DECEMBER 20, 2016 16:26 IST
Leena Manimekalai’s new project, The Sunshine, traces the journey of a displaced young refugee separated from his childhood sweetheart. PARSHATHY J. NATH has the details
“I was this mad indie filmmaker, who was desperate to make a film, be it by begging or stealing,” says Leena Manimekalai. It takes just a good cup of coffee and a soothing breeze to make the filmmaker pour her heart out on her favourite subject, cinema, and the struggle to make people watch her work, which deals with strong political issues.
Leena is hopeful and excited about her new project The Sunshine that has also been selected to be pitched for the co-production market at the NFDC Film Bazaar, Goa. It was the only Tamil project out of the 19 films selected from Asia. She says it is more of a human document than just a feature film.
S.R. Prabhu of Dream Warriors Pictures, who produced films such as Aruvi, Kaashmora and Joker, is partly backing the two-million-dollar-film. He will distribute it across the country.
“No mainstream producer would be interested to invest in a space like this. Prabhu is keen on creating good content. We have to appreciate that, because support from a mainstream producer keeps you in good stead, especially when you are pitching it in front of an international production house.
We have also found co-producers in France and Canada, and are in talks with a few in Thailand and Sri Lanka. The paperwork is still in progress. It is going on floors as an Indo-French-Canadian project.”
The film is co-written by Sri Lankan author Shobasakthi, who acted in Palme d’Or winning Dheepan, and Leena.
It is about a young refugee who flees from war-torn North Sri Lanka and journeys through India, Nepal and Thailand to an uncertain destination. He is separated from his childhood sweetheart.
“Refugee is a term coined by humans. Have you heard of an insect or a bird refugee? Why don’t we see them as humans too? It is high time we question this word and try looking at them as you and me,” says Leena.
“The Sunshine is also inspired by Shobasakthi’s personal journey, his lust for life. It is about a very ordinary man running around the world, over the counties, lands and seas to live one more day of his life.”
Leena has always dealt with the scars inflicted by war on people. “So many people have been displaced by the Sri Lankan civil war. Each story is unique. I know friends who have crossed 16 countries to reach a safe destination. It is an intense journey that should be documented.”
Her previous work The Dead Sea (Sengadal) tracked the story of Dhanushkodi, of Tamil fishermen and Sri Lankan refugees, victims traumatised by war and politics. “Neither the Indian nor the Sri Lankan governments favour them. Their lives are marred by conflicts. Politicians use them as vote banks. Every tree had a story to tell there.”
She had to battle with resistance from the Central Board of Film Certification, commercial film circles and the fringe groups. Not one to give in easily, Leena distributed the film worldwide through crowd-funding, sent it for revision, appealed to the tribunal and finally got it cleared. But, fighting crowd censorship is the worst, says Leena. “Any filmmaker who has touched the Sri Lankan issue has faced this resistance.”
We should take a lesson from the way people outside India treat their history, feels Leena, who has travelled all across the globe with her film.
While the international audience has recognised her work, people back home still cannot come to terms with her bold political engagement. “We have to learn how to work with our memories from the Germans. So many films are being made on the Auschwitz concentration camp.
They have put their history out in the open. And, they admit they have made a mistake. Here, we want to bury the truth and live in the glory of our past.”
Leena’s docu-feature White Van Stories revealed how families were picked up by snatch squads in white vans during the conflict period in Sri Lanka.
Leena has always been a fierce writer with an independent expression on gender and sexuality. Though she does not have formal training in filmmaking, she sees herself as a storyteller and a documentary junkie. For a 20-year-old engineering graduate, who came from a “conventional Left” background, the world of literature, cinema and art was a new experience, she recalls. Till then, she saw the world through the lens of ideology. “You are told something else and are living some other life. Once I threw myself out into the streets, I sensed freedom.”
Now, she says, she is in a post-ideology space that allows her to see life in its own shades. “It took me some time to free myself from ideological hang-ups. Initially, I was on a mission to change the world. Films helped me see life as it is. Post ideology is a nice space to be in. If you are not born into a family believing in a certain ideology, you tend to be more liberated.”
Cinema gave her an agency to enter spaces that she was otherwise barred from. “I had a camera in hand the first time I entered a crematorium, while shooting my film Goddesses. It featured a funeral singer, a graveyard worker and a fisherwoman. They are the real feminists.”
Leena says she feels constantly judged in academic, journalistic or artistic circles. It is only when she is working with indigenous communities that she feels accepted. “They are non-judgemental and inclusive by nature, particularly those who live in the margins. Some families in Northern Sri Lanka do not have a roof. Yet, they were sharing their food with me.”
In The Sunshine, Leena wants to tell the story of human struggle and not just merely make a political statement. And, however much her previous works have helped her earn a name in international film circles, there is nothing more satisfying for a filmmaker than the masses watching her work, says Leena. “I have screened my documentaries in almost 300 villages, projected on white dhotis and on the walls of schools and colleges. Still, I could reach out to only one to two per cent. I want The Sunshine to run in Sathyam. My dream is to buy tickets for my film and watch it in a local theatre.”