By Ari Ariyaratne –
It was some forty years ago that I watched Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s directorial debut feature-length film, Hansa Vilak (1980) for the first time during its initial release in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Recently, I watched this movie again as it was made available for online viewers with the release of its digitally restored version in Sri Lanka simultaneously. Despite its antiquated look mainly due to the black-and-white imagery, and the rusticated display of the everyday affairs of ordinary life in the South Asian island nation in the early 1970s, the film demonstrated that it is still capable of garnering attention for its enduringly powerful cinematic narrative.
Over the years, this movie has earned accolades well from the Sri Lankan film critics who oft-cited its supposed uncanny cinematic portrayal of adultery, and its impact on the institution of the family. A pivotal theme that I have overlooked or not thought about before (and, to my knowledge, not brought to the fore by the critics of this film at that time or later) emerged in my recent watching of Hansa Vilak. It is, in my view, central to the cinematic irony the movie imparts. I decided to write this piece to explain it succinctly.
In doing so, I am also planning to carve out a brief analytical space for the auteur Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963), a film first released to film audiences some 17 years before the first screening of Hansa Vilak.
Why Bergman? And Why The Silence (1963)?
As indicated earlier, Hansa Vilak was first screened in 1980. The notion that it was inspired by the cinematic vision shown in Bergman’s movies has been circulating amongst the Sri Lankan film critics ever since. Even very recently, I have seen the above view echoing to the extent that the effect of Bandaranayake’s portrayal of the adulterous and stormy affair in this movie is characterized as almost Bergmanesque. Certainly, Bergman was a filmmaker who often glimpsed behind the frontage of marriage and revealed the reality behind appearance in his films.
Two important reasons compelled me to bring the Bergman’s movie the Silence to this comparison: The first reason is to show how a world-renowned filmmaker boldly used the character of a little boy to reveal the nature of a tempestuous family affair. I have seen the memorable ways with which great filmmakers such as the Italian neo-realist Vittorio De Sica presented the character of Bruno (Enzo Staiola), the lively little son of the unemployed worker Ricci in Bicycle Thieves (1948), and the French New Wave movie director Francois Truffaut introduced the character of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a young Parisian boy encircled by a host of inconsiderate adults, including his inattentive parents in The Four Hundred Blows (1959). Such filmic representations of the youngsters’ characters notwithstanding, Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic introduction of the character of a ten-year-old boy named Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom) in the film titled The Silence, in my view, remains as one of the most unparalleled cinematic portrayals of a youngster mingled with the affairs of the adult world!
Displaying Children as Trophies of Family Unity, Concord, and Morality
Neither Bandaranayake’s film, nor Bergman’s movie is about or for children and adolescents. They are cinematic portrayals of childhood and adolescence in the universe of adulthood. Often, Sri Lankan filmmakers (and the makers of Sri Lankan tele dramas) display children in their works as trophies of family unity, concord, and morality. They visually depict children to romanticize childhood as well. Only a few Sri Lankan filmmakers have taken steps to change tack in this regard. Therefore, this comparison is especially appropriate in the Sri Lankan context.
Within the above context, two talented Sri Lankan filmmakers who have not simply resorted to display children in their movies as trophies of family unity, concord, and morality, as well as to romanticize childhood come to my mind.
One of them is Dharmasiri Bandaranayake himself, who attempted to expand on the theme he introduced in Hansa Vilak even further in his subsequent movie Thunveni Yamaya or Third Phase of the Night (1983). In this film, the vicious hallucinatory flashbacks Percy Peiris (Wasantha Kotuwella) was having during the honeymoon with his new wife Princy (Indira Jonklas) revealed the severe beating he received from his own father (Gamini Haththotuwegama) when, as a young boy (Ranga Bandaranayaka), he once inadvertently walked into their bedroom while the parents were having sex.
Asoka Handagama’s cinematic depiction of childhood and adolescence in the universe of adulthood is conspicuously evident in two of his movies, namely Aksharaya (A Letter of Fire) and Vidu (My Kind of Hero). In Vidu (2010), it was a boy raised by a single mother (Chandani Seneviratne). The boy (Thanishka Vimalarathne) was desperately searching the meaning and the value of his already turbulent young life. In the banned film Aksharaya (2005), the young protagonist (Isham Samzudeen) was having a sort of incestuous relationship with his own mother (Piyumi Samaraweera), a city magistrate by profession, who is going through an unsettled marital relationship with his father (Ravindra Randeniya), a high court judge. In the end, the juvenile was committing an unintentional matricidal act!
