Creators' dilemmas

Print edition : June 15, 2007


What are the options for serious film-makers in a world that has little patience with films that are off the beaten track?

DELHI-BASED Anwar Jamal has made only one feature film so far: Swaraj. Screened in 45 international festivals, it has bagged honours including the National Award for Best Film on Social Issues (2003). He is clear about why he wants to make films. "For me, to be an artist means just one thing: to work on an original idea, in a style you feel best suited to what you want to say. The role of an artist is to intervene in his time, to say, `look, I understand the past in this manner, I'm bringing a few idioms and metaphors to show what is important to me here and now'."

When he meets old friend Prasanna Vithanage, the daring and sensitive Sri Lankan film-maker, in Chennai in May, Jamal gets into a discussion over an issue crucial to both: what are the options left to a serious film-maker in a world that has little patience with and lots of suspicion of a film that goes off the beaten track?

In Iran, despite religio-political restrictions, film-makers form an empathetic community. Celebrity directors Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi script or edit works by newcomers. Says Jamal, "Here in Tamil Nadu, Sreekar Prasad and Lakshminarayanan have been equally supportive. They do big-budget films but also took up mine saying, it has something original." Vithanage smiles as he discloses that his visit to Chennai was to personally hand over the Sri Lankan Sarasavi Award for Best Editing to Sreekar Prasad for his August Sun.

Vithanage admits that it is more difficult to make serious films in Sri Lanka now than it was five years ago. The Sri Lankan film industry is no longer heavily subsidised. The National Film Corporation has stopped distributing every film that got a censors' certificate. With private distributors in charge, films not blatantl y commercial face the risk of rejection.

The days of government support for good cinema are long past in India. Distribution continues to be difficult. For Jamal, the greater problem is the assembly line production method and the copying of successful, populist models. Though most of these ventures end up as box office disasters, there is no place for work independent of the state or the market. But Jamal is not discouraged. Access to the Internet exposes plagiarism as never before. Surely, survival in the next decade will demand originality.

"Freedom!" smiles Vithanage. "Our ethnic and religious polarisation is a barrier in itself. Forget state censorship, we have to reckon with people's censorship. Each community will have its own take on any issue dealt with in a film. If I show the sufferings caused by war, people who wage those wars see it as a condemnation of their community, their religion."


In Sri Lanka, globalisation has intensified conflicts by making each religious community - Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Muslim - fear loss of identity in the whirlpool of change. The attempt to cling to roots fosters fundamentalism. Instead of cultural enrichment, it breeds illiberalism.

The Sinhalese fear that they are still a minority compared with Tamils the world over. The fruits of globalisation and economic reform have not reached the rural poor in Sri Lanka. To politicians, "ethnicity" becomes a weapon to divert minds from other pressing problems. "Don't you see political parties in India using violence and death threats for the same reasons?" Vithanage smiles.

Jamal believes that in India the film-maker's freedom is circumscribed by the dominance of the middle class. The multiplexes target the 14 to 18 age bracket and are closed to stories about rural India. Since he does not want to be market-driven, Jamal finds himself running from pillar to post like a fresher in the field despite his Swaraj having made its mark. "Who's your cast, can they give your money back, they ask. But the stars are booked years in advance. Even without stars, no film can be made today, parallel or otherwise, without a minimum budget of Rs.3 to 4 crore."

Jamal's new script deals with the market forces that dictate terms. It is based on Dudhnath Singh's novel The Survivor, and the story shows how father and son, women-traffickers both, try unsuccessfully to sell the daughter-in-law. They had bought her for her fertility but were cheated into buying a pregnant woman. Manisha Koirala plays the lead. "Because she's a good actor and the location is along the India-Nepal border." Meanwhile, he continues to make documentaries profiling thespian Zohra Sehgal and "works of fiction", including Uska Aana (Vanishing Daughters), a six-part series on women.


