PROTEST INC ‘My protagonists are like shamans’ Leena Manimekalai’s latest film, based on the ethnic war in Sri Lanka, has been refused a clearance by the CBFC. The documentary filmmaker tells Aastha Atray Banan why she will remain a non- conformist when it comes to her art.
My Written Version
How did your background of being born in a little village to a household of men who leaned towards
communism affect your world view?
I am still a tropical Kurinji(Mountain and mountain surrounded landscape) woman with a pagan spirit and who loves mangoes, toddy, lake fish, cattle, summer springs and kabadi. I have also done few years of schooling at a Corporation School in that little mountain village Maharajapuram at the slopes of Western ghats when my Late Father Prof. Raghupathy who was indeed a first graduate in my family history went to university for M.Phil research. My nostalgia is equally romantic and inquisitive about the whole social and geographical setup. Yes, all my family men for three generations held state level, national level position in Communist Parties. interestingly family feud is mostly setup with our men's ideological beliefs. My grandfathers were with the Communist Party of India and my uncles are even now with Marxist and Maoist Parties. As children, we suffered our friendships with our cousins because of our head men's ideological leanings and activities. We have faced elections with our own uncles contesting against each other and our voluntary work in the election propaganda always shadowed on each other. My mother, grandmothers and aunts ran families and farms while all men are out for some party work. I always get inspired from them and wondered they are born leaders. They would have been Rosa Luxembergs and Clara Zetkins if they were allowed to be active politically, I supposed. Their bedtime stories about how they protected the men and families during ban on communist parties in India, against the frequent Police raids and arrests never made me sleep. I owe them all my initial feminist quests on equality and self respect.
Geographically, my village is divulged on caste dwellings and the wage worker Dalits live in ghettos and the oppressor land lordly caste live in better streets.Though my family had a left leaning and is always seen as traitors among the community, we still lived in the caste streets and owned lands and married within and I felt ashamed even in my youth to be born culturally in the oppressor caste family. I was angry by the practice of untouchability and beliefs on pollution and purity when my mobility with my peer group friends was limited because of that. My sense of compassion and equality which I acquired through my early exposure to Russian literature and Periyar E.V Ramasamy's little books, and pamphlets of Ambedkar's speeches from my Grand Dad and Dad's library was constantly battered by my question on why I have been given a caste tag by birth which puts me superior to some and inferior to some. I detested the tags and my whole idea of atheism was born out of my hatred to religion particularly Hindusim. I still cant forget my childhood rebellion of entering my village temples when am menstruating and then announcing to my family if i will die because of that, I rather die and befriending and staying in my dalit friends homes and refuse to go back home. I believe, my commitment to larger battle against social injustices in my youth was largely shaped up by my village which is still doomed by caste and class inequalities and women suppression.
You were raised by your mother a single mom? What did that teach you about Indian women?
My mom was married to my father who is her maternal uncle when she was fourteen and she got widowed when she was just thirty nine. It was terrible to witness my mother's trials through my growing up days. She used to say that I was born to her when she dint even know how a baby comes out of a woman's body. I have heard her cursing my grand parents for dooming her to be a woman by marriage when she was playing kittipuli(village game) as a naughty child with village boys and jumping compounds of village touring talkies to watch Bharathiraja's films stealthily bunking classes. But she was mother of mother to her sisters and brothers and their children and her children and made us graduate and stand on our own.She wanted me to learn everything what she missed in her life. She will devotedly take me to bharathanatiyam classes, karnatic music classes, sanskrit classes, playground, regular school classes all though the day and she would abuse me if I fail to be good at any of these curriculum, i would be a failure like her. It was hard for me a child but I understood her anxiety as I grew up. Being her mirror image of what she could not be was such a task to me but I guess i acquired my fighting ability from her and her bringing up. I did ask her to re marry when we lost our father but she refused to that and said she would be our father too from then on. All my existence today is because of her and her passion for life.
You also worked as a relief worker after the tsunami hit india. What were some of your realizations
during that period?
I would correct that I was not a relief worker but managed to so some work around that.Catastrophes will lead one to become something else and yes it did affect me and made me a spiritual being. As an offspring of Self Justice movement, I always thought everything can be understood and very well within explanations.But my experience with natural disaster did make me feel there can be something which cant be understood. My fear of loss and suffering which I had when I lost my father extended to whole humanity and lives.
I also felt, my cameras and pens lose their power before certain situations and I should use my hands to help rather. I also realized that I am not that brave and courageous, which I think am and I really have to grow up to handle larger than life situations and there are situations which can shake you up and leave in despair.
I did gather myself and did art therapy for children at the tsunami hit coastal belts and documented the workshops which really made the children deal with their fear,gain their confidence and go back to schools. My film on those workshops was screened across 58 coastal villages and helped relief workers involved in rehabilitation..
The censor board wanted some of your movies to have massive cuts. But you went ahead and released films independently, without those cuts. What is your take on censorship and why do you think absolute freedom of expression is needed?
Censor Board is a shame to our 'democracy'. Even after legally been transformed to a Certification Board in 80's it is impossible for the board to remove the scissors from their hands and spirits. Institutionally controlling a content and deciding what their "subjects" should see or think or hear or act is a colonial hangup and a fascist attitude.Our sixty years of democracy has not still done with Queen Victoria and our Babus still want to clean her graves with their loyalty. I cant take this humiliations at any cost as a free thinking artiste. In a way for me, practicing art is a form of detesting censorship of my 'being' by agencies like family, religion, caste, culture and identities, market and state. I have gone to people directly with my films and there was no single incident creating a law and order situation as the CBFC had always feared. Infact the films demanded intervention of the concerned.It was only with my direct dialogues with my films with the community, my social understanding evolved and I leant and unlearnt a lot. This whole participatory process and the dialoge involved has only strengthened me and I cant allow agencies like CBFC to limit me the possibilities of reaching films across.
