After Tamil cinema, Malayalam film Pada demands land rights for the oppressed

‘Pada’ is based on a real life incident that took place in 1996 Kerala, when four activists held a District Collector hostage to protest the Adivasi Land Act Amendment passed by the Left government.
Screenshot from Pada
Screenshot from Pada
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Pada, a Malayalam film directed by Kamal KM, is centred on an unusual hostage drama based on real events. On October 4, 1996, WR Reddy, then Palakkad District Collector, was held hostage in his own office by four Adivasi rights activists who waved explosives and a gun at the crowd. Their demand? The withdrawal of the amendment to the Adivasi Land Act 1975 that was passed by EK Nayanar’s Left Democratic Front (LDF) government that year. Many tribal people saw the amendment as the government cheating them of their rights.

The two-hour thriller has Kunchacko Boban, Vinayakan, Dileesh Pothan and Joju George in the lead. The film, which has won critical acclaim, is among the few Malayalam films to speak of the land rights of the oppressed. Rajeev Ravi’s 2016 film Kammatti Paadam, which is about Dalits in a slum area in Kochi being forced to give up their land to the real estate mafia, is another example from recent years.

Malayalam cinema, however, is yet to see a strong wave of narratives that place the oppressed at the centre like in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, where several such films have become blockbusters. While Dalits and Adivasi communities have been usually represented as impoverished, uneducated and exploited people in the past, new age Tamil films have represented them as politically aware individuals who demand their rights. Director Pa Ranjith, for instance, spoke of land rights for Dalits through none other than superstar Rajinikanth in Kaala (2018). Dhanush, another popular star who is also well known to the Hindi audience, starred in Vetrimaaran’s Asuran (2019), based on the panchami land that was given to the Dalits by the British. Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan (2021), also starring Dhanush, is another film in which a village of Dalits revolts against a dominant caste group. TG Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim (2021) is about a lawyer battling for justice on behalf of a woman from the Irula tribe, who fights for her husband and relatives who were subjected to custodial violence.

Speaking to TNM, Pada director Kamal says, “Malayalam cinema has always shied away from speaking of caste. Class differences are often reflected in cinema, theatre and music. But when it comes to caste, which defines the power structures in society, the general practice for Malayalam cinema has been to turn its face away. That is because our cinema is a product of savarna compromises or their glorification. In recent times, it is only Tamil cinema that has managed to actively strike at the caste problem.”

Historically, the Adivasi people did not identify as Hindu and were therefore outside the caste structures of the Hindu society. Nevertheless, the erasure of their culture has meant that they are subjected to casteist norms and ostracisation. In the final act of Pada, one of the characters questions the ‘savarna state’ that ignores the rights of the Adivasi people. It is perhaps for the first time that the state has been described as such in a mainstream Malayalam film.

The real life protest and why it happened

Kamal says he was a postgraduate student of journalism when the hostage drama unfolded. “At the time, militant action was rare in Kerala, and this incident became sensational. Besides, the drama went on for several hours. From what I remember, the political class remained silent on the matter. They left it to the crisis management team that included the then Chief Secretary, and stood aside. Later, as discussions on the incident took centre stage in the media for a week or so, all political leaders including the Chief Minister and the Leader of Opposition started to respond. But all that unfolded was a blame game. They were not interested in looking at the law or the questions raised by the Adivasi people,” he says. 

An article in the Down to Earth magazine points out that the Dhebar Commission appointed by the Union government had, in 1960, recommended that all tribal land encroached after January 26, 1950, should be restored. However, no action was taken. In April 1975, to address the growing threat of Naxalism in the country, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called for a meeting of state revenue ministers, and it was concluded that the legislation would be enacted to placate the tribal people.

The Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction of Transfer of Land and Restoration of Alienated Land) Act 1975 was enacted and included in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution to prevent it from being challenged later. According to this Act, all tribal lands in the possession of non-tribal people through sale, lease, mortgage or by force after 1960 would be deemed illegal. But, it was only in 1986 that the Act was passed with retrospective effect from 1982. Even then, the government did not implement the Act. It was only after the Kerala High Court, in response to the Adivasi struggle, set a deadline in 1996 that the government scrambled to take action. But its response was to pass an Amendment Bill that legalised all transactions till 1982. The Bill received the President’s Assent in 1999.

“When it comes to Adivasi issues, there is no difference between the attitudes of the Left and the Right. In 1957, the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 107 said that member nations should protect the welfare of indigenous and tribal populations. It’s a matter of pride that this was first taken up by the state of Kerala in India. The law was passed in 1975 when the celebrated communist C Achutha Menon was the Chief Minister, but even 21 years later, until 1996, nothing happened. The matter reached the High Court because of activist Dr Nallathambi Thera’s involvement. In 1995, AK Antony’s Congress-led (United Democratic Front) government took the Amendment for the President’s assent, but it was rejected. Then the elections came, the government changed, and the CPI(M)-led LDF came to power. Within three months, one of the first things they did was to bring in the Amendment,” says Kamal.

