Representing community? The Jungle and The Sea

S. Shakthidharan’s latest stage production, which opened at Belvoir this week, fails to explore the Tamil experience in depth, argues Gary Paramanathan.
The Jungle and the Sea

A second album, for an artist, is always a painful venture after their debut. Expectations are set high and the audience, keen to sate their appetite, apply their finely-tuned appreciation to a new work, often only to face disappointment. 

The same could be said about theatre. 

Counting and Cracking was a three-and-a-half-hour epic, staged at the Sydney Town Hall as part of Sydney Festival in 2019. While politically flawed, the show presented a compelling narrative of an upper middle class Sri Lankan Tamil family who balanced their need to maintain wealth and power, while keeping the country from descending into civil unrest and ultimately a civil war.

Shakthidharan’s The Jungle and The Sea tracks the life of a Tamil woman, a mother, in a time of war, as she wanders the northern lands of Sri Lanka with her two daughters looking for her missing son. Meanwhile, her other daughter and her husband make the difficult decision to settle in Australia and await them. This is a story that most Australians may be familiar with, whether via the ‘stop the boats’ campaign or, more meaningfully, the Biloela family – we Australians know Sri Lankan Tamil refugees well.

This is a narrative even more familiar to me: my family is also Tamil, from Sri Lanka and the reason I happened to grow up Australian was a result of my parents’ decision to migrate to Sydney to escape the raging civil war in the mid 90s.

Counting and Cracking felt like a work deeply connected to the author’s family and their experience of Tamilness. The Jungle and The Sea feels different. It’s an aspirational work and an attempt at presenting a ‘live, love, laugh’ edition of the Sri Lankan Civil War – a fast-food meal, served over a long three hours.

If you are unfamiliar with the Sri Lankan Civil war, here’s a quick summation: Sri Lanka gains independence from the British in 1948 and, in order to be elected to power, politicians further seed and exploit existing tension between communities – tensions that were introduced by the British to maintain power. Successive governments in cahoots with extremist Sinhala Buddhists fan the flames of racism, with riots targeting Tamil communities, leading to many lives lost, and homes and businesses destroyed. All this leads to numerous university students and youth groups forming activist networks and eventually an armed resistance to the oppressive military and police forces. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is formed, war breaks out in 1983 and lasts for 25 years, ending in 2009. In the final stage of the war, the government authorises the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in order to flush out rebels, informally called the Tamil Tigers, and in the process kills up to 40,000 civilians. The Sinhala majority remain silent at the height of the war and, by their lack of support for their fellow citizens, enable countless human rights violations – violations that have been acknowledged by the United Nations and, to date, which the Sri Lankan government denies. If you’ve watched the news in the last few months, the President, who was overthrown, is the most culpable of the accused war criminals; he is likely responsible for the large number civilian killings and extrajudicial killings of journalists and activists. 

The show, set during the civil war, presents a few unfathomable scenarios that blur the boundary between reality and idealism. The Jaffna Tamil family, who we follow, have some level of social and financial capital: they have influence and some power. Their town is bombed and, as they flee to safer ground, one of the children, a boy, joins the LTTE. Half the family stay behind to search for him, while the other half migrate to Australia. It is difficult to imagine a family, with the means to leave a country, staying behind to search for a missing son by simply wandering for years in the jungle and sea. With access to capital, it is baffling that their search is so rudimentary. The mother, blindfolded, symbolic of the classical works the show references, wanders with her two children, while her husband and daughter migrate to Australia.

Read: Freedom Only Freedom, Behrouz Boochani

Fifteen years pass, the son is not found, the daughter grows up in Australia, the father goes blind (an explanation I unfortunately missed) and, after her law school graduation ceremony, the daughter comes out as a lesbian to her father at dinner.

Anyone who is queer, and has endeavoured to come out to their (brown) family, can tell you this scene was at best fantasy and at worst pure cringe. I did come out to my parents, also after graduation, but it was a much more drawn out and complex process. The inclusion of the queerness, only referenced in this scene and never again, felt tokenistic, almost a tick box exercise that attempts to make the LGBTQIA+ community relevant, which diminishes the genuine experiences of queer Tamils.

