Image from “Pada.” Courtesy

On October 4, 1996, militant activists who called themselves the Ayyankali Pada held the Collector of Palakkad, W.R Reddy, hostage and presented a series of demands focused on Adivasi (indigenous peoples) land rights. While the fight for Adivasi land rights has a long history and is an ongoing one, what precipitated this political action was an amendment to the Land Rights Act passed in September 1996 that legalized land transfers of the past twenty years and nullified a Law passed in 1975 that had required the state to restore lands to Adivasis.

The hostage situation lasted nearly nine hours, and although the activists had seemed armed with a gun and explosives, they later claimed that those devices were fake. K.M. Kamal bases his film Pada on this event which was widely followed in India and especially in the state of Kerala.

In the fictionalization of this event in the film, the four activists are ordinary men clad in veshtis and shirts who manage to enter the administrative office of the Collector of Palakkad under the guise or presenting him with a petition. The tense opening scenes prior to the hostage-taking establish these men as people who had carefully planned their action but who were also anxious about the well-being of the families.

When the opportunity arises, the men seize the Collector (named Dange in the film and performed by Arjun Radhakrishnan), tie him up to a chair, force the other members of the public and the Collector’s staff to leave, and lock up the doors and windows. They call the Chief Secretary of the State and begin negotiations. They also notify the media. The film’s suspense-filled narrative switches between two groups of men — the activists and the bureaucrats (including the police) — each of whom works through a volatile situation  that is clearly new to both of them.

We also get occasional scenes that focus on the families of the activists and that of the Collector. The Collector builds a relationship with the men and manages to keep the situation inside the locked room on an even keel and exhibits both fortitude and intelligence in how he navigates it. On the other side, N. Rajashekaran, the Chief Secretary (performed by Prakash Raj), exhibits a level-headedness as he garners the trust of the activists while also managing the multiple people assembled in his office attempting to resolve the situation.

One faction is eager to have the police break down the doors and summons federal forces to support police action. The Chief Secretary is a skilled negotiator who works with the activists and agrees to summon a lawyer who would represent the activists and a judge who would draft an agreement that would be acceptable to both sides. The hostage situation ends peacefully.

For viewers who are familiar with this event, there is not any new information but the film’s script, the excellent acting, and carefully nuanced characters that draw one in. For those who do not know this incident, the film will be a riveting political drama. The film is made some 25 years after the political event and serves to draw attention to the ongoing struggles for Adivasi land rights.

The Ayyankali pada (named for a famed Dalit Activist) did not involve any Adivasis in the action which leads to questions about who acts on behalf of whom, but the activists are members of the Maoist wing of Kerala’s Communist party and see their subversive actions through the lens of class warfare. At the end of the film, viewers are reminded that the struggle for land rights has not been resolved as yet despite the demands of the activists. The film was well-received in India when it premiered in 2022 and is now available on Amazon Prime.   

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