British colonial rule ended in India in 1947.
Pondicherry, on the southern coast was under French colonial rule. In 1962, it merged with India.
French Citizenship was offered to local Tamils; 6,200 opted for French Nationality.
In Apr’ 2017, 4,600 were eligible to vote for the French Presidential elections.
These statements flash on the screen at the very beginning of Two Flags, a documentary film directed by Pankaj Rishi Kumar, outlining its theme and focus clearly. The film follows the small community of the Tamil French (who are not Indian, but French Nationals) living in Pondicherry and their engagement with the 2017 Presidential election in France.
The film, which is mainly in Tamil and French (with English subtitles) and some English, introduces you — the viewer — to the Tamil French community on the occasion of French National Day celebrations in Pondicherry before diving into the main narrative of the 2017 French Presidential elections. The viewer watches community leaders discuss the merits of different Presidential candidates and predict the percentage of votes their preferred candidates will get. You visit the houses of other members of the Tamil French community, as the leaders exhort them to vote in the elections, sometimes even telling them who they should vote for. You realise with a start that if not for the French-sounding names of the candidates and the occasional French spoken, one could very well be watching the campaigning for elections in India.
Just when you are settling into the film and French election politics, parallel narratives on French language and culture, and another on French citizenship is introduced. And suddenly, Two Flags is not about the 2017 French Presidential elections anymore.
By the time the 86-minute film ends and the credits begin to roll, you realise that the 2017 French Presidential elections is only the backdrop; and Two Flags is actually more about the notions of nationhood, nationality, identity, citizenship, aspirations, culture and complexities surrounding the Tamil French community. The film very cleverly and very subtly alternates between the main narrative of the elections and the parallel narratives to highlight these complexities.
For example, when the local French School is introduced in the film, I thought it would be a way to know what the school children think about the French Presidential Elections. Instead, we are introduced to Valavane Koumarane, the drama / theatre teacher there and a member of the Tamil French community in Pondicherry. He reveals how even after 15 years of schooling in French, many of the Tamil French students cannot speak in French. Also, while the community have French citizenship, they have not embraced the French culture, of which language is a big part.
In another instance, after a rather impassioned speech by a community leader to not vote for a particular candidate, the scene shifts to a procession full of people raising slogans. It takes a few seconds to realise that it has nothing to do with the French Presidential elections (at least directly), but is a demand for French citizenship by local Tamil Indians. And that’s when the dilemmas of French vs. Indian citizenship comes to the fore and how it is being navigated.
It is clear that French citizenship is prized in Pondicherry for it is seen as a gateway to economic prosperity by both the Tamil French and the Tamil Indian — the latter group wistfully talking of allowances and scholarships provided by the French Government. The former group is, however, aware that things are not as rosy as it appears, though most are hesitant to talk about it openly. As a former French military man thunders angrily during a pre-election speech — while asking the audience to vote wisely — that his pension had increased by only 1.5 Euros in the last 5 years !
On the face of it no one is willing to discuss the dilemmas of being a Tamil French, and the viewer is left to delve deeper into the words spoken and the body language. As Prédibane Siva Charles, a community leader states, “We are the natives of Pondicherry, but we are foreigners here.” The exception is Valavane who openly talks about the ‘secret pain of the Tamil French community’.
We don’t know how to handle the freedom the French culture has given us and at the same time the strength that Indian culture has given us.
He goes on to say how the numbers of the community are dwindling with young going to France never to return. Valavane is hopeful that it will take 3-4 generations for the Tamil French to become fully French and create a beautiful multicultural society with the best of both worlds. I can’t think of anything more idealistic or unreal, especially in today’s polarised times, but who am I to comment on someone else’s hopes and dreams, right?
As the film progresses many such big and small issues are revealed — the difficulties of staying in France, the cold and the loneliness, the lack of family support, and most importantly the inability to fit in French society. It is almost like the more French they try to become, the more Tamil (Indian) they realise they are. It is interesting to note that while initially the Tamil French attempt to speak in French in the beginning of the film, by the time it ends, they have almost fully shifted to communicating in Tamil.
There is one scene which captures the dilemma of the Tamil French in Pondicherry quite well. It concerns Charles de Gaulle, who the community revers with an intensity not unlike how film stars and politicians are treated in India by their fans and followers. In this scene, a man cleans a statue of De Gaulle with water quite like how sacred icons are bathed with water. The man has removed his footwear and climbed up on a chair to do this task. Since the statue absorbs the water unevenly, cracks appear on the surface which disappear as the water flows off and surface dries off. For me, this is what the Tamil French community is like — all fine on the surface, but a little cleaning and the cracks appear.
Two Flags is seemingly very simple, but is actually a very complex and nuanced film and it does take a while to unpack the various layers. This was evident at the post-screening Q&A session after the screening — some are predictable (Why this film? How long it took to make it? etc.) and some are bemusing (Why is the film not about tourism?). I did have questions about the film, but it was also about what I thought of my own nationality, citizenship, voting rights and everything that came with an identity attached to a particular nation.
One of the last scenes of the film is perhaps the most powerful. It is evening, voting is over and the large boards featuring the various Presidential candidates are being folded and put away. As this is being done, various statements (in Tamil) from the Tamil French community are voiced over. Some of them stand out:
There is going to be no change in our lives. I haven’t seen the candidate I have voted for.
Pensions won’t increase… French Nationality is only for namesake.
I was born French. I have French Nationality. I was brought up as an Indian. I cannot forget India.
The Tamil French should ideally have been in a position to realise the best of two worlds (flags). But, somehow, it has left most of them feeling that the grass or rather the flag of the other side is greener. This is true of the Tamil Indians too. I leave you with this short trailer of Two Flags and recommend that if you hear about a screening of this film in your city, do not miss it. A complex film it may be, but definitely worth a watch.
- I watched Two Flags at Alliance Francaise de Bombay in February 2019, and wanted to write a review on this blog immediately. But since I wanted to process and understand the many thoughts the film raised, I decided to wait a while till I did so.
- All photographs and video clips of Two Flags are courtesy the Director, Pankaj Rishi Kumar.
- Two Flags is the first of three films set in Pondicherry by Pankaj. The second film focuses on Valavane and the third on French colonialism in Pondicherry. I can’t wait to see what these films will be like.