Portrayal of Eelam Tamils in mainstream Kollywood cinema

Many scholars studying Tamil Nadu politics have noted, and rightly so, the pervasive influence on Tamil cinema on Tamil Nadu’s political landscape. Writing in 1996 in ‘The Eye of the Serpent: An Introduction to Tamil Cinema’, Tamil film historian Theodore Baskaran argues “over the seventy-nine years of its existence, Tamil cinema has grown to become the most domineering influence in the cultural and political life in Tamil Nadu.” Sixteen years later, the statement is still not an exaggeration, with the leader of the ruling party of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalitha, and the leaders of the two major opposition parties DMK and DMDK, Karunanidhi and Vijayakanth respectively, hailing from strong backgrounds in Tamil cinema. Indeed, a walk in the streets of Chennai, Madurai or Salem would expose one to the near omnipresence of the gods of Kollywood – posters on walls, pictures on shops, autos, cars and buses, larger than life cut-outs, mobs thronging theatres that screen blockbusters and so.

Kollywood, or the Tamil version of Hollywood, is term that is used to refer to the Tamil cinema industry that has Kodambakkam in Chennai as its heart. With about 200 films produced annually, with the highest paid actor in India (Rajinikanth) and with huge investments put into the production of a single movie – Shankar’s Endhiran was produced at a whooping budget of over 1.5 billion Indian Rupees, making it the costliest movie to be made in India – it is a thriving commercial enterprise. Taking from Zizek who contends that much of the issues in the so-called post-industrial society can be analyzed through a study of Hollywood, I argue that an analysis of Kollywood Cinema, considering its strong influence in contemporary Tamil Nadu’s political culture, would greatly assist in understanding social aspects of Tamil society.

Now, while many in the Tamil cine world have expressed their sympathies for the plight of the Eelam Tamils, it is only a few actors and directors – and they are mostly not box office hits – who have explicitly empathized with the political struggle of the Eelam Tamils. In fact, despite the claims of many in Tamil Nadu cinema, both on screen and off, that they express ‘genuine’ Tamil sentiments and culture, the portrayal of the Eelam Tamils’ struggle in mainstream cinema has been negligible. Now, this is a relative statement considering the fact that the political struggle of the Eelam Tamils heralded a new phase of militant Tamil nationalism, created a society that reformers and poets of Tamil Nadu could only write about, and waged a war for liberation that was of epic proportions in its moments of both triumph and tragedy.  Thus, it is a matter for lamentation that a culture industry in the ‘heart of Tamil civilization’ did not give adequate artistic due in its mainstream medium to an achievement that is claimed by many a Tamil nationalist to have been the ‘height of Tamil civilization’.

This article seeks to briefly explore the few mainstream Tamil movies that have touched on the subject of the Eelam Tamils and interrogate how the portrayal has been executed.  By ‘mainstream’, I refer to those movies that have been made for explicitly commercial purposes and have produced by well established production houses. This article does not want into take into consideration Eelam Tamils portrayed in non-mainstream Tamil Nadu cinema not because there haven’t been any, but just because most, if not all, are hardly worthy of critical examination for the sheer lack of artistic form or content. Of course, there is considerable debate on what is mainstream and what is not. And I do welcome the criticism that this labelling is in itself a discriminatory act that pushes other artistic productions to the sidelines. For purposes of providing a general idea of the issue at hand, the article prefers to stick to the definition of ‘mainstream’ mentioned above.

Eelam Tamils have been subjects in some movies while in others, they have been explicitly referred to or allusions have been deployed.

Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondein Kandukondein (2000) has a short starting sequence showing a ‘gallant’ IPKF commando being confronted and horribly wounded by ‘ruthless’ Tamil militants, few seconds after he advises his fellow soldier that in war one doesn’t ask questions and one goes where the country orders to. On the other hand, there are those movies directed by Tamil nationalists like Seeman's Thambi (2006) and Ram's Kattrathu Tamizh (2007) in which the directors intend to make positive reference to the LTTE leader.

Thambi revolves around an angry young Tamil man with a perceived sense of injustice, who believes that he can tackle the ills in society by beating up a few goons, giving moralizing lectures to women and making passionate speeches for social harmony. Kattrathu Tamizh is about a young Tamil man, a post-graduate in Tamil language, who is, in all senses of the term, a loser in life. Failing to secure a vocation for himself, this frustrated monstrosity of a man runs into trouble with the law, beats up youngsters for being unable to speak ‘proper’ Tamil, molests Tamil women for wearing western clothes, and kills couples for not acting according to ‘Tamil culture’. The most criminal element of the movie, however, is that the director chose to name the protagonist ‘Prabhakaran’. It is not hard to speculate that in reality, while a character like Thambi would have been ridiculed in the society that existed in the LTTE’s de facto state, Ram’s ‘Prabhakaran’ would have been tried and executed. While the directors might have had the best of intentions while making their respective movies, it is clear that good intentions needn’t necessarily translate into a good product!

