Anti-Caste film critic Rajesh Rajamani’s debut directorial venture, The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas calls out modern India’s disillusionment with the idea of a so-called “casteless society,” one where caste is perceived and relegated to the realms of rural society. Co-directed by Prashant Ramasamy for Neelam Productions, the short film’s title is inspired by the 1972 French film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie that mocks the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie class.
The film revolves around Dilip, Aruna and Swami— three upper caste people looking for a Dalit actor for their ‘art’ film after their initial designate leaves. The premise of the film seems intrinsically tied to the director Rajesh Rajamani’s critique of Savarna directors who create Dalit art as a way to seem progressive without engaging with the dynamics of caste politics. This is seen when the three characters are discussing their need for an actor who is “a little more Dalit;” the extent of their ignorance is highlighted when they can’t seem to figure out the difference between a Dalit actor and an actor playing a Dalit character.
The imagined Dalit figure in the plot becomes a ploy to uncover the performative woke-ness of the three characters, Kani Kusruti’s character Aruna stands out as a politically correct figure who calls out Swami and Dilip’s sexist remarks, debates about the cause of mental health – all while failing to assess her own prejudices along the class and caste spectrum. She whines about the cramped train and fails to see the irony in her search for a Dalit looking person. This contrasts with Rajagopalan Ganesan’s portrayal of Dilip who reads radical Black Literature and feels the need to exhibit his knowledge; he unironically asks the cab driver if he knows of Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Everyday casteism is at the core of the Indian fabric and while the caste system might have been constitutionally derided in India, we keep living with the remnants of the Brahmanical varna-based hierarchy till date.
The significance of placing the film in Mumbai is also not lost as it is perceived as a modern space where caste boundaries are blurred. Covert casteism still perpetuates in the form of caste-based discrimination, stereotyping, and gaslighting. Prayaag Akbar in ‘Caste Lives On and On’ comments, “As caste has been globally castigated as a social evil, the upper-caste Indian society has found numerous ways to refer to caste without explicitly mentioning it.”
This is seen when they meet Riya, a Dalit willing play the part but when confronted she is “a little too pretty” to fit the character. This comment is a representation of the characters’ skewed sense of caste understanding. As upper caste people, their bubble of what a Dalit looks like is burst on their encounter with Riya, an independent and conventionally beautiful Dalit woman.
The penultimate scene of the film reveals the heightened hypocrisy of the Savarnas who feel the need to exhibit their saviour complex by making a film on caste atrocities — seeming both progressive and liberal in their ideology whilst missing out on their complicity.
The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas is an important film in that uses comedy as a trope to call out Brahmanical ideologies that are ingrained in the everyday life and that continue to profit off Dalit lives without realising their own complicity.
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