Rajesh Rajamani on how “cinema has conditioned us to see Savarna markers as removed from caste”

Courtesy Rajesh Rajamani
11 October, 2020

Rajesh Rajamani is a film-critic and director, who recently released his second short film, The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas. It follows the story of three young Savarnas in Bombay determined to find a “Dalit-looking person,” for a role in the film they are making. They seem deeply aware and cautious of sexism, issues of mental health and African-American literature, but seem entirely unaware of their own casteism. In an interview with Abhay Regi, an editorial fellow at The Caravan, Rajamani discusses the making of the film, how caste has been portrayed in Indian cinema and the need for Savarna self-criticality when discussing issues of caste.

Abhay Regi: What prompted you to make this film?
Rajesh Rajamani: I think there are multiple things that fell in place to allow me to make this. It wasn’t very planned. Before this, I was writing a comic strip called Inedible India. I used to use the paintings of Ravi Varma or Kalighat paintings, and make these characters talk about contemporary politics. I felt most of the political humour in the country was just mocking [the prime minister Narendra] Modi. That was slightly boring, because mocking the Right is easy. I thought I should critique society instead. Particularly in English humour, if you see, there is very little satire on society, it is often on specific leaders. Instead, I thought, let’s talk about our inequal structures, whether it is caste or gender. I also used to talk about contemporary issues, there were some Modi jokes in my series, but the focus was to critique society and make the audience reflect on themselves rather than on some distant leader. 

It was well received and people liked it. That gave me the confidence to make a film that will use the few things I have learnt in this format and capture that in film. Again, it wasn’t a very conscious thing to make a satire film. It could have been anything. I wouldn’t make a romantic story, because most first short films are set in a coffee shop or something. I was almost allergic to that. I decided there’ll be no romance in my film. But I was still figuring out what to do. And then I came across a casting call on Facebook. One of the [casting] agents said, “We are looking for an actor who looks Dalit.” This was in early 2018. I read it and found it amusing and a lot of people were calling it out. This stayed in my head. After a few months, I was watching some Italian film and I saw three people running to catch a train. I thought why can’t these three characters be running across the city to find “an actor who looks Dalit?” This was a random thought, but the moment it came I got very excited. Some ideas are like that, once you get them you become very obsessive about seeing it through. 

I wanted it to be more dramatic, maybe they have only one day to find an actor. I thought it would be even more ironic if it happens on Ambedkar Jayanti—when millions of Dalits come to Mumbai to pay their respects. Then I thought it would be interesting if they don’t find anybody on Ambedkar Jayanti. So I just kept thinking about what other elements the story can have, and it fell in place.


AR: When you started the project you were somebody who had never directed something before, didn’t have the financial backing [of] known producers. What did that struggle involve, how easy was the process of writing, casting, shooting?
RR: Because I had worked in a bank, I had some savings to start with. Also, being ignorant gave us some courage. We thought we were going to pull this off with a very small budget. Even though the film is made on a small budget, we still thought we could finish it in a fraction of even that. That courage and confidence came from not knowing the process. When we started off, I just had the cinematographer in place. Vinay Aravind is also new to cinematography, but I liked his photos and I thought if he wants to, he can join. 

The actor Kani Kusruti I knew, we have interacted on Facebook, and I think she liked the Inedible India comic series. She is popular in film festivals and independent cinema; you can say she’s almost south India’s Radhika Apte. I contacted her to basically suggest actors in Bengaluru or Chennai. I thought she is too popular and too big a star to ask for my own film, I didn’t have the courage to ask her. But she asked me why I’m not asking her to act. She asked me to send the script. She liked it and agreed. Because she came, it became very easy for me to gain everybody else’s confidence. It became easy for me to get the actors at least. You often have to work with them to know whether its falling in place or not. So that took me a long while. But eventually I was able to get who I wanted for each part.


AR: Since the film discusses the Savarna gatekeeping of media, culture and cinema, in your experience and understanding, what are the primary barriers for Bahujans to find prominent roles in cinema, including in directing, acting, directing, producing. What are the processes by which that gatekeeping occurs? 
RR: It might be slightly different from one industry to another, but cinema itself is managed by tight-knit caste cartel networks. You have sometimes one big cartel or a bunch of cartels, whether that is Bollywood or Kollywood. Often, they only promote each other, it locks everybody else outside. Often, there is never an opportunity for an outsider to even have the slightest communication. But I still think in some way, mainstream cinema, particularly Tamil cinema, has been reasonably more democratic. 

People often talk about [the directors] Pa Ranjith or Mari Selvaraj, who have come up right now, but I think even in the 1980s there were a lot of Bahujan film-makers. They may not have overtly claimed any particular politics or identity, but if you see their films, it has reflected and documented the lives of Bahujans. Particularly Bharathiraja, who is one of the most important Tamil film-makers. People always think that his films are about rural life, but beyond that he has actually documented and humanised the lives of Bahujans in nearly all his films. In the 1980s and 1990s you see his films brilliantly document Bahujan lives, which I find is really political in itself. He may not have articulated an anti-caste politics, but by just telling stories of Bahujans, he has done a very important political thing. And because of Bharathiraja’s success, a lot of young film-makers have documented the lives of Bahujans. 


