Prasanna Vithanage’s Latest Film deteriorates into Ideology

Uditha Devapriya,  in The Island, 22 November 2015, with the title ” ‘Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka’: Descent Into Ideology”

Prasanna Vithanage’s latest film Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka was originally slated for release back in 2012. The government imposed a ban, while the government that followed it removed the ban. Same story as before: been there, seen that. Vithanage however has discounted the likelihood of miracles from the new government, and in an interview with Wasantha Rupasinghe has called for the elimination of the Public Performances Board (PPB). He uses his film as leverage for his argument. In this I agree with him.

A= OBA NATHUWA On the other hand I wonder what the government saw fit to ban in the film. In the interview Prasanna points out that censors were uncomfortable with his main character, Sarath, owning a pistol in his house despite being an ex-Army combatant. He laments that authorities felt it should be cut off. “Stupid!” is the word one can use when describing the censors in this respect.

Still, I wonder whether the film warranted such a backlash from “The Establishment”. Aesthetic merit is rarely if at all considered when it decides what a work of art should contain, but I persist: if the government considered banning Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka, their assessment of the “effects” they thought it could spawn after its release was, to put it mildly, irrational.

The truth then is that Vithanage’s latest work demands hard questions, particularly in the relationship between form and content, between technical interest and experience that it plays around with. These aren’t accounted for by government censors, which means (and I say this honestly) that any aesthetic merit the film has should be separated from questions delving into whether it should have been banned at all. Not being a film critic myself, I wouldn’t know how to assess this properly. I can try though.

Prasanna Vithanage is not “old school”. He is credited by many (rightly) of fathering the independent film movement here. He occupies a twilight world: between the austerity of his predecessors and the ideological orientation of his successors. This is true for his films up-to now: they contain an ideology, but unlike many who followed him he has been careful not to let it transcend his films. Both Purahanda Kaluwara and Ira Madiyama, made at the height of the civil war and controversial for their time, illustrated this. Amply.

From the word go, it would seem that Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka follows this trend. The plot’s based on a Dostoyevsky short story. This isn’t the first time he’s translated a Russian writer to a Sri Lankan setting, of course. But in Anantha Rathriya there was no explicit political ideology, and what little of it there was never took up a character of its own in the script. I’ll come to Anantha Rathriya later, but for the time being let me dwell on what caught my eye in this film.

First, the camerawork and editing. M. D. Mahindapala and A. Sreekar Prasad complement each other well. The combination works particularly in sequences where Vithanage pits reality against fantasy. On the morning after Sarath and his newlywed consummate their marriage, for instance, the husband caresses the wife by the window that’s overlooking the Bogawantalawa hills. Right at that moment, a popular song (Hindi? Tamil? Sinhala?) is heard in the background, and we are given what only cinema could have conceived for us: the collision of popular fantasy with grim realism, the latter represented only too well by Sarath’s “house” and his miserliness.

Second, the performances; Shyam Fernando and Anjali Patil give the best they can, and considering they aren’t exactly newcomers things would have been disconcerting if otherwise. Patil plays a woman who’s never too sure of motive, whose past is never known (not even, we suspect as the plot moves along, to her). She doesn’t mince her words and lashes out at Sarath. The twists and turns of character she undergoes cannot be described, hence. They must be watched.

Lakshman Joseph de Saram’s contribution is remarkable too. What music there is in the film is sparse and spare, and for good reason. It’s used on two counts: to accentuate Sarath’s feeling of unrequited love (in the end), and to highlight the outside world. I’m not musically inclined, but his score kept well in line with Vithanage’s austere, no-frills vision.

So much for the pluses. Of the minuses I’ll write shortly, but before doing so I’d like to point out that Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka thematises the war. That’s it. We are never told why Sarath falls in love (if he ever does, that is) with Selvi, nor are we given a satisfactory explanation as to why he treats her coldly until the last third of the film. What the film gets across to us within the first half-hour is that Selvi is impassive, proud, in keeping with her high caste upbringing. A commentator pointed out that this could be inaccurate: she’s a Tamil Christian, a community that doesn’t privilege caste. For the moment though, let’s forget about that.

