Changing before their very eyes: Urban Expansion and Dispossession in Kammattipadam

Yadu and Sujeesh analyse how the visual world crafted by the 2016 movie Kammattipadam provides minute insight into the class and caste dimensions of urbanization.

C.R.Yadu and G. Sujeesh

The movie Kammattipadam, directed by Rajeev Ravi and released in 2016, was a critical and commercial success. We see this movie as a mirror to the exclusions of contemporary urban processes in Indian cities. If we approach the movie from the vantage point of critical geography, it is about gentrification, a process through which urban space is favourably distributed to the elites through market mechanisms. Set in the context of Kerala’s booming metropolis Kochi, the film brilliantly weaves a story of how subaltern spaces are encroached over by the ‘gentry’ of the city and what it means to the ‘underdogs’ who inhabited those spaces. 

The story progresses through the perspective of Krishnan (Dulquer Salman) as he returns to Kammattipadam in search of his long-lost friend Ganga (Vinayakan). But the sequence of events in the lives of the protagonists also unfolds with it a story of the transformation of an urban fringe in Kochi mainly inhabited by the Dalit working class. With the real estate boom facing the city in the mid-2000s, speculative private capital is rapaciously searching for possible pieces of land which it could financialize. And Kammattipadam is not insular to these processes. Subaltern spaces like these have no other way but to submit to the instincts of predatory capital, ultimately facilitating gentrification.

According to Ghertner,1 there are three major processes through which gentrification may unfold in the global South—enclosure, dispossession and privatization—all of which have been vividly shown in the movie. Another important aspect of the movie is that it is firmly contextualized in time and space. The time element is shown through the different points in the life history of Krishnan, Ganga and his friends— as children; when they were in their early twenties; and finally, in their early forties. The film uses these three periods to portray the changing socio-spatiality of an urban fringe (see Table 1).

Kammattipadam during Krishnan and Ganga’s childhood is shown amongst lush green paddy fields and a lot of commons; a space dense and extensive enough to play hide and seek (the word ‘padam’ in Kammattipadam literally means paddy field). In their teenage years, Ganga and Krishnan are introduced to gangsterism by Balan (Ganga’s brother). Balan works at the behest of Surendran who runs a small-scale illegal liquor trading network.

Kammattipadam initially was a lush green piece of land [Image: Global United Media].
The house in which Ganga was born. The well is placed towards the far end of the courtyard [Image: Global United Media].

When the protagonist comes back to Kammattipadam after a period of imprisonment in his early twenties, the change in landscape is evident. The lush greenery is no longer seen and the paddy fields have been converted to plots ready for sale. The space usable by its inhabitants has considerably shrunk.  While riding with Ganga on a motorbike, Krishnan is baffled to find that many plots have been enclosed by barbed wire fences, making the way to their settlement narrower. 

Krishnan: What is this? This place has changed a lot. I don’t understand this route at all.
Ganga: This is our way home. It has become too narrow, you see!… Everything happened in the blink of an eye. They [real estate agents] came and enclosed everything. 

Ganga’s house in his twenties. You could see the new well in between the house and the fencing [Image: Global United Media].

The present is shown when Krishnan and Ganga are in their forties. Kammattipadam has changed beyond recognition. A high-rise apartment complex becomes the highlight of the place. The lanes have become even narrower and congested, and one side of the lane to Ganga’s home now borders a high concrete wall. There is barely any courtyard left in Ganga’s house and the well has vanished. The small patch of settlement that remains looks sandwiched between the apartment buildings and enclosure on either side. 

Aerial view of Kammattipadam in the initial phase of enclosure [Image: Global United Media]
New Kammattipadam – Ganga sitting on the compound wall facing his house with the apartment complex in the background [Image: Global United Media].
The way to Ganga’s house is too narrow now [Image: Global United Media].
Table 1: Intertemporal changes in the socio-spatial constitution of Kammattipadam

