Stuck Between Gandhi and Cultural Crap: Papilio Buddha Reveals Much

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.


14 thoughts on “Stuck Between Gandhi and Cultural Crap: Papilio Buddha Reveals Much”

  1. wonderful piece! the basic definition’s’ of liberalism & marxism’s’ have been simply borrowed by the Upper caste public intellectuals (Both Hindus & Muslims) to the end of keeping status quo. Even while considering the Indian social setup the fundamentals of both demand indignization of the kind Ambedkar/Phule/Birsa did. There is much to learn from progressive ideologies but for that the knowledge & Public Culture industry must be taken away from the hands of UCs. Thanks to affirmative actions & liberalization things are beginning to show promise at last! Wish there was more of these 2 in Kafila as well.

    1. @ Devika: Excellent post. Valid points. Looking forward to the day when your vision becomes reality.

      @ Navn: So all the problems in india can be attributed to caste and resolved also by caste ?? Cmon get a life !

  2. Gandhi was no doubt the most popular leader of the nationalist movement, however his popularity was uneven.What place we should assign to him in our history books is subject to many assumptions and also demands a faithful analysis of the facts that itself an stupendous task as he remained the focal point of Indian politics and as such was commented upon thoroughly and it is also true that he more than often came out with his written words.
    One should not be little his contribution to make the politicians of the day conscious about the plight of dalits but then Gandhi had his limitations also and being himself a shrwed statesman he never tried to annoy beyond a point even the conservatives around him;at times he was quite vocal in defense of the downtrodden and did not hesitate to mix with them but still lacked a revolutionary formula to bring a basic change.Even today most of our leaders are far away to give the dalits their rightful place in the social structure;much is to be required to make the dalits feel that society as a whole is prepared to be one with them.But just to make fun of Gandhi will not serve any purpose; however if a film depicts some thing unpalatable to certain persons that can not be an excuse to debar it from our cinema halls.

  3. Thank you Devikajee. You certainly give an enlightened smash on the face of the socalled
    Malayalee intellectuals and “culture bugs”, without of course hitting below the belt! As you
    said, many more young Keralites ( and also not so young) will hail Jayan’s film, I am sure, unreservedly. Gandhi has had the misfortune to be iconised , “venerated”, like so many of
    our “saints” and “godmen”. We are simply impotent to look at Gandhi critically. But this is true of of all our “great men” living or dead. Hero-worship, is seemingly, the staple food of
    of Indian mind set? How else will you explain the “makkal tradition” in politics, in cinema,in fine arts, and even in literature? Which means that we are still a “tribal society”. This applies to every layer of Keralite population. That said, the censor board should have been
    more intelligent in their appreciation of the film. I wish you could find time to write a volume on the “cultural flowering of Kerala”, after the Independance and under the influence of the
    progressive Left. Thanks encore. .

  4. Dear Devika, you have engagingly given us a write-up and it is well articulated. however, I find that your academic studies do not show such an engagement with caste and Dalit issues. For example your book Engendering Individuals at one point you argue that by the late 19th and 20th centuries social ordering in Kerala came to be ‘on the basis of gender only’. And you have also not looked at how caste figures in the writings of Kanippayyur or many other antharjanams of the period. Have your ceritical self appraisal made a change to arguments these days.

  5. Ghettoistaion of dalits in Kerala has their history in their slave past, which has begun to be recognized in the academic writings, although not in the popular writings. As slave-castes denied of any worthy fragment of a ‘dignified existence’, Dalits search for economic and symbolic resources is a history ‘to be written properly’. While the common sense of an average Malayali men and women are draped in a ‘tamarind leave colour’ bordering dhoti, it is difficult to speak to that audience either in censor board or in multiplex. Devika’s study, Engendering Individuals, although meticulously took up the issues of individualization in Kerala history, I have a sense that you have not taken up this issue of a transformation of slave-caste to an individual seriously that the present situation of Dalit citizenship becomes difficult to understand. At one point Devika asserts that by the 19th and 20th century social ordering in Kerala came to be organised on the basis of gender only. One may hope that Devika revisits her early conceptualization of social transformation in modern Kerala. Thank you Devika for giving so much to learn and to think about.

  6. Dear Anish, I disagree with your reading of my book — surely I have made no such claim. To say that gender became vital to the emergent social order in late 19th-early 20th century Kerala is not to be interpreted as saying that caste was not important. The book was however focusing on gender — and I stand by my arguments which are certainly not in contradiction with my later observations on the secularization of caste in Kerala. And btw, I have written much more after that book which you clearly have not read.

