Jayan Cherian’s “Papilio Buddha” opens a window to the Dalits’ struggle for identity in Kerala
Floating in the mainstream week after week, one tends to forget what’s happening in the tributaries, the little rivulets of creativity. This week came as a jolt to the conscience as two filmmakers managed to put the unseen on the screen. While Siddharth Srinivasan’s “Pairon Talle” takes us to the underbelly of development in the NCR through the life cycle of a watchman, Jayan Cherian’s “Papilio Buddha” turns the spotlight on the plight of Dalits in Kerala. While Siddharth managed to get a ‘rare’ screen to showcase his work, Cherian had to make do with a private screening, for the Central Board of Film Certification found the film too violent to certify.
It was a little difficult to put the graphic nature of violence against Dalits in perspective. So I decided to follow Cherian through phone and email and found him equally eager to put his point across. Even if that means answering a call at 4.30 in the morning. Over to Cherian. “‘Papilio Buddha’ is inspired by several events that happened in various Dalit communities in Kerala, including their struggles for land in places such as Chengara, Meppadi and Muthanga, and their effects on the Dalit population. Unlike North India, the Dalit movement in Kerala took root very late and no political party has supported it.”
The New York-based Malayalam filmmaker elaborates that on the surface, “Papilio Buddha” is a fiction feature film that tells the story of a group of displaced ‘untouchables’ in the Western Ghats who embrace Buddhism to escape caste oppression. But it doesn’t help much. Set in the milieu of an ongoing land struggle, it goes on to explore the new identity-based political uprising inspired by Ambedkarism that is gaining momentum among the Dalits in the region.
The film makes biting comments on the caste system and doesn’t spare anybody, including the NGOs working in the region. “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 as a deep scar on the face of humanity beyond the upper caste/ upper class narratives of the same. So I believe it was very important for me to make this film as a visual storyteller who is born in India,” says Cherian, whose documentary “Shape of the Shapeless” won critical acclaim at many international film festivals.
The story is told through the eyes of Shankaran, an educated youth who is indifferent to the resistance movement run by his father Karian, a one-time communist, who now feels betrayed by the movement. “I am trying to bring into focus epic land struggles. It also maps the environmental degradation and abuse of pristine mountain habitats by outside forces.”
For the uninitiated, Papilio Buddha is a species of butterfly, also known as Malabar Banded Peacock, an endangered species found in the Western Ghats. “One of the central characters, Shankaran, is working for an American lepidopterist who illegally collects butterflies from the Western Ghats. The analogy of Papilio Buddha, an endangered hunted being, to the displaced Dalits of Kerala works with the larger theme of the film,” explains Cherian, adding that the butterfly got Buddha as a surname because a Japanese lepidopterist discovered it and the butterfly is very significant in Buddhist thought.
Born and brought up in a small village in Kerala, Cherian says caste in Kerala is practised beyond religious boundaries. “Christians and Muslims practise and enforce caste as much as any upper caste Hindu does. I wanted to tell a story that is close to my life. I wrote this film based on real events and chose actors who are involved with the Dalit land rights movement in Kerala. I met Kallen Pokkudan, the main actor of the film, three years ago. Pokkudan is a prominent Dalit rights and environmental activist of Kerala. Born in 1937 in a family whose members were traditional agrarian slaves owned by upper caste landlords, Pokkudan went to school up to second grade and was forced to work in the paddy fields 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 of Kerala. He was accused of the killing of a landlord and jailed for some time. Later he left the Communist Party due to ideological conflict with the Party and the caste discrimination that he suffered within the Party.”
Talking about the CBFC’s concerns, Cherian says the Board has listed a number of reasons for denying the certification based on its “archaic set of guidelines”, which he thinks are designed to give “overwhelming power to the State.”
“There is no justification for the Censor Board’s action. The film focuses on atrocities committed against Dalits, women and the environment. 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 freedom of artistic expression.”
Most of the objections are about denigrating Gandhi, Buddha and Ayyankali (the 19th and 20th Century Dalit leader). “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 the protestors. The language used by the characters in this film, though it may be different from the usual commercial film language, is the language they speak every day. The physical violence depicted in the film against Dalit activists Sankaran and Manju is a reflection of social injustices happening in our society. There is no exaggeration in the way it is picturised,” he contends.
There is a Gandhian leader in the film who tries to use Satyagraha as a means to win over Dalits who are squatting on government land. But the Dalits led by Shankaran quote what Dr. Ambedkar said about Gandhi’s fast in Yervada Jail in 1932: “Satyagraha is a foul and filthy act.” And they go on to burn an effigy of Gandhi.
Cherian reasons what Ambedkar said is in the public domain. But it gives CBFC a reason to bring a law and order situation into the equation as the film doesn’t try to balance the different points of view. Is it a justifiable concern for a filmmaker considering cinema is a mass medium?
“There is no law and order situation in Kerala because of ‘Papilio Buddha’,” counters Cherian. “My goal as a storyteller is to tell the story straight and effective through my medium of choice, which is cinema, and I believe I have a right to do it. If there is no space for a counter narrative in our society we can’t call ourselves a democratic society. I never thought of creating a controversy and I don’t want to force myself to compromise in order to please anyone. I am just a filmmaker, not a politician. I don’t think it is my concern or obligation to balance political opinions expressed by fictional characters in my film.”
Cherian alleges that Dalits in Kerala don’t get a fair deal in popular media. “The Dalit representation in the media is very poor, and Dalit movements like DHRM (Dalit Human Rights Movement) are consistently framed as terrorist movements in popular media, which enables the middleclass intellectuals to turn a blind eye towards the caste atrocities happening against Dalits all over Kerala.”
The Board, says Cherian, has asked for 40 cuts but he doesn’t want to release a “mutilated version” of his film. “We have lodged an appeal in the Tribunal. We look forward to help and support from the filmmaking community, media and everyone around the world who values freedom of artistic expression.”