Wednesday, October 21, 2015

'Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka': Prasanna Vithanage's near-apotheosis

Labelling works of art with tags is conventional and easy. Dissecting them is not. Critics are wont to paint them with their own likes and dislikes. Nothing wrong there, but rarely does one come across a work of art that’s so well crafted, so meticulous in pacing, and narrated with enough respect for the lay audience, that no amount of reviews can get to its originality.

Prasanna Vithanage knows pacing. He knows flow. He knows his craft enough to appreciate that for all those preconceived notions of cinema writers love to rant and rave about, originality and individuality are what finally count. True, individuality is something to be met with most of our independent filmmakers. Vithanage, however, is of a different brand. Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka, which premiered here about two months ago, adds to his CV something we’ve been wanting for quite a long time: an apotheosis. Well, it's not exactly an apotheosis. But it's something close. Very close.

There’s a “story” in Vithanage’s latest film (released originally in 2012). What story there is, though, is free of frill. Translated (and transposed) from a short tale by Dostoyevsky (“The Meek One”), the plot follows a pawnbroker and his obsessive but undefined love for a girl from a different milieu. That’s probably where the story begins, but that’s also where it ends.

Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka goes beyond a narrative, hence. For those who come for action, for chronological narrative which shows much by way of on-the-surface plotline, this will disappoint. Not because the film is devoid of plot, but what little there is of one is used to interweave character and theme, enough to make us ask “What’s his/her motivation?” rather than “What will happen next?”

“A woman who loves, oh, a woman who loves idealises even the vices, even the villainies of the man she loves,” Dostoyevsky’s narrator tells us in the original tale. He is referring not to his wife but to his idealisation of her. The narrator loves his wife, but only if she is subordinate to him. She isn't, and that is where the story moves on towards its climax.

Vithanage doesn’t directly import that here. Wisely. What he does is to set his story against a theme he’s visited again and again: the war. By making his protagonist a former Sinhalese soldier and his lover a Tamil Christian, the director not only raises potential for conflict but more importantly deepens the impulses that run through his characters.

If this is all he did, though, it would have jarred. Mercifully, he desists from painting a black/white dichotomy between his two protagonists. He instead leaves his canvas open for other clashes, other opposites. For this though, he needs two points in his favour: the cast and the script. In both he has much to be thankful for.

First, the script. There’s hardly any dialogue or music. Lakshman Joseph de Saram’s contribution to the soundtrack, as little as it is, does its job with grace, accentuating contrast between love and hate and aspiration and despair that’s at the heart of the film. Other than de Saram’s theme though, music plays one role: to pit the insularity of the two (anti-)heroes against the fantasyland they hope to escape to. This is why we hear excerpts of popular music throughout the film. There’s irony there. Beautifully coloured.

The director distils this contrast the “morning after consummation”, when Sarathsiri (the man) embraces and caresses Selvi (the woman) before a window overlooking the Bogawantalawa hills, while a popular song is heard faintly in the background. The scene offers irony. M. D. Mahindapala, who has shown again that he is a cinematographer willing to reflect the director’s conception of his art without letting go of individuality, proves his mettle here. Brilliantly. A. Sreekar Prasad's editing captures contrast and irony excellently too, owing largely to how he eschews frill in scene after scene.

While the Sinhala/Tamil “split” has been discussed and even glossed over, the director has ensured that inasmuch as it provides room for psychological insight, it’s hardly enough. That is probably why, as opposed to his best work – Anantha Rathriya in particular, which was also based on a Russian short story – there’s a humanism here which tries to gush out, but which never actually does.

Here’s where the cast comes into play. Shyam Fernando as Sarathsiri portrays a character that broods on life without confessing till the end that he does so. Indeed, not until the last third of the story does he reveal his motive for his love (best unrevealed here). And yet, with all that, we’re not sure what he’s up to. He prefers to let go of his own identity, yes. But not for nothing. What’s his price then? Selvi’s love? We never really know.

Vithanage’s stories are based on guilt. It is guilt that moves his characters. Fernando is able to capture not only a man caught between desire and frigidity, but also a man who makes up his mind and opts for self-resolution just when what he’s set on doing abruptly shatters. All through that, he harbours guilt. When he unburdens himself of it, he thinks all is well. Not so.

