Aatmapamphlet is one of the slyest, wickedest films about the stupidity of discrimination in recent times. Based on a mordant script by Vaalvi director Paresh Mokashi and superbly steered by first-time director Ashish Avinash Bende, Aatmapamphlet traces the journey of Ashish from birth to late adolescence. The Marathi-language movie has been released in cinemas with English subtitles.

Ashish’s progression is set against some of the most momentous events in recent Indian history. Between 1989 and 1993 and beyond, as India lurches through a shift in its national character, the bright boy falls for his classmate Srushti.

The earth briefly stops revolving on its axis for Ashish. When Srushti’s school timings change, Ashish devotes a considerable part of his waking hours to keeping an eye on his beloved.

Ashish carries on even as his family’s fortunes undergo a shift. Ashish’s friends pitch in with suggestions and support. Meanwhile, India begins a downward slide towards intolerance – although you wouldn’t know from the side-splitting wit, the wide grins on everybody’s faces, and the unending optimism that marks Ashish’s endeavour.

Sharply written and fabulously performed, especially by Om Bendkhale as the middle-stage Ashish and Chetan Wagh as his intrepid buddy Borya, the film is reminiscent of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. A contemporary fairy tale with ample meta-touches, Aatmapamphlet plays out in a realistic milieu as well as a La-La Land. The tongue is firmly in the cheek; one eye is always winking.

The tropes beloved of coming-of-age films are blown to bits and then reassembled to memorable effect. The 95-minute movie sends up Ashish’s one-way ardour, typical classroom scenes and even his family’s hardscrabble existence. The tone is just this side of exaggerated, without tipping over into outright farce.

One of the most hilarious passages has to do with Ashish and his loyal posse insisting on conducting the woo-Srushti mission in English. Even Mokashi’s mocking voiceover is part of the joke. Bende directs his ensemble cast beautifully, navigating them through a film that gets increasingly risky and even uncomfortable at times.

The tricky balance between satire and commentary wobbles when it comes to caste. It’s bold to address caste-based discrimination through the prism of humour. But creating an equivalence between Dalits and upper castes comes off as specious.

The whimsy fares better when examining other expressions of difference. The self-discovery by Ashish and his posse – leading to several exaggerated group huddles – suggests that left to itself, this generation might just have the answer for the world’s problems.

Or will it? Perhaps one the biggest jibes delivered by Aatmapamphlet is against the earnest, message-oriented movie. The film’s cleverness lies in the fact that it could easily be flipped on its head and serve as a tragedy. The narrative plays out in a country that once was, or perhaps never was.

Aatmapamphlet (2023).