Swarnavel Easwaran’s documentary on Nagapattinam evoked memories of a friend from that very town on the southeastern coast of Tamil Nadu. I used to tease him by reciting a poem by the Tamil language poet Kalamegam known for his cleverly crafted poems filled with puns and irony. One such poem, sung in Nagapattinam itself, revolved around a ‘Kaththaan chatram’ – a rest house offering free food and lodging to travelers there. Kalamegam’s brilliance lay in crafting poems with double meanings. A seemingly simple ode to a snake, for instance, could cleverly disguise a description of a banana.

However, in the case of the poem about the ‘Kaathaan chatram’ in Nagapattinam, it appeared to have a singular focus: highlighting the rest house’s inadequacy due to its late meal service. Much to my astonishment, my friend interpreted the poem in a completely contrasting manner, showing no criticism toward the former ‘chatram’ in his hometown. He explained it as a tribute to the food served at the ‘chatram’ and, by extension, the overall welfare facilities there. This dual interpretation underscores the richness of the language.


There is a richness in the film language of Nagapattinam: Waves from the Deep which delves into the aftermath of the devastating 2004 tsunami that struck Nagapattinam. Over a span of twelve years (2005-2017), the film explores contrasting perspectives on the relief and rehabilitation efforts.

On one side, we encounter Revathi, the founder-director of an NGO, who wears multiple hats as a writer, filmmaker, and publisher. Her articulate intellect leads her to critique both the state and NGOs for their response to the disaster. In stark contrast, we meet Collector J. Radhakrishnan, revered by Nagapattinam’s residents—especially the children who grew up in the orphanage he regularly visited. Known for his efficient handling of the situation and disaster recovery measures, Radhakrishnan received accolades from none other than former US President Bill Clinton. During Clinton’s visit to Nagapattinam district in 2005 as the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, he praised Radhakrishnan’s administrative skills. [1]

The film takes the form of a dialogue between Revathi and J. Radhakrishnan, albeit not shown together, offering a nuanced exploration of the relief operations and the complex interplay between different actors in the aftermath of the tragedy.

The circling drone, hovering above both land and beach, starkly illustrates the dichotomy between these two realms. While the sea generously provides resources to humanity, it also wields the power to wreak havoc upon their lives. This aerial perspective underscores the delicate relationship between Nagapattinam and the ever-present threat of the sea.


The title of the documentary is reminiscent of Satyajit Ray’s film Distant Thunder (1973). Roy Laishley wrote in his review of the film: “Ray’s portrayal of the famine also establishes the impotence of the village. The famine is the result of war-time dislocations, with administrative inadequacy producing a short-fall in rice supply. The evil of famine (characterized in the film, like other evils, by the sound of war-planes) is a consequence of factors outside the village.” [2] Likewise “Waves from the Deep”, in the documentary’s title, aptly captures the essence of the tsunami: a seemingly distant event, a powerful undersea earthquake near Sumatra, triggering a devastating ripple effect that crashes upon Nagapattinam’s shores.

Broad Canvas

The film provides a comprehensive exploration of the devastation caused by the tsunami and its aftermath. It delves into various aspects: the heart-wrenching loss of loved ones, the experience of grief and trauma, counselling for survivors, the impact on livelihoods, the provision of temporary shelters, the construction of permanent homes, livelihood support, and the welfare of women and children. Additionally, it examines the crucial role of clean water, the government’s responsibility, effective utilization of aid, the contributions of non-profits, ecological considerations, and the complexities surrounding proselytization that may accompany relief efforts. 

Interestingly, after a decade, Revathi revises her opinion to a certain extent. She acknowledges that significant positive changes have occurred. Children have greatly benefited from schools established using tsunami funds, and homes have been built for the homeless. The film engages in a thoughtful debate, presenting different viewpoints and ultimately arriving at a resolution. 

Modes of the Documentary

Nagapattinam eschews the expository mode commonly found in documentary films with direct voice-over narration. There is no imposing ‘voice of God’ commentary as the director refrains from pushing his own opinion onto the audience. Instead, he allows ideas to organically find their own resolution. In this participatory mode, the director engages with various stakeholders, conducting extensive interviews to bring out their diverse viewpoints. Additionally, the documentary employs the observational mode, in moments such as the ones in which people of different faiths coexist harmoniously. The sweeping aerial views from the recurring drone shots invite reflection.

