In a first of sorts, inmates of Kerala’s Open Prison write and direct a short film

The 10-minute long film, was shot entirely within the walls of of Cheemeni Open Prison, making it the first such project in the history of Kerala's prisons.
In a first of sorts, inmates of Kerala’s Open Prison write and direct a short film
In a first of sorts, inmates of Kerala’s Open Prison write and direct a short film

When director Chidambara Palaniappan decided to visit the Open Prison in Cheemeni, Kasaragod, for a vocational training course in January, he was in for a massive surprise. His experience there changed his outlook forever on prisons and inmates.

“I was invited by the Welfare Board of the Open Prison and Correctional Centre in Cheemeni to lecture inmates on all forms of media. It was a 15-day course, just like any course such as plumbing, wiring, mechanic work, etc., which would help them earn a living once they are released. On the very first day of my interaction, they shattered my notion about prisons and inmates. I realized that this prison was an ocean of talent, brimming with enthusiasm to spread and life experiences to share. This is what really excited me,” the director tells TNM.

The 15-day interaction was immensely productive as the team of inmates came out with a 10-minute long film made and shot entirely in the prison.

“The film was scripted and directed completely by the prisoners. It was a 20-member team of inmates who took the course and they made the film, including writing the plot and everything else, from scratch,” he said.

The director initially split the class into 3 groups. Each group was asked to script a story that could be shot within the walls of the Open Prison.

“Finally, the prison inmates along with the Superintendent, Welfare Officer and the director zeroed in on one script after discussions, which we turned into a film,” he said.

A limitless plot within a limited space

“The film titled ABCD tells the story of a group of stone-cutters who carve out stone blocks for construction. These men reform for the better with one among them leading the group. The story is allegorical as it says that education lights up our minds, expands our conscience and reforms us for the better,” the director says.

The plot was chosen as there was a stone reserve of sorts within the premises, making it possible to shoot the film within its walls.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about the film is the time they took to make it.

“Over a course of 15 days, which includes the course days as well, the team wrapped up the short film. It was only possible due to the zeal these men showed. Right from stitching costumes to running around to doing errands, they contributed wholeheartedly,” he says.

What moved the director most was when the prisoners gave a ramshackle office building in the premises a makeover for it featured in one scene.

“They don’t get to stay up and work all night. Despite this, they gave the office a facelift overnight. And this was for one small scene in the film,” he adds

Achieving the impossible

On how he succeeded in getting students who did not know anything about filmmaking to make this film in 15 days, Palaniappan says, “Within the first hour of meeting these men, I knew that a traditional approach of teaching them what a scene or what a shot is would not work here. Some of these inmates had only studied up to Class 6. So I knew this wasn’t just another college lecture room.”

So the director used the vast life experiences of his students, whose ages ranged from 30 years to 70 years, and taught them the art of filmmaking.

“I asked them to think of a moment from their lives and freeze it. This would be a shot. A longer memory would be a scene. This is how I went about teaching them and it worked very well for us,” he laughs.

Dreamers everywhere

Palaniappan says that his students from the prison were surprisingly talented.

“They were good at singing and acting. But what shocked me most was the fact that they were an ocean of life experiences, which had shaped them. They were wiser than their age and this wisdom was obviously beyond that of any other student I had dealt with previously. The best part was they were waiting to express these experiences,” he says.

Most inmates who serve in the Cheemeni prison are convicted of murder. Today, they are on the path to reformation and the film they made reflects this idea.

Palanippan gives his students all the credit for the film.

“Barring the music which was done by Joffy Chirayath, the editing by Bineesh Sebastian and camerawork by Shaan Rahman, the film was made from scratch by the inmates. However, it would not have been possible without the full support of the prison officials, including the superintendent and officers. The relationship between the seats of authority and the inmates seen here are inspiring. Everyone is helping each other out,” he says.

ABCD (Awareness, Boldness, Courage and Disciple) is set to release some time in March. The director plans on giving it a grand release in the state capital and send it to as many film festivals as possible.

“What I thought was pretty much the end of life for these inmates is the place where they have decided to begin life anew. It was indeed revelatory,” the young director tells TNM.

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