Pradeepan Raveendran’s Soundless Dance dives into the war-torn mind of a Sri Lankan Tamil in Paris

Through Soundless Dance, the director asks: Isn’t the pain of a torn country, the pain of separation from family enough? Does one need to manufacture more “drama”?

Baradwaj Rangan January 07, 2021 11:27:31 IST
Pradeepan Raveendran’s Soundless Dance dives into the war-torn mind of a Sri Lankan Tamil in Paris

Still from Soundless Dance

Pradeepan Raveendran was born in Jaffna, and he now lives in Paris. You might say he identifies with Siva (Patrick Balaraj Yogarajan), the protagonist of his debut feature film, Soundless Dance (Nisaptha Nadanam).

Siva, too, is an émigré, and before we see him, we see people protesting the Sri Lankan civil war with cries of “recognise autonomy of Tamil Eelam” and “help us to save the Tamils”. A solitary drummer transforms these chants into something like war cries, as the French police attempt to maintain some order. It’s the spring of 2009. The war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government is entering its most violent phase. This politically volatile opening stretch, you’d think, is preparing us for a politically volatile protagonist. But Siva doesn’t seem to be one of those Tamils who’s especially invested in the creation of a separate Tamil state. He’s just someone who wants to live in peace.

Siva’s family is back in Sri Lanka. They’ve sent him to France to make money and repay their debts. He needs to know they are okay. And for that, he needs to be okay. Is it possible to separate the personal from the political? Perhaps not. But as we see in one of the many flashbacks to Siva’s life back in Sri Lanka, he isn’t like his childhood friend Raghavan (S Someetharan), for whom the political has become the personal. As boys, they played with toy guns in their idyllic village: there’s nothing to distinguish them but their physical traits. But as grown-ups, Raghavan is a Tamil Tiger, seething with separatist angst. Siva is just… a Sri Lankan Tamil.

We are introduced to Siva at a train station, though at first, we don’t know where he is exactly: his face is in profile and the background is a blur. It’s like how we met the Sri Lankan Tamil protagonist of Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, who was selling glow-in-the-dark trinkets like lighters and key chains. At first, we saw just these neon flickers in the blackness of night. We didn’t know what they were. It’s only when Dheepan came closer that we saw that the “light” came from his wares. The disorienting visual was a superb approximation of the disorientation Dheepan must have felt at that moment. With Siva, the sharp profile of his face separates him from the blurred background. He has not “blended in”, perhaps. He stands out.

Pradeepan Raveendrans Soundless Dance dives into the wartorn mind of a Sri Lankan Tamil in Paris

Still from Soundless Dance

He’s from a place he couldn’t live in. He’s in a place he doesn’t want to live in. Siva doesn’t fit into the standard-issue “refugee” category, because he doesn’t have official papers that say he was “personally threatened” back home, i.e., he was not physically threatened back home. The man who accompanies Siva to the immigration/naturalisation office tells him to make up a story, that the Sri Lankan army arrested him and tortured him because he worked for the Tigers. Siva simply asks if his story – the one he’s telling the officer – isn’t enough.

What he’s really asking is this: Isn’t the pain of a torn country, the pain of separation from family enough? Does one need to manufacture more “drama”?

The rest of Soundless Dance is about how Siva ends up manufacturing his own “drama”. The narrative conceit is powerful: that one can be “personally threatened” by psychological means, too. For Siva’s physical discomfort isn’t much. Maybe he’d complain that he studied computer science and is now reduced to chopping vegetables and scrubbing pans in the kitchen of a grungy restaurant with an abusive head chef. But every time Siva is reminded of home – when he scans the obituary notices posted on walls in the south-east Asian section of Paris, or when he scans the Internet for news about his family – his psyche comes undone, little by little. If only that immigration officer could take a look into Siva’s head, Siva would become a legal resident at once, papers or no papers.

This 90-minute film has one moment of conventional “beauty”, if you will. It’s during a flashback to Siva’s village. A peacock is perched on a parapet wall, and it reminded me of another peacock in another story of reminiscences: the bird that dances in the snow in Federico Fellini’s Amarcord. Roger Ebert wrote, of this marvellous moment, “Sometimes from this tumult an image of perfect beauty will emerge, as when in the midst of a rare snowfall, the count’s peacock escapes and spreads its dazzling tail feathers in the blizzard.”

But the tumult inside the present-day Siva manifests itself solely in terms of increasingly surreal war-time imagery. The director stages this imagery as a sort of terrible virtual-reality “game”, if you will, with Siva as the “player”. Or maybe you could consider it a “performance” of some kind, in which Siva is the sole “actor” in the soundstage of his mind. (That could explain the performative sense offered by the title.) Siva’s friends in Paris let off steam by screaming and arguing about the situation in Sri Lanka, but for Siva, it’s all in the mind. It’s like what the French call danse macabre, a staged (and in this case, imaginary) reality where the only constant is death.

One scene took me back to the controversy around Deepa Mehta’s upcoming adaptation of Shyam Selvadurai’s 1994 novel, Funny Boy. The online diaspora has come down on the filmmaker that the Sri Lanka-set story doesn’t have enough Tamil actors in the lead roles. I don’t buy this criticism. I believe what Deepa Mehta said, that in cinema, one’s acting capabilities are more important than representational considerations. But one aspect of this controversy is undeniable: only if you know it can you really (I mean, really) feel it. Late one night, when Siva watches fuzzy videos uploaded from a refugee camp (he wants to see if his family is there), he plugs in his earphones. We see the visuals on his laptop screen, but we are denied the sounds. That part – that’s his own suffering. That pain – it’s his and his alone. We outsiders will always remain on the outside.

Soundless Dance can be accessed at www.exilimage.com through VOD, from 8 January, 10 AM IST.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

Images from Twitter.

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