What is the caste of your food? This question points its fingers at Kerala’s seemingly secular society which puts on the fake show that the caste system is an issue the state has already solved. And the query is raised by Sreebala K Menon through her debut short film ‘Panthibhojanam’ which was previewed at Thiruvananthapuram recently.
Sreebala chose Santhosh Echikanam’s well-acclaimed short story for her 20-minute short film mainly to highlight this socially relevant issue. The story is a poignant reminder that despite all its cultural and social advancements, Kerala society still retains part of the age old caste system and that Dalits still face social stigma even in urban circles. The manners and food habits of those from the lower section of the social ladder are still laughed at by the so-called upper class who are unwilling to let them enter their world unless it is for their benefit.
Sreebala spins the film around five lawyers, four from the creamy upper caste who are forced to dine with Rugmini the Dalit at Susan’s home. The story ends with Sangeetha Namboodiri vomiting the food brought by Rugmini, but Sreebala has added an epilogue where Rugmini wonders when they will all come to her home for the real ‘panthibhojanam’.
“The ‘panthibhojanam’ recorded in history has the lower class having the food normally eaten by the upper class. Never once have we heard about Namboodiris and others going to Dalit homes and eating their food. That is what the story aims to focus Sreebala K Menon’s short film ‘Panthibhojanam’ is a dig at Kerala’s puffed up image of a casteless society on. That caste is something that creates borders even among the highly educated men and women of today,” says Sreebala.
She made the film to ‘convince myself that I can do a film on my own’.
“It is like a test dose. I am happy with the final product even though it has a few faults,” she says.
Sreebala is planning to market the film through book stalls as a DVD.
Now that short films have attained popularity for their content and style, Sreebala is hopeful that her film will reach out to many as short film festivals and video film festivals have become common in Kerala.
“Short film making is like blogging.
And it is a woman-friendly world too. There is no need to search for a producer, no paraphernalia is necessary. With Rs 2 lakh you can bring out a good film. Not all stories need to be stretched to full-length feature films,” says Sreebala who is the associate director with one of Malayalam’s most popular directors- Sathyan Anthikkad.
Sreebala created history of sorts when she started assisting Sathyan Anthikkad for the film ‘Narendran Makan Jayakanthan Vaka’ as part of her internship for a visual communication course.
She then joined C-DIT but her mind was hooked on the film field. So she returned to assist him in ‘Achuvinte Amma’ and stayed on to complete his next films, ‘Rasathanthram’, ‘Vinodayatra’ and ‘Innathe Chinthavishayam’.
She turned associate director with ‘Bhagyadevatha’ and is now busy with his new film starring Jayaram and Mamta Mohandas.
“When I came on the scene there were very few girls working in the technical field. But it has changed now. Most of the prominent directors have women assistant directors. The concept of film making as a man’s job is passe,” she says.
Though being part of the direction crew is tough, Sreebala says she enjoys every bit. “You have to be mentally and physically fit to survive the strain of filming.
And you learn to keep your cool whatever happens. The shooting may go on and on, sometimes at the cemetery, sometimes on the road.” So has she ever had to deal with the much publicised star acts? “Never,” she shakes her head. ‘This field is very professional.
For everyone, time is money. So they don’t throw tantrums or try to show off. And being a woman I get a lot of support too. Once here you learn human management and mould actors into our job.” The winner of Kerala Sahitya Akademi award in the humour category in 2006 for her story collection ‘19, Canal Road’, Sreebala says her hands are too full with the new project to write.
As if to prove the point, her phone starts ringing. It is Sathyan Anthikkad calling from Alappuzha to know about the pre-shooting arrangements.
And Sreebala switches to her associate director mode happily.