Romancing in slow-motion; musical numbers ill-fitting the narrative flow; high-octane shootouts laced with the odd comic touch; a highly-strung, tragic final half hour intended to stir emotions — Santosh Sivan’s latest offering boasts of all the hallmarks of commercial Indian cinema, which should allow the Kerala-born director to continue the fine run he has had in the past few years.
Beyond the more obvious lament about the casualties of war, however, Ceylon — a title that refers to the name of Sri Lanka before it became a republic in 1972 — doesn’t actually live up to its title by offering a more substantial understanding of the civil war which tore the South Asian island state apart.
The first half of the film, which comes, like most Indian productions, with an intermission, is more a light-hearted affair. Rajini (Sugandha Ram) — a young Tamil refugee who was just rescued ashore from a shipwreck — recollects her time playing with her friends and her mutual affections for a fellow orphan. But as the bombings begin after the break, darker horizons emerge, and bloodshed, death and exile take over.
It is worthy to note that the story really begins when the children discover the mentally challenged Nandan (Star S. Karan) lying on the beach, his hand clutching at a dagger, which he says belongs to his “big warrior brother.” Along the way, Nandan collects items that might as well serve as totems of war: death (in the shape of a skull), capital (a $100 note a departing foreigner gives him) and the persistence of life in the face of total social breakdown (a turtle he caught in a field filled with corpses).
These are metaphors which could be seen as shaping Ceylon’s standing as a showcase of the Tamils’ collective trauma. They also help to explain the film’s tentative title — the print shown in the Busan press screening still refers to the film as The Mob — but more focus and context would have helped the film live up to its seemingly more historical-epic title of Ceylon.