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Casting Caste: Dalit Identity, Papilio Buddha, and Malayalam Cinema

Sathyaraj Venkatesan ( teaches at the National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli. Rajesh James ( teaches at the Sacred Heart College, Ernakulam, and is also a documentary film-maker.

Caste in Kerala has been under-represented both in canonical Malayalam literature as well as in Malayalam cinema. This article reviews the representational absence of Dalits in Malayalam cinema, explores how this absence perpetuates the structural violence against Dalits, and analyses Jayan K Cherian’s Papilio Buddha. This is a rare fi lm that tackles the contentious question of caste, reveals the ineffectualness of Gandhism and left politics vis-à-vis Dalit issues, and points to Ambedkarism and Buddhism as ways to forge a coherent Dalit consciousness.

As an aesthetic and social medium, mainstream Malayalam cinema is guilty of addressing the emotional lives and aspirations of only the middle class. Although caste is a grotesque sociopolitical reality in Kerala, it is often under-represented and disowned in canonical Malayalam literature as well as Malayalam filmic narratives. This denial of “Dalit lives in [their] entirety and subtlety” (Valmiki 2003: vii) is indicative of the narrow concerns of Malayalam cinema. The representational absence of Dalit lives perpetuates the symbolic/structural violence against Dalits. Malayalam cinema, with its historical legacy of eight decades, lamentably repeats the mainstream Bollywood formula1 and thus remains faithful to the ideological inheritance and desideratum of the dominant castes. If, on the one hand, any purposive interventions to recuperate the marginalised “caste self” are suppressed, then, on the other, attempts to redeem the voice of the voiceless serve only “the causes and interests of the supposed advocate” (Menon 2009). The present article reviews the (absence of) representation of Dalits in Malayalam cinema, and then closely examines Jayan K Cherian’s Papilio Buddha (2013) to analyse the contentious question of caste and the ineffectualness of Gandhism and left politics vis-à-vis Dalit issues. Displacing existing political ideologies, the film offers Ambedkarism and Buddhism as an alternative way to forge a coherent Dalit consciousness.

Story of Neglect

Dalits in Malayalam cinema are shrouded in invisibility, or remain nondescript characters, their concerns unvoiced, unseen, and misrepresented. There is also a tendency to subsume Dalit concerns under the rubric of liberal humanism, thereby obscuring the predicament of caste discrimination and subjugation. Although the Malayalam film industry has a cinematic legacy of eight decades, beginning from Vigathakumaran,2 Dalit characters have had a negligible presence. In Vigathakumaran, for instance, P K Rosy, the first heroine of Malayalam cinema and a Dalit Christian, was persuaded to shed her Dalit identity in order to legitimise her “right” to perform the role of a Nair lady. Nevertheless, Rosy offended the upper caste Nair community, leading to her persecution within the film industry. Reflecting on Rosy’s plight, Jenny Rowena (2013) observes that “all Dalit female bodies are totally erased from the mainstream of Malayalam cinema.” In essence, middle class Nair/Syrian Christian characters populated Malayalam cinema at the cost of marginalising Dalits and sharpening the problematic binary of fair hero/heroine (usually Nair/Syrian Christian) and dark villain (usually Dalit). Examining the elision of caste in Malayalam cinema, Rowena (2013) observes:

Malayalam cinema is not a foreign technology that came in from the West forcing us to deal with it from within our given postcolonial or pre-capitalist cultural complexities. But it was a Western technology that was seized and used by the powerful Shudra upper caste community of Kerala, mainly the Nairs, who had to rise out of their Shudra status and gain hegemony in the Kerala region, for which they captured all modern categories and institutions like literature, cinema, etc.

In no time, at least from Marthanda Varma (1933) onwards, Malayalam cinema discursively and visually privileged Nair/Syrian Christian registers to the extent that “the affluent class/caste systematically mirrored themselves on screen and made Kerala mirror them in their food, dress, looks, and artistic and intellectual pursuits” (Rowena 2013). Later, although Neelakuyil (1954) paved a new path for Malayalam cinema by breaking away from the earlier tradition of adapting plots from Hindi films and religious myths and addressing socially relevant themes such as untouchability and feudalism, the movie, ironically, displaces Neeli (a Dalit woman), letting her die in a street. A host of other Malayalam films released after Neelakuyil reiterated the same logic of Dalit denial, irrespective of the art/commercial status of the film. Such continued absences not only signify the entrenched caste and gender biases in Malayalam cinema but also the interpellation by hegemonic structures within the film industry.

