20 July, 2024

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Paradise: Reading The Layered Symphony Of Politics & Passion

By Upali Amarasinghe

Upali Amarasinghe

“Too far

Yet too close

The soul, as dense as a forest

So dark and deep

Don’t fade away: Don’t fade away

O mysterious being

Don’t run off: Don’t run off

Like a fewer dream

Like the soothing, gentle touch of someone close

Caress my body and soul with love so mellow”

(the song played at the end of the film “Paradise” written by Anwar Ali, sung by Pavithra and music composition by K).

A film can ignite the flame of wisdom within the viewer.

Emerging from the shadowed theatre, they may step into the brilliance of newfound understanding. This light, a metaphor for the newly acquired wisdom casts brighter hue on the world around them. Anyone who leaves the screening of “Paradise” by Prasanna Vithanage will surely gaze upon the world with fresh, enlightened eyes.

With “Paradise,” Prasanna has transcended the boundaries of national cinema, venturing into transnational and global cinema in terms of themes, production, distribution, and audience reception. He challenges traditional notions of national cinema by emphasizing the fluid and dynamic nature of cultural identities and storytelling across borders. This is an accomplishment worth celebrating.

This film is not just about Amritha and Kesav, the married couple. Their lives are drawn into a whirlwind of discrimination, brutality, and violence that exists right outside the windows of their touring jeep and tourist bungalow. These windows act as both literal and metaphoric barriers between the couple’s sheltered existence and the harsh realities outside. These metaphors add depth to the story, encouraging viewers to look beyond the surface.

In that sense, “Paradise” exhibits a profound multi-dimensional quality that enriches its narrative and emotional depth. The characters in “Paradise” are multifaceted, each embodying a range of emotions and moral ambiguities. These themes of the film are interwoven, creating a rich tapestry that reflects the complexities of the real world. The juxtaposition of the couple’s serene, internal journey with the external chaos and brutality they encounter emphasizes the stark contrasts between personal and societal struggles.

The film’s narrative is layered, often shifting between different perspectives and timelines. This non-linear approach allows the audience to piece together the story in a way that reflects the complexity of the characters’ experiences and the multifaceted nature of the themes explored.

Visually, “Paradise” employs a layered aesthetic, using cinematography, lighting, and setting to reflect the emotional and thematic currents of the film. The contrast between the idyllic, picturesque landscapes and the violent, oppressive realities underscores the film’s central conflicts and themes.

One important layer seamlessly integrated into the storyline is the theme of Ramayana mythology. From a critic’s perspective, the film director seems to underscore two key dimensions of the story.

Firstly, the film director emphasizes the existence of multiple narratives within the Ramayana mythology. The need for these diverse narratives is particularly significant in the context of prevailing majoritarian, racist, and supremacist ideologies. The idea that Ravana will awaken from his slumber to save Sri Lanka, which serves to appease the majority community, is being critically examined.

Secondly, the dialogue between Amritha and Andrew sheds light on women’s subjugation and their potential for agency within a patriarchal society, mirroring the growing fractures within Amritha and Kesav’s marital relationship. This narrative thread intertwines with the broader themes of the film, emphasizing the personal struggles against a backdrop of societal constraints.

By placing the film within the specific cultural and social context of Sri Lanka’s plantation sector, Vithanage adds further depth and complexity. The film not only narrates the personal story of Amritha and Kesav but also reflects on the broader societal issues affecting those living in the plantation sector. This setting amplifies the film’s critique of the characters’ world, offering a poignant commentary on the intersection of personal and political struggles.

In summary, the multi-layering quality of “Paradise” emerges from its intricate character development, thematic richness, metaphoric depth, complex narrative structure, layered visual aesthetics, and contextual relevance. These elements work together to create a film that resonates on multiple levels, inviting viewers to engage with it both intellectually and emotionally.

In the final moments of the film “Paradise,” it becomes strikingly clear that every component of the story is profoundly political. The film seamlessly integrates themes such as marital dynamics, multiple interpretations of Ramayana mythology, police brutality, social injustice, and economic turmoil. These elements are so tightly interwoven that they cannot be separated from one another. “Paradise” demands a shift in our thinking about life and the impact of politics on it. It challenges viewers to reassess their perspectives, offering a transformative experience that reshapes their understanding of the world.

