Film-maker Santosh Sivan
Film-maker Santosh Sivan

Film | Island record

Santosh Sivan's Tamil movie 'Inam', set during Sri Lanka's civil war, fires over the shoulders of children

Is Santosh Sivan’s new Tamil movie Inam his most political yet?

Inam is about the human cost of war in general and one war in particular. The 120-minute movie, which opened across Tamil Nadu on 28 March, is a “lest we forget" reminder of the price of the Sri Lankan military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. Inam is set in the final days of the conflict, as the Lankan military pounded LTTE bases and civilians either fled for their lives or hunkered down in hurriedly built trenches.

The sequences of non-combatants dodging the pounding of bombs and the rat-a-tat of gunfire could be from a conflict between governments and insurgent movements from any corner of the planet, but there’s little doubt about Inam’s focus. One of its posters depicts a blood-stained fingerprint shaped like Sri Lanka, and the screenplay dramatizes in often numbing detail the landmine-related deaths, rapes of Tamil women fleeing the conflict by Lankan soldiers who recorded the acts on their phone cameras, and the bombardment of civilian establishments such as refugee camps and hospitals.

Inam was forced out of cinemas by pro-LTTE groups in TN on 31 March just days after its release, on the ground that it was too sympathetic towards the Lankan army.

Inam makes Sivan’s last movie about the Lankan civil war, The Terrorist (1998), look positively poetic, even though it shares with its predecessor a celebration of the beauty and fecundity of nature, with as much attention being paid to the characters as to trembling leaves, stray kittens and busy ants. “Stories like these can happen wherever there is a conflict," says Sivan. “The idea behind the film is that it is a journey, it is a human story. You are not looking at the painting but are right in it."

It’s probably a coincidence, but Inam opens in Tamil Nadu in the same week that the United Nations Human Rights Council votes on a resolution to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by the Lankan army during its campaign. The cost of this victory has resulted in a series of shocking Channel 4 documentaries, rising international pressure on the Lankan government, and protests and political manoeuvres by pro-Eelam parties in Tamil Nadu.

Inam wades into this minefield on the tender shoulders of children and adolescents. The narrative is framed as a witness testimony, not unlike the horrific stories that emerged from the island after the LTTE’s vanquishing. Hindi film actor Sugandha Garg plays Rajini, a young refugee who tells the story of a fraught but happy existence at an orphanage run by a woman known as “Tsunami Akka". Inam had earlier been described as a sequel to The Terrorist, about an LTTE suicide bomber who rethinks her mission after she becomes pregnant. Tsunami Akka, played by veteran actor Saritha, provides an explicit bridge between the two films—she is identified as the mother of The Terrorist’s bomber. “The film started off after I met a girl who is a refugee, who had to go through a lot of nonsense before she could land up here (in India)," Sivan says. “A lot of people were not aware of this story until international journalists highlighted it. It’s a story that needs to be told."

S. Karan as the endearing, bespectacled Nandan in a fim still

The graphic nature of the events depicted in Inam, including death and rape, were necessitated by the very nature of the conflict it seeks to capture, says the director. “This was the first time that a war had taken place, and where there were mobile phone recordings by the army and the people they oppressed," he says. “It all came out soon after the war, and that’s why I felt I could make a film like this, because it is all out there."

The screenplay, by Sivan, Sharanya Rajgopal and S. Sasikumaran, does try to soften the blows. LTTE soldiers interrupt a class at the orphanage with propaganda videos. A soldier who is disgusted by the rapes of Tamil women remarks that the war has made animals out of his buddies. The overall tone is one of despair, leavened by a hint of hope of renewed resistance through Rajini’s assertion that she will go back to her land some day, and a suggestion that although Velupillai Prabhakaran, referred to in the movie only as “the Leader", is dead, a figure like him might re-emerge.

Inam is targeting a release beyond Tamil Nadu in subsequent weeks, but it’s safe to bet that Sri Lanka won’t be among the international territories.

Inam opened on 28 March.