India gained freedom from the British in 1947. However, the French colonisers left Pondicherry, a coastal town in Tamil Nadu, only in 1962. And when they did, they offered French citizenship to the locals, an offer that was that was taken up by 6000 of them.
Today, more than 50 years later, a small community of Tamil French Nationals exists in Pondicherry, debating policies in France, deciding on whom to vote for - in 2017, it was Republican candidate Francois Fillon vs Socialist Benoit Hamon - and exchanging pleasantries in French.
Mumbai based documentary filmmaker Pankaj Rishi Kumar, known for films like In God’s Land (2012), a documentation of a land struggle in Tamil Nadu, Seeds of Dissent (2009), a road movie that traces the voices of farmers across the country, from Delhi to Kanyakumari, and the award winning Kumar Talkies (1999) (National Film Award for Best Non-Feature Film Audiography to sound designer Satheesh PM), a documentary film that deals with a cinema hall in the small city of Kalpi in north India, has now brought out Two Flags, a short documentary film that explores life and politics in Pondicherry, focusing mainly on its Tamil French population.
Having begun work on it as early as 2007, after reading an Outlook article on the topic, Pankaj set out to film in 2012, hoping to cover the elections that year. “Because elections was the only time everyone came out from this otherwise very closed community,” he reasons. Yet it was only by the next elections, the one that played out in 2017, that the filmmaker could make inroads.
Two Flags establishes the tone at the very beginning, laying bare the ambiguity of nationalism in the coastal hamlet that is Pondicherry. While the band plays the French National Anthem, the voice-over of a person says he identifies with two countries - “India is my heart, I studied here. […] I joined the French Army and worked in it for 22 years. That is my second life and I’m working for my country. I have two countries. First country is France, second country is India.”
The topic of nationality cannot be more relevant today in India, in its present political context where hate is propagated and justified in name of nationalism. While the fragmentation is quite obvious amongst this small population, the idea of nationalism itself stands upon shaky grounds while discussing the Pondicherry story. So did Pankaj’s idea of nationalism change during the process of working on this documentary?
No, says the filmmaker. “What I found was that because of a tricky historical process, nationalism here becomes convenient. The only reason why these people are hanging on to their French identity is solely because of economic reasons, not for the country. And that in today’s time makes you feel very odd. In spirit, they are in India but they hold on to France quite strongly. This puts us in a very awkward position. What country do they belong to?” he asks.
The documentary follows the Tamil French in Pondicherry as they decide on the candidate they want to vote for in the 2017 elections. Men discussing the politics of a country several thousand miles away in a boardroom in Pondicherry, and in French, in a country that was mostly under the British rule, paints quite a picture.
In one scene, we also see a woman desperately trying change her decision from 50 years ago.
“Is there no other way my daughter can become a French National? Can you request them?” she pleads with the officer.
The reference to the election is made time and again, and people’s hope for better education and employment from their adoptive nation is evident all through.
Pankaj goes on to add, “I think what I learnt from these people is that it's possible to have multi-cultural, multi-national allegiances. It has only been 50 years and so it will take time to evolve and become something else. Theatre person Vallavan is the only one who has understood it all. He is taking the best of both cultures and that is much more important. The individuality is something that he talks about. Our culture does not allow us to think for ourselves. That is a very big shift. This is not a critique of Indian system but that it is possible, to think individually.”
Pankaj Rishi Kumar
And Vallavan, in Two Flags, adds quite a texture to the documentary. A theatre person who trains students, Vallavan talks about how it is possible to take the best of both worlds, to look at the brighter side. Pankaj’s second documentary in this series is, in fact, focused on Vallavan, the shooting for which was wrapped up last July.
“I was able to capture their adaptation of Romeo and Juliet play into Tamil, in which they were also discussing a real life caste killing incident. Apart from Pondicherry being the location, it has got nothing to do with the first film,” says Pankaj.
The third film that will conclude this series will cover the historical side of the story, one that Two Flags did not touch upon. “I’m getting into the history of Pondicherry, what happened in 1954 and 1962? It will be an overlap between the other two films. The film will take a look at the historical process and the mess it has created. When we talk about colonialism, it is only the British that come to our mind, no one thinks of the French. My third will take a look at French colonialism in Pondicherry,” he tells us.
Throughout the film, the characters in the documentary slip into French and Tamil effortlessly. Coming from Mumbai, Pankaj tells us that he never really felt the linguistic challenges affect his work. “I might have had a better emotional quotient but I don’t think anything else would’ve changed. I knew what I was getting into. I don’t know either of the languages. I’ve seen all the years that language does not pose that big an issue. One can gauge most of the times what is happening and I understood the context here. My colleague Vinayak is too good and he helped with translations,” he explains.
The film was released in 2017 and has travelled to Madurai, Chennai, Delhi and Bombay in addition to its birthplace. How did the locals react on seeing his work? “The locals loved the film but I got a sense that it did not go well with the white French. The community is constantly challenging the benefits and somehow they thought it was a one sided story,” says the director.