20 May, 2022

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Handagama’s Portrayal Of Caste Repression: Alborada Or Pablo Neruda Story

By W.A. Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

Handagama, the social disruptor

Asoka Handagama is famous for using art for disrupting society, which is believed to be sane, serene, and free from evil. But society is like a lake; on the surface, it is calm, eye-catching, and mind soothing. Beneath that calmness, there are all those decomposing matters that give at the end a different flavour to the waters of the lake. They are odorous, ugly, and contrasting aesthetic feelings.

A romantic artiste may just portray the lake or society on what he sees on the surface, ignoring the contrasts and contradictions deep beneath it. But Handagama has been different and had the audacity to sear that surface calmness, penetrate deep into it, and portray that ugly side which people usually do not want to see. All his previous cinematic, theatrical, and television works have done this in one way or the other. For this reason, Handagama is branded as an anti-society artiste.

Alborada: The story of Pablo Neruda

His latest cinematic work, Alborada, has done this in a different way. Based on a short tryst of the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, in colonial Ceylon – as modern-day Sri Lanka was called at that time – Handagama has questioned how the caste system had been used as an economic as well as a repressive weapon by many. The caste system here is not the one that had been practiced by majority Sinhalese in colonial Ceylon. It is the most repressive and unacceptable system that had prevailed among the minority Tamils at that time.

Within this repressive system, women are the ones who are economically and sexually exploited by others. Alborada is the story of such a woman belonging to the lowest caste in the contemporary caste system among the Hindus – the untouchables. When this incident was taking place in colonial Ceylon in 1930s, in the neighbouring India, the untouchables were being shown the path to salvation by Henry Steel Olcott and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar by converting them to a casteless religion, namely, Buddhism. Strangely, this social reform did not take place in Ceylon, the country that takes pride in being the protector and guardian of the Theravada Buddhism.

Pablo’s unexpected arrival in Ceylon

The plot in the movie is as follows. The lead character in Alborada, Pablo Neruda, (played by Spanish actor Luis Jose Romero) is posted as the Chilean consul in colonial Ceylon in 1929. As Handagama has presented it, he had come to Ceylon from colonial Burma to relocate himself to escape another traumatic experience he had had there. That experience had been related to a love affair with an expatriate woman in Burma – Josie Bliss – whose character is being played by the French-Vietnamese actress, Ann-Solenne Hatte.

According to Pablo, Josie has been a tigress in the bed – a panther in Burmese terminology – demanding the impossible from her lovers with a knife in her hand. The young poet who romanticises love gets scared and flees for his freedom. Thus, on one fine day, Pablo arrives in Colombo empty handed to take the position of Chilean consul in the consulate. He rents a house in suburban Colombo located on the seashore facing the vast Indian Ocean. He is welcome to this house by his male servant, Rathnaigh, (played by Sri Lankan actor Malcolm Machado), a high caste Hindu who is eternally in fear of being polluted by the physical contact of an untouchable, a man or a woman.

Therefore, his first briefing to the master was that he too should not get polluted by such physical contacts because purification from such a pollution involves a long and hazardous process. But what Rathnaigh does not know is that his master is a free-thinking man and these Indian caste taboos are alien to the cultural or religious values upheld in Chile. Hence, Pablo was free from such taboos and could see a woman as a woman and not as a conveyer of social pollutants.

Fear of sex tigresses

Handagama has been careful in building Pablo’s character on these lines. Thus, Pablo is posited as a foreigner with an independent and liberal approach to people living in this part of the world. When he was riding a rickshaw to attend a function hosted by some Europeans, he passed a procession of local dancers and drum beaters. He gets late to the function because his instinct forces him to follow the procession and find out more about that tom-tom beating. He rushes to the function profusely apologising for being late saying that he had had a wonderful experience of a native cultural procession.

He is disappointed by the rude and crude reaction of fellow Europeans. But he makes two encounters at the function. One is the meeting of a local photographer called Lionel played by Sri Lankan actor Dominic Keller. This meeting helps Pablo to learn more about the native ways of life. The other meeting which Handagama arranges for him is more important to build his character. In that meeting, he meets a French woman living in Ceylon called Patsy and played by Sri Lankan dramatist Nimaya Harris. She offers an opportunity to Pablo to test his sexual prowess which he fears has been lost due to the traumatic encounter with the sex tigress in Burma.

