Sunday, February 26, 2017

'Premaya Nam': In the name of love and sanity

Last year at the Colombo International Film Festival, I met a woman whose name I unfortunately don’t remember now. There’s usually time to lunch and chat during a break between two films (provided that both are shown at the same Hall), so the two of us sat down, lunched, and chatted.

Because I didn’t have much time to watch everything that would be screened then, I asked her about two Sinhala films which were being “premiered” at the Festival, Boodi Keerthisena’s Alone in a Valley and Vindana and Kalpana Ariyawansa’s Dirty, Yellow, Darkness.

According to this woman, Boodi’s film was “too confusing” while the other was “too unsightly.” I thought that the latter was more or less experimental too, going by the title, but I was wrong. Without spoiling the plot for me, she told me that it was about a man who’s afraid of his own urine. After a point, she added, it proved to be too much, so much in fact that she was glad when it was over. She was no film critic, but back then I was only a filmgoer, not a writer, so I withheld comment. In any case, I didn’t get to see it.

A year later I met Kularatne Ariyawansa and was surprised to learn that Vindana and Kalpana were his sons. I was confused by then by the discrepancy between their film’s English and Sinhala titles (while the former still made me believe it was an experimental indie, “Premaya Nam” made me believe it was another conventional love story). So before their father came for the interview, I quizzed the two of them over their debut, and was surprised to learn how prepared the two were in resolving my doubts. While I will not reveal everything they said, I will say that I was persuaded to watch it at its premiere last Friday, February 17, with my father. This is not a film review, rather a sketch of how I felt about it as just another filmgoer.

Vindana’s and Kalpana’s film reminds you of how simple filmmaking appears to be when in fact great effort must be taken to sustain that myth. A director needs to be endowed with a keen editorial eye, to spot out extraneous shots. He or she needs to sift them away without retaining them to obtain effect (or sensationalism). While I don’t doubt that mental illness isn’t as taboo a theme as, say, homosexuality, it is true that many of our directors take their eagerness to depict such themes as a license to sensationalise. For that reason alone, I liked Premaya Nam.

What I took to the most in it, therefore, was its pacing. From the word go, the Ariyawansa brothers have ensured that they don’t overdo it, that they don’t show us its protagonist’s problem in gushes and torrents. Because my attention span is accursedly small, I was hence enthralled by the first few sequences, when the protagonist Vishwa lets us know that he has an issue with his bathroom (what it is, we don’t know yet). When we realise that his wife Samadi moves out on him (which, by the way, is the first scene) and when her parents get to know about his illness, we give ourselves up to the plot, because we know that like all well edited films, this one will flow like poetry.

That is why I loved the way the directors had depicted their theme: again, not in gushes, but in a flow. I felt that they had parsed their plot to keep us asking for more, to keep us asking that forever lingering question “What next?” even towards the end.

Vishwa’s illness bewilders us (for the record, he’s afraid of his own urine because he suffers from OCD) not because we haven’t encountered people like him, but because such a person has now been depicted, not as the freak we think he may be but as another human being, who longs to retain his sanity and return to his wife.

For that reason, the way the other characters were depicted helped. Samadi, for instance, was not portrayed as the forever understanding woman she usually would be: while she tolerates Vishwa’s problem, she lets him know that she will return to him only if he resolves his issue. While it’s not only her departure that compels him to admit himself at the National Institute of Mental Health (or Angoda, as it’s popularly referred to), it does precipitate his desire to do so when he realises that his illness will only worsen. Samadi’s parents, similarly, are not portrayed as conservative prigs: they initially lambast Vishwa’s parents (“Who’d want to marry a madman?”) but in the very next shot are pacified by Vishwa’s psychiatrist, who makes them understand what he is suffering from.

And here I come to the Mental Hospital. Kalpana told me that the entire film was shot in 28 days, and that to instil realism they went to Angoda, though they ended up using (as per protocol) a “safe” Ward without filming actual patients. We realise, as do the film’s characters, that a mental hospital is not a circus and that while one may come across people considered abnormal, they are not wholly devoid of the wishes, hopes, and beliefs that we do hold dear. I rather liked the way the Ariyawansa brothers had treated their theme at the Hospital: while Vishwa is certainly not the madman many of those resident there are considered as, his visit there is vital for him (and us).

I hence warmed up to the way Vindana and Kalpana had approached their theme: when they probe into Vishwa’s problem, for instance, they resort to a series of shots which alternate from the one to the other in quick succession, to make us understand how jarring his illness is to him. 

When Vishwa writes about his fear of touching objects touched by others, moreover, we see those objects from Vishwa’s perspective: tainted with a yellow substance, which sizzles (like fire) when touched and which stick on you like goo and in turn stick on everything else you touch. Again, subtle.

So what of the actors? Shyam Fernando was Prasanna Vithanage’s discovery: I saw him in Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka and was entranced by his enigmatic personality. He has the potential to keep back, to retain guilt, to tell us everything there is to know about sorrow and sadness through his eyes. Vindana and Kalpana picked him out right after Prasanna was done with his film, which I personally think was correct: Shyam is not enamoured of that fame that ravishes other, more popular stars, so it’s only fit that we have an actor who can portray an ordinary man beset by extraordinary circumstances. In other words, it didn’t take much time for me to take to him. Shyam still has a wide terrain to cross. I sincerely hope that he will cross it.

Of the other actors, Samanalee Fonseka and Buddhadasa Vithanarachchi (as Samadi and Samadi’s father respectively) were effective: as I mentioned before, they were neither opposed to nor accommodating of Vishwa’s condition. It was Suranga Ranaweera, however, who really got to me, though she had less screen time. Suranga was Chandran Rutnam’s discovery, with his Alimankada, but here I daresay she was qualitatively better: as the empathetic nurse, she keeps us guessing as to whether the two of them will fall in love. But no: when he leaves the hospital, he leaves everything behind. Including her. His sojourn there, hence, is exactly that: a sojourn, from which a return to the outside world is possible.

My only problem, which has nothing to do with the film’s technical merits, was its ending. It was ambiguous, I felt: do the directors want us to gauge mental illness on the basis of how quickly those suffering from it return to conventional society, or do they want us to empathise with the patient even if he or she can’t return? In the final scene we see that Vishwa is ready for therapy and that Samadi has accepted him, but I couldn’t help but wonder: are we supposed to empathise with a conventional society that still stigmatises mental patients? Have the directors inadvertently caved in to the conventional wisdom that mental patients, while certainly not madmen, must do anything and everything in their power to embrace the same conventional society that repudiates them?

Not that it matters, of course. While the ending was ambiguous, perhaps it was because we identified so strongly with Vishwa that we didn’t want him to go out of his way to placate an intolerant society. Either way, I liked the film.

One final point. That woman I referred to earlier, I have lost contact with. I needed a fresh perspective to make me forget what she had to say. I found that perspective at the end of the screening with Chandran Rutnam. Here’s what Chandran, a man known for his outspoken views on the cinema, had to say: “What this makes us understand is that a film can enthral and entertain without the obligatory song-and-dance sequence. It takes itself up to examine an unconventional theme and it achieves its purpose. In the end, it both enthrals and entertains.”

Perhaps I should end my piece here. Chandran has summed what I wanted to say. I think it’s best that we heed what he said. And go watch Premaya Nam to ascertain its worth for ourselves.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, February 26 2017