In spite of the casteist film culture, there were some attempts in the early 1980s to address issues of Dalit life, caste discrimination and Dalit violence. The films of T V Chandran and P A Backer, for instance, delegitimised stereotypes about Dalits in a limited way. Backer’s Sree Narayana Guru (1986), immersed in liberal and leftist sentiments, laid bare the casteist fabric of Kerala society and the tragic predicament of the Dalits, while Lenin Rajendran’s Meenamasathile Sooryan (1986) discussed subaltern issues through the leftist prism. P N Menon’s film Malamukalile Daivam dwelt on the life of an indigenous tribal community in the context of emerging modernity. The mainstream films produced after the 1990s reproduced the Dalit body, occupation, and names in socially demeaning ways—for instance, as a villain (Vinayakan in Big B), as a comedian (Salim Kumar in Thenkasipattanam), as a blind man (Kalabhavan Mani in Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njaanum), or as a thief (Chemban Vinod in Tamaar Padaar). These movies are guilty of subordinating subaltern histories and world views to the concerns of megastars and their feudal episteme. Post-millennial Malayalam cinema3 (also known as new generation films4) is no different, showing a “preferential bias for white skin, manliness, suave aristocracy and feudal nostalgia” (Parayil 2014: 68). As Parayil (2014: 68) elaborates

[i]t employs such indirect yet legitimised narrative/visual signs like name, habit, body and occupation to re-establish the preconceived cultural notions of a typified subaltern caste.

In effect, millennial Malayalam cinema ensures and rehearses casteism and continues with the abjection of Dalits.

Thus, the portrayal of Dalit issues in cinema has been minimal and limited, if not altogether absent. Even when Dalit issues find a visual language, they are mostly reactionary appendages, never a radical critique of abominable social realities as found in the films of Bimal Roy (Sujata), Satyajit Ray (Sadgati), Bikas Mishra and Neeraj Ghaywan. According to A S Ajith Kumar (2013),

A lot is being written about Dalit history, Dalit studies and caste in general. But the debate on caste is yet to make its presence felt in the visual media like cinema. How to bring the question of caste to the movies, to the screen, is the big challenge.

Sensitive to such glaring absences, as it were, movies such as Bodhi (2008) by G Ajayan, Papilio Buddha (2013), Mahatama Ayyankali (2013) by Surya Deva, Kari (2015) by Shanavas Naranipuzha and the documentaries of A S Ajith Kumar and Rupesh Kumar attempt to cultivate Dalit consciousness through an examination of hegemonic cultural politics and extant historical legacies. Although these filmic narratives are different in terms of content, audience and form, what binds them is their bold representation and critique of the failure of social institutions and political discourses to address Dalit issues. Besides offering strident critiques of the legacy of casteism, they also imagine possibilities for Dalit emancipation, empowerment and social liberation.

Papilio Buddha: Representing Kerala Dalits

Cherian’s Papilio Buddha archives the lives of Dalits in the Western Ghats and traverses through the experiences of an educated Dalit youth named Shankaran. The film is an intensely political and iconoclastic film which provides a bleak vision of how the contemporary nation state and dominant political class/discourse have collectively betrayed the lower castes in Kerala. At another level, the film critiques new forms of inclusivity, which echo the earlier mechanisms of oppression even as they provide a vision for liberation. Although the immediate inspiration for Papilio Buddha came from a news report about the Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM) which the police had identified as a “terrorist movement” (Satchidanandan 2013), the film deftly deploys an array of icons, ranging from the Buddha to Ayyankali, to not only map the ideological shifts and fissures that characterise Dalit struggles in Kerala but to emphasise how “the battle around forms, metaphors and symbols is no less than real political battles” (Satchidanandan 2013). Although the film is set in the fictional town of Meppara, it intermeshes a number of actual incidents of violence and exploitation against Dalits, especially events that occurred in Chengara, Meppadi and Muthanga in the Western Ghats.

