Movies
Ezhilan hopes to give the audience a glimpse of the struggle that Sri Lankan Tamil refugees face every day.
Image: A still from the short-film Kallatholi /Arul Ezhilan

“We lost a motherland that was wonderful. We face a future that is disdain.”

These are the words sung by an elderly Sri-Lankan Tamil man in Kallatholi, a short film. The words are steeped in the longing this man feels to return to his homeland, and his resignation at a life of discrimination which awaits him in India.

‘Kallatholi’ translates from Tamil to ‘illegal ferry’ – a significant symbolism when it comes to refugees who crossed over to India during the Sri Lankan civil war – which is also why journalist T Arul Ezhilan decided to name his short film just that.

Image: A still from the short-film Kallatholi / Arul Ezhilan

“While some see it as a poignant symbol, there is also anger associated with an illegal boat carrying outsiders into your country. But I wanted to show people the pain behind an illegal ferry,” Ezhilan tells TNM.

Starring the late Veera Santhanam in the lead, Kallatholi was released on YouTube on July 15 and is a moving story about the struggle and fate of a Sri Lankan Tamil man who wants to get his granddaughter back home in Sri Lanka to her parents. The man is only known as ‘thatha’ (Tamil for ‘grandpa’) in the film, and works in a jute factory. While he is paid only Rs 40 a day, other workers, presumably Indian Tamilians, are paid double that amount.

The old man takes an illegal ferry with his granddaughter in a bid to get home. However, in a cruel twist of fate, the boat is intercepted by Indian authorities, and all the travelers on board are arrested. ‘Thatha’ and the little girl are produced before the court, which then orders for the man to go a refugee camp, and for his granddaughter to be sent to a government juvenile home.

Ezhilan hopes to give the audience a glimpse of the struggle that Sri Lankan Tamil refugees face every day. Their struggle is something he always wanted to depict, and it was in the year 2000 that he first got the idea of making a film.

Image: A still from the short-film Kallatholi /Arul Ezhilan

While Ezhilan shot the film in a 20-day duration in 2013, he didn’t immediately send it for film festivals. It was the passing of Veera Santhanam in mid-July, which prompted him to share the film with the public. Ezhilan wanted the film to be a tribute to the veteran artist and activist, known for his vocal support for the struggles of Sri Lankan Tamils. He also worked in a few films, including the Vijay-starrer Kaththi.

Ezhilan says that he visited many camps for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in places like Gumidipoondi, Mandapam, Kanyakumari, Ooty. In their interactions with them, he came to support their demand for an Indian citizenship. “They have been here for more than 30 years, they do not even have any basic facilities. Most of them are treated as criminals by other citizens and the government,” Ezhilan argues.

Image: A still from the short-film Kallatholi /Arul Ezhilan

Last year, about 600 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees had come together for a protest in Chennai demanding citizenship. They argued that because of their refugee status, they could get proper jobs in either the government or private sector. They also objected to the heavy fines they had to pay for overstaying in India.

While Ezhilan is happy with how Kallatholi, edited by Roja and Dil Se fame Suresh URs, turned out, it isn’t the end of his filmmaking dreams. “I would like to make a short film on Basheer’s book ‘Mathilukal’ next,” he says. The book is about the prison life of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and the romantic relationship between him and Narayani, a female inmate of the prison.

Watch Kallatholi here.