By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
On Prasanna Vithanage’s Movie: “Oba Nethuwa, Oba Ekka”
We ordinary filmgoers are often baffled by the multi-varied kinds and venues of film awards other than the Oscars and Cannes destinations. It appears that almost any film maker in humble Sri Lanka can find a berth at least (leave alone an award) to present his/her product at global level in some sort of festival and come home happy for all the massive effort. We are now being educated about Montreal Film Festival, Asia Pacific Screen Awards, Pusan International Film Festival, Singapore International Film Festival, Grand Prix at the Amiens Film Festival, Venice Film Festival and so on. It seems endless.
Prasanna Vithanage, born in 1962 and educated at DS Senanayake College, has made great strides in the Sinhala movie industry recording outstanding awards and not mere ‘also-ran’ status at most of the above festivals. Vithanage is both a pride and honour for us, Sri Lankans. His latest, “Oba Nethuwa, Oba Ekka,” (With You, without You) was first released in India this year. One of the best Sinhala movies I have seen is his “Ira Mediyama.”
In getting Indian collaboration and showing his movie in India Prasanna has shown a marketing prescience. The Sri Lankan market, saturated with cheap and shoddy melodramatic tele drama, is not the place to sell a serious movie. Movies are costly to produce and making them to deliver to the Sri Lankan cinemagoer is bound to be ill-fated. The Sri Lankan Film Corporation, set up originally to boost movie production, is a dead duck.
Glancing at the websites I notice that “Oba Nethuwa, Oba Ekka” is described as showing a ‘ deep and unbridgeable chasm’ between a young woman and young man belonging to the North and South of Sri Lanka respectively. I did not see it that way. To me it was about the ravage of conscience that was curable with the right cognitive therapy. We each of us live in our own respective realities formed by our unique backgrounds and experiences. We interpret the doings and sayings of others in the framework of our specific personal reality. Given space to participate in the shared human experience that prevails is an illuminated understanding arises. The Spanish philosopher Spinoza said that our task in the review of human events is not to condemn but to understand. Prasanna’s movie showed glimpses of how mutual understanding can be creative in developing human cooperation. For some misguided Sinhala ‘patriots’ who have attacked Prasanna without seeing his product (their judgments are always predetermined) the light is there to see. “Oba Nethuwa, Oba Ekka” is a story of a bitter post-war situation; but the movie gives insights that can help clear misapprehension of both sides of the post-war divide. Sinhalese will understand the mindset of Tamil victims of war and Tamils will comprehend the true nature of the Sinhala soldier. Stereotypes will show up to be unreal.
Selvi (Anjali Patil) and Sarathsiri (Shyam Fernando) find each other in an unromantic situation but they unusually get attracted to each other and enter the marital bed. They try to live together drawing clear lines off their past and they do a pretty good job of that with a good dose of sexual love until Sarathsiri’s long-lost pal Gamini (Wasantha Moragoda) puts in a casual visit. Gamini and Sarathsiri had deserted the Sri Lanka army that fought the war with the Tamil Tigers. Sarathsiri left over a serious prick of conscience about having lied to save a fellow soldier over charges of criminal rape of innocent Tamil civilians. He didn’t like the brutality of war and admits he joined the forces because he had no other job.
The army job was not Sarathsiri’s meat and it impacted harshly on his conscience turning him into a neurotic introvert. He was crushed in guilt and tried hard to get over it. Sarathsiri is seen ritually worshipping before the image of the Buddha. His visage unveiled the tension within and he couldn’t open himself freely with others-least of all with his new bride, Selvi. He is seen performing the sexual act with brutal gusto and no emotion. He cannot open out the gentle side of his personality. Indeed Sarathsiri is an inherently soft man sensitive to the suffering of others. He shouldn’t have become a pawn broker in the first place but I suppose this phase in his career was imposed on him by his circumstances as did his bout as a soldier in the army. That he was a humane person sensitive to the suffering of others (this made him leave the army, too) is seen in the numerous occasions he returned jewelery taken as security and lent money, unsecured.
Selvi recalled her horrific, painful past experience upon hearing of her husband’s role in what she refers to as the ‘Sinhala army.’ Her two young brothers, who played no role in the Tiger army, had been bashed and killed. Her family had been raped. The resultant trauma had lasting obsessive impressions obstructing her ability to get on with life after tragedy. Like other Tamils, she hated the ‘Sinhala Army.’
The Gamini revelation played havoc with their burgeoning marital happiness. Here is a classic clash of conscience. On the other hand, it is ironic that this situation opened up an opportunity for Sarathsiri to confess all and thereby release himself of the guilt that had plagued him. He manages to reconcile with his wife and assuage her. He decides to sell up his business and go to India with her. The problem was that the renaissance of Sarathsiri converted the latter into an unbounded lover and romantic. Selvi, with past traumas never cleaned off the slate, develops a new internal conflict. Can she yield herself fully in the altar of love with the entire haunt inside her? The naïve demands of her husband intimidates her.
“Oba Nethuwa, Oba Samaga” deliberately gives the end of the storyline at the beginning. The objective of the filmmaker was not to surprise the audience with the string of events but to let the audience share the internal conflicts of the character generated by the war. This narrative format enabled our focus on the mental interplay.
Prasanna is someone focused on the camera. Long shots, bird’s eye view and close shots are employed with dexterity. The business transactions of the pawnbroker, replete with close shots and appropriately darkened, were made to look grim and deadly-the poor having to part with their life’s savings in order to get desperately needed cash. Paying back will be very difficult so that that parting of valuable jewellary seemed to give the impression of parting with life itself. The tragedy of penury is open for all to see. There is nothing so sad as being poor! The pawnbroker himself was made to look like an executioner although, as we noted, he wasn’t actually that. The hands of the giver and taken were shown in contrast.
There was a small bit of humour in an otherwise humourless film, when the Muslim buyer entered. Showing his sharp circumspection he taps even on the steel doors of the enclosed area of trading! That single act was merciful to the audience and it was performed superbly.
Anjali Patil, the Indian actress, was well cast to play the female protagonist. She played beautifully showing all the permutations of mind that took place. Shyam Fernando could have, perhaps, shown less monotony and more variation but he was deeply convincing. Lakshmi and Gamini were also well cast. And of course the Muslim trader!