Tamils need to question the idea of femininity and masculinity
Filmmaker Jude Ratnam
Director of ‘Demons in Paradise’, which was screened at the Cannes film festival this year, Jude Ratnam spoke to the Nation regarding the issues raised in his documentary film.
Q : You have questioned your identity as a Sri Lankan Tamil? What is the understanding you have arrived at?
A : This documentary film, in the form of art known as cinema is about fear. When probing into one’s own identity, one comes to the realization that it is very ethnic as in an anthropological and mythological sense.
Where one stands is the centre of the earth. One however becomes connected with the more elementary aspects of one’s identity, that which are akin to Jungian archetypes, a reference to Carl Jung’s concept and theory of the collective unconscious. One becomes part of that.
Aristotle refers to catharsis in dramatic tragedies while James Joyce writes of the distinction between pity and terror. Pity, according to Joyce “is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer,” while terror for him, “is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.”
What is this cause? It is a big question. This is about the metaphysical. Again, Joyce makes a distinction between proper art and improper art. What then connects the cause? It is either god or nature or the unknown or in Nietzschean (a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche) language, the will.
I understood by making the film that, that which is ethnic and local, is more than one’s petty self but that it is about the whole world, about aesthetic wonder. There is no such cause within my work, but when something bothers one right throughout like the continuous suffering that the Buddha spoke of, one looks for answers for what goes on within oneself and one’s community.
Q : Who is the ‘other’ in your work?
A : In a conflict, there is the Other, in both the philosophical sense and the day to day mundane sense of someone who has wronged one.
According to the Buddha, evil is begotten by us. To probe into and question the Other, the more one fundamentally questions the Other, the Other vanishes. The Other is part of one. The Other is one’s own self.
Then, things open up for compassion and to getting away from hate and anger through our own inward reflection, which in turn helps transcend the Other. This is the human way. Human, all too human.
It is not the Other but something that is grounded in humanness. This is the condition of the human and has remained so for long years.
As per the yogic chakras, the first three elements with which we grapple include feeding (anal), procreation (genital) and domination (abdominal). The fourth level of the chakras involves the heart. The fifth level is the akasa or the sky or the great expanse, which is also noted in the Bhagavad Gita, as being recognized as rationality, a clear mind, a metaphysical reality, which is within the individual as in the Nietzschean conceptualization of singularity, that the idea of introspection takes place within one’s own self.
In other words, it is about becoming, maturing.
Q : What do you make of the state of reconciliation at present?
A : One nationally felt reason is that there needs to be a space in an ethnic sense, a space located within the sovereign parameters of the country to regard what has gone on within the country, for reconciliation to take place and be facilitated individually, communally and socially.
It is that space which is fundamental and which must be called for instead of asking the question of who is right or wrong. Thus, a chance can be given for justice. Human history has been violent. In the present context, there is a lack of space.
There may be arguments that putting in place and implementing many such things would attract another struggle and that at present things are caught in vortex. Yet it is a question of national will. Modern South Africa had the political will to reflect.
We must do the reflection part within the parameters of our sovereign, within our locality. There are however different political agendas.
This is a matter of national leadership. The pulse of the people at the bottom must be understood. One cannot deny the pyramid like arrangement in the political hierarchy. Similarly what should take place at the bottom must be facilitated from the top. There must be a national discourse.
Q : What about the Governmental efforts in this regard?
A : All terminology is very hollow and empty. In the context of the discourse and the process is one of the fundamental aspects in trying to reconcile, the key thing being accepting of those who have perpetrated violence and provided tacit support to violence.
For this, space is needed. This is the idea of reconciliation. First and foremost, the acceptance of and for the truth must be there before there is any talk of mechanisms. It is not about taking the blueprint from the South African experience and implementing such here.
The form can be arrived at later. There must be a sense in the air regarding the acceptance of and for the truth. That is the key. Without this, we are going nowhere.
Q : What is the film’s position on the national question or ethnic issue?
A : The most interesting part is that it is multi-positional. People fighting and clamouring for the rights of the Tamils claim that the film plays into the hands of the Sinhala nationalists while they also claim that the film although it references what took place in 1983, does not in any way talk of the problems faced by the Tamils and they also claim that there is much talk of violence perpetrated by the Tamils.
They talk of there not being a balance. It is not about a balancing out or balancing act. This criticism is unavoidable. Some feel it is a chapter of the past best left forgotten while others claim that the cause of the Tamil community has been betrayed.
Eelam which started out legitimately became a perverted idea. What had gone wrong? In this case, art breaks the nature of paradise or promised land.
Paradise is not a physical place to be.
Reconciliation is not a place in time and space. It is metaphorical. Demons in Paradise are here and in the now. It is meant to elevate one to a mental state.
Q : Do you have any thoughts regarding the disappeared?
A : Probing and looking for the truth of what happened to one’s loved ones is key. They must be protected. The truth must be found and told to the people.
When one finds out the truth, there could be more resentment and more political organizing and antagonism. Maybe that this is the unspoken lock that lies with regard to probing. How does one understand death and the meaning of death?
It takes a mental state to accept. How does one get people to contemplate? There must be a space for and of contemplation. This should be one’s work.
Q : How do you view the question of martyrs and traitors within the context of a liberation struggle?
