The opening scene of Asoka Handagama’s new film Age Asa Aga (Let her cry) is also its last scene. Only thing we get to see here is a windshield of a car on a rainy night. The two wipers move fast mopping off the water from the windshield. The lights reflected on the glass seem to blur the vision even further. The driver, whose face we cannot see, struggles to find his way. Four voices are heard from within the car. They seem (or ‘heard’) to be speaking of a dramatic incident where a certain woman uprooted a ‘lamp-tree’ from a temple ground. They laugh, and then, one woman cries. Ardent moviegoers know that the crying voice belongs to Swarna Mallawaracchi – a versatile actress in Sinhala cinema. A male voice says, “Let her cry.”The constant rain falling on the windshield is wiped off by the wipers that move in to the rhythm of a heartbeat. The life within the car is sheltered from the rain outside. This, quasi ‘shelteredness’ has a tale to tell us.
The movie is a cinematic meditation on a relationship an aging university professor develops with a female student. As she herself declares, the student is in love with the professor and wants to have a child from him. The professor, even though he is visibly attracted to her, does not want to have an affair. He tells her that he likes her because she is talented in her studies and that he does not want to jeopardize his family life. The fact that his attraction to her is more than a teacher’s admiration is shown by his regular visits to her lodging place. In addition, he is in the habit of giving her rather romantic gifts such as perfume. The girl, while madly in love with the professor, keeps calling his aging wife (Swarna) to ‘brief’ her on the development of the relationship. Some pieces of information the girl communicates to the wife are in fact parts of her fantasy. She gains immense pleasure by playing with the wife’s sexual jealousy: the girl is professor’s fantasy and also the wife’s nightmare and pushing the older woman’s family to the brink of destruction.
From Identity Politics to Identity Crisis
The professor’s intellectual background is hard to know, and we do not get to see what he teaches at the university. The audience is provided with a very brief segment of a television interview where the professor talks about the problems of identity politics: Even that segment is not directly heard but rather overheard by the viewer. The professor’s teenage daughter, a constant TV watcher, briefly looks at her father’s talk show while changing channels. Elaborating on identity politics, the professor is heard to claim that a certain sense of insecurity is the reason for people to overly identify with language, race or religion. While he theorizes about identity crisis in macro politics of the country, he himself runs into a crisis or conflict of identity in his personal life: his identity as a professor conflicts with the identities as a husband and a father. It is difficult for him to achieve the full identity as a lover as well. As a member of society he does not looks to be organically connected: He speaks mostly in English and struggles to express himself in Sinhala to a wife who looks to be more comfortable in Sinhala. In that sense, he does not have complete identity in anything. The filmmaker, a master in handling cinematic language, shows us how the professor is trapped among many identities feeling complete in neither. For example, on the girl’s insistence, he takes her to a beach but he does not get out his car to walk with her as typical lovers would normally do. In the background, we see a family with young children walking on the beach semiotically indicating that his family is also in his troubled mind. Each time, he stops the car by the beach a family is seen walking between him and the ocean.
Rithika or Swarna and Rithika in Swarna
The student, wonderfully played by Rithika Kodithuwakku in her debut role, herself is going through a process of identity crisis. She says she is madly in love with the professor and wants to have his child. Even though the professor tells us that she is talented in her studies, we only see a young woman obsessed with her own body. Her life of the mind is hardly depicted or talked about. Her obsession with the ‘sexiness’ of her body is not just own creation, and, she later tells the professor’s wife that her entire village was unable to stand her sexuality and village women chased her away from the monks at village temple because they feared she would seduce even monks. This anecdote could be true; and it could also be one of her many fantasies that shows her own love of her body. The girl does not know who her father is. Even though she talks about her village with a rather ancient temple, throughout the movie she seems rootless and lost in the city and a world of consumerism. For her, the body is her family; her house and her fortress. She is aware of the power of her sensuality. Her narcissistic attachment to her body made quite explicit in the scene where she rubs some lotion on her body. The professor’s wife, coming to the girl’s room at that moment, sees the titillating sensuality of the young woman’s body to which the wife is jealously attracted.
Here, the filmmaker creates an interesting semiotic equation between the two women. The older woman (Swarna Mallawaaracchi) laments the fact that she has lost her physical beauty and fails to win her husband’s sexual attention. Mallawaracchi herself was a sex symbol in Sinhala cinema in her younger days. Had she been younger, she would have looked much like the student, Rithika Kodituwakku. In that sense, Rithika is a reflection of Swarna’s (the wife’s) own attractive days.
