Palasa 1978 is an excellent and rare example of Bahujan culture and agony depicted in mainstream cinema. There have been movies before that have depicted lives of the working class but none depicts their lives as well as culture with explicit truthfulness and a message that is like a ‘fusillade of pistol shots’. The bluntness of the movie is nothing less than a cultural shock to Indian cinema, which has internalized the loathsome activity of censoring realities, in subtleties. In a time like this, Palasa 1978 is a great work of political art. It shows the upper castes in their characteristic light. How they associate with fellow men of different castes for a purpose and make them their pawns. But Ranga Rao and Mohan Rao are no nonsense brothers. Courageous, ready to snatch their legitimate birthright, and draw some blood in the course. The movie is thrilling and intense, with its dialogues being the backbone of a powerful ride.
The movie begins with a character playing Hanuman (in a folk performance) on his knees, being punched and bleeding from his mouth, who later gives up, and the scene is followed by folk songs about Palasa, a town in Andhra Pradesh known for its cashew production. It is the story of a family and two brothers who work in a cashew factory and are folk dancers by tradition. They have seen and observed segregation based on caste but things begin to change when they don’t find things normal anymore. Revolt boils inside them on occasions. The earliest incident begins with the narrator saying ‘That day was the most unforgettable day in Mohan Rao’s life. This was the same day singer Mohan Rao turned to be goon Mohan Rao’. Mohan Rao auditions for a singing competition, his performance is enjoyed and appreciated by everyone but the judges do not give him the first prize because of his caste. The narrator says ‘That was the day we realized, not just our community but our song is also untouchable’.
In later incidents, Mohan Rao’s father is attacked by upper caste men for requesting to draw water from the well, and Mohan Rao smashes the attacker’s face. The revolt touches its peak when the factory owner’s son makes illicit advances towards a woman’s honor. Ranga Rao confronts him and says, ‘lower caste women aren’t prostitutes’ and gets beaten up. But this is a terrible mistake. The brothers take this as an absolute and complete insult to their honor and decide to break some bones in the dark of the night and they paralyse the factory owner’s son belonging to the mercantile caste. As the story progresses, the two brothers start working for the factory owner after killing his goons and a local muscleman dreaded by the entire village, who were tasked to kill the brothers. They help him in his illegal social and political activities in return for a secure life and jobs. The character of Ranga Rao, brilliantly played by actor Thiruveer acts as a catalyst in Mohan Rao’s rebellion. In one of the scenes, he reminds his brother of their original self ‘We are artists not rowdies, we became rowdies for them, they became leaders with our help.’
It echoes the sentiments of millions of various working class communities, who continue living with rage inside them, who have become what they never wanted to be but had to owing to the circumstances created by the rich, the casteist.
Moving on towards the movie’s end, a strict law abiding police officer who is tough on criminals, Sebastian, enters. He finally gets hold of Mohan Rao and takes him for an encounter. The conversation between the two must be unparalleled in the history of Indian cinema. Mohan Rao in his grieved state explains it to him why he turned into a hardcore criminal, pleads for allowing him his vengeance for his brother’s and wife’s murder and is amazed by Sebastian’s response. Sebastian being a Dalit himself, coming from a scavenging caste had chosen the path of education and subsequently law enforcement despite suffering calamities. As Mohan Rao sits in front of the gun to be shot, Sebastian, the tough cop gives him a message. The message is the essential message of Dr Ambedkar …he asks him to Read, to educate himself, to travel across India and meet his people, listen to their stories, learn from their experiences and share their pain. If Sebastian fails to bring the criminals to justice, he would call Mohan Rao back to take his revenge. Mohan Rao travels across India, reads in libraries, sleeps on footpaths, meets fellow Dalits and after years takes a musical instrument in his hands to join a group of folk artists. Mohan Rao, when he gets old, gets a call from Sebastian. He goes back and takes his revenge by cutting off the heads of two men who had continued to haunt their village and were about to evict the entire village and turn the residents homeless.
Below is a part of the conversation between the cop Sebastian and Mohan Rao which is worth reproducing here:
Sebastian: We don’t have basic human rights we deserve. I felt bad, I used to cry, I felt like killing everyone. My father used to show me the statue at the junction and said he was also born in our caste. He faced more struggles than us. One hand of the statue had a book, the other pointed towards a direction. He used to tell me that the only way to reach the destination he shows is by studying. I felt he is our god because no god was born in our caste to listen and understand our struggle. I studied taking him as an inspiration
Do you think this problem will be solved if either of us kill them?
Since ages this has been written as our fate with our blood and their hands. Will this be erased?
4 years ago 6 of them were killed in Karamchedu.
30 houses were burnt two years ago.
A year ago here in Vizianagaram they all united and killed a man from our caste.
One from us is killed every day in this country citing reasons like he sat in front of them or he stood in front of them. Did people from all the dead families start taking revenge? It’s not them who should be killed. Their thoughts should be killed. They want us to be like this. The mark they have put on us saying we are untouchables and are less than them should be erased.
Mohan Rao: What about my revenge? I can’t live with this grudge.
Sebastian: I will take care of your revenge. As per law I’ll make sure they are behind bars. This is not just your revenge. This is the revenge of all. Search for people like you, remind them about our art and skill. Do your bit in uniting our caste people who have been divided by higher caste people for their benefits. Study till you understand all these things. There are so many Mohan Raos like you in this country, listen to their struggle. Make warriors who will raise their voice against those who divided humans on the basis of castes, who made us fight with our own people, who deprived us of education and money so that we will be their slaves forever. This is not just your revenge, it is the revenge of us all, the ones who have been struggling with this caste disorder. This is the revenge which is legal and also justified.
The message is clear. To build a just society where one would live in peaceful coexistence, human dignity. That, it is not right and morally correct to inflict violence on fellow humans or to have a violent outlook. But it is imperative to be violent at exceptional times. When the system not just fails but conspires against a life of freedom and self-respect one must use the weapon of education and intellect to change the world, but it becomes necessary at times to be an extremist. To opt for extremism. Not unexamined but intelligently directed extremism. The system and the criminal must become the victim of the anguish of the oppressed. It seldom happens that a movie about oppression invokes deepest desires not only of justice, but of hope as well. A hope of change, reform and offering the option of a path to choose. Ranga Rao remained an artist at heart till his death, and so did Mohan Rao till his surrender after years of evading the police.
The story is not less than a folklore, which despite its violent elements can be told to children. To teach them what needs to be taught, the good and bad of a terrible system and how one must educate, through books and life to become a better person. Karuna Kumar has done good service to the nation by producing meaningful cinema, which is educative, and reflective of truth. He has played his part as a political unit greatly, by giving way to propagation of ideas, cultures and messages that matter. Actors Rakshit Atluri and Thiruveer have done immense justice to the characters they play with incredible mastery.
(Views are based on limited understanding of the expressions because of the language barrier.)
Sudhanshu Singh is a student of political science, a Marxist Ambedkarite, and seeking to serve the law of the land.