also happened is that anti-caste films or those which have a commentary on caste have become a cool thing. It’s become a business – a commerce-attracting thing. So, people are in a hurry to make films on caste and when that’s the case, it also gets reflected in the film.

Look at filmmaker Anubhav Sinha’s last three films. He went for Muslim minority story (Mulk) then he went to do a Dalit-related, anti-caste-related story in Article 15, and now he has gone for domestic violence (Thappad). He has touched religion, caste and gender. Some of my friends were joking that he might go for mental health or climate change next. It’s become a cool thing to do. I won’t be surprised if he goes there.

Do you think we aren’t ready to change? Because it’s not that there’s not enough literature or cinema out there for us to educate ourselves.

For example, Sairat was such a powerful commentary on caste. However, when it was remade in Hindi with Dhadak (2018), the caste angle was done away with. It completely disassociated from the core of Sairat while calling itself an adaptation. It feels like the makers aren’t ready to offend the upper caste.

If the Maharashtrian audience has liked Sairat, then why not pan-India audience? I feel the audience is a lot more open to stories. There might be some backlash, but the average audience if the critique is somehow honest, will appreciate it. But the filmmakers and the film industry, for me, is a lot more scared than the audience.

In such times, we need even more original voices who tell their own stories. What you spoke about the diversity issue above is that people aren’t able to tell their own stories and we have to resort to the “other” gaze, which will somehow not be empathetic or value the lived reality but their own understanding of it.

Your film, hence, comes as a hope for the audience that wants stories to challenge the mainstream.

I hope so too. But also, I think even if filmmakers are from upper caste class background, it’s not that they cannot make honest or accurate films. I feel if most filmmakers invest time and effort in the stories they want to tell, I am sure they will be able to do a good job of it. What happens is it’s looked at as a commerce project, so it becomes a collection of props.

If it comes from understanding and reflection, it can be a lot more accurate than if you think okay, these are the things that are working today, and we have to do it. Then it becomes a very stereotypical portrayal.

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