Papilio Buddha and Caste Politics

I had another episode of insomnia over the past weekend. During these sleepless nights, I’m always on my laptop, revising class assignments, reading news article, binge-watching cat videos or viewing a stimulating clip or two from those unmentionable sites (don’t judge, I’m a guy)

Meow, I want some pussy

I came across this Malayalam movie called Papilio Buddha, which puzzled me. The TV set in our living room has access to Malayalam channels. Every Sunday, my parents watch a Malayalam movie on Asianet. Even if I haven’t seen them, I’ve heard of every film released from Kerala. So what’s the mystery behind Papilio Buddha?

Apparently, Papilio Buddha was denied certification from the censor board and banned from screening. The bans have technically been lifted but screening is not widespread. This film is known for being the most controversial Malayalam movie of the 2010s

Papilio Buddha defies almost every trope in conventional Malayalam movies. No ‘larger-than-life hero’ characters, no love stories, no ‘comedic’ sidekicks, no reverence for cultural traditions or excessive patriotic themes.

Papilio Buddha is a species of butterflies found flying through the Western Ghats. The story revolves around Sankaran, an untouchable Pulaya with a revered Brahmin name. The first scene depicts him capturing the Papilio Buddha with Jack, American lepidopterist, with whom he is sexually involved. There are scenes where the two are sensually touching each other as they overlook a breath taking waterfall. A romantic image receptive to a Malayali audience if one of them was female.

 Sankaran lives in a humble hut located at one of Kerala’s many Dalit ‘colonies’ with his father, Kandal Kariyan, who looks to his son’s homosexual relationship with discern. Furthermore he is enraged by his son’s plans to study in America, interpreting his decision as removing himself from his community while they’re struggling to assert ownership rights to their own land.

 The film’s negative portrayal of certain characters symbolizes its criticism on contemporary society.

For example, take Jack, the American tourist. Despite his good- hearted nature and innocuous motives, he does not comprehend the deep seated issues plaguing the country he’s visiting. By trying to be a good friend and help Sankaran, Jack’s noble effort negatively impact his untouchable lover.

The NGO volunteers, while engaged in superficial acts of charity, continue to hold underlying prejudices as they verbally abuse the untouchables behind closed doors.


Scratch That!!!

Even with Sankaran within their midst, the NGO members continue their diatribes against the people they’re supposed to be helping! One woman claims the Dalits are ungrateful after being scolded by a Dalit teacher for filming her class without her permission. There’s another person (a self-professed Christian) who doesn’t even hesitate to harass Sankaran, declaring his people as ‘dirty’ and in need to cleanliness. He later justifies his asinine remarks with “Political Correctness is not my shit!”.images (3).jpg

The Gandhian activists are no better, as they are nothing more than a tool of the government. Nowadays, the icon of Gandhi is similar to religious scriptural verses. His vague messages are utilized by every political faction– right wing, left wing, center, authoritarian, anarchist–to justify their own agenda.

 There is also a side plot involving Manju, an auto rickshaw driver from the same colony. Being a Dalit woman in a male-dominated field, she is bombarded with sexually explicit, cringeworthy comments, including from one man who offered to ‘ride her’.

As Sankaran and Manju struggled with their own battles, a crisis in the Dalit colony escalates as its residents are threatened to leave their land by the state

Ayyankali (1863-1941, community activist

government. The Dalits take refuge in Kandal Kariyan’s leadership and the ideals of Bhimrao Ambedkar and Ayyankali, two Dalit historical figures rarely mentioned in the pages of history.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), legal scholar, economist, politician, Dalit rights activist

Personally I thought the film was just average. It started with a strong, visually mesmerizing scene but peters along the way. The climax was not as impactful as I’d hoped.

However, there are absolutely no reason to ban the movie, as there is no reason to ban any work of art!!!!!

The censure is an indication of the political correctness and caste politics in modern Kerala. Complaints of gory images and rape scenes are made because, apparently, no other Malayalam movie ever had bloody fight scene and depictions of rape!

None at all!



Hmm….maybe it has to do with the burning of Gandhi’s effigy. Or that scene where the NGO members discuss Hermann Kallembach’s book detailing Gandhi’s secret gay lover.

Of course! Gandhi is the embodiment of India. Therefore, any work of art depicting Gandhi as being less-an-revered is an anathema to the nation!!

Oh please!

Can we stop referring to Gandhi as Mahatma. The fact that we have

 ‘mahatmas’, ‘saints’, and ‘heroes’shows how deluded we are!!

Mohandas K. Gandhi was a remarkable man but an ordinary human as we all are! He was enslaved to the cultural standards of his day and his own moral weaknesses as we all are.

He was wise and erudite

He was a deep thinker and a dynamic activist

No one impacted the Indian independence movement more than he


He wasn’t a good father, prioritizing his career over his family

He wasn’t a good husband. He was physically abusive to Kasturba, his wife, and even refused her penicillin during her last days, while he had no problem taking quinine to treat his own ailments

He has perverted views on sexuality. While claiming to be practitioner of Brahmacharya, he slept naked with his grandnieces as an ‘experiment’ (like..ewwww..)

He was also a racist. He didn’t really care for Black Africans whom he referred to as Kafirs

“Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”

And he was incredibly patronizing to Dalits, referring to them as Harijans (God’s children) despite protesting their inclusion in the Poona Pact

So, in other words, despite his laudable tactics in his contribution to secure independence for India, the Dalits also have legitimate grievances against him.

No historical figure should be immune from critique.

Speaking of caste…

It should not be a surprise that Malayalam cinema is a Nair-dominated industry. Although there are occasionally Christian and Muslim themed stories, the majority of plots revolve around Nair clans (tharavad) and Nair social customs.

Similarly to Black character portrayals in American film productions from the Classical Hollywood era, Dalit character in Malayalam films are also ruthlessly stereotyped.

The men are commonly portrayed as uncultured thugs (like in Martin Prakatt’s Best Actor staring Mammotty). Sometimes they are portrayed as  excessively subservient (like in Kamal’s Celluloid staring Prithviraj). Dalit characters are always depicted as secondary or background personas embodying one-dimensional traits.

The premises of Papilio Buddha breaks the status quo in Malayalam film culture. Its alternative style contrasts with commercial sensibilities. Perhaps this explains the hostility it was faced with.

However, a film industry should not devolve into an echo chamber, producing cinematic recyclables for the sake of not offending anyone. The purpose of cinema, similar to books, paintings or any art form, is to challenge the audience through entertainment. This is what make cinema valuable to our culture


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