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Papilio Buddha: Censorship Made in India

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Translation by:

Lilian Pithan


In­dian cin­ema isn‘t al­ways flam­boy­ant and colour­ful: the pe­cu­liar case of the drama Pa­pilio Bud­dha (2013) by In­dian di­rec­tor Jayan K. Cher­ian shows once again that In­dian cen­sors pro­ceed with an iron fist and sharp scis­sors. Gays? Dal­its? Maoists? All of these communities are still largely ab­sent from In­dian screens. Film re­view

Cau­tiously fum­bling creep­ers and pieces of bark, Shankaran (Sreeku­mar SP) wan­ders through the sub­trop­i­cal jun­gle until he al­most trips over a dead pea­cock. With a lot of ef­fort the biologist drags the bird up a promon­tory, lies down next to it and, cov­ered by its shim­mer­ing feath­ers, finds a short mo­ment of dreamy so­lace. A lit­tle later, Shankaran man­ages to catch a pa­pilio bud­dha, an ex­tremely rare but­ter­fly species, which he pre­sents to his Amer­i­can friend Jack (David Briggs). Is this par­adise? De­cid­edly not, as it doesn’t take long for the idyl­lic early morn­ing fogs over the jun­gle to be torn apart by bru­tal re­al­ity. In the Hindu so­cial sys­tem, Shankaran is a Dalit – an un­touch­able with­out caste. 

hang out or protest? how to fight for dalit rights

Shankaran’s fa­ther Kariyan (ex-Maoist, Dalit rights cham­pion and en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist Kallen Pokkoodan) has long been fight­ing against the bru­tal treat­ment of Dal­its by of­fi­cials and higher castes. Manju (Saritha Sunil), a young woman who has opened a pri­mary school for Dalit children on a piece of il­le­gally squat­ted land, is equally pas­sion­ate in her fight against ig­no­rance and sex­ual ha­rass­ment. Shankaran, how­ever, couldn’t care less: he prefers roam­ing through the jun­gle with Jack, dream­ing of a new life in Amer­ica, or hang­ing out with his naïve NGO friends. But when on an­other but­ter­fly hunt the bi­ol­o­gist and his Amer­i­can friend are ar­rested by local po­lice, Jack be­trays his friend and Shankaran ends up in prison, whisked away by a whirl­wind of vi­o­lence and despo­tism.

Of­ficial trailer of Pa­pilio Bud­dha (2013) by In­dian di­rec­tor Jayan K. Che­ri­an.

Where should Dal­its live after they have lost their prop­er­ties to the greed of in­ter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions and the de­struc­tion of Ker­alan ecosys­tems? Why is this part of the pop­u­la­tion, which after In­dian in­de­pen­dence in 1947 was tech­ni­cally granted the same rights as all other castes, still suf­fer­ing heavy reprisals? Why can the po­lice tor­ture Dalit ac­tivists with­out being held ac­count­able? Pa­pilio Bud­dha (2013), writ­ten and di­rected by Ker­alan poet Jayan K. Cher­ian, over­flows with in­con­ve­nient ques­tions. If you thought that in the 21st cen­tury, the “Dalit prob­lem” had long been solved, this début fea­ture film will make you think twice. The cruel fight of the au­thor­i­ties against Dalit ac­tivists, por­trayed in vi­o­lent de­tail in the film, is just as well doc­u­mented as the ex­pul­sion of Dalit com­mu­ni­ties from rural areas. In re­la­tion to the ex­plo­sive force of these top­ics, the love story be­tween Shankaran and Jack seems al­most in­of­fen­sive al­though ho­mo­pho­bia is still ram­pant in con­tem­po­rary India.

In­ter­est­ingly, the coy love scene be­tween the young Dalit and the Amer­i­can but­ter­fly re­searcher wasn’t one of the rea­sons why the Cen­tral Board of Film Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion (CBFC) re­fused to ap­prove Pa­pilio Bud­dha for In­dian au­di­ences. The pun­dits on the board pre­ferred to find fault with de­tailed rape and tor­ture scenes, sus­pected con­sid­er­able po­ten­tial for in­ter-re­li­gious con­flict and crit­i­cized the un­seemly vil­i­fi­ca­tion of Gandhi. Cher­ian, how­ever, promptly re­fused to ex­e­cute the 25 cuts the board had asked for and it there­fore took an­other eight months for the Film Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion Ap­pel­late Tri­bunal (FCAT) to fi­nally ap­prove Pa­pilio Bud­dha – al­beit in heav­ily al­tered form. Gays? Dal­its? Maoists? All of them be­long to com­mu­ni­ties that you will rarely see on the glam­orous screens of Bol­ly­wood. “Al­though most peo­ple don’t know this, there is a strong LGBT move­ment in India,” says Cher­ian. “Every­one should be al­lowed to ex­press their sex­u­al­ity as freely as Shankaran.”  

crit­i­ciz­ing gand­hiji, fa­ther of the in­dian na­tion

It is therefore quite bold of Jayan K. Cher­ian to com­bine all of these con­flict­ual top­ics in one and the same film, which makes Pa­pilio Bud­dha a breath­tak­ingly coura­geous so­cial state­ment. Even Gandhi, fa­ther fig­ure to the In­dian na­tion, doesn’t es­cape crit­i­cism: “While many cel­e­brate Gandhi as the lib­er­a­tor of the Dal­its, others crit­i­cize Gandhi’s deep en­trench­ment in Hindu con­ser­v­a­tive be­lief sys­tems. Most Dalit ac­tivists fol­low the teach­ings of Bhim­rao Ramji Ambed­kar instead, him­self an un­touch­able who ob­tained es­sen­tial rights for the Dal­its in the 1940s and 1950s”, Cher­ian ex­plains. In one of the last scenes of the film, Kariyan and his ac­tivists duly burn a makeshift Gandhi ef­figy be­fore con­vert­ing to Bud­dhism and voic­ing their deep-rooted ha­tred of all hyp­o­crit­i­cal “Gandhi peaceniks”.

As in real life, things end quite badly for Shankaran and his com­rades-in-arms in Pa­pilio Bud­dha. Re­call­ing im­ages of the Na­tive Amer­i­can Trail of Tears, the Dal­its in the film have to leave their lands after an un­suc­cess­ful fight, search­ing for a new home where they will once again be for­eign, os­tracised and tram­pled on. Heavy cen­sor­ing notwith­stand­ing, Pa­pilio Bud­dha was awarded four prizes by Ker­alan cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions with its di­rec­tor’s cut gar­ner­ing a lot of at­ten­tion at the 64th Berlin Film Fes­ti­val. Hope­fully, the film won’t only re­ceive crit­i­cal ac­claim, but will equally be able to de­ploy all of its so­cially and re­li­giously ex­plo­sive force in India as well as in­ter­na­tion­ally. In any case, In­dian cen­sors will surely have to pre­pare for a lot more glam­orous but­ter­flies in the years to come. 

Translated from Papilio Buddha: Filmzensur made in India