Sunday Herald Tribune - Durban , SA, 17 July 2011
When did you start making movies and what was your first project?
I started making documentaries in my early twenties. I extended my student activist days in street theatre to cinema. Digital cinema was my refuge. I fixed a digital camera and a micro phone in my body and travelled through my villages, filming people and their lives whose voices are never heard or concerned. I used the videos as a tool for a participatory dialogue within the communities addressing the core issues like Caste Inequalities, Culture and Practices, Gender, Human rights, Globalisation, Water Politics etc. My first video was "Mathamma" which kindled a wide discourse and intervention in the cultural practice of a community which offers their children as brides to their deity called Mathamma and how eventually they become sex workers.
Your Dead Sea will be featured at Durban International Film Festival in the International Competition. In a nut shell, what is the movie about?
Sengadal, the Dead Sea is my debut feature fiction which captures the fragments of simple lives beaten by three decade long ethnic war in Srilanka. It unfolds in a border village at Dhanushkodi,the southernmost tip of India which is a ruin in State ledgers but breathes life through the fishermen families who refuse to leave this ravaged land once hit by sand storm . Fishermen fishing in fear in ignorance of friendly and enemy waters in the borders get dumped as rebels, spies and smugglers and unceremoniously beaten to death or shot or maimed. But still everyday we say their boats get launched and the life gets going. Srilankan Tamil refugees who are dispossessed of their land and gods arrive in this crucible dead or alive.
This is again a community cinema in which Dhanushkodi fishermen, Rameswaram refugees and general public have acted and helped in production and all the incidents portrayed in the film are facts as told by them.
Is the film considered to be a mainstream Bollywood movie? If so, why and what is, in your opinion, a mainstream Bollywood movie. How would you classify or genre your movie?
Bollywood is a clean trade. Mafias gamble their money in Bollywood and their ethics is based on the business of winning it. Ignorance of masses is their investment and it is foolish for anyone to think bollywood's motive is Art other than profits.
I have short circuited myself from the mainstream from my student days as I had different principles in Life. I have been always be part of alternative art and literary movements and rebelled against feudalism which is otherwise the character of mainstream. As an art practitioner I identify with the small communities who refuse to be by standers but try and do some intervention on the sight of oppression. Sengadal the Dead Sea is still considered an impossible attempt of making a people's film dealing direct politics that too from the land I come from, where populist cinema is considered to be a supply chain of chief ministers, where virtual heroes are worshiped as Gods and ultimately the saviors of masses.
Dead Sea is a factual fiction feature and it is a community film made and executed by them voicing out their life and concerns.
What is the difference between mainstream Bollywood films and independent films? Are independent films arty ones and what is your definition and what is considered to be an Indian independent film?
Right now, in Bollywood, it is the time of celebration of mediocrity. It is amusing to see how it is pushed to some representation of excellence. In Post globalization scenario, Market is more powerful than State. And Market pretending to be socially concerned is a high voltage drama and its seduction is irresistible to masses. But Art is something else. Art is always independent of market, state or any other power structures. Infact it challenges.
Indian Independent film is an untouchable indeed and it is going through the toughest times. Corporate Governments and Open Market have shrunk the space for any independent expression and it looks like almost a null. Censorship operates in many ways institutionally and non institutionally to curb the independent makers and their voices. We are looked at by the establishment as some terrorists and independent videos as some bombs.When an independent art practitioner rises to reach wider audience, State and Market has all ways to see the maker dies before he ever attempts.
I should also say, with all these factors, independent cinema in India and world over still thrives. Digital Technology has made the medium more democratic and now more people afford to make cinema . It is no more the medium of some filthy rich people. There is hope but still so much to do and fight.
The storyline is very unusual. What made you delve into this topic and how have audiences reacted to it so far?
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.
What was the inspiration behind the movie and are you personally attached to the storyline of the movie?
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.
Do you think that Indian independent films are sidelined or is not given as much attention compared to mainstream Bollywood movies? If so, why?
I bet Independent films will do better with the audience if they are promoted well with the same PR budget a mainstream movie has. No media reports or even recognizes avant-garde attempts. I am sure, it is the same scene in South Africa or anywhere else in the world. Cinema is still a bloody capitalistic tool and it involves money in its every aspect, say making, disseminating etc., Everybody wants to earn 200 when they are willing to invest 2.That is how the whole world thinks and operates.
Independent art is a voice of conscience and it will always be sidelined for its very character of what it does to its readers/viewers. Bollywood stops you think and it will always be celebrated exactly for that and it is common sense.
In your opinion, why has the Indian film industry not touched on relevant issues like the Dead Sea
but mostly stick to love triangles?
What other stories other than love triangles and gangster fights make my people more regressive and dumb? Film as an industry will be interested only in those narratives and characters and a certain way of telling them within the formula, as it only requires consumers for its produce.
Is there a strong message that you are trying to portray in The Dead Sea? If so, what is it and why specifically this message?
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 had learnt 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 History. 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.
Name some of your other films and works?
My collections of poems are ‘Ottrailaiyena’ (solo, as a lone leaf), ‘Ulakin Azhakiya Muthal Penn’ (The first beautiful woman in the world)and Parathaiyarul Raani(Queen of Sluts). I have currently taken up a visual art fellowship with PSBT on Tamil Women Poetry and Desire through the ages of Sangam, Medieval and Modern periods. My specialisation is on Media and Conflict resolution and I had been an EU Scholar in art practice, secured a commonwealth fellowship in 2009 and currently been awarded Charles Wallace Art Fellowship. My films include Mathamma, Parai, Break the Shackles, Love Lost, Altar, Waves after Waves, Connecting Lines, A Hole in the Bucket, Goddesses.
Tell us a bit about your personal background.
I was born into a farmer’s family, south of Tamilnadu. I should be farming but unfortunately not for not very valuable reasons. My late father was a Tamil professor and the first to earn a degree in our family. My mother is a country goddess in her soul. I have a younger brother who is also into media practice. My father was a left progressive writer and my grandfathers and uncles are communist leaders holding state and national positions. I owe my understanding of my society to my Marxist background and bringing up and as a social being I am committed to fight injustice since my youth. There was a crucial time in my youth to decide to continue as a full time activist or artist. I stand somewhere as Artivist I guess. Inequalities in my society unsettle me and for me art is a way of communicating to my own people and I continue to learn and unlearn through the process. Though qualified as an Engineer, I chose art and that is the way to freedom and being for me. I have convictions to live my choice whatsoever.
Have you experienced any controversy about The Dead Sea?
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.