Anybody who believes in free thinking will subscribe to absolute freedom of expression. And with my little experience, people are wiser enough to chose, reject, appreciate and criticise what they want and if State thinks it has a role in controlling it, we need to remind it that it cannot and should not.
Your movie Goddess dealt with different dalit women taking on typical male roles in society – of gravedigger, fisherman, and in turn questioning them? Do you think you do that every day in your life – as a filmmaker who dares to question authority?
Lakshmi amma(Mourner and beef seller), Sethurakamma(fisherwomen) and krishna veni amma(grave digger) are shamans to me and I learnt from them how not to complain and fight our ways and live our choices so passionately. To continue to do what I believe in is so hard at our times and the extraordinary lust these women have for their lives made me feel so good about my own trials and challenges. I get very demoralised and disillussioned sometimes when I feel marginalised and socailly outcaste in my own terms and life, the lives I come across with my own films give me hope and courage. I think, I question and I live and I owe this quality of mine to people like these three goddesses.
You have said that an artist’s responsibility is to make society reflect on its own actions or issues.
But don’t you think sometimes artists may use that argument to incite. Or that such noble plans may backfire and incite sensitive parties
Yes, i agree, everything has its own repercussions.But is it not a natural justice that way? Everyone has a right to practice what they believe in and express themselves and artist with his or her own capability will deal it in their own terms.We we are born in a chronic unequal society and everything is so complex out here. I dont know about noble plans but even for simple plans, trial and error is the only way out for anyone to be different and still survive.
You talk about the fishermen’s ability to survive through violence and getting inspired by that. What did that teach you about life and how have you tried to bring that across in your movie. What are some of the main points you want to raise through Sengadal?
Basically fisher community are very compassionate. They are so humane to levels that they help refugees or rebels or any x , y or z who come to them and thus they invite problems every now and then with the State authorities. It was not difficult for them to love me like one among them. I was one listening ear to all of them but in the process, I felt powerless and helpless when I came across their horror stricken lives.I felt like one awful rat living so sophisticated in the plains. But their ability to live and the courage to set off their boats everyday though there is a 'Do or Die' situation overwhelmed me.I lived with them, and every fisher family at Dhanushkodi is my extended family. Their interviews, personal confessions and memories dug a deep hole in my heart and got etched in my sub conscious.I had no other go than sharing my experience somehow with the rest of the world. And that is how Sengadal the Dead Sea happened.
Almost every household in Dhanushkodi, the border coast has a story of their men shot randomly by the Sri Lankan Navy in the sliver of water between India and Sri Lanka. Fishermen fishing in fear in ignorance of friendly and enemy waters get dumped as rebels, spies and smugglers and unceremoniously beaten to death or shot or maimed.One can see a widow or orphaned children or parents who have lost their son or siblings who have lost their brother in every other family. Unnoticed, the Palk Strait has become the scene of inhuman torture, humiliation and savage murder over the past 30 years since the ethnic crisis had become severe in Srilanka. And in the past six months, the violence has been accelerating — hundreds of men have been killed. Nearly 600 have lost their lives till now, more than thousands are injured and have gone missing. And everyday, these figures are raising. And this is not even war.
There were instances where fishermen have been stripped off their clothes and their legs have been heated up with hot rods.They have been beaten up using plastic pipes and clubs and they have scars to show us.Horrible physical abuses like making them to sit on ice and looting their fishes have taken place as well.Besides there has been numerous situations where they have been taken into custody and tortured,physically and verbally abused.Tearing their nets and damaging their boats have often been done by the navy. Fishermen in general are socially oppressed and economically downtrodden people and hence these acts are nothing less than strangulating them.Questions do raise in one’s mind about the racist nature of these attacks.
To fishermen, maritime boundaries are man made creations. Throughout centuries, they have been fishing in all areas, where there is fish. It is a universal phenomenon. The Sri Lankan fishermen enter Indian and Maldivian waters. Indian fishermen enter Pakistani waters and Bangladeshis enter Myanmar and the Japanese and Taiwanese trawlers roam around the whole of Asian waters. The restrictions imposed by the States on cross border movements of the fisher folk have led to loss of human lives and destruction of fishing crafts.
States are interested in borders, boundaries, bilateral relations and Fishermen are interested in their means of livelihood and thus the issue is conflict of interests and loss and suffering of the powerless.
Dead Sea, for sure will voice their concerns expose how abysmally small their lives are and how every other institutions of Power oppress them. All they 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.
You have alleged that the Indian government helped in the elam tamil genocide. How do you explain that?
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 Indians we should be ashamed of our governments who given alms, arms and every other support to Rajapakshe and be a kingpin to perform this genocide. Rajapakshe has himself given an open statement that he had conducted India's war.
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".
It is the Nations and States and Constitutions and Boundaries and Border Forces which are violating fisher community's very basic right to live. What both Indian and Srilankan States do to fishermen is State Terrorism. Nearly 600 have have lost their lives till now, and more than thousands are injured and have gone missing leaving their family in the lurch. Who is responsible for that? Is it the racist Srilankan Governments? or the impotent Indian and Tamilnadu governments? Sengadal is the vent for the fishermen's anger and I join them hands.