Unfreezing the Cinematic Narrative
The second reason to bring the Silence to this comparison is the following: Bergman’s movie, just like Bandaranayake’s film, is mostly oblique. The cinematic narrative (sinamaa aakhyaanaya) is not simply the story or the narrative (kathaantharaya) that comes into being due to the growth of the series of incidents or the storyline. Unfreezing the cinematic narrative by sifting through the chain of events is a worthy exercise for film connoisseurs. Admittedly, the difference between the story and the cinematic narrative may be recognizable in every film. For example, in Vittorio de Sica’s film Bicycle Thieves (to which I referred earlier), the difference between the narrative and the cinematic narrative is discernible, but it is not huge. However, in oblique movies such as the Silence and Hansa Vilak, the above difference is acutely felt and clearly distinguishable. In both films, deciphering the cinematic narrative requires reading between the lines. That being the case, the comparison of the above two movies becomes further meaningful.
Adult Fantasy of Reaching Rendezvous (Hansa Vila)
The rear view of a young woman and a little girl walking along the street is seen. Despite an occasional passing vehicle or bicycle, the street, which is partially shaded by tall trees on both sides, is mostly empty. The woman is firmly holding the hand of the child from her right hand. The elaborate umbrella she is holding from her left hand above the head is more inclined to her shoulder, giving the impression that it is part of her dress, more than a hand-held device to ward off sunlight. As the woman with high-heeled shoes quickens the pace, her voluptuous posterior is pronounced through the tightly worn frock, and the little girl is seemingly almost running to keep the pace with the woman. The kid is wearing a hat, a white frock, shoes, and a small school backpack indicating that she is heading to the elementary school, and the woman who is walking with her is probably her mother.
The sequence is abruptly changed, and now the seer sees a close-up shot of an unoccupied double bed, most likely in a room located in a guest house or a hotel. The sound of a woman who is moaning during sexual intercourse is heard briefly. The sequence is again changed briefly to the rear view of the woman and the little girl walking along the street before changing back to the scene of the empty double-bed. A baby’s cry is heard, followed by the sound of a sobbing woman. Again, the spectator glimpses, for a moment, the earlier sequence, which is the rear view of the woman walking with the kid. This time, the changing scene takes the viewer to a violent scene in a bedroom. Violent blows against a woman (conceivably by a man with a hand-held blunt weapon), and the resultant shaking portrait of a child which is hanging on the wall are visible. The spectator hears a woman’s laughter, which is closer to a scream than laughter! Thus, Dharmasiri Bandarayake’s film Hansa Vilak begins this way.
As the above opening image sequence shuttles back-and-forth between the woman walking with the kid, the double bed in the room, and the violent bedroom scene, the spectator begins to feel the existence of possible links. The plot of the movie thickens, and the spectator notices that his or her initial thoughts on the possible links are indeed correct. Accordingly, the young mother, Miranda Ranaweera (Swarna Mallawaarachchi), takes her daughter to school every morning. It is in this daily routine she meets Nissanka Weerasinghe (Dharmasiri Bandaranayake), another married man with two children of his own. Their relationships developed into seeing each other in their rendezvous (the hotel room) and went on unabated and unnoticed until the police raiding of the hotel room occurred.
“You Folks Can Go Home Quickly”
According to the chief of the police raiding party that shows up by the door of the hotel room, by being truthful, Nissanka and Miranda can help the law enforcement authorities “to solve everything quickly.” By so doing, a deputy sheriff (Granville Rodrigo) says, they “can go home quickly.” In this context, the police raiding party equates the acknowledgment of conjugal disloyalty with honesty. According to them, as the admission of guilt helps to restore the shattered conjugal pledge, the involving adult parties can reach a consensus on visiting or returning “home” or their conjugal abode in no time. Incidentally, in legal parlance, conjugal visits are the visits to a prisoner by the spouse of the prisoner, especially for sexual relations!
