A student of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami and inspired by auteurs such as Kenji Mizoguchi of Japan, Kerala-born Jayan Cherian has made a Malayalam feature film that has ruffled more than a few feathers. Trained as a filmmaker in New York with an undergraduate degree from Hunter College and a Master of Fine Arts degree from The City College of New York, he speaks to The Hindu on Papilio Buddha, his film on Kerala’s politics from the Dalit perspective. A commercial release of the film has been stymied by the Censor Board. Excerpts
How did the movie germinate?
Papilio Buddha is inspired by several events that happened in various Dalit communities in Kerala, including their struggle for land in places such as Chengara, Meppadi, and Muthanga, and its effect on the Dalit population.
How is the film relevant to present times?
The identity political movements based on Ambedkarism are getting stronger in Kerala now. This was long suppressed by major political parties and I think it is very relevant to trigger a discussion about the issues of Dalit activism in Kerala.
Please shed some light on the Dalits in Kerala and the Communist movement in the State shown in the film.
The Dalit colonies in Kerala are best examples of social segregation of Dalits. These colonies historically serve as the main sources of muscle power for traditional parties including the communists. Naturally they see Dalit activism as a threat to their existence. Oppressions inflicted by the police and political parties are unimaginable, and it is getting out of control now. The mainstream media and middle-class intellectuals turn a blind eye towards it because Dalit movements like DHRM (Dalit Human Rights Movement) are framed as terrorist organisations.
What differences of opinion do you have with the censor board regarding your film and what do you plan to do about it?
The board has listed a number of reasons for denying the certification based on its archaic set of guidelines, which, I think, are designed to give overwhelming power to the State. There is no justification for the Censor Board’s action. The idea of a government body censoring a piece of art in itself is ridiculous and it is a shame that a democratic country like India still has state instruments that curtail the freedom of artistic expression.
Most of the objections are about denigrating Gandhi, Buddha and Ayyankali. The perceived denigration seems to be coming from the realistic treatment of the film’s climax scene, where landless Dalits are confronted by the police, who use overwhelming force to evict protestors from their occupied land. The language used by characters in this film, though it may be different from the usual commercial film language, is the language we speak every day. The violence depicted in the film against Dalit activists are reflections of caste atrocities happening in our society. We are appealing to the Film Tribunal to review the decision of the regional board.
It has been alleged that the film is anti-Gandhi.
The film is not anti-Gandhi as many love to frame it, but there is a deliberate attempt to present a counter narrative to the official narrative of Gandhi as a blemish-less embodiment of non-violence and a champion of the Dalit cause.
Please tell us about your own journey as a filmmaker and other projects you have been involved in
As a filmmaker I am interested to probe how identities are constructed and performed in our society and being used as tools of both oppression and empowerment.
My previous film, Shape of the Shapeless was about gender fluidity, based on the life of a burlesque performer who transgresses the boundaries of gender and sexuality. In the small Kerala village where I was born and brought up, caste is practiced beyond religious boundaries. Christians and Muslims practice and enforce caste as much as any upper caste Hindu does. Papilio Buddha is my first feature film and I want to tell a story that is close to my life. As I stated before, I wrote this film based on real events and chose actors whose lives revolve around the Dalit land rights movement in Kerala.
I met the main cast of the film Kallen Pokkudan three years ago. Mr.Pokkudan is a prominent Dalit rights and environmental activist of Kerala. Born in 1937 as a member of an untouchable family who were traditional agrarian slaves owned by upper caste landlords, Pokkudan went to school up to second grade and was forced to work in paddy fields in order to survive. In his teens he ran away from the field and became an activist of the Communist Party of India, participated in the early peasant revolts in Kannur district. He was accused of killing a rouge landlord and jailed for some time. Later he left the communist party, due to ideological conflict with the party and caste discrimination that he suffered as an untouchable within the party. Working with Kallen Pokkudan and other activists in the region was a fascinating experience.
I think the caste system is one of the most sophisticated tools of oppression that India’s ruling class developed and its polymorphic manifestations still remain a deep scar on the face of humanity beyond the upper caste/upper class narratives of the same. So I believe it is very important for me to make this film as a visual story teller who was born in India.