Indian cinema and the Dalit identity: Veyilmarangal's searing depiction of displacement, dreams and hope
Bijukumar Damodaran’s Veyilmarangal — like his other stories — is also dream-like, but set in a reality we ruthlessly ignore.
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.
A boy sails in a boat across a silent sea. He sees a door amid the expanse of water and enters through it. Lightning cracks open a cloud overhead; a deluge ensues. The boy looks back and sees that the doorway has caught fire.
Bijukumar Damodaran’s Veyilmarangal (Malayalam; 2019) begins like this. Like his other stories, this one too is dream-like but set in a reality we ruthlessly ignore. To watch Veyilmarangal is to witness this truth yourself.
Eight Dalit families stay on a marshy island in Kerala, as if such an island was made for Dalits only. Veyilmarangal follows the story of one among these families. This family comprises a man, his wife, and their teenaged son — a dreamer. The couple works on a construction site as manual labourers; the son sells peanuts by the roadside. He is frequently threatened by the police to move his peanut shop. In highly-educated Kerala, he’s left out of the school system.
Their home has a thatched roof and wooden plank walls. During the monsoons, the roof leaks and the winds break open the window. One night, as the rain lashes down with unrivalled intensity, the family is alerted by a neighbour that they must evacuate the island immediately. Within the space of a few minutes, they must leave their home, carrying nothing with them. The island is submerged by morning. Their home, belongings, and memories too sink beneath the darkness of the water.
The father seeks work at a restaurant; his co-worker helps him find a room for his family to stay in. In Kerala, the bastion of communism, not everyone has a house with a garden. Some are left out in the vision of development; here too, some are homeless. This is the material deprivation many Dalits face.
When the father is travelling by bus one day, he is accused of pickpocketing. He is taken to the police station, stripped and kept in lock-up for a night. He is allowed to go home only the next morning, as a sub-inspector informs him that the complainant withdrew after finding his wallet at home. This is the humiliation many Dalits face.
Hurt, the father realises that not only does he have no home, he also has no respect in his own home state. He is afraid to leave Kerala because he knows no language other than Malayalam. But his own state does not guarantee him, a Dalit, a life of dignity.
His colleague has a relative who works in an apple orchard in Himachal Pradesh; the father seeks his help and secures the job of a security guard at the orchard. The family sets off for the mountains of Himachal.
Each frame of Veyilmarangal — whether it depicts tragedy, irony or hope — is filled with the sort of beauty and sensibilities that we rarely find in Indian cinema. Bijukumar Damodaran is a genius, inventing frames which make even the movie’s silences converse with you. We witness this as the Dalit family reaches Himachal.
The landlord at the apple orchard — a dominant caste pahadi man — offers the meagre payment of Rs 7,000 to the family; there is no question of turning down the low wages. They clean the abandoned house in the orchard and transform it into their abode. Slowly, they start adapting to life in the mountains. All three work. The son finds a lamb; he feeds it, cares for it, nurses it to health. They survive through the chilly winds, snow and lethal cold of the Himalayas.
Two months go by, and the landlord is yet to pay them their salary. When the father asks, he is fobbed off with some excuse. Then, the landlord shows up at the house with his accountant, orders him to settle their dues, and asks the family to vacate the place immediately. He points to a stranger with a baby in his arms and says, “Ab se ye yaha kaam karenge, aadhe paise mein (from now on, he’ll work here for half the money).” The landlord has found even cheaper labour to replace the family with.
The father finds no use in resisting this utter injustice. They pack their baggage, and the boy picks up his lamb, and they start walking out. The landlord snatches the lamb from the boy. The boy tries to get it back; feeling “polluted” by the touch of a Dalit, the landlord begins to beat the boy. The father cannot stand this. He rushes within the house, picks up the gun he was given for guarding the orchard, and points it at the landlord. “We have raised this lamb,” he asserts. “It belongs to us.”
The family slowly walks down the narrow, rutted road. Their displacement is captured in the form of a yellow door, like the one the boy has seen in his dreams. The door stands for the boy’s desire to have a permanent home from which no one can remove them. But in the end, these homes keep burning down, or disappearing, or have to be abandoned.
Many Dalits’ lives are like this, spent in pursuit of a dreamland. Caste-society always burns down the door to their dreams, and displaces them in their own land. Yet, their real struggle lies in never losing hope in their dream, or trust in their labour. Veyilmarangal beautifully, subtly and magically captures this. The last dialogue between son and father affirms it:
Son: Father, where are we going?
Father: Where do all birds go? Like them, we’ll also go.
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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