Some interesting allusions were made to the Eelam Tamils’ struggle in a few movies that were released after 2009. Murugadoss’ 7aum Arivu (2011), a sci-fi thriller based on the Tamil origins of Bodhidharma and his legacy in modern times, has one such short sequence. After being badly beaten by the Chinese villain and escaping with just their lives, the female lead advises the male protagonist Suriya that Tamil heroism is now pointless, referring to the example of the Tamils “in the nearby country”. Suriya replies that nine countries ganging up on one Tamil person is not heroism but betrayal. This scene is now circulated in Youtube by some Tamil enthusiast with the title 7am arivu about tamil eelam.

Another movie with strong allusions to the condition of the Eelam Tamils is the Selvaraghavan directed Aayirathil Oruvan (2010). The story is of a modern day hunt for a descendent of the Chola dynasty, whose ancestors have been forced to flee their homeland Tanjore in the 13th century. A Pandyan princess, with the help of unassuming allies, discovers the location of the Chola king, deceives him, and calls over her mercenary troops who then wage war on the Chola survivors. Though the Cholas fight fiercely, the modern day Pandyas, equipped with superior technology, guns, bombs, satellite phones etc. defeat them and carry out a sort of genocide. The ending scenes, with the remaining Cholas being herded by the victorious army into makeshift camps, massacres of surrendered civilians, torture and murder of children, gang rapes of Chola women, did ring Sri Lankan bells for quite some viewers – despite the fact that on screen, it was a ‘modern’ ‘corrupt’ Tamil Nadu force doing these things to an ‘ancient’ ‘pure’ Tamil Nadu force. An obvious reason would be the frequent reference to the Tiger symbol, something that many young Tamil Nadu Tamils associate more with Tamil Eelam than with ‘their own’ Chola ancestors.  Likewise, many who have listened to the songs in the movie have remarked that Vairamuthu’s ‘Pemmane’ and ‘Thaai Thindra Manne’ implicitly refer to the oppression of the Eelam Tamil nation. Consider the below (crude) translation of lines from the latter.

“The Chola descendents, who  once raised the Tiger flag,
are now living off rat meat”

“Crumbling bodies,
Evaporating souls,
A declining nation,
A ruler who cries”

“Oh! If you would but take us to the Homeland,
we will roll in its mud like horses!
The tears hoarded for a thousand years
we will set free like a dam opened!”

“Overlooking the prolonged suffering of the Tamils
Oh planets above circling our heads, do not weep.
In the hope that there will be dawn some day,
Oh the day that bears the night, do not weep."

Whether or not the poet (who has been known to write poetry sympathetic to the Eelam Tamils) intended to convey the sufferings of the Eelam Tamils in this song, given the highly subjective nature of poetry, many Tamils have inferred that this song is a reflection of sufferings of the Eelam Tamils. Also significant is the fact that this song hit the public barely a year after the worst massacre in entire Tamil history. We can observe a commonality in both of the two above mentioned post-2009 movies – Eelam Tamils’ are alluded to as representing a Tamil purism, a classical heroism that faced a tragic finale owing to circumstances beyond its control.

Now, coming to the portrayal of Eelam Tamils as subjects in a movie, the comedy flick Thenali (2000) of KS Ravikumar had Kamal Haasan playing the lead character of ‘Thenali’, an Eelam Tamil refugee in Tamil Nadu. Having witnessed his father’s death and mother’s rape at the hands of Sri Lankan soldiers, he is in perennial fear of almost everything. The burden of his individual history and of that of his people doesn’t make him a political man – it makes him a comedian who eventually gets assimilated into an upper-middle class Indian Tamil life. Likewise, Bala’s Nandha (2001) features Laila as an irritatingly innocent Eelam Tamil refugee, whose sole desire in life after landing in Tamil Nadu is to get married to a local street thug. The other character of interest in the flick is the local don who acts as patriarchal benefactor to the oh-so-poor-and-oppressed-refugees but would not entertain any ‘anti-social elements’, whatever that means.

And then, there is the ‘critically acclaimed’ director Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittaal (2002). In short, the story is of an Eelam Tamil refugee-cum-orphan who is adopted by a Tamil Nadu family, with Madhavan playing the role of the father, a Tamil radical peace activist – interestingly named Tiruchelvan (a reference to the GoSL collaborator who donned the robe of a holier-than-thou rights activist?). After learning about her origins, the child expresses a desire to meet her surviving mother, but after visiting the island and witnessing the ravages of war, she returns to Tamil Nadu to be a good Tamil girl hopefully.

Travelling to the island as father, mother and adopted child, they are helped by a benevolent Sinhalese, played by Prakash Raj. After passing through suicide bombers, SLA shelling, a boring lamentation song, banal dialogues with the Sinhala gentleman about achieving peace in the island (his opinion is that the conflict is fuelled by external powers wanting to test their weapons. Forget genocidal intent since 1948.), they finally reach the mother, Shyama, a female Tamil Tiger, a role executed with élan by Nandita Das. The Bengali actress’ charm is the only thing powerful about the character who has otherwise been stripped of her politics. Through his female Tiger’s mouth, Mani Ratnam teaches us that the Tamils were fighting for peace. And we were under the impression all this while that they were fighting for a sovereign state in their homeland!