Speaking of identity, the show is still a significant work that is worthy of an audience and warrants viewing. Seeing People of Colour (POC), especially South Asian and, even further, Tamil content on the mainstage is a rare thing and should be celebrated. 

However, I also think identity shouldn’t obscure criticism of creative work, especially when it claims to represent a community or a common experience.

Take for example the scene where a Catholic priest marries a Sinhala man, often the voice of reason in the play, to a Tamil woman, in the final stages of the civil war. 

Knowing the context of the war, the need to include a Sinhala man as the voice of reason, maybe the Sri Lankan version of ‘the white saviour’, is difficult to stomach. The creation of a scene where, in the middle of a no-fire zone, as Tamil civilians are being killed, the Tamil and Sinhala characters get married by a Catholic priest… the love between a Buddhist and Hindu, married by a Catholic, felt like an Instagram moment. This is the ‘live, love, laugh’ edition of the Tamil experience. The reality is much uglier. Tamil women were experiencing sexual violence at the hands of Sinhala men in significant numbers, with most of these crimes yet to be dealt with by the law.

Catholic priests were also doing so much more important work than impromptu weddings by the beach. They paid a heavy price for it too. In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking that moments of the show were government propaganda. I checked if the show was co-funded by a Sri Lankan cultural institute. It was not, but I doubt the Palestinian people, the Uyghurs, Rohingyas or any number of persecuted communities would ever tell their story by centring the perpetrators of violence with a ‘not all x’ character throughout the show.

The show’s biggest failure is that it makes ample space for Sinhala resistance to racism and violence, but fails to deeply explore the Tamil experience. I am in no way sympathetic to the LTTE, a brutal, faux progressive outfit that claimed to singularly represent the Tamil people. However, the constant flattening of them is pretty awful to watch. They didn’t exist in a vacuum, not everyone was coerced into joining them and for many they were a strong voice of reason. The show shies away from this complexity and offers instead naive liberation talks by the LTTE characters, none of whom are ever likeable. The missing son, who is ultimately found to be a rebel with the LTTE, has very little to say once he enters this world. It would have been much more compelling to explore his experience of fighting for a cause while being instructed to kill the same people he is fighting for. The LTTE is famous for killing numerous Tamil intellectuals and activists who dared challenge them.

Not all is lost, and if the white woman who was in tears in the audience at the end is anything to go by, it is still a compelling watch. It offers exceptional music and performances, amusing insight into Sri Lankan Tamil culture and heritage, with relative references to caste, religion and food. There are also some wonderful people, emerging and established artists, in front and behind the stage who deserve support to develop and present their craft. Anandavalli, who I’m accustomed to seeing as a dancer/choreographer, delivers a brilliant performance as the mother.

The show may also be designed for a predominantly inner city white audience and its location inadvertently excludes the community the show is about: Tamil families who largely settled in Western Sydney.

If you can spare three hours and $80, go see The Jungle and the Sea and support new POC work. Just don’t go looking for specificity, in all its complexities. If you want that, read about the Tamil women still protesting day after day (2000-plus days), waiting for their missing family members to come home. 

Sri Lanka has one of the highest rates of missing people per capita in the world, a vast majority of them are Tamil. They don’t have the caste nor class privilege to escape their fates, nor the liberty to tell their story on the mainstage.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of ArtsHub. 

Gary Paramanathan works at the intersection of arts, culture and community. Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Australia, Gary is an arts administrator and CACD practitioner. He has written and directed a number of short films, including for ABC iView, written feature essays, including for 'The Guardian' and curated a series of live storytelling nights focusing on PoC stories, called 'Them Heavy People'. Gary was shortlisted for the Deborah Cass Prize in 2021 and is passionate about migrant and diaspora storytelling. He hopes to add to the rich tapestry of diverse Australian stories through his work.