Censor board’s rejection of film on Kerala Dalits triggers debate

NEW YORK: The Central Board of Film Certification’s rejection of a daring and provocative movie by a New York-based filmmaker, which highlights the plights of Dalits in Kerala, has reignited the debate on the role of government bodies in acting as final arbiters of the worthiness of works of art.

Papilio Buddha, the maiden feature film of Jayan Cherian, was denied a certificate by the board’s regional office in Thiruvananthapuram last week. The panel’s approval is mandatory for commercial screening of films anywhere in India.

Set in the background of a Dalit campaign for land in Kerala’s Wayanad district and the community’s mass conversion to Buddism, Papilio Buddha powerfully pushes the boundaries in its the depiction of caste, sexuality and Dalit politics. The movie also revives the decades-old debate on whether Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy on behalf of Dalits did in fact benefit the community at all.

A “certificate cannot be issued for its exhibition,” the board wrote in a letter citing a number of reasons for the rejection, among them having “visuals and dialogues denigrating Mahatma Gandhi,” including burning his effigy, and the film’s use of “visuals of extreme violence against a woman” and “the usage of extremely filthy language by numerous characters throughout the film.”

Cherian, the film’s producers, and its supporters here and in India see the board’s decision as an assault on freedom of expression.

The filmmaker has said he will appeal the decision.

“Papilio Buddha is a film that focuses on atrocities committed against Dalits, women and the environment,” the Indian American director said. “Most of the objections [of the board] are about denigrating Gandhi, Buddha and [20th Century Dalit leader] Ayyankali. The perceived denigration seems stem from the realistic treatment of the film’s climax scene, where landless Dalits are confronted by the police, who use overwhelming force to evict the protestors.”

The filmmaker also defended the language used by characters saying that it is the language spoken by people every day. The violence is also not exaggerated in the film, he said, adding that it is the reflection of “social injustices happening in our society.”

He also defended the burning of effigy saying that it is a “universal form of protest in India.”

“The idea of a government body censoring a piece of art in itself is ridiculous and it is a shame that a democratic country like India still has state instruments that curtails freedom of artistic expressions,” Cherian said.


Thampi Antony, actor and co-producer of the film, also termed the board’s action as a “violation of freedom of expression.” The San Francisco-based Antony coproduced Papilio Buddha, along with Prakash Bare, who also acted in the movie.

The board, which is an arm of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, usually issues four different types of certificates, based on the content of a film. For instance, a movie that has a “U” certificate can be screened to virtually any audience. An “S” certification, at the other end of the spectrum, means the film can be only be exhibited before specialized audiences.

Papilio Buddha was deemed not fit for commercial screening before any audience. “The [board’s examining] committee was of the opinion that the film cannot be certified in its present form even with excisions/cuts,” the board letter stated.

Such blanket denial of certification is extremely rare, according to veteran filmmaker T. Rajeevnath, a long-time critic of the board.

“My long-held view is that the idea of having a government-instituted board to judge whether films are worthy of public screening is patently absurd,” he said by phone from Thiruvananthapuram.

Rajeevnath, who won the National Film Award for Best Direction in 1998 for his movie Janani, said the “censor board” is an anachronism that should be dismissed.

In New York, friends of Cherian sprang to the defense of the film and the director.

“[Papilio Buddha] is aesthetically beautiful and emotionally inspiring,” said filmmaker Erin Greenwell, whose movie My Best Day was premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

“Jayan is not a gratuitous provocateur,” she said, terming Cherian “an aspirational director in every way.”

Papilio Buddha is the first feature film of the Kerala-born director, who has several notable short films and documentaries to his credit. His documentary Shape of the Shapeless won the Silver Conch award at this year’s Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Short and Animation Films.

Cherian, who has also published four collections of poetry in Malayalam, has screened his films at Cannes, Athens International Film Festival, Rio de Janeiro International Short Film Festival, San Francisco Shorts International Film Festival and Big Apple Film Festival at Tribeca Cinema in New York, among other festivals. (Global India Newswire)

See Full Interview with Jayan Cherian.

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