In a pristine village in the Western Ghats of India, a group of landless people squatted in the government land where they face opposition from the local entrenched political entities and upper caste landlords. These people known as “dalits”, who had been facing discrimination, displacement and physical oppression for centuries embrace Buddhism as a new form of cultural and religious identity, squat the government land and claim ownership.
Papilio Buddha tells their story through the experiences of Shankaran, a dalit youth who though has received higher education, is indifferent to the plight of his people and does not participate in the struggles of his father, Kariyan, who was a valiant communist but now feels betrayed by the movement. A close friend Manju, a brave activist who runs a pre-school at the squatted land , and drives an auto-rickshaw taxi which is a male profession and is harassed for that audacity, which leads to a fight with the male drivers when she slaps a powerful local union leader.
Lazy Sankaran mainly surrounds himself with the media people and NGO workers from outside, who are there as observers of the struggles of squatters. He comes into contact with Jack an American lepidopterist who travels the region in pursuit of “ Papilio Buddha” a rare and exotic variety of butterflies found only in this richly bio-diverse region. He assists Jack in collecting them which is illegal and is caught by local police. Jacks escapes punishment being an American white, but Shankaran is arrested as a domestic terrorist and severely tortured.
He is comforted by Manju, with whom he develops a sexual relation and is slowly awakened to the tragedies of his people, their sufferings and agonies. He joins Manju in rising up against injustices and indignities. Manju, following the earlier altercation with the union leader is brutally beaten, gang- raped and paraded naked in the streets of the town.
A riot erupts which is viciously suppressed by the local police. The state government intervenes to evict the squatters from their land with the assistance of all the political parties including Gandhian peaceniks. A stand off with the power structure ensues which the Dalits can not win and they are driven out. In an event reminiscent of “Trail of Tears”, the defeated, beaten and demoralized Dalits are forced to flee their dear habitat which has sustained them for centuries with its rich ecosystem of rainforests…