Conversation with Karthikeya Ramanathan for Mid Day (Publication Links below)
Your film portrays real stories of victims from either side of the Palk Strait. How did you come up with the story?
India is been always a big brother to its neighboring countries. India is the one that nurtured Tamil weapon movements in Srilanka and also made them lose the war and their cause at the end of three gruesome decades of loss and suffering. Srilankan War Crimes are now exposed in the international media and there is an outcry for a trial on the excesses committed by the government in the International Court of Justice and Law. Recent UN reports clearly states that the SL government has conducted genocide. As an Indian, I am ashamed because my government has supported the war and has been a kingpin.
Srilankan Tamils are the community in their fight for their right to self determination who have lost thousands of lives so brutally to the hands of State and Revolution. Srilankan Tamils had to constantly negotiate with the dominant Sinhala State of Srilanka and the rigid control of community exercised by Tamil militant organization Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Ealam (Ealam is the imagined Tamil State fought for by the militants)whose extremist and militarist stances have created a culture of fear and anxiety among the Tamil Polity. This has led to migration of hundreds and thousands of people fleeing across the coasts as refugees to India and other countries.
The misery spells over the Indian shores and the fishermen in the coastal borders suffer their very right to profess their traditional fishing rights. They speak the same language as the ethnic minorities in Srilanka and the racist Srilankan Navy kill them in the name of “Border Crossing”.
As one of the voices of Dissent against Indian government aiding the Srilankan government’s genocide, being a silent witness was slowly making me numb. It is still awfully painful to helplessly watch what is going on to my fraternity in Srilanka. I wanted to cry aloud and that is Sengadal the Dead Sea.
I initially went to Dhanushkodi to know more about Rose Mary (the war widow, who lost her husband in Srilankan Navy Shooting) and her services to refugees’ community. Through her I came to know about the fishermen community at large and their abysmal lives. Their plights and their ability to live expanded me emotionally. I was inspired by the charecters like Kangesu, Munusamy, Aandy, Kaaliyamma, Muthuraasu and many other fisherfolk who shared their food and shelter along with their life stories. Those stories have jolted me and made my spirit linger in Dhanuskodi’s shores and sands.I was like a wandering crow sometimes, a mourning dog sometimes, a digging turtle sometimes and I was smelling fish and salt during those days.
Then I decided to tell this experience of mine to the world. I still remember that night when stars were hanging like ripe fruits of my ancestors twinkling to my wishes.
Your film ran in to censor board problems earlier this year, and you have gone on record to say how you felt it is “mutilating your organs”. What was going through you when the board was creating problems and how do you feel, now that it has been cleared?
Dead Sea was banned by Central Board of Film Certification for its political content and the way the film criticizes Indian and Srilankan governments. I fought the case with the Appellate Tribunal authorities and the grievances court subsequently quashed the order and guide lined for re examination. And now, the film is cleared with an Adult Certification without any cuts and I think this is the victorious moment for artists who believe in freedom of expression. How difficult is to prove the artist can challenge an establishment in this so called democracy and how fat a lie is this freedom.
I can never compromise in my artistic freedom and I strongly believe that no STATE has any business in dictating ART. Truth can be un comfortable but it is our responsibility to deal with it and not turning away from it. Dead Sea blatantly reveals how this Nations, Borders, Boundaries are all against the humanity and test the very basic right to live in this world. Dead Sea speaks about the constant negotiation of ordinary lives in between gun of revolution and gun of state.
Does your film take a political stand?
Dead Sea is a documentation of what I found as Truth. I am not a messiah and I do not believe in giving any message. I come across something which disturbs me and feels me that this experience has to be shared to the fellow human beings.I witness, become a witness but at least proactively express when I am not able to change lives and situations. Fortunately I write and am learning cinema and when I am convinced that I can express through that medium, I try and do that.
We wage wars and lose wars but we continue to welcome tomorrows with another war. When we acknowledge it, it is Art and when we do not acknowledge it, it is an untold, unrecognised history of ordinary lives. We resist, revolt, die or live partly and I see my art as an extension of those. I cannot be part of Power but can be a voice of dissent and Dead sea is such a voice if dissent.
What were the challenges you faced while shooting the movie? Could you tell me a little about the role of the refugees in the movie?
It was a difficult mission to make a film because Dhanushkodi is a place under constant surveillance by the Coast Guard, the Indian Navy, CB-CID, Q Branch and the Intelligence Bureau as the Sri Lanka is 18 kms away. It’s a very different life out there — no bathrooms, no electricity, no mobile signals. Even the dogs there are different because they feed on corpses. To overcome all these barriers, natural and man-made, to see Sengadal honestly becoming a portrayal of the unrecognised and constantly insecure community, was quite a task.