A criticism of the film could be that it doesn’t use the performative mode but, as an outsider, the director appears to have taken a conscious decision to refrain from constructing subjective truths.  There is a self-imposed discipline not to make any comment and let ideas emerge instead. The director’s decade-long commitment is evident in his return to Nagapattinam, ultimately unravelling the resolution to the ongoing debate.


The interviewees come across as remarkably natural and articulate. Even the children express themselves eloquently, sharing their aspirations. Revathi stands out with her forthrightness. She boldly asserts that the government cannot shift its responsibilities onto NGOs. She draws a clear distinction between demanding rights from the government and seeking charity from NGOs Interestingly, despite running an NGO herself, she criticizes them for lacking community engagement and succumbing to turf wars. This point is further emphasized by a woman from a self-help group who highlights the NGOs’ cultural insensitivity – providing impractical silk or nylon sarees instead of needed cotton ones for the hot climate.

The coordinator of an organisation called Sneha laments the lack of compensation for women. Compensation was granted only for damage to boats, assuming that the entire family benefits as a unit. However, this overlooked the independent contributions of women who work and market fish to support their families. The film even delves into the issue of having to live with the smell of fish. 

Revathi adds another layer, discussing the extended family structure in fishing communities, which NGOs misunderstood, suspecting them of exploiting aid for unrelated children. A poignant observation by Revathi stands out: more women lost their lives than men did—often while trying to save their jewellery and children. The haunting image of lifeless bodies of women clinging to their kids remains etched in her memory. Perhaps, if they had been selfish, they might have survived, but their selflessness prevailed.

Annie George raises a critical point about the lack of long-term commitment from NGOs. She fears that they won’t be around to face the consequences in the future. Among the interviewees, Anjali from Christian Aid maintains a balanced perspective.

Making of the Documentary

Swarnavel filmed the documentary using a small camera (Sony PD-170) in standard definition, predating the HD video revolution. The footage includes black-and-white, colour, and high-resolution segments, showcasing the remarkable technological progress over a decade. Beyond videography, editing, and direction, he actively participated in other aspects, including sound recording. Interestingly, he utilized the material he shot for the film during his documentary class at Michigan State University. The title in the beginning says that it’s a collaboration with his students. Perhaps the discussion with them helped in shaping the documentary’s final form. 

The Hindustani music with which the film opens may appear odd in a film set in Tamil Nadu although Lalgudi Jayaraman’s violin is played in the end. It seems that the film could freely use only these two pieces.  

Kattumaram (2019)

The director’s experiences while creating this non-fiction film seem to have inspired him to embark on a fictional project set in the Nagapattinam area. Titled Kattumaram (which means catamaran), this film revolves around a fisherman who becomes the guardian of his orphaned niece. Echoing Revathi’s sentiments from the documentary—that the extended family steps in to care for orphaned relatives—the fisherman in the film assumes the responsibility of nurturing his niece. His earnest efforts to arrange her marriage mirror a parent’s dedication. Against the backdrop of ravaged homes, traumatized individuals coping with loss, and the NGO-established school, Kattumaram weaves a poignant narrative.

Closing thoughts

Nagapattinam stands out as a documentary that comprehensively captures the multifaceted aftermath of the devastating tsunami. This invaluable record offers crucial insights for future strategies in early warning systems, disaster management, and effective relief and rehabilitation efforts. Nagapattinam is a remarkable film, structured as a dialectic that meticulously records the evolution of ideas over the course of a decade. At another level, the film serves as a poignant human document, encapsulating mankind’s complex and ambivalent relationship with nature.


  1. A Ganesh Nadar, “Nagapattinam relief work pleases Clinton” Rediff.com, May 28, 2005
  2. Roy Laishley, “Satyajit Ray, Distant Thunder”, Institute of Development Studies, oai:opendocs.ids.ac.uk:123456789/10972, 1975