"Luckily, we don't have stars in Sri Lanka," chuckles Vithanage. "We survive because we can still make a film on Rs.75 lakh." The matinee idols are from Indian films, simultaneously released on the island, while television channels telecast Indian films every day. "And yet, despite the long-drawn war, subsidy cuts and uneven distribu<147,2,7>tion, our mainstream cinema is the 20 local films we make each year, films which launch debate and discourse. August Sun ran for 55 days at a stretch, which means that there is still an audience for serious cinema in my country." But not without struggles. His earlier Death on a Full Moon Day was released only after a Supreme Court ruling lifted the ban imposed on it.

Though foreign funding is drying up, Vithanage did co-produce a film directed by Uberto Pasolini (who produced Full Monty). It is based on a true story and shows 23 young Sri Lankans, ignorant of handball, forming a team, getting invited to a German tournament, and faking passports and visas. They vanish during the game and are never heard of again.

Ask Vithanage about the role of minorities in Sri Lankan films and he explains, "Lester James Peries, the father of Sri Lankan cinema, admitted that though a Catholic himself, he never dared to make a film about Catholics because he feared rejection by the Buddhist majority. I didn't want stereotypes in August Sun. I cast real Muslims instead of Sinhala actors to play those roles. If you do things like that, you become a loner, risk rejection." When the film was shown at the Fribourg festival, a Sinhala woman complained to the director, "You have not made a film about us but about Muslims!" Vithanage regrets that Sri Lankan Tamils have been unable to make films about themselves. Their stories are still to be told.

Is there a place for the authentic telling of the stories of minority communities in India? Jamal laughs wryly. "We talk about imperialism in Hollywood cinema, but what about in Bollywood? The hero has to be 6 feet tall, belong to a certain kind of community. Anyone from other faiths or other parts of India continues to be stereotyped and caricatured. From Hollywood, we do get a once-in-a-while Schindler's List. But in India, we refuse to look back to understand ourselves. We don't want to look elsewhere either - say the northeast, or the deep south - and understand the complexities of the present. Go to any sabzi mandi and you will see 10 faces with 10 different stories. Where are those faces in our mainstream cinema? It nurtures just one big tree. But without other surrounding trees and plants, that giant tree will rot and die."

Swaraj tells the real story of Leelavati, who was killed in Madurai by the tanker mafia when she sought to bring water to her area. In the movie, the action is transposed to a drought-ridden village in Rajasthan. Some of the questions raised by viewers puzzled Jamal. "You have used the story of Ali and the image of the taziya, are you from the Shia community, they ask. The censors wanted to know if lower caste communities of different faiths actually came to the Sufi shrine as shown in the film." He adds after a pause, "Do you know that Muslims living beside the banks of the Ganga always refer to it as Gangaji? My grandfather always said Jai Siyaram, never Ram. Today that Ram has a wholly different connotation, as does saffron. Islam came to India in medieval times, but the bonds of the people were forged centuries before that. I do puja, you do namaz, but we respect each other's differences. Indian society has more faith in humanity than we think. Many documentarists highlight this truth, but who sees those films?"

Jamal cites the example of his own aunt, an expert in zardozi. He found out that Nicole Kidman was going to wear her work in a new film. "My mausi doesn't know Kidman or the market price for her work. Most minorities belong to the working class, the vice-chancellors and chairmen are exceptions. Somehow, somewhere, whatever your ideology, you can't discount the link between market and politics." He notes how economic pressures cause major shifts in the population and centralise cities. Workers return home with new values and new insecurities. The young get enraged, take short cuts, and are often used by politicians and underworld forces.

Says Jamal, "My religion believes in the brotherhood of man, and it is my responsibility to infuse my work with my understanding of the times - without preaching." He is heartened by the fact that in democratic India he still has the freedom for such individual self-expression.

Ask Vithanage whether he would risk making a film about the ethnic conflict and he says, "I made Death on a Full Moon Day without any compromise. But that was 10 years ago. Since then, the climate has changed. Whether in the future, film-makers will be able to make a film like that is something I don't know."

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