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filmmaker in focus: jayan cherian

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In every film festival, there is that one film that is too relevant, too provoking and too controversial to be missed. Most times, it is the film that most accurately holds up the mirror to a dysfunctional society. Quite predictably, particular echelons of that society become irate when they see the truth portrayed on screen, and seek to snuff out all evidence of their imperfection by pointedly ignoring the existence of said film, or, in the case of Papilio Buddha, banning it from showing altogether.

Directed by Jayan Cherian, Papilio Buddha guts open the lives of the Dalits in the state of Kerala in southern India. In the traditional Indian caste system, a Dalit is a member of the lowest caste, the “untouchables”. Based on true events, Papilio Buddha is a drama that unapologetically showcases the reality of their lives and the violence that they suffer as they seek to challenge the upper-caste landlords and political entities for their rights. Displaced by the government and forced into a caustic land battle that defines their existence, these Dalits seek out survival in the breathtaking Western Ghats of the country.

The film was denied censor certification by India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). The board stated that the screening rights were denied based on visuals and dialogues in the film denigrating Mahatma Gandhi, inappropriate language, as well as visuals of extreme violence and extreme torture of women by police. The film was also denied entry into the International Film Festival of Kerala. After several cuts to the film, Cherian was able to finally show his work.

Papilio Buddha won the Kerala State Film Special Jury Award for Best Direction, the Kerala Film Critics Association Award for Best Debut Director, and Second Best Feature Narrative at the Athens International Film + Video Festival. It also screened at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and the Montreal Film Festival.

We were able to speak with the NewYork-based Cherian about his film before he arrives in Trinidad for its Caribbean debut on 19 September at the ttff.

What was your inspiration for the film and why did you decide to do it?

Identity is a common theme in my work. My last film was about gender and sexual and racial identities. I spent the earlier part of my life in India. One of the problems in identity in India is caste, which is very different from other identities. It is a form of racism and it has multiple implications, being born into a particular caste. I come from a state called Kerala in southern India where comparatively it is considered a progressive state and it has always had a socialist or radical government. However, the caste system still prevails there and the untouchables, the Dalits, the indigenous people, are displaced. Most of them are homeless and landless people and they are always excluded from the mainstream discourse of development.

Caste has been transgressing all kinds of boundaries. Even Christians and Muslims practice caste. When untouchables convert [from Hinduism], they are considered untouchables of [their new religion]. Caste has mutated. The untouchable people are divided into thousands of sub-castes and they have their own power dynamics. Ultimately in the Hindu ideology of so-called karma you can see that untouchable people are not lower-caste people, they are outcasts. They are not even considered as human beings. As an untouchable in this life, you have to go through misery and suffering and you have to enjoy and happily accept it [and hope to be] reborn as upper caste. This rationale is endemic to Hindu ideology.

The immediate inspiration for this film is coming from knowing about a militant movement of untouchable leaders. The movement is very strong and very different because the leaders of these struggles are untouchables and under their leadership several land struggles are going on. This is different from the historical movements in India that were led by the liberal middle-class, middle-caste and upper-caste people from the Communist party or the Maoist section. This time it is changing and the authentic leaders of the untouchable castes are leading their own struggle. There is one movement right now that is leading several land struggles, displacement of peoples, squatting on government and corporate land and refusing to go out. These movements are being called terrorist groups by the draconian government in order to suppress them. In Kerala right now, the untouchable people are renouncing Hinduism and taking Buddhism. In this area there is a particular group that is an Ambedkar-identity political movement.

This background character is paramount when looking at the historical structure of the film. Who exactly is Dr Ambedkar?

Dr Ambedkar was a prominent untouchable leader in colonial times. He was able to get out of India on scholarship in the 1920’s. He came to America to study at Columbia University. He then went to London to attend the London School of Economics and earned an economics degree and a law degree. In England he went to the parliament and lobbied for untouchables. He became one of the authors of the Indian constitution. He put a lot of privileges for untouchables in the constitution. Under the constitution all the untouchables and all other Dalit castes are protected but the Hindu dominant party and Brahmin upper class is always serving the interests of the people of the upper class so he had to have this fight. In post-Independence India, ruled by the upper-class people, the untouchables are always pushed away from the mainstream. These people are predominantly living in the streets and in poverty. But these are people who are upholding Dr Ambedkar’s ideology and this movement is all around India even though at times they are highjacked by the Maoist guerrilla movement.

