On the dark screen, appears a verse of Guatemalan revolutionary Otto Rene Castillo that warns apolitical intellectuals that their silence will, one day, be questioned by the simple men who had no place in the books and poems.
Pada, directed by Kamal KM, is about the coming of four such men. Dressed in mundane clothing and equipped with idealism, they walk into the district collectorate one morning, to hold the authorities hostage for denying the rights of the downtrodden.
The film is a staunch enactment of one of the most unique political protests in the history of Kerala and what went behind its scenes. In 1996, four members of Ayyankali Pada, an organisation within the fold of CPI (ML), held the Palakkad district collector, WR Reddy, hostage in his office. They put forth a demand to the state government that the controversial amendment to the Kerala Schedules Tribes Act, 1975, hastily passed in the state assembly on September 23, 1996, be withdrawn.
Pada, which hit theatres across Kerala on March 11, comes close on the heels of The Unorganised, a short docu-drama by Kunjila Mascillamani that discussed a protest by the working-class women in Kozhikode’s SM Street for their right to use the toilet during working hours. Both films accomplish a similar, essential act of restoring public memory, shaking up new Malayalam mainstream cinema’s complacent, apolitical interior.
Pada uses the resources of commercial cinema – star-actors like Kunchacko Boban, Joju George, Vinayakan and Dileesh Pothan – to question the system on behalf of the margins. It points its fingers at mainstream political parties and most importantly, recalls the defeated and the forgotten. The characters in Pada don’t mention Marx or Mao but UP Jayaraj, a local writer who succumbed to cancer at 50, whose writings documented and captured the spirit of the armed struggles in the 70s and 80s.
The film doesn’t go for a thrilling finish that glamourises the men but proceeds in the other direction, where the pleasures of a hostage drama fizzle out into a mourn that invites the viewer’s pity and outrage. Kamal uses the syntax of realism that is now immensely popular in Malayalam mainstream cinema, not as a slight stylistic choice but with utmost sensitivity. The film looks at the characters in long shots in which they merge into the landscape. Sometimes, they are placed in tight frames and dimly lit, bare interiors that inform the viewers of their poverty and the secrecy of their existence. The background score is deliciously restrained, subtly steering the drama. At one point, a knock on the door melts into the beats of the track.
The film doesn’t delve into the background of its revolutionary protagonists, a directorial decision that yields mixed results. Two out of the four men are absolutely rootless, without a known past or a concern for the future. The film only touches upon the specifics of the controversial tribals act and the amendment. It doesn’t take stock of Kerala’s Naxal movement and withholds the details of extremist groups’ tumultuous relationship with the ruling leftist party. When the hostage drama is underway, the film, multiple times, cuts to three older men who, in anxious close-ups, express their fear that the police might come for them in no time. The film doesn’t tell the viewers who these men are or their role in the protest. Although, their demeanour says that they come from the same place as the four men, a ground of rage and unwavering idealism.
One of the two primary locations of the film is the chamber of the state’s chief secretary (a highly effective Prakash Raj), located many hundred kilometres away from the protest venue. Officials who hold conflicting feelings about the protestors sit around a table. The intercutting between the two offices, where two kinds of negotiations are underway, are sharp. But most of the scenes inside the chief secretary’s office appear unfinished in comparison. The objectivity hurts the drama.
Yet, within its rigid framework, Pada displays unbound humanism that works as the film’s backbone. In the opening sequence, Aravindan (Joju George), waiting for his comrades, turns down an elderly hawker selling lottery tickets in front of the civil station citing his pennilessness. Before disappearing into the background, she offers to buy him a cup of tea, an unusual act of kindness. Halfway into the film, after the narrative has assumed the shape of a procedural, Kamal inserts a slice of tender drama – an elderly couple narrate their misery – bringing the procedural to a pause, like an answer to the collector’s repeated questions. This is what the protagonists want – the system should lay off its insensitivity and listen to the people.
The film has a brilliant cast. It unfolds on a large canvas; every frame is crowded with actors whose on-screen chemistry is vital to the narrative. Especially, all the scenes inside the hostage chamber featuring the four lead actors and the collector, played by Arjun Radhakrishnan, an acting talent who comes from Hindi indie cinema, are terrific.
There is an ingrained joke in Pada, about the inability of the system to fix its holes or diagnose its fundamental deficiencies. It plays out in the background, like a secret accessible only to those who know the history. As the credits fall, Kamal displays archival images and footage of the 1996 incident, connecting cinema to reality, the past to the present. The callous betrayal by the system must stoke the viewers’ outrage, but before that, they must look into themselves. Kamal’s film, ultimately, is against mainstream society’s insensitive forgetfulness.
This Pada review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.