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Can a training programme for SC/STs bridge the gaps? ‘Recasting Selves’ tries to find out

Still from ‘Recasting Selves’, which opened the sixth edition of the Urban Lens Film Festival in Bengaluru.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

When the hand-held camera lurks close to the students, it sometimes makes them freeze in fear. It adds to their self-consciousness about being seen and heard. But when the camera is on a tripod, the students are somehow more articulate. They talk about their aspirations, recount their experience of caste discrimination, share their views on reservations. Lalit Vachani’s Recasting Selves, which opened the sixth edition of the Urban Lens Film Festival in Bengaluru last week, chronicles life at the Centre for Research & Education for Social Transformation (CREST) in Kozhikode, Kerala, where Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi (DBA) graduate students are trained in soft skills and prepped for jobs in the private sector, where there’s no affirmative action.

Some 30-odd students take the five-month diploma course here where they are taught public speaking, making presentations, group work, assertive body language, positive thinking, personality development and the basics of ‘corporate etiquette’. Recasting Selves, which follows one such batch of students, is not a success story — but some progress is made, some students are placed, some become the first graduates from their community, while others go back to their traditional professions. The teachers are dedicated and nurturing, but don’t have illusions about the course. They acknowledge that it’s too limited an experience to be transformational.

The film has interviews with the institution’s staff, classroom shots, and vignettes from the students’ homes in villages far from Kozhikode. We get a peek into the Aranadan community, to which one student belongs, its non-Vedic beliefs and its disappearing language. At another home, we hear a conversation between a student who wants to start a fashion boutique and her father, a tailor, who advises her to take up a stable job. These exchanges are performed for the camera, which is as discomfiting for the viewer as it is for the participants.

Gender ratio

The batch has a fairly good gender ratio, in any case, better than the IIM campus they visit for a workshop on public speaking: the image of CREST women students, dressed in colourful salwar kameez, walking en masse into the IIM lecture halls, implicitly questions the gender distribution at the IIMs.

Still from ‘Recasting Selves’

Still from ‘Recasting Selves’   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Recasting Selves portrays how, beyond their social identity, these students are also products of a pan-social generation. Not just in their entrepreneurial ambitions and ease with technology, but in their tendency to substitute questions of opportunity for questions of rights. In their desire to rise beyond politics and assimilate into the corporate workforce, they represent a paradigm shift in Kerala’s social politics. One Adivasi student, we are told, was the BJP candidate of his constituency, a choice he explains in the context of his exposure and personal progress. Politics, and its ubiquity, appears to have lost its hold on this generation, and its symbolic counterpart is the English-language coaching centre, whose banners compete with party posters.

Only for PR?

There are traces of critique as well. Vachani asks the head of CREST about the lack of DBA teachers on their campus. The director doesn’t see it as an issue, but quickly promises to include “at least one Dalit faculty” soon. In an awkward moment of hand-wringing, a programme coordinator says he doesn’t think there’d be Dalit pedagogues willing to teach the social theatre that is part of the curriculum.

Likewise, a famous newspaper that recruits CREST students as interns discusses the under-representation of DBA groups in its newsroom — a concern that comes across as a PR talking point. These institutional blind spots call to mind an early scene in the film, where the CREST directors, apparently none of them from a DBA background, are choosing candidates based on representational quotas. The scene prompts the question of self-sustaining privilege in even a socially-conscious academic institution, and of who gets to say which groups are more vulnerable and need opportunities.

A running thread is the tension between assertion of the students’ caste identity and its suppression. The film was shot just weeks after Rohith Vemula’s suicide, and the discourse surrounding the event prompts students to confront their identities. It is plain that Vemula’s suicide has instilled feelings of vulnerability. One student says it could happen to any of them. At the same time, many students make it clear that they want to move on. Recasting Selves brings this dialectic into sharp focus in the film’s final sequence.

As part of their final project, students have to produce a street play. For the theme, they have to choose between Vemula’s suicide and Bengali immigration to Kerala. Working with activist and theatre director Dakxin Bajrange, they research the two topics, make presentations, and then vote. The second topic wins by a significant margin. Asked why they don’t want to talk about Vemula, one of them says discussing caste isn’t going to fill their stomach. Another is just fed up of talking about discrimination all the time.

Still from ‘Recasting Selves’.

Still from ‘Recasting Selves’.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

A double bind

The CREST faculty, on the other hand, appears to be strongly in favour of the first subject. As is the film: when the students present the perceived ills of Bengali immigration — criminality, terrorism, job loss, lack of hygiene, language barriers — Vachani accelerates his editing to produce a feeling of dread that isn’t present in the presentation on Vemula. It is evident that the film is underlining the intersectional nature of oppression, and the irony of the film crew and the non-DBA faculty wanting the students to engage with DBA identity politics isn’t lost on the film. Recasting Selves recognises this as a double bind in the discourse around caste. The students’ refusal to perform caste is located in a political landscape where communist consciousness has suppressed discussion about caste, which is itself couched within a climate of assertive identity politics.

By deflecting the question of caste onto Bengali immigration, the students, it appears, are able to assume a broader Malayali identity — a mainstreaming that the subject of Vemula’s suicide doesn’t afford them. It also speaks to their generational anxiety about vanishing opportunities within the fixed pie of the neo-liberal order. Vachani’s film demonstrates that this dilemma of the students is, moreover, the institute’s own. CREST intends students to work through their complexes by owning up to their roots. Their curriculum involves research into the history of their communities.

Outside the classroom, the students unite in folk ballads about feudal oppression. At the same time, the institution is forward looking; through its training in the theatre of social relations, it helps students get corporate-ready, to shed their caste identity, and blend into the wider middle-class. And Recasting Selves portrays this identity crisis when it cuts from the hardy face of an Aranadan woman in her village to a laptop screen in the classroom.

The writer is a film critic based in Bengaluru.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 11:03:11 PM |

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