The Missing People: Critiquing the Dalit Representation in “Kammattipadam”
Anu AS, Assistant Professor, Don Bosco Arts and Science College, Kannur
“Puzhu pulikal pakki parunthukal
kadalanakal kaatu roopangal,
pala kalam pala daivangal,
narakichu porukkumividdam bhoolokam thirumakane,
kalahichu marikkunnividam ihalokam en makane.”
(From worms to tigers , from insects to eagles, from elephant seals to all creatures of wild and different gods from different times along with we polayadis lead a dreaded survival, in this world, we struggle and die in this world, my beloved son.)
Representation of subaltern or marginalized groups have for long remained a problematic arena in visual culture. These groups are denied the privilege of self representation and are burdened to bear the images and ideologies, which the mainstream imposes on them .Subaltern representation in visual culture , notably cinema provides the most striking instance of cultural politics of representation in which discourse constructs its subject. Cinema is regarded as a socio –cultural construct which creates and propagates social meanings. My paper The Missing People: Critiquing the Dalit representation in the Malayalam film “Kammattipadam” examines the representation of marginalized Dalit in film “Kammattipadam” and the cultural politics of such representations. The paper also tries to interrogate the prevailing conceptions about the subaltern and re-examine the established notions on caste and identity.
Caste as a peculiar Indian reality. The invisibility of caste or Dalit protagonist on the silver screen reflects such narrow and bogus commitment to cinema as an art form. “Cinema is an escapist, aspirational, larger-than-life world. In that sense, it is too Brahminical in its ethos to give good space to caste narratives.” Says Masaan filmmaker Neeraj Ghaywan.. Films as artistic expression cannot be devoid of their politico-ideological objectives. Hence, from a Dalit perspective when one enquires about their space during the past one century of the film world, only a handful of non-decrepit, obscure examples are presented. The ‘parallel/new wave cinema’, on the other hand, showed some efforts in bringing the lower caste subjectivity on the silver screen. The social questions of feudal exploitation, caste violence and Dalit repression gathered remarkable momentum. In this realm, however, even the ‘realistic cinema’, which is celebrated for its actual narratives and commitment towards presenting a naked truth to the audience, contented mainly in showcasing the superficial populist stereo-types of the marginalised lives and hardly entered into the core debate of social realities. The Dalits are presented as submissive animate selves, degraded and destitute with almost no hope for a better future.
In the last couple of years, however, there has been an interesting crop of films coming from young, debut directors that has added new layers to the caste narratives. These include Chauranga (2014), Court (2014) and Masaan (2015). Gurvinder Singh’s Anhey Ghore Da Daan (Punjabi, 2011), based on Punjabi novelist Gurdial Singh’s novel, captures the humiliation and discontent in the lives of the downtrodden. Jayan Cherian’s English-Malayalam film Papilio Buddha (2013) is about displaced Dalits in the Western Ghats who embrace Buddhism and become Ambedkar’s followers in order to escape oppression.
Films were specifically made to cater to the tastes and sensitivities of the upper middle class audiences, who have the capacity to spend three times more than the average filmgoer. (Deshpande, 2001) The films seems to be duty-bound to protect the hegemony of the dominant religionIn Malayalam films, the lead characters are almost always either from a middle class Nair family, or Syrian Christian. If you talk of complexion, the hero and heroine are fair and it is the trouble-makers who are dark. The thugs are dark-skinned, with some odd features – usually a Muslim or a Dalit. In films of people like Adoor Gopalakrishnan – he follows the style similar to what MT did in Malayalam literature. Most of his films are about the crisis of the nair selfStill not many Dalits are entering Malayalam cinema field. Even in the discussions around cinema, we usually avoid talking about how caste works in the cinema industry. Most of the discussions on caste move around more simple issues like absence of Dalits in Malayalam cinema: as camera-persons, as directors – on the technical side. That is indeed an issue. At the same time caste works in the entire discourse of cinema, and we need to understand the complex ways in which it operates.We need to develop that culture of 'seeing caste' also. It is different from reading caste that we have already developed to some extent. We haven't been able to develop that culture of a Dalit cinema.
