By Mahesan Niranjan –
It was unbelievable. My friend and regular drinking partner — the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram — has been to see a film on Saturday! The man travelled from Bridgetown to London and sat through the full two hours or so of a Tamil film in the Odeon cinema in Leicester Square yesterday. Why should this surprise me?
The last occasion Thevaram watched a full length Tamil movie in a cinema was forty year ago – yes, forty! That was the beautiful film Vasantha Maalikai, featuring Sivaji Ganeshan and K.R. Vijaya. Thevaram saw that film in The Modern theatre in up country town of Bandarawela in 1975. The film was beautifully made, though with its fair share of running round bushes, a few dishum-dishum punch ups in which the good guy beats up the bad one and exceptionally fine lyrics in its songs. My friend is so hooked to the film that every week, cycling to meet me in the Bridgetown pub it is songs from Vasantha Maalikai that he whistles. The other day when I got delayed in traffic and he waited for me, he had even been scribbling some of the lines on the beer mat.
*Photograph on left via http://www.snipview.com/; Photograph of beer mat by author
Walking back from Modern, the young boy did a critical appraisal of the film. He was particularly intrigued by the romantic dance. “Appa (dad) how does she move in such a way that her hips moves sideways, perpendicular the direction of motion?” the fourteen year old asked Sivapuranam. The father explained the mechanics of it: “During each step, place each foot straight in front of the other and press firmly to put your weight entirely on it, and an exaggerated lateral movement of the posterior is then a natural consequence of the laws of motion.”
How was a graduate in Sanskrit able to explain mechanics, you might wonder. But remember, despite the pride we hold of our Dravidian origins, our reference text — the Kama Sutra — is written in that vada mozhi (northern language), isn’t it?
“If that’s the way the female of our species attracts potential mates, Appa, how does the male do it?” asked the curious boy. “Calculus, my boy, calculus,” Sivapuranam said jokingly.
Study the lyrics of the songs my friend has written in the photograph of the beer mat. Those were the days when cinematic effect was achieved by power and beauty the language had to offer. Poets like Kannathasan used it very cleverly indeed.
Through the Eighties and Nineties, my friend kept well away from Tamil cinema. Its progressive commercialization, in which subtlety and rich dialogue had given way to melodramatics, linguistically beautiful lyrics had given way to repetitive uttering of meaningless monosyllables and sophisticated noise-making instruments had replaced smooth melody of the simple flute, was too much for Thevaram to tolerate.
“I really hate all that make-belief Machan (buddy),” he told me once. “But why is it any different from James Bond, which you enjoy so much?” I challenged him. “Bond is never sold as culture,” he argued, “there is a strong element of such portrayal that goes with Tamil cinema.”
I did not push any further. Had I done that, I was certain Thevaram would have brought the South Indian Tamil writer Jeyakanthan to his support. Some of you might have read the insightful short story (cinimaavukkup pOna siththaaLu) of a village man and wife who were committed fans of the great movie star vaathiyaar (MGR / hero). Reflecting on his sexual experiences one evening, the man discovers to his horror – Jeyakanthan puts it in a subtle way decades before Silvio Berlusconi explained this to us far more explicitly — his share of it was mere physical and the “pleasure of conquest that was missing” actually belonged to the impression vaathiyaar had left in the woman’s mind through the medium of cinema.
*Photograph from http://www.thedailystar.net/; Ticket with thanks to S. Thevaram
Yesterday, Thevaram went to see the award winning film Dheepan screened at the Leicester Square Odeon. The film is set around the story of a refugee family in Paris. The main character, Dheepan, is a former fighter in the LTTE. They are not a real family at the beginning, synthesized to match the profiles in the passports of a real one – all of whom had died in the war. The three characters themselves had lost their immediate relatives. The family arrives in Paris and is housed in a flat next door to a drug baron and his gang.
The storyline is plausible, though some parts only add up with difficulty. If the timescale is post Mullivaaikkaal, then it is improbable they would have been so isolated because there was a well-rooted Tamil community in Europe, the arrival of the Tiger Colonel wanting Dheepan to continue with the fight was unrealistic and there was just enough time for all this to happen and end up as a happy-ever-after family with a young baby in England.
