At the Kozhikode, Kerala, campus of CREST (Centre for Research and Education for Social Transformation), post-graduate students from Dalit and Adivasi communities are trained in mastering soft skills, honing the English language, and given avenues to express themselves. Filmmaker Lalit Vachani’s latest documentary Recasting Selves captures the position these students like to present of themselves and the world around them, despite the social inequalities that seem to ride alongside them. It premiered at the Urban Lens Film Festival recently, which was hosted by Indian Institute of Human Settlements and Goethe-Institut, New Delhi.
The 80-minute film opens with shots of the city and advertisement flyers about spoken English tutorials and training for civil service exams. Recasting Selves was initially filmed in 2016, a few months after the suicide of PhD student Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad. It’s against this backdrop that we see the responses of the students at CREST, who do not want to carry the label of being a Dalit or a scheduled tribe. While the students initially struggle to make presentations in English towards the end of the film, their assertion of who they are and what they want to be, is not only telling of a certain denial of caste discrimination that exists in Kerala but also the contradictions that confront them.
Sanjay Srivastava, who conceptualised the film, says, “I was trying to see how caste is understood. How do young people from such backgrounds imagine caste? While Ambedkar and Dalit politics is one part, what happens to young people who are exposed to various media and television?”
The film is made in an observational style, and does not offer any explicit commentary on the kind of lessons the students are exposed to — be it learning to formally shake hands or sing Harry Belafonte’s Banana boat. The film pans between classroom sessions and their homes in scenic backdrops of the Nilambur Valley. These students who belong to the Aranadan tribal community have parents who have been daily-wage labourers or food gatherers, and their struggle to find meaning in their lives and dreams are annotated by this need to go beyond their own reality. While much of the film is a linear narration, the arc in the storytelling happens in a theatre workshop where the students make a choice between presenting a play on Vemula or on the issue of migrant workers and their impact on Kerala’s socio-economic fabric. The disdain they have for these migrants emerge in their final performance.
“The way they react to another marginalised group makes for a counter view. This contradiction is something all of us occupy. There’s no attempt to pass judgement because we ourselves are full of contradictions. How is it fair for us and not for them,” says Srivastava, a professor of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.
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