Sri Lanka

Surveillance and survival

Print edition : February 21, 1014

A scene from Asoka Handagama's "Ini Avan".

The following four show scenes from "Ingirundhu": giving voice to the tea plantation community of Sri Lanka.

A scene from "Ingirundhu".

A scene from "Ingirundhu".

A scene from "Ingirundhu".

In post-war Sri Lanka, Sinhala cinema is all about triumphal cultural nationalism. What options does a Tamil film-maker have, faced with the twin threats of a surveillance state and a populist mainstream cinema from Tamil Nadu that dominates popular imagination?

“FOR the motherland” was the final call made to the audience at the close of the film Aba as the young hero—historically, the would-be Pandukabaya—holds high majestically a “sacred” sword standing atop a hill, framed dramatically by towering mountain peaks. The film relates the story of a young prince raised clandestinely by the natives of the north-central hinterland in fear of his jealous and despotic uncles. It draws upon an early instance of Sri Lankan history, a defining moment of the Sinhala identity, genealogically speaking. Pandukabaya occupies an iconic place in the nationalist imaginary, providing authenticity to memories of a glorious past and the story of the consolidation of the power of Sinhala kings.

Aba was released in September 2008, at the height of the final phase of Eelam War IV which came to a bloody and decisive close in May 2009. In September 2008, the war was intense and the war cry was everywhere, even as the death toll among combatants and civilians on both sides was rising in the north. In the rest of the country, bombs, blasts, checkpoints, assassinations and disappearances kept the populace captive to a culture and psychology of fear, suspicion, uncertainty and hopelessness, while the government on one side and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on the other peddled a rhetoric of moral fortitude.

On the cultural front, Sinhala cinema, the dominant Sri Lankan film industry, had to respond to this phenomenon that had the national imaginary in a vice-like grip. The rise of the historical drama becomes significant here, from a “sociology of film” perspective; Sinhala films assumed the responsibility of bringing order into the disarray of civilian life. It has its emergence within a culture of fear and anxiety and growing chauvinist sentiments on the one hand and increasing militarist and centrist consolidation of power on the other. While the young hero Aba as Pandukabaya would defeat the evil forces in history and go on to consolidate his power in the north-central plains, the cradle of Sinhala civilisation, the film concludes with a defining moment where he is granted the authority to mobilise the marginal forces around him by divine powers.

Aba, like many of the films to follow, received the acclaim and patronage of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who lords over an increasingly repressive political apparatus today. As I have argued elsewhere, Aba was a failure of an aesthetic of patriotism. Yet, it occupies a seminal place in the history of Sri Lankan film as it engendered a whole new genre of cinema directly related to an ethos of post-war triumphalism, militarisation and the national imaginary of a glorious past.

Film and the economy of governance

With the end of the war within a few months after the release of Aba and the strengthening of the regime’s iron hand, historical drama seemed the only possible outlet for many a filmmaker if she were to survive in the costly world of the film industry. Mega-budget films that brought together Buddhism and history, remarking on and remaking the origin of a Sinhala Buddhist identity, became the staple of Sinhala cinema. Mahindagamanaya (2011), Kusa Paba (2011), Vijaya Kuveni (2012), Siddhartha (2012) and Siri Perakum (2013) are little more than costume drama pageants. Such films received the patronage of the President and state institutions such as the state television channel. Special screenings of Mahindagamanaya were held.

War films too find a place here. Gamani (2011) by Sarath Weerasekera on the eastern victory of the armed forces was made by a former Rear Admiral in the Sri Lanka Navy who later became a Member of Parliament. One may want to approach a film like Matha (2012) by Boodee Keerthisena as an instance of the genre of military films. Matha promised much as many on the cultural Left and on the alternative film scene hoped for a film on the war that would be sensitive to the concerns of the Tamil population in the north that had borne the greatest brunt of the war in the final stages.