Having realized that her husband visits the girl at her place, the wife brings the girl to their home and arranges her to live with the family in the room used by their son who is now studying in the US. The wife’s bringing the girl home is, in part, driven by her desire to safeguard her family’s dignity which is sure to be damaged by her husband’s regular visits to the house where girl is living alone. Symbolically, by housing the girl at her own home, the wife also shows her desire to regain her own lost youth at least in the form of an another woman. After the girl begins to live there, a certain missing element at the family life seems to have returned. That missing element takes many forms: first of all, it is the youthful vitality missing in the aging couple. Then, there is another element: the couple’s daughter, who is at least ten years young than their first child, is too young to have any meaningful conversation with the couple. The daughter is always sitting in a loveseat watching television. Since the television is not shown to us, she looks to be looking away at something remote from her familial existence. When the student comes to live the family she is able to link the family members together, and the even their dining table turns rather chatty. Certain ‘madness’ in the girl adds some life to the too-formal and banal existence of the middle class family. At this moment, we tend to think that professor is also looking for a ‘daughter-figure’ in the student – a daughter who is able to revitalize his life- something cheerful daughters are known to have done to aging fathers.
Aging is not something we do; it happens to us. And many of us do not age alone. We grow old with other people within social institutions such as families. At one level, the family in the movie is struggling to cope with the phenomenon of aging. The professor, who looks to be nearing his retirement age (65), still has some sexual energy left in him but his aging wife fails to satisfy his sexual needs in that rather boring bedroom. Their bed looks more like a hospital bed, and the bedspreads too look rather sedate without alluring colorfulness of an active conjugal bedroom. It is so much so that the wife is dramatically surprised to find him having an erection while in sleep. Moreover, it is a kind of bedroom that reminds one of that funny one-liner: “Lovers go to bed while married couples go to sleep.”
That hole in the blanket
The last bit of sexual power is apparently quite active within the professor. The wife, whose routine is dominated by her worshiping the Buddha in a shrine room built within the house, appears to be trying to extinguish her sexual fire within her. Or worshiping the Buddha is her way of sublimating unsatisfied desires. The pale white light that falls on her from the direction of the Buddha statue takes away the last bit of sexiness left in her. This pale white light is shown to us repeatedly; routinely. Interestingly, Nirvana, what she now seems to be looking for, means ‘blowing out.’ So, with his retirement just around the corner, the professor knows that his days of having regular contacts with younger people are numbered: the student’s unusual sexual attraction could be the last of that kind he would ever get. That makes it all the more difficult to let her go.
His sexual attraction to the girl and his own sexual energy are shown in a couple of scenes where he fantasizes about making love to her. The most climatic of those is shown to us, quite cinematically, through a hole in a blanket that covers the orgasmic moment of lovemaking. This hole in the blanket is, cinematically speaking, the keyhole through which us, the voyeuristic audience, has been watching the movie from the beginning. In addition, that hole in the blanket is the opening through which the excess and extraneous of sexual or libidinal energy is allowed to the highly institutionalized modern marriage. The hole in the blanket is the return of the suppressed. It is through the hole the repressed pleasure makes its appearance in the cultured life. This blanket in question does not belong to the couple’s bedroom. It is the room where the girl used to sleep. The blankets in the couple’s own bedroom do not have holes in them; they are nicely sewn; boringly cultured. Symbolically, the girl herself is an opening for the unpermitted libidinal power into the carefully woven fabric of middle class family. She is the pleasurable of hole in the blanket of conventional virtues. Interestingly, the costumes the girl often wears have this ‘blanket element’ in them: her long skirts hide her curvy buttocks inviting both the professor and wife, (also us viewers) to imagine what is hidden there. The filmmaker teases us by not providing us with ‘the blanket hole’ to penetrate the girl’s blanket-like skirts. We are allowed to look into her body only through the fantasy of the professor.
Violence at temple
The last scene, which is also the opening scene, of the movie is where the filmmaker comes out to ‘the social’ from ‘the personal.’ After spending a couple of days at the professor’s house the student goes away, and the family begins to miss her for she filled certain gaps in their existence. One day, the father and daughter also follow the mother to the temple where she regularly goes in search of some calmness in mind. On that day the student, wearing typical ‘temple cloths’ which covers her sexual prowess, also happens to be there. At that moment, someone looking like a politician arrives at the temple in a SUV with his family. He is apparently a key donor of the temple. His wife, having seen a young woman who is having affair with her husband, begins to attack her violently. The professor and his wife are alarmed by the way these new ‘political Buddhists’ solve a problem similar to the one they have been trying to solve. The politician’s wife uproots a ‘lamp tree’ and chases after her husband’s lover. Guns are also fired. The professor’s family gets themselves out from there in to the safety of their car and drives away through the darkness trying to find their way – a better way to solve a problem so natural, even biological, to human existence. It is a problem religion alone cannot solve. Such issues require much more careful meditation. Cinema is a mode of such meditation, and this film is a specimen of such reflection.
“Let her cry” is a masterly crafted work of art that deserves our attention. Performance by all actors, specially by Dhritiman Chatterjee in his first Sri Lankan movie, is a treat to watch.