‘The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas’ and the Woke World
“If you are a Savarna, may I suggest that you watch The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas by yourself?” says Sravanthi
If you are a Savarna, may I suggest that you watch The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas by yourself? It is easy enough to do in the current times. But let me tell you why. If you are watching it alone, you don’t have to do the charade of laughing at the right points of the movie. You don’t have to pretend to love the movie or pretend to not be irked by the very name of the movie. You may still laugh but the laugh will turn into a gulp at the next turn. Because you will see yourself on screen.
“How did he know? How?”, you will ask yourself. You may frantically look up your social media to see if you have slipped up on your perfect woke image and said certain things publicly. Because, really, otherwise how could Rajesh Rajamani know?
Well, he knows because he is an astute observer of the world. Especially of the woke world. In a post-release crackling conversation with Sumeet Samos on Instagram, Rajamani speaks about how he has fun and finds it way more interesting to unravel the perfectly curated politics of the woke Savarna brigade. There is no point in even talking about the conservatives here, because according to him, their very existence is a joke. It is this brand of scathing satire which Rajamani brings into this very charming film.
The film draws its name from the 1972 French film by Luis Buñuel which follows a group of people trying to make it to a dinner party. Through the seemingly simple plot line, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie makes incisive social commentary. The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas follows the similar style of telling a story within a story and weaves together powerful insights on caste. Largely by shifting the gaze.
Every Savarna university student will laugh at and cringe at Dileep’s conversation with the cab driver, where he frustratedly asks, “have you at least read Obama?” Because it is very likely that you have done it. You are sure to have spoken to a stranger and talked about how a Marxist revolution is the only solution. If you are woker, you probably appropriated Ambedkar into the conversation. But you have done it. And you have done it only to prove some intellectual superiority. Dileep here goes a step further and talks only about Black authors with a cab driver. The layers of this scene first unravel gently and then rather rapidly. Aruna, in all her political correctness glory is only annoyed with Dileep because he is just chattering away with the cab driver.
The film is rather cunningly written and made. It draws you in gently. The music, the colour scheme, and the nostalgic Bombay visuals are all gentle and “chill.” Till you suddenly pay attention to the lilting music and lyrics and jump up with a “WHAT did he just say?”
This drawing a viewer in with the gentle pace and then proceeding to give one sharp jab after another is rather genius. You are laughing, alright. But you are also wincing.
A regular liberal Indian will have a fierce opinion on race politics in the USA. They will even put up a #BlackLivesMatter on their dating profiles. They may even be fiercely anti-Modi. But talk about caste and at best there will be a talk about reservations or maybe some tsk tsking about how bad it is in rural areas. But they don’t see caste, you will be hurriedly told. Till the realisation hits that being anti-caste is necessary to compete in the woke politics. Rajamani in the aforementioned Instagram live with Samos talks about how Savarnas know how to quickly assimilate arguments and critiques. This film will be well liked and praised by the very people who will “joke” about their domestic workers or passionately argue about a need for an economics-based reservation system. The public wokeness face will make them quickly heap praises on the film and exhort everyone to watch it.
The film elbows itself into the space occupied by anti-caste films of recent times. It doesn’t quite fit in. It talks about caste but isn’t really about “Dalits.” The gaze playfully (and snarkily) shifts to the Savarnas. It talks about caste but doesn’t talk about trauma. It talks about caste but there is no saviour. It talks about caste but there is no visible and obvious resistance. This upsetting of the neatly stacked anti-caste film apple cart is perhaps the biggest contribution of this film.
The shifting gaze offers much insight. The gaze is the boy who yells that the emperor has no clothes. The gaze makes you look at the convenient woke politics. Aruna will shut down any sexist language and then easily slip into how her mother would not want her to travel by the local train. You are tuned into the nitty-gritties of the presidential debate in the US but have no idea why millions of people come to Mumbai at least twice a year to celebrate a man who defines their politics. It makes you think of prestigious social science institutions in India where every Savarna student will be able to tell you about Foucault but will barely know anything about Ambedkar (beyond his writing of the constitution). The swift appropriation of pain travels transnationally.
The very people who will hate on how they are forced to be extra cautious about conversations around caste because “these people no they get so offended”, will in a snap occupy the POC stage and talk about the unfairness of how they are not at the top of the social pyramid. The film doesn’t go into each of these but it forces you to go into it.
The music by Imphal Talkies deserves a special mention for the sheer brilliance of it. It is as integral to the film as the script itself. It is perfectly interlaced with the film in a complicated soothing-jarring way. The music is soothing, the words are jolting and with the film foregrounding them, the experience is rather uncomfortable.
The acting is patchy in places and one wishes that could be somehow fixed. This film would hit sharper and even more uncomfortably if it were. This is perhaps the only part which is not in sync with the rest of the masterful film.
The incisive and hilarious take on all the hot button woke checklist topics and the charming charmlessness of the Savarnas deserves a whole series of its own. Let’s hope the production houses are listening!
(The author is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.)
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