Boodee Keerthisena had made challenging and probing films in the past which received critical acclaim nationally and internationally. But, sadly, Matha is no exception to the films described above. Shot with the active support of the armed forces on the battlefields of the last war, to which no civilian had access at that time, Matha presents a linear narrative of a conventional melodrama. The film is touted as Asia’s first war film by its scriptwriter, Ariyaratne Athugala, Director General of the Department of Information and the former Chairman of the state television channel. In the film, the war is essentially seen as a humanitarian operation. The nationalist inclinations, its meaning-making within the final war effort and clean-up and the signifiers of the militarist mission are unmistakable. At the launching ceremony held at the state television auditorium on October 9, 2012, the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence was the chief guest. How much more militarist and governmental can we get here? The fact that the Defence Ministry monitors film-making in the country is evident from the recent encounter the film Flying Fish by Sanjeewa Pushpakumara had with censorship, routed via the Ministry of Defence.

The creeping militarisation of society has, however, been occurring since at least the 1980s. But under the new dispensation, and with the intensification of the war, militarisation reached new heights. Shamala Kumar has documented the ways in which a certain militaristic idiom permeates the fabric of governance. In the post-war period, the military is used both to survey and discipline and to quell dissent. The structure and texture of governance, centralised in the hands of a few, nurtures a system of patronage, invoking loyalty to the regime, and not to any political programme. The government has shown that it will brook no resistance to its policies or domination, however minor and remote it might be, even when the resistance is expressed in peaceful demonstrations.

The militarising gaze is also a consuming gaze, accompanied by a certain glitz and glamour. City gentrification programmes are under way, displacing the urban poor to a state of invisibility. Boutique hotels, coffee shops, night bazaars and night car races take racy nightlife styles hitherto confined to certain fashionable enclaves of Colombo, Galle Face and their likes, to the streets, to the heart of the city, where the masters and the masses mingle. Mega construction projects connect cities through expressways; for example, the newly opened southern expressway from the southern city of Galle to Colombo reduces the time of travel from five hours to two. And roads to the interior are rebuilt. This is most apparent in the north, still struggling to rear its head in this early post-war period; but wide and newly reconstructed roads are able to take a visitor deep into the interior while boutique hotels and resorts are earmarked for the southern and eastern coasts with their scenic beaches; one thinks of Pasikudah, Nilaweli, Pottuvil, Sasthiravelli and Hambantota in the east and the south. Offers of tax breaks to foreign-owned casinos have received Cabinet approval.

This combination of development, with its emphasis on a certain type of consumer market and regulated travel and pleasure meant not just for the upper classes but for middle Lanka too, is not coincidental and obfuscates the deep fissures within society. Within consumerism, a Sinhala Buddhist idiom predominates. Recent attacks on Muslims and to a lesser extent Christians, targeting in many a case minority-owned businesses, suggest the modus operandi for both the regime and the powerful constituencies supporting it.

Culture becomes a commodity for the film industry. This August, the Indian film Bombay Velvet by Anurag Kashyap was shot in the newly inaugurated Mahinda Rajapaksa Tele Cinema Park, a state-owned enterprise. This is not really a new development in the industry. Two of Deepa Mehta’s recent films, Water and Midnight’s Children, were shot in Sri Lanka. It is the close collaboration of government and state agencies with the Indian and foreign film investors that deserves sociological attention.

Recently, the President overturned a ruling that limited the number of prints that can be released to 35. The limit placed on 35 prints ensured that the “small producer”, the low-budget film, had a theatrical release. It provided a space for the alternative film to thrive. But Somaratne Dissanaike’s historical drama film Siri Perakum saw a release of 55 prints, much to the dismay of the low-budget, low-key and small-scale producer of the average Sri Lankan film.

