Indian cinema and the Dalit identity: Kammatipaadam deftly unravels the connection between land and caste
Kammatipaadam is a 2016 Malayalam movie directed by Rajeev Ravi, which captures in a simple yet profound manner what land means to Dalits.
Historically, Indian cinema exploited the labour of Dalits in its making, whilst erasing or appropriating their stories. This was not an accidental practice. When their stories were told on screen, it would be by savarnas who also played their characters with patriarchal, sexist and casteist undertones.
The scenario has slowly changed, and the identity of Dalit characters in cinema — directed by a Dalit (and a few non-Dalit) filmmakers — has become explicit, transcending boundaries of caste and class. These filmmakers have helped shape visual storytelling that combines “justice with aesthetics”.
“Justice with aesthetics” was rarely present in cinema made by savarnas, or it was seldom honest. Dalit-Bahujan filmmakers have filled this gap, while creating a new wave of cinema that is more appealing to a Dalit-Bahujan audience.
In this series, we examine 10 Indian films that count not only among the finest cinema the country has produced, but are also intertwined with justice, politics, and aesthetic.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, there was an empty stretch of land, a few metres outside my basti in Nagpur. The stretch actually comprised two adjoining lots — one overgrown with scrub, the other with piles of sharp stone. The bushy lot was used by people as a spot to defecate in; the rocky one was used as a playground. For a child looking to play, there was enough land around the basti. When I ran around this open land, playing games, I felt free and unburdened. The two lots had no signboards. In the monsoon, they’d be overrun with grass. In the summer, they’d turn barren, dusty and rough.
As I grew up, builders’ signs came up on the land, which was marked, divided. Over the past couple of years, tall buildings have come up — apartment complexes. The people who live here are from the traditionally dominant castes; these same people once considered the land inauspicious since it was attached to a Dalit basti. But as the population increased and the city grew, the location of my basti proved to be, in real estate terms, “prime”.
For individuals from upper castes, land signifies power. But for Dalits, land is no less than a metaphor for life. The lesser land you have, the lesser life. This simple truth, however, has for long remained unseen and rarely understood.
This isn’t the story of my basti alone. Wherever there are Dalit bastis, especially around cities, this is their story too. Land which was once open, on which they once played, which was free and on which they felt free, is now covered by buildings, filled with unknown people. For the people in the Dalit bastis, their misery seems to have proportionately alongside these highrises.
The story of the subtle deracination of Dalits from their feeling of freedom, in relation to land, is a complex one. Kammatipaadam (2016) is this story.
Kammatipaadam (alternatively spelled Kammati Paadam) is a Malayalam movie directed by Rajeev Ravi, which captures in a simple yet profound manner this aspect of land and what it means to Dalits.
Deracination from land means being uprooted from where you belong. In locating the emotional worlds of the three central characters in Kammatipaadam — Gangadharan (played by Vinayakan), Krishnan (Dulquer Salmaan) and Balan (Manikandan) — we reach a mental space deprived of belongingness, land and consequently, philosophy. While Ganga, Krishnan and Balan are characters in the narrative, they are also metaphors — of the displacement of consciousness which is largely shaped by land and love.
Balan is Ganga’s older brother; when Krishnan’s family moves into the neighbourhood, the younger boys (Ganga and Krishnan) become friends. Krishnan is evidently upper caste, while Ganga and Balan are Dalits.
Ganga and Krishnan’s childhood is shaped by the swampy land and trees surrounding their locality, and the “thug life” they witness growing up. Balan has already become part of this life — ticketing in black outside theatres, extracting revenge, working the illegal liquor supply chain of a local businessman. He also introduces Krishnan and Ganga to this life. They grow into teenagers like this, free and wild.
In a skirmish with the police, Krishnan kills a policeman to save Ganga. He is imprisoned, and returns as an adult. By this time, Ganga has become involved in other criminal activities — activities that impact the lives of the poor and the Dalits.
For a businessman from the dominant caste, they begin evicting Dalits and poor people from the land on which they’ve found and built shelters. Agonised at the pain inflicted by Balan and Ganga on their own people, their grandfather passes away. The loss transforms Balan, who begins to think of leaving the criminal life behind, and starting a travel business. He realises the terrible mistake he has made in displacing his people from their land. However, a rival who works with another faction of the land mafia kills Balan before he can rectify his past actions.
Devastated, Ganga blames Krishnan for Balan’s death. Their friendship is deeply splintered, and Krishnan leaves for Mumbai, where he hopes to start afresh. One day, he receives a phone call from a shaky-sounding Ganga, who suddenly goes silent. Krishnan decides to go back to Kammatipaadam to find out what happened to his friend, and discovers that Ganga is dead. The moment marks the culmination of a misery brought about by landlessness.
Shaken by Bala’s death, Krishnan and Ganga’s paths diverge but neither remains the same. They are both pushed away from their land, from the people and memories attached to their land. Besides, gradually, tall buildings start to overshadow the land on which once they once played, walked, ran, breathed, enjoyed. They are guilty of taking part in the act of displacing people from their lands.
While Krishnan is unhappy in Mumbai, away from his Kammatipaadam, Ganga is troubled too, by the emotional distance from Krishnan, and Balan’s death. For others, life moves on. But for Krishnan and Ganga, it is stuck, putrefying. And they know that they themselves are responsible for this.
Ganga becomes an alcoholic; Krishna is unhappy. Neither can bear the recollection of an old Kammatipaadam in which they had something to belong to. They are sunk into a misery from which they cannot get out. Krishnan ultimately avenges Ganga’s death, but what has been lost cannot be brought back.
For Dalits, land is life because they’ve been historically displaced at various junctures and it takes a lifetime to build a life in one place in the absence of social capital. Kammatipaadam does not tell this story in the manner that I have, but it is nonetheless there in the film. Unless you know how to see land as philosophy, you cannot perceive the fullness of this story. When you do though, you see why Kammatipaadam is a great story.
Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
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