Sunday, November 22, 2015

'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 Performance Board (PPB). He uses his film as leverage for his argument. In this I agree with him.

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, not surprisingly: between the austerity of his predecessors and the ideology-orientation of his successors. This is true for his work up-to now as well: 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 political ideology, and what little there was never became larger-than-life or got to become a character on its own. 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 newly wed consummate their marriage, for instance, the husband caresses the wife by the window that's overlooking the Bogawanthalawa hills. Right at that moment, a popular song (Hindi? Tamil? Sinhala?) is heard in the background, and we are presented with what only the 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 out her 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 (with snatches of popular songs heard whenever Sarath and Selvi leave their house). 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 have missed out that the film had less to do 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 Anantha Rathriya. 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 neither 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 in Purahanda Kaluwara.

In Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka that relationship between ideology and content is not sustained. This isn't me saying it, by the way. 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." That amounts to crass simplification 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. She lashes at Sarath one night, true, and she recounts her reasons for hating him (and his race). Her behaviour after that however is less certain, and indeed it seems as though she herself has forgotten 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 crops in. There was politics in Anantha Rathriya and more so in Purahanda Kaluwara and Ira Madiyama. But politics, whether of 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.

When the war (representing ideology) intrudes into the story here, it does so literally: through the agency of Gamini. What happens next? It tries to take over the narrative, to a point where it's concentrated purely and only between Sarath and Selvi.

The predictable unfolds: the hatred one feels for the other perpetuates itself, until all we're left with are two characters quivering in a void, while the world outside (including Gamini, one may add) has moved on. The message that Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka brings out 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 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 fact, however: it could have been better. No consolation that, you must admit.

Note: I reviewed Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka sometime back. I called it a "near-apotheosis". I still stand by that. It is a near-apotheosis. It represents all that Vithanage has come to be associated with by those who've followed his films. Unfortunately, that (and whatever praise I made on its technical merits) is hardly enough to salvage it from its main weaknesses, which a review (written by a Marxist and full of unqualified praise for reasons not too explicable) provoked me to delve into and write about. I tried to step away from ideology with what I wrote before. A mistake on my part, I now realise. And regret.