POV: What was it like to portray your mother in the film?
Sharika Thiranagama: At that time, there were a lot of killings, and it was a very dangerous situation, and so it was very difficult to get any actresses to come forward to play my mother, because to be in this film, to speak out, would be a political statement. It puts people at risk. So that is one of the main reasons why I agreed to portray my mother.
I didn't really prepare for the film. And when I started filming it the process was much more difficult than I thought it was going to be.
I found the death scene very difficult to do, obviously. My sister and I were there. My mother was shot outside the house, and my sister and I were inside the house at the time, so we heard the shots. For the film I had to depict her at that same moment that I had experienced as a child, but from my mother's perspective. So I was just lying on the ground next to a bicycle, with fake blood on me. And I had this moment where I thought about what she had seen just before she had died. That scene was a jarring moment of connection between myself and my mother.
There were other scenes that were just embarrassing to do. I had to portray my mother meeting my father at the train station, and I wore a pregnancy belt! Actually, that day was my birthday! So I was my mother, pregnant with myself, on my own birthday.
Before we started shooting the film, I'd been thinking quite a bit about my mother. It took me a long time to come to understand her as an individual in her own right, as opposed to just thinking about my own feelings of loss. When I started doing my own research in Sri Lanka and meeting people who knew her, I started to understand much more how she had affected lots of people's lives. It made me really look at her and think more about what she left behind. And see her as someone who was not just a mother to her children but her own person who was very passionate about politics.
POV: What was it like for you and your family after your mother's death?
Sharika: After my mother's death, the next few months were a blur. My family, we all collapsed. The day that she died, my sister and I were in the house. People kept coming to the house, and nobody wanted to tell us what happened, that she was dead. So we were just sitting there, knowing that something bad had happened but not knowing what it was. Then my grandfather came and picked us up and took us to our grandparents' house. It was a terrible time for us.
My sister wanted to leave Sri Lanka. We left in a hurry. My father had decided that he was going to raise us. Even though it was so sad to leave my grandparents and my aunts, it was really important for us to know that our father wanted us.
So we went to England, and it was a hard life for us. My father devoted his life to us. He worked here and there at first in London, and then he went back to university to get a degree in social work and he became a social worker. We didn't have a lot of money, so it was not an easy existence.
The first few years we were all just clinging on, as if we were clinging on to driftwood, hoping to salvage something. By the time I was thirteen, fourteen, I really missed having a mother. I felt very out of place. For a long time, nobody ever really understood what it was about. And I could never talk to anybody about it. Not even to my friends. Until I started doing my Ph.D., I never talked very much about Sri Lanka. For years I kept it suppressed inside me, because I knew that nobody would ever understand. When I was first in England, and I was eleven, I tried to tell some other kids about it, and they laughed at me. That was a very painful experience. So I just kept it separate for years. I had two lives: one life that was with my family, that belonged to Sri Lanka, and the other life that's in London. When I went to university, I started to talk more about it, and then I did my research in Sri Lanka [and] suddenly all these feelings for Sri Lanka and my mother came out.
POV: Tell us about your research work in Sri Lanka.
Sharika: For my Ph.D., I worked on a project called "Stories of Home." It was on displaced Jaffna Tamils and Jaffna Muslims in a variety of locations in Sri Lanka, and I explored their understandings of home, place and belonging. I went back to Sri Lanka and worked with Tamils on this topic.
When I started doing my research, I also found out about what has been happening to the Muslims in Sri Lanka, who were ethnically cleansed. In October of 1990, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) expelled all Muslims from five districts in the northern region. So about 70,000 to 80,000 people were expelled in 48 hours. In Jaffna, the Muslims were expelled in about 2 hours: they lost all their possessions. My grandmother told me about how she had stood at the gate and these Muslims had walked past her with their possessions in their bags, all that they were allowed to take. It was a terrible moment for the North as a whole.
This made me think about my own identity as a Tamil, and what it meant to be a Tamil and to be from the North. Academics working on Sri Lanka don't write about what has happened to the Muslim community. The right of Muslims to return to the North is not a part of the peace process. They are very much forgotten. So it made me question my own understanding of Sri Lanka. I went and did a lot of my research in refugee camps with the Muslims who had been expelled, and I learned a lot. That was a really big moment for me, because it made me think about what it means to be an ethnic majority of some kind. Tamils are a minority in Sri Lanka, and we've been discriminated against. But then to face what we Tamils, as a majority in the North, do to our own minorities, is a difficult thing.
Now I am continuing my research in an attempt to further understand the last twenty years of the war, the political history of the Tamil community and to document alternative histories.