The paradise Lakshadweep archipelago off the coast of Kerala in the Laccadive Sea has been protected from the scourge of mass tourism. Not many in Kerala, let alone the rest of the world, know much about these islands and atolls, except for the fact that they are in some way similar to the Maldives and that Islam is practised by their inhabitants.
Given the fact that just about every resident of the islands has a native level proficiency in Malayalam, calling them Malayalis would not be strictly inaccurate, but like Kerala, the islands are blessed with linguistic diversity. While the most spoken language in Minicoy is Mahi, which is essentially Dhivehi, (the Maldivian language), Jeseri, a proper Malayalam dialect, is spoken widely on the chain of islands.
For a connoisseur, Jeseri, or Dweep Basha, sounds slightly different in Agatti than it does on Kavaratti. Malayalis, even the ones who have never had the privilege of living in Kerala but still speak the language at home, can understand Jeseri without a great deal of difficulty. A trained linguist would say the language is closer to standard Malayalam than the Romanesco dialect is to standard Italian.
It’s a common stereotype among outsiders that the islanders live in a state of semi-nirvana in a quiet, clean, traditional and crime-free society. But filmmaker Dhahlan Lakshadweep’s short film titled Numma Nataku Bumma Halla (translated as The Misfortune of Our Land) gives an outsider a rare glimpse into the life of the residents of a small island on the archipelago. The 17-minute long film is a tragic-comedy that highlights the troubles that the islanders face such as poor cellular phone network coverage, shortage of petrol and food supplies, and the inefficiency of the bureaucracy, consisting of some officials who are not from the islands.
Some slangs used in the film are above the head of those who haven’t lived on the islands, but there are traces of Tamil and Arabic in the dialect. The short film, which has got over 40,000 views since it was first uploaded on YouTube in 2015, was supported by the very bureaucracy that it takes a humorous swipe at, and made in association with the Lakshadweep Film Association.
Many viewers came across the video of the film after watching the 2015 Prithviraj-starrer Anarkali, which was directed by Sachy. Since large parts of Anarkali were shot in Lakshadweep, Jeseri made its way into the film. Suresh Krishna was able to deliver the dialogues in Jeseri to the satisfaction of the islanders who watched a special screening.
Jeseri, however, managed to grab the spotlight at the national level three years after Sachy’s film was released, thanks to a novel initiative by journalist-turned film director Sandeep Pampally. Sinjar, the first feature film ever made in Jesari, is the story of two housemaids who are taken hostage by ISIS terrorists along with Yazidis. The film is a brilliant depiction of the impact of international terrorism on ordinary people.
At the 65th annual National Film Awards, Pampally’s movie won two honours - the Indira Gandhi Award for the Best Debut Film of a Director and the Best Feature Film in Jesari. The latter award comes under the category of Best Feature Film in Each of the Language Other Than Those Specified In the Schedule VIII of the Constitution.
The film, which is centred around the Sinjar massacre of Yazidis in 2014, did its rounds on the festival circuit around the world and was screened at Cannes in 2018.
Pampally lived in Kavaratti for over a year and learned Jeseri, but it took him more than three years to write such a complicated script. Sinjar also courted controversy as it depicted how the women were treated by the traditional society of the archipelago after people found out what happened to them when they were ISIS hostages.
For the low-budget film, the director enlisted the help of islanders to perfect the dialogues. He also had to jump through hoops to film on an island with conservative inhabitants and bureaucracy that restricts access. As a result the entire shoot was finished in a little over two weeks. The end result was a successful film highlighting a global problem, promoting peace and bringing this Malayalam dialect to the world.