Feasting on Debt: Sri Lanka’s Plantations and the Errata of Fantasy

Mythri Jegathesan- Associate Professor, Anthropology, Santa Clara University
Mon April 10th 2023, 3:30 - 5:00pm
Event Sponsor
Department of Anthropology
Department of Anthropology
Main Quad - Building 50
Room 50-51A (Colloquium Room) & Zoom

This talk examines how the plantation has served as a film set and site for staging ethnonationalist fantasies and debt accumulation in Sri Lanka. Studying the production of films shot in and around Sri Lanka’s plantations during the fifty years before the country’s civil war (1934-1984) and their afterlives through archival, document-based, and ethnographic research conducted since 2009, I discuss how these films contain and reveal Sri Lanka’s longstanding injustices of caste oppression and labor exploitation.


Sri Lanka’s plantation sector affords distinct labor histories of Tamil minority worker exploitation and caste oppression to the medium of film in a way that generated both productive material for the industry and speculation of its prestige and wealth. While doing so, these histories also played an active role in the development of the country’s ethnonationalist politics that effectively excluded the desires of minority Malaiyaka Tamils living and working on the plantations. In this talk, I focus on how these distinct and often industrially scripted labor histories engage questions of fantasy alongside realities of debt in these films but also in these films’ political afterlives. That is, how can that which is multiply and often conflictingly on record—at once captured on screen, remembered by Malaiyaka Tamil communities, and revealed in Sri Lanka’s economic crisis today—distort realities of debt on the plantations while reinforcing the state-industrial tactics of wealth accumulation? At a time when people in Sri Lanka continue to face an unprecedented food shortage and economic crisis of daily survival, this talk centers specifically on these films’ scripts of feasting to explore why and how scenes of production of consumption on the plantations continues to feed Sri Lanka’s known trajectories of ethnonationalist violence and plantation workers’ unresolved demands for political and economic justice.

This is a hybrid event. For Zoom information, please contact pdios54 [at] stanford.edu (pdios54[at]stanford[dot]edu).