Sri Lanka’s first film school: In Conversation with Sanjeewa Pushpakumara

Sri Lanka’s first film school: In Conversation with Sanjeewa Pushpakumara
Illustration by Daisy Harrison-Broninski Copyright 2020

The Civil Society Review editor Bertie Harrison-Broninski talks to Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, multi-award winning filmmaker and Course Director for the Sri Lanka Film School.

Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s “lockdown diary” opens with two brief shots of school murals in Colombo, Sri Lanka. With no people present, these two-dimensional children gardening and studying test tubes become shadow subjects, remnants of what was, faded paint flaking from their happy faces. 

The short film (titled Through the Mango Tree) is part of a larger project run by Film Independent called A Window of Time, which asked twenty-one international filmmakers to create “short videos about life under quarantine in their part of the world”. Pushpakumara, whose film is the first in the anthology, is known for his feature-length dramas Igillena Maluwo (Flying Fish) and Davina Vihagun (Burning Birds), which brought accolades for their emotive confrontations with the Sri Lankan Civil War. 

Yet the reflection on the empty schools of 2020 in Through the Mango Tree is pertinent from Pushpakumara, as he’s recently branched out from filmmaking, to become an educator as well. When I first met him in 2018, he had expressed to me the need for a Sri Lankan Film School, and had been spending time touring universities screening films and holding talks. His description of the uphill struggle for aspiring Sri Lankan filmmakers was bleak: 

“The country doesn’t have any supportive programs, so anyone that wants to be a filmmaker has to do their own sale. They have to learn by themselves because we don’t have a filmmaking program. Even after they make their own films they don’t have a proper mechanism to screen their films in the country, because all the circuits are belonging to a few people, who [only] screen films that they think will make money. Some young filmmakers, they are waiting in the list, still waiting, more than six or seven years [for screenings]. This is a very sad story, you know. After they made their first film they are still waiting six, seven years to screen them. How bad is that? What a waste of the creative energy of young people in this country.”

Little did I know at the time that Pushpakumara’s anger would so soon come to fruition: within months of speaking to me he had become a founding staff member and the course leader for the new Sri Lanka Film School. As the academic calendar came to a close, I reached out to him back in May eager  to hear about the experience of launching a country’s only film school in such a tumultuous year. 

Pushpakumara told me that not only has the academic calendar ended in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, but the school’s founding was “badly affected” by deaths during the Easter terrorist bombings that occurred in 2019 across Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa. “That is with the beginning, and then with the end of the first year, we’re again badly affected by the Covid situation. So these two incidents heavily affected the life of school.” 

While some classes continued online, many were postponed for months, and when we spoke Pushpakumara expected there to be “some changes about the semester” dates in order to push the June deadline for the course back. “With a subject like filmmaking, it’s not possible always to have online classes,” he explained; “it’s not possible that lecturers should go to students and analyse their works, for example editing or cinematography. It’s not just like other subjects, you know.”

Yet filmmaking doesn’t appear to be all that the Sri Lanka Film School does teach its students; looking over its website I was amazed by the breadth of curriculum. The school has three lecturers in history of art, three in literature, as well as lecturers in psychoanalysis, modern Sri Lankan political history, philosophy, and architecture. As the school’s course leader, I asked Pushpakumara why the courses have such broad syllabi. He told me that “when it comes to filmmaking in a Sri Lankan context, we are so behind to produce proper storytelling films. So then I found that [Sri Lankan film] students do not have great access or connection with literature and other subjects like painting and philosophy. So I thought, yeah, we’ll help to teach students these subjects, especially for the script writers, you know? And the painting, especially for the cinematographers. If you meet most Sri Lankan filmmakers, they don’t know about painting, they just know about the technical things. So I thought these things are more important to make a prolific filmmaker or a quality script writer.”