Dr. Ambedkar was an atheist and he wanted to break the intellectual and theological slavery of the karma theory by using an element of Buddhism against the Hindu theory of the soul, or atma. In 1956 Dr. Ambedkar gathered 1500,000 Dalits who took a pledge, stating, “We are born Hindu but we are not going to die Hindu.” So they denounced Hinduism and took on Buddhism.

Can you explain the title of your film, Papilio Buddha?

Papilio Buddha is actually a type of butterfly. The scientific name is the Malabar Banded Peacock. It is native to that particular region, the Western Ghats, and it is an endangered species, a protected species. The Papilio Buddha is disappearing due to deforestation, the use of pesticides, ecocide and corporate land-grabbing. The connection to the movie is the American lepidopterist coming to the area to catch butterflies. In that area there is a butterfly smuggling racket. The Western Ghats is one of the richest areas of bio-diversity in India but a lot of species are disappearing. Just as this white butterfly hunter from America is connected to what he is hunting, the people of that area are also endangered and displaced and victims of ecocide. The Papilio Buddha is also a symbol of impermanence and of exuberance. One interesting butterfly myth is that of the Mothway myth of the Navajo. In this story, a bisexual god named Begochidi is the leader of the “butterfly people” and was able to service the sexual needs of both male and female butterflies in the clan.

That aspect of sexual exuberance is reflected in the homosexual relationship between the protagonist, Shankaran, and the American tourist, Jack. Why was it important for you to portray that?

Kerala is called “God’s own country”. It is filled with waterfalls and backwaters and it is a tourist’s heaven. The tourists also come for the sex tourism and you can see all kinds of people coming and taking their partners from there. They are not necessarily homosexual but the people will serve the needs of the homosexuals also. Kerala is a prudish place even though they [have] all kinds of sexual orientation. On the surface though, there is no deviation or perversion. In the film I wanted to present it that way, that in Kerala, all sexuality is in its full form; the people are enjoying and living that experience.

Continuing on with the theme of sex and sexuality in the film, can you talk about the main female character, Manju?

In this film we portray a female teacher and auto-rickshaw driver named Manju, but there is a real driver whose auto was burned and she received abuse and torture from the upper-caste men. In the film Manju becomes the target of misogynistic male drivers and she is brutally gang-raped and beaten. India is a [phallocentric] society and the violence of the penis is very prevalent. Rape is a primary mode of social control. In the news you can see the many rape cases that are coming out. In this caste system, women, especially untouchable women, are very oppressed and these cases are not in the mainstream. The hegemony of Indian masculinity works hand-in-hand with upper-caste thinking.

Shankaran also has a sexual relationship with Manju. That scene is heavily infused with the presence of the Buddha. Why?

There is a reason for that. In that region, before Hinduism, Buddhism ruled that region. There was a huge cultural genocide and many religions vanished and temples were transformed into Hindu temples. Indian people were a very sexually liberated people before colonialism. In a way they were worshipping the sexual act. I also wanted to show the sanctity of the act. In India now sexuality is almost a crime. This scene attempts to show that sexuality and spirituality are intertwined. Almost like sexuality is the ultimate gesture toward spirituality.

The film is infused with so many breathtaking shots of nature. What role did the environment play in this narrative?

The movie shot in the Western Ghats, one of the last rainforests in southern Asia. It is a very environmentally sensitive area but you can see in the movie that the area is under severe ecocide by the corporate companies and the mining companies. In that area there is black-stone and red-stone mining, which are the interests of the local political upper class, and all of the displaced people are Dalits. This ecocide always goes hand in hand with a kind of genocide. These displaced people started a movement in the 1990’s, squatting on government land, and the local forces and the government have tried to push them out and they have used all kinds of tactics to manipulate and evacuate them from this land. The movie is set in one particular area of one of the land struggles that is rich in mineral resources.

