Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Productions has come out with their first short film in Telugu titled Modugulapalem. Directed by Gundala Balagurunadham, the film is set in the village of Modugulapalem in Chittoor and depicts the resistance offered by the Dalits in branding their village as a ‘Harijanawada’. The film gives us an insight on how caste is still prevalent, with the government having no qualms in declaring a certain pocket in a village to be a place for 'Harijans' (a name given by Gandhi to the Scheduled Caste people, which was later rejected and replaced with 'Dalit').
The two-and-half-minute short film begins with the voice-over of a young man narrating caste-related atrocities in the village of Modugulapalem way back in 1972. He talks of a particular tea shop which was set up by an upper caste man and which used to serve tea to people belonging to the oppressed castes in coconut shells. The villagers, though aware of the discrimination, rarely spoke up due to the lack of awareness and education. The practice went on till a group of educated youth challenged the owner. The visuals also show a copy of BR Ambedkar's pioneering Annihilation of Caste, and the voice-over ends in English, suggesting the change that has come over the people.
The scene then cuts to the present day when a bunch of youngsters in the village is informed about government officials painting ‘Harijanawada’ on a name-board in the village. The young men lose no time in questioning the contractor about the name. One of them then splashes a dollop of paint on the board, erasing 'Harijanawada'. Modugulapalem, the name of the village, alone remains on the board.
The film talks about the importance of education and unity to fight the prevalence of caste and how it is normalised.
Speaking to TNM, director Gundala Balagurunadham says that the incidents shown in the film are inspired from real life, from his own village of Modugulapalem in Andhra Pradesh.
Bala got in touch with Pa Ranjith in September last year after looking for opportunities to direct a film across cities in the country.
“I even tried meeting Anurag Kashyap in Mumbai but nothing worked out. That’s when I decided I should meet Ranjith, whose political ideology was also the same that I believe in. I knew he belonged to Avadi village in Tamil Nadu and I travelled all the way to meet anyone who could put me in touch with the director. His brother and his family, impressed with the fact that I had travelled all the way from Andhra, gave me his Chennai address. That’s how I became a part of Ranjith’s Neelam Cultural Centre,” Bala says.
Modugulapalem is the story of Bala’s village. While writing the script for his first film, he thought there was no better way to show how deep-rooted the issue of caste discrimination is, through the series of events that happened in his village over years.
“Modugulapalem has been a progressive village. It’s because of the unity among villagers that we were able to voice our anguish against caste oppression way back in 1972. But certain people in the village still try to ignite caste feelings, the ‘Harijanawada’ board being the prime example. How can the government label a certain pocket in a village as a place for Harijans?” Bala asks.
“The protagonist in the film is myself, and we had fought tooth and nail against the contractor who had come to put the board in our village. A certain part of the village cannot be known by another name. It is Modugulapalem or nothing,” Bala asserts.
Was it difficult to encapsulate the idea in just two minutes for the film?
“Not really,” Bala replies. “Though I had initially written a 19-page script, once we started shooting, I was able to tell my story in this short time, including the history of the Modugulapalem,” he adds.
Elaborating on the politics behind naming a particular pocket as a Harijanawada, he says, “The village belongs to everyone equally. But when the government itself is trying to label certain people with a name, or giving a tag line, they indirectly mean to say that not everyone possesses equal rights in the village. We are labelled as belonging to Harijanawada on our voter ID cards, ration cards and other government documents. Who are Harijans? We do not want the label. And this is what Modugulapalem tries to convey to the viewers.”
Pa Ranjith's Neelam has previously produced short films in Tamil, a documentary, and the critically acclaimed feature-length film Pariyerum Perumal. Their second feature Irandam Ulaga Porin Kadaisi Gundu is due for release soon.