Over the last few weeks, two horrific rapes and murders reported from Uttar Pradesh have renewed a much-needed conversation surrounding caste-atrocities in the country. Unfortunately, though, as with every headline in the last few years, it also seems to have sparked an online debate in a situation that didn’t really call for one.
On one side, a very outspoken minority has insisted that caste-violence doesn’t exist in modern India, despite the overwhelming evidence pointing to the contrary. But on the other, a large number of people who have seen this discrimination in action, were shaken to the core by the barbaric crimes, which targeted two young Dalit women.
In all this, one topic has remained largely unexplored — how those from the urban areas of the country, despite their very vocal protests online, remain to this day blissfully unaware of the stark reality of the situation. As they say — those who have grown up unaware of their caste, probably grew up upper-caste. Everyone else knows.
Taking off on this premise is a short film that was uploaded to YouTube earlier this week. The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas, by film critic Rajesh Rajamani, is a satirical take on how average city folk view issues related to caste and is one that has received a lot of attention in the last few days for all the right reasons.
The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas traces the journey of three filmmakers from Mumbai who are on the lookout for someone “typically Dalit” to cast in their film. Along the way, a few actors are rejected for looking too “middle-class”, while some are deemed too attractive to be Dalit. One “acting enthusiast”, meanwhile, is outraged at being offered the role as it would do his upper-caste heritage a disservice.
How to look “Dalit enough”
Through the 20-minute runtime, which is full of humorous sequences, and subtle jabs that need at least two viewings to fully sink in, the three urban filmmakers reveal just how disconnected they are from the rest of the country, as they go about deeming a number of potential stars of their film “not Dalit enough”.
As the story progresses, the film transforms into a biting critique of how supposed “woke” circles champion causes that are alien to them, without actually doing anything to affect that change — or even attempting to understand how to make this change.
These points come through especially well in scenes where the filmmakers are seen complaining about unknown elements causing a traffic jam (which turns out to be a result of a rally to honour Dr BR Ambedkar on his death anniversary). Or in the one where one of the protagonists asks his taxi driver if he had read the works of Toni Morrison. The fact that the protagonists speak in English only emphasises the disconnect.
The filmmakers appear, on the face of it, to be concerned about discrimination, but eventually are revealed to be just as taken by stereotypes surrounding the community as those who argue that reservations are a bigger problem than everyday discrimination.
It’s a known fact by now that the Dalit community is often characterised in films as dark-skinned, poor, and downtrodden victims of their circumstances. And Rajamani makes it clear that, as a result of these stereotypes, more assertive and confident members of the Dalit community also end up being rejected by their “woke” Savarna brethren — who have grown too used to the narrative of the “underprivileged Dalit”.
The title of the film — but not much else — has been borrowed from the French film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. It’s also one in which Rajamani, who is known for his anti-caste writing and strong opinions about Savarna filmmakers, attempts to spark a conversation about our tendency to stereotype members of the Dalit community. And honestly, it couldn’t have come at a better time than when Indians have suddenly decided to “debate” what constitutes caste-based violence.