In a later episode, Pablo mixes up with a group of low caste people who had gathered at a local bootlegger’s joint to drink and make merry on the pay day. They had been untouchable because they had belonged to the Sakkili caste, the carriers of toilet baskets from toilets used by the rich in Colombo. Pablo dances with them as if he is one of them, to the annoyance and repulsion of his male servant Rathnaigh. At the end, Pablo is fully contended but Rathnaigh pushes him to the sea in an apparent attempt at cleansing him of his pollution. Or it may be a warning that Rathniagh does not tolerate his mixing with the untouchable Sakkilis.

Falling in love with a statue

This liberal attitude which Handagama has cultivated in Pablo helps him to go for the final coup de grâce. Pablo sees a statue of Parvathi that had belonged to the previous occupant of the house dusting in a corner of the room. The bare-breasted Hindu goddess in shining ebony enamours him instantly. He is secretly in love with Parvathi and does some bizarre things like taking the statue to the bed. Patsy visits him to establish a long-term sexual relationship with him, but he rejects her. He treats with the same crude attitude the Sri Lankan lady living in the opposite house. Her attempts at winning his heart through choice Sri Lankan foods are also foiled.

In a twist of irony, his Burmese sex tigress, Josie, follows him to Ceylon. The fear of sex with such an insatiable sex tigress remerges within him and he hides from her. After a few unsuccessful attempts at joining his life, Josie leaves Ceylon for good. Handagama has portrayed Pablo’s character as someone who is waiting for the arrival of a Parvathi in living form to have his inner sex drive satiated.

Seeing Parvathi in a Sakkili woman

Then, one day early in the dawn, he sees the silhouette of a Parvathi walking toward his toilet with a bucket held securely with one hand on head and a cleaning broom swinging in the other. It is still dark but the heavy winds blowing from the sea remove the cloth hanging loosely over her shoulders from time to time exposing the silhouette of a Parvathi-type breast to the spying Pablo. That was the Sakkili girl, played by Sri Lankan actress Rithika Kodithuwakku, who had been commissioned to clean his toilet and remove the soil-filled bucket every morning.

Despite Rathnaigh’s warning that she is Sakkili and untouchable, Pablo finds himself falling in love with this newfound Parvathi. This growing carnal desire has overwhelmed him so powerfully that no force in this world or above can stop him now. He is determined to possess this Parvathi and satisfy his desires. It seems that such a blissful experience is beyond the plane of human mortals but something to do with divinity.

An experience that was never repeated

The sociological principle established here needs further elaboration. Sakkili women are vulnerable and can be economically exploited by high caste males. But concerning sexual exploitation, they are safe from the males of higher castes because they are considered untouchable and defiled. But this does not apply to male species of other ethnicities or religions. When it comes to satisfying their carnal desires, these male species do not see any social taboo. Pablo belongs to this category.

Pablo describes this in his memoirs as follows: “One morning, I decided to go all the way. I got a strong grip on her wrist and stated into her eyes. There was no language I could talk with her. Unsmiling, she let herself be led away and was soon naked in my bed. Her waist, so very slim, her full hips, brimming cups of her breasts, made her like a thousand-year-old sculpture from South India. It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me. The experience was never repeated.”

Dramatised end of an episode

In reality, the experience was never repeated. But in Handagama’s movie, the dramatisation of the post-rape events meant it could not be repeated. In the movie, the Sakkili girl who feels that she has been defiled by this foreigner runs away from the room like a woman possessed by a spirit. She jumps into the sea in an attempt at cleansing her body now believed to have been defiled. She cannot face the folk of her community, however much they are considered low caste and untouchable. They too have values and she has unwittingly defiled those values. Hence, her body may be cleansed but not the spirit filled with guilt and repulson. She goes down in the sea leaving the viewers aghast. It seems that she has drowned herself.

