By W.A Wijewardena –
Handagama’s latest indictment: Fantasising educated middle class should wake up from their dreams
Asoka Handagama, an award-winning film director of international repute, has been known for using his medium to serve contemporary society with indictments. His first movie, ‘Channa Kinnari’, has been an indictment on men taking women for granted and being bent on exploiting them.
The next, ‘This is My Moon’, indicted boldly a section of Sri Lankan society that advocated war for peace. The third, ‘Flying with One Wing’, questioned the hypocritical attitude of extant society toward what is now recognised as ‘The Third Gender’. It was his next movie, ‘A Letter of Fire’, which landed him in real trouble with the authorities.
He faced a lawsuit and possible imprisonment for the crime of examining the psycho-sexual development of the young in a conservative society. Handagama, broken but not down, was silent for some time but could not remain so for long. This time he directed a children’s movie, ‘Vidhu’, named after its protagonist. That movie questioned the right of the socially downtrodden to live in society.
Then came ‘Him, Here After’ with a story revolving around the plight of a former LTTE terrorist, rehabilitated and released back to society. His newest, ‘Let Her Cry’, is another indictment and this time the target has been the educated middle class in contemporary Sri Lankan society.
The storyline: A typical Sri Lankan middle class family
Handagama has selected a representative middle class family as the focus of his story. The husband, played by the Bengali actor Dhritiman Chatterjee, is a university professor fast reaching the retirement age. The veteran Sri Lankan actress Swarna Mallawaarachchi gives life to the professor’s wife who is a typical housewife dedicated to raising a family with two children, a son and a daughter.
The story later reveals that the daughter was born 10 years after they were blessed with a son, and even then, after invoking the blessings of the renowned Buddhist Temple at Sanchi in India. But the son is out in the States, apparently having escaped parental control back at home. The daughter, the character debuted by Sandali Ash, is still schooling, but not aligned either physically or psychologically with her parents. She lives with them totally immersed in her pastime, watching TV and listening to pop music.
Stranger in the family introduces another stranger
The relationship between father and daughter is limited to a well-rehearsed routine. The father takes her to school in the morning but does not know how she comes back. In the evening, the daughter tears herself away from her favourite TV program to open the door for her father, who exchanges a mechanical ‘Hi’ with her, while dropping a chocolate on to her lap. Neither father nor daughter expresses any sign of affinity and gets back to their own affairs without uttering a single word.
He passes by the room where his wife is immersed in her evening religious observances without bothering even to look at her. She too interrupts her ritual to steal a glance at him when he climbs the stairs to reach the bedroom. She soon follows him, but again does so in a mechanical manner, putting his shirt on a rack and handing him a towel. The brief conversation between them is also mechanical and routine.
The professor enquires from wife whether their son has called them from the States. The wife suddenly livens up and answers enthusiastically. But the professor cuts it short and walks to the bathroom to have a shower.
At this point, the wife shouts from the bedroom, while sitting on the bed with a savage look on her face, that a girl called that day too. The girl – the stranger – is introduced to the viewers at that time.
The crush of a student for her teacher
On hearing his wife, the professor gets visibly disturbed and holds on to the bathroom table for support. The fearful look on his face reveals that it is a piece of news which he awaits everyday but dreads to hear.
The girl – a student of his with an insatiable crush at him – is introduced to the viewers first anonymously but later in person. It is then revealed that the girl – played by Rithika Kodithuwakku who is making her debut on the big screen – has the habit of calling his wife every day and sharing her alleged experiences with the professor.
Some of the stories she narrates are exaggerated but true events but most are imagined. The wife, in an unusual show of tolerance and understanding, does not demonstrate any animosity against her husband’s budding illicit love affair. Instead, she herself ventures to bring the girl to their house and puts her up in the visitor’s room. Her explanation for this unusual behaviour is that she wants to prevent a scandal about her husband spreading around the campus. Any such scandal is a black mark for the family.
Stranger brings life to the family
After the girl starts to live with them, both the wife and the daughter get enlivened. Even the professor assumes a secret smile on his face at times. But the conflict becomes intense day by day and when the professor does not show any interest in her in the bed, the wife challenges him to go and sleep with the girl. But the professor is now torn between two worlds – one in which he has affection toward the girl and the other in which he pretends to live without any scandal about his good name.
Things finally come to a climax when the girl leaves the house unannounced. The wife admits that after the girl has left the house, their lives have been saddled with an unexplainable vacuum which cannot be filled easily.
The professor goes in search of the girl for mental solace. The wife makes her temple visits more often now to hide behind religious rituals. The daughter all of a sudden develops an interest to visit the temple with the mother, but the latter rejects her request claiming that the temple is not the place for young girls. The daughter gets into a sour mood and rebels against her parents. The professor accompanies her to the temple but finds that it has been visited both by his wife and the girl.
The shock treatment in the temple fiasco
The daughter and the father continue to watch what is happening around them without participating in religious activities. At that time, an ugly scene breaks out at the temple grounds. An irate young woman who has visited the temple with her politico husband gets into a sudden frenzied mood when she sees the illicit lover of her husband too in a meditative posture seated on the temple ground.
