Writer & Director: Kittu
Cast: Kutti Mani, Eshwar Basha, Lizzie Anthony
Methagu is the biopic of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the late LTTE chief. Now, how do you make a film about a complex and controversial man like him? One way is to make a series out of it, so you can depict the entire person without leaving anything out. Or you could take a slice out of his life, like in The Motorcycle Diaries where a youngster takes a trip across South America before his experiences transform him into Che Guevara. Methagu which means 'his excellency', an eminent personality, follows this approach.
Events that happened in the Sri Lanka of a young lad shape him into the LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran. Right from the very beginning, we have no doubts about where the sympathies of the film and the filmmaker lie. We are told that Tamils are the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka and that the Sinhala language is a mix of several (including Tamil). A voiceover also tells us that Tamils didn't embrace Buddhism while the Sinhalese did, and this created a lot of friction. We're told that some Sri Lankan Buddhist monks were fascists who resented Tamils. We're told that they're the root cause for a lot of events that led to the bloody civil war.
In the film's opening (Madurai in 1995), a theru koothu (street play) is about to take place. It has two characters representing Tamils and Sinhalese. This is an inspired idea by the director, Kittu, because every now and then we keep returning to this performance from the main story. It gives a lot of visual relief. Street plays are typically about legendary or mythical figures. So, right off the bat, we know Prabhakaran is going to be presented as a mythical figure. Also, it's worth thinking about the fact that the name of the troupe is 'Adaikkalam (refuge)'.
The rest of the film between the koothu stretches from Prabhakaran's birth until his transformation into a kind of man who commits an act of violence at the end of the film. This is the defining act that will make him the Prabhakaran that we know of today. So, in a way, it's like The Motorcycle Diaries except that Che Guevara was transformed by what he saw as he traveled across South America while Prabhakaran is transformed by what he saw happening to Tamils around him in Sri Lanka.
For the longest time, Prabhakaran is almost a supporting character with Sri Lanka being the protagonist. We see how successful Prime Ministers adopted the ideology of chauvinism against the Tamils, influenced by Buddhist monks. We also see a series of non-violent and violent attacks against the Tamil population. For example, we are told that the Tamil population was educated and had government jobs (including Prabhakaran's father). This threatened the Sinhalese who passed a bill to strip the Tamils of their right to education. In an example of a violent attack, we are shown the World Tamil Research Conference where a police raid is unleashed against harmless speakers, in fear that they might instill a sense of bravery or unity in the Tamils themselves.
The first major political leader we meet in the film is Thanthai Chelva, a follower of Gandhi, who wants to be non-violent. Soon, the Tamils realise that nothing good could come out of holding placards. In fact, a young Prabhakaran asks his father: naama en thiruppi adikka koodathu (why shouldn't we strike back)? There's a lot of powerful material in Methagu but the film doesn't create the impact that it should. The filmmaking is basic, the actors are stagey and the dialogues are very basic. If you have a film where Buddhist monks appear like James Bond villains surely a few fiery lines of dialogues won't be out of place.
But the film itself has no fire. It's a series of biographical points that are dutifully ticked off. The film ends up showing Prabhakaran as a generic rebel without depicting the specific person. Even though both Prabhakaran and Che Guevara are rebels, their personalities would be different but we don't see that. For example, a great line says that Prabhakaran is soft-hearted and cannot bear to see people suffering. I wanted more such lines that would define the man in our eyes. Otherwise, we are just getting generic lines that we've heard many times before.
This is a very low budget production and the makers must have killed themselves to make it. So, it almost feels wrong to criticise the film. But even if the filmmaking took a hit due to the budget, even if you couldn't get the cast or equipment you wanted, the script could have been stronger, at least. But there are some powerful scenes in the film. For example, the scene where Prabhakaran is talking to his father is intercut with the visual of a young Tamil woman harassed by an inspector. At the end of it, we can see how much of Prabhakaran's ideology has spread amidst Tamils in the state. With all its faults, Methagu is an important biopic about a very crucial figure in not just Sri Lankan politics, but also Tamil Nadu politics.
* Methagu is available for streaming on Blacksheep Value.