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Jijo S. Palatty thinks that some people might find his new film, The Box, to be uncomfortable viewing.
Set in an unnamed Irish suburb, the 15-minute short follows a rebellious young Malayali girl as she tries to break free from the strictures and dominance of her religious father and his friends. The acting is raw, but the cinematography is rich with stylized shots, and dramatic camera angles.
The short film is a critique of segregation and its drivers, and an exploration of what Palatty sees as the conflict between pluralism and liberalism: how do you protect pluralism and preserve cultures, while also challenging customs or traditions that might be patriarchal, isolating, or bigoted?
In The Box, Palatty sets his sights mainly on his own Malayali Christian community here in Ireland, who are originally from Kerala in southern India. “The community I belong to are almost in a box, they are very much, their life is all around the church,” he says.
(Not all Malayalis, obviously, are deeply religious. To wit: Palatty.)
“I would say a normal Malayali family would prefer their kids to win a Malayali festival here rather than an Irish festival here. They only think about the Malayali next door, nobody else on the street,” he says.
Palatty says that, as he sees it, the left-wing European intelligentsia on the whole often don’t know how to respond to challenges such as sexism and self-segregation within minority communities — for fear of appearing xenophobic or in some cases Islamophobic — and therefore can leave liberals within some conservative communities lacking allies.
“We are a minority in a minority. They kind of ignore us, or they care for the larger minority in the Indian block,” he says.
The short film also looks at other drivers of segregation beyond religious strictures. In a scene in a pub, a Muslim woman in a burkha — who has been convinced to go there with her friend and neighbour — sits with a parcel at the bar, nervously, with an orange juice, while a white Irish guy at a table across the room freaks himself out.
It’s an obvious comment on how little it takes to trigger paranoia, the harmful spectre of stereotypes and the retreat into boxes that can lead to. Although, in the figure of the quaking Muslim women in a burkha, it seems that Palatty is enforcing one stereotype even as he mocks others.
In the end, Palatty’s solution is more complex than a simple call for assimilation. Instead, he encourages immigrants to redefine their identities, and argues in favour of the continuous search for a hybrid identity that embraces beliefs, and languages, and difference.
“It’s something very tricky but I have tried to explain it in a way that this hybrid identity is not something very fixed, is very transitory and it depends on the type of community,” he said.
“I’m Malayali and the community I belong to is extremely conservative and insular so I tend to pull them to the other side, pulling them in to integrate,” he said.
But it goes both ways, in his opinion, some communities might be too fast to assimilate. “In my opinion, they should search a bit more of their roots and try to look at where they are from.”
Who decides where the perfect balance is, of course, is problematic. “It’s a constant tug,” he said.
In making The Box — which was funded by the Arts Council under its Artist in the Community scheme — Palatty collaborated with a group called Neuron, made up of Indians in Ireland who believe in atheism, rationalism and interculturalism.
Giovanna Rampazzo, a PhD student at the Centre for Transcultural Research and Media Practice at Dublin Institute of Technology who helped with its production, said that these are interesting times for film-makers from Kerala in Ireland.
Some had never made films before. But they accompanied their wives here after they got jobs, often as nurses, and the men — unable to work at first as they didn’t have visas — found that they had the time and freedom to pick up a camera and learn to make movies.
That different perspective is what makes The Box so interesting, says Rampazzo, who studies Indian film in an Irish context. “To see, basically, how an Indian migrant uses film to articulate experiences of migrant life in a host country.”
Palatty is not speaking for all migrants, or all Indians in Ireland by any means, but his film shows how extremist religion is perceived not by a white Western filmmaker, but by one from India with a different experience, she said. “Even if it might create some controversy, it’s a good starting point for dialogue.”
Palatty, who has been making films for eight or nine years, says he prides himself on being a resourceful low-budget film-maker. “I see what I have in front of me, and I write for it.”
He admires experimental directors such as Swedish film-maker Roy Andersson and Hungarian film-maker Bela Tarr. But The Box takes a more recognisable, narrative form. “This is probably my most accessible film,” he said. “I’m very on the fringes.”
Rampazzo says that if film-makers from Kerala here get more attention and even funding for features, it could be the start of some interesting new times for film. “Maybe, they will be part of the first wave of Indian-Irish migrant cinema,” she says.
The Box, directed by Jijo S. Palatty will be screened on Thursday 11 August at 2pm in The New Theatre, 43 Essex Street Temple Bar, Dublin 2 (inside The Connolly Bookshop). It will be followed by a Q&A session. Entry is free.