When Cyclone Ockhi tore through the Indian Ocean and the southern-most coastal districts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala between November 30 and December 4 last year, its powerful winds and heavy rain capsized boats and destroyed homes. It reportedly left at least 102 people dead in the two states. Another 263 went missing and are presumed to be dead.

The cyclone hurt the livelihoods of several others. In Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, for instance, residents say that though the families of fishermen who were killed in the cyclone received government compensation, those who lost their boats in the storm are still awaiting relief nine months after the disaster. They say the government has been deaf to their demands for assistance. “We wanted support from the government to build our lives after the devastation but no help was forthcoming from them,” said Jose J, a fisherman from Thoothoor village in Kanyakumari.

One person who helped amplify the voices of fishermen like Jose is Madurai-based documentary filmmaker Divya Bharathi. In the aftermath of Ockhi, she shot a film documenting the suffering of fishermen in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Through their lives, Orutharum Varela (Nobody Came), highlights the government’s failure to avert the damage caused by the cyclone, and its apathy towards the fisherfolk.

FIR against filmmaker

However, Bharathi’s film has displeased the authorities in Tamil Nadu. Shortly after she released the trailer of her film on YouTube on June 28, the police visited her home. “Four days after that, a group of police in plainclothes searched my house without any warrant,” she said

On July 2, the police filed a First Information Report against her at the Gudalur police station in Nilgiris district, alleging that her film had insulted the national flag, promoted disharmony between communities, disturbed public tranquility and portrayed the government in a bad light. Bharathi got conditional bail on August 3 and was required to sign in at the local police station every day for the next seven days.

Investigating officer L Muralidaran of the Masinagudi police station in the Nilgiris said that police registered the complaint because they found the trailer objectionable.

On August 5, Muralidaran sent Bharathi a list of 25 questions, saying they were part of the enquiry into the complaint against her. Among the questions were:

  • “What is the basis for coming to the conclusion that the government did not do anything for the fishermen?”
  • “What is the basis for coming to the conclusion that the fishermen of Kanyakumari region would be displaced from their present place of residence and or their place of fishing source?”
  • “What is the basis of coming to the conclusion that the fishermen were not forewarned of the advent of Ockhi storm?”
  • “What is the basis for coming to the conclusion that no help or support was provided by the Indian Navy and the government in rescuing the fishermen?”
  • “Who is the producer of the film? Give name and address.”
  • “Who played the background score/music?”
  • “Where was the mixing, editing and dubbing done?”

There were also questions about why she had produced the film, and whether she intended to screen the film in theatres for public viewing.

“We wanted to get information on what was the intention behind making this documentary film,” said Muralidaran. “We had given the questions to her as part of our enquiry. The case will be pursued based on the outcome of the enquiry.”

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Police visit fishermen

But the enquiry did not stop at that. Within days of the documentary being screened on August 26 in Thoothoor, the predominantly Christian village in Kanyakumari where Bharathi had interviewed fishermen for her film, the police arrived at the doorstep of Jose J. He had helped the filmmaker find a place to stay in Thoothoor during the course of her shoot.

“The police officials were enquiring whether the film was edited in my sister’s house,” said Jose. “They asked several questions about the documentary film and how I got acquainted with the maker.”

He added, “The filmmaker had sought shelter in my sister’s house while shooting the film in December last year. But, the editing of the film was not done here. She visited us after the film screening in Thoothoor on August 26.”

Jose said that the police personnel who questioned his sister and him were not from the local police station but seemed to have come from Nagarcoil station, 50 km away. “They were also enquiring about college students in the village who were documenting the plight of fishermen,” he said.

Jose said that the government had provided compensation of Rs 20 lakh to the families of those who died in the aftermath of Cyclone Ockhi, but it had reneged on its promise of assisting fisherfolk who had lost their boats. He said several fishermen from the area had not yet returned to the sea because they did not have boats.

“After Ockhi, there are also fishermen who stopped going to the sea out of fear,” he said. “They have started looking for other jobs now. We will be happy if the government focuses on helping fishermen rebuild their lives.”

Bharathi is planning to upload her documentary on YouTube shortly. “I wonder how the police will respond to this now,” she said.

Filmmaker Divya Bharathi.
Filmmaker Divya Bharathi.