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'My movie was treated untouchable'

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My movie was treated untouchable
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Papilio Buddha is a feature film written and directed by Jayan K Cherian, an Indian poet filmmaker who lives in New York.

The film Pappilio Buddha is his debut feature film. The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) had earlier denied certification to the film. Finally, the FCAT (Film Certification Appellate Tribunal) grand a favorable verdict to the film, which is without any cuts but few beeps and blurs. The film has triggered yet another controversy after it was rejected a screening at the 17th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK).

In an exclusive interview with Madhyamam English, Jayan K Cherian talks about the film Papilio Buddha, the politics of film culture in Malayalam and more. Excerpts from his talk,

IFFK – 2012

I think by excluding Papillio Buddha from their line up, IFFK (International Film Festival of Kerala) lost an opportunity to showcase the life and struggle of the marginalised people of Kerala to an international audience. Since, they brag themselves in the international film community IFFK as the platform for the voice of the global south and the oppressed.

I do think there is an anti-Dalit attitude runs in Chalachitra Academy as in any other government agencies controlled by upper caste/upper class elites and also they could not tolerate any piece of art that unsettles their archaic sensibility.

Exclusion of Papilio Buddha is not an isolated case, last documentary festival they tacitly exclude Anand Patwardhans ‘Jai Bhim Comrade’, under technical reasons like the length of the film. In fact the curator who solicited the film knew the exact duration of the film. I strongly believe that anti-Dalit bias is one of the reasons behind the exclusion of Papilio Buddha from the IFFK line up.

Film festival jury

I don’t agree with the selection process for IFFK. Soliciting films that got recognized in other major festivals is very easy; an international festival establishes identity by its discoveries and its world premiers. The process of selecting the pre-selection committee is problematic; the film minister selects one of his cronies as academy chairman and the Juries who are submissive to them. Naturally, they will be ended up with a group of opportunist and soothsayers without any artistic integrity. So there is no point of asking them what are their aesthetic criteria to select a film, first of all their qualification is nothing but unconditional loyalty to the ruling minister or chairman.

It is we all know that how talented young film makers like Vipin Vijayan and Sherry have been treated by IFFK in previous years (Vipin got recognized later after a long legal and political battle). Chalichitra Academy and IFFK are run by our tax money and its mission supposed to be discovering new voices, new talents with cutting edge sensibilities in the medium and showcase their works in front of the International community. Unfortunately, our IFFK becomes a pigsty of intolerance and cast bigotry when they deal with the new Malayalam filmmakers, on the other hand, they celebrate Arab/Afro/ Asian/ Australian aboriginal packages in order to keep FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers Associations) accreditation as a specialised film festival for Asian, African and Latin American films and also want to be known as the voice of the global south in the international film community. This is sheer hypocrisy, which is our national religion.

Dalit representation in Malayalam films

Dalit representation in Malayalam films are horrible since the beginning and still it continues by reinforcing Dalit/Musilm/woman characters as stereotypes. Majority of the Malayalam films are anti Dalit films, even Dalit filmmakers and writers hesitate to make the films of Dalit theme and they are making ‘savarna’ films with ‘savarna’ cast. In case the central character is a Dalit they will cast a “Savarna’ actor to act as Dalit, which reminds me the early ‘black’ faces of Hollywood during the “Jim-crow” years where white man ware black face and act black roles. There is an upper caste hegemony in the Malayalam film industry, which never tolerate any counter hegemonic voices.

Pappilio Buddha

Papilio Buddha is my first feature film. I wanted to make my first feature in Kerala and in Malayalam, which is the language that is close to my heart.

Papilio Buddha is a film that 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 curtails freedom of artistic expressions. Most of the objections are about denigrating Gandhi, Buddha and [19th and 20th Century Dalit leader] 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 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 violence depicted in the film against Dalit activists Sankaran and Manju are reflections of social injustices happening in our society. There is no exaggeration in the way it is pictured.

The regional censor board denied any sort of certification for the film. Then we approached the revision committee and they suggest more than 25 cuts, beeps, and blurs which would have virtually kill the narrative structure of the film. Finally, the FCAT (Film Certification Appellate Tribunal) grand us a favorable verdict, which is without any cuts but few beeps and blurs. We accept it because we need to bring the film to the people but as an artist I still believe that the state intervention in any work of art is absurd and it is against the democratic principles that we all uphold as a nation.

Insulting Dalits by calling their caste names is very common in our society. We depict some upper cast characters calling Dalits caste names in order to criticise that practice not to endorse it. One who watches the film will clearly understand it.

Kallen Pokkuden as an actor

Casting Kallen Pokkudan as the central character in the Papilio Buddha is very significant. Kandal Kariyan, the character Mr.Pokkudan played in the film is very close to his life in a way Pokkudan was playing as himself in the film. As we all know Pokkudan is a prominent Dalit rights’ and environmental activist of Kerala, born in 1937, as a member of a Dalit family who were traditional agrarian slaves owned by upper caste landlords. Pokkudan went to school up to second grade and forced to work in the paddy fields in order to survive. In his teens, he runaway from the field and became an activist of Communist Party of India, participated in the early peasant revolts in Kannur district of Kerala. He was accused of killing of a rouge landlord and jailed for some time. Later he left communist party, due to ideological conflict with the Party and the caste discrimination that he suffered as an untouchable within the Party. Pakkudan’s life and activism is very significant in the history of Dalit movements in Kerala, his presence is very important in the film. Pokkudan is an amazing actor; working with him was a fascinating experience for me as filmmaker.

Chengara, Meppadi, Muthanga…

Papilio Buddhais 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 it on the Dalit populations.

Media coverage and social media

Mainstream media, especially Malayalam visual media ignore the censorship issue related to the Papilio Buddha. Social media is very important for Dalit movement because Dalit representation in traditional media is nominal. So majority of the activist use social media the only way to send their message out and it began to use as an effective organising tool for the Dalit cause.

Buddhism and caste oppression

Buddhist movement among the Dalits of Kerala is very significant in the process of librating Dalits from caste centered “Sanathana dharma” which propagate a theological rational for caste system and bigotry. Historically, Buddhism as a philosophy has confronted the ideology of ‘Brahminical Social Order’ and its caste system. So, Dr. Ambedkar recognised this philosophical strength of Buddhism and used it as a tool to liberate his people spiritually from the yoke of Sanathana Dharma”.

Next step

Next step is take the film to the people, show it in the villages and Dalit colonies of Kerala, our focus is not the international festivals, I have done that with my other films, I want to take the film to the people whom effected by the issues that raised in the film.

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 remains as a deep scar in 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 born in India.

- Muhsin. M

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