Krishnan and Ganga as children Krishnan and Ganga in their early twenties Krishnan and Ganga in their early forties
General landscape Lush green, filled with paddy fields and coconut trees. Presence of commons. Land enclosure by private capital, paddy lands reclaimed and converted to real estate High-rise apartment complex and concrete buildings
Nature of settlement Impoverished settlement  Impoverished settlement (with considerable enclosure of land by private capital) Except for a small patch of the old settlement, modern apartments engulf the place
Nature of inhabitants Dalits and the working class Some original inhabitants have      been dispossessed The rich and the upper-middle class (and probably upper      castes too)
Ganga’s house Kutcha house with extended open courtyard, well constructed towards the end of the courtyard Pucca house with tiled roof, small courtyard, new well very near to the house Pucca house, almost no courtyard (the front door lies very close to the high compound which has replaced the well)
Surendran’s occupational building Kutcha building Modern office space Luxury apartment (likely with a posh office room) 
Surendran’s business Petty shop along with small scale illegal liquor trading Expands the liquor business into large scale, invests in the real estate sector Real estate business (mostly taken over by the next generation)
Ganga’s job           NA Gangster Gangster
Krishnan’s job           NA Gangster Security personnel 

The film also showcases the use of violence for swift urban expansion. The following conversation between Balan and a young man resisting eviction from his colony shows the tactics of private capital and what dispossession may entail for the people evicted from a place.

Balan: What is this, man…They have offered you a good amount. Then why are you creating problems?
Man: Brother, we work as daily wage labourers in Ernakulam city. If we sell our house [kidappadam] by accepting the amount you give, where else in the city could we find a place to settle down? We will be doomed.
Balan: That is not our concern. We are ready to give you a little more money. Why don’t you convince fellow colony people? If that is not the case, you will see our true colours. Understand?
Man: We won’t go no matter what you do. I don’t have time to waste on you.

In the course of gentrification, the land value in the inner city and its surroundings skyrockets. Some people may find it lucrative to sell their land and buy up another house somewhere where the land value is lower. This may be on the outskirts of the city. In an otherwise stigmatized and peripheral location such as Kammattipadam where Dalits and the working class live, land may be valued at less than the neighbouring ‘prime’ lands.  This could also happen due to the historically low bargaining power of such subaltern groups. All of this would make sure that the value of land in these places won’t rise beyond a point even amidst the real estate boom. These subaltern spaces, therefore, are an easy catch for predatory capital. If the inhabitants don’t voluntarily move out, they would be dispossessed through violence. 

Balan (to Surendran): ‘Big buildings have come up in the plots we bought at throwaway prices. But do you know the present condition of the people who were evicted from there? The people who had a roof to sleep in are now living on shop fronts (kadathinna) and in lowly huts (chettakudil) suffering mosquito bites.’ [Image: Global United Media]

Along with the restructuring of the urban space, a redistribution of inhabitants also takes place in Kammattipadam. The (upper-caste) gentry replaces the (Dalit) working class there. The movie also tells the story of compounding inequality in our society. While Surendran and his physical environment witness a substantial change, Ganga’s circumstances and his house remain the same. While Surendran is now a rich businessman who lives in a gated community, Ganga is still the same gangster as he was some 20 years ago. His wife works in a petrol pump. While Surendran witnesses remarkable economic, social, and spatial mobility, the underdogs are dispossessed of their land and driven to casual labour. 

Ganga (to Mathai): ‘See that plot [pointing], that three-cent plot belonged to Raman, [pointing in another direction] these three cents belonged to Unniyettan’s three sons.’ [Image: Global United Media]

The film speaks volumes about the social relations of property and power in Kammattipadam and similar places in the Indian context. The song ‘akkaanum maamalayonnum nammudathallen makane…’ which Ganga sings in the movie broadly means, ‘we polayadis are pariahs who own nothing here, not even our imaginations’. The film poignantly shows who would be the winners and losers when accumulation happens in a social system of graded inequality. The scenes from the movie speak for themselves. Needless to say, Kammattipadam is a commendable political project which skillfully integrates the different layers of gentrification and urban exclusion into the aesthetic framework of cinema without losing originality.


About the Authors: C.R.Yadu (chandran.yadu@gmail.com) and G.Sujeesh (c2k009@gmail.com) are PhD candidates at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Trivandrum and Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady respectively.

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One comment

  1. Well written. Kammattippadam is woven around socioeconomic changes as capitalist accumulation and expansion occurs in the commercial capital of the state.

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