Rajesh Rajamani’s short film The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas captures the indifference displayed by the oppressor castes. The plot focuses on three protagonists who are independent film makers in search of a person to cast in their film as a ‘Dalit character‘. They have only 24 hours to find an actor because this is a last minute decision they have to make.
For the entire duration of the film, the three characters keep commenting on the appearance of all the people they manage to audition, and question whether they ‘look Dalit enough‘ or not.
On similar lines, M. M. Vinodini’s short story, The Parable of the Lost Daughter traces the journey of Suvarthavani, a bright Dalit Christian girl who attempts to mimic the mannerisms of the dominant caste, as she ‘sanskritises‘ herself. But, she soon realises that the hypocritical savarna society will not look less discriminatorily at her simply because she doesn’t fit the description of ‘looking like a Dalit‘.
Both the film and the story have a few common themes reflected through the picturisation of Dalits and Savarnas, that need to be investigated.
What does it mean to ‘look like a Dalit’?
The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas addresses the question of what it means to ‘look like a Dalit‘ through the engagements of the film makers and the people they audition. Aruna, Dilip, and Swami discuss who can be hired to replace the actor who initially was supposed to play the lead role, but had to go back to his home.
They reject one actor for he appears “too sophisticated” and another for he looks “too middle class“. Swami explains that they need someone “who looks a little more Dalit“. So, to be a Dalit is herein assumed to be backward and financially downtrodden. This alludes to and mocks the image that the Savarnas have of oppressed caste individuals. When they find someone from the community, but the person’s appearance does not fit their pre-conceived notions, they remark in awe – but you don’t look like a Dalit.
Rajesh Rajamani’s film makes a stellar, insightful and tongue-in-cheek commentary on the benevolent casteism and tokenism, and critiques the conventional ways in which the Savarnas continue to marginalise the oppressed castes.
The movie poses questions on similar themes that The Parable of the Lost Daughter also reflects upon. The running theme of the story is anchored on the casteist notions of purity and pollution. The story questions the representation of Dalits as ‘polluted‘ and synonymous with being unkept, dark-skinned and unclean. On the other hand, the Savarnas are depicted as pure and pious, well clothed, fair-skinned and clean.
However, Suvarthavani, the protagonist of the story, is seen to be fitting these outward descriptions of a Savarna even though she is a Dalit. Everyone sees her differently until her caste is known, and this is when people remark, “…doesn’t look like a harijan girl at all!” No matter how she presents herself, her caste becomes her imposed and sole identity. Nothing she does in the course of the story helps her overcome how the hypocritical society sees her.
The irony of ‘woke’ characters
Interestingly, Aruna’s character in the film is crafted as a socially and politically woke person who constantly polices the behaviour of Swami. She calls him out for being too sexist when he uses “bitch” as an adjective for women who wouldn’t adhere to his demands. While travelling in the local, she protests against the careless use of the word ‘mad‘ for it is insensitive to people who are suffering from mental health issues. But, she is quite oblivious of her own indifference and callousness towards the Dalits.
Similar is the case of Dilip. The first scene in the film where this character is introduced, shows him reading a book. Later, he is seen questioning a cab driver about reading James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. The oxymoronic characterisation of this educated individual who is deeply ignorant about caste and class issues is proof that education cannot necessarily sensitise a privileged individual to problems that aren’t a part of their social identity and lived experience.
In the short story, readers can trace a similar conflict in Suvarthavani’s friend Gayatri’s family. Gayatri’s family is well educated, and in fact, her father has written several books which feature ideas about equality among all castes. However, their acts of discrimination when Suvarthavani comes to live with them in Hyderabad are a clear reflection of their orthodox, albeit real, discriminatory thought process.
Also read: A Dalit Woman’s Body In The Indian Courtroom
Author’s Note: This article does not present an exhaustive list of themes covered individually or collectively, but only an intersection presented by the short story and the short film as per my understanding