What is the relevance of the NGO in the film?

There are several NGOs working in India positively. The one that I focus on is a group run by highly educated upper-caste people in cities and they go to these land-struggle areas and are usually trying to help the Dalits and are funded by western charity groups. In the movie I was trying to present an ethnography on the subject to show that there is a disconnect. I used the stereotype to express one thing. The making of this movie is kind of ethnography in itself. We are seeing the people, we are watching what is going on and we are making ethnography.

Coming out of his experience with this NGO, Shankaran is affected by them treating him still as an outcaste. What is the significance of this?

Yes. This film also traces the development of this young man who eventually realises that he cannot escape from caste. This is one of the epiphanies that he experiences. There is a lot of prejudice but we have achieved some level of human-rights progress and several people can climb the economic ladder, but class is not caste—you are born with caste. There is a big segment of society now that is educated and wants to, for example, marry into the upper class to escape. It’s not like the European class [system] where you can change your social status with money. Shankaran is a Dalit boy who wants to be with upper-class liberals and initially looks down on the struggle of his own people.

What are you trying to say with the difference between Shankaran and his father?

They represent two generations. His dad is a product of the Communist party in India. The man who plays that character, Kallen Pokkudan, is a real-life activist; he’s playing himself in the movie and [his character] is based on his autobiography. He was born as a slave in the 1930’s. He ran away from the field and joined the Communist party. Later he was accused of killing a landowner, ended up in jail and did his time. By that time India was independent and the Communist party was in power [in Kerala]. He experienced caste discrimination even within the party afterwards as an untouchable. An untouchable is always an untouchable. Then he quit the party and started an independent movement. There are actually three books about him. He is pretty famous. His autobiography is now being translated into English.

Can you talk about the film’s cast?

Some people in the film were not popular or professional actors. What I am trying to do is show marginal Indian cinema that foreigners are not usually exposed to. There are many local theatre actors in the film as well for this reason. I am putting those Dalit people in the mainstream and marginalising the role of the regular mainstream actors. When I started to write this film in 2008 I linked with different groups for casting. I wanted a perfect cast so this was a strenuous process. Getting activists was tough, some were underground and some were in jail.

A very surprising part of the narrative was the way that the Gandhians were portrayed. Can you expound on that point?

The Gandhian mode of struggle is non-violent and fasting is the prime mode. Gandhi was projected to the western world as the embodiment of non-violence and sympathetic to the untouchables but in reality Gandhi was against that movement. The longest fasting Gandhi did was to deny the constitutionally provided rights of the untouchables. In this movie, in order to evacuate the people from their land, the local Gandhians use the same fasting tactic.

Do you feel this movie will make a difference to these issues?

In India there’s a lot of censorship. The movie is banned in India in its original form. Even with many cuts it is difficult to view it in India. Theatres don’t take it. No cable-TV distribution is allowed. They block all types of distribution. The government makes it painful to be an artist. But critics support us and the film was generally well received by those able to view it. It was a huge success [recently at the] Montreal [Film Festival]. The film is important because it brings all these human-rights violations and racism issues to the fore. In India they are practicing racism publicly. We want the caste system to be viewed as blatant slavery and racism.

In Trinidad and Tobago we are very multicultural and also have these issues, but to a lesser extent. Do you feel good about the fact that many people around the world can relate to these issues and hopefully engage in meaningful reflection when they see your film?

As an artist I cannot make a pamphlet. The film is my channel to air these things. There is a lot of discussion and I’m happy about that.

Jayan Cherian will be present at the screening of Papilio Buddha this Thursday 19 September, 5.30pm, at the Little Carib Theatre
 to introduce his film and engage in a Q&A session. The film screens for a final time on Wednesday 25 September, 8.00pm, at the Little Carib Theatre. Tickets are $30 and available at the Little Carib box office. Visit ttfilmfestival.com for more information.

Date: Wed 18 Sep, 2013
Category: ttff news and features

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