It might seem unfair on the face of it, but comparisons to both Anantha Rathriya and Purahanda Kaluwara are warranted here. In Anantha Rathriya, Suvisal (Ravindra Randeniya) is portrayed as a philanderer who impregnates a domestic servant. Sucharitha Gamlath found this to be typical of the landed aristocracy that the character emerges from, but contended against his (the character’s) later displays of remorse. Being a Marxist critic, he would perhaps have missed out the point that the film had to do less with social relations than with guilt and redemption.

I point this out because Marxist critics have been raving about Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka ever since it was released here. When Anantha Rathriya was screened their main preoccupation with it was class relations. With Vithanage’s latest film it seems they’ve shifted their focus to ethnic relations. They thus praise the director with every possible epithet.

No attempt however has been made about the relationship between form and content, and content and ideology, in the film. For these critics the man is the antagonist, the woman the silent sufferer. That’s it. Nothing else. Such a reading of ANY film is even cruder than Gamlath’s take on AnanthaRathriya. And for a very good reason.

In that film, Suvisal doesn’t exist in a void. There’s a social context he’s placed in (the setting is hinted to be around the time of the bheeshanaya) as is all its attendant politics. Suvisal’s predicament is not torn off from that context, but nor does that obtrude and take on a larger-than-life character. That is how the humanist in Vithanage triumphs, a point driven home even more so in Purahanda Kaluwara.

In Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka that relationship between ideology and content is not sustained. And this isn’t just me saying it. Nearly every critic who’s reviewed the film seems to have come out of the cinema hall with one basic comment: “brilliant take on the civil war.” Such a reading amounts to crass simplification (which lends credence to what I said before) on two counts: by the standard which that reading sets for itself, and by the standard of aesthetic merit.

First, the standard it sets for itself. According to this, the minority (represented by Selvi) is the oppressed while the majority (Sarath) the oppressor. That’s a black and white classification I agree, but even accounting for variations around it the film falls short on its own ambition. The woman’s rants after Sarath’s friend Gamini lets her know that he was in the Army are at first reasonable, especially when she reveals her own past to him. After a point though, her behaviour oscillates between submission and hatred.

Yes, there’ll be those who’ll say that the hatred is compounded by Sarath’s association with the Army, but even accounting for this, the director and scriptwriter never really roots her hysteria in anything substantive as time flows by. She lashes at Sarath one night, true, and she recounts her reasons for hating him (and his race). But her behaviour after that is less certain, and indeed it seems as though she herself forgets that hatred. Going by this, the good/bad split (however nuanced it may be) between wife and husband loses in substance what it tries to gain through hysterics and irrationality.

And here’s where another fault in the film pops in. There was politics in Anantha Rathriya and more so in Purahanda Kaluwara and Ira Madiyama. But politics, whether or race or class, never obtruded on the story. I am not of course suggesting that it shouldn’t enter the film’s canvas at all, but when it appears to be forced you can’t blame audience members who claim (in their own way) that form has outmoded content, that ideology has castrated a living, human experience.

The message that Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka brings out, not surprisingly, is different to what you’d expect from a film about the war: Selvi has nothing of any substance in her ranting, and Sarath’s last-minute fawning on her seems an odd, even disturbing, quirk.

I could go on. But it’s time for the ultimatum.

Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka will raise hairs among chauvinists and racists. It will provoke them into debate and discussion, and they’ll try to ethnicise the film in a way which will lead them to accuse Prasanna Vithanage of portraying the Army unfairly. They are however in the wrong. In Purahanda Kaluwara and Ira Madiyama Vithanage balanced ideology and content, which won both peace-lovers and warmongers over. Nothing of the sort here. That plays into the chauvinists. One way or the other.

I can only quote Regi Siriwardena in relation to Vithanage’s film, hence: “the technical interest seems to me to have outpaced the experience.” It happens, of course. Nothing wrong there. The point therefore isn’t that the film is a failure. The point is that, notwithstanding its demerits, it’s a good film. That doesn’t hide one salient point, however: it could have been better. No consolation that, you must admit.



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