Dalit History Month: Following in her footsteps

Reflecting on the Dalit History Month that recently concluded, women in cinema speak about being inspired by the iconic actor PK Rosy and what prompted them to tell their own stories
Dalit History Month: Following in her footsteps

The story of PK Rosy, the first female lead actor in Malayalam, is nothing short of a revolution. At a time when untouchability and oppression of Dalits were prevalent in the country, Rosy, hailing from a marginalised community, broke out of the shackles of suppression and complex social structure to realise her dream of becoming an actor. In 1930, her only film, Vigathakumaran, directed by JC Daniel released in which she played the role of a privileged woman. Her pioneering attempt was attacked by the oppressors, who were enraged by this. Theatre screens featuring her film were torn down. Her house was set on fire. She was forced to run away far from her hometown. And then… she disappeared. However, she remained in the hearts of many film aspirants as a beacon of hope. 

As we come to the end of Dalit History Month, in this conversation, a bunch of budding filmmakers speak about Rosy's influence in their lives, the daily ordeals to survive in the industry, and how they are embarking on this creative journey amidst the struggle, and with perseverance to tell their stories and carve a space in the world of cinema.

"PK Rosy's face lingers in my memory every day. She was chased away only because of her caste identity. This horrific history of oppression can never be forgotten. In fact, had PK Rosy not done what she did then, I would not have made it up till here," says Jeeva KJ, director of the critically acclaimed Malayalam film Richter Scale 7.6, which spoke about the ordeals of displacement faced by the oppressed through the lives of a father and his son.

Battle for a breakthrough

In this male-dominated creative industry, being a woman and a Dalit is certainly double the struggle, believes Chennai-based filmmaker Dhivya Jessy, who recently screened her documentary Nagarodi, about the poor livelihood conditions of ghetto settlements in the outskirts of Chennai, at the PK Rosy Film Festival organised by Pa Ranjith's Neelam Productions.  

“Even today, not all of them know PK Rosy and her inspiring story. We need many more like her who will instill hope in people like me to fight for my space in this world of cinema. We need more success stories, more awareness that drips down to all centres. It will take time. But I feel initiatives like Ranjith's Neelam, discourses and creating a space to listen to the untold stories will be a baby step to a bigger change," she adds.

Emphasising the importance for artists and creators from marginalised sections to explore the creative space, Dhivya and Jeeva assert that observation of Dalit History Month in the mainstream space could be a way forward. "The series of discourses, dialogues, and film screenings during this month helps widen the understanding of the history and how the journey has been so far. It acts as a reminder for us to recognise significant individuals, their contributions, and landmark events that shaped Dalit history. Above all, it instills hope in budding creators to break out of their shells and explore the horizons," adds Jeeva.

Although a handful of creators like Dhivya and Jeeva have come to the fore, it is still not easy for them to get a breakthrough. Leela Santhosh, the first Adivasi filmmaker from Kerala's Wayanad, known for her documentaries Thanalugal Nashtapadunna Gothra Bhoomi and Paikinjana Chiri, says that it has been an arduous journey to get a producer for her independent feature film. "When I pitched my story, many liked it. They saw potential in it. But due to my identity, they have this question: 'Do I have the capacity to do a film'. I see it as a societal anxiety and prejudice that they think all Adivasis are backward and they are not capable of growing."  

Besides that, Leela also says external influence on creative choices hinders the process. "I had been planning to do Karinthandan, a historical film based on the tribal chieftain who sacrificed his life to protect the Wayanad people. When I pitched, many people suggested that the protagonist must like 'Baahubali'. But that's not how it is. Karinthandan is an ordinary Adivasi man who has a raw body type and dusky skin. I can't change his personality and looks to meet societal expectations. Due to influences like this, I had to shelve the project temporarily," Leela recalls.