A fight breaks out between the two women who start calling each other names and trading blows. The professor’s fantasy girl, who tries to intervene, is also attacked and falls on her back. The chief incumbent of the temple reprimands both women and orders them not to desecrate the sacred place and stop fighting. The irate woman says that she obeys the order but does something completely opposite. She uproots a cast-iron lamp tree meant for use by devotees to make the offering of light to the Buddha and chases after the illicit lover. In the ensuing pandemonium people run here and there in utter confusion. The wife of the professor seated on the temple ground meditating is not ready for such an event there and keeps on looking totally perplexed.
Running for salvation in the rain
All of a sudden, an unexpected rain falls and all of them get soaked in the rain. The professor walks into the crowd shouting and moving in confusion to rescue the girl who is caught in the midst of this confusion. He manages to take her away and all four of them – the professor, wife, daughter and the girl – drive back in the middle of the heavy downpour.
Still extremely agitated, they exchange comments on the temple fiasco. The wife is overwhelmed all of a sudden by an attack of melancholy and tears come to her eyes. The girl gets puzzled at her tears and tries to pacify her but the professor says, “Let her cry.” They continue to drive on in the rain but viewers are not given a hint where they are headed.
A family of strangers in the mirror
This is an unusual storyline which Handagama has chosen. But it is the story of every middle class family of which children are separated from parents and husbands internally divorced from wives. Such families do not have economic hardships. But they feel something missing in life when they reach old age.
A seamless adjustment to the challenges thrown by a changing life is essential but proved difficult given social constraints. The professor in the movie is yearning for sex, appreciation and recognition within his family circle. He receives the last two abundantly in the wider world outside his home.
On campus, he is frequently visited by students seeking his wise counsel. The door to his room has been kept open for any student to walk in at all times. He participates in intellectual discussions on television at which he commands his intellectual authority over others.
Yet at home, he is a stranger to his daughter and his wife. His daughter is in her own teenage world which does not have a place for her aging father. Thus, the relationship between the father and the daughter is limited only to a mechanical greeting when they see each other in the evening. But his love and concern for his daughter are not lost and he tries to show it by presenting her with a chocolate slab every day when he returns home.
His wife separated from both husband and children is seeking solace in religion. That too creates an impenetrable barrier between the wife and the husband on one hand and between mother and the daughter on the other. The professor is obviously sex-starved but has no courage to go out and seek for it. What does one do when one is in such a helpless situation? Fantasise, and that is exactly what the professor is doing.
The girl is too good to be real
Is the seductive girl real or a fantasy? She is too good to be real. She comes from a poor background abandoned by her parents. She confesses to the professor’s wife that she even does not know whether her father is living or not. She has not met him, she says.
There is no mention about her mother or her home. Yet, she lives in a separate apartment with no economic hardships which a female student of her background normally experiences. S
he uses a costly smartphone. When the professor offers her money, she refuses. She demands nothing but the professor’s attention and love. Thus, the girl is a fantasy created in the mind of the professor and not someone who is actually living.
The behaviour of the wife and the daughter toward the girl is also how the professor wants them to behave in his fantasy. A clue to this fantasy is given by the theme song sung by Chitral Somapala. The song requests the characters to wake up from a dream. The dream is first described as an amorous one. Then, it is described as a demonic one. What it commands is that if one is to seek salvation, one has to wake up from fantasy.
Fantasies are the escape route for unfulfilled desires
Fantasies are not uncommon. As described by the American journalist Nancy Friday in her ‘My Secret Garden’, fantasising by both men and women is a universal phenomenon. It helps people to get over unfulfilled desires.
The professor in the movie is going through what is known as male menopause. He can no longer be an active proponent of sex; yet, he loves if someone makes love to him. Thus, he has created a seductive girl in a suitably crafted fantasy and has created an environment for his wife and daughter to come back to him. The fantasy culminates in the fiasco in the temple causing his wife to wake up from the demonic dream which she is having. So, in the rain when the car wipers are moving fast, clearing the vision that had been blocked, they drive toward their destination.
Handagama has given birth to two new stars
In every movie he creates, Handagama usually brings out a host of new stars. Following this trend, in ‘Let Her Cry’ too, he has given birth to two such stars. One is Sandali Ash. The other is Rithika Kodithuwakku.
Sandali had earlier declared that she did not want a career as an actress. Her real life interests have been in writing, mathematics and economics. Yet, Handagama has persuaded her to test her talents as an actress and she has passed the test with flying colours. Rithika has done full justice to the seductive girl in the movie.
The character she had to play in the movie has been a very difficult one requiring enormous efforts on her part. Yet, she does not act but lives in the character. The two veterans, Dhritiman Chatterjee and Swarna Mallawaarachchi, too have done full justice to the two characters they had to play in the movie.
So, what is Handagama’s indictment this time? He challenges the fantasising educated middle class to wake up from their dreams and follow a logical path for their salvation.
*W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org