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All about the 18-feet barrier in temples

Caste discrimination inside modern-day Kerala temples seen through the journey of a music band is chronicled in a docu that will be screened tomorrow

Did you know that 18 feet was symbolic distance, which the Dalits had to maintain while crossing the upper castes in Kerala? "In some cases, it was eight feet, sometimes, 66 feet, depending on the community one belonged to," says Kochi-based film editor Renjith Kuzhur, who highlights the subject in his debut directorial, 18 Feet. The 77-minute documentary, produced by Films Division, premiered at the Mumbai International Film Festival in February and bagged Kuzhur an award for Best Editor. "Many in the audience were oblivious to the discriminatory practices in modern-day Kerala," adds the 33-year-old graduate from the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata. Kuzhur will showcase the film in Mumbai as part of a screening organised by The Vikalp Archive at Jnanapravaha.

PR Remesh (wearing a garland) gets a grand reception after winning  Kerala State Folk Lore Academy Award in 2014; a still from the documentary; and 18 Feet’s posterPR Remesh (wearing a garland) gets a grand reception after winning  Kerala State Folk Lore Academy Award in 2014; a still from the documentary; and 18 Feet's poster

Folk expressions
Shot over eight years, the film follows the journey of protagonist, PR Remesh, a KSRTC bus conductor, belonging to the the Paraya community, who co-founded the folk music band Karinthalakoottam along with MV Mohanan in the late 90s. He’s also an expert in folk arts and the winner of the Kerala State Folklore Academy Award in 2014. "Remesh has seen humiliating experiences due to the caste he comes from. His father once got beaten for ‘contaminating’ what was understood to be savarna space," says the director, who hails from Kuzhur, a village near Vadama (where the band originated) in Kerala’s Thrissur district. He has been privy to the band’s journey, having worked with Mohanan in his Dalit colony as part of a literacy mission programme for aged people.

"Initially, I was also involved in the band’s research plan that involved collecting songs and disseminating knowledge from community elders to locals," he adds.

Having performed over 5,000 shows in India and abroad, the 15-member band has heralded the growth of folk music culture in Kerala. "Today, there are more than 3,000 registered folk bands in Kerala alone. Karintha-lakoottam inspired many of them because they popularised folk music, previously considered subordinate.

Even today, they continue to use folk instruments and their music keeps alive the memories of injustice that their ancestors have faced and their own individual experiences of caste oppression. The film attempts to narrate these experiences and how they have constructed their music as a mode of celebrating their very identities and culture," he says.


Renjith Kuzhur

Current scene
When we ask if discrimination still exists in his hometown, Kuzhur replies, "Due to a liberal atmosphere that the Communist rule brought along, or may be, because of a high literacy rate, nobody openly practises this method of distance-keeping. Now discrimination exists in other forms. For instance, Akhilesh, one of the characters in the movie, had a girlfriend, who ended the relationship when she realised he was Dalit. Another character, Subhash gets married to a Nair woman. Her family rejects her and she is thrown out of her home. Even today, there are temples where only the upper caste can enter on a daily basis; lower caste members are allocated special days for access," he sums up.

On: April 22, 6.30 pm
At: Jnanapravaha, third floor, Queen’s Mansion, G Talwatkar Marg (next to John Cannon and Cathedral Middle School), Fort.

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