4 December, 2020

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‘Bora Diya Pokuna’ From A Buddhist Perspective

By Indrakanthi Perera

Indrakanthi Perera

Indrakanthi Perera

After many conversations about the film with Malathi de Alwis and then reading her review `Bora Diya Pokuna Creates Ripples’, in the Colombo Telegraph. I am inspired to express my own views, especially in terms of the film’s Buddhist framework.

By calling Bora Diya Pokuna a Buddhist Parable Satyajith Maitipe seems influenced by the Jataka story format as it starts with the past (the yatagiya dawasa) with Ariyalatha’s childhood in the village school of Giribawa where the seeds are sewn for her to reinvent herself as Gothami (the main character of the film). Then it moves to the present showing the actions/choices made by the main protagonists and finally shows their future consequences/results. Of course, Maitipe does not link causes and effects as directly as in the Jataka stories but uses the medium of cinema sensitively and cleverly to tell us a story, to discuss what is rarely discussed but is nonetheless right in our faces.

Attempting a reading of the film from a very personal, Buddhist perspective, I will first consider the three episodes in which there were intrusive (some viewers felt uncalled for) visuals of a solitary, silent monk in saffron robes in somewhat frozen postures. He was just there. These visuals stood out as they were a contrast to the natural flow of the story and the very natural, often brilliant portrayals, by the actors.

Bora Diya PokunaThe first visual of the monk is seen through the vegetation outside the window of the room where Gothami is about to have her first sexual encounter with Vipula. The monk was a reminder of her Buddhist learning up until then (presumably what is taken as the fundamental teaching of Buddhism -it’s moral code – the observation of the 5 precepts which we hear at the start of the uncensored version of the film) and was a momentary irritant and obstacle for Gothami in fulfilling her desires. She frowns and shuts it out by closing the window.

The second time the monk is shown, Gothami is taken by surprise. The monk’s feet appear in her sight lines while she is busy spreading red chillies on a mat in the scorching heat of the sun (red hot passion in a life that is arid and now scorches?). She is heavily pregnant with the child that has made her isolate herself temporarily from an intolerant society. The monk in this case (symbolising for me true Buddhism or the Dhamma) silently deems her qualified to offer alms which Gothami rushes in and bring to him. She is sought out in her most helpless hours and included in the Buddhist fold though she is now an outcast. Jesus Christ did this with Mary Magdalene and the Gautama Buddha with many women of dubious reputation, eg. Ambapali, a courtesan. Maitape uses this Buddhist element – in this case a monk with a begging bowl- more as a form of solace. Thankfully, he is not tempted to provide Gothami with the usual option, shown in many Sinhala movies, of joining the Bhikkuni order now that she is ‘soiled’! Gothami remains prostrate while the monk walks away and that shot also spoke volumes –the Buddha’s word (I’d rather call it that as the conventional Buddhism practised today can be very exclusive) which teaches us how to live a moral life, does not always offer us comfort. The practitioners (the Sangha), as well as the Buddhist doctrine, tends to leave one feeling somewhat lonely and isolated especially in times of trouble.

The third time we are offered a view of a monk, at a distance and great height, is after Gothami is fondly accepted into her husband’s Catholic family. It is a much more comforting faith than Buddhism and she gains solace by lighting candles in the church with her mother-in-law. When Gothami squints upwards at the monk, it accentuates the remoteness of Buddhism and its unfathomable goal -Nirvana. Gothami too, like most people, maybe feeling very distant from it, being engaged in living life. This then sums up how Buddhism looks and feels to many. Gothami however still engages, at her mother’s request, in the Buddhist activity of dana (giving of food) which seems an engagement at a surficial level without much deep consideration/contemplation.

I am in agreement with J Devika when she states that the film as a whole addresses Buddhism at a deeper level. She says; there were layers of the film that were Buddhist in deeper and more unexpected ways .”I also completely agree with Malathi when she states “Maitipe makes clear that sexual desire and pleasure are integral to the everyday lives of Sri Lankan men and women…..” . The overwhelming passions that both sexes feel as human beings – handled so well in the film- and the ups and downs of life the film’s characters experience is for me all part of the Dhamma –the Truth. I feel strongly that the film as a whole offers us a slice of life AS IT IS.

The fierce and vengeful Gothami (a result of her never being the winner) transforms into the forgiving woman who is happy and eager to be a mother to another’s child. Devika observes this and goes further in saying that she sees the film in three sections, not the way Maitipe divides it, but as tracing the transformation of Gothami from the state of Kama to the state of Karuna. Devika notes that the erotic energy in Gothami is finally transformed into compassion and giving (Karuna). For me, Gothami’s transformation in the film also reinforces the Buddhha’s message not to type cast or label people but rather, urging to leave them space to transform/evolve. The life story of Angulimala (a man who had ruthlessly killed nearly a thousand people merely to collect fingers for a `guru puja’ – offering of gratitude to a beloved teacher– was about to kill his own mother when he was transformed into a being of great compassion by the Buddha. This Buddhist tale offers us a moving message of tolerance and inclusion. Yet, this aspect is often forgotten in daily Buddhist life which has become overly puritanical and intolerant; certain Buddhists in Sri Lanka now hasten to brand people as `evil doers’ and ‘sinners’ and condemn them to suffer in this life and the lives to come.

