Love in the time of Tamil Tigers

The author, who had the unfortunate experience of watching a Swiss film called Der Koch recently, considers it his duty to warn you against watching it.

It was only appropriate that I was recently watching the live telecast of the Cannes award ceremony with a Sri Lankan Tamil friend who is a producer. After a fairly mundane ceremony, largely consisting of the French giving themselves awards, my friend whooped with joy at the finale when Jacques Audiard’s mostly Tamil film, Dheepan (about a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee family in France) won the Palme D’Or. This led to a heated debate about whether the same subject, if handled by an acclaimed Sri Lankan filmmaker as opposed to an acclaimed French filmmaker, would have won the top Cannes honour. We parted as friends.

07CP_namancolumn1__2430289gDheepan is now easy festival fodder and no doubt, we all will get to see it sooner rather than later. But there is another European film featuring Sri Lankan Tamils that is unlikely to win any awards except the continent’s equivalent of the Razzies, or Golden Kelas if you prefer, if they have one. Thus far, it has been this column’s intention to flag the best of world cinema. But it is my bounden duty to look at the opposite extreme from time to time, so that others needn’t waste precious time that can be utilised in more productive pursuits like sleeping or searching for the end of the internet.

Based on Martin Suter’s bestselling novel, Der Koch (The Cook) is a Swiss-German co-production by journeyman German director Ralf Huettner. Set in Zurich, the film begins promisingly enough as we follow Maravan, a Sri Lankan Tamil immigrant and a dishwasher in a posh restaurant, who indulges in his passion for molecular cooking (basically all that guff about test tubes and foam and smoke as made famous by the likes of Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià) from his grandmother’s recipe book. The initial food porn shots work like a charm, but then the film descends into confusion. The narrative lurches uneasily between Maravan’s food being so aphrodisiacal that lesbians who consume it crave hetero sex; him going into partnership with a high-class Cuban escort to cater to shysters who sell arms to both the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government; his ex-flame spurning his family’s affair of arranged marriage and preferring instead to sell tickets at Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof; a cousin leaving his girlfriend behind in Zurich and joining the Tigers and so on.

All the Tamil characters are dubbed into formal Swiss German, but it is when they speak Tamil that the fun, or lack thereof, begins. The actors are mostly non-Tamil British Asians and they speak Tamil in their own voices. Imagine someone writing out Tamil dialogue in English and people with no ear for the cadences of the language doing line readings — it’s like that, but worse (feel free to insert your ownChennai Express joke here). Around the time we go to what is supposedly Sri Lanka, where the Tigers’ vehicles have decals in Hindi, I heard a low keening noise and realised that it was the sound of me weeping softly. I watched the end credits through my tears and realised that a Tamil language coach was used for the film.