24 July, 2024

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A Magical Road-Trip With Bulletproof Children: A Film Review

By Gaya Nagahawatta

Wedi nowadina lamayi (Bulletproof Children) is a road-movie. It is the second feature film by Indika Ferdinando and the debut production of Deepa Edirisinghe, EAP Films. With screenplay by Indika Ferdinando and Piyal Kariyawasam; it brings together a cast comprising of Kalana Gunasekara, Anasuya Subasinghe, Jayalath Manoratne, Sethika Gunasingha, Stefan Thirimanna, Hemasiri Liyanage, Dayadewa Edirisinghe, Mahendra Perera, Anula Bulathsinhala, Ashan Dias, Sanjeewa Dissanayake, Xavier Kanishka, and several more; cinematography by Dimuthu Kalinga; film editing by Tissa Surendra; art direction by Kasun Mahawaduge; music by Thilanka Gamage and Nadika Weligodapola (www.imdb.com).

With Wedi nowadina lamayi we embark on a bus journey, through the night, incidentally on a historic day for cricket in Sri Lanka. As the Magician announces in a lyrical undertone, establishing himself as a master of dark arts, ‘Tonight is different. It is far removed from the night that passed. As from the night to come.’ Traveling with unknown others, on public transport, on a bus suddenly allocated for ‘Anura’pura’, as the conductor calls out, these strangers with their personal preoccupations come together only with the aim of getting to their destination within the next few hours. 

Who are these travellers? Interestingly, we see a representative mix of both females and males: the driver-conductor duo of the bus; two married couples, one with a very young child and the other with a huge cardboard box; two eloping young lovers; the magician with a hand-puppet; some school children with their master; a son accompanying a sick mother; two elderly men, somewhat drunk; a man obsessively following the cricket commentary; a lone woman feasting on lollipops; and a lone man with long hair. Later on the journey, another stranger joins in, followed by two priests – the elder ailing monk helped by the teenaged one. 

The film opens with a montage of images that introduce this menagerie of characters. (Viewer warning: Don’t miss the beginning!) The driver and conductor whose powers of navigation, of establishing connections, and later of dictating terms and then being overpowered, define the path of this journey. Then we have a group of children from a rural school, accompanied by their master (their guardian on this day trip), returning after a national school-level music competition in the big city, where they have managed to secure the not-so-glorious second place. During the journey, in the bus and outside at army checkpoints, their vocal powers and the assortment of violins, guitars, mouth organs they are returning with, become key, for the group songs that entertain, as well as the spacious instrument cases that add to the mystery.   

Among the twosomes that join this adventure are a very young couple hoping to take the plunge into marriage at the end of this bus ride, spurred on by threats of the girl’s ignorant but rich father. In contrast to this youthful, clearly inexperienced and obviously confused elopers is the middle-aged couple returning with an oblong cardboard box (with a clearly visible, strangely-placed brand name on the mid-exterior of the box) and a look of utter despair especially on the woman’s face. Juxtaposed against them are a third couple – Tamil, with an infant child. This child that lives, contrasts with a child that doesn’t, as the nocturnal occurrences reveal. Another duo is a frail old woman escorted back from the hospital by her young son, with the saline bottle intact, not because she is cured of her ailment, but because her husband is breathing his last at her village home, after a fatal elephant attack. A further set of memorable twosomes on this road-trip, bringing comic relief to the spectator as well as to fellow passengers, are the two elderly men who decide on brandy as the drink of the day, as opposed to the habitual arrack. They are given free rein to indulge, as opposed to the usual puritanical condemnation of drinkers one faces in public transport. Their constant dialogue and comfortable interaction, are vividly insightful and suggestive of many goings on, entertaining their fellow travellers on screen and off.