As an artiste, I was limited in many ways like no money, no professional production support, no professional actors, constant intimidation by vigilance forces, harsh weather conditions and an impossibly difficult location. There was something which is driving me and I guess that is the fisherfolk’s amazing ability to live a midst so much of violence.
Handling the refugee community was the toughest amongst all I had faced so far regarding this film. Shooting was manytimes at stake because they dont turn up or they would have taken up a better daily wage job than this stupid shooting where they are asked to repeat the same action for some ten times for a good shot or they were suddenly instructed no to go outside as some Deputy Chief Minister is visiting the city or they have a census or they got a agent clearance to go to australia and secretly had left the country or they moved out to an other camp for some unspecified reasons etc etc… We go there everyday to the camp, wait for them to come out after they get through the check points and collect them one by one in the van and still you will only have some 8 characters out of 13 characters whom you had auditioned or used in the scene. They will come up with a new child instead of the child who had acted in a scene half finished and simply say, that the child cannot come anymore and refuse to tell us reasons. Good way to learn making cinema without something called conitunity. Leave action or dialogue continuity, you will end up managing character discontinuity. But tell me Karthick, still we have better life than them and it is ok to put up with all the night mares they give you. Isnt it?
This is your first full length feature production. How did it feel to do such a long production?
To be honest, Its been an exile since two and a half years. And I really want to move on. But things like Ms. Navi Pillai who is the Secretary General of UN Human Rights Commission and Justice in International Court of Justice watching Sengadal in my premeire at Durban happen, it really feels like, it is worthwhile. She is the one of the powerful woman in the UN and will be heading investigation of War Crimes committed by Srilankan Government. Fishermen issue never went to her notice so far and Sengadal the Dead Sea solved the purpose. I spent almost half a day with her on a Sunday and the conversation was so useful. She considers the film as an important witness and promised to intervene and take necessary action regarding Indian fishermen issue.I urged her to investigate killing of fishermen in the Indian Border Coasts along with the genocide of Srilankan mainland Tamils.
I will stand with my people whatsoever in their fight for Justice. The film is a people participatory Cinema I owe my authorship to them. The fact that Dead Sea, for sure will voice the people’s concerns and expose how abysmally small their lives are and how every other institutions of Power oppress them is the hope I hold on to. All the fishermen ask is their basic rights to live and it is not too much at all. As a fellow being, let us all intervene in our own way to keep the discourse alive until there is some collective action.
From: Chandni Parekh<firstname.lastname@example.org></email@example.com>
Date: 31 August 2011 22:58
Subject: Vikalp@Prithvi Screening of ‘Sengadal’
To: leena manimekalai <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cc: anand patwardhan <email@example.com>, Pravin Subramanian <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Around 70 people came in spite of the heavy rains. It was almost a full house.
While not many spoke or asked questions after the screening, a few people told me they were very moved.
Pravin mailed me: “Sengadal created a lump in my throat that refused to go until tobacco dulled the senses slightly :(“
He also sent us this note about the screening: </email@example.com></firstname.lastname@example.org></email@example.com>
“Sengadal”, an adjective in Tamizh, an attribute to the sea. Literally, it means “Red Sea” but for reasons more than appropriate film-maker Leena Manimekalai termed it as the “Dead Sea”.
This bloody, deathly attribute is given to the stretch of Indian Ocean that straddles the narrow divide between Sri Lanka and India. Whose blood is it that colours the ocean red? Well, it could be generally labelled as Tamizh blood, irrespective of nationality.
“Two mother-tongues, one nation. One mother-tongue, two nations…” the ominous sounding statement appears just as the film opens to the sight of a trussed up and bound prisoner who’s kicked in the head repeatedly as he’s kneeling on the ground helplessly, only to be executed by a shot to the back of his head. The bone of contention that this film deals is the half century old genocide of Tamizh speaking Ceylonese on the island of Sri Lanka. And caught in the cross fire are the Tamizh speaking natives of India, who for no fault of their own get massacred by the Sri Lankan navy.
A poor fisherman although aware but not remotely concerned with international politics, ventures out into the sea beyond Indian territorial waters only in search of fish. And then, the Lankan navy spots him, arrests him, abuses him, tortures and if the fisherman’s lucky, kills him and throws his body into the ocean. Woe betide the fisherman who’s arrested and taken to Lankan shores to be kept alive only to be killed, one day at a time…
The conflict between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamizh Eelam ended (atleast politically speaking) in September 2009 with a major gun battle winning the Tamizh stronghold of Jaffna. How many Eelam fighters were killed, and how many were innocent Tamizh civilians butchered as a part of the pogrom is anyone’s guess. Satellite images show a good number of unmarked graves all over the place whilst the Lankan army claims none to be true.