When I spoke to Pushpakumara in 2018, I was struck by the fact that, despite a history of personal difficulties with the Sri Lankan government and state over the topics of his filmmaking, he told me that the major barrier for films such as his was “not the government. It’s a different kind of censor board I feel that’s how the market is working.” This ‘censor board’ referred most directly to “theatre owners”, but more broadly to the cultural institutionalisation of arts censorship across the country. 

This thinking is still evident in his 2020 description of how the school was formed. Initially approached by senior politician Sarrath Kongahage to start a film course, Pushpakumara replied “what we need, it’s not a film course. We need a film school.” The conversation was successful; Kongahage is now the principal of the school, alongside being a member of Parliament and president of the Diplomatic Council. In order to offset the influence of conservative civil society (such as the “theatre owners”), Pushpakumara understood the need to institutionalise the teachings of his course within a school. And, as he told me, Sri Lanka was the only country in South Asia bar the Maldives not to have one. 

I asked if Pushpakumara sees film itself as an educational vehicle; if he’s hoping that his students’ films will spread the cultural education he’s giving them to people watching who won’t get to study at the Sri Lanka Film School. He concedes that at the least, people will “learn cinema too by watching cinema.” However, in terms of broader cultural education than the art of filmmaking, “I think with this moment, it is not possible make a change by just watching, you know?” 

In the long-term, he does hope his students’ future careers will change the film scene in the country. “What we are doing right now, it takes time. It’s not going to happen in the next year. It would happen five years or six years later; for that we have to prepare these students to support that [change]. So now what we are trying to do is to make a proper ground for cultivations, and then the harvest will come in five, six years.”

He stated that a persistent barrier at the moment is that he does not “think that the government are fully aware about this course, this program.” The lines between whether the school operates as a public, private, or charitable body seem blurred; “it’s definitely, uh, within the government institution, but it’s not government funding. The student has to pay for studies.” This latter point is Pushpakumara’s major concern with the pandemic disruptions; “People have lost their incomes. So in this context, I don’t think that the students are in a position that they could pay their next instalment. If the students don’t pay their next instalment, we cannot run the school; we need that money to pay for the lecturers, and the resources and instruments that we are hiring from outside. So they are always expecting money from the students. And that’s why we need support from the government. This is the thing that I’m trying to convince the National Film Corporation and Cultural Ministry and the Sri Lanka Foundation but I haven’t found a real connection to approach them.”

What inroads they had been making all collapsed with the pandemic. “We are trying to meet high-government official peoples but it wasn’t possible since this Covid-19. So because that now the government are dealing with bigger issues than the film school in the country, dealing with the political issues, economic issues, in a country like us the cultural sector is the last one, you know? So therefore I will have to wait until the proper time to approach them. I don’t know when the proper time [will be].”

Despite this, when I asked if there’s any message I could help him platform, he insisted that he was not interested in international help. “The problem is now that I would ask for so many things, but since the whole world is in such a difficult situation, we cannot ask support from anyone else now, you know? That’s why I’m just not able to ask any support from the outside world right now, because I know how difficult a time they are passing. Some countries are affected with this Covid situation more than Sri Lanka actually.”After three minutes of shots of empty streets, Through the Mango Tree ends with a slow pan down to show the cameraman’s feet, and then a sudden change of pace as the feet begin walking. Perhaps it symbolises that after months in isolation, the nation can return to its own ‘feet’. When I interviewed Pushpakumara for another outlet in 2018, I concluded by saying that “I am optimistic that the day will come when Sri Lanka has a film school, and an international and domestic industry that supports challenging dramas as well as commercial entertainment.” The first half of that prediction was realised almost immediately: perhaps in another eighteen months there will be a new story to tell.


Bertie Harrison-Broninski is the general editor of The Civil Society Review, and Secretary for Oxford Omnia International. He is currently studying an MA in Investigative Journalism at City, University of London.


The Sri Lanka Film School Website can be found here. Sanjeewa Pushpakumara can be followed on twitter here.


