Behind the façade of Kerala - the state that tops literacy rate and other development indicators across the globe, lies the Kerala that has a tainted and under-discussed (amongst the mainstream circles) history of exploiting and depriving its Adivasi population of their basic rights. These include not only their rights over forest land but also the basic right to life and dignity. The problems and sufferings of Adivasis in Kerala are as old as the state. Safe to say that the state has consciously excluded and alienated a population that makes up less than 2 per cent, by not only stealing what belonged to them but also by meting out waves of injustice by keeping them out of legislation that directly concerns them/their lives/their livelihoods.
According to the recent National Crime Records Bureau report, Kerala records 26.8% , i.e. one of the highest crime rates against Scheduled Tribes in the country. These are mere statistics of registered crimes. Some of the crimes make it to the records; very few make it to the headlines and many don’t make it anywhere. Atrocities against Adivasis are hot headlines only to be forgotten. Most of the cases have either totally vanished or witnessed no progress in the course of claiming justice. Kerala might not have forgotten about Madhu, a tribal youth who was mob-lynched and brutally murdered in Attapadi in the year 2018. Four years later, there is not even a trial on sight. People scroll through these headlines, swiftly glance through their faces and move on with their privileged lives.
Even during the times of Land Reforms that got rid of the Janmi-Kudiyan land-tenure system, the Adivasi land rights didn’t get the attention they deserved. It was in 1975, when the government of Kerala passed the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (restriction on transfer and restoration of alienated land) Act upon the Dhebar Commission recommendations to reclaim the encroached Adivasi lands, that the Adivasi struggles for the right to land in Kerala gained momentum.
However, under the KST Act, the government neither considered enough applications to reclaim the encroached land nor did the considered applications move any further. In 1996, an amendment was unanimously passed by the state legislature to bypass the KST act. Kamal KM’s Pada is set against the backdrop of this heinous act by the then government of Kerala.
Pada is a rather very true to real-life (but also) slightly fictionalised cinematic depiction of what ensued at the Palakkad Collectorate on the 4th of October, 1996; when four activists, who called themselves by the name ‘Ayyankali Pada', reached District Magistrate WR Reddy’s office and held him hostage for over 10 hours. Through an act of planned rebellion against the state, they gathered media attention and demanded that the EK Nayanar-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government undo the amendment which thereby diluted the KST act of 1975, a cunning act of betrayal of the tribals. The amendment and ordinances directly countered Section 3(1) IV and V of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act,1989 and violated Articles 3, 13 and 14 of the ILO Convention 107 which was ratified by India. This bold act of defiance by Kallara Babu, Vilayodi Shivankutty, Kanhangad Rameshan, and Ajayan Mannur (named differently in the movie) shook the state.
Where Pada scores, is in the unrelenting and unequivocal manner with which it stands with the wronged, unlike many other Malayalam films of today. At no point does the film become shaky about where the violence lies or try to both-side the issue. As an audio-visual narrative, Pada forces the audience to think and reflect upon how their rotten consciences over the years have deprived the Adivasis of their land and dignity.
Another admirable aspect of Pada is that the film wastes no time in introducing back-stories to its leading characters (played by Vinayakan, Joju George, Dileesh Pothan and Kunchacko Boban), but throws the spectator directly to the eventful day. Kamal doesn’t spoon-feed the cons of the amendment act but plants a drive in his audience to engage on the same. When asked about their identities, the revolutionaries refuse to recognise themselves by their names and reiterate that they would like to be known only as 'Ayyankali Pada'. Kamal’s writing sticks to negotiations and conversations that happened on the day and cuts back to real-life footage upon which the film is based. The climax also throws light upon how the promises made to 'Ayyankali Pada' back in the day are undelivered and how 25 years later, the plight of Adivasis have still not bettered. Broken, betrayed and ignored, they keep up with their fight for justice. Kamal arguably doesn’t try to carve out heroes in his leading men either, but presents an edge-of-the-seat docu-drama as a thank you ode to the tribal activists and revolutionaries while also serving as a reminder of the false promises offered by the state.
We have had films based on real life incidents coming out very frequently in Malayalam cinema, but how many of them have stirred the right kind of reaction amongst the audience towards the issue they claim to portray? How many of them have directly talked about the stark injustices meted out against Dalit and Adivasi communities?
The truth is, we haven’t had powerful political cinema speaking for the oppressed, by the oppressed, akin to Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan or Pa Ranjith’s Kaala or Sarpatta Parambarai, stemming from Malayalam cinema. Ironically enough, this critically acclaimed film industry however produces anti-Dalit films like Nayattu.