As the film begins, Shankaran, a Dalit youth, is helping an American named Jack to hunt a rare species of butterfly named Papilio Buddha, which is found in the mountains. While assisting Jack in collecting butterflies, Shankaran is arrested by the police. While Jack’s American identity helps him avoid detention, Shankaran undergoes brutal torture at the police station. He is comforted by Manjusree, a brave activist and an audacious autorickshaw driver, who later falls in love with Shankaran. Reciprocating, as it were, Shankaran joins Manjusree in battling the injustice against Dalits. Following an earlier altercation, Manjusree is brutally raped and publicly paraded by the male autorickshaw drivers of the region. Reacting to this patriarchal assault on Manjusree, a protest is organised by local Dalits demanding justice for her. Later, Manjusree and Shankaran reject Hinduism and convert to Buddhism along with other Dalits. The police and state machinery suppress the protest that demands justice for Manjusree and Dalits at large. While the movie is self-explanatory, it also deftly exposes the regressive role of Gandhism and the ineffectual nature of leftism vis-à-vis Dalits.


The film deconstructs the normative image of Gandhi and the premises governing Gandhism. Specifically, Papilio Buddha demonstrates how Gandhism was interpellated to suppress the dissenting and marginalised Dalit voices in India and, in so doing, the film problematises Gandhism and Gandhian methods in favour of rebellion and protest. Although this stance of the movie attracted vitriolic criticism and gathered, to borrow an expression from J Devika (2012), a “constituency of hurt,” the director characterises the movie as “not anti-Gandhi” (qtd in Trivedi 2013). Refusing to mince words, Cherian observes that “there is a deliberate attempt to present a counter-narrative to the official narrative of Gandhi as a blemish-less embodiment of non-violence and a champion of the Dalit cause” (qtd in Trivedi 2013). Elsewhere, Arundhati Roy expresses similar sentiments and arraigns Gandhi of discrimination: “It is time to unveil a few truths about a person whose doctrine of nonviolence was based on the acceptance of a most brutal social hierarchy ever known, the caste system” (qtd in Burke 2014). The film finds triumphalist narratives about Gandhism beguiling the reality of the Dalit experience of social segregation and severe brutality. In ideological terms, the movie exposes how Gandhism implicitly perpetuated and collaborated with caste-based racism.

For instance, towards the end of the film, there is a provocative scene of Gandhi’s effigy being festooned with footwear, while Ramdas, a Gandhian, is refused entry into the squatter’s area. Cries of “we are not anybody’s Harijans” are raised, reminding the audience of the Gandhian discourse of classifying and equating Dalits as/with Harijans. Even Shankaran, an educated Jawaharlal Nehru University dropout, abhors and repudiates the much-venerated Gandhian method of satyagraha (or “insistence of truth”). To quote Shankaran, “This satyagraha is a filthy, despicable pressure tactic.” Historically speaking, in a letter to Ramsay MacDonald, Gandhi wrote: “[I]n the establishment of separate electorates for the ‘depressed classes,’ I sense the injection of poison that is calculated to destroy Hinduism.” Elsewhere, conceding that his political logic is a derivative of Hindu religion, Gandhi in a cable to William Shirer stated: “Americans should know that my politics are derived from my religion” (qtd in Noorani 2015). It is this stance that draws Jayan Cherian to summarise, “As far as the depiction of Gandhi goes, it cannot be denied that the varna system found a strong place in Gandhi’s writings” (qtd in Sathish 2014). Of course, the film appropriates as well as exposes the Gandhian affinity with mainstream Hinduism which treats Dalits as the “other” and, in so doing, Papilio Buddha illustrates how the discourse of Gandhism facilitated and promoted a culture of segregation based on caste. Cherian not only dismisses but also contests the idealised and normative image of Gandhi to unmask the racial/caste foundations of Gandhism itself. This viewpoint is dramatised towards the end of the film when the Dalit rights activists station a Buddha idol and conclude the meeting by stating that they are not anybody’s Harijans.

