By Upali Amarasinghe –
Silence in the jungle is eerie. A man and a woman in their vibrant youthfulness move in silence. The silence of the woman is deafening. The audience eagerly awaits to hear her voice. She does not talk much. In fact, she is silent almost throughout the film as if she has taken a vow of silence. She speaks mainly with her eyes and face expressions. Those emotions embody and speak volumes about the tragedy of her life – a tragedy befallen on her for a crime not committed by her.
Set in British Colonial period of Sri Lanka in 1814 Gaadi is a film about complexity of human relations, identity, political upheavals of pre-colonial and colonial Sri Lanka and the subjugation of an outcast community through caste system.
What Prasanna says is useful as an entry point to this review.
“In this historical epic journey, two people from two different social strata are brought together against their will and struggle to co-exist refusing to lose their identity. When pushed to the limits of survival, in order to survive, they finally come to realize that life doesn’t exist on identity itself.
I thought of using this theme as an allegory to question this illusion, in a world where humans constantly wage wars in the name of national or religious identity”.
This film is an epic of a particular historical moment in Sri Lanka at one level. At another level, it is not necessarily a story set in the past history of colonial times. We slowly begin to realize it only when we get detached from the story. This film is about the present and the future of Sri Lanka. It is about the identity politics at its worst. Prasanna tells us a story through the lens of history – a history that has not only been constantly repeated in the present times but also descended to an abysmal decay. While watching the film, we sense the uneasy and inevitable connection between the lives of the subaltern in the pre-colonial period and the lives of people living in the despicable conditions in the modern world. This troubling understanding originates from the following perspective of the artist.
“Generally speaking, art is an expression of man’s need for a harmonious and complete life, that is to say, his need for those major benefits of which a society of classes has deprived him. That is why a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion”. – Leon Trotsky’s Art and Politics in Our Epoch (June 1938)
The film wages a very conscious protest against realities of the past and the present times. The protest that Tikiri and Vijaya are waging in the film is not distinctly manifest. It is hidden yet palpable. Beneath that apparently simple storyline, there is the undercurrent of human desire to struggle against class and caste system, discrimination and social injustice. This struggle is not necessarily pronounced through direct presentation of visuals or dialogue. It is hidden deep inside the core of the film.
The Gaadi clan is obviously placed within pre-colonial and colonial times. The audience cannot miss the subjugation of the Gaadi clan within that socio-political context. The film provides a kaleidoscopic view of the subaltern in transformation. They beg; sing; dance; face violence; live in fear of the aristocracy. They are the “human dust” as scornfully pronounced by Ehelapola Adigar, Prime Minister of the kingdom.
But then they protest, not necessarily through a rebellion. Vijaya, the young man representing the clan demonstrates a silent protest. He survives the wrath of the aristocracy together with the woman joining him from the aristocracy.
In essence, Gaadi deals with identity of people. It surreptitiously demonstrates that our society is riddled with a structural crisis beyond the issue of identity. It shows that we are still deeply stuck in the quagmire of racial and religious hatred. People are yet to see the true opponent – the larger system that feeds on such division, inequality and social injustice. All these social realities are embedded in the cinematic language and brilliant artistry.
They say “art brings to our attention the greatest human concerns not in the form of scientific or philosophical reasoning but in pictorial and sensuous form, in concrete images which please or move or trouble or do all three”. (The Sky between the Leaves by David Walsh 2013)
Gaadi for sure does all three, particularly the last.
It is a film dealing with the stifled voice of the subaltern – a community subjugated by the aristocracy. In a larger perspective, it is about all people living in suppressive socio-economic structures looking for their freedom. However, freedom for Gaadi community proud to be Children of the Sun does not come easy. In fact, the price to be paid is heavy.
The last scene of the film with Tikiri and Vijaya standing on the edge of a mountain top and looking at the far away vista is telling. This is where Vijaya is pondering over what both of them should do after seeing mass killing of his clan.
This is where Tikiri speaks to Vijaya for the last time in the film.
“He (the Chief of the Clan) wanted to see you live and continue the clan.”
After two of them slowly vanish into the thick jungle, following postscript appears on the screening.
The British went back on the promise given to the Kandyan leaders. On 15th February 1815 Ceylon became a colony under the British rule. They abolished the influence of the caste system on the specification of professions. The members of the rodiya caste thus gradually changed their identity and integrated themselves with the other lower strata of society.
Truly the Gaadi community integrated themselves to the lower strata of the society and we come to realize that the lower strata of the current society remains at the lower strata fast descending to the lowest.
Deeply etched in to this socio-political setting of the yesteryear, it is also a story of blossoming love. The love that is unspoken throughout the film between an aristocratic woman condemned and a man of the Gaadi community oppressed.
It is a human relation in transformation. From beginning to the end of the film, the audience accompanies two human beings in their journey. The audience witnesses their struggle and critical events that test their patience, endurance and trust. They are confronted with personal as well as socio-political events of the time. They know that they will survive or perish in those circumstances.
