Every year, Rajesh K, secretary of the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) and sub-judge in Wayanad, Kerala and his colleagues are beseeched by families of young tribal men charged under provisions of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act. Their crime: they married underage girls as per customs and conceived a child through them.
According to rough estimates, around 250 men, 90 per cent of whom belong to various tribal communities, have been charged under section 3 of the POCSO Act in the last nine years in Wayanad for impregnating their minor wives, underlined Rajesh. There are cases where both the boy and the girl are minors. Wayanad is Kerala’s least populous district, but has the highest concentration of Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities.
Despite running sustained oral awareness campaigns against underage marriages within the community and sensitising them on how their beliefs and customs often end up clashing with laws, cases still crop up. “That’s when we understood that ordinary modes of awareness were not having an effect on the community. When we pondered about other modes, making a feature film in a language they would understand came into mind. We felt it would have deeper resonance with them,” said Rajesh.
The film ‘Inja’, conceptualised by the DLSA and funded by the state government, tells the story of Vellan and Inja who fall in love and get married according to tribal customs. But, their world falls apart when Inja is pregnant, gets admitted to a government hospital, and ticks off the doctor when she’s found to be a minor. Since the doctor is duty-bound to report such cases or risks imprisonment for six months, Vellan is picked up by the police a few days later and charged under section 3 of the POCSO Act. How Inja and Vellan’s parents make the rounds of lawyers, courts and the police to get him freed, make up the rest of the film.
The film’s pivotal moment, upon which its consequential message rests, arrives when a minor tribal girl tells her paramour when he proposes marriage, “Look at them (Inja and Vellan). We should get married only when the police won’t have a reason to arrest us.”
Often, in tribal colonies in Wayanad, if a boy and girl decide to live together as part of their customs, they are deemed as having married, thus raising the spectre of underage marriages, said Rajesh. “Later, when they have cash in hand, they might hold an event to solemnize it. There are plenty of such marriages taking place without our knowledge.”
The film, written and directed by Bhaskaran Bathery, has all its dialogues in the Paniya language spoken mainly by the Paniyan people, the most populous sub-tribe in Kerala. The film’s shooting is nearing completion in Wayanad and is expected to be ready for viewing by the end of October. Inja and Vellan, as well as their family members, are played by tribal actors.
“We intend to take the film to all tribal colonies wherever screenings are possible. We will also post it on YouTube and send the link to all our tribal promoters who can, in turn, disseminate it within the colonies, especially among youngsters. And if the national legal services authority permits, it can even be dubbed and screened in other states,” said Rajesh.
There’s an economic side to it too. “If we have even 10 fewer cases a year, the government can save up to Rs 2 crore it would otherwise have to pay for POCSO trials and as compensation to victims,” he said.
Bhaskaran Bathery, Inja’s writer-director, said he wrote the script in just two days after DLSA officials approached him with the subject. “We began shooting after the script was approved first by the district judge in Wayanad, the KELSA and later the High Court,” Bathery said.
“The film has a beautiful romantic song, the lyrics of which have been penned by a tribal woman poet in Wayanad, and we have captured the essence and colour of tribal marriage rituals. We were very clear that if the film had to percolate down into their minds, it cannot be shot like an art film,” he added.