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Killing fields of Kasaragod

Dr Biju lays bare the endosulfan tragedy through his film ‘Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal’, earning him his third National Award

  • Actor Kunchako Boban with 16-year-old BadushahImage Credit: Jayaprakash Athaloor
  • A 17-year-old girl victim of endosulfan exposureImage Credit: Supplied
  • Dr Biju won his first National Award for his third film, Veettilekulla Vazhi (The Way Home)Image Credit: Supplie

Kasaragod, a district in the southern Indian state of Kerala, is blessed with an enchanting landscape. With the Western Ghats to the east and the Arabian Sea to the west, this verdant land is traversed by several rivers, and boasts a rich cultural heritage where more than five languages are spoken.

Shattering this vision of a happy and glorious land comes the grim tale of the debilitating effects of endosulfan, a toxic pesticide that was used on state-owned plantations by the Kerala government until 2001. For those of us away from Kasaragod, the sixth film by Bijukumar Damodaran — better known as Dr Biju — “Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal” (Birds With Large Wings) is an eye-opener.

From the mid-1970s to 2000, the Plantation Corporation of Kerala used helicopters to spray endosulfan over the land. The local people were told that it was a “medicine” to kill tea mosquitoes infesting the cashew plantations.

Over a period of time, people started noticing dead fish in rivers. There were dead frogs floating in ponds. Honeybees, fowl and cows were dying. Residents realised that even the chirping of birds had fallen silent. But why that was so was the big question on everyone’s mind.

In 1979, a farmer suspected this pesticide to be the cause of the deformities and stunted growth in three new-born calves.

Leelakumari, an agricultural officer in Kasaragod, was perhaps the first to file a case against the indiscriminate spraying of endosulfan. Having lost her brother to cancer, she suspected that his death had something to do with the pesticide.

The story of “Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal” is inspired by the photographs of Madhuraj, the chief photographer of “Mathrubhumi”, a leading daily in Kerala).

Madhuraj first visited Kasaragod in 2000 during the monsoon season. His lens not only caught the breathtaking beauty of Kasaragod, but also captured for posterity the tragic stories of several children affected by endosulfan spraying. Some were born with visible physical deformities, while the lives of others, although born normal and healthy, had been blighted by endosulfan. Multiple disorders, including neuro-behavioural disorders, cognitive disorders, blindness and hydrocephalus (a rare medical condition in which there’s an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain) became a common challenge for many parents.

Madhuraj’s photographs, presented at the Stockholm Convention of POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) held in April 2011, served as a testimony to the cruel effects of endosulfan. Despite protests by the pesticide manufacturers from India, it was decided at the global conference to add endosulfan to the United Nations list of POPs to be eliminated worldwide. Subsequently, in May 2011, the Supreme Court of India passed an order banning the production, use and sale of endosulfan.

“Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal” transports viewers to Kasaragod through the eyes of the photojournalist, played by Kunchako Boban. Veteran actor Nedumudi Venu plays the chief editor of the newspaper he works for. The film features victims of the tragedy, including five children.

There’s Sheelavathi. It’s hard to believe that the “girl” lying on the bed is actually a 51-year-old woman. Sheelavathi was reduced to this state after she was exposed to endosulfan as a teenager.

Can anything be more painful than having to watch both your children reduced to a life of nothing? This mother of two tells the photographer in the film that her children had been born normal and healthy, but a few years later their growth was stunted and their vision started getting affected. Today, her 15-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter, who cannot walk, are completely dependent on their parents for everything.

And there’s the poignant story of 16-year-old Badushah, affected by hydrocephalus since he was six months old.

Dr Biju says that filming was not easy; his team members broke down while interacting with the affected children. Shot in Kasaragod and Canada, the film took more than a year to make.

“Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal” is a stark reminder about the injustice inflicted on the people of Kasaragod by the callous attitude of the Kerala government.

A practising homoeopath, Dr Biju is a self-taught filmmaker. He believes in narrating stories that have social relevance. And with “Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal” Dr Biju won his third National Award for Best Film on Environment Conservation.

How does he find a producer for his films that are not box-office draws? “Initially it was not easy, especially with my first three films,” he says. “But after the National Award for ‘Veettilekulla Vazhi’ [2010], it got better. Fortunately I have been able to find producers who are artistically inclined and their heart beats for the stories I narrate.”

Florida-based Dr A.K. Pillai agreed to produce “Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal”. He first saw the victims of endosulfan during a visit to an ayurvedic centre in Kasaragod. “There I met Dr Mohan Kumar [a good Samaritan in Kasaragod whose character is played by Prakash Bare in the film] who was treating patients without taking any remuneration. He gave me books on endosulfan. It made me want to expose the dangerous effect of this pesticide,” says Pillai in an e-mail. “Biju is a great man, yet simple and listens to all his crew members. He avoids unnecessary expenses.”

To recreate the 2011 UN convention scene, the crew went to Canada. The main challenge in this schedule involved the casting of about 100 junior artistes from various countries to essay the roles of representatives of various countries.

A special screening of the film was held for the UN in Geneva in November and attended by environmentalists from the world over. After the screening, members of the audience told Dr Biju that the scene depicting the clash between the corporate lobby and environmentalists was handled far too gently than what actually happened at the 2011 UN Convention. “It was dominated by an angry crowd of corporates,” says Dr Biju.

“Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal” also won the International Humanitarian Star Award in Jakarta last September.

After its screening at the Indian Panorama in Delhi last year, Cyriac Joseph, chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of India, wrote to the Kerala government asking about the action taken to help the victims.

“The government replied within a week with a list of the measures to rehabilitate and improve victims’ lives, but only 5,500 victims were included,” says Dr Biju. “Some 10,000 victims were left out. Subsequently, another list was prepared to include 2,500 more victims. But many deserving people are still neglected. Kasaragod has earned disrepute owing to endosulfan,” he adds.

A prolific writer, Dr Biju was inspired by the works of great directors such as Alejandro González Iñárritu and Kim Ki-duk. He won the Kerala State Film Award for Best Article on Cinema in 2010. His next film, “Kaadu Pookunna Neram” (When the Woods Bloom) is in post-production.

This film is about the misuse of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) by the government and its intrusion into the lives of civilians. Indrajith plays a constable and Rima Kallingal is a social activist working for the welfare of the tribal people. Dr Biju hopes the film will do the festival rounds before it releases in India later this year.

Dr Biju is closely associated with the NGO Endosulfan Peeditha Janakeeya Munani (EPJM), which works for the welfare of the victims. A day care centre for the affected children, Sneha Veedu, has been set up at Ambalathara in Kasaragod. “Many parents are still in debt having borrowed money for their children’s treatment. Although the state government has agreed in principle to write off their loans, it is yet to be done,” he says.

Dr Biju’s earlier films

Dr Biju’s first film, “Saira”, is about a female journalist who is raped during a communal incident. It was the opening film in the Cinemas of the World section at Cannes 2007. Navya Nair and Nedumudi Venu played the lead roles. “Saira” fetched Nair the Kerala State’s Best Actress award and the Best Music Director award for Ramesh Narayan.

“Raman”, his second film, was a political tale screened at the Cairo Festival 2009 in the Incredible India section. This story featuring Anoop Chandran in the lead shows how economic, cultural and military invasion ends up like terrorist activities destroying Third World countries.

“Veettilekulla Vazhi” (The Way Home), his third venture, earned Dr Biju his first National Award. This story about a doctor who takes on the responsibility of escorting a dying patient’s son to meet his father, (a terrorist), is not a regular tale. Why would anyone embark on such a hazardous journey, a question many ask the doctor en route as he travels from Delhi to Ladakh. Prithviraj plays the doctor while Dr Biju’s son Govardhan essays the role the little boy. It won the Best Malayalam Film national award, besides garnering accolades at film festivals at Zanzibar and Spain.

“Akashathinte Niram” (Colour of the Sky), his fourth film, premiered at the Shanghai Festival 2012 in the official competition. This story is of a thief who finds himself trapped on an island with just four inhabitants, an old man, a 7-year-old boy, a mute woman and a middle-aged man. This brings about a change in his nature and attitude towards life and people. Shot on Neil Island (off Andaman and Nicobar Islands), it boasts an impressive cast of actors such as Nedumudi Venu, Prithviraj, Indrajith, Amala Paul and Govardhan.

“Perariyathavar” (Names Unknown), his fifth film, brought home his second National Award in 2014 for Best Film on Environment Conservation. Centred around a widower and his son, it dwelt on the woes of the marginalised section of people. Acclaimed comedian Suraj Venjaramoodu won the best actor award for the film that year.

The man who brought Kasaragod’s reality to the world

“Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal” is not a biographical story of Madhuraj, the chief photographer of “Mathrubhumi”, but a docu-fiction inspired by his photographs taken in Kasaragod.

Madhuraj first visited Kasaragod in 2000. His photographs of the endosulfan victims were displayed along with the works of painter Bhagyanathan at exhibitions organised by SEEK (Society for Environment Education Kerala) in more than 400 centres across Kerala. Evoking a good response and raising public awareness to the tragedy, these photographs were later used as a reference at the Stockholm Convention of 2011 and subsequently for the Supreme Court order banning the use of endosulfan.

Madhuraj’s photographs were used for an exclusive issue, “Jeevanashini”, published by “Mathrubhumi” in 2010 on the effects of endosulfan over a decade. Recipient of several awards, including the Maja Koyna national award, IMCC award and Silver World Medal at New York Festival, Madhuraj’s panel exhibition on water exploitation by MNCs in Palakkad caught the attention of world leaders and activists. It led to the closing of an MNC in Palakkad.

Madhuraj’s love and respect for the environment can be traced to his childhood, when he attended nature camps conducted by Professor John C. Jacob, the founder of SEEK.

He regrets not being able to visit Kasaragod for a follow-up owing to work. The state government has always been shirking responsibility for its actions, he says. “It’s high time the victims get relief from their woes.”

What are POPs?

POPs, or Persistent Organic Pollutants, are organic chemical substances possessing a particular combination of physical and chemical properties such that, once released into the environment, they remain intact for exceptionally long periods of time. They become widely distributed throughout the environment as a result of natural processes. Specific effects of POP include cancer, allergies and hypersensitivity, damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, reproductive disorders and disruption of immune system. Some POPs are endocrine disrupters, and by altering the hormonal system, they can damage the reproductive systems of the exposed individuals and their offsprings.

Mythily Ramachandran is a writer based in Chennai, India.

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