By Uditha Devapriya –
I know a teacher who offers comments about our cinema from time to time. Just the other day we were talking about Asoka Handagama. He hadn’t seen “Let Her Cry”, which was previewed to the media a month back and given a limited release at Regal some weeks ago, but based on what I told him about the film (without any spoilers, of course), he gave his two cents on the man. It all amounted to this: Handagama can’t be forced to conform. If you watch a film of his, you watch it the way he wants you to. And if there are any complaints about the way he’s directed it, too bad.
He also observed that Handagama likes to dabble in ellipsis. Every film of his contains elliptical narratives, which is another way of saying that they aren’t easy to figure out in advance. His characters do not act in a preconceived way. They exist and persist, they cry, break apart, and express outrage so unpredictably that you don’t know what’s coming next. On one level this works beautifully – that is why I enjoyed “Chanda Kinnari”, particularly the exchanges between Swarna Mallawarachchi’s character and her neighbours – but sometimes he overdoes it. I’m not belittling him, of course, because after all that’s the “Handagama touch”. Without it, none of his films would actually work.
Vageesha Sumanasekara’s take on “Let Her Cry” (published in Groundviews) lambasts the film for basically not being political enough. He indulges in postmodernism to explain his reaction to the film. Liyanage Amarakeerthi, on the other hand, has (in an article published in “The Island”) taken the opposite position and praised it as a “masterly crafted work of art” (to his credit he discusses the film as a film, which Sumanasekara doesn’t do). I don’t pretend to know a fraction of what these two people do, so I won’t take sides yet. This isn’t an analysis, hence, but just another review.
To start things off, I admit “Let Her Cry” isn’t a masterpiece. I’m not saying this because it’s crap, but because to pretend otherwise won’t do Handagama himself any justice. Those I’ve talked with about the film (not critics, but ordinary filmgoers) seem to have thought that it betrayed the director’s lack of patience. They pointed at the last few scenes which culminate in that drive to house of our main three characters (a drive which opened the film as well, incidentally), and claimed that they were too quickly edited to offer reflection. Normally I’d disagree with them, but this time I can’t. For the truth of the matter is, “Let Her Cry” ends up making a personal statement that would have worked if the director hadn’t conceived of it as a socio-political dissertation in that final sequence. I’ll come back to this later.
Meanwhile, here’s what I liked about the film. I liked the acting. And not just that of Swarna Mallawarachchi, whose return to the cinema after more than a decade no doubt warrants more than a customary clap. What Swarna does in this film, I assume, is extend the kind of performances she’s been churning out for the last 50 years and transform herself into a motherly figure. We see a photo of her by her bed, taken at the prime of her career no doubt, and this pops up as a reminder of how she’s gone away from depicting the “tortured woman” and embraced a matriarchal image.
That this works, and that she doesn’t disappoint (not even in those incongruous sequences I’ll talk about shortly), isn’t surprising. Case in point: she looks at the girl who’s flirting about with her husband, asks her candidly about her mother, and when she realises the mother’s dead, she offers sympathy and hints at her innocence. The girl is not put off though: she opens her body to her and tells her defiantly that she’s still very much nubile. Swarna’s reaction? She looks calmly at her and whispers “Wretched whore!” to her face. “Vintage Swarna,” I thought to myself.
Out of the other three actors I think I liked Rithika Kodithuwakku the best. As the student who falls for the Professor (Swarna’s husband), Rithika’s character is neither condemnable nor empathetic (which could be said of pretty much all the women resident in Handagama’s films). She jars at some points. As she should, one can add. The way she fantasises about her love for the Professor, the way she intrudes into his life, and the way she brings in meaning to his family, are all spelt out for the viewer. I’ve been told that this is her first performance. For the life of me, I didn’t or rather couldn’t notice that.
I liked Sandali Ash as the Professor’s daughter, if at all because she depicts the change in her character with effortless sensitivity. We’re supposed to realise that she’s alienated, spending time watching TV and occasionally raising conversation, but when she shifts gears (for no rhyme or reason, which is what makes it more appealing) and takes to religion, we are made to feel her change so swiftly that it doesn’t jar. Not one bit. I wish I could say the same of Dhritiman Chatterjee (as the Professor), though, who dishes out a solid, but not quite as complex, performance.
So yes, as far as acting goes, I liked the film. But good acting doesn’t translate into a great film. Not all the time.
And here we come to the film’s problems. Handagama tries out two things with his plots: make the audience aware of the political and social in them while making them as elliptical and non-linear as he can. This unusual combination – which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t – is what comes out in “Let Her Cry” in almost every sequence, and for very obvious reasons, that takes away the audience’s interest. That interest isn’t going to be sustained by the use of another typical Handagama trademark: to pinpoint nearly everything in the plot as symbols and metaphors, defined at the outset and forced on us. These don’t always appear contrived (which is a good thing), but that doesn’t mean they’re completely free from contrivance either.