His developing love for her, her crush on the druggie and the tensions between them are played out neatly. The attention to detail is impressive in places. Her accent is South Indian, but she certainly has worked hard to reduce its impact to the point it doesn’t particularly disturb.
Their readiness to adapt comes across beautifully. “Eat with a spoon,” he says to the little girl. The woman protests “why not with her fingers?” “Tomorrow at school she needs to use a spoon.” Carefully injected humour helps release tension throughout the film. The electronic tag on the druggie amusing her – something to do with exercise she wonders. She finds a funny explanation of why she shakes her head so much.
Where he says to the young girl “look at me, you have to go to school, we all have to play our parts,” it was quite touching.
The film was good, but it was not the film that attracted my friend to travel down to London.
The main character in Dheepan is played by Jesuthasan Antonythasan, and the film is largely taken from his own experiences. His trajectory in life is intriguing. The challenges he faced are not experiences known to us average readers of Colombo Telegraph. He leaves home at the age of fourteen or fifteen, long before Mullivaaikkaal where his film is set to start, running away from a cocktail of oppression — imposed via peculiarities of our caste system, family structure and law enforcement — to join the Tigers.
Antonythasan nowadays is a powerful writer, writing under the pseudonym Shobasakthi. His novel Gorilla is gripping and the background it portrays shakes the foundations of nostalgia with which Thevaram looks back at Seventies Jaffna. For the likes of Thevaram, there are Key Performance Indicators (KPI) such as how well Jaffna students performed in public examinations and how well the Jaffna farmer produced onions to boast about. But behind such comforting thoughts lay hidden a social structure of extreme unfairness we failed to notice or address. Aggressive manifestation of the political storyline, driven by the chauvinistic political class and the violent response to it, helped hide those evils. Scratch the surface a little and you will see the evils still retained and even exported to London, Paris and Toronto. Gorilla is written in rough language, if you miss the semantics, the syntax itself hits you straight on the head.
His other story, kaNdi veeran (Kandy hero), Thevaram’s favourite, is a hilarious mockery of how the militant groups behaved in Jaffna.
After four years or so of membership, still a teenager of eighteen years, Antonythasan realised where the liberation struggle was taking the people. The end of the process was going to be the starting point of his film: Mullivaaikkaal.
It is to his credit he figured this out so early, left the Tigers and went through all the difficulties of forged passports and the misery the suburbs of Paris had to offer.
After the film in the Odeon, the two main actors, Antonythasan and Kalieaswari Srinivasan, were invited on stage for a short discussion. “Half of it is your own life, you say,” the host asks him, “can you expand on it — which half?” He is clear in his answer. Perhaps he has been asked this many times before. “Like Dheepan in the film, I also was a fighter, beaten up by police, travelled on false passports and struggled in Paris. But my approach later is different,” he says differentiating himself from the last part of the film in which Dheepan uses violence to deal with the drug gang.
A well-rehearsed question on the inevitable G-word was asked: something approximating “Though the United Nation agencies and others don’t want to say so, would you consider what happened in Sri Lanka as genocide?”
If you put my friend Thevaram on a stage and asked this question, you will probably get a rather sophisticated answer. “Well, we know a lot of people died on all sides. What we need to do is to ask why that happened, who was responsible for it and work to make sure it doesn’t happen again. The particular dictionary definition of the word is not what we should be arguing about, without realising the emotive reactions it triggers,” he probably would say.
Antonythasan did not suffer such sophistication. His answer was straight. “Yes,” he said “I do regard it as such.” Then he qualified. “I am not just thinking about the last stages of war in Mullivaaikkaal, it is what they did from back in 1984 when they bombed our villages indiscriminately — I certainly think of it as genocide.”
That 1984 was the year he left home and signed up to fight, from the village of Allaipiddi, which was easily reached by projectiles fired from the Jaffna Fort.
At the Leicester Square Odeon, my friend, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Thevaram felt a sense of pride. For him, the award winning film was a Sri Lankan product – the story of a fellow Sri Lankan.
He felt the same sense of pride he had of achievements by other Sri Lankans such as Kumar Sangakkaara’s Lord’s speech or Malik Peiris being elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society. “Worth coming to see it,” he said to himself.
Someone from the audience asked what the actor thought of Sri Lanka.
“Dheepan will be screened in Colombo in a few weeks and I have an invitation to the film festival,” he said.
“But I don’t think I can go there!”