The outcome of the sort, the law enforcement authorities allude to, ensures the well-being of their children! Expressed differently, in the view of the police, the physical presence of the children in the conjugal residence ensures the longevity of the adults’ conjugal allegiance, as well as the children’s security and comfort simultaneously!
Adult Expectations for Kids
The adults in this movie seem to agree. As it becomes abundantly clear from the opening sequence, the adults in Hansa Vilak expect their kids to help them unconditionally to reach rendezvous for extra-marital pleasure, and thereby breach conjugal loyalty. Conversely, they expect children’s unconditional (physical and moral) support to restore broken conjugal bonds!
The restoration of fragmented conjugal bonds is often justified by highlighting children’s undone well-being. For instance, Douglas Ranaweera, Miranda’s former husband (Henry Jayasena), holds the view that Miranda should have thought about her daughter’s well-being even if she found some faults in him in fulfilling his husband role. He leaves the police station while assuring his (and Miranda’s) daughter that she is in the safe hands of her father. Later, upon confronting Miranda (and Nissanka) in the vicinity of the court, he reminds Miranda her unfinished motherly role: “have you forgotten that you are the mother of a little one even though you play a love game now?” The true reason for his agitated mind is evident immediately however when he asks Miranda about where the love was, she showed him earlier gone now. When Douglas met Nissanka at the latter’s office, he exhorts Nissanka to take a decision by thinking about his daughter’s future because “a child who is accustomed to the mother’s warmth is unlikely to habituate with the father’s lap.”
Here is another example to the point: Because of her (and Nissanka’s) two children, she will bear the brunt of Nissanka’s conjugal disloyalty, says Samanthi, Nissanka’s former wife (Wasanthi Chathurani). Samanthi also reminds Miranda the motherly role she has just forgotten. Later, when Nissanka came to see her, Samanthi refreshes his memory on the children born with his own blood (that he has seemingly forgotten). Moreover, she vividly recounts Douglas’s appearance at their doorsteps while holding a sleeping child in the middle of one night. According to her, Douglas told Samanthi and her elder brother Dayananda (G. W. Surendra) that the mother of the child he was carrying in his lap is indeed Nissanka’s new marital partner. Douglas also attempted to reveal them a bit of his tormented soul due to the breakup of his family, Samanthi says further!
More to the point, in his visit to Nissanka’s office, while introducing himself as Samanthi’s brother Dayananda says sarcastically: “how can a man remember others when he cannot even remember his own children?”
By the same token, Miranda says that she loves her daughter, unlike Nissanka who, in her view, does not love his own children. She justifies visiting her former conjugal residence without making Nissanka aware as it was a visit simply made to see her daughter. However, when Nissanka importuned her with pointed evidence, she admits that Douglas was at home, expecting Miranda’s visit. Adding insult to injury, Miranda reveals that, it was on seeing how Douglas sobbingly collapsed like a child when she slapped him on the face in defending Nissanka, her mere sympathetic feelings on Douglas turned to love!
What is more, Nissanka’s dealing with the consequences of his tempestuous extra-marital affair strikingly shows the adult expectations for children. When Nissanka was walking across the busy and rusticated city blocks after his former wife’s brother asked him to leave their residence, a sobbing child’s following words are heard: “mom, dad left.” They are certainly the words delivering Nissanka’s own expectations for his children.
Additionally, towards the end of the film when reality mingles with imagination, Nissanka shows up again at the doorsteps of his former family home to the surprise of his little son. Truly, this sequence of visual images is an occasion in which adults’ intentions of seeking refuge in an imaginary childhood and adult expectations for children meet each other straightforwardly. To the boy’s question “have you brought me a (toy) jeep as promised,” Nissanka’s answer is a crying collapse. In this context, Nissanka, the adult, is seeking refuge in an imaginary childhood in front of the one (his son) who is truly a child! Hence, the situation generates cinematic irony. So, the boy delivers the words of desired adult expectations for kids: “I do not need a jeep, dad. Let us go home!”
