An ode to Mani Ratnam : The voice of insurgency-II

The fourth and penultimate movie to feature in this list is Raavan. This modern-day retelling of Ramayana set in the rural hinterlands of India is possibly one of the best adaptations of the epic which could have been helmed only by a cinematic genius of Mani Ratnam’s stature. The movie is such a favorite that I never miss it when it comes on Star Gold Select. I am so in awe of each and every aspect of the movie even the minute details that it seems that I wouldn’t grow tired of watching it ever, at least in this lifetime for sure. Mani Ratnam’s gift of weaving an engaging story out of a balanced narrative seems to have just gotten better since Dil Se. I don’t shy away from movies based on Naxalism on purpose but I have barely watched movies whose central focus was Naxalism. My exposure to the entire thing has been limited to it forming a minor plot point in Bengali movies set in Calcutta or books written by Bengali authors. The passing reference to a youth involved with the Naxalbari uprising in the 1970s is not only always sympathetic but even awe-inspiring such had been Bengal’s collective fascination of an entire generation with the movement. Unfortunately, Naxalism, as we know it today in 2020s as millenials, portrays a picture way different from the Naxalism of the 1970s. Charu Mazumdar probably turns in his grave with the way the movement has shaped up in the last five decades. I wonder how would he have reacted to the concept of urban Naxalism had he been alive. Enough of my musings, for now, let us get back to the movie at hand. There have been many fictional accounts of Naxalism but what sets apart Raavan is the treatment meted out to Naxalites as against the police department. As per the plot of Ravan, the police department represents the good and the Naxalites represent the evil. Thanks to the director’s ingenuity, we are introduced to the humane side of those who represent the evil and the brutality that the police force in India is capable of. From the moment Beera loses his heart to the gutsy Ragini, he intended to kill after abduction as revenge for what happened to Jamuni to the moment he refuses to harm Dev Pratap for the sake of Ragini despite the murder of his brother, Beera is the ultimate hero. On one hand, we have Beera, the crusader of justice and messiah of the downtrodden despite being an insurgent who declines from harming Hemant and even let Sanjeevani return to his post after teaching him a lesson although he probably played a major role in the suffering of his sister.  Pitted against him is Dev Pratap who is ruthless and doesn’t seem to think twice before killing…. and attacking Hariya even though it might endanger Ragini’s life. By the end of the film,  you are left disillusioned with the police force and can’t help but shed tears for Beera’s untimely demise. I can’t help but wonder again and again how Mangal loses all his siblings during the duration of the movie, probably feeling lonelier than ever before adding to the utter helplessness he already feels against the government machinery that has failed him time and again.

The fifth and last movie I shall be discussing today is Kannathil Muthamittal. I know the movie came out way back in 2002 but the reason why it is the last one to be discussed is that it was never remade in Hindi. As a result, I watched the movie quite recently on Amazon Prime after searching for Mani Ratnam movies and come across rave reviews about this one. Before watching this movie my limited knowledge of the Sri Lankan civil war came from my social science textbook on democratic politics that I read in 9th grade. It would be relevant to take note of excerpts from the book itself.

Sri Lanka an island nation, just a few kilometers off the southern coast of Tamil Nadu has about two crore people. The major social groups are the Sinhala-speakers (74 percent) and the Tamil-speakers (18 percent). Among Tamilians, there are two sub-groups. Tamil natives of the country are called ‘Sri Lankan Tamilian’ (13 percent). The rest, whose forefathers came from India as plantation workers during the colonial period, are called ‘Indian Tamilian’. Sri Lankan Tamils are concentrated in the north and east of the country. Most of the Sinhalese peaking people are Buddhists, while most of the Tamils are Hindus or Muslims. There are about 7 percent Christians, who are both Tamil and Sinhala.

Sri Lanka emerged as an independent country in 1948. The leaders of the Sinhala community sought to secure dominance over the government by virtue of their majority. As a result, the democratically elected government adopted a series of majoritarian measures to establish Sinhala supremacy. In 1956, an Act was passed to recognize Sinhala as the only official language, thus disregarding Tamil. The governments followed preferential policies that favored Sinhala applicants for university positions and government jobs. A new constitution stipulated that the state shall protect and foster Buddhism. All these government measures, coming one after the other, gradually increased the feeling of alienation among the Sri Lankan Tamils. They felt that none of the major political parties led by the Buddhist Sinhala leaders was sensitive to their language and culture. They felt that the constitution and government policies denied them equal political rights, discriminated against them in getting jobs and other opportunities, and ignored their interests. As a result, the relations between the Sinhala and Tamil communities strained over time. The Sri Lankan Tamils launched parties and struggles for the recognition of Tamil as an official language, for regional autonomy, and equality of opportunity in securing education and jobs. But their demand for more autonomy to provinces populated by the Tamils was repeatedly denied. By the 1980s several political organizations were formed demanding an independent Tamil Eelam (state) in northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. The distrust between the two communities turned into widespread conflict. It soon turned into a civil war. As a result, thousands of people of both communities have been killed. Many families were forced to leave the country as refugees and many more lost their livelihoods. The civil war has caused a terrible setback to the excellent record of economic development, education, and health in the country. It ended in 2009.[1]

I remember reading up about the death of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the founder, and leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant organization that waged war in Sri Lanka for more than 25 years to create an independent Tamil state in the north and east of Sri Lanka in newspapers which brought an immediate end to the civil war.

For me and many other viewers, Kannathil Muthamittal for the first time zoomed in through a rather personal lens at the island nation ravished by war for decades. Unlike the first three movies discussed in this post like Raavan, Kannathil Muthamittal doesn’t take too long to arrive at the subject matter straight away. While the former greets you with a hilarious take on Beera accentuated by witty dialogues, the latter softens the blow with a beautifully shot wedding in Sri Lanka followed by the giddy romance that accompanies the honeymoon phase. In the limited screen time given to Nandita Das, she pulls at your heartstrings by familiarizing the audience with the predicament faced by her; choosing between upbringing her daughter in a land she has migrated to as a refugee or going back to the war-torn country she belongs to looking for her husband in who believed joining guerilla warfare is his moral responsibility. What makes Shyama’s leaving behind Amudha even more poignant is that during the course of the movie she goes through a 360-degree transformation from being a woman who confides in her husband her desire to have and raise biological kids as a newly-wed to a woman who has surrendered her sense of identity to the ensuing struggle so completely that keeping aside all her ambitions she only sees herself as a caregiver to the girls she is responsible for training.

Apart from the plot point revolving around Shyama, I was really shaken by the scene which gave an aerial view of a sea of people moving helter-skelter as a result of troops coming into villages. The background score accompanying the scene had gut-wrenching lyrics which can be roughly translated into:-

Oh Home

I will come back if I stay alive

We shall meet again if I stay alive

Another impactful scene is the one where Thiruchelvan and Dr. Herold get captured by LTTE members. A Tamil poem recital by Thiruchelvan which the LTTE gang is quick to resonate with is what saves the day. In a matter of seconds from being a tourist in a foreign land, Thiruchelvan goes on to be becoming the one who the gang identifies with as their own due to his Tamil origin and the protector of his Sinhalese aid Dr. Herold whose life is now in danger due to his Sinhalese origin. During a certain conversation, Dr. Herold also calls out on the hypocrisy of developed nations who on one hand claim to be advocates of world peace and on the other hand regularly keep fanning the flames of internal disturbances fire in developing nations to keep their customer base instance for the weapons they manufacture.  There is a really short scene that features child soldiers.


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