Caste Away

Skye Arundhati Thomas on Rajesh Rajamani’s The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas (2020)

Rajesh Rajamani’s The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas, 2020, HD video, color, sound, 21 minutes 50 seconds. Aruna (Kani Kusruti), Swami (Mathivanan Rajendran), and Dilip (Rajagopalan Ganesan).

“A BRAHMIN MUST BE A CULTURAL SUICIDE BOMBER,” writes Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters (2019). In other words, a brahmin must enter the upper-caste corridors of power to which only they have access, and detonate. Several indisputable facts underscore this statement: Wealth and influence in India are under the sole proprietorship of the upper castes. Maintained primarily through endogamy and nepotism, this hegemony continues to exploit and deplete the labor and emotional reserves of lower caste people. The responsibility of anti-caste work must fall on those that have access to the networks of power that maintain this monopoly on access and resources. The explosion of which Yengde speaks is premised on a very simple, but still controversial, fact: Contemporary Indian society can no longer pretend that the caste system has been abolished; it gives shape to every single characteristic of Indian life.

The technical language of Indian law, written by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, is informed by the particularities of caste: the Indian Constitution explicitly bans caste discrimination and sets forth clear affirmative action quotas to ensure the representation of disadvantaged castes in education and employment. In 1989, further legislation was introduced to prevent upper-caste people inflicting acts of violence on the lower castes—regular occurrences that range from bullying to sexual assault, from torture to murder—under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Even so, court transcripts show that judges regularly evade the question of caste when processing cases, and at the time of registering police complaints, the Atrocities Act is rarely cited.

This pattern of avoidance represents a continuation of the ideology of the political leaders that represented the new Indian Republic, the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his descendants, who held that caste, along with colonial authority, had been abolished. Both sentiments have been proven to be untrue. In her book The Caste of Merit (2019), Ajantha Subramanian expertly deconstructs the upper-caste kinship networks that have sustained dominance over technical education programs, particularly those of the Indian Institute of Technology, first inaugurated and championed by Nehru as an achievement of his urban, modernist project. Each year new incidents arise where Dalit students die of suicide because of the bullying they face within universities (such deaths are rightfully termed “institutional murders”). While denying caste suited the new nation-building project, its systemic erasure from the conversation has deeply violent underpinnings.

“The conservative brahmin-savarna is always easy to deal with, because by their very existence they are exposing their bigotry,” says writer and director Rajesh Rajamani, drawing a distinction between conservative and liberal bigotry—the latter is far more insidious, and harder to negotiate and expose. Rajamani’s recent YouTube-released short, The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas (2020), looks to “hold a mirror to the caste society and give it a chance to see itself.”

The plot is straightforward: Three filmmakers, Aruna (Kani Kusruti), Dilip (Rajagopalan Ganesan), and Swami (Mathivanan Rajendran), have lost their lead actor, and are looking for a replacement. This is complicated by a cynical identity politics, as the character in question is Dalit. “We need someone who looks a little more Dalit,” says Dilip, one of the trio; their chief preoccupation is with casting someone who looks Dalit, rather than someone who is Dalit. The eponymous “charm” of the savarnas is discreet (read, nonexistent): Self-avowed liberal savarnas groom themselves in certain ways and cultivate certain habits. They are feminist and read Black abolitionist writing, but their hypocrisy is glaring—eager to wage critiques of white supremacy, savarnas fail to recognize (or openly reckon with) their own.

There is a long history of transnational solidarity between Black liberation movements and anti-caste revolutionary struggles. Famous examples include the Dalit Panthers, who fashioned themselves after the Black Panthers in 1972, and the epistolary exchange between Ambedkar and W. E. B. Du Bois. More recently, writer Isabel Wilkerson has used the South Asian caste system as a framework to discuss systemic anti-Blackness, finding the word “racism” inadequate to the realities of white supremacy in the US. In Discreet Charm, we see Dilip reading a copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Later, he clumsily tries to speak to a taxi driver about Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The irony is potent. Savarnas, who are themselves often racist if not colorist, see politics as an abstraction, an aesthetic. Politics rarely touches their everyday lives; regardless of which party is in power, the Hindu-brahmin dominance persists.

In mid-September, in what has come to be known as the Hathras incident, the brutal assault and murder of a teenage Dalit girl blasted through the Indian news cycle. The perpetrators were a group of upper-caste Thakur men. Two months since, the conversation remains deadlocked, with the public, the state, and the courts still arguing whether or not the crime was the result of caste. 2020 has seen ideas about transformative justice leak into everyday life: calls to build platforms, uplift voices, pass the mic, build intersectional communities with a deep ethic of care; this was especially true in India in the wake of Hathras. The film’s timing is uncanny. As the three filmmakers fumble to recast their lead character, hunting for an actor that looks Dalit enough, the shallowness of their representational politics is exposed, along with the sanctimony of an upper-caste gaze that determines exactly how it would like to see, and show, Dalit life. A true “passing of the mic” does not determine what gets said once the mic has reached the other’s hand.

“Actually, you are a . . . little too pretty,” says Dilip when they meet a potential candidate for the role. Aruna, the feminist, agrees; she declares, with a slight scowl, “Yeah, you’re very, very beautiful.” Beauty is a privilege only afforded to the upper castes. Unable to find a suitable replacement, the threesome eventually cast Dilip as the lead. A special screening is held at the Goethe Institut in Mumbai—an indication, no doubt, of how so many savarna projects receive large amounts of funding from foreign bodies for the smallest gestures of tokenization. The audience exits, shaking Dilip’s hand, congratulating him. “It was really bold of you!”

In a particularly striking scene of Rajamani’s film, the protagonists climb into a taxi, roll down the windows, and don shiny, polarized sunglasses. They’re vibing, enjoying views of the bursting Arabian sea and lush art deco of Mumbai’s Marine Drive. When their driver puts on his own sunglasses, the dynamic suddenly shifts. They tell him to take the sunglasses off. To those that might be unfamiliar with the context, this might seem gratuitous, too severe. But it is important to remember that Dalit people have been tortured, assaulted, or killed for far lesser actions.

The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas is available to stream on YouTube.