There is a greater commotion in Pablo’s household. Rathnaigh who witnesses the entire episode with nauseating repulsion leaves Pablo’s house in disgust. At this crucial hour, Pablo who thinks that he has joined divinity is being abandoned by mortals. It is therefore his turn to be possessed by the devil. He runs to his outdoor toilet, picks the cleaning broom left by the Sakkili girl, and starts cleaning the toilet like a mad man. He picks the soil-filled bucket, places it on his head the way it is carried by the Sakkili girl and walks to the sea. It is as if to punish himself for the defilement he has entailed on the Sakkili girl.

This is a highly dramatised event in Handagama’s movie. But the story does not end there. The Sakkili girl, believed to have been drowned, rises from the sea as if a Goddess reemerging from the waters. But it is not a Goddess, but the very same Sakkili girl in the same dress and body painting. What has Handagama conveyed by this? Though one cruel episode relating to a vulnerable woman has ended, she is still there with the same vulnerability and opening opportunities for repeated cycles of exploitations.

Disrupting society

How has Handagama disrupted society through Alborada? He has questioned the validity of the sane side of society which commits evil things in the name of divinity. This is not only relevant to economic or sexual exploitations. It is relevant to politics and governance too. In politics, leaders justify the evil things they do by claiming that they have simply carried out the wishes of divinity. Society does not want to discuss these events in public. Hence, such discussions are confined only to whispers or private communications.

Deviating from this self-restriction, Handagama has brought the taboo subject to open discussion. Some may agree with him, while some others may vehemently object to him. But the job of the artiste is to portray what is not openly seen. Handagama has done this job to full perfection.

*The writer, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 2
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    Mr W.A. Wijewardena,

    Thanks for this piece ……. you’re as good a movie critic as you’re on economic matters.


    Been to Neruda’s house in Chile ……. it was very spartan but had some good views from the windows

    Didn’t know much about his life other than that he lived in SL ……. and was an early victim of Pinochet.


    “The fear of sex with such an insatiable sex tigress remerges within him and he hides from her.”

    Ha ha ha …….. I’m not going to name names ………. but they know who they are!

  • 0
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    W.A.Wijewardene,

    Did you actually read the memoir of Pablo Neruda?. It was not only a memoir, but autobiography of Pablo Neruda- a Nobel laureate, a renowned poet, diplomat and a Marxist of Stalinist variety.
    .He was not a European, but a Latin American from Chile.

    Pablo Neruda was a sex manic and his autobiography was full of his sexual exploits from any women provided she is a women.

    He was earlier taught a humiliating lesson by the Burmese tigress and flees from her to face his waterloo at Colombo from a low caste Tamil Sakkili woman. She was so indifferent to his sexual advances and in bed and remained like a statue in Tamil Nadu temples-black and beautiful, an opposite to his Burmese tigress.

    when everything was over she dismissed him with the contempt he deserved, wounding his masculine pride, never to repeat. She went out as if nothing happened, a humiliating experience to Pablo from a woman from the lowest caste in the Hindu hierarchy.

    I extracted this version from the memoir itself, so authentic.

  • 0
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    Asoka Handagama may be an outspoken film director of Sri Lankan alternative cinema with international fame, but should not have distorted a true story in the name of artistic liberty.

    A fiction is different from a true story, even contemporary. You can even observe a modern event from thousand angles, yet be honest to the facts..

    Pablo’s adventure ended with the humiliating experience, the rest is a fairy tale by Handagama, misrepresenting Hindu caste system, makes a lot of assumptions forgetting that the girl is a poor, uneducated, innocent girl. She may have dead and gone, unrecognized, forgotten like millions before her, but still…

    • 0
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      “…fairy tale by Handagama, misrepresenting Hindu caste system”
      Can one be specific?

      • 0
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        SJ,
        …..cont….
        Asoka Handagama has no patience to understand the feudal Hindu caste system as it existed in India in the year 1930 or so, It was rigid even the lower castes accepted their plight without any protest.

        The higher castes exploited the Sudra’s and the menial castes to the maximum, but when it comes to girls from low caste, it is their birth right to rape and enjoy the
        women of the lower castes, a preemptive right even before males of her own community.

        Even in Jaffna it was so.

