Do filmein mujhey harr haal mein dekhni thi Toronto mein. Miyazaki ki The Boy and The Heron, Ava DuVernay ki Origin. Kaafi perspective-altering experiences. Dono.
Aaj let’s talk about Aunjanue Ellis starrer Origin, adapted from Isabell Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, written and directed by Ava DuVernay.
The story begins with a reenactment of the moment 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was murdered in Florida. Understandably, the murder sparks uproar and protests. However, our story then shifts to Isabell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, LV and Birkin-toting, celebrated black female author who isn’t sure what her next literary frontier should be. She’s heard about the killing but is too preoccupied with significant events in her personal life to write about the incident when someone suggests it as her next project. But soon, her perspective changes, and she decides that simply writing about a single act of hatred isn’t sufficient and that addressing racial injustices alone is not enough; instead, she wants to delve into the concept of caste. According to Isabelle, “Racism as the primary lens to understand everything is insufficient.” What ails humanity, and has for ages, are the arbitrary hierarchies established by groups of individuals. These social contexts differ in each society, but their objective is the same: to concentrate various forms of social and economic power in the hands of a select few.
As she explores these caste divisions globally — examining white supremacy in the USA, the Holocaust in Germany and the outlawed yet prevalent caste system in India — filmmaker Ava DuVernay blends different forms and genres to reveal a narrative of human suffering and injustices and their global connective thread that many of us have chosen to ignore.
At times, the movie enters the documentary zone, particularly when Dr. Suraj Yengde, a prominent award-winning Indian scholar and activist, appears as himself, aiding Isabelle’s understanding of caste in India during her visit to Delhi. When a researcher shows her the name “Rohith Vemula” written on a piece of paper, Ava ensures that we take note of that name, subconsciously imprinting the visual of those letters.
Origin primarily seems designed for an American moviegoing audience — one that may have some knowledge of Hitler’s actions in Germany but lacks an understanding of caste, particularly as it extends globally, especially in India. The audience’s reactions in the movie theater I was in confirmed this. With cinematographer Matthew J. Lloyd, Ava doesn’t shy away from filling her frames with shots of toilets as Dalit men prepare for their manual scavenging jobs, swathing each other in oil. It’s not a pretty sight, nor does it aim to be.
Again, through the real-life experiences of Isabelle, the film seems to assess caste around the world to help the American audience better comprehend injustices around them. Honestly, and I’m not being facetious here, I believe Nitesh Tiwari was attempting something similar with Bawaal: two people traveling to a part of the world they know little about, gaining perspective that helps them become better citizens of their own countries. However, thankfully in Origin, while Ava takes the cinematic liberty of recreating many historical scenes, making us feel like we are in the room witnessing these horrific events unfold, she never inserts herself as a character in the story. It’s true that we often assess others’ misfortunes based on our own lived experiences and wonder how different our lives could have been if we were on the receiving end. This movie, though, allows the AUDIENCE to have that experience, as opposed to the characters in Bawaal, who actively participate in everything while we watch from the sidelines, excluded from the catharsis.
Again, when the movie is released, we will sit down and discuss it further, hopefully by the end of the year. Until then, can we please all marvel at the casting? How a literal non-actor, Professor Gaurav J. Pathania, resembles Dr. Ambedkar so closely! Seeing him in a gigantic close-up, smiling, paving the way for a free people in a newly independent nation riddled with problems, gave me goosebumps.
As an adaptation, Origin is unlike most others. The lines between fiction and dramatic recreation are deliberately blurred, perhaps to make Ava DuVernay’s personal feelings toward caste more accessible, without shouting her views at the audience through the screen, as was the case with the well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful Anek last year. There are actors portraying historic figures, but also real people sharing their personal experiences with systematic injustices. There are actors playing historic figures, but also real people recalling times in their personal lives when they experienced systematic injustices. Eventually, the film IS extremely approachable, albeit a tad schematic. Neither Isabelle nor Ava is providing solutions, par in a world where manual scavenging abhi bhi hoti hai, critical race theory American classrooms se nikaali jaa rahi hai, neo-nazi groups khule mein morche kar rahe hain, a recap of how we have reached the point we are at today, is as necessary as it is shameful.