Tourists come to Dhanushkodi in Rameswaram to see ruins and the searing blue of the sea. Film crews frequently shoot there. And until last year, it was where Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka would be dropped at night with instructions to reach the nearest police station and eventually Mandapam refugee camp.
The people of Dhanushkodi are rarely in the news. In fact, few visitors know that a fishing community lives there braving lack of roads, electricity, transport, and intrusions from the Coast Guard, Intelligence Bureau, Navy and whoever else is tasked with safeguarding the state’s porous coastline. So, when Leena Manimekalai heard of the community, of their untold stories, she felt compelled to document their lives. The film made is called Sengadal.
The documentary filmmaker and poet had visited Rameswaram earlier, to profile a fisherwoman for her film Goddesses, which won the Best Documentary at the Mumbai International Film Festival in 2008. “When I met the people living there, I found so many stories begging to be told. Each family has a widow, or has lost sons or is taking care of an orphaned child. Almost all the fishermen had encountered the Sri Lankan navy about six or seven times. They have such rich life experiences,” she explains.
Leena started with interviews of the people and then decided that to learn more of their lives, she would have to live with them. “It’s a very different life — no bathrooms, no electricity, no mobile signals. Even the dogs there are different because they feed on corpses. Their day starts at 3 am and ends by 9 am,” she points out. “As fishing folk, they are not used to borders and boundaries and for a long time they had a barter system with the Sri Lankan fishermen. But in recent years, their fishing has been restricted — each one has encountered the Sri Lankan Navy several times,” she says.
Added to this is the physical isolation they endure — no one is allowed to remain in Dhanushkodi after 6 pm for security purposes. Even though refugees have landed on its shores for years now, the people here have learnt not to extend friendship or help. “Their compassion has been tested by the authorities so many times that they know helping them would mean spending the rest of their lives facing enquiries!”
It is these nuances of their lives that pushed Leena into making the filmmaking process democratic and community-based. “Shobasakthi, the Sri Lankan Tamil writer and I worked on the script incorporating their stories within a fictional framework but after that we revised the script several times for the community’s inputs.”
Since the crew wanted the residents of Dhanushkodi to act in the film as well, Leena held a series of workshops for them. “They have seen technology only as outsiders, so there were problems when they had to participate with it. So we held workshops and shared each scene and dialogue with them,” she explains. This meant much argument, discussion and sometimes disagreement. “Sometimes, they would feel the situation was not as in real life or that a dialogue did not ring true and so we would make changes,” she says. The film also looks at another people whose lives are touched by Dhanushkodi — the refugees.“Again we worked with them, incorporated their stories and ideas — each person has a different story of how they reached that shore,” she says.
Of course such a collaborative process had its drawbacks. “Shobasakthi also played a role in the film. His character had a wife and a child and half their scenes had been shot, since he had only 60 days in the country, when the girl playing his daughter came of age. Her family wouldn’t allow her out for 30 days and the woman playing his wife had her period! With the limitations of time, we had to write both of them out of the script!”
Every cast member was paid daily wages as agreed to by their community — `350 to `500 — so once in a while, if they got a better job for the day they would not turn up. “Every day when we sent the vehicle to pick up people from the camp, someone wouldn’t be available — 17 would be part of the day’s shooting but only 13 would have turned up,” she laughs. However, if they got a better offer the crew just waited for them to come back. The crew itself started off with 60 members, dwindling to eight by the end of the shoot because of the harsh conditions.
The film was shot over 35 days in 2009 and survived despite the original producer walking out of the movie. “His team pulled out with 12 days left of the first schedule. I had to beg and borrow to raise enough money to complete the schedule. Now, there are people who won’t even take my calls,” she chuckles. Finally, Janaki Sivakumar of Tholpavai Theatres stepped in and helped produce the rest of the film that cost Rs 1 crore.
“The film is complete now but I am now worried about censorship. I don’t believe any part of this movie should be cut because the stories it tells are too important. If I don’t get to release it theatrically, I plan to screen it village by village through DVD. Let’s decentralise film distribution,” she says.
As of now, Sengadal has had a letter of interest from the Berlin Film Festival. “It is made for a global audience. It deals with language, ethnicity, borders and ultimately, the simple lives of fishermen and refugees,” she says. “But I would like our people in Tamil Nadu’s villages to have access to it as well,” she adds.