  7. Dear Devika,
    Thank you for the rejoinder. Let me share some of my observations.
    To the problem in the write-up: Following, Gilroy’s Black Atlantic I am urged to think that caste untouchability and agrestic slavery continues to define the lives of Dalit castes in Kerala. Master/mistress/slave relationship that was foundational to the slave owning societies continues to define non-Dalits relationship with Dalits and the continuing ghettoization of Dalits in Kerala. Dalit lives were never ever free from these caste marked existence (it was not the same with other castes) and their individuality was hardly got insulated from caste. And Dalit claims to public spaces and their critique and affirmations of modernity in Kerala also dwells on this uncomfortable relationship with other castes and communities. We need to re-examine Dalit citizenship, particularly in Kerala, as it emerges in this historical context of agrestic slavery. For this same reason I believe that reformism among the slave castes cannot be modeled on experience other castes (non Dalit castes including low castes). However, it is not to argue that gender was not significant in Dalit reforming. But how it worked, needs to be conceptualized. But when I read that “…The ultimate (though not immediate) political aim of reformism was identified as the creation of an ideal social order in which gender alone would figure as the unsurpassable social division, other than inborn differences in capacities”(p.37) or “…For, the classes engaging with modern ideas in late nineteenth-early twentieth century Keralam, gender appeared as the ‘natural’ alternative to jati-based social order; gender was seen to be based on something concrete, even unambiguous i.e.,sexual difference”(p172), I disagree with it. To reiterate the early point: Dalits too engage with modern ideas in Kerala and elsewhere.
    My other problem is with the engagement of radical feminist scholarship with caste in Indian society. Many writings that are fundamental to our understanding of ‘engendering’ also equally manifest caste. In the context of Kerala, the variety of textual materials /writings of Kanippayyur Sankaran Namboodirippad and others reflect on caste as enthusiastically as on disciplining gender. Radical Women activists too have critically reflected on this gender/caste relationship in their life time. Vatakkecharuvil P.K. Kalyani, an activist in the Vaikam Satyagraha in her ‘An Appeal to the Hindu Women of Kerala’ in 1924 wrote that ‘…Among the volunteers here, there are more natives of Tamil Nadu compared to our own people. ….No savarna woman has yet come forward to participate in the Satyagraha’. (p. 84 Her-Self). Narikkatiri Devaki Antarjanam wrote in 1933: “…But protest is largely limited to conference halls and news features; it has not yet begun to set foot in the kitchen. This is a major shortcoming. Actually today, the kitchen is the place where untouchability and other evil customs are entrenched. There are many today who leave the progressiveness and lofty ideals they profess in public outside their doorstep, not daring to bring them inside the home. Why is this so? Because women’s efforts have been inadequate, I would say.” (p.152 Her-Self). These arguments impel me to think that to a great extend radical women reform was limited by restrictions of caste even when many intellectuals sought to critique it. Therefore, when an attempt is made to conceptualize of the fascinating history of ‘the coming into being of the individual’ on the single axis of gender, it would betray and constrain our conceptualization of this convoluted process. The problem precisely comes when it is argued that the use of the term ‘engendering’ serves dual purposes: engendering in the first sense as “the coming into being of the Individual” and in the second sense, with prefix, meaning “covering or surrounding (the Individuals) with gender, placing gender upon or into (the Individual)” (p.9), where gender becomes the determining factor. Making of the individual is not a single narrative but of many intertwined ones.
    One reads a book in a context that she is entitled to her as part of her social and/or academic engagement. After all, author is ‘dead’ once a book appears in the public domain. Author argues from her particular social historical locations and the same is consumed by readers in another locations. Therefore, I find it too preposterous for an author to argue that one has not understood her book. In fact, I read Engendering after having conversations with the edited volume of Gender and Caste by Anupama Rao and Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens by Uma Chakravarty and the writings of Gopal Guru. The first two were a sort of re-thinking of feminist scholars on caste in the post-Mandal phase. And my reading of Engendering in 2008 happened after a multitude of Dalit struggles in Kerala and elsewhere in India.
    Having said this let me quote from Engendering that defines my understanding of some of its core arguments.
    ‘…The established social order is represented as one that orders people in terms of jati (‘caste’). This is challenged by a new one that recognizes gender as the valid principle of social delineation.’ P.35
    ‘…The ultimate (though not immediate) political aim of reformism was identified as the creation of an ideal social order in which gender alone would figure as the unsurpassable social division, other than inborn differences in capacities.’ P.37
    ‘…For, the classes engaging with modern ideas in late nineteenth-early twentieth century Keralam, gender appeared as the ‘natural’ alternative to jati-based social order; gender was seen to be based on something concrete , even unambiguous . i.e.,sexual difference.’ p172
    “…Early twentieth century reformisms in Malayalee society, it may be recalled, put forth an ‘order of gender’ as the ideal alternative to the existent oppressive order janmabhedam, difference -by –birth, jati.p.242
    Thank You.

    1. I was reading your long comment and am struck by how you misread the book, again! Of course, the author is dead once the book is in the public domain but the rules of logic remain, I’d think. I agree that reformism was never singular in the early 20th century Kerala. This book is about reformism as a savarna exercise in the early 20th century — and gender was quite central to it, even as caste was reshaped in the varna mode and savarna was clearly transformed into the neo-savarna. Gender was also quite central to certain reformisms such as that proposed by the SNDP and other avarna reformers such as P K Deewar and also to many dalit initiatives as well. I am convinced that these were the dominant and most influential streams of reformism that went on to shape state policy and public politics and therefore I am justified in analysing them for an account of the en-gendering of the individual in Kerala. I am open to the claim that many dalit reformisms were different, but that is a hypothesis which I hope will be strengthened with research. I’d be very interested to learn about any form of reformism of that period that did not advance a vision of the world divided into public and domestic spaces gendered male and female with appropriate codes of conduct for specifically sexed bodies (now things are somewhat different, and I do believe that the DHRM was able to put forward a totally different articulation of the very idea of reform, and the gendering it effects).

  8. I have a doubt madam. Papilio Buddha film has released on march 2013. But your review is dated on September 2012. How it possible?

  9. Yes, there were many private screenings before the formal release could be done. That is common when the movie is not a commercial one.

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