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Staging Fiction, Rewriting History

Staging Fiction, Rewriting History

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Published by Thavam

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Published by: Thavam on Oct 07, 2013
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07 October 2013
The makers of 'Midnight’s Children' are known for their anti-fundamentaliststance, but the production of the film in Sri Lanka raises questions.
Civilians fleeing the Vanni in 2009. flickr/ trokilinochchi At sunrise, Saleem parachutes from a Pakistani Air Force transporter plane with amission to kill. But he arrives too late in what was then East Pakistan – the Pakistani Army has already lost to the Bengali Mukti Bahini (freedom fighters) and the Indian Army. Mass killings of Bengali civilians had taken place at the hands of Yahya Khan’sruthless army. Among the trapped Pakistani soldiers is Saleem, a young recruit in thePakistani army. He finds himself in the midst of a lush green landscape, wearing hishelmet, protective glasses and uniform. The camera slowly ascends to capture thebeautiful Bengali wetlands, and moves over piles of half-naked bodies, spread over the wet grass, mingling with the idyllic landscape. Smoke rises in the distance frombehind the jungle. Saleem limps past dead civilians in his Pakistani uniform. A singingfarmer appears. The only living person in sight, he desperately tries to catch up withSaleem. He rushes past half-naked, blood-smeared bodies of men, both Mukti Bahini
 
and ordinary farmers, who seem to have been handcuffed and executed. Some of thedead are blindfolded, too. Sounds of gunfire can be heard in the background. Thefighting is still raging, it appears, despite Pakistan’s official capitulation. The farmer catches up with Saleem, who trips and falls into a puddle surrounded by dead bodies.He examines Saleem, who lies exhausted and wordless, before helping him up.Saleem stares in confusion at the bodies around him. The farmer tells Saleem aboutPakistan’s defeat. Saleem and the man suddenly get into a fight over a silver basinSaleem is carrying. Saleem clings to the item and walks off, looking confused. Thefarmer throws a sarong at him, instructing him to change out of his army uniform. Thisis now Bangladesh.This scene appears half-way through Canadian-Indian director Deepa Mehta’s 2012film Midnight’s Children, an adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s bestselling, award-winning novel of the same title published in 1981. Both the novel and the film followthe life of Saleem Sinai, a Muslim boy born with magical powers, at point zero of India’s Independence. The story traces 30 years of postcolonial developments andcatastrophes in both India and Pakistan.
 
Mehta and Rushdie are artists whose works have been widely celebrated but also tiedto local and global controversies. Their collaboration for Midnight’s Children wasalways going to be controversial, as both artists have prompted violent reactions inSouthasia and around the globe. Ever since Mehta made headlines with Fire (1996), afilm depicting a same-sex relationship between sisters-in-law, she has been the targetof Hindu fundamentalist backlash in India, accused of falsely depicting Hinduism andcatering to Orientalist Western cinematic desires. The story of the 1989 Iranian fatwaagainst Rushdie after the publication of 
 
The Satanic Verses needs no repetition. Thecontroversies surrounding the work of both diasporic artists have had long-lastingeffects upon their lives and work. Rushdie, as well as having to go into exile for anumber of years, continues to face obstacles when travelling to India. Mehta’sattempts to film and screen her films in India have been blocked, and mere rumours of her presence have at times provoked violent protests from Hindu fundamentalists.Despite virulent opposition to their creative work, the artists have resisted attempts tosilence their expression.The fear of a Hindu and Muslim fundamentalist backlash in India and Pakistan forcedthe film’s production team to scout for an alternative location with a similar landscapeto India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Sri Lanka emerged as an ideal location. It could,visually, pass for its three major Southasian neighbours, and the bargain of this three-for-the-price-of-one deal paid off economically and politically for the director and her team. Mehta had earlier made a film in Sri Lanka, so she was familiar with thenation. Water, about the treatment of Hindu widows, had initially begun production inVaranasi in 2000, but came under violent attacks from Hindutva activists. Mehta wasforced to relocate filming to Sri Lanka after receiving little support from thegovernments in Lucknow or New Delhi. Water began filming again in 2003, a timewhen war-torn Sri Lanka was just one year into a fragile ceasefire. During this period,peace was no longer just an abstract idea, but seemed to be an actual possibility. A
 
peacetime economy began to flourish, and filming movies in Sri Lanka seemed anideal way of advertising “Brand Sri Lanka”, as well as stimulating the local film culture.The relationship between Mehta and Sri Lanka was symbiotic and highly beneficial toboth parties.The Midnight’s Children film nevertheless faced troubles in the form of a call from Iranto halt filming in Sri Lanka, and an informal Indian boycott when no local distributorswere initially found to screen it. These types of disputes have monopolised thediscourse on the film and diverted attention from matters regarding its content, as wellas from the fact that the filming location of Sri Lanka was highly problematic in the firstplace.
 
Tea time with war criminalsMehta wanted to avoid filming again in India where possible, and the production teamof 
 
Midnight’s Children did not even seek permission to shoot the movie there. Prior tofilming, Mehta entered discussions with Sri Lanka’s government to seek permission.Such interactions are usually coordinated through the National Film Corporation of SriLanka, under the Ministry of Mass Media and Information, which is in charge of theisland’s small film industry and of overseeing the country’s production of foreign films.In this case, however, Mehta was granted support directly from President MahindaRajapaksa.
 
When Mehta met with Rajapaksa in 2010, his government had just emergedvictoriously from three decades of war with the Tamil secessionist movement.Rajapaksa was riding a wave of ethno-religious triumphalism and nationalism,securing his dynasty and helping expand his clan’s powers. By the time Mehta arrivedfor talks at the Presidential Palace in Colombo, there was already robust evidencesuggesting the Sri Lankan Armed Forces had perpetrated war crimes and crimesagainst humanity in its pursuit of an absolute war victory. The Sri Lankan ArmedForces are accused of having bombed churches, temples and other civilian facilitiesfilled with Tamil refugees. The Sri Lankan army also stands accused by the UN of having repeatedly and intentionally targeted Tamil hospitals and civilian makeshiftsettlements with heavy weaponry, causing thousands of civilian casualties. Casualtyfigures are still debated, but aid and human rights agencies have established that tensof thousands of Tamil civilians perished during the last months of the war, and thathundreds of thousands more languished in internment camps in the north, or as thegovernment called them, “welfare villages”. It was clear that international mediaorganisations, NGOs and foreign governments, including the Canadian government,had already started to question the narrative of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the time international aid workers were evicted from where thefinal stages of the war took place. For Mehta, based in Toronto, it would have beenalmost impossible to miss the weekly protests of the large Tamil diaspora in Canada.Like many earlier Sri Lankan governments, Rajapaksa came to power on an ethno-religious nationalist platform during the short period of ceasefire. His coalition

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