Though one should avoid a causal and too close parallel between cultural production, state and the market, one cannot miss the irony that post-war films have tended to discard one of the more dominant trends in popular film-making practice (and alternative film practice): of focussing on the lives of the poor, on rural-urban interfaces, and on social and ethnic relations, to become obsessed with a Bollywood-influenced genre of pageant and drama. Sadly, however, the Sinhala films are cleansed of whatever latent and haunting subversiveness that one might find lurking in some of these films of Bollywood and even the Chennai-based Tamil industry genre. Largely imitative, what they offer through the spectacle is a celebration of military prowess, governance and social hierarchy.

Survival: an alternative film practice

Ini Avan (2012) (“Him Hereafter”; my translation of the title) by Asoka Handagama has to be assessed within this milieu of growing militarism and surveillance. Handagama’s films occupy a position within the avant-garde as radical and unconventional, presenting a sharp counterpoint to conventional morality. Adopting a spare and minimalist style, he is generally able to push into the open many a subject that is taboo. Notable among these is Flying with One Wing, which deals with the concerns of a transgender person in a bold and uncompromising style and has been hailed by those on the cultural Left as path-breaking and criticised by those on the Right, predictably of course, as anti-nationalist and Western in its preoccupations.

Like many other film-makers who have ventured to open up spaces for rethinking the nation, such as Prasanna Vithanage, Vimukthi Jayasundara, and Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, Handagama has faced state censorship and ultra-right critiques of his films many a time in different guises. Except for Vidhu (2010), a film exposing corruption in politics (which was a mini box office success), all of his films since This is My Moon have been shrouded in controversy and have strained his relations with the state. How does such a film-maker survive? What lies ahead for him as a film-maker within the militarist regime of governance? Does the avant-garde provide any answers? What could an accommodative alternative practice be?

Ini Avan: Tamil as the limit of Sinhala cinema

In a bold risk-taking move, Handagama decided to make a Tamil film on the North, Jaffna, which the northern Tamil polity sees as its psychological and cultural centre. The film deals with post-war issues. The story revolves round an ex-combatant of the LTTE, who, after the war, is captured and released by the state and comes back to live his life in his home town, Jaffna. He meets his former girl-friend, who, widowed in the war, lives with her child. They marry and yet he is beset by problems of employment. The wife is a Bharatanatyam dancer and a dance teacher. In the meantime, he becomes a security guard in a shop, usurping the place of another person with a large family. The shop is a front for drug trafficking involving Tamil diaspora figures and they need his services. In the meantime, the wife of the man who loses his job is lured into a sexual liaison with the owner of the shop and his accomplices; she is physically abused and abandoned by the wayside. The ex-LTTE cadre who had developed sympathy for this woman comes to her rescue at the risk of his own life, and is hunted by the drug mafia. His long-suffering wife waits for him, but the violence does not end there. Pursued by the goons of drug ring, he looks for the gun he has hidden in his small and bare home. But the wife had already confiscated it. It turns the family upside down, splits them apart, while the film closes upon the shattering sounds of gunfire.

Ini Avan was hailed both as a well-deserved intervention and criticised by many for its seeming “unrealness”. The Tamil “public” did not like the film for a variety of reasons, many of them cultural: “Handagama has misrepresented our culture; we have been turned into prostitutes, junkies or criminals,” is a popular sentiment echoed by many. That this was not Handagama’s intention is obvious. Yet, one discerns an incapacity here to capture the post-war reality of Jaffna and the North, a limitation which lies in the popular avant-garde aesthetic of sparseness and abstraction that Handagama adopts.

But the problem is not just in the “aesthetic” either. There is an ideological impasse in the film’s grasp of the politics of state, war and violence. The Tamil “public” did not like the film. Even though I am not fond of such a critical outlook, I do see the public’s point from a slightly more theoretical fashion, situated as I am within a Jaffna-Tamil location. Taking a volatile subject, war, which rendered an entire humanity of Tamil speakers, including Muslims and upcountry Tamils (plantation Tamils of the hill country, distinct from the North and East Tamils), as victimised subjects, a sentiment embraced by Tamils on the Left and the Right wholeheartedly, this writer included, it is difficult for the public to view an “outsider” making a pronouncement on victimisation, through a further distanciation, a further abstraction. In other words, while I want to stay away from claims of “misrepresentations” of culture, I can see that Handagama had little understanding of the psychology of the “Tamil”, vis-a-vis the war. This Tamil film is not made for a Tamil-speaking audience, as they do not see themselves in the film, the delineation of characters, situations, episodes, the cinematic and visual terrain of the film; in other words, in the aesthetic of the film.