Kammattipadam is a raw, raging and realistic movie. The characters are dark and deep. The director Rajiv Ravi has dismantled all conventional concepts of Malayali aesthetics by capturing the unadulterated beauty of black skin through characters who portrayed the lives of Dalits . The opening lines of my paper is from a sound track in ‘Kammatipaadam’ which carry along with it the mood of the movie and director Rajiv Ravi’s emphasised dissent against institutional elimination of marginalised societies, especially Dalit communities, from the corporate motivated agendas in the name of development. John P Varkey’s songs instilled the mood of a community’s anguish and agony, especially the title song ‘Puzhu Pulikal’ song. This reminds one of character Shylock who faced similar predicament in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? (The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1)
‘Kammatipaadam’ tells a story of the transformation of Ernakulam, a concrete jungle at present, from its lush green serene past, through a history of bloodshed and violence. The film rolls out through ‘Krishnan’ (Dulquer Salmaan), who returns to the city of Kochi in search of his childhood friend ‘Ganga’ from where flashbacks show how manipulative forces used and discarded the true inhabitants of Ernakulam according to their greedy needs. Krishnan’ on his quest to find his missing friend, relives through his past of backlash and walks once again upon those bloodied roads to find the truth about ‘Ganga’, which shapes the thread of the movie. The cast become an effective tool under this exceptional director, as Rajiv used all his actors to full effect irrespective of the importance in the film. Dulquer Salmaan shines as ‘Krishnan’, but it was the new comer Manikandan who lived the pulsating character of Balettan with perfect detailing of body language and gestures and not to miss Vinayakan, who donned the tormenting role of ‘Ganga’.
Vivek Kumar, Professor of Sociology in Jawaharlal Nehru University says, “Indian cinema was always about celebration. It was only after the 70's and the 80's that reality was reflected in films. Moreover, there was no research or development and film-makers took up ready-made scripts such as Harischandra, Bhagat Singh, Gandhi as their subject matter. There was no room for the Dalits to enter the scene”
Rajeev Ravi, Anurag Kashyap’s regular cameraman (Dev D, Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 & 2, Bombay Velvet etc), is born and brought up in Kochi and did his college at the prestigious Maharajas College. He knows the city like the back of his hand as he spent a major part of his childhood in Kochi. Ravi has earlier directed two critically acclaimed Malayalam films, the romantic hit Annayum Rasoolum (2013) and Njaan Steve Lopez (2014). In a Rajeev Ravi movie, that’s no surprise. Society, as a whole, is a cold bunch with no sympathy. The greedy and manipulative win the game, and the poor and less intelligent fall prey to the system. They’re also the ones with the rare ability to love wholeheartedly. Rajeev Ravi wrote article in ‘Deshabhimani’ few days after the release of the movie and said that the word ‘Pulayan’ was not allowed to be used even once in the movie by the Censor Board. Ernakulam was a small town during the early 1950's, and during the first communist government of EMS Namboodiripad in 1957, small tracts of farm land were given to all landless community, mainly to the Dalit community, under the Land Reforms Ordinance Act. But following the Economic Liberalisation of 1991, Kochi boomed into a metro city, and real estate skyrocketed. The then government set up Greater Cochin Development Authority, which helped the real estate boom, all the while paddy fields were converted to housing boards, luxury villas and apartments. Kammatipadam shows how the Dalits were forced to sell out their lands to the real estate mafia.
In an exclusive interview with Firstpost, director of the controversial film Rajeev Ravi, opened up about the film.“I went through hell getting the film censored. It looked like they didn’t want the film to come out in the form that I conceived. The censors wanted all caste references, especially the word Pulayan in a background song to be removed, along with a lot of dialogues. Finally they reluctantly cleared the film with an A certificate with cuts, saying there is violence in the film,” said Ravi.It remains that the tallest skyscrapers that arrogantly loom large against the city skylines is built on the crushed lives of several beings with crusted and dried blood lines running all over them. Rajeev Ravi's murky film 'Kammattipadam' offers a reeking, real take on displacement and its appalling aftermath that leaves life and its remnants strewn all over.
In Kammatipaadam, Ravi shows how the Dalits were forced to sell out their lands by their own brethren to upper caste real estate sharks, mainly the Syrian Christians. In the film, the land mafia uses dark skinned Dalit gangs mainly from the Pulaya community to usurp real estate. The hero, a middle class Ezhava man named Krishnan (Dulquer), grew up in the slums along with his best friend Ganga (Vinayagan) and his thuggish brother Balan (Manikandan), who mentors them into a life of crime and violence. Krishnan is also in love with Ganga’s cousin, a fellow dark skinned girl, Anita (Shaun Rommy).
Mainstream historiography never perceived Dalit as subjects worthy of attention. Dalit lives were a presence marked by their absence. Their struggles, their resistances , their emotional and social agonies were less important than plant life. They were not even seen as a people with a history. They were outside history. (Dasan 181). The use of complexion reveals a lot about how Ravi wants to shatter the false image of beauty and fairness.Malayalam commercial cinema has always been dominated by Hindu upper caste and Muslim superstars like Prem Nazir, Jayan, Soman, Sukumaran, Mammootty, Mohanlal, Jayaram, Dileep and new generation actors like Prithviraj, Dulquer and Nivin Pauly. The only Dalit actor, who to a certain extent made it to the top was the late Kalabhavan Mani. About his idea of casting black skinned actors, Ravi said, “Except for Dulquer who is fabulous as a middle class guy, all other characters are from the lower strata of society. I feel it suited my characters, and the way my story unfolds. Vinayagan and Manikandan have done a superb job along with Shaun Romy. In a way I wanted to break the conventional commercial cinema concepts. I hope these new actors make it big as the audiences have given thumbs up to them.”