When we look at closely, we realize that every personal incident in this film constitutes a political dimension. “The personal is political” means that individual experiences are interconnected with broader social and political systems. This concept underscores how personal issues, particularly those faced by the marginalized plantation community, are influenced by and reflective of larger societal structures such as identity, ethnicity and class. It emphasizes that private matters – such as family life, relationships, and personal choices – are shaped by systemic forces and inequalities. There are several nuanced and defining personal-is-political moments in the film.

Shree, the caretaker of the tourist bungalow with a gun pointing at Sergeant Bandara says the following:

“You took three innocent boys and blamed them. And one is dead now. Now you are going to do the same thing to me. I have killed many animals. I will kill you and kill myself. I will kill you like an animal!

Shree is not driven by a personal vendetta; he can no longer tolerate the criminal injustice inflicted on the plantation youth through false accusations. He understands that killing the policeman serves no purpose, but he recognizes it as a serious political issue that affects everyone.

Amirtha, affectionately known as Ammu, epitomizes the true essence of a heroine. Her character is depicted with layers of wisdom, empathy, joy, carefreeness, anxiety, and guilt. She captivates the audience so eloquently with her silence, her eyes, and her facial expressions. Her primary mode of communication is silence, but her silence is brimming with latent power. Her steadfastness shines through when she calmly poses a thought-provoking question to Andrew:

“Mr. Andrew, do you think when women face problems, they cry and hope for a man to rescue them?”

We love Amritha (character) and applaud Dharshana Rajendran for her exceptional acting; we loathe Kesev (the character) but admire Roshan Mathew for his skillful portrayal of both affection and almost sadistic behaviour! This is vividly demonstrated in the scene where he exclaims, “Oh deer!” upon hearing gunshots in the forest, fully aware of how much it hurts Amirtha. The tension is brewing and she is so disturbed that she leaves the dinner table with her meal unfinished.

Each character in the film has received meticulous attention from the director depicting their traits central to the themes of the film. The beauty lies in the fact that all characters are on transformative journey responding to critical moments in the film.

In a defining moment for Kesav in the film, he insists on identifying the suspected thieves, repeatedly asserting, “I am sure,” though the audience perceives his uncertainty. They see his selfishness and urgency driving him to desperate measures.

The subtext of Sergeant Bandara’s character played by none other than Mahendra Perera is impressively nuanced. Our first glimpse of him is in his police station, dyeing his hair, suggesting a discrepancy between his appearance and his true self.

He embodies certain facets of the Sri Lankan police force, tasked with enforcing boundaries, arresting suspects—sometimes innocent—and coercing confessions through force. This grim routine often leads to suspects being coerced into signing confessions, a practice disturbingly commonplace in Sri Lanka. Such scenarios frequently escalate to non-handcuffed suspects being taken to locate supposed hidden weapons, resulting in deadly encounters with the police.

As for role of Andrew, the tourist guide and driver, one cannot miss the brilliance of Shyam Fernando’s acting. He embodies the typical tourist guide in terms of tour guiding. On a human level, the audience really falls for him with his final act of confession even though he seems to be lying!

Even Sambar deer is an important character in the film, making three appearances. As a metaphor, the deer seems to embody empathy and innocence. Amritha does not want it to be harmed. The sambar deer represents a beacon of hope for her and others, reflecting her belief that everything will eventually end well.

In the end, this complexity of character development allows the audience to engage with the characters on a deeper, more personal level, as they navigate their inner conflicts and growth.

In reviewing the overall content, one cannot overlook how the film form enhances the expression of the story. In Prasanna Vithanage’s film “Paradise,” the role of acting, cinematography, editing, and music is pivotal in enhancing the storytelling and emotional depth. Each of these elements works harmoniously to create a compelling narrative that resonates with the audience on multiple levels.

