Karuna Kumar’s directorial debut Palasa 1978 narrativises the story of two Dalit brothers, Mohan Rao and Ranga Rao, who live in the village of Ambusoli adjacent to Palasa town.

The brothers, played by Rakshith and Thiruveer, work in Palasa, in cashewnut processing units owned by a Shavukar (a Vysya). They also occasionally perform burrakathas (oral stories) and sing Srikakulam folk songs.

The two brothers fight caste ridden feudal society every day, and are daily brought into battles between two Shavukar brothers, Peddha Shavukaru Lingamurthy, who owns the processing unit, and his brother Chinna Shaukaru Gurumurthy (played by Janardhan and Raghu Kunche).

The movie is said to be inspired by incidents that happened in the region.

Palasa, a rural town, is part of the Uddhanam region of Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh. Historically a cashew cultivation area, it used to have a very significant Maoist presence in the radical form of the CPI-ML.

The major part of Palasa’s economy continues to be shaped by cashew, and the majority of these processing units are indeed owned by Shavukars, some of whom even migrated from Berhampur in Odisha. Labourers working in these units belong to the landless community drawn from the town and villages nearby.

Two factors can explain the migration of Vysyas to different towns. One, harassment at the hands of feudal landlords after Independence.

Second, as Vysyas expand their businesses beyond their own village, towns provide trading centres, marketplaces and transport facilities. These business owners are fewer in number and their businesses span multiple towns, so they are unable (or sometimes unwilling) to become political power centres. Instead they either try to field their “choice of candidates” and become “kingmakers”, or simply “funders”. Either way, they acquire significance in town politics.

This is the case in most towns. But in Palasa, they did this not only for a grip over the town’s political economy, but also for protecting themselves from Maoists in the predominantly Adivasi hinterland.

Many have already described Palasa 1978 as the first ever Srikakulam based Telugu feature, with its yaasa, folk songs, places etc. While acknowledging that point, I move to deal with Dalitality as presented in the movie.

The movie touches upon important questions about Dalits and their everydayness in such a way that they seem almost like plot points. Among the first scenes – a scuffle between “upper caste” and “lower caste” about the water in the well, and a woman’s retort – reminds us of memories of the Karamchedu Dalit massacre in 1985. Similarly, her “owner” abuses the “lower caste” woman and demands sex in exchange for movie tickets.

In fighting these day to day casteist harassments for their existence and survival, the two brothers are later brought in as followers of the two Shavukar brothers, Lingamurthy and Gurumurthy, who by now are already fighting their hegemonic battles in the town, with economic and political interest being the crux.

It has always been the lower castes who fight the upper castes’ battles for hegemony, becoming “footsoldiers” pitted against each other, as Kandalla Balagopal argued in 1987. It is the lower castes who are the major victims and assailants in all hegemonic battles.

The history of hegemonic battles is not only about upper castes-classes (ruling elites) fighting for supremacy, but is marked also by the history of the blood of lower castes. In India. Or elsewhere. Be it communist movements or state separation movements or armed rebellion against the state or factionalism.

This begs us the question: How many Dalits are allowed to move up the ladder in politics or movements?

As shown in one of the movie’s well-made scenes, when Gurumurthy refuses to field Ranga Rao in elections despite his request, Ranga Rao poses an important political question: ”Eppudoo memu jendalu moyadamenaa maaku adhikaram vaddhaa?”

Are we to lift/bear these political flags always, do we not also deserve political power?

Though the movie is set in times when Dalit political consciousness was lower in Andhra Pradesh, the question remains.

The movie tries also to problematise the notion of untouchability by raising a significant point: the sexual harassment of “lower caste” women at the hands of “upper caste” men. “Mee illalloki memu raakudadhu gaani maa pakkallo padukovadaniki meeku okay naa?”

It’s not okay for you if we enter your houses… but is it okay for you to sleep with us?

This question gains prominence. Dalit problems are reduced to “incidents” and their everyday struggles are treated as “common” and ignored. So bringing these questions into the mainstream will help deconstruct the issues facing Dalits every day. Director Karuna Kumar deserves respect for his sheer audacity in bringing in many such questions.

The movie is imbued with Ambedkar’s philosophy through the sincere and efficient character of Sub-Inspector Sebastian. It has taken no less than 100 years for the Telugu film industry to create a movie with Dalit issues as the central core, and speak Ambedkar’s philosophy, and from a Dalit standpoint. This is a monumental achievement, given the nature of the themes dealt with in Telugu film.

Its underlying spirit seems to have been inspired by Dr Ambedkar’s exhortation to Educate, Agitate and Organise – that it is very important for Dalits to realise the importance of education and become part of a larger, ideological Ambedkarite movement against caste oppression and systemic discrimination, rather than indulging and becoming the henchmen of upper-caste hegemonic battles.

This was the reason for Ambedkar’s reluctance to join the communist ranks. He believed that Dalits are the ones who suffer the first blow of violence in any radical movement.

In the movie’s climax, where Mohan Rao admits his crime and walks towards the lock-up on his own, Dr Ambedkar’s portrait is shown. It is a symbolic representation of Mohan Rao after he has been changed by Ambedkarism. It depicts the nature of the reformed Mohan Rao, who looks beyond revenge and seeks an egalitarian society, as against the earlier Mohan Rao, who fights for everyday existence, and in the process is vengeful, sometimes.

Most movies that deal with the caste theme resort to love stories – upper caste girl, lower caste boy – but Palasa 1978 takes up two further points that set it apart.

One, it has Shavukars as the dominant figures, as against feudal landlords such as Reddys, Chowdharys, Kapus or Velamas.

Second, it touches something central to the caste question: the question of land, though in its nascent form. In a conversation with retired Sub-Inspector Sebastian towards the movie’s climax, Mohan Rao says “I have a hope that, in 100 years or 500 years, the egalitarian society, as envisioned by Dr Ambedkar, will surely come. Our Jaathi’s people need to be there to witness such a society. For our Jaathi to be there, our land should be there. So, to protect our land, I will kill Gurumurthy & Co. but not as an act of revenge.”

The movie fills one with a sense of pride and optimism in Ambedkar’s philosophy and the quest for an egalitarian society.

I couldn’t have imagined that one day mainstream Telugu cinema would utter Karamchedu (1985) and Tsunduru (1991) – Dalit massacres perpetrated by upper caste feudal landlords – given the upper castes’ control over the Telugu film industry.

This movie will be remembered, deservedly so, for many reasons in the history of Telugu cinema, but one of its major contributions to the discussions around the caste and varna system in India is this: ”Vinayakudiki yenugu thala theesukochchi pranam posina devudu… yekalavyudi brotana veni endhuku ivvaledhu.”

In Hindu mythology, God brings in an elephant head and saves Vinayaka – why doesn’t the same God act alike when Yekalavya loses his thumb to Dronacharya?

This question had to come from Dalit voice and it has come.

Raviteja Rambarki is a PhD research scholar in sociology at the University of Hyderabad. He writes on the interface between cinema and society.