Adults Seeking Refuge in an Imaginary Childhood
Soon after the court decision was given in favor of the new conjugal bond between Nissanka and Miranda (and declaring that their previous conjugal bonds are null and void from now on), the new couple is violently confronted by Miranda’s former husband Douglas just in the outskirts of the court. When Miranda slaps on his face to save Nissanka from the assault, Douglas sobbingly neutralizes himself as if a child reacting to his mother’s corporal punishment!
Likewise, having sensed that Miranda has taken initial steps to reconcile with Douglas, Nissanka implores her to concentrate on her union with him, not on restoring the previous conjugal bond with Douglas. He tells Miranda that he is coming to her “like a little kid seeking love.” Nissanka’s subsequent warning that he can also become a murderer in the event of losing (Miranda’s) love is akin to an angry kid’s reaction to grab the reprimanding parent’s attention and love.
Moreover, after witnessing Douglas’s visit to their apartment to see Miranda when he is at work in his office, Nissanka decides to visit his own previous conjugal family. His sudden decision appears as exposure of his vengeful attitude toward Miranda than a genuine desire to see his former wife Samanthi and two children. Upon seeing Samanthi, he beseeched her to listen to him as he came to her “like a kid desperately seeking his mother’s love.” Her answer to Nissanka’s plea is equally revealing: “However, this mother cannot give the warmth of her lap to you now, my child”!
Furthermore, after his violent encounter with Miranda, Nissanka runs into the kitchen of a neighbor’s home and hides sobbingly in a dark corner there. Incidentally, in South Asian socio-cultural context, the kitchen is the traditional space belonging to the homemaker (grihani), who is also the mother on many occasions. Nissanka’s posture resembles a child hiding behind a little something to avoid corporal punishment from his mother. Ironically, Nissanka does this act just before killing the frightened owner of the house, an elderly Burgher woman, who happens to see him hiding in her kitchen!
Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence
Three passengers (two women, and a small boy) seen sitting in their compartment in a moving passenger train. The older woman seems aggrieved, downhearted, and severely sick. The younger woman appears irritated at being in the presence of the older woman in their journey. The boy, not yet an adolescent, gives the impression of being familiar with the sight of both women, and inquisitive of the happenings in the train and in the outer world that he glimpses through the window of their train compartment. The beginning of their trip or the destination is not known, except the understanding that they are heading “home.” The train stops at an unknown European town where main European languages such as English and German are not spoken. By considering the worsening condition of the older woman’s sickness, they check into a local hotel, to get some medical advice from a local doctor for the sick woman if possible, to rest for a few hours, and to resume their trip. So, The Silence, the last of Ingmar Bergman’s film trilogy about the silence of God, commences this way.
Ester (Ingrid Thulin), the sick woman, is a heavy drinker, a chain-smoker, and a translator. Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), the mother of the boy, is voluptuous and sensually self-indulgent. Although the two women are sisters, it is implied that they were having something more intimate in the past than the usual sibling bondage, and Anna’s current inconsiderate attitude toward that intimacy is related to Ester’s feeling of disappointment. Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom), the sweet young boy, is accessible to both his mother and her elder sister equally, so he is the one who can go between the two estranged women.
Anna keeps complaining about the “unbearable heat” inside their hotel room (an expression of her disliking to be with Ester, more than an actual reference to weather), which she uses as an excuse to go out and supposedly get some fresh air. Doing just that, she picked up a man, a bartender, before having sex with him in another room in the hotel adjacent to the one they (Ester, Anna, and Johan) originally checked into. Moreover, she vengefully let Ester into the room, forcing her to see Anna’s sex act with the man, and thereby making Ester feel being let down by her.
Ester does try to engage in her translating activity amid drinking, smoking, coughing, and repeatedly and fiercely pressing the room service button to order more drinks, but her eyes and mind seem to be focused on Anna. She is bothered by the way Anna keeps deliberately sidelining her and their previously existed intimate relationship despite Ester’s repeated pleas not to do so. Her overwhelming self-pity, caused by her failing health, her fear of dying alone, and Anna’s inconsiderate attitude, makes her reflect upon her own life and her wretched role.
