Sengadal in Tamil means “dead sea”. It is also the name of Leena Manimekalai’s “factual feature film” which takes stock of the lives of fishermen on the southern tip of India. The village of Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu is home to boats washing ashore bodies in the middle of the night: corpses of Tamil fishermen who had been looking to escape Sri Lanka.
In the course of its 100 minutes (with subtitles), you meet people such as Rosemary, a victim of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) conflict, who joined the Christian Refugee Service in Dhanushkodi. Rosemary is conducting a mass burial for dead fishermen one day, and helping out Tamils who have landed on the Indian coast on another. Soori, a radio-obsessed young man, vouches for Tamil liberation and wants to escape to France as a political exile.
Dream sequence: A still from Sengadal, one of the film’s lyrical visuals.
Set during the last stages of the LTTE’s existence in 2009, the film depicts a littoral community hemmed in by the forces of two nation states. Sengadal’s characters also rail against Tamil political parties. That no one has come to the help of Dhanushkodi’s fishermen is the movie’s main argument. Often, their helplessness slips into Tamil invective.
In December, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) refused to give Sengadal clearance. “There are not only unparliamentary words used in the film, it aims to provoke the audience into taking an anti-India and anti-Sri Lanka stand,” explains a censor board official who does not want to be identified. Manimekalai is seeking review of the decision from the board.
Most of the cast are local fishermen. For Manimekalai, making them a part of the film was the real struggle. “They didn’t trust me initially,” she says. “But as I spent more and more time with them, they opened up.”
For the fishing folk, the sense of let-down from India is immense. “These people became the inspiration for the film. It’s their language, their voice that you hear. The censor board says the film uses unparliamentary language but the words the censor board finds offensive are part of the everyday language spoken by these people,” says Manimekalai.
The film was already difficult to market—and then Manimekalai ran out of funds. Her first producer backed out. Subsequently, help came from the Global Film Initiative (GFI), a San Francisco-based body that helps promote independent film-makers from the developing world. The $10,000 (around Rs 4.4 lakh) grant helped finish the film, but Manimekalai is yet to pay associates who helped in the production, which makes its commercial release critical for her.
The film has some graphic scenes which show the Sri Lanka Coast Guard stripping Tamil fishermen suspected of being Tamil Tigers. Television footage of bodies landing on the coast makes for gory viewing. One of the problems with Sengadal is its length and the realistic but very staged behaviour of some of its characters.
However, Manimekalai has a clear purpose, and captures the contours of the landscape, and the bleakness of its people, precisely. For all its sombre quality, the movie does break into lyrical visuals.
Like the one of the protagonist film-maker dreaming. In it, she is holding the hand of Soori, the amiable rebel, and walking into the sea to knock on the main gate of a Buddhist stupa. The camera freezes for a moment. You expect an epiphany. But the reverie is broken when the police knock on Manimekalai’s door.
It’s an evocative metaphor for a Tamil community that’s not welcome in a land that was home to them for centuries. It’s the price they pay for a sense of belonging.