Silence is a major role player all throughout the film. When a dead body who was once a living, joyous person is washed into the shore, a momentary burst of wailing and violence temporarily seem to take control. But with the passage of time, silence prevails yet again. The suffering and sadness are not in the moments of wailing as much as they are in the moments of emptiness and silence.
Soori, a wild and free spirited Sri Lankan Tamizh lives or atleast tries to lead a life that excludes his immediate surroundings, seeking comfort in the voice of his radio and a few school children who’re his playmates. He came ashore to Dhanushkodi just like many other of his people.
Killinochi, Jaffna, Mullaiteevu and countless other places kissingly close to the Indian shores offer or atleast seem to offer an escape from the everyday violence and persecution meted out by the Sri Lankan armed forces. For a princely amount ranging from 7,000 to 10,000 Indian rupees; the Tamizh natives try their level best to escape to India. “We just wish to live in peace and harmony. Back home, we have nowhere to go but die. If we wanted to die, we’dve stayed back…” the empty voice of a freshly arrived Sri Lankan echoes in the police station at Rameswaram.
But India’s not their solution, and India too has its share of torture and pain in store for these people. The police officers and Navy are far from friendly with the refugees who come ashore. Indeed, many of the officers come scouting in the night to hunt for young girls they could ravage. Food and clothing in shortfall, contraceptives is the last thing the refugees would have on their person! And so, many young girls are forced to bear the unwanted fruits of their labour.
Rosemary, a Catholic missionary, tries her best to alleviate the situation of the people, providing succour and welfare under the umbrella of religion and spirituality. But what good can spirituality do when hunger paws and claws an empty stomach?
“We’ve found human remains in the bellies of fish many a times when we gut them” a fisherman from Dhanushkodi adds. Is the international community not aware of this? Why is India silent? Is India afraid of the Sri Lankan armed forces? Or is it just that it has too many problems of its own to care about a few hundred fisherfolk getting slaughtered in the name of terrorism?
Apathy and indifference have made the administrative forces in India stone cold, and seeing no response to their atrocities, the Sri Lankans are only bolstered to kill more and more Tamizh civilians. Who cares whether they’re Indian or Lankan? Kill them as long as they’re Tamizh!
The local politicians of Tamil Nadu, including the former Chief Minister M.Karunanidhi, offered little more than empty promises and television sets to people who had no electric supply to talk of! How about hot soup and bread for the refugees coming in ashore? How about weapons for the Indian fishermen who undertake the dangerous and sometimes fatal journey into the ocean only to be confronted by Sri Lankan forces?
Indeed, Leena portrays and captures the fishermen’s demands for arms to fight off (read defend themselves) the Lankan navy. Uptil date (the film was documented in 2009), 422 Indian fishermen have been officially recorded dead, killed by the Lankan navy. Countless others languish in prisons in the island, arrested in the name of participating with the LTTE.
Given these tough circumstances, an Indian fisherman’s plight is shown as he’s caught in a dilemma whether or not to ferry a family to Indian shores as they wait indefinitely on a sandy islet. When his conscience gets the better of him and he does return to bring them ashore, there’s not a sign of the people. Only a steel jar lies on the sand and some footprints that lead nowhere are to be seen. Perhaps the sea swallowed them whole.
In the end, even the free spirited Soori, vanishes someplace nowhere, leaving behind his playmates and his beloved radio. Perhaps he finally went to France where his brother was, perhaps he went to Sri Lanka…
After the film screening, the silence seemed to have come out from the film and settled into the hearts of the viewers for none were ready to talk or say anything in favour or against anyone or anything!
A member spoke about the infamous “Api Wenuwen Api” movement in Sri Lanka. The phrase literally means “Us for Us”, a plea to the Lankan Sinhalese to contribute money as charity to support the war movement, the persecution of the Tamizh on the island, and not a single hand, he repeated, not a single hand was seen missing the wrist band that was given to the donors for the cause. The Lankan civilians had no idea of the kind of massacre their forces were perpetrating, or were hand in glove with them all…
Soldiers patrolling the city with fingers on the semi-automatic machine gun’s trigger, curfew like environment after 06:00pm and heavily policed and censored media which was awash with praise for the Lankan forces and also spoke deeply about Mahinda Rajapakkasa’s committment toward bringing the until then isolated Tamizh clan into the mainstream Sri Lankan polity and government welfare. Heh, a good lot of eyewash!
Another member from the audience only silently nodded in approval to what was said, but for the first time, the audience walked out silently instead of voicing differences and arguments. Perhaps the silence of the Sengadal was weighing all of us down…
Feel free to respond to his note on http://on.fb.me/oOBcI3 if you’d like to. I’ve also copied him on this mail.
Thanks and all the best with your other screenings.