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A dhoti-clad man is lying on the road and his body is barely moving. Policemen in riotgear are shuffling around, shooing away people. Another man standing next to the body with blood streaming down his face is crying. He is pleading with the person taking the video that he should get him out of there since the police will kill him otherwise. With these dramatic sequences, Pearl City Massacre opens. The film is not an investigation into Sterlite’s functioning and what happened in Tuticorin. It doesn’t purport to go into the mechanisms of who were protesting, what was the cast of characters, or how the protest movement took an increasingly militant turn in 2018, culminating in the police firing on May 22.
For Pearl City Massacre, Sterlite is only a backdrop. It’s more a movie about a people protesting against a factory proven to be a polluter, and how their demand was met with prolonged indifference by the authorities and later violent oppression. The image of plain clothed policemen using rifles sniper-like to shoot and kill protesters will forever define the anti-Sterlite protests.
Pearl City Massacre establishes a series of serious violations of laws and due procedure by the authorities and the police. For instance, the film shows that not all those shot at were near the Collectorate complex. It reiterates that the standard procedure for ordering firing wasn’t followed. The police shot to kill, not to maim or injure.
Pearl City Massacre doesn’t purport to tell all sides of a story. It doesn’t mince words either. The conclusion is a given: the authorities including the police were guilty of gross violation of human rights. The film piles up image after startling image and live footage with interviews of the injured and the families of the dead to construct an astounding story that makes us wonder what kind of a society we live in.
For Pearl City Massacre, Sterlite is only a backdrop. It’s more a movie about a people protesting against a factory proven to be a polluter, and how their demand was met with prolonged indifference by the authorities and later violent oppression.
The maker of Pearl City Massacre, MS Raj’s inspiration is Michael Moore whose guerilla style of filmmaking may have been criticized by many but powerfully spotlighted serious issues over which a stand needs to be taken. Moore’s Bowling For Columbine still resonates as a telling indictment of the American love for guns and what that has done in schools there.
MS Raj’s Marina Puratchi chronicling the Jallikattu agitation on Marina Beach ran into rough weather with the censors. Among other things, that film sought to find out who and what was behind the last day of violence that ended the agitation. The film was refused a certificate twice until the high court intervened in the film’s favour, says Raj. Marina Puratchi was shown in 13 countries.
Even as he was moving on from that film, the firing happened. Having studied in Thoothukudi and agitated against Sterlite as a student, MS Raj decided to take that up next. But the pandemic put paid to his plans. Raj picked up the threads again after lockdown and shot the film as a narrative that moves back and forth in time with interviews conducted now and real footage from 2018.
Much of the film couldn’t be shot in Thoothukudi, says Raj, adding he had to move the interviewees out of town to escape police intervention. Having a large crew would risk their attention so he stuck to a two-member crew. Four years later, the police haven’t quite mellowed in Thoothukudi, he adds.
MS Raj’s Marina Puratchi chronicling the Jallikattu agitation on Marina Beach ran into rough weather with the censors. Among other things, that film sought to find out who and what was behind the last day of violence that ended the agitation.
Having learned his lessons with Marina Puratchi, Raj has taken up the OTT route this time. The OTT revenue barely covers the server cost, he says. Whenever he has showed the film to political leaders, activists or even the survivors, police have landed up there to disrupt or seeking the hard disk. Raj was even served a summons by the police asking him to submit evidence that they said he had collected as part of his film. The summons was served on the eve of his departure to New Delhi to attend the Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival in which the film got the Best Documentary Award.
Pearl City Massacre has been selected for World Film Carnival in Singapore. It is among the 43 films selected out of some 2,200 entries for showing at the International Environmental Film and Human Rights Festival films.
Raj’s next will be another expose into some 185 deaths that have been classified as suicides but which are actually murders, he says cryptically, without revealing more.
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