Why 'Palasa 1978' is an important Telugu film documenting Dalit resistance

Films on caste oppression have usually depicted Dalits as a homogeneous oppressed community, but Palasa is a much more nuanced and historically authentic depiction.
Why 'Palasa 1978' is an important Telugu film documenting Dalit resistance
Why 'Palasa 1978' is an important Telugu film documenting Dalit resistance
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(Spoilers ahead)

Telugu films are usually in the news for the buzz generated by their cast, crew and massive pre-release events. However, once in a while, films like Palasa 1978 garner attention due to their content and understanding of social history.

The film, directed by Karuna Kumar, begins with bloodshed. After the title song, we hear the drum beats of a jatara (carnival), and the protagonist Mohan Rao (Rakshit), a Dalit man, beheads Ganapavasu, another Dalit man. The latter is a henchman of the Shavukarus, dominant caste Hindu landlords.

While films on caste oppression have usually depicted Dalits as a homogeneous oppressed community, Palasa is a much more nuanced and historically authentic depiction of the violence that’s meted out in the name of caste.

As the title suggests, the story takes place in Palasa in Andhra Pradesh's Srikakulam district. The year, according to the director, is a nod to certain incidents that reportedly took place in Palasa at that time, and continued for almost four decades.  The narrative is interspersed with shots of cashew mills and coconut fields that dot the north coastal region of the state.

Dandasi (Laxman), a close friend of Mohan Rao, and a retired police officer, are the narrators of this story which is set in Ambusoli 'colony'. This is where a Dalit artist community ekes out a living by working in cashewnut processing mills that are mostly owned by dominant caste Hindus.

Pitting Dalits against Dalits

Both Mohan Rao and his elder brother Ranga Rao (Thiruveer) believe in violence as a remedy. The former, especially, is convinced that anyone who hurts their self-respect deserves to be dealt with severely.

The director seems to have been inspired by books like Kalyan Rao's Antarani Vasantam (Untouchable Spring) in Telugu and Roots by Alex Haley, in charting out a journey to explore the structural violence on Dalits and their struggles. 

The characters of Peddasavukaru (Jenny), the main antagonist, and Chinnasavukaru (Raghu Kunche), show how dominant castes go to any extent to retain their power in a village.

It’s still a common practice for dominant castes, at least in the parts I come from, to pitch one Dalit against another. However, such portrayals are rare in cinema.

In a crucial scene in Palasa, Peddasavukaru makes Ranga Rao feel ‘special’ by making him sit close. He also serves Ranga Rao his food. In another scene, Peddasavukaru’s son, Tarakesh, tries to placate Mohan Rao’s brother-in-law by giving him money. However, despite their attempts, the two dominant caste men fail to turn them against Mohan Rao.

In Untouchable Spring, Kalyan Rao writes about how dominant caste landlords create a rift between two vulnerable Dalit communities. In Palasa, the director also shows the rift within the same community.

Mohan Rao grows up with Laxmi (Nakshatra ) and eventually marries her. She’s a great artist in her brother Muthyalu’s troop. However, Ganapavasu accidentally kills her while trying to shoot Mohan Rao to avenge his father’s death. Ganapavasu, like many Dalit youngsters in the late 1980s and ‘90s, joins the Naxalite movement. While many joined the movement genuinely believing that they can bring about change, some like Ganapavasu signed up for it to have power over their own people (the oppressed). He later returns, only to be pitted against Mohan Rao. 

Dalit characters on screen are almost never represented and if they are, they are usually painted by the same broad brush. In Palasa, however, Karuna Kumar marks the contrast in the personalities of Bairagi (Uma Maheshwar Rao), a Dalit man working for Peddasavukaru, his son Ganapavasu, and the two Rao brothers.

The movie is also loaded with historical references to caste atrocities in the Telugu states, from Karamchedu (1985) to Tsunduru (1991), and even the more recent Laximipeta (2012).

‘Educate, agitate, organise’

The resistance is not limited to the male characters alone. Ranga Rao's partner Gajula Gowri is shown as a bold woman. When the Dalits try to take water from a tank in the field belonging to the dominant castes, she gets into a confrontation with the latter. A dominant caste man humiliates them saying, “Today you ask for water, tomorrow you will take a bath in this!” Gowri points out that dominant caste men don't think about the caste of Dalit women when making sexual advances or committing rape.

In the second half, the story of Sebastian (Vijay Ram), a sincere and law-abiding Dalit police officer who hails from the manual scavenging community, depicts the struggle of a first generation police officer who’s striving to bring change through education.

"In my childhood, my father showed me a great man's idol...with a book in one hand and his finger pointing towards our goal,” Sebastian tells Mohan Rao. It is these words that transform Mohan Rao and make him ‘educate, agitate and organise’ within the framework of the Indian Constitution.

But though this gives the viewer some hope, it is deflated when years later, Sebastian himself wants Mohan Rao to choose violence. The former realises that he couldn’t deliver justice to the people after all, thereby throwing light on the harsh reality of how Indian democracy functions.

Palasa shows that when there is oppression everywhere, Dalits have no choice but to embrace resistance - as said in Untouchable Spring, "For us, resistance is not an ideal, but mandatory."

In the last scene, when Mohan Rao surrenders to the police with two severed heads, he says, “If I had been the same Mohan Rao of the past, the third bag would have had the head of Tarakesh.” He reiterates that his people are looking for change, for a society where everyone can live with equal respect and dignity. As he walks into the cell at the police station, he says that he wishes to see a society which will not have Dalits killing themselves on university campuses and murders happening over intercaste marriage.

In Mohan Rao’s last shot, the portrait of Dr BR Ambedkar can be seen next to him on the wall outside the cell. This suggests that the struggle has not come to an end but that this is actually a new beginning towards a more humane society. Mohan Rao's legacy can be continued if the resistance is in multiple forms - entering the bureaucracy, politics, judiciary, media and each field that dominant caste Hindus have monopolised, besides also being ready to confront oppression whenever required.

The movie also celebrates the Srikakulam dialect, which is otherwise belittled or confined to comedians, despite its rich cultural and literary heritage. An average Telugu person from the other end of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh like me, may not understand the Srikakulam dialect otherwise, but Karuna Kumar, who is also the writer of the film, eases us in by choosing each word in a sentence according to the context.

At a time when mainstream Telugu cinema mainly has protagonists from three-four districts, namely the Krishna, Guntur and twin Godavari districts, and a few dominant castes, leaving only comic or villain roles for the rest, Palasa 1978 comes as a welcome change.

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