To break a butterfly on a wheel

A still from Jayan Cherian’s film Papilio Buddha
A still from Jayan Cherian’s film Papilio Buddha

Jayan Cherian’s film Papilio Buddha has infuriated the Indian film censors: they are yet to certify and clear the film. It was also denied entry to the International Film Festival of Kerala though the censor’s certification is not a pre-requisite for entry. It has also lost its chance to compete in the many film festivals around the world as the censor board is in a mode of deliberate procrastination. The stated reason for the refusal of certification: it uses ‘abusive’ language and dares even ‘abuse Gandhi.’ The unstated reason: it upholds the Dalit cause, and in the process, interrogates the status quo including political parties of every hue.

Jayan Cherian, a Malayali filmmaker trained in filmmaking in New York and residing there, has been an uncompromising critic of status-quoist views on life and art. His very first short film, Shape of the Shapeless(2010) about the life of a transvestite who lived many lives, caused a stir in film circles across the world. It was nominated to many festivals including Cannes and Athens and won many accolades including a silver medal at the San Francisco Short Film Festival. He had done many other short films before dealing with issues of racial and gender discrimination and imperialist hegemony, like Thandava, the Dance of Disillusionment (2006), which was a forthright critique of the Bush era in US politics. Tree of Life (2007) was structured around a meeting between a Christian Evangelist and a Sikh taxi driver in New York. Capturing the Signs of God (2008) looked at the conflict between the private and the public from the point of view of an Iranian woman cartoonist and Love in the Time of Foreclosure (2009) dealt with the impact of recession on the relationship between a paralysed White war victim and his Black woman-partner. Jayan had started his career as a poet, has four collections of subtly political poetry and had once been in the Naxalite movement and been jailed. He is no more with any political party but the dissenter in him is very much alive, as is shown by this feature film with its radical political and aesthetic implications.

The immediate inspiration for Papilio Buddha (the name of an endangered butterfly species in Kerala) came from a news report about the Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM) that the police had identified as a ‘terrorist movement’ while in fact, it is a peaceful movement upholding Dalit dignity, encouraging education among Dalits and supporting sub-altern struggles for basic human rights in Kerala. Cherian had already closely studied the African-American rights movements and the Dalit and Adivasi movements in India and observed how the State in the US, as well as in India, were plotting alike to grab tribal and Dalit land for capitalist expansion employing ingenuous tactics.

Eviction from their traditional habitats in the name of ‘development’ that in no way helps them, has rendered these communities homeless and jobless in both the countries. He had also studied some of the land struggles in Kerala like those at Chengara and Muttanaga, free from party alignments. The film has drawn inspiration, by the director’s own confession, from Black leaders like John Africa of MOVE, Malcolm X, WEB Du Bois and the thoughts of Ambedkar with his fascination for Buddhism that lends it a peculiar spiritual dimension. Cherian spent many months in Kerala with the Dalits and the Adivasis, learning their culture, religion and politics before he ventured to make the film. His own teachers and supervisors like Michael Gitlin, Gustavo Mercado and Andrea Weiss (UN Fever-fame) and film makers like Werner Herzog have been some other influences.

Papilio Buddha imaginatively recreates some of the politically significant real-life incidents that happened in Kerala during the last decade symptomatic of the society’s growing amnesia about its own past and the authorities’ callous conspiracy against the landless and the downtrodden. Though Kerala’s Left movement was made possible by the earlier social reforms pioneered by leaders from the backward and Dalit communities like Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali, the mainstream Left has shown scant regard for the rights of the Dalits and tribals and little sympathy for their independent struggles for land rights and dignity. Even the land reforms undertaken by the Left hardly benefited the landless Dalit peasant. The Right and the Left alike seem to be scared of the new independence shown by women, Dalits and tribals, often sharing platforms with minority organisations that they write off as manifestations of ‘identity politics,’ as if they had nothing to do with the question of class.

Two incidents narrated in the film have revealed the anti-Dalit stance of the civil society in Kerala with its upper caste hegemony. One is the experience of the DHRM, mentioned earlier in this article, that has been trying to redefine Dalit subjectivity by promoting self-help, creating new family and community models different from the individualistic unitary family, by urging its members to follow a unisex dress-code with jeans and black shirts with Ambedkar’s picture on them and asking each to cook for others. They were ‘extremists’ to the police and the Shiv Sena and were even falsely implicated in a murder. The other is the case of Chitralekha, a Dalit woman from Payyannur in North Kerala who challenged CITU diktats and drove an autorickshaw – a male preserve in the state. She was abused as a ‘loose woman’ and a ‘drunkard,’ beaten up and her vehicle was burnt leading to a campaign by feminists and Dalits in support of her.

