Photo courtesy of Sunday Times

Today is International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief 

In October 1990, The LTTE ordered some 75,000 Muslims in the Jaffna peninsula to leave their homes within 48 hours; they were allowed to take Rs. 300 and some clothes.

“Every story of ethnic cleansing is heart breaking. Some of them have been almost forgotten, overlooked in favour of others that were on a larger scale but they were just as driven by hatred and unsettling prejudices as any,” wrote Lukman Harees in an article on Groundviews to mark the 30 year anniversary of the expulsion last year.

“It was a pity that the harrowing eviction of Northern Muslims and its consequences are seldom discussed in Tamil politics in Jaffna, let alone any meaningful action taken to remedy the injustice. Tamil civil society institutions hardly expressed their opposition to the eviction or voiced sympathy toward the Muslims,” he pointed out. 

The complex relationship between Muslims and Tamils in the north is a central theme in Sumathy Sivamohan’s film, The Single Tumbler, which was screened virtually at the International Film Festival of South Asia in Toronto this week.

While exploring all the pain and betrayal felt by a Tamil family torn apart by the brutal civil war, the film also looks at the relationship the matriarch of the family, Daisy, had with a Muslim friend, Fathima. The single tumbler refers to the one tumbler left from a set of six given by Fathima to Daisy for safekeeping when she is forced to leave her home. Fathima curses the family before she leaves and Daisy, now old and forgetful, blames Fathima for the disappearance of her son Jude. Daisy destroys or gives away all of Fathima’s belongings except for a single tumbler that remains.

In an interview with Groundviews, Sumathy speaks about how she got into film making, why the film is controversial among some of the Tamil community and her upcoming documentary.

How did you get into film making?



I had always been fascinated with the film making process; two films that made a great impression on me as a child were Battleship Potemkin and High Noon, which were a part of some travelling festival. Even as a child, although I did not understand a whole lot, I knew something different was happening in these films. I come from a theatre background and still do some theatre, although not a whole lot. Then in the early 90s I started working with Dharmasena Pathiraja writing scripts for documentaries and spots. Pathi encouraged me. He said, “You just go to the location a few times and observe, then you would understand the process”. I bring an idea of the theatre into the film – that is my forte too – in so many different ways. I did a Tamil production of Girish Karnad’s Nagamanadala in 2000 and I deliberately composed the scenes like scenes in a film. A reviewer wrote that the play was like watching a film; I knew then I was ready to make films.

What inspired you to make this film?

All my work has revolved around the ethnic conflict in some way or another. Much of my research is about it, bringing it up to date. All my work is about women. Even my first feature, which is my favourite, on the upcountry Tamil community brings women and the ethnic conflict to the fore. I have been working on exploring Muslim-Tamil relations and their collapse in the north and east for a long time. My research, plays, poetry – there is so much of this inside me. I wanted to examine the interior of the Tamil community as they try to build a future, even a broken one, and I think this part of their history needs to be reckoned with.

Do you feel that Tamil people in general fail to acknowledge the plight of the Muslims who were chased away from the north?



Yes, in  mainstream Tamil society, very much so. And there is a lot of anti-Muslim feeling. At the question and answer session after the  screening at the Jaffna International Film Festival, many spoke well of the film but one person from the audience had an outburst. It was a marginal opposition but a loud one. Interestingly, ordinary people seem more open to this film than the regular film viewers and filmmakers among Tamils.

Are Muslims going back to live in the north? How are they received?

Yes, they are going back, they have gone back. The reception is not great. It differs from locality to locality. In Mannar, they are perhaps doing better than in other districts. In Jaffna they are struggling for resources, allocations and acceptance but they are persisting with their efforts to survive and claim their right to live in their homeland. The Single Tumbler is a move toward an acknowledgement of the past and a celebration of that spirit. 

Do you think films such as yours can bring some degree of closure or healing?

I’d think it would open up questions. It has in some small way made dialogue possible, dialogue without rancour. I hope it lasts.

The film portrays the issues faced by the Tamil people due to the war in a calm and measured way. Was this a deliberate choice rather than making the film more dramatic?



Probably. Nothing in my films is deliberate, as far is content is concerned. The issues are set deep in myself, my consciousness, I did not need an overblown enactment. But sometimes you need it. This film is very quiet in that respect, I agree. I work with form, and only when I watched the film at it was done and later, with audiences, I realised how shattering the film is about the relationships within the family and the outside. Painful. When I wrote and made the film, I was thinking of the form most of the time.

Why do you think there has been only a few films produced and fiction written about the war?



There are a few of them around, mainstream films glorify the war. In my view Tamil films, so far, victimise the Tamil so much. I want to give all these communities, even in their suffering and marginal status, some kind of power and internal complexity. They are not static.

Your upcoming documentary will be about Muslims settling on land near Wilpattu. What is the message there?

It is called Amid the Villus. I have been interested in this subject and the community for a long time. For me, a film has to have a people’s perspective and by that I mean marginality. I don’t have a message, the community in Musali South have a message and that message is about their survival. In Amid the Villus, I see that even activists, lefties and liberals have forgotten these people in Musali South, who had been displaced and now have laid a claim to land, like any other displaced community. I attended a discussion called by a group of activists who raised human rights issues and I was aghast to see that the actual community was not being discussed at all; the people are seen as lackeys of Rishard Badirudeen or some mass of Muslims who are anyway not people. It was very disconcerting. I came home and cried, for I know some of the people very well. I see that in liberal circles, too, there is a fair amount of anti-Muslim feeling, unstated and unacknowledged and I don’t know how to deal with it. This is my first documentary and I am excited for all of us – the people of Musali South, my team, myself and the issues. I hope people watch it when it comes out soon. I am almost done but the pandemic is holding it up.

‘The Single Tumbler’ can be streamed on the IFFSA website through registration during the week of the festival. To register to watch the film click here