Leftist Chimera

Papilio Buddha also foregrounds how the political left has consistently betrayed the causes and concerns of the lower castes in Kerala. Although the supreme concern of the communist party was the elimination of the evils of private property and the inauguration of a classless society, there has been a blatant neglect of Dalit causes in Kerala. Specifically, the film problematises all the progressive claims of the left in Kerala by marking the decades of Dalit dismay in places like Chengara and Muthanga and also by demonstrating how the epistemological privileging of class over caste by the communists functioned against the interests of the Dalits. For instance, when Jack reaches Shankaran’s house he notices a framed photo of E M S Namboodiripad and enquires about it. Shankaran replies, “That’s my father’s god.” As a rejoinder to Shankaran’s remark, his father Kandal Kariyan sarcastically remarks, “He was my god once. Later, when the issue of land rights came up, he became a Namboodiri and me a Pulayan as in old times.” When Kariyan leaves, Jack, confusing E M S Namboodiripad with Sankaracharya, enquires whether Kariyan was referring to Sankaracharya. Clearing the mix-up, Shankaran explains that his father was referring to E M S Namboodiripad, the first chief minister of Kerala, and puts it in context: “My father was his fan and gave me an upper caste name. Now I live as a Dalit with an upper caste name.” Signifying the inexorable caste biases of the leaders of the communist party in Kerala and shedding light on the communist attitude towards Dalits, the director of the film observes:

Dalit colonies in Kerala are the best examples of social segregation of Dalits. These colonies historically serve as the main sources of muscle power for traditional parties including the communists. Naturally, they [the communists] see Dalit activism as a threat to their existence. (qtd in Trivedi 2013)

Kallen Pokkudan, the renowned environmentalist, plays the role of Kandal Kariyan in the film. As Sachindev reminds, “Pokkudan himself was a staunch communist who later turned to Dalit activism. He left the communist party because of the caste discrimination in the party” (Sachindev 2014: 149). In intermeshing the real life story of Kallen Pokkudan and the intentions of Kandal Kariyan, the film curates the age-old history of communist deceit. There is a particular scene in which Kariyan, symbolising protesting Dalits, replaces the photo of E M S Namboodiripad with that of Gautama Buddha. This replacement of a venerated communist leader in Kerala with a spiritual icon not only reflects the massive and absolute shift in Dalit perspectives towards the left in Kerala but also indicates the growing maturity of Dalit movements. As such, this single scene compresses the spells of ennui that the Dalits have felt at the hands of upper caste communists. Elsewhere, the presence of images of Ambedkar and Ayyankali in Kariyan’s thatched hut signifies the emergence of pure Dalit discourse which is predicated on progressive self-assertion and self-expression.

Further, through the character of 39-year-old Manjusree, the movie allegorises the starkness of patriarchy and its intersection with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]). Manjusree’s story is based on the real-life story of Chithralekha, an autorickshaw driver in Payyannur (in Kannur, Kerala), who fought a legal battle against her ostracisation at the hands of male autorickshaw drivers. Incidentally, these male driver-miscreants were local leaders and members affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), the CPI(M)-affiliated trade union. While the real Chithralekha was racially abused because of her layered identity and prevented from performing her duties as an autorickshaw driver, her cinematic avatar, Manjusree, is brutally raped. Although in the film Manjusree survives the trauma of rape and refashions her life, her story demonstrates the insidious intersection of caste and patriarchy as it operates within the left.

In Search of Ideological Purity: Dalit Alternatives

Nationalist tropes/icons are abandoned and replaced in the film with the emblems of Ambedkar, Ayyankali and Buddha, not merely as rebellious figures but as (political/cultural) symbols of self-assertion and Dalit collective identity. Semiotically speaking, such displacements are a creative cinematic way of reclaiming the lost spaces—physical and virtual, public and private—that are long overdue for Dalits. Buddha is a recurring royal motif in the film. As a matter of fact, mainstream Malayalam cinema has neither represented Buddha (his teachings) nor the violent colonial past of elite Hinduism owing to the conscious rendering of Savarna virtues and the privileging of Brahmanic traditions (Shankaran 2016: 50). In its limited representation, Buddha and his teachings have always served as an exotic icon embodying East Asian sensibilities. From the very outset, through reflective and meditative use of camera angles, Papilio Buddha weaves Buddhist emblems into the narrative. In many contexts, the image of Buddha is mobilised as a significant political/cultural emblem to defend Dalit rights and thereby prioritise the tenets of Ambedkarism. Rhetorically, the insignia of the Buddha functions as a symbol of defiant hope and protest, suggesting the transition of Dalits in terms of religion. In the context of Papilio Buddha, owing to continuing caste discrimination and physical oppression, Dalits embrace Buddhism as a new religion and cultural identity.

