The 9th Chennai International Film Festival began here last evening quite dramatically. A cultural show – a collage of mostly Tamil movie songs and dances performed by gaudily dressed boys and girls climaxing with an Indian National Flag display -- seemed hardly befitting of an occasion as serious as the inauguration of an international film festival, meant to showcase aesthetic fare and, perhaps highlight social concerns. Often, the so-called cultural show smacked of vulgarity, and was nothing short of being noisily distasteful.
As renowned auteur-director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who chaired the jury at the recent International Film Festival of India in Goa’s Panaji, said, “such cultural stuff must not be part of the opening or closing ceremonies of a movie festival. They could well be shown at other times during the course of a festival”.
Also, I feel that such shallow displays tend to give a completely wrong impression of India to international delegates, usually in attendance at film festivals.
There was more drama coming in the form of a protest by moviemaker Leena Manimekalai. As director Shekhar Kapur, one of the evening’s guests of honour, was about to take the podium, Manimekalai and her team shouted slogans, waving placards that regretted the absence of art cinema in the Tamil competition or Indian Panorama sections of the Festival.
There was also a placard that rued the non-inclusion in the Festival of Manimekalai’s debut Tamil feature, Sengadal (The Dead Sea).
Interestingly, the work premiered and competed at the recent Durban International Film Festival, and travelled to several prestigious festivals after that, including Montreal, Tokyo, Mumbai, Goa and Kerala. It was the only Tamil movie in the Indian Panorama at Goa this year.
Sengadal (which stars Manimekalai among others) had a turbulent start, when the Central Board of Film Certification refused to certify the movie, because it made “denigrating political remarks about the governments of Sri Lanka and India, and used unparliamentary words”. These were some of the objections cited by the Board.
However, after months of legal struggle with the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal, the movie was cleared by the Board for public screening with an Adult certificate. That was last July, and the following month it went to Durban.
Manimekalai, who spoke to this correspondent this morning, felt that in the absence of normal theatrical channels for films like Sengadal, it was important that movie festivals screen them. “After all, a film festival is an important platform for serious cinema, for a cinema that raises questions about community, a cinema that provokes a debate…”she averred.
Deeply disturbed at her movie not being slotted in the Chennai Festival, an event she probably considers as her own, being a Tamil herself, Manimekalai hoped that better sense would prevail with the Festival organisers before the nine-day cinematic event closes on December 22.
Sengadal tells the moving story of how the long ethnic war in Sri Lanka affected the lives of fishermen in Dhanushkodi, located at the tip of India. Incorporating the recounts of widows of those fishermen killed by the Sri Lankan Navy, the film is a graphic account of the atrocities perpetrated on Tamil refugees by the authorities of both India and Sri Lanka.
Back to the Festival auditorium, once Manimekalai and her team quietened down, Kapur in what was an apparent support for her said that he had also been in a similar soup with his Bandit Queen. “I had to fight to get it passed by the Censors. I had to fight to get it released. And, of course you have every right to fight to get your film included in the Festival”.
Manimekalai must have been smiling.
Manimekalai plans to keep trying to get her work into the Festival -- the movie about the tragic story of a people displaced by a war they did not start, of a people in pain at being hounded out and humiliated.