Malathi also mentions the episode in the temple where Gothami dallies without engaging in the standard Buddhist rituals, flattered by the attention of someone who is in the process of using her. She is soon disappointed and angered at discovering the truth. This episode too is cleverly done with cinematic subtlety. The temple ground is often a place where young people get a chance to interact, even flirt, and no one can deny that. It is also a place where we ask for help and venerate higher powers. Rarely are there quiet corners in crowded temples, during times of poojas, where anyone meditates. The chants and sermons that are loudly broadcast on Poya (full moon) days, especially in urban temples, never provides tranquillity. This for me is not a judgement of Buddhist practices but a nudge to be honest and step off the high horse – an invitation to be open and human.

I enjoyed the cinematic beauty of the Kiri Ammawarunge dane (feeding of the milk mothers) and it pushed me to reflect more deeply on how we pick and choose and discriminate within our micro societies, in this instance, our Buddhist community. Women who have not given birth are labelled as infertile-wanda– and adoption is kept as a top secret. While fertility is celebrated, infertility is primarily seen as the fault of the woman when many other reasons including the husband’s low sperm count could be the cause. However, Maitipe’s suggestion that the act of abortion has resulted in damaging Gothami’s friend Mangala’s body, making her infertile for the rest of her life, maybe too extreme here though it fits well with the story line. Should Mangala be punished so severely for her youthful indiscretion or bad karma? I see this as an opportunity missed, as in Thani Thatuwen Piyabanne (Asoka Handagama’s brilliant film which included one jarring episode in an abortion clinic). At the railway station, Mangala’s lover Suranjith asks her if it is not `paw’ to terminate her pregnancy — ‘paw’ here could mean sinful or merely an inconsiderate act on the unborn without any Buddhist or karmic undertones. Mangala agrees that it could well be so but she questions what other choice she has. Suranjith does not follow this comment by offering to marry her and thus make the baby ‘legitimate’ and Mangala has after all what she imagines to be a secure relationship to safeguard with Vipula.

The pursuits of their own dreams by the 4 main characters in the film ends in the realisation that it is all illusive, which is also a very Buddhist interpretation. Suranjith has a dream too or marrying a beautiful, educated and financially secure woman but his wedding photo shown during the credits will never tell the full story and may suggest yet another illusion. Is it a cardinal rule or a stroke of luck that the one following the Middle Path, Suwineetha, loses little, takes what comes as her lot and is content?

I must also comment on the very unobtrusive use of symbols that had Buddhist connotations. There is a raging fire in the backdrop when Gothami goes into labour in the stark country side of the Extreme Dry Zone……she is almost consumed by a real fire while Vipula is literally consumed by a fire of deep guilt and self-hate which at moments of desperation leads him to alcoholism and attempted suicide. Gothami’s enjoyment of the sexual act is depicted by the frangipani or temple flower – usually offered to the Buddha- being smelt and enjoyed for its fragrance and beauty. The flower slowly spiralling down in front of her face and Gothami’s enraptured features tells it all.

Another instance is the billboard which announces: `Maximise Your Profits’ which the garment industry does very well while very little flows down to the workers, the majority of whom live in appalling conditions –Maitipe manages to evoke these conditions with a wonderful economy of words through Gothami and Suwineetha recounting a visit to one such boarding. I felt this film also suggested that this consumer society should look for something deeper and more fulfilling than profits at any cost. It is a reminder that we are in the process of reducing large numbers of our vibrant, young female population into accepting monotonous lives of near slave labour which bring in gigantic profits for investors and significant foreign exchange for the country.

As mentioned by Malathi, the animals too are used engagingly and well. The dog being chased off by Suwineetha while eating the food kept for the cat is a subtle yet funny reminder to the audience that Gothami too was after someone else’s property. Gothami’s smug smile as she watches the cat lick the few grains of rice that have been left on her plate by the dog shows that she is very aware of this too. The body language of the little Ariyalatha when her name is not called out for any of the leading roles in the Buddhist play very subtly conveyed so much. How did Maitipe manage this with one so young? Maitipe is similarly skilful in eliciting the very best out of his adult actors. The adult Ariyalatha who reinvents herself as Gothami also moves and gestures to convey so much that is unsaid. Kaushalya Fernando is at her brilliant best in this film and the other two girls Mangala (Dilani Abeywardene) and Suwineetha (Priyanka Samaraweera) also offer very good performances along with some of the other minor female characters played by Veena Jayakody, Chandani Seneviratne, Chandra Kaluarachchi, Rathnaweli Kakulawela, Liyoni Kothelawala and Irangani Serasinghe.

The film ends with a promise of continuity –as the stream of life does not end with death for Buddhists– showing us 3 girls apparently similar to the 3 we followed in the film, crossing the road in front of the car in which Gothami and her husband are travelling. Will their story be similar or different? It will probably depend on how their lives will unfold and the choices they make. So the popular Buddhist view of accepting one’s past Karma from which no escape is possible is up for investigation. The fact that we can work out our own salvation with viriya (effort), come what may, is more my reading of the film’s message. Whatever it is, these questions remain with you long after you have left the theatre and come home.

The naming of the child Gothami and Desmond adopted, as Malathi has also noted, is very significant. His first name is Sidath, short for Sidharatha and his second name is Moses which nicely links both the Buddhist and Catholic strands of faith. The child could thus symbolise hope for the future of a harmonious Sri Lanka sans religious strife. Let us rejoice that this important film is at last being shown and is provoking so much thought and discussion!

Many Thanks to Malathi for her conversations, guidance and most of all for her encouragement to write this.

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    Very well-presented thoughts on the film! Thanks for sharing your line of thinking with us.

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