Behind every cup of the famed ‘Ceylon tea’ is a faceless labourer toiling in a plantation in Sri Lanka all year. And when Sivamohan Sumathy zoomed in, undervalued labour was only one of the problems she saw.
“Plantation Tamils are never plotted within the story of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. I thought there was space for this kind of film,” says Ms. Sumathy, director of Ingirunthu (from here), which will soon hit Colombo cinemas.
Upcountry Tamils or plantation Tamils, who the British brought to Sri Lanka from southern India — largely from Tirunelveli, Tiruchi, Madurai and Thanjavur — as labourers in the early 19th century, seldom figure in political discussions on Sri Lanka.
Speaking to The Hindu in her Colombo apartment, Ms. Sumathy explains that it was the urge to tell the story of a community that historically got very little attention, which led to the film.
Their story, Ms. Sumathy soon realised, was not just about labour and exploitation. She was then prompted to look at the role of the state, the idea of citizenship and belonging and how oppression — both by external and internal factors — works. “Conceptually, this is a war and peace film, you know.”
The film, screened to the media here recently, does not employ a conventional narrative. It oscillates from being a feature film and, at times, a documentary that seeks to capture reality as it is.
“I did not want a narrative around three, four main characters. I consciously retained the feel of a documentary. I wanted to convey an overarching idea about the community itself. My protagonist is the community,” says Ms. Sumathy, who teaches English at University of Peradeniya, near Kandy.
Also a poet and theatre activist, she worked with the plantation community for some time before she made the film. Her interaction with the workers made her a virtual “insider” who felt a strong connection with the people, who would gradually give her insights into the layered complexities of their lives. “The actors in the film are from the community itself,” says Ms. Sumathy.
There is, however, one popular actor who finds ample visual mention in the film — the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, M.G. Ramachandran. “I don’t know if it’s because MGR was born here in Kandy — but the community really reveres him. There are MGR fan clubs in the plantations, and even statues.”
Periodically weaving in the community’s intimate cultural bond with south India, the film touches upon a host of issues facing the community, from wage struggles to gender inequality at work and home, subtly questioning the role of trade unions or, say, the notion of identity and citizenship along the way.
Given the strong Indian connection the community has — though India and Tamil Nadu express their solidarity more often with the Sri Lankan Tamils inhabiting the war-torn Northern Province — the film looks at historical developments in the Indo-Lanka relationship that led to repatriation of some of the plantation Tamils critically, without any imposing commentary.
There is no explicit plot or resolution in the narrative in the movie.
As the title Ingirunthu connotes, the film seeks to encourage the viewer to simply journey with a certain lesser-known reality. “I did not feel compelled to answer all the questions I have raised. In real life, do we have answers all the time?”
The actual shoot spanned about 18 days, but the post production work took much longer, says Ms. Sumathy, who has almost single-handedly raised funds to make the film. “About 80 per cent of it is my own money, but friends and family have chipped in.”
Money was not the only issue. Some of the estate owners in Sri Lanka’s scenic Central Province were not going to let an unknown crew come and shoot in their plantations or factories. “A lot of the shoot was done in a clandestine way.” Asked if she was, at any point, concerned about the commercial viability of the film, she says: “In Sri Lankan Tamil films, there is no commercial value, really.”