Cinematic Irony in The Silence
With the able assistance of Sven Nykvist, his cinematographer and the long-time collaborator, Bergman constructs a superlative cinematic metaphor in this movie, and it is centered on language. The master filmmaker builds it as a thematic metaphor gradually, and eventually turning into the epitome of his cinematic imagination. It is the efficacy of this metaphor that generates cinematic irony in the Silence.
Ester, the translator, tries to understand the foreign language used in the unspecified European grand hotel through her attempt at gleaning words from books. Revealingly, the couple of words she was able to pick from her brief “conversation” with the hall porter earlier and decipher via her books (“face” and “hand”) belong to the domain of bodily existence! Her futile attempt is nothing but to reach the world of carnal pleasure (that Anna represents for her) by using her bookish world as a conveyor! In her own words, “it’s all a matter of erections and secretions.”
Anna, in contrast, is a woman who tries to understand her surrounding intuitively and empirically by exploring the domain of the body. She kisses the man she picked up from the bar by saying the following words: “How nice that we don’t understand each other. I wish Ester were dead!” These words reveal her indulgence for carnal pleasure, as well as her current disliking for Ester’s overtures for intimacy.
Consequently, neither women can fully recognize the ‘face’ in the foreign language that they deal with! They, for example, did not notice or did not pay attention to the tanks or the armored fighting vehicles on the passing train when they were in the compartment of their train. They do not visually discern the tank that rumbles down the street in front of the hotel, poses, and passes on, either. More to the point, they do not perceive with their eyes an aging mule carrying a heavily loaded wagon, symbolizing the not-so-rosy everyday affairs of ordinary life in this town. Only the boy notices all of them!
By focusing primarily on the main characters’ face throughout the movie, Bergman cinematically emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between the face, the personhood, and society. Thus, language cannot be understood through words alone, or conversely by focusing only on the bodily presence of the speech actor. To put it differently, the face of language is both the words and the humanity of the speech actor(s) who utters the words.
The cinematic irony in The Silence is not devoid of hope, however. To the point, Bergman introduces the intriguing and ingratiating character of hall porter (Hakan Jahnberg) as a way of showing that the human face in a foreign language always does exist if one has the inclination to recognize it. This old man, who quickly responds to Ester’s fierce bell ringing for room service shares no commonality whatsoever with her. Yet he intuitively understands her, serves her liquor, food, and water, lets her listen to classical music of Johan Sebastian Bach, cleans up her mess, and even listens to her long soliloquy of confession by playing the role of a concerned and worried companion even though he does not understand a word Ester is uttering.
Then there is the boy Johan. American film critic Roger Ebert is right when he says that the boy is key to the film. Bergman does not present him as an innocent adolescent face, a brat, or a clown. Armed with his cap pistol, Johan spends a considerable amount of time traversing the long passageway of the strangely deserted hotel. He comes across an electrician, a troupe of dwarf vaudevillians (who try to dress him as one of their own), the hall porter, and the alcohol addicted and chain-smoking life of Ester, whose activities are largely confined to her room. Johan even notices the activities of his own mother Anna who entered a room in the hotel with a man she picked up from the nearby bar while passionately embracing and kissing him!
Johan’s inquisitiveness on the tempestuous affairs of the adult world, despite the irony it generates, is not cynical, not fomented by mere adolescent curiosity, but is driven by the instinctive sympathy he feels for both Ester and Anna, the two women close to his young life. “Ester, why are you a translator?” he asks from Ester, and adds a follow up question: “Do you know the language here”? Ester responds saying that she has learned just a few words. “I am pretty scared of words,” says Johan! Johan and Anna leave the hotel and resume their journey ‘home’ while leaving the sick woman Ester stranded in the hotel. In the ending scene of The Silence, one sees Anna and Johan sitting in a compartment of a moving train. Anna seems agitated, opens the train window, and exposes herself to the chilly morning rain outside. Johan takes the letter that Anna wrote and gave to him from his pocket and tries to read it: “To Johan, Words in a foreign language—–“!
The Silence of God
As mentioned earlier, The Silence was the last film in the Bergman trilogy about the silence of God. There is no theology in this chamber drama. It is Johan, the sweet boy with an angelic face, that conveys the hopes of the film. Still, in a world of deep emotional isolation and alienation, will such hope of childhood survive into adulthood? Through its uncanny exposure of the affairs of the tempestuous adult world, the film casts enough doubts on it. Hence, the cinematic irony!