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Becoming racialised, becoming coronavirus: experiences of racialised subjects during a pandemic

Becoming racialised, becoming coronavirus: experiences of racialised subjects during a pandemic
Copyright Daisy Harrison-Broninski 2020

By Shivangi Kaushik

All articles in In Depth have been subject to double-blind academic peer-reviews.

The word ‘subject’ has been intentionally used in the title of this article to frame “racialisation” as an essentialising act of power. Racialisation1 here is not only seen as an exercise in othering or exclusion, but also as a means of imagining people in a particular way. An imagining which is so daunting that it becomes difficult, almost impossible, to break out of or challenge: it is an act of power because only a few people can imagine while the rest are imagined, apropos without their choice. 

Pandemics have the potential to unleash a series of concomitant events/occurrences which challenge the existing status quo and threaten to topple the existing power relations in a country. As in other countries, India’s urban centres have borne the major brunt of the pandemic. As the number of COVID-19 positive cases increased with every passing second, cities such as Delhi and Mumbai became the epicentres or “hotspots”, which again amplified the cry for self-isolation and physical distancing, thereby strictly and legally prohibiting all forms of gathering, including religious ones. In these cities, this pandemic has exposed the fact that some sections of Indian society who have always been at the periphery of the socio-historical discourse of the country, are once again at the receiving end of the worst forms of exclusion and racialisation. Even though Arundhati Roy remarked that the pandemic actually provides a means or a “portal” to overhaul the existing hierarchies and rebuild a more egalitarian order, in a hypothetical post-pandemic lifeworld, the hierarchy, inequality and exclusion which is a structural feature of Indian society will seemingly continue to penetrate every aspect of life, especially for those in the periphery. 

As the elite and the middle class snuggled inside their homes with expensive wine and comfortable work-from-home schedules for the lockdown period of twenty-one days, the major urban centres of India (for instance the National Capital Region of Delhi) began the process of gradually extruding several million informal migrant workers. As the pandemic strengthened its tentacle in the country, the rich and the privileged sought to oust these informal labourers by pushing them back to the villages from where they had initially started their journey to the city in order to earn their livelihoods. The sudden exposure of the extreme vulnerabilities that haunt the precarious existence of informal labour gives us a unique opportunity to explore how the Anthropocene leads to the creation of a pathological society impacted by moral breakdown at the societal level. In Durkheimian terms, anomie would be the right word to denote the present circumstances where the pandemic has evidently challenged social conventions and norms as well as the social institutions (the state for instance) which govern these conventions. 

The social milieu feels more like an anomie because of the fact that even though every aspect continued to unfold and become documented right in front of our eyes through social media and news channels, people could only appal their helplessness in the entire situation and do nothing apart from discerning their privilege. Even as medical and scientific endeavours break down due to their impotency in the face of COVID 19, not only the economic proletariat, but also those who do not possess an ‘Indian face’, experience the darkest sides of this pandemic. 

The importance of an Indian face

The people that I am talking about are the countless migrant students, workers and residents from the distinct ethnolinguistic communities and different states of what is known as Northeast2 India, the easternmost peripheral geographical territory of India, which share their borders with China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. People from this region who identify as belonging to ethnic communities like that of Zou, Rongmei, Angamis, Hmars or Dimasas have physical features that resemble the people of the aforementioned neighbouring countries of India. The overwhelming focus on caste-based social discrimination both outside India and within India has always overshadowed the potential to even start a discourse of racial discrimination in the Indian context. 

Throughout the world, there has been a conspicuous trend to racially discriminate against citizens of countries such as China, South Korea, Thailand, and other South-Eastern countries. People who have a certain set of physical features have been homogenised as carrying the ‘China virus’ (even by the President of one of the most powerful nations) and are targeted in their daily lives.

