Like all cinematographers, Santosh Sivan is in love with nature, and his frames are Zen-koan odes to a utopian equilibrium – the human forced to share space with the non-human. In an early scene in Inam, Nandan (S Karan), a teenager with Down’s Syndrome, is tied to a post alongside goats. Then there’s the kitten, perched skittishly on a television set beaming images of war. A turtle is coaxed into a satchel that contains a human skull. A Buddhist monk uses a piece of cloth while collecting water from a lake, and the fish thus filtered he releases into the water. A butterfly takes wing, as do birds. A buffalo ambles out of a puddle in front of a transfixed Nandan. Earth and water and sky are repeatedly invoked, sometimes as parents.
Inam is about the conflict in Sri Lanka, but it isn’t a war-is-hell morality play. Well, in a way it probably is – but what more can one say about war that hasn’t already been said? The weakest parts of the film are those where man’s inhumanity to man is expressed in words. A UN peacekeeper volunteer hands Nandan a hundred-dollar bill and tells a colleague, “But what use is money in war?” Much later, a Sri Lankan soldier who looks on helplessly as a comrade attempts to rape Rajini (Sugandha Ram) mouths something about how his friends have become animals. We don’t need this nudging. It’s there in front of our eyes. And the yaadhum-oore recitation, when it arrives, feels trite. It’s a powerful sentiment, but one that’s been reduced to cliché after years of use in the movies.
Inam is essentially a skein of vignettes woven around Nandan and Rajini and other members of Tsunami Akka’s (Saritha) “family.” Tsunami Akka, we are told, lost a daughter to the war, and Sivan links her memories to frames featuring Ayesha Dharkar from The Terrorist, his film about a young girl who volunteered to become a suicide bomber. And now, these orphans are Tsunami Akka’s family. As much as she’d like to hold on to them, though, some of these children fly the coop – the call of the cause is too insistent. But they return, like college kids during summer vacations, and recall the good times. And the other children, the kids through teenagers who are still with Tsunami Akka, try to lead as normal a life as circumstances will permit.
Sivan is happiest when concocting near-surreal imagery that hints at mood rather than tells a story. The pinpricked thumb that begins to bleed and, when impressed on paper, forms the shape of the island nation. The Jesus figurine found in water after a toy store is bombed. The photo album containing pictures of a man in his younger days, along with black-and-white cut-outs of swimsuit beauties. The man who sits amidst landmines. The turtle slipping into water with that hundred-dollar bill on its back. The bite marks on Rajini’s neck. The bizarre marriage ceremony and the ensuing wedding night, initiated with a glass of milk and a pomegranate.
These images are fused into a semblance of coherence by Nandan’s presence – his life is equally surreal. In Gumpian fashion, he witnesses everything, the personal and the political. He sees Rajini flirt with Ravi, another of Tsunami Akka’s children, and with this hint of a future, he also sees a skull, a remnant from the past. He is both man and child – his satchel contains a dagger as well as a toy bus, and the film opens with his recitation of Nila nila odi vaa over the drone of military helicopters. He keeps running away from Tsunami Akka’s shelter, yet he keeps coming back. To leave or to stay. He seems to embody the people’s confusion.
These are powerful representations of the horrors undergone by the citizenry and the resignation with which they regard life. When Nandan stumbles upon a dead soldier holding a photograph of his daughter, he cleans the picture and looks at it for a long time. Then he hears a phone ring. He fishes out the instrument from the soldier’s pocket and takes the call, where someone asks for the major. “The major is dead,” he says coolly and hangs up. We’re in a no-man’s land of emotion. All tears have dried up.
The big scenes, on the other hand, don’t work as well. The slice-and-dice vignettes approach results in broad characters rather than complex people capable of holding together a sustained narrative. The effort to humanise them (at least cinematically) through songs doesn’t work – besides, these songs are cut off midway by the onset of more fighting. And the budgetary constraints show in the war scenes, which aren’t very convincing. But the truth in what’s being told is irrefutable. In one scene, we see Stanley (Karunas) trying to teach the children about the world beyond, which is a constant presence – sometimes literally, in the form of a globe in front of Rajini as she is interrogated in a refugee camp. The blackboards behind Stanley are inscribed with greetings in various languages, but soon, troops arrive, cover the blackboards with white sheets, and project videos of war. These children dream of moving to Paris and India, but they have to contend with the reality of Sri Lanka first. There’s no getting away from it after all: war is hell.
* Inam = race/category/group
* yaadhum-oore = every country is my own
* Nila nila odi vaa = a nursery rhyme
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