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‘Tooting Broadway’: A riposte to cynicism

Weeks after the end of the Civil War in Sri Lanka, I attended an event at the Lankan embassy in Hyde Park, felicitating Malini Fonseka, arguably Sri Lanka’s greatest ever actress.

One of the evening’s speakers, the founder of a Sri Lankan ‘Sinhala’ organization in the UK, spoke glowingly about Fonseka’s thespian abilities before embarking on a rant about how ‘relieved’ he was that since the defeat of the separatist LTTE, people in Sri Lanka would now be able to go to the cinema, enjoy the likes of Malini Fonseka, without fear of being blown to smithereens by a suicide bomber.

Unsurprisingly, the comment was accompanied by a murmur of approval and golf claps.

I had gone in search of a stiff drink.

The man’s comment was baffling given the fact that I had grown up in Colombo in the 1980’s and 90’s – at the height of the war – and had visited the city’s handful of cinemas on endless occasions.

The speaker’s comments however were revealing, for here was one of the scores of opinion-makers in the UK whose vitriolic half-truths have perpetuated the cynicism that has devastated my country and its people.

Contrary to the blurbs describing it as a crime thriller, Devananda Shanmugam’s ‘Tooting Broadway’ – screened as part of the excellent LIFF 2012 roster – is essentially a story about that cynicism which underlies not just the Sinhala Sri Lankan community in the UK but their Tamil counterparts as well.

Set in the South London suburb which is home to a large Tamil Community, the film unfolds the day before the Tamil protests that brought London to a standstill in the early summer of 2009, in the final days of the war.  

The film begins with the murder of a young Tamil girl, Kayal, a promising medical student whose tragic death has explosive consequences for those who knew and loved her.  

The film’s protagonist is Arun (Nav Sidhu), a young man with a complex history and an even more complex present who has forged a new life away from a criminal past.  

On the instructions of a man who looks suspiciously like an MI5 operative, Arun returns to Tooting Broadway to try and stop his younger brother Ruthi (Kabelan Verlkumar) from committing a criminal act during the protest: an act orchestrated by ‘The Croydon Jaffna Boyz’ Tamil gang  which is suspected by another gang, The Wolfpack  – headed by Karuna (played by the charismatic San Shella) – of being responsible for Kayal’s murder.

Into this rather convoluted mix is thrown not only a meeting between Arun and his estranged mother but also an emotionally charged encounter with his ex-girlfriend Kate.

The various different strands of the film eventually coalesce in a shocking finale.

The film provides an intriguing glimpse into a close knit and rarely scrutinized ethnic minority community in London and the gang wars that have blighted it for years.  The problem of gangs – divided not just along various Tamil areas of London but different northern towns of Sri Lanka – was once so acute that Scotland Yard had a separate task force dedicated to tackling the menace.  

I once witnessed firsthand a gang attack in South Harrow, the attackers’ brutality making The Peckham Boys look like the Mickey Mouse Club.  

Manned largely by young, second as well as first generation Tamils, the gangs are a result of a deeply cynical world of caste divisions and the legacy of a ferociously bloody war; one which is used by various vested interests to poison the minds of an entire generation.  

The issue of gangs is the common denominator in the film’s various narrative threads, expertly woven together in the script by Tikiri Hulugalle.  Director Devanand Shanmugam – an associate director on the rather lackadaisical ‘7 Welcome to London’ – here proves adept at marrying them all together.  His direction is slick, his knowledge of the area and the community lending the picture plenty of authenticity.

The acting by a largely unknown cast is good: Sidhu has real charm and carries the picture competently, as does a vast majority of the cast.

The real highlight in terms of the talent is Shella; a working actor who’s appeared in everything from TV’s Spooks to The Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  His Karuna is a fearsome gangster, with an intensity to his piercing eyes that makes him properly scary.  

‘Tooting Broadway’ is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination with several moments that defy credibility but it is a commendable exploration of cultural identity, family, community and loyalty.

It has a much broader remit too that is extremely appealing.  And timely.

Whilst most audiences will appreciate it for the urban crime drama that it is, for others it’s a movie with greater significance, laying bare the results of the discontent and bitterness felt by those displaced by war and how that bitterness continues to seep into successive generations, helped along by a self-serving few.

It’s about the folly of perpetuating myths and the importance of understanding the numerous shades of grey that exist between the black and white of what is perceived as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  

It deserves a roar of approval and plenty of applause.

– Viji Alles

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