Likewise, Dhivya, who assisted in the Rohini-starrer Witness and in the upcoming film J Baby, asserts that she sees art as a stage to tell stories of pain, struggle, and progress. However, once again, external factors came in the way of realising her potential. "Currently, I am working on a script with a Dalit woman as the protagonist. Because of that, I have been finding it difficult to get a producer. I can and want to make stories based on the people I have seen and the place I have grown up. That is my reality. Even if someone is interested in my script, they want me to make the lead a male actor. And the reason they say is to make the film commercially viable. I did not resort to it because it is based on real-life experiences. I will wait until I can tell my story the way I want to," Dhivya shares.

Meanwhile, Jeeva recalls that collaborating with people with similar ideologies helped smoothen the process for her first film, but providing visibility for the film became an uphill task. "As I hail from a marginalised community, I do not have a strong and influential backup. Most of the theatres are owned by people from privileged communities and hence they would hardly want to take up my film, which didn't fit their agenda. Although we went the OTT route, I feel my identity is one of the reasons for not having a star cast, which determined the lack of commercial response and limited theatrical response," she shares.

Women for Women

For this handful of aspiring creators, supportive systems like the South Indian Film Women's Association (SIFWA) and Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) are important lifelines that are not just liberating, but encourage aspirants to uphold women's camaraderie. “WCC holds huge relevance in the industry for bringing ICC and making important recommendations to ensure equity and equality in the workspace,” Jeeva says. SIFWA's President, Easwari, who has been working as an associate and co-director in Mysskin's films, says that they could aid the aspirants by letting them know about potential opportunities and workshops to add important skills to their resumes. 

Who should tell my story?

One of the common concerns mentioned by the filmmakers is that society has this preconceived notion that if an individual is hailing from an oppressed community then they are obliged to tell only certain stories. "But why? Why does society restrict and want to me only say stories that they expect out of me? I want to decide what stories I want to say and not otherwise," Jeeva argues.

The filmmakers talking to us do agree that lived-in experiences and understanding the history of struggle, oppression and the journey up till here, will make one a good fit to tell the stories in the right manner. But they also express concern about misrepresentation when creators from privileged communities attempt to tell of oppression and the lowered caste.

"There have been a few films featuring Adivasis but the representations have been insensitive and problematic. Take, for instance, the Malayalam film, Bamboo Boys (2002). It showed tribal people as uncivilised who eat soap, drink water from bathroom taps, and do not wear clothes. Cinema is a huge medium that reaches scores of audiences. From culture and tradition to concerns, each tribe is different. Hence it is essential to uphold the responsibility of the right portrayal. That's why someone like me could tell our stories more appropriately. After all, these stories are based on our life experiences and history which will be authentic and genuine," says Leela.

And this very aspect regarding sound knowledge in representation leads to a pertinent question: So who can tell a Dalit's story? Jenny, who worked as an assistant director in Ranjith's KaalaKabali and Sarpatta Parambarai and is awaiting to launch her independent debut, clarifies that making a film on Dalit life and making a film on caste atrocities are two different things. "You don’t have to address caste atrocities only by telling the story of an oppressed community. You can do so, more effectively, by addressing the oppressing caste, especially if you belong to one. The question is, are we ready to bell that cat? If we aren’t then we really have to look hard at our intentions, maturity and responsibility towards telling another person’s story especially when they themselves are in a position to say it better. Let them say it first… the rest can wait.” She also notes that this could be a possible solution or rather replacement for the trend of appropriation by the privileged.

Manifesting a better tomorrow

Having come a long way, the filmmakers in conversation look forward to achieving one common milestone-- to bring glory to PK Rosy by creating a space where more women from marginalised communities step up to achieve their cinema dreams and ensure this entire phenomenon is normalised. 

"PK Rosy sowed a seed of hope for us. When I finally become successful, I hope my story will eventually pave the way for the next generation and inspire them to dream big," says Leela.

There is no doubt that the Dalit cinema movement is on an upward swing. We have seen the voices of Ranjiths and Mari Selvarajs taking centrestage in cinema, and rightfully so. Perhaps, in the days to come, the untold stories of sheroes will certainly come forward through the voices of many more Dhivyas, Jeevas and Leelas. “Far in the heaven, Rosy would be happy seeing women like us trying to push our limits. We hope more of us will definitely make her happier," they sign off.

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