        The girl would have accepted the incident only as her fate and she had reacted the only way available under the circumstances.

        • 0
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          Srikrish, I wonder if this was actually the case. Not only does Chandrajeewa present a POSSIBLE alternative response & outcome, but there is something in Teitleboim’s book that makes me wonder if Neruda actually did come to know the tragic result of his behaviour.
          In his chapter ‘Anguish & Creation in the Orient’, Teitelboim, recounting Neruda’s visit to Ceylon in 1957, says: ‘Andaba buscando no solo el vestigio mental de una mujer cuyo cuerpo habia sido incinerado en una hoguera sino tambien la casa que habito.’ (‘On that return trip…he was searching for not only the mental trace of a woman whose body had been burned on a bonfire but also for the house he lived in…’)

          Strange, to say the least.

  • 0
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    Correction of error.

    it is not outspoken, but outstanding

    • 0
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      SJ,

      What happens when two aristocrats meet?

      Again from the same memoir,- the meeting between Jawaharlal Nehru and Pablo Neruda
      The observations about Nehru made by Nerurda after meeting him in New Delki soon after Indian Neruda describes a virtually silent meeting he had with Nehru.

      “Dark, cold eyes looked at me without feeling. Thirty years before, he and his father had been introduced to me at a huge rally for independence. I mentioned this to him, but it produced no change in his face. He replied in monosyllables to everything I said, scrutinizing me with his steady, cold eyes.”.

      This is about Neruda, the one-time Marxist and Stalinist

  • 0
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    I am not sure I completely understand the review here but I would very much like to see the film. But may I suggest that lovers of Neruda’s poetry (of which I am one) have a look at a recent article by Prof. Sarath Chandrajeewa (in 2 parts in the Island, 4 & 15/12/21): ‘Beyond the fiction of Alborada’.

    https://island.lk/beyond-the-fiction-of-alborada/
    https://island.lk/beyond-the-fiction-of-alborada-ii/

    I happened to take issue with it as Sarath had cited me as the source of two statements that I did not make. One was an absolute howler, repeated in the Sunday Observer & subsequently taken up & repeated again & again in online sites (which I have no way of contacting). The Island was good enough to carry my corrections but they only appears in the e-paper (p. 9 on 27/12), so there is no web address (‘Beyond the fiction of Alborada’ – a response). The S Observer remains silent. /cont….

    • 0
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      I read the memoirs of Pablo Neruda in my early teen. The incident as described by Pablo Neruda in his memoir made an indelible impression in my young mind.

      The incident involves a beautiful Saagili, Tamil girl who visited his household – for physically removing human excreta by hand and collecting them in buckets and carrying them on her head to dispose them in faraway places and Neruda raped her in his bedroom.

      She did not resist, but indifferent to his advances and remained stone like similar to a Tamil Nadu temple granite statue.

      Yes, she even though of low birth, poor and uneducated was proud with self-respect and dignity, even our twenty first century feminists to be ashamed of.

      This is the end of the story; both went on their own way, Pablo in search of further girls for sexual exploitation and the poor girl on her routine scavenging.

      When you read the entire memoirs, you will come to this and to no other conclusion.
      ………continued………..

      • 0
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        Srikrish – I have read his memoirs but long ago & probably don’t recall them as well as you do. I have also read other ‘lives’ of Neruda including his friend Volodia Teitelboim’s & Adam Feinstein’s. Btw, the latter contains at least one howler when he says that among Neruda’s pleasant surprises in Ceylon was encountering Leonard Woolf, ‘a civil servant at the time, who was sacked soon after Neruda arrived & shipped back to England.’ Woolf departed years before Neruda landed.

        One thing that emerges from reading an “intimate biog” like Teitelboim’s is Neruda’s immense loneliness when he was in SL. He expresses his longing to marry, in letters to Chilean friends & even sends proposals to two former girlfriends. (Within 6 months of leaving Ceylon he marries an almost complete stranger.) He is also bereft of conversation in his own language, the sound of Spanish words. It seems that a fondness for dogs developed; he sought their company and spoke to them in his own language. He was often heard speaking to himself. I mention this, not as an excuse for his unforgivable behaviour with a powerless, low-caste woman, but as an example of the inner turmoil that beset him during this period.