A : It is mostly the so called traitors to the Eelamist cause who were part of the Tamil militancy and the armed struggle, who are part of the film including former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadres who were part of the 1986 massacre of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization, who reflect upon what they did. It deals with the men on the Other side, trained to annihilate, and about their role.
Q : How do these assignations take place?
A : How are they assigned? How do you make one a traitor? In a liberation struggle, there are those called traitors and those called martyrs. This is akin to the signifier and signified of Ferdinand de Saussure.
After all, what is language but representation. This is the key question. Is it a reflection of one’s own guilt? In the case of the Tamil liberation struggle, who possesses the power to name and for naming? There are binaries, good and evil, and light and darkness. It is from that kind of mental state that naming comes and takes place.
At the same time, it is also a human necessity to name things. One has to go beyond the binary to see the flux, to look within, to turn inside. Compassion comes only when one can see the Other within one’s own self. The other is not a fore but in a naturalistic sense, in one’s own self.
Q : Michel Foucault and Soren Kierkegaard have written of institutions, power and religious hegemony. Based on your understanding of such, what is your critique of non-State actors such as the civil society including non-governmental organizations?
A : In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Levin, who wishes solely to work in the country as opposed to his half-brother Koznyshev, who wishes to work for the people, meditates on Koznyshev and states that though he does not question Koznyshev and his kind’s honesty, goodwill and good heartedness, humans are fundamentally self-interested and that those who try to do good to the human race, do so out of reason because they know they should and that they lack heart.
The latter involves the ability to choose one among a multitude, one thing when there are so many things. The civil society and the church doing good for the people is perfectly fine but we are fundamentally unable to be compassionate.
The Buddha states that compassion is twofold, attached compassion and non-attached compassion. The latter is seen as being heartless.
The whole world is driven by the idea of doing good unto others. However there is something fundamentally flawed in the approach. This is to a large extent, guilt.
Is it to empower individuals like the proverb of when you give a man a fish you feed him for a day but if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime? There are much more important existential questions to be asked by and from these institutions that claim to be there for the people. They are getting caught in a monad, crystallized, unable to transcend and transfer. Morality is about something within. To the followers of the monotheistic religions, the Other exists outside. This means that they have not understood the teachings of Christ, Buddha and even Muhammad.
Q : Do you address the problem of caste within your work?
A : An ardent critic of casteism, Subramania Bharati has a poem about a white coloured cat giving birth to many kittens and each being of a different colour.
He questions whether this makes a difference to the mother and whether the kittens are not siblings and equals, despite the colour differences.
In a stanza before the narration of the aforementioned incident he advocates for varnas (social classes, types, orders). The varnas allows one to have a vocation to liberate oneself thereby, without which the world would be anarchical.
Casteist atrocities are all the same. The first question is whether cleaning is a vocation. This is why Gandhi advocated for cleaning one’s own toilet. In another historic moment in an India which was shackled by the West and the British, in the man that was B.R. Ambedkar, there was seen, what Gandhi considered the ingenious idea, of which Nietzsche too was supportive of, of the ubermensch (superman), a human being who is elevated above. In religion or caste, the perceived identity is based on the third chakra of domination.
One has to understand oneself. I do not believe that one is born here with a purpose. However, an internal voice says to do a particular thing. The caste struggle is about domination and has been the bane of the entire system.
The LTTE never had a direct confrontation with casteism in the North and they never challenged the vellalas who are the most dominant caste, ruling areas of land and the people in Jaffna. It has metamorphosed into a position of dominance. This is however not the domination espoused by Gandhi and various others.
Q : Post-war, how are the women faring?
A : This is about the whole understanding of maleness and femaleness, about looking at gender differently. One finds gender within oneself, the representation of which is symbolic.
The plight of women, widowed by the war, who are expected to lead livelihoods as heads of households, involves the whole idea of feminism and representation.
The form of feminism is taken too seriously, whereas it is not about the form but about the content. There were pseudo-feminist ideas about the LTTE such as the male dominated idea of emancipation in turn given to the idea of the representation of the female figure.
With the emancipation of womanhood itself, what it is to be feminine and masculine, that which lies within one’s own self, and cannot be delegated, comes into question. How did the warrior thing attach itself to the LTTE cadres?
This is disturbing. The representation for women within the Tamil community can be seen in the sheer brutality females faced within the LTTE women’s cadre. The Tamil community needs to question the idea of femininity and masculinity. A new perception that is not domination as emancipation, which is incidentally bullshit, is required.
How can one feel free inside? Whether this comes through domestic work or being the breadwinner is irrelevant. Certain women are repressed and kept at home all their lives. Instead of regimentation which was also found among the LTTE women’s cadre, we must give ear to what gives joy.
Q : What is your position on the question of political prisoners detained under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)?
A : I myself have some experience in this regard. Just before I sat for my General Certificate of Education Advanced Level examination in Kandy, I was apprehended and imprisoned on suspicion of being a LTTEer.
I have no concrete political opinion on the matter. I could have very easily been taken in under the PTA and subsequently have been made to vanish forever.
Fortunately for me, my uncle worked with then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, and he spoke on my behalf and obtained clearance from the relevant authority.
There were two farmers in remand in the same cell as the one I was in. They probably disappeared afterwards. Regarding political prisoners, where does one draw the line? Is giving a packet of rice to someone in a formerly controlled area a political act?
These matters have to be defined. Also, our judicial system is dysfunctional. If one can get out using influence and another cannot, one has to itself question the judicial system’s right to make judgments.