For many years before he turned into a filmmaker, Renjith Kuzhur, 35, had been following the history of Karinthalakoottam — a band of Dalit folk musicians from his hometown, Thrissur, Kerala. The narrative that emerged along the way, which would eventually become the bedrock of his debut film, was one of caste identity, of Dalit men who pursue music not only to preserve an oral culture handed over generations, but as an affirmation of their existence. “Even though these men are on a stage, they stand at the back, almost out of habit — a manifestation of their many insecurities. However, they are not activists, they don’t talk about it and their reality is largely unknown even to those who are familiar with the band,” said Kuzhur, after a screening of the film at JNU last week.
Titled 18 Feet, the documentary, which was released in 2015, is the story of Remesh PR, a bus conductor and co-founder of Karinthalakoottam. In one exchange between Remesh and his father, he exclaims that they were not cattle who could have been bought or sold, and his father, worn down by generations of feudal nuances, gives up. It is an intimate scene that reveals the change in the attitude that has been made popular by Karinthalakoottam and the sense of solidarity it has created.
Initially, when Kuzhur began to research on the subject, he was taken in by the strength of the men and the origin of their songs. The discourse of discrimination laced into the lyrics was a revelation that happened much later. As for the songs, they are about love and god, nature and biodiversity, the food they eat and the women they love.
For a Nair boy, born outside of the Dalit colony, Kuzhur’s proximity to the band was a relationship that was honed over a decade of filming and following them till they learned to trust him and let him see the wounds left by childhood taunts. In the film, Vijesh who had suffered discrimination, describes how joining the band and the support of people like Remesh helped him accept himself.
The discrimination over the years has become subtler, working insidiously against a person’s self-confidence. Earlier, their fathers were abused physically. Now, as one man reveals in the film, he was taunted by the tuition teacher in front of the class about the neighbourhood he lived in, while another talks about a girl who turned him down once she found out he lived in the Dalit colony.
The title is a measure of discrimination. 18 feet signifies the distance that Dalits had to maintain from the upper castes. “The place is arranged so that you don’t have to go to the colony for anything. It is right at the back and everything else faces forward. Within the context of this geographical divide, I grew up listening to disparaging comments made by family members about ‘those people’ and ‘their kind’,” says Kuzhur as he explains the dynamics of Vadama village in Thrissur.
The film also reveals the discrimination in a modern context, where most of them have no control over the land they have, due to lack of proper documents. Kuzhur says, “Kerala is arrogant about being the most literate state but most of the people from the Dalit community are dropouts. So, who were we talking about all this while?”
The popularity of Karinthalakoottam has prompted the creation of other folk music groups. “Platforms of art and culture are creating room for dialogue. The arrest of Tamil folk singer Kovan in December last year was a turning point,” says Kuzhur.