So many voices go unheard in the media. The oppressed, the minorities, those fighting for their very existence are blotted out of history, expunged since they do not fit the dominant narrative being mythologised, one in which Gandhi’s Satyagraha is continually promoted as the egalitarian solution to most of the divisions that still exist in India. Director Jayan Cherian, an experimental documentary filmmaker based in NY, has to be commended for giving a voice to an indigenous Adivasi Dalit settlement in Meppara in Kerala (Cherian’s birth place) who are attempting to hold on to ancestral land, which is being forcibly taken away from them by a government only interested in serving the interests of larger mining companies. Displacement of indigenous tribes from their lands is a narrative that has been unfolding for a long time but arguably very films have dealt with such an issue given its intensely political context. By embracing Buddhism the Dalit tribe align themselves politically with the thinking of B. R. Ambedkar, a key figure in Indian politics who campaigned for an end to caste oppression. Cherian is very critical of neo-Gandhi ideology, arguing the government use such a corrosive philosophy as a means of appeasement. In reality, for any change to come about, then non-violence is meaningless especially when the nation state regularly deploys violent repression as a means of containing dissent.
In one particularly controversial moment, a group of Dalits protesting the provocative march by a government minister through their sacred land as a sign of peace ends with them burning an effigy of Gandhi. Yet Cherian juxtaposes this to the parallel destruction of a photo of Ambedkar. Perhaps the point here is that neither of these two men has an influence left on shaping the perceptions of a struggle that has become more than just caste, now incorporating capitalism, the environment and gender politics. Papilio Buddha was initially denied a certification in India and continues to attract the scorn of the political and religious elite for its unapologetic portrayal of Dalit life. It is a remarkable film since Cherian refuses to limit his observations solely to the Marxist struggle of the Dalits, dealing also with homosexuality and especially gang rape (harrowingly depicted) with a discerning, unflinching gaze. Cherian deals with very troubling realities, much of which is suppressed in the media, summed up with a terrifying clarity in the staggering series of final shots framing a continuous stream of Dalits carrying their belongings with them, forced to leave their homeland, pushed into exile and turned into refugees in their own country.
It’s difficult to place this film; counter cinema, experimental, political and above all a searing filmic protest.