By Malathi de Alwis –
Satyajith Maitipe’s debut feature film, Bora Diya Pokuna (Scent of the Lotus Pond) which is currently showing at the Regal, Colombo and a few other movie theatres across the island is a cinematic gem that must not be missed, especially by those of you who have waited more than a decade to see it — though film production ended in 2003 the Public Performance Board of Sri Lanka refused to certify it without certain erotic scenes central to the film being excised. The film was finally passed in 2010, with less drastic edits. Such are the travails of talented filmmakers who stick to their artistic principles!
Though Bora Diya Pokuna is creating major ripples among the Sinhala intelligentsia – I had to jostle with many young university students in order to get in to see the special screening of the uncensored version prior to a 3-hour discussion of the film yesterday — most of my primarily English-speaking friends and colleagues are not even aware of its existence. My brief reflections here are thus an attempt to entice those who normally don’t watch Sinhala movies to go and see this provocative, absorbing film ASAP.
There is a great deal that can be said about Bora Diya Pokuna and it has already generated some thoughtful reviews and analyses; I understand a booklet containing some of these analyses (in Sinhala) was sold after the discussion yesterday but unfortunately, I had to leave before it was made available. My reflections here will only touch upon one thematic strand that I thought many of the film’s reviewers had not adequately discussed: the nuanced articulation of gendered subjectivities, an aspect of Sinhala cinema with which I’ve had a rather long engagement (de Alwis 1994).
Ariyalatha/Gothami, the chief protagonist in Bora Diya Pokuna brilliantly portrayed by Kaushalya Fernando, is a garment factory worker in Biyagama who yearns for a fulfilling relationship with a man while her attractive roommate, Mangala (Dilani Abeywardena), has a surfeit of admirers. An initial plot line such as this could very well have foundered on the usual stereotypes of ‘loose’ ‘juki kello’ who are quick to form liaisons and have abortions but Maitipe makes us look at these women anew by focusing on their everyday joys and sorrows with sensitivity and compassion. The regimented lives they lead –long, tedious hours of work, spartan meals and leisure time consumed by cooking and washing clothes—are only enlivened by nurturing bonds of friendship and passionate (hetero)sexual relationships.
Eschewing the usually prurient and moralistic lens through which heterosexual couplings, especially those out of wedlock, are viewed, Maitipe makes clear that sexual desire and pleasure are integral to the everyday lives of Sri Lankan men and women particularly sans familial surveillance and policing. Such a framing was reminiscent of Inoka Sathyangani’s much acclaimed Sulang Kirilli (2002) that also featured a young garment worker, Rathi –a stellar performance by Damitha Abeyrathna—who derives great joy and satisfaction from her sexual relationship with a soldier, Shantha Bandara (Linton Semage) until she gets pregnant and discovers that Shantha is already married. Much of the film, if I recall correctly –I saw it a long time ago!—centred on Rathi’s quandary whether to abort her foetus or not. Rathi is a determined young woman who courageously faces the many obstacles she encounters but one could not help leaving the movie theatre cloaked in her ‘victimhood’ –at the hands of her traitorous lover, the medical establishment, the law etc.
Maitipe’s Ariyalatha/Gothami, unshackled from any feminist pedagogic impetus, is refreshingly not a ‘victim.’ Sure, she has had her share of disappointments which are succinctly captured through several moving vignettes –she is not chosen for a lead role in a Buddhist play, she only gets the inedible core of a luscious Ambarella (Hog Apple) fruit that is passed along the assembly line and a personable young man only flirts with her in order to gain access to Mangala. Nonetheless, they do not preclude Ariyalatha from re-inventing herself by re-naming herself Gothami, the Lord Buddha’s maternal aunt and foster mother (an action that presages a later event in her life when she and her husband adopt a little boy they re-name Sidath), and seeking out her heart’s desire –the love of Vipula, the handsome Air Forceman who is besotted with Mangala.