As if emphasising the ethos and tenets of Buddhism, the very title of the film (in the trailer as well as the movie poster) appears against a large statue of the Buddha. Technically, the image of the Buddha is deftly inlaid in the visual geography of the movie, particularly in various instances of persecution, endurance and resistance. For instance, when Manjusree is sexually assaulted, the image of Buddha emerges prominently against the images of Gandhi, Lord Shiva and Che Guevara, who ironically appear in the vehicles of the assaulters. Again, when Kandal Kariyan speaks at the Meppara agitation site demanding justice for Dalits, an image of Buddha is introduced. Elsewhere, the coupling scene of Shankaran and Manjusree is evocative of the venerated tantric Buddhist image of Tara Devi and Buddha. As they make love, a sculpture of Buddha in Manjusree’s hut rotates and a yab-yum (Tibetan term which literally means father–mother) image of Buddha/Tara is invoked, suggesting the character’s initiation into Dalit identity (Sachindev 2014: 145). As Sreekumar T T (2012: 19) observes,

Papilio Buddha foregrounds the idea that the existing Dalit politics has a powerful stream that understands and imbibes the philosophical and religious levels of meaning that Ambedkar brought to Indian politics by the introduction of Buddhist philosophy.

The final scene of the exodus of the protesters lasts for several minutes and ends with the Buddhist Tisarana (the Three Refuges)—Buddham Saranam Gachami, Dharmam Saranam Gachami, Sangham Saranam Gachami—reiterating the centrality of Buddhism to Dalits. The invocation of the figure of the Buddha at various instances of the film underscores the emergence of Dalit identity predicated on religion.

While the film, on the one hand, characterises Buddhism and the teachings of Buddha as a social panacea for caste infirmities, on the other hand, it also problematises conversion of Dalits to Christianity in the light of Ambedkar’s writings. For Ambedkar, religion is a process of rationalisation and universalisation of social values that should focus less on supernaturalism and metaphysics. Ambedkar writes,

I advise you to sever your connection with Hinduism and to embrace any other religion. But, in doing so, be careful in choosing the new faith and see that equality of treatment, status and opportunities will be guaranteed to you unreservedly. (Zelliot 1972: 85)

In the context of the film, Ambedkar’s obdurate stance of disdain becomes explicit when the members of an non-governmental organisation (NGO) working for the welfare of the lower castes scorn those who claim to speak for the Dalits. For instance, Issac, in reply to another NGO worker, says, “Even if they are converted to Christianity, they will be only pariah Christians.”

Papilio Buddha alludes to the role of Ambedkar in the formulation of an assertive and separate identity for Dalits in India by strategic placement of his images and words throughout the film. In foregrounding the Constitution as Ambedkar’s contribution to the Dalits, the film revolves around Ambedkar and his interventions in the hegemonic Indian polity. According to Sreekumar,

Papilio Buddha foregrounds the idea that the existing Dalit politics has a powerful stream that understands and imbibes the philosophical and religious levels of meaning that Ambedkar brought to Indian politics by the introduction of Buddhist philosophy. (2012: 19)

As a matter of fact, the film problematises Gandhi and his principles in the light of Ambedkar’s writings and reproduces the Ambedkarite idea of religious conversion to Buddhism as an effective strategy to challenge the hegemony of the social elites (Wankhede 2008: 50). Historically speaking, Ambedkar denounced the term Harijan as patronising and offensive and instead emphasised the need for a separate nomenclature and identity for Dalits. At the site of the agitation, Kariyan calls Ambedkar “our seen God” (kan kanda daivam) and elsewhere quotes Ambedkar extensively—for instance, “Why are we denied food and water promised in the Constitution?” At critical junctures of the film, either images of Ambedkar or his words are invoked to suggest the emergence of the independent religious side of Dalits (Sreekumar 2012: 19). Arundhati Roy (2014) states:

History has been unkind to Ambedkar. First it contained him, and then it glorified him. It has made him India’s Leader of the Untouchables, the king of the ghetto. It has hidden away his writings. It has stripped away the radical intellect and the searing insolence. All the same, Ambedkar’s followers have kept his legacy alive in creative ways. One of those ways is to turn him into a million mass-produced statues.

