When Malayalam short film director Sandeep Pampally decided to give his mother tongue a pass and make his feature debut in Jeseri, the dialect of Malayalam spoken in Lakshadweep, he knew the odds were huge. But his instincts told him that the movie would be recognised.
Sinjar won big at the 65th National Film Awards on Friday – the Best Jeseri Film honour and the Indira Gandhi Award for Best Debut Film of a Director. “We made the film with good intentions and knew that it would make a mark somewhere,” Pampally told Scroll.in. “But the award was completely unexpected and we got a big one. That is a wonderful thing.”
The film is based on the Sinjar massacre of 2014, in which thousands of Yazidi men and women were targetted by the Islamic State terrorist group in the Iraqi district. The movie follows the fictional story of two women who escape from Sinjar and return to their homes in Lakshadweep. Sinjar stars Malayalam actors Srinda Arhaan, Mythili, Mustafa and Sethulaksmi.
Before he ventured into filmmaking, Pampally was a journalist, and had worked for the Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi, among other publications. His keen interest in news inspired Sinjar, he said.
“I happened to watch this particular news item regarding the Sinjar massacre,” he said. “So many Yazidi women were captured and brutally tortured. In a matter of seven months, some girls escaped and gave many interviews about their time in captivity. The movie’s main idea is peace. That is why I connected the film to international terrorism, because that is the biggest threat that the world is fighting against. Another focus is the women of Lakshadweep. One of the lead characters gets pregnant with a terrorist’s child. That is her challenge against the world.”
How did Lakshadweep, a place without a movie theatre, feature in a story based in Iraq? “In Lakshadweep there is no cinema theatre, for the entertainment of the inhabitant,” says the webpage of the Department of Information and Publicity. “The film show and other programmes of Information and Publicity department is the only entertainment for locals. This department has been conducting film shows on various themes to educate public through entertainment.”
Pampally visited Lakshadweep for the first time in 2015, when one of his short films was screened at the Union Territory’s Kavaratti island. “I realised the simplicity of life there, and I was impressed with Jeseri,” he said. “Films in Malayalam and other languages are common. But we decided to make this film for the existence and relevance of Jeseri.”
The production was a Herculean task. “In Kavaratti, most of them are conservative Muslims and according to their beliefs, they do not allow shooting. But we communicated with the art and culture department through the Lakshadweep collector and spoke to them about the need for the language to be known. We assured them that the film would be shot completely in the region and would be a Lakshadweep movie.”
Pampally’s preparations included staying on the island for over a year and learning Jeseri. He wrote the script over three years, and took the help of local residents in translating the Malayalam dialogue into Jeseri. “We finished the entire shoot within 16 days due to permission restraints,” Pampally said. “The schedule was very tight and we worked around two to five scenes every day. We never expected this film to reach big markets. So we made this film on a small budget. All the crew members worked with full hearts even with low remuneration. I cannot thank my producer Shibu Suseelan enough.”
Pampally is looking to get Sinjar released over the next few months. “Lakshadweep is paradise,” he said. “You might not get a luxurious life there, but the people are warm and simple. There is no crime or violence but only peace. To mirror that part of the islands, in my film too there is minimal violence. It is a wonderful land.”