The sequence of Selvi “escaping” Sarath for good (“I could never be the wife you wanted me to be,” she informs us in a voiceover later) may appear contrived  (it did for me), which probably is why it's a little disjointed. But filmmakers are not documentarians. They are not life-chroniclers. 

Selvi isn't your conventional lover. No two words about it, Anjali Patil does her justice there. She is raw. She doesn’t mince words. Above everything else, she is young and her portrayal of a “meek one” turning defiant is memorable because of that. The twists and turns she undergoes, the torment she embodies in an in-your-face manner can’t be described. They should be watched.
                                                                                                                                     
She grips reality. But barely. Unlike Sarath, Selvi has no real self. She loves the stuff of popular cinema (her adulation of Vijay comes into the story more than once), but beyond that she has no real character of her own. Her husband does what he can do: project his self into hers, and in doing so trying to infuse it into a woman who loathes everything he stands for.

This is why the humanism that pulsates in Vithanage’s work never gushes out here. And it’s not only because of Selvi’s “act of defiance”. It’s embedded elsewhere: in Sarath’s mundane life (he watches wrestling matches, which offers as much escapism as does the cricket match from Ira Madiyama), the scenes of marriage life between Selvi and Sarath, and the brief intrusion of Sarath’s friend Gamini into the story. There is guilt, but unlike in Pawuru Walalu that guilt doesn't transmute into redemption: it instead gets perpetuated until Sarath reaches his “of-sorts” catharsis.

So with a cast and script like this, how does “style” count? Labelling films with tags does little justice to critic or director. Labels are fine and well, but only if used with a pinch of salt. That doesn’t prevent comment, however.

Vithanage’s craft in his latest film depends on two things: his deliberate use of austerity and his thematisation of memory as a tool of guilt-unburdening. Those are not unique to this film. They are there in his other work. In here however, it inhabits in an almost insular world. That may be a strength, since the story consequently gains in concentration and energy what it would have lost had there been other characters and plotlines. On the other hand, it totters along at some points. That is a weakness.

There's more.

When Selvi breaks into a final frenzy after Sarath confesses why he left the Army, we see that same inexplicable break from sanity and embrace of madness to be seen in many of Bergman’s female characters. Bibi Andersson from Persona, for instance.

The comparison to Bergman doesn’t end at that. As with his most austere work, there is a sense of despair here. Not at guilt, but at its persistence. Vithanage’s two heroes try to escape their pasts, but can never do so. And there Selvi is Sarath’s equal: they cannot reconcile because they are restrained by past and guilt from doing so. Madness isn't merely a choice for Selvi, hence. She has nothing else to embrace.

On the other hand, Sarathsiri is a Meursault who’s fallen in love. He is motive-less. He exists for no reason, but at the same time struggles with a need for meaning. In his closeted affirmation of and thirst for life, he almost becomes a Bressonian hero. Like Bresson’s protagonists, he lives for nothing (or anything). Like them, he seeks meaning only when it starts eluding him. There is motive here, true. But we see that barely. And only towards the end.

Does he reach what he tries to grasp though? That’ll depend on how the viewer interprets the ending.
                                                                                                                        
In short, the heroes of Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka don’t merely live in a void. They EXIST in one. That however doesn’t preclude them from conducting their own lives in the “out there” and “beyond”, and as a result the austerity that Vithanage injects into his narrative embodies life, passionless though it is. Probably that’s where he attains a near-apotheosis.

There are those who’ll complain that there’s hardly any music or action. They are correct. Inasmuch as a story of this sort needs a plot, Vithanage has defied convention. He is to be applauded for this, no doubt. Whether his adaptation of Dostoyevsky is as successful as Anantha Rathriya, however, is for another debate. A film should firstly be assessed against its own merits. And Vithanage’s film wins on that count. Big time. But not perfectly.

Postscript: Most reviews (in Sinhala or English) of Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka have focused on the civil war. Granted, that IS a part of the film, but there's so much more to the plot that's missed by the critic in his/her attempt to make a "greatest film about the 30-year-old war" out of Prasanna Vithanage's latest work.

Works of art have an "inherent aesthetic merit" (Dhanuka Bandara uses that term, and in this I agree with him) that does not transcend the context in which the work in question is placed but at the same time demands that the work be assessed not JUST politically but on so many other levels endemic to the medium of the work of art in question.

Contextualising Vithanage's film on the "civil war" platform and thereby lavishing adjectives on it does his film and work up-to it little service.

Will our critics learn? One hopes so. Fervently.