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How to look 'Dalit' in the Savarna imagination

 

Bobby Kunhu 

When I first watched the classic 1972 Luis Bunuel comedy, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeouise, in 1994 or 95, I could not have imagined that it was possible to adapt the movie in an Indian context. Hypothetically, since I did not imagine that it could happen, I presume the reasons for this lack of faith was that I didn’t know of any existing Indian director who had the breadth and honesty to take on the Indian elite (read savarna) and that the multiple Indian film industries – including the so called high brow art genre – were governed by strong caste values. I suppose the nature of the waters irrigating cinema in general and Indian cinema in particular has changed dramatically with the democratization access to technology has brought in and the assertion of movie makers like Pa. Ranjith, Nagraj Manjule, Athiyan Athirai, Mani Selvaraj serving as a template for a fresh language in cinema.

discreet charm

That being said, without prejudice to anyone, while acknowledging the access given to people who want to experiment with cinema and the political economy of cinema – the world of the Indian short films can be described largely as mass drudgery. Very often, every form of bigotry and in sophisticated versions, prejudices lurk in every corner even if the film is technically well made. And if there is humour, it is usually either crass or callous. Therefore, of late, I am hesitant to watch short films. 

The other day, suffering from a serious bout of insomnia, I decided to hunt YouTube for something to watch. When nothing caught my fancy, I decided to watch the Bunuel movie again. As I was trying to search, the search engine prompted me to an interesting title – The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas. Though, I wasn’t sure, I decided to check it out. As the titles rolled with Pa. Ranjith credited as the producer and many people, whose politics I am personally aware of acknowledged and Kani among the cast, I decided that this was a movie that I was going to settle for the night. And believe me, the movie did not give me a chance to regret the decision. Once the plot setting was established (or understood by me) where filmmakers were searching for a “Dalit” character on short notice for a shoot schedule the next day – I couldn’t stop laughing for a moment till the end credits started scrolling. The next day as I excitedly told some friends about the movie, which seems to have been uploaded on 26th September, I realized that I was late and most of my friends had already done their second to fourth viewing of the film.

The movie essentially is about savarna imagination of caste told through the eyes of three people looking for their Dalit character. Not being at the receiving end of caste, and with privileges, they like the characters of the Bunuel original strut around with multiple chips on their shoulders. For them, the actor has to “look” “Dalit” and they are looking for someone who in their imagination looks like a Dalit. Now, Dalit actors are either not interested in the role or look “beautiful” (so they don’t look 'Dalit' to them), while those they think who do look “Dalit” are savarnas who don’t want to play the role – a veritable Catch 22, they are negotiating. For me, the best part of the movie is that the three are passing through hundreds of Dalits thronging Chaityabhoomi for Babasaheb's Mahaparinirvan Diwas – but they don’t notice it and complain about how bad the traffic is and how Mumbai is always stalled by some “fringe group or other”!!! In short, it is a humour packed 22 minutes education on savarna caste transactions.

Technically, it is everything one can desire in a short film. A tight script and captaincy by Rajesh Rajamani, excellent cinematography by Vinay Aravind – where he leaves his signature, but within the frame of the movie – very subtle and understated, excellent editing by Aral Thangam, Bhuvanesh Manivannan and Adarsh Kalyankumar, catchy songs by Akhu Chingangbam of Imphal Talkies and non-invasive and subtle background score by Shankar Sapam of Imphal Talkies. A veritable lesson in teamwork – I would recommend this movie also to those who have ambitions of making movies – this should be the zeitgeist towards which cinema should move. Having said that, I am sure that Bunuel would have been flattered by this cinematic tribute!

You can watch the movie at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJBkmtpu1sQ 

~~~

 

Bobby Kunhu is a lawyer, researcher and writer.

 

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