How ‘Aatmapamphlet’ engages with caste through the eyes of a happy-go-lucky 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 

Updated - March 01, 2024 05:38 pm IST

Published - March 01, 2024 10:30 am IST

A still from ‘Aatmapamphlet’

A still from ‘Aatmapamphlet’ | Photo Credit: T-Series/YouTube

The 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 Dalit-Bahujan groups can be assertive about their caste identities, without the fear of discrimination and harassment, is still unachievable.

Setting the scene

The much-appreciated Marathi film Aatmapamphlet (2023), recently released on ZEE5, is an impressive interlocutor in this discussion. It places the question of caste, mainly the neo-Buddhist identity, at the centre of the narrative without making it the prism to understand social trouble, caste divisions and violence. The audience sees Ashish (Om Bendkhale), the Dalit protagonist, as a playful, witty teen who narrates his life’s journey amid the country’s socio-political turmoil during the 1980-90s. 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 likeable 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/neo-Buddhist 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 questions are addressed through the 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 victims (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 caste-based 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.

Stills from ‘Court’ and ‘Fandry’

Stills from ‘Court’ and ‘Fandry’

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 ‘common sense’ 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 have 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) which 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 to 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.

The writer is Assistant Professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi

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