THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: A place where life and death are just two sides of the same coin. A small patch of land on the border coast of India and Sri Lanka, skirted by the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal, that can barely be called an island. Leena Manimekalai and crew were stubborn to shoot the travails of the fisher-folk in the area who had been subjected to the attack of Sri-Lankan Navy for more than three decades.
On the sidelines of the 16th IFFK, the feminist activist and filmmaker explains how difficult it was to proceed in a land where “time stands still.”
It takes real courage to swim against the current and arrive victorious. To call ‘Sengadal’ aka Dead Sea a full length feature film would be wrong. Everything you see in that film is real - the characters, milieu, the situation etc. A docu-fiction may a more suitable nomenclature.
“The film was a people participatory work. Things worked on instantaneous permutations and combinations. It is possible that you might find imperfections in the dialogue, scene or script.” For instance, she says, “The person who appeared the other day with long hair may cut it short and appear on the sets the next day. The factor of continuity, therefore, was absolutely challenging”.
The director says that though they began the shoot with a pre-planned script, it underwent a lot many changes before reaching completion. “Changes were made to the script as per the input provided by the inhabitants of the island. Rather than directing them, we gave them situations and were told to respond to such circumstance spontaneously.”
It needed tremendous effort to get them accustomed to the skill of acting. Several workshops were conducted for the purpose. “Though all inhabitants spoke Tamil, the dialects varied accordingly. Hence, to make them repeat a dialogue was also not easy.”
For the inhabitants of the island, the major concern is to eke out a living. If they get a fairly paid job for a day, some people would not turn up for the film shoot. An arduous task, Leena explains, was to bring the refugees before the camera. Theirs was too complex a life to understand. “To make the refugees move out of the camps was extremely difficult. Their lives were at risk. Anu day, they might flee to other places without telling anybody. Can we question them about why they did not let us know?” she asks.
When it comes to infrastructure, the island can undoubtedly be called as a place where ‘time stands still’. Electricity was scarce, sanitation was poor and the place where the process of learning happened could hardly be called a school. Even the mobile phones had no signal at times.
“The crew of 40 who began the crusade got reduced to almost four by the end of the shoot. Many collapsed as the filming progressed.” Communication turned the biggest problem most of the time. Camera and walkie-talkie also failed at times. Only sturdy vehicles succeeded to tread across the sandy roadways. “Once a technical problem occurred, a three-hour-long journey to Rameswaram was the lone way to get it replaced,” Leena says. She terms the completion of the work a miracle in all sense.
After the Herculean task of film making process was over, Leena was greeted by the regional committee of the censor board with a jolt for using ‘unparliamentary words’ in the movie. “The word unparliamentary itself is born out of a colonial mind set. Only a micro-fraction of the sufferings of the people were brought before the audience. The film was an attempt to capture the loss and the sufferings. As an artist don’t I have the right to criticize the merciless slaughter of thousands of people?” asks the firebrand activist.