It has been more than a month since Kenjira, a film in Paniya, a language spoken by the Paniya tribe, has been released on OTT, but those who belong to the scheduled tribe living in Kerala’s Wayanad and the neighbouring areas of Karnataka are unable to watch it. Many don’t have smartphones. Those who do don’t have sufficient data to watch a movie on them.
Directed by Manoj Kana, this is the first film in Paniya language, played mostly by members of the community. Even though Kenjira was premiered at the IFFK in 2019 and won many accolades, including the Kerala State Film Award for second best film, Kana’s plan for a widescreen release didn’t work due to COVID-19. Finally, he released the movie on OTT on September 7. Kenjira documents the pathetic condition of humiliation and exploitation in which the Paniya tribe lives. Kana is planning to screen Kenjira in the remote Paniya colonies of Wayanad, to regain the confidence of the community.
It was his passion for theatre that led Kana to Mananthavady in Wayanad two decades ago. He and his troupe performed many street plays on social issues at the tribal hamlets in and around Wayanad. “In the morning, we would start performing street plays, and at night we would sleep on the pavements. It was during this time that I started learning more about the way of living of the adivasis, particularly their customs and the languages they spoke,” says Kana, a theatre artist-turned director.
Close observation revealed that the language of the same tribe differed from one place to the other. The language that the Paniyas speak in Mananthavady is different from those spoken in the border areas close to Coorg. “The Mananthavady Paniya language is close to Malayalam, but the same language spoken in the border areas of Coorg is close to Kannada. In the school, the adivasi students interacted only with those who spoke the same language. They would sit together on a bench. If a student from a Muthuvan (another tribe) community doesn’t find another one who spoke the same language in his class, he may stop coming to school. Our first campaign was not to allow the government to close a school due to lack of students. We won it, and the school now functions with full strength,” says Kana, whose previous feature films titled Chayilyam (2012) and Amoeba (2016) won accolades. While Chayilyam portrayed the plight of a widow, Amoeba captured the worries of a woman from Kasargod (in Kerala) who lives in an IT hub in Bangalore with the fear of contamination by endosulfan, an insecticide and acaricide that is being phased out globally.
In 2002, Kana directed a play titled Uratti (‘wife’ in Paniya dialect), which tells the story of a Paniya woman and the unending worries of her community. Even though Kana directed many plays, it was Uratti which gave him confidence. His experiences in the tribal hamlets in Wayanad eventually resulted in the movie Kenjira. Kana says many who acted in the movie have been working with him in various street plays. “The incidents that I showed in Kenjira are real. I have been involved in all the issues that I brought up in the movie. There is a woman who underwent the same brutal experience as Kenjira, the lead character in the movie, near the place where I live. Exploitation is rampant in the region,” he says.
Choli Amma, who plays the role of grandmother in the movie, is more than 80 years old. “I call her Chachamma. She had never faced a camera before. I wanted her to do the role because only through people like her do we get the inner life of the community,” Kana says. K V Chandran, who donned the role of Tholan, has been working in Kana’s troupe for more than a decade.
Kana has been a witness to incidents that the media covered without understanding the context. “Many come to these tribal hamlets, they take their bite and return. They focus their cameras on these people and their surroundings. As a filmmaker, I did the opposite. I have placed the camera outwards from these hamlets,” Kana says.
In Kenjira, the story progresses through the life of Kenjira (Vinusha Ravi), a Paniya girl studying in Class 9. She goes through various modes of humiliation and sexual assault when she goes to work as a daily wager to save her family from poverty. Even though issues like exploitation and displacement are not new to the adivasis, what makes the movie different is that it expresses those issues through a language of their own. Sreevalsan J Menon has given music and background score for the movie, for which the lyrics have been penned by poet Kureeppuzha Sreekumar. The movie is produced by Neru Films and Manghat Foundation.
Noted poet K Satchidanandan says Kenjira is an authentic portrayal of tribal life in Kerala, entirely free from the exploitative mainstream gaze. “The movie uses their dialect and portrays their life with all its pathos and magic. It is a tale of uprooted people, finding solace nowhere, driven from place by the feudal landlord and the greedy capitalists with an eye on developing tourism as an industry,” he says.
“There is hardly any attempt to focus on the beauty of nature and the forest, but they form a natural background to the action. Kenjira bears on her body and soul all the wounds of her community that silently receives what life offers them. There is no false optimism here; revolution seems a distant dream and even reform seems remote,” says Satchidanandan.
Even though Kenjira has been released on OTT, many belonging to the Paniya community are not able to watch it. Kana is planning to screen Kenjira in the remote Paniya colonies of Wayanad, to regain the confidence of the community. “I will be organising special screenings in the hamlets of the Paniyas soon. I wanted to do it at the time of the release itself, but I couldn’t due to the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic,” he says.