That beach sequence, for instance, in which Rithika’s character goes out of the Professor’s car, walks towards the sea, and phones the Professor (who’s still in the car behind her), works almost theatrically to convince us that there’s some metaphysical gulf between the two of them. The problem here isn’t that we fail to see any meaning, but that we’re somehow meant to embrace and affirm it for its face-value. In other words, it is that meaning which precedes content, and hence that preconceived meaning which contrives that particular sequence. Starkly.
This is theatrical because, like all symbols meant for the stage and not cinema, it’s so self-conscious and “out-there” that Handagama might as well have previewed it to audiences with subtitles. Incidentally, the same could be said of his depiction of religion (the shrine room by the stairway), the static exchange of words between father and daughter every evening (“Hi,” he tells her, as he drops something – a chocolate bar, for instance – on her lap as she’s watching TV: “Hi,” she replies, not even looking at him), and that visual motif of the camera moving back as Swarna walks towards her husband in his room every time he returns from work. All these play out like a ritual.
And not for no reason: at one level, Handagama is attributing to them a false sense of routine, of life playing out in order, before Rithika intrudes into the Professor’s life. Which isn’t to say that when she moves in, Handagama doesn’t let go of his urge to portray everything as symbols and motifs: on one occasion, for instance, that girl has trouble unlocking the front door of her lover’s house to leave it, which I suppose is meant to indicate how metaphysically bonded she has become to it. (I didn’t know it was that hard to open a door and I didn’t know how she could have found it hard to open the door when she came through it just a few minutes back.)
So yes, in case you’re wondering, all these appear contrived. What’s worse is that sometimes they appear unintentionally obfuscated as well, as with that sequence of the Professor’s daughter attempting suicide on the railway and being saved by Rithika. I know we’re meant to be taken in by that scene, but the result of it is that, with all that quick cutting and music, we look away on account of its (over the top) suddenness and lack of clarity.
That final sequence, while we’re at it, merits more than a passing glance. What the director does in it is bring together both the social and the personal, which works at one level but then (as is typical of such sequences from his films) teeters off to histrionics and emotional outbursts which do not, to my mind, do justice to the message he’s encouraging us to interpret. He could have toned down, in other words.
I suppose “Let Her Cry” will leave much for those existentialist-critics to ponder on. As with “Aksharaya”, his other film based in the urban upper-class, here too he’s opted to concentrate his themes within one family. I doubt, however, that the ordinary cinemagoer will consider the message that Handagama’s bringing up. Not because they’re against that message, not because they’re puritans who’ll tag the “indecent” label on the film, but because he makes us think that he can’t move beyond the personal without recourse to symbol and metaphor.
I don’t think “Let Her Cry” isn’t political, and anyway, even if it wasn’t, I don’t think that calls for censure: after all, there’s enough in Handagama’s films that merit attention. On that basis I disagree with Vageesha Sumanasekara. But it’s not a masterpiece either, and so I disagree with Professor Amarakeerthi. Masterpieces are coherent and free from ideological obscurity. What I see in this film is nothing but incoherence and obscurity, redeemed only at some points but not enough to make us raise enough questions about life, love, loss, and (yes) sex.
I guess we should note here that while the theme of sexuality has been examined again and again by nearly every independent filmmaker here, none can quite match the way Handagama does it. The best excuse anyone can give for not understanding his films properly, therefore, is that the audience is beneath their subtext.
The problem with “Let Her Cry” is that such an excuse isn’t plausible. When I see that film, I remember Pauline Kael’s review of Antonioni’s “Blow-Up”, in which she cautioned against films and stories which were so ideologically preconceived and metaphoric that to not comprehend them was supposed to show that you had philistine, unrefined tastes.
True, Handagama is no Antonioni and Antonioni’s film was overrated in many respects, but I believe Kael’s words ring true now for one reason: critics are raving over “Let Her Cry”. They’re using almost every adjective in the dictionary to call it a masterpiece. This unfortunate trend of praising films which expect much from the audience and give little to nothing back to them isn’t recent and will not go away anytime soon. Handagama’s film is stark evidence of that fact. Kael’s own words – “They feel they understand ‘Blow-Up’ but when they can’t explain it, or why they feel as they do, they use that as the grounds for saying the movie is a work of art” – might as well be applied to certain serious films made here, on that count.
So I repeat what I wrote before. “Let Her Cry” isn’t for the ordinary filmgoer. But then, what serious film from here is nowadays? I detest the way some filmmakers prey on “higher” tastes and leave the common audience in the dark, and thankfully Handagama isn’t one of them. Nonetheless, “Let Her Cry” isn’t what I’d have expected from the man who gave us “Ini Avan” four years ago. Not that this is surprising. Handagama, after all, has a tendency to examine his themes brutally and frankly while filling them with abstractions which aren’t easy to align with the narrative. He overdid this many years ago (which is why “Aksharaya” remains his weakest film), and seeing his latest, I left the hall with an unanswered question: hasn’t he learnt his lesson yet?
*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com