While the Sri Lankan Security Forces, along with the Government, are trying to defend itself against war crimes charges made by the international community, India’s southern state, Tamil Nadu, which has released several movies on Sri Lanka’s ethnic war, is coming up with its latest movie titled, ‘18.05.2009’.
The movie is directed by K. Ganeshan and music is composed by legendary musician Ilayarajah, and will be released on 18 May in several theatres across Tamil Nadu, India. Tamil Nadu (TN) has been involved in many ways in the 30+ years of war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan Governments that were elected from time to time. The presence of the people of TN was felt during the war in the form of protest, rescuing the war- fleeing Tamils. And now they have gone to the extent of making movies on the war and human suffering, challenging the Censor Board of India and political clout, but never in their minds they will ‘give up their struggle’ to make movies and the trend is continuing.
The emotional connection the TN people had with the Sri Lankan Tamils during the war heightened in its aftermath, and it has been the subject of interest to everyone who is into writing or making films. There were more than 10 such films produced across Tamil Nadu in the past.
Movie plots mainly come from TN fishermen, who stood in solidarity with the Sri Lankan Tamils for decades but their presence was felt more strongly after the war broke out and continued for over 30 years. In fact, TN fishermen were well informed about what was happening on the warfront because they were the very first from the tip of Tamil Nadu to sail across Palk Strait when night fell, to rescue wounded civilians and fleeing families.
There are stories of how the fishermen holding kerosene lanterns signalling the fleeing Tamils that they are ready to fetch them out of the war zone. There were exchanges of gold and silver to escape on boats to TN. There are also stories of how they brought in household commodities, dry rations, kerosene and matchsticks and sold them on board fishing trawlers.
Today, when visiting coastal areas like Thanushkody, Rameswaram, Tuticorin, Kanyakumari and Velankani, people there can narrate stories quoting village names in Jaffna and the families they had been in touch with.
Movies about the war and people fleeing from the lagoons in the Jaffna peninsula were mainly filmed in locations in TN coastal areas that are similar to Mullivaikkal. The movie ‘18.05.2009’ begins with the 1983 riots when the Tamil Tigers managed to strengthen its movement and ending it on the last phase of the war. The 51-year-old director, Ganeshan, hailing from Bangalore said the INR 25 million budget movie depicts the stories of war, why it happened, how it happened and at the end how humanity suffered. “It’s a properly documented movie,” he claimed.
“I don’t anticipate the movie to be a hit, but bring awareness that war ruins humanity.” Ganeshan, who mainly concentrates on Kannada movies, also directed ‘Por Kalathil Oru Poo’ (Flower on the Battlefield) that was banned by the Indian Censor Board due to controversial scenes based on the life and death of LTTE newscaster Isaipriya. ‘18.05.2009’ also took nearly eight months to be released by the Censor Board after many scenes were deleted, Ganeshan added.
He also said that it would be appreciated if this movie is released in Sri Lanka and that open-minded people would welcome it. “I would like to visit Sri Lanka if it’s released in Sri Lanka because I have not projected the Sinhalese or the Army as villains.” He also said that making movies about Tamils by a Tamil was partly a passion and that he has lost a fortune chasing his passion. “Some think I am funded by Tamils overseas but I must say, please don’t assassinate my character if you can’t come forward to help me.” The Tamil diaspora sees the TN film industry as using the war for personal gains and have ignored calls for support. Yet, there are several Tamil Diaspora groups who had backed TN film directors to portray the war and its outcome.
Ganeshan said that even Sinhalese have given him stories with evidence like the rest of the people who are in touch with him. “I have collected information from people of all walks of life, including fleeing and injured civilians and news on the war, and I shot the movie in the coastal areas of Rameswaram, Velankani, Chittore and Vishakhapatnam using cinematic expressions and language.”
Despite his movie was shelved in 2014 due to a financial crisis, the filmmaker Anand Murthy from Bangalore almost completed Thileepan , a biopic of the man who went on a hunger strike in support of the Tamil struggle and died eventually. Murthy says he still needs funds to complete the last few scenes.
“I strongly feel that it is an emotional project because civil wars and liberation fights have always been a subject of interest to everyone who is into writing or making films. American filmmakers made so many films on Cuban refugees or the British, French and Irish films were made on the freedom struggles in their parts of the globe, he pointed out.