While we are at it, the role Malayalam cinema has played over the years in belittling Adivasis and exploiting them is blatant and unforgivable. A small throw-back to Priyadarshan’s Thenmavin Kombathu and Chithram, and Ali Akbar’s Bamboo Boys, shows a very myopic and exploitative picture of Malayalam cinema. Tribals were portrayed as voiceless, dumb, and illiterate, with weird costumes, spoke gibberish or Tamil with a strange dialect and often were “used” as objects of comic-relief for the public who laughed at the expense of their dismissed identities. Kerala has more than five prominent tribal communities, but our filmmakers have lazily excluded cultural distinctions amongst the different communities and continued to rely on stereotyped portrayals of Adivasis, to this day.
Malayalam cinema relegated Adivasi women to positions that lacked any agency. They were subjected to sexual abuse by upper caste men and the voyeuristic gaze of upper caste filmmakers. Be it the Venu Nagavalli directorial Laal Salaam or Ranjith’s Paleri Manikyam. It is almost as if tribals are alien to our cinema landscape and their concerns and struggles are irrelevant to our audience.
This is where Kamal KM’s second directorial cements its place as a refreshing change. Perhaps for the first time Ayyankali and Dr Ambedkar’s names have appeared politically correctly in the commercial Malayalam cinema space. Pada comes out at the right time as an antidote to Malayalam cinema and the audience’s obsession with fictionalising real-life incidents in a voyeuristic and gratuitous manner, while excluding the oppressed. The film not only sets a rather high benchmark in terms of its political grammar (in Malayalam cinema), but also shows how a film should inject powerful after-thoughts in its unbothered, apathetic target audience.
Writer-director Kamal KM, a postgraduate in Journalism from Kerala Press Academy, also an alumnus of Film and Television Institute of India, hails from Kochi. His feature debut I.D. shed light on the dehumanised and un-acknowledged existence of migrant labourers in metropolitan cities.
The timing of Pada couldn’t be more perfect to show how executives and legislatures term after term turned their backs at the dissenting voices of the tribal populace. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 'kidnap' attempt by Ayyankali pada. It is also not accidental that 19th February 2022 clocked 19 years since the Muthanga agitation that killed five (4 tribals) in a police firing led by the Indian National Congress led government. Unlike the very “good state-bad individual” clichéd narrative, Pada shows a violent brahminical state serving savarna interests and asks fundamental questions about democracy, minority rights and adherence to constitutional values. All this while questioning what happens to the development schemes and money. Hence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Pada hasn’t received much of an encouraging reception from the political voices of the incumbent government or the opposition unlike say the recent Suriya-starrer Jai Bhim.
It is also quite unfortunate for a film this important and critically acclaimed to have a dismal performance at the box-office. If anything, this says a lot about Malayalees’ lack of caste-consciousness. Keralites’ are not just caste-blind and ignorant but also indifferent to the extent that they flush a utopian image of caste-less Kerala, which is far from reality. Ironically and quite obviously enough we’ve had films with gratuitous violence that take away the dignity of the oppressed under the pretence of “social commentary” being well received by the same audience. However, much to the elan of the makers, Pada has found a vocal admirer in filmmaker Pa Ranjith, one of the most influential Dalit voices of Indian cinema.
Pada may receive good reviews from the general public both for its cinematic brilliance and as well as its method of engagement with the incident that it talks about, but one has to discuss the choice of the real-life event that it has chosen to talk about from the vast history of revolutionary Adivasi resistances that Kerala has witnessed. And indeed it is the Adivasi voice that is completely missing from the discussions and reviews about the movie.
This is exactly what some prominent Adivasi activists point out. They opine that Pada does invisibilise Adivasi movements and give importance to extreme left activists by glorifying this protest. It must be noted that although the director claims historical accuracy in the representation of the events that unfolded, the film avoids any engagement with the larger history of Adivasi resistance and the impact of this particular event on these movements.
They also believe that the film creates a false narrative of the Ayyankali Pada protest being the fulcrum of various Adivasis resistances, while in reality, it was a random act, unrelated to any on-ground struggles of Adivasis. There is an evident lack of popular engagement with how people from the affected community/s perceive both the original revolt as well as its on-screen depiction, at the wake of the film’s release. One wonders if this itself is not a reflection of how much Adivasis are othered in mainstream Malayalam culture.
Pada might not be a perfect film, but its intentions are genuine. With the film grabbing the right amount of attention we can only hope for a wave of anti-caste sensitivities in Malayalam cinema. We might even get to see many more just representations of what ensued during the Adivasi land struggles in Kannur, Muthanga Agitation, Aralam Farm Protests, Arippa Bhoosamaram, Chengara land struggle, etc to name a few. Positive reception for a film like Pada might inspire others to side with the oppressed in making more films which is the need of the hour in Malayalam cinema.
The role played by cinema as an art-form in awakening political consciousness in mainstream society is not trivial and it’s high time we as an audience self-reflect on our attitude towards the most deprived, marginalised, and poorest of the poor of the state. It is high time we realise that we have deprived them of what is rightfully theirs and remember that they are not dispensable numbers for vote-bank politics.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)