Cinematic Irony in Hansa Vilak
As indicated in the beginning, the cinematic irony in Hansa Vilak is also obliquely presented, and deciphering it requires reading between the lines.
God as a Sellout!
In the tempestuous adult world portrayed in Hansa Vilak, God seems commodified! When troubled Nissanka was walking across the noisy and rusticated city-blocks, he was stopped by a preacher with a hawkish look and curiosity (J. H. Jayawardene) before offering the help of God Almighty in the form of a booklet. God becomes a sellout!
Towards the end of the movie, in a sequence in which reality intermixes with imagination, Nissanka comes back to the apartment complex where he and Miranda resided in their brief and turbulent union (and where Nissanka brutally murdered Miranda). When he was reaching his apartment, the next-door little girl approaches Nissanka and says: “Uncle, I did not go to school today.” Without expecting any response from him, she runs away. Almost simultaneously, by seeing Nissanka’s approach, a frightened little toddler runs away from him. In the context of this movie, the decision to not to attend school even for one day, which is “today,” (and the expression of that decision directly to an adult) is indeed an act of defiance on the part of the children against the adult fantasy of reaching a rendezvous with similar adults for carnal pleasure in the guise of taking kids to school.
Incidentally, this is the same child from whom Nissanka asks the whereabouts of Miranda earlier. The child’s response was “wait, I will ask from my mother and tell you.” Then, it was her mother, (and not her) who comes out to inform Nissanka that Miranda went somewhere. These snippets give strong clues for children’s innate reluctance to take part in the stormy world of adults even though the adults (for their own advantage) want the children to do so.
In Hansa Vilak, the affairs of the adult world unravel within walled structures—it is within these structures or the “homes” conjugal loyalty is formed, strengthened, maintained, challenged, or fiercely fought out by the adults. The rendezvous or the oases of conjugal disloyalty (such as hotel rooms) also exist in these enclosed premises. As portrayed in this film, the affairs of the adult world are chamber dramas. (Bergman’s The Silence is also, as indicated earlier, a chamber drama).
In contrast, the children instinctively find the above multi-storied, walled structures and the narrow passages leading to them lackadaisical. They either tend to gather and play in open spaces or convert whatever the limited spaces available within the walled structures into temporary playgrounds.
In a memorable sequence of images in this movie, while resentful Nissanka is waiting by the door of his and Miranda’s apartment, beautifully dressed Miranda is seen walking through a spacious area of the building (where children are playing) onto the apartment. When she is climbing up the steps to reach the apartment, the kids are seen climbing down quickly as if sensing the impending violent encounter between Nissanka and Miranda. Soon after her arrival, Nissanka closes the door of their apartment and the blinds of the windows. After assaulting Miranda while alleging that she secretly visited not only her daughter but also former husband, he opens the window blinds and gets a glimpse of the outside. He notices the same bunch of kids still playing in the spacious area through which Miranda just came!
In fact, the latent cinematic narrative of Hansa Vilak is the tension generated by the dialectical relationship between the adults who, for their own conjugal loyalty or disloyalty, set forth expectations for children and the children’s instinctive and persistent attempt to stay away from the world of tempestuous adult affairs. Notwithstanding its cinematic merits, the above theme does not translate into a superlative cinematic metaphor in this movie, however. It seems that the director, the screenwriter, the cinematographer, the editor, and the music director were incommunicado, putting their collective weight so effectively to the secondary theme of adult fantasy of reaching rendezvous and the consequences of its eventual withering away.
This characterization does not deprive Hansa Vilak from its deserving accolades. Although it did not reach the master class as Bergman’s The Silence did, Hansa Vilak did show the strength and the potential of its latent cinematic narrative, while registering its presence amongst the most memorable Sri Lankan films.
*Ari Ariyaratne received his Ph. D. in anthropology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. He is Distinguished Professor at Heartland Community College, Normal, Illinois, and College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Ariyaratne is the author of the textbook titled Key Concepts of Cultural Anthropology (2020). Currently, he is working on his forthcoming volume titled Key Concepts of Four-Field Anthropology.