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Monday, December 09, 2013
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Papilio Buddha - A voice for the ‘untouchables’
Directed by Jayan Cherian, Papilio Buddha guts 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) and 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.
The T&T Film Festival spoke with the New York-based Cherian about his film before he arrived in Trinidad for the film’s Caribbean debut on September 19 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.
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 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 1920s. 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.
Can you explain the title of your film, Papilio Buddha?
Papilio Buddha is actually a type of butterfly, 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 biodiversity 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 came 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.
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.
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 practising racism publicly. We want the caste system to be viewed as blatant slavery and racism.
In T&T 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.
Papilio Buddha screens for a final time on September 25 at 8pm, at the Little Carib Theatre. Tickets are $30 and available at the Little Carib box office.
Visit ttfilmfestival.com for more information.
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