On February 27, Kanthan The Lover of Colour won the top prize at the 49th Kerala State Film Awards for 2018. The next day, its director, Shareef Easa, was back to work at the rubber plantation in Kannur district’s Chapparapadavu village where he has been a daily wager for the past 15 years.
Kanthan, about a child and his grandmother battling poverty and deforestation, was selected as Best Film from among 104 titles by a jury led by director Kumar Shahani. For Shareef Eesa, the prize is both a vindication of his efforts over the past year-and-a-half as well as a way to ease his debt. “I had sold my wife’s jewellery and my camera, and I still have a debt of Rs 20 lakh,” Eesa told Scroll.in. “The best thing about the award is that now I can confidently ask for more time to repay my debt.”
Shareef Eesa is 32 years old, and has been tapping rubber since he was a teenager. His routine involves waking up at four in the morning, walking to the plantation two kilometres away from his house, using his knives to create notches in rubber trees and collecting the latex in a red plastic pot tied around his waist. This latex is then handed over to the owner of the plantation.
Eesa earns Rs 600 per day. “I get Rs 2 per tree and I can tap 300 trees in six hours,” he said.
In 2017, Eesa wove into his routine efforts to direct and produce Kanthan. The film explores the hardscrabble lives of Kerala’s Adivasis through the story of the titular protagonist, a young orphan who lives with his grandmother. Kanthan has been entirely shot in an Adivasi hamlet in Wayanad – the Nengara colony of the Adiya tribe. It is the first movie in the Ravula dialect spoken by the Adiyas. The background music uses traditional Adivasi musical instruments. Shareef’s friend and poet Pramod Kooveri, who lives in his village, wrote the screenplay. Another friend, Priyan, shot the movie.
Eesa spent his life’s savings on mounting the project and then borrowed heavily to complete it. He sold the camera with which the film was shot for Rs 60,000 when a fund crunch threatened to stall post-production.
Shareef Eesa’s life itself is somewhat like a movie script. He was born to daily wage labourers PP Easa and C Asya. He has been working alongside studying since childhood. Eesa has distributed newspapers, reared cattle, been a wedding videographer, and worked as a reporter for the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-owned Malayalam newspaper Deshabhimani. He started rubber tapping when he was 18.
Eesa has also held prominent positions in the children, student and youth wings of the CPI(M). When he was 13, a play written and directed by him won the first prize at an inter-school competition. Since then, Eesa has directed several professional and amateur dramas and street plays. He has also directed three short films and worked as an assistant director in two low-budget feature films.
The leap towards feature filmmaking was triggered by the suicide of Dalit research scholar Rohit Vemula at Hyderabad Central University in January 2016. “His suicide made me cry, and I decided to work on a 10-minute short film on him,” Eesa said.
The idea evolved when Eesa and screenwriter Pramod visited Adivasi hamlets in Wayanad. “After several rounds of discussions and brainstorming sessions, we decided to tell the story through the lives of Kanthan and his grandmother,” Eesa said. The film movie speaks against the atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis, the curse of caste, and the destruction of nature. “It is a socially relevant movie,” Eesa said.
The project got a boost when local activist Dayabai was cast in the grandmother’s role. “Dayabai simply lived her role as Kanthan’s grandmother,” Eesa said. “She was one of the guiding spirits on the movie. We also got talented child artist Prajith to play Kanthan.”
Eesa and Pramod stayed in the Adivasi colony in Nengara for over two months and learnt the Ravula dialect. Production on the film began in July 2017. “The Adivasi characters speak Raula throughout the movie,” Eesa said. “The five-member crew stayed in the village until the filming was completed.”
Kanthan began its journey towards acclaim when it was selected in the regional language competition section of the Kolkata International Film Festival in November 2018. “The invitation was a dream come true for us,” Eesa recalled. “It was a recognition of our hard work. The selection helped us realise our dream of travelling by flight too. Being a film student, what more could I have asked for?”
However, Eesa was disappointed that the Kerala Chalachithra Academy, which holds the annual International Film Festival of Kerala, passed over Kanthan. “This state award is a fitting reply to those who denied us the entry,” Eesa said.
The director’s goal is to ensure that he will keep making films – and for that, he needs a steady income. He owns three cows, and he hopes to buy more and set up a cattle farm. “I can continue to be an independent filmmaker if I get a regular income,” Eesa said.