Shobasakthi’s “Gorilla”: Forging Identities and Inconveniencing the State.

In the wake of the controversy surrounding the State militia’s abduction of political activist Kumar Guneratnam in 2012, a powerful ministerial secretary who is alleged to have been closely connected with the said extra-judicial white vanning incident on national television thrashed the idea of ‘enforced disappearances’ of persons. In a flippant statement that categorically denied the operation of extra-judiciary abductions, this ministerial secretary suggested that some people who want to relocate to the West often ‘self-disappear’ and ‘re-appear’ in foreign soil under new ‘assumed’ identities. As an extension of that argument, it was suggested that for this very reason ‘disappearances’ cannot always be accounted for, for the simple reason that they, in the process of ‘going missing’ shed one identity and pick up another.

In the context in which the above was generalized the kind of trivialization it stamped on a discourse which, even by 2012, was already controversially marred by State-related fingerprints was too harsh by any standard. This is in a situation where the very act of ‘going underground’ or resorting to ‘self-exile’ are often mechanisms of self-defense in the face of a life threat; a threat which often came by the way of a rival political / military organization, which in the case of persons such as Guneratnam (and a thousand others) were operating under State aegis. The second half of Shobasakthi’s Gorilla brings us to close contact with this debacle of assumed identities and reappearances of sorts in Western lands.

Cast member Jesuthasan Antonythasan poses during a photocall for the film "Dheepan" in competition at the 68th Cannes Film Festival in CannesThe second half of Gorilla takes us to diasporic France, where the narrative seams through the displaced lives and fortunes of a host of Tamil persons who had migrated to Paris at different points of the struggle for Eelam from different political and social convictions. These are entrants to the French territory with illegal statuses, in friction with (or with such claims) one government and are not accepted by the other; with unclear pasts, shady, fugitive presents and hazy futures. The forging of identity which is tied up with the nature of the struggle and which gets established in the first section of the novel is externalized in the France-based passage of play except that here, in illegitimate terrain, the individual is clamped of all levels of movement including physical mobility. The overcrowded ill-structured houses in which refugees and fugitives are deviously hidden away and the way in which these shelters are selectively made invisible are tabled as a nuanced allegory for the ambiguity with which Europe handles the crisis of refugees and the self-exiled in war. The novel ends with the main protagonists of the second section – Thaniyanayagam, Anthony and the narrator – being detained by the French Police. The immediate cause of arrest is where Anthony, working in a restaurant by using Thaniyanayagam’s identification details, is rounded up as an extension of an earlier arrest of Thaniyanayagam himself for killing his wife.

Anthony’s resolve breaks as, in the final passages of the novel, he is about to be subjected to a lie detection test. Up to that point of the narrative, the reader as well as those with whom Anthony shared sanctuary had no doubt regarding his identity. His desperate cries to the narrator with which the novel ends, however, are self-destructive as they, for the first time, casts serious shadows of doubt regarding the integrity of Anthony’s identity, as that cry “tell them I am Gorilla” (the name by which Rocky Raj was known) destabilizes the whole body of the narrative.

dheepanIn 2015, nearly a decade and a half after Gorilla, Shobasakthi, too, recasts himself in the world of literature and the arts when he stars in Dheepan, a film by French director Jacques Audiard, which was partly focal of the refugee crisis that is resulted by wars such as the Sri Lankan Conflict. Shobasakthi plays the lead role of Dheepan, a Sri Lankan militant of LTTE linkage who tries to escape Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the war by smuggling himself to France. He becomes one of three – including another woman, Yalini, and an orphaned child, Ilayal – to form an ad hoc family in order to enforce their entry to France. Dheepan had a successful run, winning a Palm d’Or along the way and managed to bring some attention to the refugee issue in Sri Lanka at a crucial point in time. Though the script is documented as being written by Audiard, Thomas Bidegain and Noe Debre, the echo of Gorilla (as it haunts Dheepan) is unmistakably felt. Shobasakthi, the avatar cocoon that shelled the man, is torn and Jesuthasan Anthonythasan emerges out on to the silver screen.

As a final note to this essay, I wish to return to Kumar Gunaratnam whose abduction in 2012 by the State’s militia I earlier made reference to. Days after this extra-judicial kidnapping, Gunaratnam was set free in the face of political pressure from both within the country and from the international lobby. However, Kumar Gunaratnam is taken into custody a second time in 2015 under the charge of violating VISA regulations in visiting Sri Lanka. The charge that was brought against him in 2012, that of masquerading under the forged name of Noyel Mudalige, is tied up to the second arrest as well, even though Gunaratnam was in the process of resolving the crisis surrounding his identity. After a prolonged detention at the Kegalle Remand Prison in a hearing that gained much public and political interest, he was released in December, 2016.

An Asia photo of Kumar Gunaretnam

In responding to the media upon his release, Gunaratnam has repeatedly emphasized on the circumstances under which he had had to forge an identity to convenience his movements in situations that were far from normal. The alias, in his words, was not a choice, but a compulsion to guarantee safety and the freedom of movement in a situation where the State itself is his aggressor. This is a resolution that is by no means new or amusing to the Left movement, or other out-of-mainstream socio-political forces. The fluidity of face, name and identity is a camouflage the military organ of the State uses under the blessing of the highest in power. But, to their commonsense it is uncanny that other forms of activism may resort to similar maneuvers, if at all to facilitate survival in cases where you are a booked name surrounded by the State.

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