But there is an added force of argument. There is a lack of a political “idiom” in the film. Let me qualify it. If the Tamils constitute a minority and there is a clear consciousness in both Handagama and the rest of the country (and, of course, the world at large) that the Tamils constitute a minority within the state polity of Sri Lanka, that consciousness has in no way informed the aesthetic, the storytelling of the film. There is no state in the film, overtly or covertly. Yes, it lurks behind the ex-LTTE combatant. And yes, one could argue that the failure of the ex-LTTE combatant to integrate into society can be laid at the state’s door, in its inadequate programming and policy. But then the state is present there only as a cause and not as a frame.

Can one make a film about the Tamil “public” without implicating the state in any way? Even the Tamil state-to-be? Sinhala nationalism and its counterpart, Tamil nationalism? The society one fleetingly glimpses, if it is a society at all, is nebulous, foreign and represents an “outside”; beaches, lonely roads, forts, cliched representations of temples, Bharatanatyam, and so on. Thus, a film claiming to represent a “reality” is void of a political idiom in which that reality takes place.

Ini Avan has to be viewed within the culture of surveillance that has us all in a stranglehold today. Handagama perhaps could not have made a Tamil film on the North without becoming complicit with the state mechanism, without underplaying the state’s involvement. Nor could his “liberal” “Sinhala” consciousness have made a film about the LTTE, its fascist leanings, and the violence it wreaked upon the people, as I might have done and still hope to do. He settles for a post-war scenario where the outsider, the diaspora, is blamed for most evils, women are subsumed under a consumer market and violence continues to lurk in the background as a nihilist force.

A word about the women in the film: while many Tamil-speaking people did not like the figuration of Tamil women, they were the most aesthetically delineated characters in my view. For me, the film rises above the trite and the cliched through the complex and powerful figuration of the two main female characters. It is not that the female roles are less clichéd than that of the ex-LTTEer or the drug trafficker. But the cliches somehow have the tables turned upon them, inverting the outsider-insider dichotomy. Through the female characters one gets a glimpse of the violence that might be lurking within one’s own society. The ex-LTTEer has not totally given up arms. He has a stash of it somewhere in his small house where his wife teaches dancing. Yet, in reacting violently to the violence around them, and being the ultimate victim of all the forces around them, the two female characters, the wife and the woman who is sexually exploited by the drug traffickers, present powerful instances of both victimisation and resistance. Still, these female figures remain an abstraction. As a speaker stated in a discussion on the film in Colombo, what is Tamil and what is post-war about this film? For me, the film represents a genre and an aesthetic and not necessarily a critical representation of a reality. If one looked for Jaffna, the North and a post-war reality in the film, one is going to be archly frustrated.

Even if one approaches Ini Avan as a self-consciously avant-garde film set within an alternative practice of film-making (alternative to the films described in the first section), it remains problematic. Such an approach might yield something meaningful and one might see something of an affirmation in the film. Is the film about the army and the military after all?

Are the diaspora figures and the exploiting and marauding outsiders in the film a stand-in for the army? Is that the subterfuge that Handagama practises here? Such a reading may even please Tamil audiences. But such a reading that works on the outsider-insider dichotomy is not productive. Such a formulation might help us understand how surveillance works in general and how it produces an aesthetic, both for mainstream and alternative cinema, that has to necessarily “misrepresent”. Within the milieu of surveillance, how may one survive as a film-maker?

