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

11 October 2020
Courtesy Rajesh Rajamani
Courtesy Rajesh Rajamani

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.


Abhay Regi  is an assistant editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: caste Tamil Cinema Indian cinema cinema