On the positive reviews to his film, he added: “I’m very happy with the emotional response of audiences across India (the film was released simultaneously across India with English subtitles). I grew up in Kochi of the 1980s and 90s, and at that time it was a small town. But post liberalisation and the gulf boom, real estate mafia took over the city and the poor and marginalised lost all their land. I wanted to convey that development is like cancer and only a few, mainly from the upper echelons of the society, benefit from it.”
In Kammatti Padam, Rajeev Ravi’s raw take on the lives of those who live, sometimes kill, and often die on the margins of a city, Mani’s Balan is stunningly essayed. “The character has a lot of energy. Rajeevettan told me the character was like a rubber ball – that was my brief.” The many Balans he saw while growing up in Thoppil, near Tripunithura, were his points of reference. He has seen lives as those in the film.
There is pin drop, stunned stillness in movie hall when we first meet Balan Chettan. The shocked audience watches the frenzied, screaming Balan. He gives the scene his all. The applause from the crowd, during the rehearsals, egged him on he says. “I have done a lot of street plays; we derive energy from the applause.” Acting in the film gave him the satisfaction of doing theatre, which he calls the actor’s medium. He credits Rajeev for his work, for giving space for improvisation, be it the acting or the dialogues, providing the scope to showcase his talent.
In spite of a genuine attempt at neo-realism with deep emotional undertones, Kammattipadam falters at several points. For instance, in the opening sequence, a fatally wounded Krishnan is hobbling on a road in the middle of nowhere. A KSRTC bus stops before him, and he boards it. The conductor asks Krishnan to cough up money for the ticket. The man is bleeding, trying hard to stay conscious. And yet, there is no visible reaction from fellow passengers or the bus crew.
When Krishnan arrives in Kochi, Anu (Shaun Romy) asks him exasperatedly, “Are you insane? Why are you looking for him? If you were the one in danger, would he have come to save you?” There’s the déjà vu moment. We have heard this before. In Njan Steve Lopez, Steve begins to immerse himself in a problem which isn’t really his business, and the people around him question him in the exact same way. In Kammattipadam, we aren’t watching a different movie. We’re watching an extension of Rajeev Ravi’s world.
"Kammatipaadam" has been scripted by actor P Balachandran and it is narrated against the backdrop of a slum in Kochi that paved way for the development of the city. Apart from Dulquer, actors Vinayakan and debutant Manikandan have also been garnering a fabulous response from movie-goers for their performances. When he landed the Kammatti Padam role he was working at the Chambakkara Fish Market and doing theatre. Vinayakan is the undisputed star of the film. He has powerful body language and the ability to deliver dialogues as if he owns the lines. He is flawless as Ganga. The movie also has Shaun Romy, Amalda Liz, Shine Tom Chacko, Suraj Venjarumoodu, Anil Nedumangad, Alencier Ley and Soubin Shahir in prominent roles.
'Kammattipadam' follows Krishnan (Dulquer Salman) who returns from Mumbai on his best friend Ganga's (Vinayakan) behest to Kammattipadam, the barren slum land where they had grown up together. Krishnan finds none of those old abodes around and instead looks up at the giant concrete structures that have taken their place.Kammatipaadam has definitely shaken the edifice of Malayalam commercial cinema as it will turn profitable for its makers Global United Media from its theatrical and television rights.Sweat, blood, grime, gang, crime, land, camaraderie - 'Kammatipaadam' paints a rich landscape which deftly weaves a tale across decades. This gritty tale is in essence a story of evolution and survival - of people and of their lands. While on one hand some loose out in the battle to an industrial and commercial upheaval happening around them, others cash it in. There are no 'evil' men in this tale which chronicles change. This is where director Rajeev Ravi and scenarist P. Balachandran has succeeded.
To conclude, Kammattipadam is a bold attempt to present the life of the underprivileged and the oppressed of Kammttipadam in the context of the changing social scenario ushered in by globalization. It reveals how the Dalits are exploited and marginalized while the benefits of the so- called ‘development’ are reaped entirely by the affluent urban classes. As Krishnan says, “ The foundation on which the city has been built is not so strong. It is found on marshy land soaked in the blood of the Dalit.”
“In order to understand today’s world we need cinema, literally’’
Deshpande, Sudhanva (2001) “The Consumable Hero of Globalised India”, Popular Indian Cinema Through a Transnational Lens, Raminder Kaur and Ajay J. Sinha (eds.), Sage Publications, New Delhi.
The Oxford India Anthology of Malayalam Dalit Writing edited M. Dasan, V. Prathibha, Pradeepan OUP 2012 ,New Delhi, Print.
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