A cinema of conversation and collaboration

Both Handagama and I have to survive as film-makers. As an established film-maker making films in Sinhala, his task, I would think, is easier, though nothing is certain in these times. Yet, a Tamil film for Handagama is only a flirtation, an experiment. For me, that kind of luxury does not exist. I have to continue making films in Tamil and about Tamils and Muslims; how does one survive within the surveillance marked here?

The survival of one as a Tamil film-maker does not rest within the contours of state mechanisms only. One has to contend with the all-powerful Chennai-based Tamil film industry that does not allow any alternative film-making to flourish. Increasingly violent, increasingly masculinist, and increasingly technology-savvy, the hits of Vijay and Ajith, Vikram and others dominate the industry and shape the tastes of Tamil audiences.

In my research with the youth from the upcountry on the media, I discovered that it was not just the heroes as heroes, as men and people that hold any fascination for the average viewer, but what I call, “Tamil cinema’s rendezvous with digital technology” (“Gendered Fictions”). The nationalist politics of Tamil Nadu is once again something that applies the brakes on any innovative film-making. We in Sri Lanka have to contend with this overwhelming presence of the south Indian film industry in the Tamil public’s imagination.

How does one then survive within the double bind of mainstream cinema and the surveillance of the state? How does one do meaningful films in Tamil whose public has no historical memory of kings and a glorious past and whose most recent tryst with history ended in a catastrophic battle of epic proportions? Can one do an Aeneid here, but without its nationalist and imperial preoccupations? Is that the task?

In the making of my recent film Ingirunthu (Here and Now), I shift my gaze from the North and the East, the Tamil polity, to a community whose story was never told in film before. This is the story of the tea plantation community, which was originally brought over by the British as indentured labour to work in the coffee plantations first and later in the tea plantations in the hill country of the then Ceylon. While I do not wish to speak too much of the film per se, I would like to note here of a contingent need to develop an idiom of a people’s film, an aesthetic that reflects on the idea of a people.

Ingirunthu was born out of a long-felt desire to give voice to the tea plantation community of Sri Lanka. The problems that Handagama faced were already there for me. I am an outsider to this community that has faced and is facing disenfranchisement again and again and in different forms; a community whose minority status was dwarfed and sidelined by the dominant ethnic war, focussed on the North and the East. The question of who I was and am dogged me throughout, not through a very conscious line, but in all my interactions, even within the everyday. I sought a recognition of people, the persons I worked with and myself in all the fragmented and multiple subjectivities that are a part of our world—a recognition that the film is about “us”. What constitutes that “us” might be open to debate, but that very debate would be a part of the practice. And such a practice takes us always back to the state. Is Ingirunthu about the state and its subject?

Survival can mean different things at different times. Here, it is about forging a kind of collaborative practice between the subject and the film-maker and among film-makers too. A collective struggle against authoritarianism and surveillance would be crucial, where survival would not mean submission and servility. This is what I would say should make Ingirunthu, a film about the minority tea plantation workers, a film about Sri Lanka itself. Collaboration is about political practice and the collective consciousness of film-making. Here, I would like to conclude with Dharamasena Pathiraja’s remarks on the need for a socially engaged film practice in Sri Lanka, which I see as pointing towards survival as film-makers for many of us on the ”Left” and for a personal film practice which I have dubbed “a cinema of conversation”.

It would be good to revive a left bank cinema in Sri Lanka. There are so many budding film-makers who are experimenting with form and content today. And they show a certain kind of sophistication in technique and in the visual medium. But, for the most part, I feel there is a lack of a strong commitment to social change in those films. I wonder whether this has to do with our dependence today on film festivals. But this question has to be explored further. So, I too am in search of an answer as to how we can form a film movement that is not prescriptive, that nurtures innovation and experimentation both in form and content, and yet remains politically committed to questioning the status quo, the establishment.

Sivamohan Sumathy is a film-maker and teaches English at Peradeniya University. Her film Ingirunthu will be screened at the International Association of Women in Radio & Television Film Festival being held in New Delhi between March 5 and 8.

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