It was due to this betrayal that the four men of the Ayyankali Pada (Ayyankali was a social reformer from Kerala who worked for the upliftment of oppressed castes; ‘pada’ means army) — Mannur Ajayan, Vilayodi Sivankutty, Kallara Babu, and Kanhangad Ramesan — decided to take the Collector hostage. The mediation between the protesters and bureaucrats lasted for nine hours, and at the end of it, the men revealed that all they had was a toy gun and fake explosives, and that they had never meant to harm anyone.

Advocate Veerachandra Menon and district judge Rajappan Achary were involved in the hostage crisis as mediators, on request of the government, since it was among the demands made by the Ayyankali Pada. However, they too had to pay a price for what happened, according to Kamal.

“The very next morning after the incident, the police filed a case against those who were involved. They transferred the Collector who was held hostage within a week. When I met the Collector and his family in Hyderabad in 2019, he and his wife said that it was a very difficult time for them because the entire system alienated them. He was accused of being sympathetic to the protesters, being a co-conspirator and so on. Advocate Veerachandra Menon, who was the mediator in the case, also had to face police action. But because he was a lawyer, he took them on with courage. He pointed out that he had come only on the invitation of the government and that they could make him a co-accused if they so wanted, but he would not cooperate with any enquiry commission. The district judge at the time was Shri Rajappan Achary. I went to visit him a week before the film’s release. He has been paralysed for the past 15 years. I came to know that he and his family were also targeted by the state. He was perhaps denied promotion over his role in the case. Though the politicians responded at the time, they were only interested in the technicalities of the hostage drama. They did not acknowledge the injustice that had happened to the adivasis, examine the contradictions in the law, how it could be resolved, or look at how the spirit of the 1975 law was diminished by the Amendment. That is the truth,” Kamal says.

To write the script of the film, Kamal first met with MN Ramunni, one of the accused in the case, and later the four men who had held the Collector hostage back in 1996. He included several details in the film from their conversations. He also met a senior police officer and the bureaucrats involved in the case to make the script as authentic as possible. Kamal was keen to include women characters in the film though the hostage crisis in real life was an all-male show, and his efforts show in the empathetic portrayals we see on screen.

Voice for the oppressed in cinema

“Nilam, engal urimai (Land is our right)!” booms Rajinikanth in Pa Ranjith’s film Kaala, a film that boldly challenged the laws of Manu and Hindutva politics. Ranjith, who made his debut in 2012 with Attakathi, has been instrumental in driving the change within the Tamil industry when it comes to representing the oppressed. From his first film to his recent release Sarpatta Parambarai (2021), he has increasingly recast the image of the oppressed as people with agency. Other directors in Tamil have followed his lead.

Kamal understands the importance of this change. “The lyrics for the songs in my film were written by Vinu Kidachulan, who comes from the Paniyar tribe. He is an Adivasi singer and writer. He told me how the representation of the Adivasi people in cinema has hurt the community. They have always been alienated on screen, and this has to be seen in conjunction with common perceptions in mainstream society. They have been looked at as inferior and uncultured people. Nobody tried to understand their languages or ways of life. The gaze in cinema comes from these perceptions, and it is reflected everywhere – not just in cinema and politics. Malayalam cinema has always celebrated savarna values, so it was natural for representations of the others as inferior. But it is changing now, and we are seeing it in the new art and writing that is coming up, work being made in collaboration with the Adivasi people.”

In Pada, the Adivasi rights activists counter the arguments placed before them with informed views on the political situation and legislation, including what the UN had said about the rights of the indigeneous people.

On March 14, Pa Ranjith tweeted about Pada, applauding director Kamal and adding that land belonging to Dalit and tribal communities should be given back to them, and that everyone has to fight for this. 

“Pa Ranjith watched the film on the very first day of release. He called me after watching it, and he spoke to me in detail about the film. He said that he along with 17 others in his office went for the first-day first show of the film. He also expressed his happiness in how Pada engages with questions that a filmmaker like him and others have raised in their work. We know that such films are made in a continuum, so in that sense, we shared solidarity in our conversation,” says Kamal.

Other directors like Ram, Anurag Kashyap and Adoor Gopalakrishnan also shared their appreciation of Pada with him, adds Kamal.

“Questions on caste and oppression will be raised more and more seriously in upcoming Malayalam films. We may never reach a perfect or absolute answer with a work of art, but these reflections will help us navigate the new debates that arise around this,” he concludes.

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