AR: In actively politicised new Tamil cinema, like the films of Mari Selvaraj, Pa Ranjith or Athiyan Aathirai, there is a constant, overt embedding of Ambedkarite ideology. Through several references, such as paintings of the Buddha or Ambedkar in the background, this is visible. Does this suggest a shift in Tamil cinema?
RR: You talked about the overt markers, like an Ambedkar painting or a Periyar painting, or some books. I don’t think of those things as necessarily overt. I think these film-makers are very consciously anti-caste and there is a conscious anti-caste politics in them, which reflects in cinema. But I think they are also trying to very naturally document Dalit lives. 

The overtness that the audience feels is the result of how the caste process has worked so far, in films. For example, in a film if somebody sings a Carnatic song at home, we don’t see that as a marker, because mainstream cinema has told us that is a normal thing to happen. When you see these Brahmin-Savarna markers in films, we are made to believe that is a normal thing. But what is very naturally embedded in Bahujan lives is looked at as overt. That has to do with the conditioning of how the audience sees cinema and politics. In any city or town, to find an Ambedkar statue is very normal. What has been overt is the absence of Ambedkar statues in Indian cinema. The presence in anti-caste films is a result of natural documentation, it’s the absence that is overt. Cinema has conditioned us to see Savarna markers as removed from caste. 

Courtesy Rajesh Rajamani

AR: But Discreet Charm turns this on its head, no? If a normal Anglophone Liberal upper-caste family was holding a Toni Morrison book, it wouldn’t be ironic, it wouldn’t be a marker, it would be invisibilised. But Discreet Charm is able to make sure that these things are seen as markers, in the same way that an Ambedkar painting is seen in anti-caste cinema.
RR: A Toni Morrison book, a Wes Anderson poster, a Hitchcock poster, or a Khalil Gibhran book—for me as a writer, as a film-maker, these are also accurate. I’m only trying to capture the Savarna world as accurately as possible. But I think the movie also is someway critiquing their indifference, making a comment about them living in a bubble and being indifferent to the world outside. Because of the politics of the film, the audience sees a magnification of these markers. For me, they are not magnified. Honestly even for the Brahmins and Savarnas who watch the film, I want them to feel “this is very like me.” Because I want them to reflect. If they think I am exaggerating something for the sake of it, then they’ll snap out of it. I wanted them to think, “This is embarrassing but it is exactly like me.”


AR: The audience for this is still Savarna, then? 
RR: I didn’t think so much about who the audience should be, honestly. As a film-maker you want everybody to watch your film. It sort of goes against any story teller to decide only a fraction of the audience is going to watch it. You want it to be consumed by every type of audience. But I understand that because the film is in English, only people who can understand the language and be comfortable with it can enjoy it. The choice of English was not to decide the audience but to reflect such conversations in real life. English was a choice to keep that Savarna conversation authentic.

It wasn’t my conscious choice to decide who the audience should be. That happened on its own. Because Neelam has a primarily Tamil audience, we found it important to add Tamil subtitles. We spoke about dubbing the film in Tamil or Hindi also, I was not sure whether I would be able to capture the irony in the conversation. So, I thought we can add subtitles, but we should not dub, the irony would be entirely lost.          These are to keep the movie as real as possible. That creates a restriction, but I didn’t do that consciously.


AR: While working as a critic, you have looked at the need to have Dalit characters who are heroic or assertive. Are the notions of what is a Dalit character and who “looks Dalit,” changing, at least slowly? RR: I think it is certainly changing in Tamil cinema when compared to Bollywood. I think regional cinema is a lot more democratic than Bollywood. No cinema is free from caste structures, every aspect of society is tied into it, but regional cinema still has more anti-caste Bahujan or Dalit film-makers or writers. Like Nagraj Manjule in Marathi cinema, or several in Tamil cinema. Bollywood is a lot more rigid. Regional cinema, with all its problems, still allows for a democratic voice. 

I think it is also to do with Tamil cinema having been influenced by Dravidian politics and now by Dalit politics. Something like Dravidian and Dalit politics, it drives us to all sorts of artists and writers, thinkers, it gives a chance for others to also come in. We have increasingly diversified film-makers and storytellers, and I think they are able to tell stories which the mainstream has not been able to previously tell. 

It is not just about heroic roles. For example in Kaala, we have never seen a character like Kaala’s wife Selvi in Tamil cinema, except maybe in Bharathiraja’s films. In mainstream cinema, and particularly in Rajinikanth’s films, you will never see a female character like her. There is a lot of change in the portrayal of all characters, not just the protagonists. We often tell stories where the father is glorified as a macho man. But [Mari Selvaraj’s film] Pariyerum Perumal is documenting a father who is a dancer, who dresses up as a woman and dances so beautifully. I think these are real people, these are real Bahujan or Dalit people. Because we have diversified story tellers, they are documenting what they see in their lives. Without democratising cinema, I think that restricts the sort of lives that can be shown. The fact that this father is not macho, can also only come from a Bahujan film-maker, right? Or how they portray female characters, or what passes for humour. Apart from this you will have a lot of local deities appearing in such films. These things you don’t see in other films. 