A common thread in the above three movies is that in their portrayal of Eelam Tamil subjects on screen, they seek to domesticate the Eelam Tamils for a middle class ‘Indian Tamil’ public. The Eelam Tamils are removed of their political agency and sense and are presented as an object of pity, an agathi (refugee) and/or an anaathai (orphan). Concrete political solidarity is not demanded but an abstract humanitarian sentiment is requested. If one were to put these sentiments into words it would be something like the following. “Ooh, look how they suffer. Let’s marry them. Or adopt them. Or take them under our shelter. Assimilate them into our safe lives. Let us be benevolent providers.” Charity is the gesture appealed for. And as Peter Verkhovensky, the iconoclast character of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils, observed “There’s always something fundamentally depraving in charity.”

Like a slap across the face of the protagonists of these benevolent sentiments, a character in a recently released Tamil movie punches an oppressive Indian cop and declares “We may be refugees. Not orphans!”

Name: David Billa.

Chakri Toleti’s Billa 2 (2012), the prequel to the immensely successful Billa (itself a remake of the 1980’s original Rajinikanth starring Billa), is the formation story of the fictional international crime kingpin David Billa. The protagonist, whose role is played rather soberly by Ajith Kumar, is revealed to be an Eelam Tamil from the island. Though the word ‘Sri Lanka’ is not used verbally, the opening credits sequence, with neo-noir style imagery shows the growth of the boy through the SL conflict into a man on the run. With both parents killed by the war and wanted by the state for activities not discussed, he arrives at a Tamil Nadu refugee camp only to know that he and his people are unwelcome beings who are just merely tolerated. But he is no refugee who would desire assimilation into ‘normal’ society, meek submission, sentimentality, or compliance with the powers that be. In his very first encounter with the camp’s officials where he is asked if he is a terrorist, he makes it clear that he is well aware of the world’s hypocritical morality,

“There is only one difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. Victory. Until he wins, he is a terrorist. If he wins, he is a freedom fighter.”

The protagonist is correspondingly amoral. David Billa doesn’t cry or whine about what he lost nor does he fetishize a pristine past. He is not one on whom you write your colourful human rights stories of exotic pain and suffering. He is cold, calculating and cut-throat – incidentally, values that Tamils need now if they are to confront a genocidal Sri Lankan state abetted by an international system of injustice. Consider the lines (crudely translated) from his theme song ‘Unakkule Mirugam’

“If you are living in hell,
you must learn to become a monster.
Offer sacrifice,
incite fear,
keep growing as they try to cut you.”

“There are no friends.
Nor there are enemies.
You alone are your friend.
You alone are your enemy.”

Lessons for Eelam Tamils in global politics post-2009?

Billa works his way out of the camp and carves his path to the top of the underworld, ruthlessly eliminating those who stand in his way, transforming from a refugee who arrived on the shores of Tamil Nadu with only a few clothes in hand to a criminal mastermind with worldwide reach. He is a self-made subject, as he proudly claims “I am the craftsman of every minute, every second of my life”, not a dependant on the charity of some benefactor in Tamil Nadu. It might sound audacious, but America based Indian director Chakri Toleti’s David Billa is the most desirable portrayal of an Eelam Tamil in Kollywood that any politically sensible Eelam Tamil would prefer.

The flaws in this portrayal are obvious. Though nurtured by the fundamental inadequacies and injustices in the existing system, the organized criminal element does not stand for a radical restructuring of the same. Being indifferent to the system’s codes, he is not that much of a threat to the system as the revolutionary who seeks to smash the current codes and replace them with different ones. But should the oppressed be given the choice between being a charismatic criminal who retains his sense and clinical perception of world, or an object of other’s pity, sympathy and scorn, what should they choose? Isn’t the dynamic don of Chakri better than the toothless tiger of Mani?

Chakri’s Billa says certain things without saying them: The world is a violent place, and violence, at times, can be a necessary way of life. Things are bad; they can get worse unless a life or death choice is made.  The word morality rhymes with convenience. Strength is the first virtue. The end justifies the means. And of course, the classic observation from the Melian dialogue, the strong do what they can and the weak endure what they must. At the risk of sounding cynical, these observations that can be inferred from Billa 2 have far more bearing on the Eelam Tamils now than any puerile belief in comfortable spaces of ‘peace’ and ‘integration’ or for that matter abstract eulogies of pure pasts. Despite being only a hagiography of a fictional criminal, Billa 2 is the closest in one can get to an Eelam Tamil real politic in Kollywood. If this is the beginning of a trend, it should be encouraged.  

Yes, an accurate portrayal of the political, social and existential condition of the Eelam Tamils is yet to be found in Kollywood. Considering the impossibility of any free Eelam Tamil cinema developing under unitary Sri Lanka, it is really imperative that Eelam Tamils in the diaspora cultivate their own talent to produce cinema that can be an accurate and critical reflection of their life as a nation facing genocide.

Till then, thank Kollywood for Billa 2. Even if David Billa’s accent is purely Tamil Nadu Tamil.

R.M.Karthick is a research scholar in Political Theory at University of Essex.