The Hindu (Mumbai)

How ‘Aatmapamph­let’ engages with caste through the eyes of a teenager

The film gives the audience a chance to imagine the Dalit body outside caste constraint­s, wherein the character is allowed to explore popular heroic attributes that make him bask on screen as a lovable figure

- Harish S. Wankhede The writer is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi

he revolution­ary call for ‘annihilati­on of caste’ appears to be stalled today. Instead, contempora­ry democracy has witnessed grand celebratio­ns of people’s ethnic and social belongingn­ess. Even in academic circles, it is acknowledg­ed that difference­s based on gender, race, nationalit­ies, languages, etc. are extremely difficult to erase and therefore a greater secularisa­tion of these identities would be a better option. Difference­s need to be appreciate­d and convention­al hierarchie­s and inequaliti­es that persist due to it should be made nominal. However, caste identities in India are yet to receive such possibilit­ies. Though caste is part of the democratic and public discourse, it creates anxiety and paranoia, especially among the groups that are identified with ‘low caste’ markers. The hope that DalitBahuj­an groups can be assertive about their caste identities, without the fear of discrimina­tion and harassment, is still unachievab­le.

TSetting the scene

The muchapprec­iated Marathi film Aatmapamph­let (2023), recently released on Zee5, is an impressive interlocut­or in this discussion. It places the question of caste, mainly the neoBuddhis­t identity, at the centre of the narrative without making it the prism to understand social trouble, caste divisions and violence. The audience see Ashish (Om Bendkhale), the Dalit protagonis­t, as a playful, witty teen who narrates his life’s journey in the midst of the country’s sociopolit­ical turmoil during the 198090s. It creatively highlights the possibilit­y of secular socialisat­ion of caste identities.

Director Ashish Avinash Bende’s film is creative and bold. It opens with a humble acknowledg­ement that the audiences are not going to witness any historical spectacle about iconic personalit­ies (subject of autobiogra­phies), but that the film is a peripheral story of ‘normal’ beings that find the meaning of their existence in the shadows of significan­t historic events like the assassinat­ion of Indira Gandhi, the announceme­nt of the Mandal Commission Report and the Babri Masjid demolition. In the backdrop of such major events, the film pushes the audience to engage with the beautiful love story of Ashish and Shrishti (Pranjali Shrikant).

Ashish is a likable teen who is deeply infatuated with Shrishti. He is assisted by his four mischievou­s classmates (a beautiful ‘brotherhoo­d’ is formed) to achieve a breakthrou­gh in his quest to find love. Till this part, the story has no novelty as many such teen romances are already available. The shift in the narrative begins as we witness the distinct social locations of the characters. The girl belongs to the Brahmin caste whereas the lover boy is from a Dalit/neoBuddhis­t family. In addition, his four friends are from different communitie­s, mainly Muslim, Maratha, Brahmin and Kunbi.

Once the caste identities of the characters are revealed, it is obvious to the audience that they should now expect the narrative to enter the zone of social and communal anxieties, building a plot around social antagonism and caste discrimina­tion, revealing the brutal domination of the social elites at the climax. Interestin­gly, no such turn is taken. Instead, the caste and social question are addressed through heartfelt emotions of the young boys, showcasing its pitiable need in healing emotional heartaches.

A heartfelt depiction

Though Ashish understand­s the complexiti­es of caste boundaries and social rules, he perpetuall­y ruptures these rigidities by acting as a free and aspiration­al being. Such portrayal of a Dalit character is unusual as Marathi cinema often utilises convention­al stereotype­s of Dalits as victim (Court, 2014), stigmatise­d beings (Fandry, 2013) or struggling angry youth (Mukta, 1994). The possibilit­y to imagine the Dalit body outside caste constraint­s, wherein the character is allowed to explore popular heroic attributes that make him bask on screen as a lovable figure, has not been portrayed much. Importantl­y, the film also shows the other characters as equally free from their social compartmen­ts and castebased stereotype­s. They are inattentiv­e towards the caste question and operate in social spaces with the virtues of civility and care. Such depiction is surely fictional and dramatic, but because the narrative is presented through the heart of a teenager, it appears absolutely honest.

The film talks about the profound connection between youthfulne­ss, teenage absurditie­s and their innocent imaginatio­ns of the world. Such an atmosphere disturbs the logic of adult ‘commonsens­e’ as it often fails to examine life beyond routine social actualitie­s. It shows that social and communal anxieties can be resolved by giving more importance to love, friendship and kindness. The experience­s of mundane small happy moments, the joy of innocent friendly conversati­ons, the beauty of longing for a loved one are presented with sentimenta­l honesty and graceful courage.

Such warmth and wisdom in storytelli­ng has been the hallmark of Marathi parallel cinema (remember Shyamchi Aai (1953), Shwaas India’s official entry to Oscar in 2004, Fandry (2013), Killa (2014), etc.) and Aatmpamphl­et shall be placed in the same constellat­ion. At times, it also reminds us of the legendary film Forrest Gump (1994) that also celebrates similar sentiments of love and innocence in tremulous times. The film is a comic drama but not in a convention­al way as the audience can feel the satirical wallop that educates and entertains without making much noise. The performanc­es beautifull­y capture teenage emotions while the realistic screenplay further elevates the cinematic experience.


On the flip side however, one can see that the overload of fiction and fantasy in the narrative surpasses or hazes real social lives and thus disallows the audience to engage and experience the brutal actualitie­s that often torment the lives of Dalits and other marginalis­ed communitie­s. There is a possibilit­y of making cinema that deeply engages with social conundrums, not necessaril­y to pass a humanistic judgment on it, but to unravel episodes of social guilt, depression and conflicts under which a large section of the population has been engulfed till date. Aatmapamph­let escapes that route and invites the audience to examine the same site with the emotional force of teenage kids. This is a wonderful cinematic experience and more such innovation in fiction and drama will elevate the intellectu­al caliber of artistic cinema further.

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 ?? Aatmapamph­let. ?? A screengrab from the trailer of
Aatmapamph­let. A screengrab from the trailer of

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