AR: You have written about the films Nayakan by Mani Ratnam and Kaala by Pa Ranjith, and how Kaala works as an anti-thesis to Nayakan. Though it’s not spelled out in so many words in your review, it’s fairly clear that when talking about the same setting, struggle and communities, a Brahmin director and a Dalit director approach these very differently. 
RR: I initially didn’t see the sort of stark similarities and distinctions between Nayakan and Kaala. At some point I was watching The Godfather and I realised, this is similar to something I’ve seen in Kaala and something I’ve seen in Nayakan. That made me re-watch these movies together. I realised Kaala was almost a revamping of Nayakan, from a Bahujan perspective. 

It’s very true that in the same place and the same people, whatever the identity of these film-makers, it’s their politics that decides how they perceive things. Identity also becomes a part of their politics, but I think the politics also matters. There was a piece, I think it was in Hindustan Times, which talks about how there are different stories coming from north Madras. It coupled Pa Ranjith’s Madras with Sudha Kongara’s Irudhi Suttru. There was a scene in Irudhi Suttru where there is a small food stall and the sign says “briyani ready.” It’s written in English, but the spelling is wrong. It’s true that these misspellings happen in these small stalls, but these misspellings happen everywhere, even in the biggest media houses you find spelling errors and grammatical errors. I was wondering why this film maker thought it important to document this error. 

In Madras, Ranjith puts a quote about education [in a school named after] Rettamalai Srinivasan, one of the earliest Tamil Dalit leaders. I was wondering why is that “briyani ready” spelling error important to one director and this quote important to another. That reflects how people from different politics view the same space. The HT article, in fact, clubbed both the films together as if they were the same. It certainly comes from their own politics, I suppose. 


AR: Now you see the rise of combative anti-caste movies in the Tamil film industry, like Pa Ranjith. Do we see a counter-movement to that now? In the 1990s, there were anti-reservation movies like Gentleman, but now we have movies such as Draupadi which actively try to criminalise Dalits and show a vehement anti-Dalit anger. Is there also a rise of caste-supremacist cinema in India? 
RR: I think, unfortunately, that might happen. I think cinema is going to reflect our real-life politics. If Bahujans and Dalits are going to assert certain stories, you will face a backlash in cinema, the same way you face in real life. When the Dravidian movement was at its peak, they produced a lot of art, literature and cinema, which pushed Dravidian politics. After a point, I think, Dravidian politicians didn’t actively produce cinema that carried their politics. Once they came to power, they loosened their narratives within cinema. When Dravidian cinema hit its peak, religious cinema about Ayyapan or Murugan was made. These films happened at the same time. I’m sure, in the same way, if you have Dalit film-makers who are conscious about their politics and making very radical films, that’s also going to create another backlash trying to attack this. But I think that reflects how society works, there is no running away from it.  


AR: You have looked at two different trends on addressing caste in cinema. You have Savarna-saviour films in Hindi such as Article 15, and then you have a sort of pulp-fictionesque exoticisation of Dalit revenge stories, such as Asuran, in the Tamil industry, directed by non-Dalits. In both, the element that is lost is any amount of Savarna self-criticality, recognising their place in maintaining the system. And that seems to be what Discreet Charm is getting at. Do you think that sort of self-criticality will ever leave short films and enter mainstream feature films?
RR: I think this is bound to happen. There are spaces like Neelam, which want to put across certain narratives that are absent so far in mainstream cinema. I’m sure there will be more such platforms, because Neelam itself has so far shown a very successful way to tell these stories. If you see the success of Ranjith’s films or Pariyerum Perumal, a lot of directors and producers are a lot more willing to make such films. Even Asuran is in some way a result of the success of Ranjith’s films. Now more people will be willing to produce these stories. Also, these movies are meaning business. Asuran has been one of Dhanush’s biggest hits.

Even if you look at the response to my short film, there is a lot of acceptance and positivity. I mean we don’t know whether people are really reflecting on it or not. I thought there would be mixed reviews or something and some amount of backlash, but surprisingly people have been taking it well. I feel like it is possible to extend this to the mainstream too, in the feature film format. 

The only thing I fear is, it is very possible for the industry to convert this into a formula. My fear is how to escape that. It is a very convenient formula, like Dear White People on Netflix. We have a lot of films in the United States which discuss race, but we don’t know whether the audiences are doing any real reflection on it. They shouldn’t just become feel-good consumerist products. That’s what I am more worried about, because it is fairly likely that this will enter the mainstream at some point. They should not lose their political significance. It shouldn’t become a convenient commercial product. It should create reflection and dialogue; it should not become “a fun movie I watch with popcorn.” That would be a disaster.

This interview has been edited and condensed.