Imagining Eelam Tamils in Tamil cinema

Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 26:6, 871-881

In this paper, Ranganathan and Velayutham argue: “…that subtle shifts and changes in Indian–Sri Lankan political relations over the period of the conflict, 1983–2009, coupled with the nebulous articulation of ethnic affinity between Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils in media in general, greatly impacted on the ways in which Eelam Tamils were depicted or unspoken in Tamil cinema.”

They closely analyse 4 films —  Thenali, Kannathil Muthamittaal, Nala Damayanthi and Rameswaram.

While there is insightful context setting with references to Ceylon Tamils in films of the 1930s, collaboration with Srilankan artists, and sympathies of the Tamil political and cultural participants to the Eelam movement and the LTTE, the most interesting part for me was the reading of the films itself.

For instance, this reading of Thenali — “If Thenali is the oppressed Sri Lankan Tamil, Dr Kailash is a metonymy for India, whose help Thenali seeks again and again, refusing to see anything wrong in the doctor or his intentions, and thus elevating him to the position of a divine being.” And a little later — “Interestingly, Dr Kailash becomes a victim of his own villainy, his house is destroyed, he is incapacitated and it is Thenali’s compassion and ingenuity that restores the doctor to normality.”

Their reading of Nala Damayanti is equally interesting. They begin noting that in the film the two groups of Tamils — Srilankan and Indian — are both depicted as part of a diaspora trying to make a living abroad. In fact, the film does not raise any issues arising from the cultural differences between the lead pair — a women of Eelam descent and a man of Indian descent. But they also raise an important argument that Eelam Tamils are represented as “somewhat subservient to an undifferentiated Indian Tamil cultural hegemony.”

Imagining Ealam Tamils in films itself is seen as rather problematic and circumventing troublesome issues — they argue that among the four films, the real reasons of the crisis are never discussed (much less debated) or the name of the LTTE is never raised. They find, “While Rameswaram attempts to give voice to the displacement and trauma experienced by the Eelam Tamil refugees, it is the romance and conflict arising from it that takes the centre stage.” I say — story of our lives!

In conclusion, “While these films sought to build empathy with Eelam Tamils, they by no means generated a collective idea of ‘Tamilness’ or solidarity. In that sense, Eelam or for that matter diasporic Tamils in general are only ever present at the margins of Tamil cinema and unlikely as one of us.”

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