        But why, do you think, he actually set it all down for the world to see? He, himself, acknowledges that it was a despicable act.

        • 0
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          Manel,

          “But why, do you think, he actually set it all down for the world to see? He, himself, acknowledges that it was a despicable act.”
          Yes, I agree, he was true to himself.
          I do not know the actual date of publication of his memoirs, it may be just before his death in the year 1973..

          Whatever it may be, he had given an honest firsthand account of what has actually happened between him and the girl on that fateful day.

          I held him in high esteem, in spite of what has happened, It has happened when he was in his twenties

          • 0
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            Srikrish – The memoirs were published posthumously, 1974.
            Incidentally, I heard Neruda read his poetry at a great gathering in The Round House, Chalk Farm, London, along with some other famous poets. I think it was an anniversary of the Cuban revolution. I took photos of him, slides.
            I have a copy of his ‘Residence on Earth’ which he gave a dear SL friend of mine in Paris in 1949. He has inscribed it in Spanish “For Anil, my old friend…’ & ’embellished’ it with a naughty drawing. It looks like him chasing her 🙄 ! This is a man from another culture.
            In 1985 she gave it to me.

  • 0
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    …Cont…
    But in Part 2, Sarath presents disturbing findings from interviews in 1975 with ‘members of low caste communities that lived along the seashore…between Wellawatte & Bambalapitiya, … in particular a family… who cleaned the toilets at the Govt College of Arts & Crafts, No. 46, Horton Place, Colombo 7. ‘

    Inter alia, he learnt that the young victim of the rape ‘was married off to a very elderly person in the community… because she lost her virginity.’ She was also blamed for various things, including permanent injuries to a male relation who tried to attack Neruda on the beach sometime after the rape, as well as her husband’s early death from alcohol poisoning. She jumped into the funeral pyre with her unborn child.

    And so I included in my letter: ‘Devastating! You have done a great service, Chandrajeewa, to the tragic victims of that distant episode, by investigating their story. If only Neruda himself could have known. Of course, the results of your investigation will be contested and must be confirmed, but I do not doubt their authenticity. Chile will reel from this, even those who already condemned the rape.’

    • 0
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      Manel
      What happened was terrible, and became known much after the event in Neruda’s autobiographical note.
      Neruda has concealed nothing so that consistency with his text is important.
      *
      Could interviews conducted in 1975 be accurate in the details of events of 50 years earlier?
      Are there any narratives prior to 1975 to confirm any of the contradicting versions of the female’s fate that we see here?

      • 0
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        SJ – please see my reply to Srikrish above. I am desperately trying to meet a writng deadline & cant go any further with this.
        See the quotation from Volodia Teitelboim’s ‘Intimate Biog’ of Neruda. The Spanish book came out in 1984.
        And see what Sarath C says at https://island.lk/beyond-the-fiction-of-alborada-ii/

  • 0
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    There is something that should be pointed out here.
    This is no defence of anything altough Neruda had been honest about his despicable deed.
    He was a playboy at the time (in Ceylon as Chilean consul in 1929-30)
    His political development was subsequent, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39)

    • 0
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      I wrote this comment because of a sick tendency to link this incident with his ideology of later years.

  • 0
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    Manel Fonseka,

    I have not seen the film, but Manel, I wanted you to see the film and also read the memoir that will bring you an insight that no amount of any other writing will do?

    Do you think the rape of a scavenger girl is significant?

    Does it matter to her, to her family or to her community? If you think so, you are living in a different world.

    Didn’t this Saagili girl face the trauma with courage and dignity?

    Was she in any way defiled?. She set an example to all women throughout the world and put all rapists to shame by her act.

    In a religious society, she could be elevated to the status of a goddess like Paththinideiyo!

    She is in effect far ahead of Paththinideiyo in not stumbling mechanism of a male chauvinist pig!

    Don’t you think they are the wretched of the world?

    I had not read the Island article of Prof. Sarath Chandrajeewa.. I will read the e-paper and if possible the printed edition. You could help me in searching for any other article of interest on the same topic..

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