The cinematography in “Paradise” is particularly noteworthy for its ability to capture the stark contrasts between the idyllic landscapes and the harsh realities faced by the characters. The use of natural lighting and carefully framed shots brings a sense of authenticity to the film, immersing the audience in the world of plantation community. The visual composition not only serves to highlight the beauty of the surroundings but also underscores the socio-economic disparities and the emotional turmoil experienced by the characters.

Editing plays a crucial role in shaping the narrative structure of “Paradise.” The seamless transitions between scenes and the strategic use of cuts help maintain the film’s pacing and build tension at critical moments. The editing also facilitates the juxtaposition of different narrative threads, such as the personal struggles of Amritha and Kesav with the broader societal issues affecting the plantation workers. This layered approach allows the audience to engage with the story on both a micro and macro level, enhancing their understanding of the characters’ motivations and the film’s underlying themes.

Music in “Paradise” is used not merely as a background element but as a powerful narrative device. The score complements the emotional tone of the scenes, whether it is the soothing yet somber melody heard when Amritha leans on Kesev or the tense, discordant notes during moments of conflict.

The music often serves to bridge the gap between the audience’s emotions and the on-screen action, providing an additional layer of meaning. For instance, the contrast between a comforting embrace and the grim reality of the estate workers’ housing is heightened by the music. This creates a poignant commentary on the characters’ internal and external struggles. Another moment of bliss occurs as the music starts while Amirtha sees the mountainous rock. The music reaches a crescendo, heightening the sense of wonder.

Together, the cinematography, editing, and music in “Paradise” not only enhance the film’s aesthetic appeal but also deepen its emotional impact. They work in unison to draw the audience into the narrative, making the viewing experience both visually captivating and emotionally resonant. Vithanage’s masterful use of these elements underscores his ability to craft a film that is both a powerful personal story and a piercing social critique.

There are three defining moments towards the end of the film.

One cannot overlook the pivotal shooting scene in the film where Kesav ends up being shot. There is an ambiguity surrounding whether it was an accident or not. In that explosive moment, it seems as if the film director himself might admit uncertainty about what happened and how it happened. The situation is so enigmatic. Amritha’s emotional turmoil is palpable—her anguish defies reason, and our empathy for her is profound.

One way to explain the shooting is by analyzing Amritha’s state of mind at that moment. When Kesav starts shooting at the mob, she shouts, “Don’t” (shoot). Despite her plea, Kesav continues. It could be argued that Amritha deliberately shoots Kesav, not to kill him, but to stop him from harming the estate mob. However, this interpretation is not definitive; other explanations are possible.

In the next scene of the film, Andrew, the tourist guide, describes it as an unfortunate accident. Viewers are inclined to empathize with him, but lingering doubts prevent them from being entirely convinced. Deep down, Andrew likes Amritha and wants to protect her. In that sense, he would have gone to any extent to interpret the shooting as an accident

This scenario instantly exemplifies the “Rashomon effect,” a term derived from Akira Kurosawa’s work, which describes the phenomenon where different people have contradictory interpretations of the same event, highlighting the unreliability of eyewitnesses. Prasanna maximizes the Rashomon effect in this brief yet powerful scene. The ending leaves the audience questioning the reliability of all the narratives presented. Similarly, the audience is aware that verifying the sequence of events could reveal the objective truth in the end.

The film’s final defining moment occurs when Amritha asks Andrew a critical question that goes unanswered. The audience sees only Andrew’s almost emotionless, nonplussed face reflected in the jeep’s rearview mirror. The close-up of Amritha’s face gradually transitions to a scene of the jeep passing the Sita Amman Temple, as the credits begin to roll.

What is the critical question?

“Mr. Andrew, do you believe what you said at the police station?

This question is open to many interpretations. Amritha is grappling with the pain of recurring memories of her traumatic experience. She may be seeking reassurance, and ultimately, she might be striving to find peace with her soul – as dense as a forest, so dark and deep (part of the lyrics of the song at the end).

The audience fervently hopes she finds that peace!

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    The author ends by asking “what is the critical question”. I too ask the same.

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