Gothami’s desire for Vipula, a central weave of this film, is gradually developed in the first half of the film through her role as the love messenger, the purloining of a photograph, the acquiring of a (misidentified) handkerchief and two pivotal, erotic encounters. The first encounter provides a welcome inversion of the desiring male gaze constantly encountered in Sinhala cinema with Gothami’s voyeuristic pleasure and synchronized orgasm as she stealthily watches Vipula, thwarted sexual fulfillment by a reluctant/fearful Mangala, masturbate in the forest.
Gothami’s second, more visceral sexual encounter with Vipula is enabled when Mangala, pregnant with Suranjith’s child (unbeknownst to her friends and Vipula) breaks off her relationship with Vipula and rushes home. On the pretext of comforting a bereaved Vipula, Gothami fellates him and has sex with him. Their elemental coming together is nonetheless marred for Gothami by Vipula’s refusal to look at her throughout their coupling and calling out Mangala’s name as he orgasms. Despite this, Gothami’s sexual satiation is so profound that she returns to Vipula inviting, then begging, that he sleep with her… at least one more time, assuming that he must love her “at least a little bit” since it is she who has not only sexually satisfied him but matched his sexual passion with hers.
Gothami’s darker, introverted, somewhat spiteful, often envious character was finely foiled by Mangala’s joyful, carefree and flirtatious one and Swineetha’s (Priyanka Samaraweera) responsible, loyal and nurturant one; of this triumvirate, Swineetha’s character was the least fleshed out as we were rarely given access to her interiority. The biggest surprise is that Mangala, just like Gothami, has been harbouring secret desires –her liaison with Suranjith (Gayan Lakruwan), fellow boarder and university student, is an interesting complication of her character.
Maitipe notes that he created the three female characters to represent the “three archetypal paths of salvation discussed in Buddhist philosophy: Mortifying existence or Extreme asceticism (Gothami), the Buddhist ideal or the Middle Path (Swineetha) and Absolute hedonism or Worldly self-indulgence (Mangala)” because he needed “an extra device to highlight the connection between the ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ of the actions of the protagonists” on a spiritual, moral plane. I would argue that the complex characterization of Gothami exceeds such a rigid archetype but spatial restrictions preclude me from discussing the Buddhist philosophical framing that buttresses this film Maitipe has sub-titled ‘A Buddhist parable in three parts’ –winning & losing, suffering, and salvation.
I wish to conclude with a brief reflection on several male characters in this film who offer interesting foils for each other and ‘trouble’ the ubiquitous hero-villain stereotypes of masculinity that dominate the Sinhala cinema. The smouldering yet often inarticulate Vipula, ably played by first timer Duminda de Silva was a breath of fresh air as a man who is determined to stay true to his love. Easily overpowered by his emotions he attempts to kill himself when circumstances get the better of him but eventually falls into the trap of resorting to violence in order to intimidate Gothami into having an abortion so that he can secure his life’s dream –marital bliss with Mangala. The gentle and romantic Suranjith who enigmatically traverses the edges of Mangala’s and Vipula’s tempestuous relationship emerges as the former’s true soul mate though neither seems to harbour aspirations of a marital relationship with each other. Is this because Suranjith’s intellectual pursuits enables him to cross class so that a ‘juki kella’ will never be good enough for him? Or is it because he is not man enough to fight Vipula for Mangala? Ambiguities abound at this juncture.
The older, world weary and financially secure Desmond (Dharmasiri Bandaranayake) who appears in the latter half of the film as Gothami’s husband provides an interesting contrast to the immature yet passionate/romantic Vipula and Suranjith. However, Desmond’s lack of dashing good looks is compensated by the very considerate and thoughtful ways in which he treats his young wife as well as former wife and daughter; when he seeks out Gothami in her stark, dry zone village one realizes that finally, she has found someone who genuinely loves her and needs her.
As an animal lover, I would be remiss if I didn’t commend the delightful juxtaposition of domestic animals in this film –the cat that lovingly nuzzles Suranjith’s foot, the night time caterwauling of felines in heat and the parasitic stray dog that deprives the cat of its lunch, conveyed volumes! Many thanks also to Indrakanthi Perera for extended conversations about this film.