There is careful weaving and gradual building of their unspoken love. It is deliberately built up from one visual to the next creating a great deal of curiosity in the spectator. The audience feels that mthe tension between Tikiri and Vijaya is being built up to a crescendo. The conflict between the two creates tension. Tikiri cannot come to terms with the reality that she has become part of an outcast community. Her deep-seated aristocratic roots do not allow her to take on the new identity thrust upon her. At the end, she reached a stage where she goes through a change based on the gradual development of human connection with Vijaya.
One of the unique characteristics of this film is its simplicity.
The film maker adopts linear story telling technique. The film maker does not allow the form to override the content. The form is an integral part of the content. There is no enigmatic and unfathomable film technique or flashbacks. It does not mean such techniques are essentially bad. But this film does not seem to require them. At one level, it is simply historical story retold with an interpretation of film makers’ imagination and creativity.
There is one distinct characteristic or signature of Prasanna’s films. He adheres to minimalism religiously. If there is dialogue in this film, it is because the film cannot exist without it. Frugality is his forte. One ideal example to prove this point is his use of music in the film. We find only three instances where he decides to play background music. And when he does that, it creates the ultimate impact. When Vijaya and Tikiri run for their life through the jungle, they emerge on a rock with an expansive view of mountainous range. Then we hear a sobering music piece with a violin expressing its love and affection. This is the expression of Vijaya’s love for Tikiri. This music piece takes us to the heart of Vijaya filled with love and affection for Tikiri..
He relies heavily on the visual and character development. He allows characters wander freely in relation to their particular circumstances. He lets them encounter life experiences and present them to the audience visually. The audience slowly comes to grips with gradual development of the characters from skeletal forms to fully enriched human beings. These human beings are compassionate, loving, empathetic, violent and egoistic and full of contradictions.
Special mention should be made to the quality of cinematography and editing. Editing of the film by Sreekar Prasad, the Indian film editor seems seamless. When the soldiers of the King’s army ride on horseback to capture the family of Bulathgama Adigar, we hear the pounding on the door of the house by the soldiers. We do not see them. We only see the family members running for cover. When they hear the breaking of the door, the camera is zooming on the close-up of family members’ faces. Mortal fear is written on their faces. This is a marvelous moment of cinematography and editing. The audience never sees the soldiers entering the house.
We frequently encounter close-up shots in the film. When the women march towards their death one after the other, camera is zooming on the faces of the women with full of anxieties. Face of Iragani Serasinghe, one of the women, has nothing but pride. She is proud to be retaining her honour before she jumps into her death. The camera focuses on the anxieties of other crying women as well.
What Sreekar Prasad says in general about editing makes a great deal of sense and applies very much to Gaadi.
“The selection of shots and their duration on screen is crucial to create the desired impact in the given scene. When you string various shots together while sustaining a certain emotional level you are invariably setting the momentum of the entire film. The more seamless a film appears the better it has been edited. When a performer is doing a fabulous job, you cannot interrupt him or her with cuts, even though you may have the option to do so. If an actor is fabulous in a long uninterrupted take, the editor should not intervene. The cardinal rule is to strike a balance between the narrative pace and the performance.
Eventually it all boils down to a good sense of judgement. For example, if a shot in a film has a girl crying you can keep it on for 10, 20 or even 40 seconds, but as an editor you should be able to gauge the film’s impact on the audience”.
Careful casting of the actors and actresses has positively contributed to the above depiction. Dinara Punchihewa’s debut into the film world as an actress is unique. In her role of Tikiri, she has the challenge of conveying complex human emotions mainly through face expressions. She truly embodies the transformation of her character from being stubborn and relentless to a compassionate and empathetic woman in the film. Sajitha Anuththara playing the role of Vijaya exudes an ebullient and captivating presence with an impish smile on his face and some antics when his character demands such behaviour. He tries his best to enchant Tikiri. But it takes him to the end of the film to break through the barrier to her heart. Ravindra Randeniya as Ehellapola Adigar establishes his overarching power within the short period of his acting in the film. He gives life to that character of authoritative aristocrat. Shyam Fernando as seemingly loving husband of Tikiri later discarding her for self-grandeur lithely demonstrates the transformation of his role.
When we step away from the storyline, we may start reflecting on some of the following questions.
What is identity? How is this concept being interpreted and misused over the years in theory and practice? How do we understand identities claimed by the diverse communities living in Sri Lanka or elsewhere? To what extent should we treat identity as an important social phenomenon? How do we deal with the question of integration of diverse identities (forced in certain cases) to supposedly create a common identity? What is the connection between pluralism and identity? How does question of identity play in the societal and inter-personal human relations? How do we understand nationalism and identity in a class society?
This film does not directly raise these questions. It does not also provide any answers and there is no need for it. However, the film provides the space and inspiration to reflect on those questions.