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The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas – A Comical and Insightful Look at Caste in Cinema

Written by Shreya Ghosh,

October 23rd 2020,

*spoilers ahead*

Three young filmmakers stand in the midst of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, eager to find the lead actor of their short film on caste. They meet her and she is not what they expected, deeming her “too beautiful” for the role of a Dalit. “We’re f*cked”, exclaims one of them. Fast forward to six months later, the same savarna filmmaker now appears as the lead on the film’s poster, only with his skin darkened a few shades. 

The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas is a  short film about the making of a short film that revolves around a Dalit protagonist. The film exhibits something truly rare: self-reflexivity and engagement with its own form of cultural production. Sharply satirical, it engages with assumptions and ingrained prejudices comically. The three main characters set out to make a short film with a Dalit protagonist, presumably with the intent to creatively portray caste issues. However, instead of the plot itself, it seems of utmost importance to them that their lead actor “look Dalit”. And they have very specific requirements for what this entails. The actor playing a Dalit should not be fair-skinned. Nor should they be conventionally attractive. They definitely cannot look self-assured. Confidence is a big no as well. Where are these notions coming from? Why is Manu, a potential actor, “too sophisticated” to play a Dalit? Why would those two categories be mutually exclusive?. 

So, misled and unable to question their assumptions, the three filmmakers set out to unwittingly perpetuate this cycle of stereotyping. While trying to make a film on caste, they are unable to see their own skewed conceptualization of it. Swami, the director, is the only one of the three who knows the difference between “Dalit actor” and “actor playing a Dalit”, while rejecting potential actors for not “fitting the character”. Dilip, the eventual lead actor and avid reader of African American novelists, goes on about Beloved (it is interesting how the edition he reads features a white woman on its cover) and Giovanni’s Room, while being unaware of his own stereotyped idea of Dalits Aruna, the self-proclaimed feminist who openly talks about therapy and mental health, finds a man online who “looks like a Dalit”, and later refers to Dalits as “those people” while talking to her friend from TISS. 

Any movement for social change in India cannot be undertaken without a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of caste. The supposedly intellectually active main characters each have their own self professed liberal beliefs, but are riddled with biases they can’t recognise. The haphazard application of Western liberalism to Indian societies without an understanding of the overt and covert ways in which caste operates are of limited use in effecting real, revolutionary change. Within the film industry, creators have, in general,  moved from a distant view to minute dissections of society. But with caste, these discussions still remain incomplete, as do the liberal and progressive movements and beliefs endorsed by Swami, Dilip, and Aruna. 

In Article 15, for instance, we do see an examination of caste discrimination and police corruption, but the rural setting is foregrounded. The idea that caste is persistently used as a tool of oppression outside of rural India, does not come across. Even though Aditi, Ayan’s romantic partner, points out how their own mothers wouldn’t have been comfortable with sharing plates with their domestic workers, this fleeting reference can be easily missed. Masaan, yet another film intended to examine and critique caste, also emphasizes its surroundings – the ghats of Varanasi. But in this movie, casteism isn’t a far-away phenomena bred by particular regions. It is a far reaching and oppressive pattern of prejudiced thought that is present in violent as well as subtle forms. The focus is on the characters, complex and well-rounded, living a life while battling these prejudices. 

Screengrab from Masaan

What sets The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas apart, is its setting and subjects. Whether it  be Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, or any other major metropolitan city, casteism affects people in tangible ways. The Dalit woman at the end of the short film is treated like an unnatural specimen, or an exception to the rule of how “Dalits usually are”, being rejected from playing a character of her own caste for being “too pretty”. In short, she stands outside the three main characters’ savarna expectations. It unsettles the common assumption that the city is the seat of progress: its progress and progressiveness are insufficient. 

What then is the way to uproot the caste system? Article 15 seems to place its faith on the savarna hero, the upper-caste “liberator” who realizes his privilege and decides to change things out of his righteousness. One needs to question a society where the rights of large sections of people depend upon the personal choices of those in power, instead of celebrating the “liberator” who proves an exception to the rule of exploitation. In Masaan there are no heroes except the two main characters, Deepak and Devi. Deepak, whose caste location and personal tragedy almost keep him from breaking the caste-based occupational pattern of his family, learns to find a different life not for anyone else, but for himself. He “liberates” himself. In The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas, no heroism ostensibly exists. 

The three main characters set out to be heroes in the realm of art, but all that comes across is their hypocrisy. This film satirizes the liberal hero trope with a meta takedown of the industry it situates itself in. At the starting we see a poster of an 1890 Pears advertisement called “the white man’s burden”. The white man in the colonial imagination was the ultimate figure of “liberation”, actually that of exploitation. The very same Dilip who scoffs at the difference between Dalit actor and actor playing Dalit, has the sub-sects of Brahminism memorized. Unlike Ayan, these three aren’t wholly ignorant towards caste. They use it to self-fashion their liberalness. The presumptuous Tinder date Aruna meets with proclaims his “feminism” and then is enraged at being told he “looks like a Dalit”. He knows and names his caste down to the sub-division, proudly.

The closest figure this short film has to a hero is that of BR Ambedkar, as seen from the Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations taking place outside the cab where the three are irritably traveling to meet their potential actor. BR Ambedkar’s role in history curriculums has mostly been limited to being the chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constitution. His indictment of caste, his work for women’s issues, his demand for separate electorates, and the nature of his conflict with Gandhi, who proclaimed support for the “bahujans” but claimed that they had little political consciousness, are often left out. The main characters of the short film, while trying to make a short film based on caste, do not even notice or comment on the Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations. This concretizes the idea that their engagement with caste is not in any way complete. 

Subtle Reference to Ambedkar in The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas

“It is a pity that Caste even today has its defenders”, said BR Ambedkar in Annihilation of Caste, published in 1936. Undoubtedly this remains true But a more optimistic truth might be emerging. While minimal and away from the mainstream, caste today has its critics, dissenters, people adept enough to see its nuances, and therefore people who have set out to expose hypocrisies and to change the potentially unending cycle of unidimensional portrayals and stereotypes.  

Experience Further: Released in 1991, this song has the same energy to inspire change even today. It reminds me that while there is a long way to go, changes are occurring that make it possible to envision a world where equality and justice are not just abstractions. Things are far from right in this world, but there is a fight in progress, and the world that comes out of it might just be worth it.

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Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

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