Cast: Vinayakan, Joju George, Kunchacko Boban, Dileesh Pothan
Director: Kamal KM
Director Kamal KM's (who had earlier made I.D) Pada is inspired by a real event that took place in 1996 when a small army (pada) of comrades took the collector and the Palakkad Collectorate hostage to protest against a Legislative Bill that would relocate Adivasis from their homes. This Bill, passed unanimously by every MLA except for K Gouriamma, had the powers to turn Adivasis into refugees, forcing them to move out of their land. The film begins with a direct-to-camera piece by Rakesh (Kunchacko Boban), which sets the context for a film that's about an event that may have been lost from public memory. But with its docu-drama treatment, the day of this protest comes alive through the minutest of details without it ever feeling dry or impersonal.
This is achieved by making the film's central characters feel human and relatable, unlike the unapproachable activists/revolutionaries similar films would paint them to be. To begin with, we get a glorious drone shot that sets the tone for the film's central fight—we see a vast expanse with greenery extending towards all sides as we gradually zoom in on a group of children playing in this beautiful landscape. A sister and her brother play hide and seek in what appears to be their personal playground. But by the next morning, we see this family waking up in the wee hours of the day to shift away from this land to narrower lanes in a bigger town. We learn that their father Balu (Vinayakan) is one of the four members of the Ayyankali Pada that would go on to hold the collector captive, if only to reclaim the playground for his children.
Even otherwise, the film is able to integrate enough characters into the screenplay such that the Collectorate is demystified from an imposing power structure to the last ray of hope for seemingly powerless people. So we see blind lottery ticket sellers who promise fortunes without finding any luck themselves. We also meet an aged couple (the old lady has dementia) who needs the collector to help them, lest they become homeless. This means that even when Pada speaks about a specific Bill and a people, it does not forget to show us how the system is conditioned to neglect the weak.
All of this provides a lot of dramatic heft to what's otherwise a film with the soul of a heist thriller. But it's the specificity of its writing that keeps it engaging, even when some scenes could have played like empty exposition. Take for instance Balu's suggestion that they save up on dry fruits to sustain their protest. But when Joju George's character explains how it's unaffordable to them, we not only understand the practical difficulties of their plan but we're also unable to imagine these people as dangerous or intimidating. Instead, they appear as desperate soldiers fighting against a democratic system that has let them down. Eventually, it is the might of the same system that returns to attack them, even when we feel they've found an escape route that's both legal and democratic.
At just above 120 minutes, Pada is tense with a structure that becomes increasingly thrilling as the protest widens to include everyone from the media to attention-seeking local politicians, the power centres in Trivandrum to the brains behind this protest. Yet even when the film is most serious, it presents us with lighter moments which reinforce our fondness for the main characters and this includes the collector himself. With this deftness in treatment and a set of great performances in totality, Pada tells the story of a movement without sounding like pamphleteering.