STOCK MARKET BSE NSE

Breaking bondage

Karthikeyan’s Adaiyaalam is a testimony to the trials and tribulations faced by the now-rescued bonded labourers of Tiruvannamalai

Published: 09th June 2021 05:40 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th June 2021 12:18 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Kaniappan, a resident of Tiruvannamalai, grew up listening to the sweet melody of birds chirping and witnessing them hopping from tree to tree, no strings attached. He wishfully looked up, hoping to be like his feathered friends one day free, with wings to go wherever he desired to. However, his dream was short-lived. At a young age, Kaniappan was pulled into the abyss of bonded labour (debt bondage) and began working at a woodcutting unit in the district.

For several decades, despite the Parliament passing the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act in 1976 and making it a criminal offence, Kaniappan continued enduring the abominable practice and working for a ‘muthalali’ (owner) under inhumane conditions. “We are in 2021, yet, such social injustices continue to happen. It is shocking.

Unfortunately, those who are stuck in debt bondage aren’t aware that it is an illegal practice now. The violators take advantage of this. How will those stuck in their clutches be aware of the world outside? Even if they choose to run away, they are dragged back,” says journalist-documentary filmmaker Iyan Karthikeyan, who recently released a 30-minute documentary, Adaiyaalam (Identity), tracing the pain and lives of rescued bonded labourers in Tiruvannamalai.

Iyan’s documentary is bittersweet. It treads on a rope of narratives that make you tearyeyed at parts, instils hope in intervals and makes you cognizant of problems in the society that otherwise go unnoticed in the ‘mainstream world’. Shot before the second wave of the pandemic, the film features the residents of the Irular Colony at Tiruvannamalai district’s Meesanallur village, Vandavasi taluk.

The district administration, under the leadership of former collector KS Kandasamy, rescued and rehabilitated over 500 bonded labourers. As part of the rescue, rehabilitation and livelihood project for former bonded labourers, about 143 houses, with kitchens, built-in toilets, water connections, solar panels, biogas, lights and fans, were set up. The residents, all victims of extreme exploitation are part of the Irular (a scheduled tribe) community and were rescued from different districts including Kanchipuram, Vellore and Cuddalore.

Stories in scenes
“Kaniappan ku ena achu? (What happened to Kaniappan?)”, I fretfully ask the creative, pulling the thread back to his story. “Kaniappan was rescued by an NGO along with 50 other workers. The NGO along with the district administration’s intervention, helped him apply and obtain a voter ID – perhaps the first identity documentation he has ever owned. Kaniappan voted for the first time in 2019.

"He was 85. After losing several decades in the wrong place, he is now living life on his terms. He is one of the residents at the Irular Colony. He is a free man," shares Iyan, co-founder of You Turn, who has made Kaniappan’s face, the adaiyaalam of his documentary.  “One of the main points of this project was to discuss how there are people, natives of this land with a rich history, who have no official identity that they belong here. While there are many structural and developmental reasons — from caste and class hierarchy to vulnerability and poverty that victimise them, a lack of identity furthe r c omp ound s the i r sufferings,” he tells.

The documentary shuttles between the narratives of its residents — all, who have gone through extreme physical, emotional and mental exploitation at the hands of men, violators, who they continue calling muthalalis. “There is still a lot of fear. Despite being rescued, recalling what they had to go through takes them back to the years they spent in isolation and bondage,” he shares.

One of the faces which features in the documentary, a middle-aged man, who has worked almost all his life in a brick kiln, says, ‘Enakku ena solradhunu therile… azhanuma? Therile. (I don’t know what to say. Should I cry? I don’t know)’. Like him, most residents do not know to process their emotions, points out Iyan. “When one has endured ruthlessness for decades, how does one forget it? How do you explain your lived experiences in words?” he asks.

Stepping up
‘Enga kaiya katti vechu adipange (They will tie our hands and beat us)’, ‘I was dragged back to the farm, when I ran away to get married, ‘Kanji dhan s a p t u t rundhom, inge vandh u d h a n k u z h a m b u sapudrom (We used to have only porridge. It’s only after coming here, we’ve started eating kuzhambu)’, ‘We were not given water nor food’, ‘We were not let out anywhere’, ‘Despite my husband’s poor health, he was made to work’…as different voices share their stories, the narrative gets heavier.

The voices make Iyan’s documentary their own. But the melancholic tone seamlessly transitions into that of cheer and hope, when the reassuring voices of the district’s administrators spell out the success of the rehabilitation efforts. “The creat ive process of the documentary was to not just document the triawls and tribulations of the rescued bonded labourers but to also archive the rehabilitation efforts that have been done by the administrators. This will act as a guide in many ways. The process of change cannot stop when the officers change and have to be ongoing.

The government’s continued support in eradicating bonded labour is important. A dairy farm, paper mill, brick kiln, charcoal kiln, timber unit, Anganwadi for the children, park, road access and transportation are among the myriad amenities and resources that have been set up for the residents. Livelihood was a pressing concern. So, several steps have been taken to not only provide them with a roof and basic amenities but also for them to earn a living. This project is an interesting cooperation of various government departments and that makes it a one-of-akind model,” notes Iyan.

In the penultimate frames, two children candidly feed each other, another expresses her joy at being able to play at the park along with her friends, while another group of children pull open a door and rush out in joy — perhaps a metaphor, signifying the newer crop breaking generational exploitation, and running towards a better future.

When Kaniappan makes an appearance, in the end, he seems no less than the larger than life celluloid heroes we are conditioned to worship. He has his ‘mass’ moment, one that he deserves. Clad in a white veshti and shirt, he throws a bright pink shawl on his shoulder in style. The director tells us that it was a moment of joy for everyone the crew, the residents and the officials. “Wearing a shawl on his shoulder, for Kaniappan and those from his ilk, is a symbol of change, a mark that they are not below anyone, that there is no bondage and that they are now free,” he tells. Now, with Kaniappan’s wings unclipped and the dark clouds lifting, he will perhaps fly high and go where his heart takes him.

The documentary can be viewed on Iyan’s YouTube channel Iyan M Karthikeyan.



Comments

Disclaimer : We respect your thoughts and views! But we need to be judicious while moderating your comments. All the comments will be moderated by the newindianexpress.com editorial. Abstain from posting comments that are obscene, defamatory or inflammatory, and do not indulge in personal attacks. Try to avoid outside hyperlinks inside the comment. Help us delete comments that do not follow these guidelines.

The views expressed in comments published on newindianexpress.com are those of the comment writers alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of newindianexpress.com or its staff, nor do they represent the views or opinions of The New Indian Express Group, or any entity of, or affiliated with, The New Indian Express Group. newindianexpress.com reserves the right to take any or all comments down at any time.

flipboard facebook twitter whatsapp