It is important to note and read closely the aforementioned sentence. A close analysis of the phrase will tell us how an entire country has been equated to a life threatening pandemic. This affects people irrespective of their distinct ethnic identity or where they hail from: whether they are immigrants or second generation American citizens is not taken into account. Equating people with a pandemic is particularly worrying owing to the fact that these migrants are taken to be criminals where each of them is seen as  responsible for “spreading” the virus. They can be ‘tried’ for just sneezing in a public space, for something beyond their control. If racialisation had an anatomy, then this criminalisation and homogenisation could be called the building ‘bones’. Stereotypes and prejudices could be seen as the fluid or blood in this case, which could supply the fuel to keep racism alive. Exclusion would be the oxygen to keep this anatomy alive. 

If ‘race’ is taken to be the founding basis or the criterion through which racism and racialisation are articulated, then the very existence of racism as a systematic apparatus has to be questioned. Anthropologists like Claude Levi Strauss (1985: 6) have refuted the idea of race, pointing out that “if we attempt to trace racial differences back to their origins, we condemn ourselves to ignorance; and the subject of our debate becomes the diversity of not races but cultures”. Levi Strauss points towards the fact that tracing an individual’s race is a futile exercise, as there has been so much intermixing between the different races that it is difficult to pinpoint who belongs to which race.  It was individuals like Gobineau who advocated the use of scientific racism to hierarchise the different races to establish the superiority of the white race in terms of both physical and intellectual terms. Moreover, it is important to take note that this was during the pinnacle of the colonial era, where scientific racism was used to justify the dominance of the white race or colonizers. The Sara Baartman (Ahmed 2002: 57-58) episode where a black woman was exhibited to the white onlookers is a reminder of the power that racialisation exerts over a group of people not only owing to the way they look but also owing to the fact that they being dominated becomes essential to establishing the domination or superiority of another more powerful group. 

Who are chinkies or the coronavirus in India?

At the outset of this article, I talked about the migrants from Northeast India facing racial discrimination in India. Owing to the lack of better schools, colleges and employment opportunities in the different states of Northeast India, a lot of students and workers migrate to cities such as Delhi and Bengaluru in search of higher education and employment opportunities, especially in the retail sector. Here it is important to note that the migrants that I am talking about are not only distinct via their physical features but also have a  set of linguistic and cultural features which distinguish their rituals, cultural features and language and diverse dialects from the rest of the country. In a way, it can also be said that when India attained independence, the eight states of Northeast India (namely: Manipur, Mizoram, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya) had a problematic annexation with the state. This also meant that there have been innumerable struggles going on in the different states of the region which throughout history has been met with brutal state repression. 

I work with migrant students from different ethnolinguistic communities, and for my research I have been racially abused as “coronavirus”. During Holi (the Indian festival of colour), some of the female students were targeted and water balloons were thrown at their private parts. After being attacked with water balloons, one of the students heard the remark, “Are randy tera chut dikh raha hain” (You whore, I can see your vagina). Sometime back in the month of March, a journalist from a reputed Indian national daily had come to North campus, University of Delhi, to interview some of the students who were the “victims” of these racist attacks. I was also present in this meeting. The reporter kept asking them to narrate in detail what happened to them in each of these attacks. Moreover, she also urged them to give a full face interview which they declined owing to security/anonymity reasons before, after a long deliberation, they settled to giving interviews where their faces were blurred and their voices doctored. 

It was then I realised that for the reporter (despite being one of the rare journalists who at least took an interest in covering these incidents), the evident racialisation and the accompanying essence of being called a chinky or a momo in Delhi made these students’ experiences appealing. It made me question why their daily life experiences of going to a church, temple or mosque or of the numerous festivals organised by the various students’ associations, were never highlighted in mainstream newspapers or news journals. It is clear that they are not imagined as having anything beyond a racial identity. Why and how does the denigration of migrants from the region by people from other parts of the country appeal to journalists, writers and academics from outside NER? This was highlighted by Sara Ahmed (2007: 51) that racial projection (e.g. labelling someone a chinky) is not only a visual response triggered in us when we look at someone who has a different set of physical features. Racial projection also happens when a person is racialised to an extent that they are unable to be recognised in any way other than being a ‘chinky’ and this imagining becomes difficult to be challenged or changed. 

