Originally banned in its native country, Jayan Cherian’s Papilio Buddha is a fierce attack on caste oppression, mainstream Gandhism and environmental degradation in the Western Ghats of India. Uncompromising in its critique of iconic Indian leaders and treatment of indigenous and landless Dalit peoples (known as ‘untouchables’ for their ostracised status), this is a radically anti-establishment piece of filmmaking, with a raw & accomplished naturalistic style.
In spite of its radical outlook, the film begins poetically with protagonist Shankaran (Sreekumar Sree) hunting for butterflies among the mountains; he is at one with nature. Soon after he meets gay American Jack (David Briggs) and it turns out the two men are romantically involved. While to the displeasure of Shankaran’s elderly father, homosexuality is of little consequence among this Dalit community.
Unhappy with the presence of an American among the Dalits though, the Indian authorities force Jack to leave the community (telling him the Dalits are terrorists and squatters), before stripping and torturing Shankaran in prison. Simultaneously Manjursee (Saritha), a female schoolteacher, Buddhist and auto rickshaw driver, runs into trouble with men outside of the Dalit community. The community is angered and dedicate themselves to Buddhism as a response.
Lensed with a pensive camera style, Cherian adorns the film with Buddhist emblems, which transition from having a spiritual significance to a political one. The image of Buddha returns in significant scenes, accompanying moments of peace, eroticism and violence. When Manjursee is sexually assaulted and her rickshaw set alight, the Buddha remains prominent among the flames; it represents a defiant hope for the struggling community.
Cherian uses the image of Gandhi (which the Dalits actively mock) to represent the way in which his legacy is used to justify wrongs in modern Indian society. In one scene a prominent group of Gandhists, accompanied by the army, try to persuade the Dalits to move from their land peacefully; they are followed by a media mob. The scene represents the inequitable voice of influence presented by the Indian media, as the Dalits are manipulated to look unholy and fundamentalist.
To a non-Indian viewer Papilio Buddha is a particularly challenging experience, for the rich detail of its cultural backdrop. It is a film that looks so radically upon this particular political, religious, social and cultural environment, that it cannot be judged fully by an outsider. However, it is a film made with such symbolic vigor that it cries to be seen. Cherian’s visual sensibility is also one unfamiliar in mainstream Indian cinema, making for a film of great visual worth.
Finally the film makes a strong statement about the livelihood of the Dalits and the very landscape of India. As a group of the dispossessed travel through the mountainous regions on foot, Cherian frames them in wide shots of the decaying landscape. Moving beyond the political and ideological symbolism of Papilio Buddha momentarily, the director suggests in powerful terms that oppression of the Dalit peoples and the destruction of the natural world is one and the same.