Sunday, December 20, 2015

'Ho Gaana Pokuna': A Breath of Fresh Air


Not too long ago, I asked a prominent director to comment on our children's film industry. I told him that what are marketed as kids’ films are filled with elements that render such a categorisation crass and cheap. He gave his take on the subject: "That's because those aren't children's films. Those are films with children in them."

To me that summed it up pretty well, but I told him that this hardly offered consolation. He cautioned me against taking such a stand: "There'll come a day when we'll see films that capture children at their best. Until then, we can only hope."

That was two years back. I didn't know Indika Ferdinando then. I didn't know that he had made a film that would make the rounds with critics the world over. When he previewed it to sections of the media and film industry some weeks ago, there was at the end of it unqualified praise, unqualified not because Indika was an "established" director but because this realised the hopes and aspirations of Sri Lankan film-goers. Ho Gaana Pokuna, released to audiences here more than a week back, was a breath of fresh air. "There is room for hope", I thought to myself. And smiled.

Critiquing or praising a film made for children with the same criterion used for one made for adults is of course an injustice to both the work of art and its creator. Children’s films inhabit a universe of their own. That universe is (almost) always painted in black and white. Good triumphs, evil is thwarted. The ending usually resolves whatever dilemma the children in them may have been facing. Reality isn't rosy, but in this world it is. On these and other counts therefore, I admit it straight away: Ferdinando's debut does justice to the genre he's chosen to work in.

Notwithstanding all that however, a work of art is best judged by how well it brings together form and content without doing away with a live, human experience. Indika has fused his film together well in this regard. The spontaneity of his players (adult and child), the flow of the narrative, the themes it embodies, and the wider context to which all these relate can’t really be summed up in an article.

I saw his play "The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno" recently, and I saw comedy throughout. Distilled and raw. He echoes this in Ho Gaana Pokuna. From the first shot – a sustained, uninterrupted sequence of Miss Uma (our heroine, played by Anasuya Subasinghe) by the beach and telling her lover that she's been posted as a teacher to an outstation school – we see comedy lurking in the background, always entertaining us but never transcending the flow of the narrative. This is the trap directors of family films are ensnared into: to subordinate the entire plot to displays of comedy, thinking that children don’t see anything else. Indika, thankfully, steps away from this.


What of the plot then? A detailed recounting would be superfluous and beside the point, but it basically begins with Miss Uma (fresh from University but not quite “out” of its political activity) opting to teach at an elementary school in Dombagamuwa. The school is housed by a set of children (almost straight from Neverland, it seems) and a formidable principal (Lucien Bulathsinhala), who all seem to have made it a world away from home. The principal, who also happens to be the school's only teacher, keeps his pupils in fear (to no avail: when at one point he imitates a dragon to keep them away from a piano sent by the World Bank, one of them chips in: "Nice performance, sir!").

The predictable unfolds: Uma is more liberal and understanding, gets closer to the children, and wins them and the entire village (including the principal) over. That comes in handy in the second half, when the children begin to clamour for the unthinkable: a trip to the beach. What happens thereafter, whether Uma and the principal get everyone to agree to their proposal, and whether they do to go on their trip, shouldn't be described in words. They must be watched.

What I noticed throughout was how Indika tantalisingly offered plot-lines that could have provided easy “opt-out” points for the narrative but withdrew them in time. It would have been easy (fatally so), for instance, to present an ideological clash between principal and teacher, but the script (mercifully) escapes such a contrivance. To their credit, both Lucien and Anasuya do what's expected of them, and in the end what we see in the former is an "old school" but by no means evil teacher. He is as pliable in the face of the plot as the rest of the village are.

Even in the sequence where Miss Uma convenes an Assembly in school, and debates with the principal over where it's headed (he is concerned whether "democratising" the school this way won’t “make farmers out of these children”), Indika doesn't dwell too much on the political: the debate ends then and there, and a few scenes later, the principal has been won over to his rival's side.

Because of this, not only the children (I'll come to them shortly) but the adult players also are convincing. Lucien Bulathsinhala gives his best, as expected, and so does the rest of the "veteran" cast, but it was Anasuya who caught me. 

As "Miss Uma", Anasuya depicts a woman who's tired of shouting against injustice, who yearns to act rather than parrot out slogans. She forms the epicentre of the film's ideology, which Dilshan Boange in an earlier review touched on (he calls it “centre-left” in a “broader context”, and to an extent I agree with him). Whether or not such a depiction is true to life and whether such idealists inhabit our world (at times she reminded me of Maria von Trapp and Mary Poppins in one go) are questions the serious critic must ponder on, but I admit it: she managed to sustain her portrayal of a teacher who gets over every obstacle, even when they lead to dead-ends (in which case other, less plausible coincidences set them right).


To their credit, the rest of the cast did well also. There was Jayalath Manorathna as Justin the bus-driver. When he enters into orbit with the kids, we see distilled, felt humour. Given that Manorathna has been featured in "children's films" before, it was refreshing to see him at his best: he sees no reason for lament when confessing that he drives without a license, but backs away like a confused, reluctant giant when Miss Uma, the principal, and all the children pester him into sitting for the driver's test. As for the others, Hyacinth Wijeratne, Dayadeva Edirisinghe, Jayani Senanayake, Wasantha Muhandiram, and Geetha Kanthi Jayakody don't disappoint. Not even once.

In short, the supporting characters are neither villains nor heroes. They are frail and impotent in the face of what dominates the script through and through: Miss Uma and her kids. To second-guess what this leads to in the end would defeat the purpose though. There's so much here that can be missed by the critic in his or her attempt at reducing the entire the plot to its final, predictable conclusion (and I am not connoting anything negative here, by the way: children's films by nature contain predictable finales, as they should).

What jarred a little was how Indika scripted his ending. Nothing in the script really prepared us for Uma crying out at the children playing in the beach. Nothing that unfolded before allowed room for the tears that she shed. What was even more jarring was how she brightened up at the sight of her lover, in a way which indicated that those tears were unnecessary. Thankfully though, that did not hinder the political, idealistic tone of her last few lines, and as the credits rolled I knew I was part of an audience who had been moved by her final speech.

None of this would have been possible without the child actors. To the film they contribute the kind of spontaneity and honesty only children are capable of. The witty dialogues, the dexterous and sudden shifts of moods (hovering between comedy and pathos) are made all the more nuanced by their performances. To say that they and they alone are responsible for the film's triumph would be stretching things too far, but I'll grant Indika this much: I didn't see artifice there. I saw honesty. With kids that's usually the case, but Indika (I feel) has scrounged something more out of them. Applause-worthy, no doubt.

Dinesh Subasinghe's contribution to the score merits special mention as well: it at once transports us to the children's world, and absorbs our attention to it, particularly in the final drive to the beach. That drive is set against a song-and-dance sequence that concentrates the entire story’s energy within itself, and submerges everything else in fantasy (especially when Miss Uma is stopped by a policeman, who lets her off when the kids plead with him: reality is not so rosy, I thought bitterly to myself).

And so I confess: I longed to go back to Indika’s world after it was over. Again and again. Not many films inspire such a feeling in me.

In Ho Gaana Pokuna therefore, we come across something we haven't in a long time. A (truly) children's film. I’m not suggesting that Indika's debut will salvage the industry. Far from it. But he has demonstrated such a sure grasp of the medium, with regard to camerawork, editing, scripting, and dialogues, that we can see an inherent love for cinema in it. On the level of intelligent storytelling, this works wonderfully well.

We are grateful.

Written for: Sunday Island LIFESTYLE, December 20 2015