Spitting as an act of racialisation

Apart from being racially abused as momos or chinkies, the latest gun in the arsenal for racial discrimination is being called coronavirus

India has been under a lockdown period for the past three months since it was first declared on the 24th of March, 2020 owing to the spread of COVID-19 in the country. One of the residents from Manipur in a locality called Vijar Nagar near Delhi University was spat on by a resident who was passing by on his two wheeler vehicle and who is from a different ethnic and racial background than the woman from Manipur herself. After a lot of condemnation from the students, the police finally filed an FIR3 and arrested the perpetrator. A couple of weeks after the incident, on the 6th of April, 2020, there was an incident in Mumbai where another student from Northeast India was spat on by a passer-by. It is important to note that the migrants from the Northeast have always been homogenised and called  ‘chinky’ or ‘momo’ on the streets of Indian cities. However, being spat on and then being compared to a life-threatening virus is as new as the coronavirus itself. If one sociologically analyses the act of spitting per se, unravelling its various layers and its different context-specific usages, then it can also be interpreted as an act where the one who spits intentionally wants to infect the migrant worker or student from Northeast India who is being spat on, not only to show his disgust at her belonging to a particular racial or ethnic background but also to transfer the virus and the disease to her. Then the whole act of spitting as an act of denigrating someone fulfils its function thereby marking out a racialised body in the process. Thus spitting in itself is an act of power because only the residents and not the migrants can engage in this act of constituting a racialised subject. So how does one become a racialised subject to be spat on? 

To understand the above, there is a need to deconstruct the term ‘Northeasterner’ (since this term denotes more than just a geographical and territorial exonym) and to understand how one is constituted as a racialised subject in urban India. From what I can understand, racist attacks like calling people ‘coronavirus’ are the manifestations of a lack of intention or the absence of a genuine attempt to understand which ethnic community, religion and state they hail from. They are likened to the people of China (where COVID-19 originated) because there is a conspicuous overlooking of the different identities with which to identify themselves. For the people outside of NER, it is only their physical features which become the reference point to identify them. This ability to overlook or to collapse all forms of identities and the choice to imagine them only in a straitjacket fashion is an exercise in power which people from Delhi as well as migrants from other parts of India can have. Thus it can be said that racial projection works in one way and that is where the power to imagine them lies. 

Peripheral spaces of difference

When someone is racialised to a certain extent and is viewed only as a ‘chinky’ or as a Chinese, indirectly they strip that person of their agency (for a lack of a better word) and politics and always view them as mere “victims” of racial abuse. However, from my fieldwork, there are certain institutions which can be called positive “deviations”, as Durkheim would say. For instance, some of the colleges in Delhi University have Northeast cells (NE cell) or Northeast societies which were made compulsory by the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) after the death of Nido Taniam in the year 2014. These NE cells have played a very important role in organising panel discussions and Northeast festivals which create a lot of awareness about the various socio-political issues, cultures, attires and food habits of the different ethnic groups in Delhi. I went to a lot of these festivals and I could see that many students who were not from the region attended, and expressed an interest in knowing more about the different states, the different ethnic groups, and the different languages of the region. Moreover, when the first racist attacks of abusing students as coronavirus occurred in the college canteen of Kirorimal college, it was the KMC NE Cell which encouraged the student to come forward and file an official complaint with the principal of the college. This kicked off a huge online storm with the NE cells of many colleges across DU who came out in support of the college. It also encouraged a lot of students across DU to come out and talk about their experiences of racism in their respective colleges. 

