Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal is the first feature film to be made on the endosulfan tragedy and has already created waves at international film festivals
A camera clicks not just the picture of a person, but offers the world a glimpse into his or her life. Says a father, who is a photographer, to his son in the darkroom, with a loving pat on his head. The son clings on to this lesson, and his father's camera, and years later the truth of this remark dawns on him in a nondescript village in Kasaragod district of Kerala.
A village where he hears neither the chirping of birds, nor the croaking of frogs, nor can he see any fish gliding past his feet when he stands in the stream. A village whose young are born with deformed bodies and debilitated minds. A village—one among several others—ravaged by a pesticide called endosulfan. And the little boy, who is now a photojournalist (Kunchacko Boban) and is covering the tragedy, remembers his father's words, with the camera in his trembling hands.
That he does not even have a name in the film is proof enough that the protagonist in National Award-winning director Dr Biju's venture Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal (Birds with large wings) is the tragedy itself. Over two decades of aerial spraying of endosulfan by helicopters—the 'birds with large wings'—on the government-owned cashewnut plantation is widely believed to be the cause of cancer, skin diseases, congenital deformities, mental retardation and hydrocephalus (the head increases abnormally in size) in the children in Kasaragod. Though, there were 'scientific studies' both for and against the effects of using endosulfan, public perception was heavily against the use of the pesticide. The Kerala government banned it in 2010, while the Centre introduced a temporary ban the following year. Last heard it has promised to phase out the pesticide completely by 2017.
Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal is the first feature film to be made on the endosulfan tragedy and has already created waves at international film festivals. It is only befitting that Biju, a homoeopathy doctor who practised in Kasaragod, and whose last film Perariyathavar (Names unknown) fetched him the National Award for best film on environment conservation, helmed the venture.
Unlike the 'studies', Biju's script, which is part-fictionalised, never tries to tread the middle path—it asserts that the pesticide was the root cause of all evils. It is based on a real-life photo-feature on the endosulfan victims by R. Madhuraj, a photojournalist with a prominent Malayalam daily. The story flits between the present (that is 2012) and 2001 when Boban first visits the district for the assignment, with peeks into his childhood and his 2006 visit to Kasaragod. He meets the people who were the backbone of the agitation against the production and use of endosulfan. That they appear as themselves on the silver screen—like Leela Kumari and Sree Pedre—adds a sense of reality to the proceedings. As real as the rain that follows Boban and his team as they go about their assignment.
As real as the victims who are confined to dark rooms, kept away from the public eye. Mostly children, whose childhood had been cruelly nipped in the bud by various diseases that had left them with twisted limbs, stunted growth and poor eyesight. There is no laughter, no scampering feet, no tinkering of anklets. Some are too weak to even shield themselves from the photographer's inquisitive lens, others drag themselves away from it into the darkest corners of their thatched huts. Boban portrays the angst of a man caught between his job and emotions well, breaking down on a couple of occasions. He has earlier admitted in interviews that those were real tears. It would have been surprising if they weren't—a few scenes of his interaction with the victims, especially with a child named Badusha, will tug at your heart.
The world took notice of his photo-feature and it managed to ruffle a few feathers at the top. However, when he returned in 2006, he found not much had changed as far as the plight of the victims was concerned. More dead and diseased children, more depressed parents, more misery, with little hope of compensation and care. It was in 2011, at the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants—scenes of which were shot in sub-zero temperatures in Canada—that a global ban on endosulfan was reiterated, much against the wishes of the Indian government.
Boban returns a year later to Kasaragod, to lush green fields, to the chirping of birds and crickets, to the butterflies... to nature. And its beauty is captured brilliantly by cinematographer M.J. Radhakrishnan, a regular in Biju's team. Be it the rains, or the dry and parched fields, Radhakrishnan complements the moods of the story with his poignant frames. Frames that haunt you long after the film is over. Like the last one where Boban tries to capture a bed-ridden child through his lens, only to find a row of bodies, neatly lined up on the floor. He is hallucinating, of course. But sometimes, hallucinations are not far removed from reality.
Film: Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal
Director: Dr Biju
Cast: Kunchacko Boban, Prakash Bare, Anumol