In films, characters are often defined by one overarching quality. A lover. A kleptomaniac. A casteist. A wifebeater. You get the idea. When this underlying quality is a positive trait, you see them as a ‘good’ character—and vice-versa. Real life though is far removed from such simplicity. People are complex, and even the noblest are not exempt from being condemnable. My favourite aspect of the latest Neelam Productions project, a short film called Modi and A Beer, is the delicious complexity on offer. It’s a conversation, a date, between two people in a relationship: Arun, a liberal who has likeable ideas on matters of caste, and Shruti, a Hindutva sympathiser who has a likeable tolerance for a person she loves. Typically, cinema that deals with caste, examines its characters through this prism to achieve its end. Caste isn’t the only marker of one’s identity, of course—although given the systematic oppression unleashed based on caste, it’s impossible to disagree when someone says otherwise. There are other identifiers that are discriminated against too. There’s gender. There’s sexuality. And often, in the real world, these many identifiers come together in determining one’s treatment. This short film begins with a Periyar quote, comparing two types of oppression. It’s a quote that speaks about how the oppression of women by men is worse than oppression due to caste. I wish the film had just played without this helpful nudge on what it’s about. I’d have loved to process this short film without this helpful quote.
The conversation between Arun and Shruti is relatable in how it begins, how it progresses, how it escalates… It’s the sort of conversation I dare say we have all had sometime. You start off discussing grand, expansive ideas, and slowly but surely, it becomes more and more personal. Shruti tries her damndest best to keep the conversation ‘clean’. “Why do you keep bringing Modi up?” she asks. She would rather that Arun had his last beer—a promise he makes her—in peace. It’s evident that Shruti is a believer of ‘purity’. Her saffron top makes it quite clear. She won’t drink. She can’t have Arun drink a beer either. She’s not one to have premarital sex either. And while Arun can’t put a finger on it, something about this irks him. He may begin the conversation by bringing in Modi—can any casual conversation be had anymore without the Prime Minister’s presence in it, given how his brand has been hammered into public consciousness? Slowly though, Arun moves into a personal space. The transition is tastefully executed.
It’s a rare film that manages the difficult feat of showing multiple factors at play. Even as Shruti and Arun are discussing their views on caste, reservation, food politics, it’s impossible not to see gender dynamics. Even while you agree with Arun’s political views, you are discomfited by how he treats Shruti. When she makes an all-too-common and mistaken point about reservation, he disagrees as you’d expect him to, but also notice how he expresses this frustration. There’s something darker, deeper than plain disagreement. Something about Shruti’s gender seems to be dictating his choice of words in expressing his rejection of her ideas. “Reservation paththi basic knowledge illama, nee epdi M Tech padicha nu therla.” All the while, Arun continues to make useful points. He chides Shankar’s Gentleman. He notes how Brahmins were key to binging in this whole oppressive system in the first place. He is disgusted that Shruti frowned when he enquired about ‘chilly beef’. You totally hear him, but you also wish he would be less rude, less dismissive of her—this woman he is apparently in love with.
In this short film less than 30 minutes, somehow, the director Dhinah Chandra Mohan manages to add another layer: Of how a thought, an assumption, a suspicion, can grow legs. It’s likened to a rabbit in this film. Arun, you can see, is plagued by a thought that threatens to sabotage this relationship: “Shruti doesn’t think I’m worthy.” It still doesn’t excuse his rudeness, his invasion into her privacy (like when he begins browsing through her phone). It doesn’t justify his abuse of her dad. “Don’t talk about my dad!” she pleads. “Apdi dhaan di pesuven,” he screams, unmindful of the unwanted attention his table is getting, much to her unease. Somewhere, he uses the word ‘mayiru’ too. It’s a film that beautifully establishes how no matter how liberated and well-informed we may be in one area, we may be found sorely lacking in another. Arun speaks of food politics, of the importance of reservation, of equality… but as a man, is he aware of the innate derision he feels for a woman?
The film also establishes how we are caught in a web of hierarchies. Arun advocates equality, but admits that his family may not be receptive of his sister marrying outside of her caste. He is a voice against caste discrimination, but notice how he talks to the waiter. Modi and A Beer shows us the hint of a system in which people thrive on trampling each other. Even the trampled sometimes trample. It’s dense material, and I can’t wait to see the bigger film this short reportedly is a part of.
This column was written for Cinema Express, and can be found here (https://www.cinemaexpress.com/stories/trends/2020/jun/11/why-modi-and-a-beer-is-a-fascinating-film-18868.html)