original title: Munnel
2023, 102 min., color, Tamil-Sinhalese (Sinhala)
COUNTRY: Sri Lanka
FESTIVALS & AWARDS
Sivakumar Lingeswaran, Kamala Sri Mohan Kumar, Thurkka Magendran, Gowtham Sharma, Dharu Baalan
Cinematographer : Rishi Selvam
Producers : Visakesa Chandrasekaram
FESTIVALS: BIFFes – Bengaluru International Film Festival 2023 (Asian Cinema Competition), IFF Rotterdam (Tiger Competition) 2023
Film (and other forms of arts) is an instrument of social action for me, rather than a simple art form; hence I only choose stories which could ignite a discussion or debate and enlighten the people to take a progressive path towards full democracy which is manifested in equality, justice and human rights. For these reasons, I very much rely on alternative methods of screening that would allow debates on the subject matters. I believe in taking my films to the people (who will otherwise miss out), rather than expecting them to come to the cinemas. For example, my debut film Frangipani was screened at various public forums and university auditoriums combined with post-screening discussions on LGBT equality, which also created the flow-on impact in the social media. With my cast and crew I defended the film, its story and the political ideologies behind the film to present a strong statement on equality and human rights. The film created unprecedented level of public awareness and positive public support (although homosexuality is a criminal offence publishable by imprisonment according the archaic laws in Sri Lanka). Once produced, Munnel will create similar debates in the reconciliation discourse of Sri Lanka.
Although I have been working in various disciplines in professional capacity to make a living, my passion has been always in filmmaking. I was barely 17 years old when I entered to work in the film in Munnelry. I have worked in three feature films (Thrishoolya, Shakthi, Raja Kello) as an assistant director before I have entered the Law School. Then I continued to study and work in law practices, community services and government agencies in Sri Lanka and Australia, while taking time off to work in various arts projects. I have returned to film inMunnelry by making a community based a short film (Finding Kamal), followed by the feature film (Frangipani).
As an artist I have developed a reputation in Sri Lanka for delicately presenting controversial matters through work of arts to the public. While maintaining international standards, I have ensured that my works are well received amongst the locals by delicately incorporating local aesthetics, cultural norms and political discussions. Unpredictable and judgemental decisions of the government officials, particularly those who manage censorship institutions left many filmmakers in limbo, in some cases the films being banned; however, I have found the fine balance to delicately present the artistic materials to bypass the censorship laws. My professional/social status as a legal practitioner helped me facing many challenges imposed by the authorities in Sri Lanka. For example, when my play Katu Yahana was banned by the Censor Board in Sri Lanka, I performed the play violating civil laws.
The three decade long ethnic war in Sri Lanka ended in 2009 by Singhalese dominant government forces defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels. As the Sinhalese majoritarian government continued to celebrate the victory, neither the government forces nor the pro-Tamil Tiger groups showed willingness to be accountable for the crimes they have committed against civilians during the war. Thousands of Tamil men and women were taken into military custody at the end of the war but only some of them like our protagonist Rudran returned home alive, and they too maintained a code of silence about what happened in detention. Munnel is based on real life events and the screenwriter/Director Visakesa Chandrasekaram’s experiences of working as a human rights lawyer in Sri Lanka. Some of the cast and crew members are survivors of the war.
Munnel probably is the only Sri Lankan film came out of the recent political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka. During chaotic power cuts, fuel shortage and tremendously rising cost of living, the cast and crew worked hard against all odds to complete the film. While the film was shot in the North of the island, the Southern part was trembled by the occupied movement in Colombo and the subsequent violence. Munnel is probably the first home-grown Tamil film of which most the cast and crew members came from the Tamil speaking North and East. Also, the film introduces several debut artists: Director of Photography Rishi Selvam; Music Composer Pathmayan Sivananthan, and several actors including Sivakumar Lingeswaran (Rudran) and Thurkka Magendran (Vaani).
Rudran, an ex-Tamil militant returns home from military detention, looking for his lover Vaani who had disappeared during the war. Rudran’s mother, Sellamma who is gifted with a ‘boon’ of soothsaying, tells the locals whether their kith and kin are alive or dead, but she refuses to say the same about Vaani. While men and women defeated in the war find solace in massive Hindu temples, Rudran initially refuses to pray, but later in an act of desperation, he joins a month-long pilgrimage seeking help from God Ayyappa, hoping to unite with his lover.
Special Jury Award / IFF Rotterdam 2023: “a great simple story about a young man caught between revolution and authoritarianism.”
With a cast and crew of local Tamil-speakers from the area, all direct witnesses to the civil war, Munnel is a deeply authentic reflection on the post-war consciousness of Sri Lanka’s ethnic minority. Filmmaker Visakesa Chandrasekaram explores this perspective with masterful subtlety and a meticulous, languid pacing. Rudran’s journey is composed of moments of stillness, tenderness and contemplation, encompassing the costs of civil war and the weight of its failures on the Tamil identity in the quiet melancholy of Sivakumar Lingerswaran’s revelatory, layered performance. There are no flashbacks, and yet the past is achingly present in his physicality, his gazes and gestures that debut cinematographer Rishi Selvam frames in wide and tranquil shots, uniting characters and landscape in a wounded harmony.
“What happened over there?” Rudran’s friend asks him. Rudran remains poignantly silent, and the wind blows sorrowfully through the grasses that surround them.