The most significant ‘twosome’ – actually a single magician carrying a hand-puppet of a rooster, is our narrator and the master of ceremonies. With ventriloquist skills, he brings alive the rooster-puppet through appropriately timed spoken interventions. The duo appears with a flourish, connects with the different groups as an intermediary, and performs magic – the tricks and gimmicks but also more. The act of swallowing the sword, and faced with the formidable army commander, making it disappear right into his body, brings in the potential of cinema to transcend the everyday and mundane and envelop the magical. Cinema is indeed magic – a magic derived partly from life of course. The act of the magician helps intertwine these multiple strands. Also demonstrating, from a philosophical viewpoint, in the face of life and its end, magic is as helpless as any other. Death is irreversible. No magician can bring back those gone. 

The ‘magical’ interventions within the story is a fine example of the director’s understanding of the potential of cinema. It is an element that has grown with the script and taken root, as is the theatricality that the script and the act, uses to good effect. The hand-puppet also adds a fine array of pastel shades, enriching the visualization. The rooster’s googly eyes, which imitates freely moving eyeballs – a nod to animation depicting the informed use of props – show the impact of the speeding bus and the resultant confusion and turmoil. Fine use of closeups and other cinematographic potential, with swift editing which appropriately captures the emotion.  

The magician’s role is diluted by the entry of the Stranger, a few miles into the journey. He is the cool customer, an apparent epitome of goodness and caring, unruffled by any. He successfully negotiates a truce – captured in an interesting whip pan, vouches for everyone when faced with a moral dilemma, initiates a hat collection citing ‘honourable death’  and then disappears from the screen perhaps a trifle too abruptly. Also without the outcry one would expect, given the circumstances. His portrayal as being a shining example of cleanly clad, honourable human, is later balanced with his fall from grace. Another lesson learnt. 

The disappearance of the Stranger allows the magician to regain his former central role, support the curiously preoccupied school-boy with a secret plan of his own; intervene in the goings on with humour, sarcasm and understanding through his shared personality with the hand-puppet; and in the end, be the victim of circumstances.

Among the lone passengers on this journey, is a compulsively obsessive cricket fan equipped with headset and transistor radio – manspreading on a dual seat, quite oblivious to all else. Cricket scores are his food and drink and the loss of a wicket literally gives him a heart attack. The cricket match allows for a connection to the real world, as Sri Lanka, in reality, won the ICC Cricket World Cup on 17 March 1996 – a parallel tale that threads through the narrative. His cricketing fantasy is vividly visualized with a close-to-the-actual cricket commentary, later in the film. The action cuts away at points to roadside boutiques with vendors and customers alike, intently hooked on cricketing updates, while the bus with its commuters pass by. Thus also establishing an external, director’s point-of-view.

Wedi nowadina lamayi  is interesting for bringing in these multiple narratives. Another aspect I would like to dwell upon is how it showcases female strength. While the mother carrying the cardboard box and the immature girl eloping with her supposed saviour from the drudgery of discipline and education, seem frozen in their miniature universe without insight or elevation, the moment the two women join forces, they are able to overcome the looming hurdle. In a fleeting moment, we see the emergence of two mature women, supporting each other and taking ownership for their lives. This entire experience does seem to give the young girl the resolve to become independent, later on.   

Entertaining us with finely captured visual sequences inside the moving vehicle, with tracking shots, whip pans, extreme closeups, as well as from external viewpoints including as a bird’s eye view,Wedi nowadina lamayi keeps us entertained with great cinematography, fine editing, music and memorable songs. Meanwhile, the story arc and its commendable progression through each character and scene, mostly lacking in recent local cinematic experiences, is additionally noteworthy.

A memorable moment in the film is when it visualizes the expression of utter and infectious happiness, through song and dance, at a point in the story when the next logical step befitting the circumstances would only be on a downward spiral. In that uplifting moment of elation and merriment, the director, Indika Ferdinando, shows his depth of understanding in cinematic creation from the point of scripting to bringing together a story with insight and multiple messages, that provides entertainment for the entire family.

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