Sometimes a minor cut on the surface of the skin will do to reveal the rot beneath. This is precisely what the film Papilio Buddha, made by the New York-based Malayalee film-maker Jayan Cherian, which draws broadly upon contemporary caste politics in Kerala, has achieved for us. In fact, its achievement on this count is simply amazing. At a single stroke, it has brought to light several stinking sores above which Malayalees, especially many Malayalee intellectuals who occasionally don the garb of public intellectuals, strut.
First, it exposes powerfully the social contract between Kerala’s powerful communities that ensures the continuing abjection of especially that section of the dalit community, long condemned to want and squalor in the ghettos known as ‘colonies’. Secondly, it exposes, once again, the particularly toxic quality of the species of intellectual hanger-ons who inhabit the many spaces created by the state in Kerala in the name of culture and move in and out of the production of what, I insist, is largely cultural crap. My point is that they may seem at first glance to be fairly innocuous seekers of minor privilege or material gain — cheap publicity, minor influence, sitting fees — but their failings, ranging from rank ignorance to petty jealousies and cowardly conservatism — can have culturally toxic effects. As for the dynamics of cultural crap-production, it requires continuous back-scratching among crap-producers and the controversy over this movie shows it only too well. Thirdly, it exposes,once again, the fact that the Malayalee intelligentsia, largely dominated by the crap-producing-swallowing intellectual hanger-on-generation, is blatantly afraid of democracy; or at best, it would love to have democracy gift-wrapped and home-delivered and if possible in the light pastels of liberalism. Any demand for democracy that appears to question or go beyond its liberal trappings will have them reaching nervously for their smelling-salts.
A good place to start exploring this rotting world is the Gandhi-bhakti which has reached surprising new heights in Kerala. It needs to be said that the history of politics in post-independence Kerala shows that we have cared, mostly, two hoots for Gandhi, even though the same cannot be said for the Nehru clan. Gandhi never figured really high even in Congress politics in Kerala after the 1940s;the entire gamut of rituals around Gandhi’s image was of course faithfully followed, but the grand inauguration of Congress politics in the 1950s in Kerala included the decisive sweeping aside of all those early Congress activists who were interested in a broadly Gandhian economic agenda which militated against capitalist greed. Since then, Gandhi was pulled in whenever necessary, as a useful instrument. For example, when the Christian and other social right-wing forces wanted to oppose artificial contraception, they sang praises of Gandhi. Otherwise,they were least interested. Malayalees, in general, were hardly attracted to Gandhian prescriptions — and even when we were, for example, in some kinds of environmental activism, Gandhi was always borrowed piecemeal. In other words, we, Malayalees located on both the left and right of the political spectrum, had quietly turned Gandhi into a text, to be interpreted, always selectively, whenever and wherever necessary. This, I feel, was a potent way of neutralizing Gandhi the Messiah: there could be no ‘essential’ message he could claim.And by the same coin, he could generate no feelings of hurt.
However, Papilio Buddha, which contains statements critical of Gandhi and images of dalits protesting against him, has gathered a ‘constituency of hurt’, which has been heard sympathetically by the censoring authorities. They have denied it certification and characterized it a dangerous film damaging to sentiments around Gandhi. Even more shockingly, the film has also been excluded from the coming International Film Festival of Kerala, which does not require censor certificates for movies screened.Since the movie was first accepted and then rejected, the claim that this is clearly a political decision, and a patently anti-dalit one, seems plausible. Therefore, the ‘hurt constituency’ seems to be now a very wide one, spanning from the members of the Central Board of Film Certification’s (CBFC) regional panel to most probably the Minister for Cinema, Ganesh Kumar, and some inhabitants of Facebook who have been wringing their hands most dramatically, apparently torn between their proclaimed political correctness (“I have been sympathetic to the dalits!”) and the need to do justice to Gandhi.
The decision to exclude the movie from IFFK is perhaps the most easily understandable, given the ongoing attempt led by the Nair community organization to consolidate the majority community in Kerala and the stake that Kerala’s Minister for Cinema, Ganesh Kumar, has in pleasing the Nairs. Historically, Gandhism in Kerala spoke primarily to the Nairs and
conservative interpretations of Gandhi’s life and thought have framed savarna-dominated nationalism (remember the political life of Kerala’s most famous Gandhian nationalist, K Kelappan). If indeed the refusal of entry to movies that lay bare secularized caste in Kerala is a political decision, then it can only be attributed to the Minister for Cinema, Ganesh Kumar. It is easy to see why he does so: through this despicable act, he makes a strong point to the Nairs, scratches the back of the mediocrities of mainstream Malayalam cinema (who have of course scratched his back only too often), and pampers his own bloated ego, which seems (from his past performance at the last IFFK) to be exactly that of a disgustingly spoilt brat, used to getting his way all the time.