“We weren’t just geographically connected; we all are from the same race. It was quite obvious that Tamil filmmakers would be inspired. I was the first to document the life of Thileepan, a trained militant who gave up arms to go on a fast until death inspired by Gandhi and the Indian freedom struggle,” Murthy said.“Commercializing a story is part of the commercial cinema and I don’t find anything wrong in doing so. Films are made to entertain. I didn’t have the necessity to do so because Thileepan’s life story already had every element a commercial cinema needs. Thileepan was a larger than life character and people who knew him know what sort of a person he was and what was his agenda and how he was successful in bringing Tamils together,” he added.
According to him, the Tamil community in Bangalore were aware of the war in Sri Lanka and there were LTTE fund raising campaigns in Bangalore in the 80s. As a small boy he knew about the burning of the Jaffna Library and how Prabhakaran was brought to the SAARC meeting in Bangalore. Natwar Singh was then a member of the Gandhi government and New Delhi had asked Prabhakaran to come to Bangalore to meet then President J.R. Jayewardene, in a bid to end the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict.
“I was waiting for hours to get a glimpse of him on the airport road along with other children. There was a campaign in Bangalore to sign a memorandum addressed to the then Governor, which was signed in human blood. When the media reported Thileepan’s fasting I was following it up as a kid and it was embedded in my mind and that was what inspired me to make the film,” the filmmaker said.
Murthy has also met a couple of Thileepan’s friends and family members on his visit to the North of Sri Lanka several times has also read Yogeshwaran Velu’s book on Thileepan’s death fast, before he ventured on the project.
“The book 12 days with Thileepan was quite emotional and I was a lot more into it with the newspaper articles from the 90s and slowly started getting some of the video materials which was shot then and it was all on VHS.
“I collected quite a lot of material. It took almost 15 years. Once I was all set, I approached and spoke to a few producers. Thileepan’s lookalike Nanda was chosen for the lead role. We started shooting at the end of 2014, but due to financial shortfalls the movie had to be shelved.” Murthy said already 80% of the movie is completed with a budget of INR 20 million, but he requires another INR 20 million to complete the shooting in Kerala and Pondicherry, and interior shots in Chennai and surroundings.
He added that when he wrote the script on Thileepan, some LTTE leaders through their Chennai channels contacted him to verify the authenticity of the script and said that it was perfect and not to tarnish the story of their man.
Tamils are emotionally and politically connected but sometimes movies help to project certain person’s politics and can be used as a tool. Murthy says, “That should be discussed far more widely among the Tamil community, but since 2009 Tamils have gradually understood the politics of Eelam and it may grow in time to come and give rise to a favourable situation in Tamil Nadu. Right now, the majority feels that they were kept in the dark on the war and the last months of 2009, and you see them talking about it largely now than ever. Even that is happening in Sri Lanka.”
There were several other movies that depicted the war of Sri Lanka. Thenali by Kamal Haasan was a story of a man who comes to Chennai from Jaffna for psychiatric treatment for war trauma, which scored big, but there were no scenes of the war or portrayed war-related scenes and killings. Similarly, ‘Kannathil Mutthamittal’ was created very subtly depicting the war but portrayed a little girl born to an LTTE female fighter.
Murthy said, no film on the Eelam issue has commercially done good or made money till date. “I know a friend who made ’Thean Koodu’, a film made on the Eelam struggle which never got released and that Director since then has been unable to recover from the losses.” ‘Sivappu’ was a movie by Sathya Siva depicting anger, love, poverty and fear in war torn Northern Province of Sri Lanka.
‘Neerparavai’ (Seabird) 2012 directed by Seenu Ramasamy and produced by Udhayanidhi Stalin is about the fisherfolk of Sri Lanka who escaped war. ‘Ravana Desam or Ravan Desam’ (The Land of Ravana) written and directed by Ajay Nuthakki. The film is based on the refugees missing during the 2009 Sri Lankan War. ‘Inam’ released in 2013 is a war film written, directed, filmed and produced by Santosh Sivan. The story revolves around a group of teenagers in an orphanage set during the war in Sri Lanka. The film premiered at the 2013 Busan International Film Festival and had a theatrical release in India on 28 March 2014.
‘Pulipaarvai’ (Sight of the Tiger) released in 2014 is a film about Balachandran Prabhakaran, son of LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran, directed by Praveen Gandhi.