“The attrition of the Jasari language that I could observe with every new visit to Kavaratti, the prevalence of colloquial slangs, and the steady melding of indigenous traditions with Malayali dominance, roused me to place my story in Lakshadweep,” says director Sandeep Pampally, about Sinjar (2018), his debut film, which premieres in the coveted Indian Panorama section at the International Film Festival of India 2018.
Sinjar is the first feature length film made in the Jasari language of Lakshadweep. It was the surprise winner of the the Best Feature Film at the 65th National Film Awards, and Pampally won the Best Debut Film of a Director Award. He sat down to explain his journey to The Peacock, just a few hours before his red carpet ceremony yesterday.

How and where did the idea of Sinjar come from?
Four years back I approached Shibu G Suseelan, my producer, and spoke to him about a story set in Lakshadweep, about two women who are abducted by the ISIS and held as slaves in the town of Sinjar in Iraq. They are rescued and they return to their hometown in Kavaratti, but their community is reluctant to accept them. The story is inspired by a series of incidents I read about in newspaper columns.

When and why did you decide to shoot the film in Jasari, a language foreign to you?
I envisioned my film in Malayalam and was at first hesitant to make it in Jasari. But Suseelan insisted, and we decided to go ahead with it. The principal photography finished in just 16 days but it took us three years of pre-production, mainly due to the difficulties in getting permissions to film in the islands.

Translation was another arduous task. Most of our actors are from the mainland. We would have various dialect coaches on the set [giggles]. No, they were the local crew, who served the role of translators. Jasari is not an easy language to learn. There are no books or resource materials. Everything is passed down through oral traditions. Most words involve guttural sounds and are really difficult to enunciate. So, we would have various translations of the original dialogues written in Malayalam and choose the ones that were easiest for the actors. But, we also had to careful to not dilute their meaning.

I am curious to know where you sent the film for certification, considering it’s the first in this language.
Do I really have to share this [laughs]? Once the film was ready we started to look for various government grants and festivals to send it. We had done something historic and monumental. The locals of Kavaratti had embraced us, and we wanted to take Sinjar to the entire world. But before we could do it, we had to get a certificate. Since Kavaratti happens to fall under the jurisdiction of Kerala, we applied to the state certification board that outright denied it by saying the film was not in Malayalam. We then went to Mumbai and struggled for months. But you know what was funny? An hour after we submitted our film, the CBFC website added Jasari to their list of languages. They jumped at the opportunity to bask in glory.

The same happened when we applied for the National Awards. Kerala State Awards had simply denied us entry into the competition citing the language. But the day we won the National Award, the Lakshadweep Arts and Culture Department contacted us for the exhibition of the film, with whom we had struggled prior to being in the news.

The struggle for films in minor languages can be difficult. I’m sure you must have some suggestions for other such filmmakers.
The journey for films like ours is full of hurdles. There is very little encouragement from the state or the centre. I remember, until a few years, every National Award winning film was granted satellite rights to Doordarshan. There was a readymade platform for non-commercial and small-budget films to be exhibited. But this policy was unwisely scrapped, and now it’s just the festivals that such films are dependent on for visibility. There is a rise in the content on VOD platforms but they’re not very optimistic about rare language films either. I hope things change soon for us.

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