While Papilio Buddha invokes Ambedkar and upholds his legacy, it also deploys the image of Ayyankali who undertook the historic “walk for freedom” to Puthen Market in Kerala for the civil liberties of Dalits. The film provocatively places portraits of Ayyankali both in Kariyan’s hut and at the agitation spots as an attempt to punctuate Ayyankali’s pre-independence crusades for Dalits in Kerala.


To conclude, Papilio Buddha is not a conventional film that rehearses the dominant ideologies of the times. It is a subversive film in the tradition of the New Wave and other parallel/protest films (such as Godard’s Weekend and Marlon Rigg’s Tongues Untied) that expose hegemonic structures and their attendant apparatuses. While as Dalit cinema it organically explores the paradoxes and political positions of Kerala, it also foregrounds the emergence of the rebellious and affirmative Dalit self. At a sociopolitical level, Papilio Buddha expresses the hindrances as well as advances of Dalit struggles and their quest for a fully-formed Dalit consciousness. Intriguingly, the movie is not only sceptical about the traditional rhetoric of Gandhism but also undertakes to throw light on the ills of Gandhism from a Dalit perspective. If Gandhism is depicted as limited then left-centred politics are represented as ideologically deficient vis-à-vis Dalit issues. How does the film represent alternative political ontologies, however? It does so by assembling and employing distinctive images and sources of Ambedkar, Ayyankali and Buddha as shorthand for maturing Dalit views. In deploying these personages and their histories, the film creates a political language, an ideological point of view, and a reliable alternative for the Dalits. In essence, departing from the traditions of commercial/art cinema and surviving the rejection of the censor board, Papilio Buddha, like Fandry (2013) and Court (2014) in Marathi, brings the contentious but significant questions of caste and Dalit identity into the cinematic fold.


1 Harish Wankhede (2013) describes the limited filmic response to caste issues thus: “Caste as a peculiar Indian reality is an acceptable fact but it is often cast away by the Bollywood filmmakers.” Also read Wankhede (2008).

2 A debate rages about the release year of Vigathakumaran, and whether it was 1928 or 1930. While veteran journalist Chelangatt Gopalakrishnan maintains that the film was released on 7 November 1928 (also endorsed by the Kerala government), cultural critic R Gopalakrishnan, based on his analysis of handbills and pamphlets, puts the release year at 1930. The debate is inconclusive.

3 Commenting on mainstream Malayalam cinema, Prakash (2010) observes, “What is happening in the mainstream Malayalam cinema is a sort of colonisation. A small minority of highly empowered technicians and artists circulate the cinematic remnants of the dark feudal past.”

4 The much-contested term “new generation” surfaced in Malayalam cinema around 2010. Traffic, released in 2011, is usually regarded as the first Malayalam new generation film. New generation filmmakers like Aashiq Abu, Sameer Thahir and Rajesh Pillai, influenced by global and Indian films, attempt unusual themes and narrative techniques in their films.


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Burke, Jason (2014): “Arundhati Roy Accuses Mahatma Gandhi of Discrimination,” Guardian, 18 July,

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Shankaran, Ratheesh: (2016): “Buddhane Kanda Malayalam Cinema,” Pachakuthira Monthly, 1 July, pp 50–55.

Sreekumar, T T (2012): “Budhashalabhavum Budhacinemayum: The Buddha Butterfly and the Buddha Cinema, Mathrubhumi Illustrated Weekly, 2–8 December, pp 12–21.

Trivedi, Divya (2012): “The Butterfly Effect,” Hindu, 1 October,

Valmiki, Omprakash (2003): Joothan: A Dalit’s Life, Kolkata: Samya.

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— (2013): “Dalit Representation in Bollywood,” Mainstream, Vol 51, No 20.

Zelliot, Eleanor (1972): “Gandhi and Ambedkar: A Study in Leadership,” The Untouchables in Contemporary India, J M Mahar (ed): University of Arizona Press.

Updated On : 8th Dec, 2017


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