These and similar dramatic events in Papilio Buddha have been set in an imaginary land, much like Marquez’s Macondo or OV Vijayan’s Khasak, so that the historical incidents narrated on the screen get a fictional aura, providing the filmmaker with greater hermeneutic and artistic freedom. Lighting forms an important part of the narrative technique: bold colours are consciously filtered off to create a special tone that seems to go well with the narration of the lives. The place itself is somewhat bleak, with hills and corn-fields and generates a sense of mystery that goes well with the deep spirituality of protest that the film strives to embody. This is not to underestimate the great visual appeal of the film mostly gained by the sharp contrasts of light and shade, of the grey mountains and the colourfully dressed people.

One of the links that connects the diverse episodes is Shankaran, a young Dalit who helps a white man in his research on butterflies; they also are in a transient gay relationship. Shankaran is finally arrested and tortured by the police as a ‘terrorist.’ The discriminatory treatment teaches him the meaning of being a Dalit, even to one like Shankaran with a good education and a degree from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Another is Shankaran’s father, Karayan, played by Pokkoodan, a Dalit environmental activist himself who had begun as a communist, driven by disillusionment to Dalit struggles and local environmental regeneration. The third is Manjusree, an enlightened and educated Dalit woman who is punished with rape by a group of unionised autorickshaw drivers as she, a Dalit and a woman, dared to run an autorickshaw and resisted lechers and was teaching Dalit children with the money she earned from her vehicle.

The character is based on Chitralekha referred to earlier. The film also recreates two major land struggles in Kerala during the Left regime, Chengara and Muttanga, both opposed by political parties including the orthodox Left. Pokkoodan’s regeneration of the mangrove forests also gets woven into the fabric of the film. It is as if the actors act out their own lives, as it had happened with Nadugeddika, a 1970’s play produced by Baby and propagated by the People’s Cutural Forum, where Adivasis act out their own troubles and struggles within the format of a tribal ritual. Manjusree, the Dalit activist is at the very centre of the film, carrying it forward. She refuses to surrender even after the group-rape, shaves her head, becomes a Buddhist along with other Dalits of the locality, pledges her allegiance to Ambedkar and leads the land struggle when the police step in and beat her up. She challenges patriarchal violence, upper caste violence and state violence at the same time and realises their tacit collusion in the oppression of Dalits and women.

The film brings to the surface the caste feeling that survives in Kerala’s society despite the average ‘enlightened’ Keralite’s attempts to brush it under the carpet. The protagonists have full faith in the democratic constitution Ambedkar has drawn up for independent India but they are disillusioned to find how that sacred document is violated by the rulers themselves during every critical attempt the poor and the oppressed make to emancipate themselves from the crushing hegemony of caste, class and gender in our society. The critique of Gandhi, never flippant or overstated, is made precisely in this context and is an organic part of the film, inseparable from the total social critique the film attempts.

The film succeeds in creating a parallel space and time that permits the audience to analyse what they see objectively as a Brecht play does. It rejects stereotyping of every kind and refuses to sentimentalise its events as the mainstream films dealing with similar themes often do. It uses symbols effectively starting from the Buddha-looking butterfly in the white man’s captivity. Icons like Gandhi, Ambedkar, and Ayyankali also are deployed carefully to depict social and ideological conflicts, revealing that the battle around forms, metaphors and symbols is no less than real political battles. The two scenes that depict love are also very unconventional: the moment of love between Shankaran and Manjusree is a moment of trust, desire and tenderness, but also one of deep awakening as the woman asks the man to realise the great power within him so that he reshapes his selfish life. He has been yearning to go abroad and make money in the interest of the larger community. The film retrieves from marginalisation and amnesia certain states of life and contexts of history, so vital to our struggles for a new society and an alternative concept of nationhood based on the philosophy of the commons while also outlining a new aesthetics for the future.

The writer is a Malayali poet, translator, Editor and critic with activist concerns.


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