These small spaces I have termed as peripheral differences because they seek to challenge the racial stereotyping and the peripheral position that the students from the region are pushed to within academic spaces. These spaces also help the students to question this peripheral position and provide them with the required support to do so. Moreover, the ethnic students’ associations and the community church with the help of intricate networks do help them to ‘cope’ with racial discrimination in the city, always reminding them to stick/return to their “ethnic roots”. 

These spaces of peripheral difference are not taken into account while talking about racism in India, not even by the respected and the much followed M.P. Bezbaruah committee report. I am afraid that these well intentioned documents may end up reinforcing the racist stereotypes and assumptions by addressing all of the students from the region simply as Northeasterners and not taking into account the ethnic specificities.  Duncan Mc Duie-Ra4 talked about how their inability to “mingle” in a city like Delhi owing to their physical features, aggravates racial discrimination in the country. However, the question here is whether they even wish to mingle, or instead seek to continue being a Christian Khasi or a Thadou speaking Kuki in Delhi. 

Owing to COVID-19, there has been a mass migration of the migrant students and workers from the NER back to the region. The ones remaining not only have to physically distance themselves to protect themselves from COVID-19, but they also have to fight racist attacks. This brings me to an observation that within urban spaces like Delhi, it is not always about othering or being excluded, but of imagining people in a particular way, and during the times of COVID-19, this is how they are imagined. The task to break out of this form of imagination henceforth becomes extremely daunting. Unfortunately, this power to imagine them lies with the ones who possess an ‘Indian face’: a uni-directional exercise of power.  The problem I feel is that these peoples are never imagined as unique individuals who have a distinct ethnic, religious, sexual and gender identity. As Ahmed (2002:47) says, the one who is racialised is never asked how they would want themselves to be imagined or ‘known’. Delhi in times of COVID-19 becomes the city where they are imagined as victims of racial abuse and nothing more than that. This facilitates them to be compared to and scapegoated as the citizens of a country which was the epicentre of a pandemic that brought the entire world to its knees. 

Thus, racialisation and the comparison of an entire people having a unique set of physical features to a pandemic has been an exercise in power, a phenomenon that has its entrenched roots in India’s colonial history as well, especially in the way racialised bodies were ordered and exploited. The problem is that it continues to be a reality even today, and now these migrant students, workers and residents are at the receiving end. As a lot of migrant students and workers prepare to make their way back home from Delhi to the different states of Northeast India to grapple with COVID-19, they are also haunted by and faced with the tragedies of an uncertain future. Leaving the greener pastures is never easy, especially where migrants have made ‘home’ and most importantly attained their livelihood. However, it seems that the greener pastures have been uprooted and burnt ablaze with the embers of racialisation. 

Shivangi Kaushik is a 2nd year DPhil student at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford. 

Endnotes

1.  Racialisation and racial discrimination as shown by Ahmed (2002) and Banton (1969) are different concepts. The former refers to assigning someone with a particular set of attributes and characteristics on the basis of a person’s physical features, which the person may have not identified with before. Racial discrimination is the actual practice of excluding a person from an educational institution, institute of employment or denying her accommodation because of her appearance. Thus racialisation is responsible for the formation of racial subjectivities. Ahmed, S. (2002). Racialized Bodies. In M. Evans, & E. Lee (Eds.), Real Bodies: A Sociological Introduction (pp. 46-64). New York: Palgrave.
2. Northeast India is the easternmost region of India. The region comprises of eight states: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura.
3.  “First Information Report (FIR) is a written document prepared by the police when they receive information about the commission of a cognizable offence. It is a report of information that reaches the police first in point of time and that is why it is called the First Information Report. It is generally a complaint lodged with the police by the victim of a cognizable offence or by someone on his/her behalf”. Source: Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. (n.d.). First Information Report and You. Retrieved from https://www.humanrightsinitiative.org/publications/police/fir.pd4.  McDuie-Ra, D. (2012). Northeast Migrants in Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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