Dalit film festival to honor South India’s first female actor

By Jose Kavi

New Delhi, Feb. 16, 2019: Several Indian American associations plan to hold a Dalit Festival in New York to honor the legendary first female actor of southern India, a victim of casteist violence.

The February 23-24 international festival, the first such event, aims to expose to the world the nuances of Dalit life that are buried underneath the popular forms of artistic expressions.

It will also encourage a dialogue on the lack of representation and diversity in the Indian and South Asian film industry on the experiences of Dalit lives and try to create solidarity with other oppressed groups tied into a Fourth World project through the intervention of film and other forms of media.

“Historically, the experiences of Dalits, erstwhile untouchables, and the lower castes (totaling over half a billion people) in films have been camouflaged by appropriating their voices into a caste-neutral narrative. Oft-repeated incidents of suppressing Dalit voices and Dalit assertion have maintained the cultural hegemony of dominating castes in India,” says the website of the Dalit Film and cultural festival 2019 (DALIFF).

According to the festival organizers, whenever Dalit characters are presented on screen, it is either to degrade the humanity of the Dalit or term them as despicable characters deserving humiliation. “Such casteist gestures have worsened the quality of Dalit cultural life in India, pushing them down to the nadir of humane existence,” the website adds.

The festival is organized by the Ambedkar Association of North America (AANA), Boston Study Group (BSG), Ambedkar International center, Ambedkar International Mission (AIM), The New School, and the Ambedkar Buddhist Association, Texas (ABAT).

The festival will screen six feature and six documentaries, surrounding the lives, struggles for identity and assertion of Dalits. These films are in Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi and even Nepali.

The feature films include: Pariyerum Perumal and Kaala in Tamil; Papilo Buddha in Malayalam; Fandry and Bole India Jai Bhim in Marathi and Masaan in Hindi.

The documentary films are:

• Kakkoos, a Tamil documentary on the life of manual scavengers,
• “We Have Not Come Here To Die,” a documentary on the caste discrimination in educational institutions;
• Pistulya, a Marathi documentary on struggles of a young Dalit boy who wants to study;
• Gandhi, Untouchables and Me on the Dalit protests at JNU;
• The Battle of Bhima Koregaon a documentary about the 500 Mahar soldiers who joined the British forces and defeated the Peshwa rule in 1818 and t
• The Dalan Series from Nepal on the problems of landless laborers oppressed and abused by the landed castes.

Some prominent guests and invitees for the DALIFF are directors Pa Ranjith; Nagaraj Manjule, Bomakku Murali – social and political activist and also a film maker and Niharika Singh, actress and winner of Femina Miss India Earth.

DALIFF will be organized at Columbia University on February 23 and in The New School on February 24, New York.

There is no entry fee for the screenings, say the organizers.

The international festival is dedicated to the memory of P K Rosy, the legendary first female actor of southern India, and pioneer of Indian feminist cinema. She died in penury, shunned by the public.

“It is to honor her inspiring legacy and courageous work that the Dalit Film Festival proudly asserts the art of Dalit Cinema and of Dalits in Cinema,” the organizers explain.

The character of Rosy was depicted in Celluloid, a 2013 Malayalam biographical film co-produced, written and directed by Kamal, starring Prithviraj, Sreenivasan, Mamta Mohandas and Chandni in the lead roles.

Rosy, also called Rosamma, was a Dalit Christian woman who was the first heroine of the first Malayalam language movie Vigathakumaran (The Lost Child), directed by J. C. Daniel. She played the character of a Nair woman “Sarojini” in the movie.

She was born to Paulose and Kunji, as Rosamma, in 1903 at Nandankode, Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) to a Pulaya family. Her living relatives confirm her father died when she was young leaving her family poor. She spent her younger years as a grass-cutter. But they also remember her incredible affinity toward the arts from when she was young.

During those days, acting was often not a woman’s work and women who considered acting as a serious profession were labeled licentious or “loose.

When Daniel “discovered” her in 1928, Rosy was already an experienced actor, skilled in a form of Tamil Dalit theater called Kaakarashi. However, Dalits in have been historically ostracized from “mainstream” professions.

When Vigathukumaran was released, members of the feudal Nair community were enraged to see a Dalit woman portray a Nair woman. Many members of the film industry refused to attend the film’s opening if Rosy was present there. The director, Daniel, didn’t invite her to the opening at Capitol theater in Thiruvananthapuram, fearing backlash. But Rosy watched the second showing.

Reports state that she fled in a lorry that was headed to Tamil Nadu, married the lorry driver, Kesavan Pillai and lived her life quietly in Tamil Nadu as “Rajammal.”

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