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It's easy to find poetry in the landscape of Dhanushkodi — a fishing village located at the southern tip of Tamil Nadu's Rameswaram island, surrounded as it is by vast stretches of sea. Easy, but presumptuous, considering how the fishing community of the village has had to bear the brunt of the three decade-long ethnic war in Sri Lanka, owing to its proximity to the island nation. It was this story of constant struggle against an idyllic natural landscape that appealed to Tamil filmmaker Leena Manimekalai, who captured it on celluloid over a year in 2009. The film, Sengadal (The Dead Sea), eventually became Manimekalai's first attempt at feature after nine documentaries, but the going was anything but smooth.
Earlier this year, the Chennai Regional Censor Board refused a clearance certificate to the film, which talks about the atrocities of the Sri Lankan army against the Indian Tamils. The board found political references to the governments of India and Sri Lanka objectionable. The use of cuss words by fishermen was another ground for stalling its release. "The film is based on factual accounts. Collected from the interviews of fisherfolk, it strings together memories of horrific incidents that affected these people," says Manimekalai. "For these fishermen, who were often ignorant of boundaries, whether on land or at sea, venturing into the ocean was a necessity to generate livelihood." On a number of occasions, they ended up dead at the hands of Sri Lankan navy personnel who disposed of the bodies in the Indian Ocean.
After the intervention of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal following a petition filed by her, the Federation of Film Societies and several civil rights activists, Sengadal was re-examined by the censor board. On July 25 this year, it was cleared without any cuts but with an 'A' certification. Months after getting the adult stamp and making its international debut at Durban and Montreal film festivals, the 100-minute film is now ready for its Indian premiere. It will be screened at the week-long 13th Mumbai Film Festival (MFF), which will starts on October 13. "This is the film's first official screening in India even though it was screened at alternate venues like Mumbai's Prithvi Theatre earlier," says the director.
Despite the hullabaloo, says the 33-year-old Chennai-based director, Sengadal is a film that was waiting to be shot. Manimekalai moved to Dhanushkodi with her camera and a small crew in February 2009, when the civil war in Sri Lanka was in its last stages. For the next four months, she shouldered the dual responsibility of directing the feature film as well as acting in it. "We adopted a participatory process during the making. The community was very involved. Several residents of Dhanushkodi also played out characters akin to their real life," she says.
It was not easy initially to win their trust, but her frequent visits to the area slowly dissolved their reluctance. "The villagers became my extended family, helping me to get into the inner space of the community. I stayed and ate with them," she says. Even when she overstayed beyond the permissible hour of 6 pm as decreed by the local naval post, they took care to hide her. "If a naval helicopter came out for surveillance when we were taking a boat ride, something we were not allowed to do, the fishermen quickly hid us under the deck," she recollects. Thanks to such cooperation, she was able to shoot the film despite the constant vigil of coastal and navy personnel.
Training the villagers and making them act in this documentary-like feature was another challenge altogether. The director had no pre-determined narrative for the film. Initially, she worked without a script, accumulating the footage of the members of Dhanushkodi community talking about their perilous existence. "After I collected the raw material, I collaborated with writers C Jerrold and Shobasakhti to give it a formal structure," she says. The film opens with Dhanushkodi waking up to two bodies washed ashore. This triggers a protest at the collector's office, demanding justice. "This incident had taken place in the 70s. But we chose to incorporate that in our narrative." Manimekalai has taken similar creative liberties of blending fact and fiction. For instance, the character of a half-wit Lankan refugee Suri, who is glued to a radio, is inspired by the story of a refugee who led a similar life.
During the filming, Manimekalai became an integral part of the narrative. Along with the protagonists — Munusamy, the fisherman, and Rosemary, the fisherwoman who turns into a social worker after losing her husband in a Sri Lankan navy encounter, and Suri — she tries to make sense of the chaos and hardship prevailing in this tiny village. Their interactions with Lankan refugees, their skirmishes with the Indian and Sri Lankan officials and their personal lives overrun by external events, form the crux of this "factual feature". As Manimekalai went about collecting information about life disrupted, a bigger story of political negligence emerged. However, what stood out was the community's constant struggle to live and their ability to keep hope afloat.
There is an undeniable universality to the story of this small fishing community, caught in a conflict zone."People who are caught in border land conflicts, like those on the US-Mexico border, will be able to identify with Sengadal's story," says Manimekalai. This could be one of the reasons why it made the cut at the MFF's International Competition in the category of the First Feature Film of Directors despite facing competition from nearly 40 Indian films. "The selection committee was impressed with the freshness in approach, wonderful photography and the way non-actors have been treated in the movie," says MFF director Srinivasan Narayanan.
Despite the appreciation, Sengadal will probably be screened only once, at the festival. "The movie should have proper screenings and be seen in theatres," says fellow documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. In fact, Manimekalai is already exploring the possibility of a commercial release. "When you make this kind of films, you have to show it to a wider audience," she says. The director is now gearing to release the film locally. In the worst possible scenario, she is planning "a symbolic release" of the film in around 15 theatres. This may also ease the financial constraints she faced while making the film. After her first producer backed out, Global Films Initiative, a San Francisco-based organisation which promotes independent filmmakers, stepped in with a $10,000-grant. Later, producer Janaki Sivakumar helped her complete the project.
Manimekalai is, however, not new to the struggle. This engineering graduate, armed with a camera, a microphone and an editing software on her computer, found her true calling in making documentaries in 2001 when she made Mathamma. In it, the Left-leaning poet-cum-activist-turned-director talked about the prevailing custom of devoting girls to the deity in the Arundhatiyar community of Tamil Nadu. It was followed by Parai, which brings the violence against Dalit women to light. Her later films — Break the Shackles, Love Lost, Waves after Waves, Connecting Lines, A Hole in the Bucket and Goddesses — all capture the story of India that exists on the fringes.
Manimekalai has a couple of scripts ready, in collaboration with Shobasakthi, the author of the novel Gorilla. One of them focuses on the life of Tamil Muslims and is titled Fourth Caliba, while the other is titled Passport. The latter is a road film based on the life of a Sri Lankan Tamil youth caught between the government and the LTTE. "There is a constant fight between the artist and the activist in me. Maybe I am an 'artivist'," she says about her choice of subjects. In spite of that, she is reluctant to term her work as issue-based cinema. She chooses to call them "stories of living" instead.
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