But the offense-to-Gandhi argument is circulating among a wider group. I have been reading Facebook posts which are the classic straw-man-fallacy: criticism of Gandhi, according to them is a form of revenge! The post contains a sentimental picture of Bapu playing with a child. How interesting! At one stroke, a sentimental interpretation of Gandhi is advanced as if that negates the critical interpretation advanced by the dalits and the criticism, reduced to mere revenge, is rendered non-political! Another writer on FB claims to be troubled by a moral dilemma: on the one hand he takes the oppression of dalits as a reality and agrees with the dalit criticism of hegemonic casteism to a large extent, however he finds the criticism of Gandhi in the movie offensive enough to deny it a certificate. Why, because statements critical of Gandhi evoked loud applause from dalit activists who were present at the private screening in Trivandrum! Well, that’s rather strange? The genre of the ‘patriotic military film’ is now well-established in Malayalam cinema (so low in aesthetic quality that one even suspects the hand of the RAW in keeping it going)and such films are often full of rubbishy statements grandly delivered by so-called male superstars that condemn Indian democracy and indirectly support military rule. Many statements in the film that are offensively jingoistic and blatantly celebratory of the interests of the Hindu majority often evoke loud cheers and applause from the audience — that has disturbed me but surely it did not make me to ban the movie! So if dalits applauding criticism of Gandhi (represented in far more sober ways) should provoke such irrational fear in the non-dalit viewer, there is certainly some unconscious political fear that needs to be probed. This writer is also troubled that EMS Nambutiripad is criticised. Thankfully, that feeling is easily understood as the resistance to the fact that the consensus about EMS as the political and intellectual saviour of Kerala no longer exists and has been decisively broken since the early 21st century. Interestingly, when dalit intellectuals who hold more or less liberal positions and who ‘behave like us’ make these criticisms, that appears less threatening, it seems. But the activists of the Dalit Human Rights Movement have a critical relation to the present post-development consensus on welfare and political representation in Kerala — and therefore may be readily cast as monsters in the imagination of the average progressive Malayalee with mild intellectual pretensions. The movie in fact shows specific attacks on many icons — Gandhi, Ambedkar, Ayyan Kali, and EMS – and not one of these scenes is overdone or out of context. Each of them makes sense, that is.If only one were not either driven by short-term political goals or troubled by long-standing latent political fears.
This brings us to the most pathetic player in this game, the intellectual hanger-on who populates the committees of the censoring authorities and the other dens of culture sponsored by the Kerala government. The members of the CBFC are supposedly chosen from among people of ‘all walks of life’ to ensure diversity. That they are often semi-literates in cinema and literature is a complaint too old to be repeated here. But what amazes me is not just the semi-literacy but the stuntedness of their life-experience, which was repeatedly thrust in our faces in the wake of their controversial denial of certification. For example, members of the committee that reviewed Papilio Buddha felt that the film uses abusive language. The makers of the film and the director have clarified that that there is nothing inappropriate in the language
used; abusive language has certainly not been used in a flippant way. Well, as a person who stays in constant touch with colleges and schools in Kerala as researcher, teacher, and mother, all I can say is that the members of the censor board seem to have remained caught in their own school-days of the 1960s and 70s, when in the convent schools at least, ‘bad language’ was prohibited and even calling each other ‘patti’ (dog) was treated as a major offense. Perhaps this is indeed the case — I hear that many of these members belong to the class of the Kulastree in Kerala –elite women well- ensconced within the patriarchal family — who form Kerala’s most formidable, if silent, moral brigade, and who actually mistake their convent-school inhibitions for high moral achievements. This bunch cannot also be blamed for being shocked at the beautifully-crafted love scene in Papillio Buddha, in which tenderness and desire commingle seamlessly. I suppose we ought to pity this lot: on the one hand, they are used to cinematic love scenes in which one or more titillatingly-dressed women, apparently trapped in teenage perpetually, struggles either to desperately climb up a man as if he were a coconut tree, or, equally desperately,contort her/their sadly-thin teenage body/bodies in what are hopefully sexy ways. On the other, they have been raised in a culture which allows pornography to thrive (and how!) in the underworld of representing sex,and enforces the most irrational covering of human bodies in non-pornographic cinema.
But who can one forgive them for not seeing the difference between the representation of violence against human bodies, including sexual violence, in this movie and in mainstream Malayalam cinema? In mainstream Malayalam cinema, rape or rape attempt has been the major way in which some actual sexual titillation could be introduced, some of the heroine’s or sub-heroine’s flesh revealed, liberally sprinkled with lurid auditory and visual suggestions.
Therefore the injury that rape produces on the body is hardly of concern there. But what is perhaps most striking about Papilio Buddha is the manner in which it completely upturns this hypocrisy : there is almost a parallel between the violence suffered by the young male protagonist in police custody and the gang rape suffered by the woman autorickshaw driver. Both are violated by gangs in different kinds of uniform; both involve deep sexual hurt and more importantly, terrible pain and injury to both the physical body and the inner self. In other words, the movie completely does away with the conventions of representing rape in Malayalam cinema, and in a way that is definitely anti-patriarchal.
The fact that the review committee did not see any of this, however, hardly surprises me. Even the members who can claim intellectual credentials, I suspect, do not care for anti-patriarchal cinema. As for the many who claim to be cinephiles and critics knowledgeable in cinema, their silence does not surprise me either. To be a successful critic, one must not ruffle feathers,
especially of those in power (unless one is assured of support from the opposition party), and the established figures of Malayalam cinema; and if one does so, one must do it mildly and with winning politeness (while continuing to work hard at pacification through participation in homoaesthetic circles). After all, many more of awards, committee memberships, writing -contracts, and general guru-doms depend on maintaining this posture. But more importantly, one must do nothing that reveals the limits of one’s scholarship and imagination. Such silences are not new; one saw precisely such silence after the screening of Vipin Vijay’s Chitrasutram, which did away completely with the kind of cinematic narrative we are familiar with. If indeed we had genuine cinephiles and scholars of cinema, that movie would have elicited a lively debate; none of that happened. Vipin had to be content with condescending tolerance: ‘he is a young guy and needs to be supported’. This, I think, is another way of saying: ‘we couldn’t make head nor tail of it but we don’t want to take a chance by admitting that”. More or less similar neglect was suffered by Shalini Nair’s impressive cinematic retelling of Malayatoor Ramakrishnan’s Yakshi in her recent debut film Akam. But of course, it is far easier to concentrate our energies on either opposing or defending the right of Santhosh Pandit to elaborate his vision of cinema since we are secretly convinced that he is inferior to all of us ! Neither of the movies I mentioned above are flawless; yet both move away in interesting ways from mainstream Malayalam cinema and stay a cut above the current new wave low-budget movies. It also looks as though many find it hard to stomach the fact that Malayalee-born film-makers located outside Kerala and India are becoming a force to reckon with and appear fully capable of changing the rules of both mainstream and non-mainstream Malayalam cinema.
For this reason, I don’t think it is necessary to pay any heed to the whispers that are spreading about Papilio Buddha, that it ‘isn’t good enough a movie’– implying that one can perhaps ignore the wrong being done to it because it isn’t good enough. I can only assure the knights who rose swiftly to the rescue of Santhosh Pandit, as a person who watched Papilio Buddha two times, that if Santhosh Pandit deserved our support, so does this film and Jayan Cherian. It is interesting how aesthetic concerns are readily set aside by commercial cinema and we seem to have accepted it. Aesthetic concerns may well be set aside by political cinema too– and more importantly, this cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be an excuse for censorship.
Perhaps I will boycott IFFK this year; and my distaste for the entire community around mainstream Malayalam cinema will only grow. But I pin my hopes on young people in Kerala whose world the movie addresses and who are capable of responding to the finest moments in Papilio Buddha. For example, the love scene I mentioned earlier, in which the vulnerability of the lovers that surfaces only in mutually-shared moments of deeply trusting tenderness and effaces patriarchal hierarchies, even if only momentarily, is captured beautifully. I did meet such young people, women and men, who were moved by Papilio Buddha and delved deeper into their selves in response. Maybe this is an insight. Maybe we should always write, dance, act, direct, philosophize, with the full realization that the mediocrity of the present will stay blind and hostile to what we do. Sometimes even a minor opening, a sliver of light ahead in the future will do to keep us going.