Thursday, June 1, 2017

'Vaishnavee': The return of Sumitra Peries


The most intriguing point about Vaishnavee, Sumitra Peries’ latest movie, is that it subtly tricks you into believing there’s something intriguing. It’s a rare work of art, at a time when art is being compelled to bring out a largely nonexistent feeling of profundity. There’s nothing profound about it – it isn’t an existential tract on urban angst or an indictment on the status quo – but then Sumitra has never intellectualised the cinema like some of her own contemporaries have. Consequently, Vaishnavee is chock-a-block with a sense of simplicity and naïveté I couldn’t really evade. Or for that matter resist.

Most of our young moviemakers (Pauline Kael called them “brutalists” in her essay on Godard) tend to equate incoherence with intellect. They academise the cinema, which in itself isn’t bad if there was something to academise in their work in the first place. Sumitra’s movie isn’t academic like that: there’s a sense of apparentness throughout her story. She ends up borrowing from a love story that has lasted countless variations and from our special effects industry. Here then is an outline (less a review than a sketch) of what I felt about it, as a cinephile and a critic.

The title is a reference, an allusion. Vaishnavee was a consort of Lord Shiva, who is creator, destroyer, and transformer all in one. Sumitra finds a human equivalent for the latter in Osanda, a puppet-maker from Matara. The first hour of the story is about a thwarted romance: Osanda is betrothed to a woman (Shehara Hewadewa, mildly resembling the graceful Rathmalie Gunasekera) who elopes and leaves him devastated. Because he can’t have her, he tries carving what he liked about her into a puppet, a problem given that it was carved from a tree which wasn’t “blessed” before being cut down. Consequently, it comes to life.

The story (by Lester James Peries, as the titles inform us) is so simple and clear that it’s almost literal-minded. But Sumitra isn’t a literary director (she’s the best editor I’ve come across here), so she instils enough visual poetry in her subplots (even the ones that go nowhere) that one can only be entranced.


When the opening credits rolled in white-type-against-black set to the late Nimal Mendis’ music, I knew I was entering a morally simplified world. These aren’t really characters, I thought to myself as I saw Osanda (Thumudu Dodantanne), his cousin Ruchira (Samadhi Arunachaya), her father (Jayalath Manorathna), his mother (Irangani Serasinghe), and their magul kapuwa (Mahendra Perera). But they aren’t types either. As with the later work of Ray and Kurosawa, Sumitra tries to enmesh her cast in her simplified, optimistic world. She ends up enmeshing us in them.

Someone told me that Vaishnavee works on three layers, with the puppet-maker, the woman he loves, and the puppet he idealises her in. Sumitra doesn’t need to rationalise these explicitly because they’re there for all to see. Her world is tied together by familial bonds, the same bonds which define her husband’s work. It contains so much innocence that when Osanda tries to cut his wrist after discovering his betrothed has eloped, the camera quickly cuts to Manorathna hurrying in and stopping him. Their world is so unlike ours: set down in clear-cut terms, with characters rarely venting out their feelings, it belongs to the past.

But the past is charming. It swells us with nostalgia. Vaishnavee does exactly that. Even in its most banal sequences – as when Osanda “talks” to his puppets or when his uncle reflects on his goodness over breakfast – we give ourselves up. However mushy these are, they are needed. They are static, but it is from that staticity that they derive life. The reason for that, in fact the only reason I can think of, is that Sumitra has been working on the movies for the past 40 years, 50 if we are to include her career as an editor. Banality isn’t just the preserve of the past, it’s also the preserve of the masters and mesdames of that past. Sumitra didn’t start off with that banality, she challenged and conquered it. Those years helped.


Vaishnavee isn’t flawless, however, and I would be doing an injustice to both Sumitra and her movie if I don’t ponder on something in it that bothered me.

The worst movies can be salvaged by plots that parse. The best movies can be undone by plots that don’t. The first half of Vaishnavee on that count is the best, because it gets us ready for a climax, revelation, and finale. To my disappointment (mild as it was), though, I didn’t get any of these, at least not to the extent that first half warranted. Naturally enough, the second half didn’t parse: it continued to return to its own workings, devoting little time to what it should have led us to.

The first 75 minutes of the story is about Osanda. It centres on him so much that he remains our hero even when his puppet starts taunting him and Ruchira. He exemplifies everything innocent about the plot. But innocence alone isn’t enough: there must be some form of coherence, of chemistry. We don’t get either after those 75 minutes, in part owing to the intrusion of that puppet and the actor playing her.

Yashoda Wimaladharma’s ascent as an actor who selects her scripts and gives her best with the few she gets into isn’t recent. She’s been in the industry long enough to know that a bad script can be salvaged by a good performance and a great script can be stunted by a bad performance. As the Vaishnavee figure, she does a pretty decent job of bringing together the real and the ideal. I can’t think of another actor who could have played a puppet like that, because she is an actress who by default personifies the kind of defiant steeliness only a puppet-come-alive can evoke. Formally and aesthetically, therefore, she sustains that characterisation throughout. Commendably.


But then she represents everything, or almost everything, that’s vague in the second half. It’s not her fault only, moreover: it’s also the fault of the innocence that precedes her intrusion. For her foray into Osanda’s life can only be rooted in the assumption that she desires Osanda, Osanda carved the ideal of the other woman into her, and Osanda loved that other woman. If that last point isn’t properly brought out, it can ruin the spell of the entire movie. Which is almost exactly what happened.

Not only do we not infer any chemistry between Osanda and that other woman, we also don’t understand what he took to in her. We are forced to conclude that the puppet epitomises something in her, though we don’t know what it is barring an unhelpfully vague remark by Osanda to Ruchira. I am not sure whether the chemistry between him and it was supposed to be vague (because puppets aren’t expressive after all) but factoring even that, I was upset by how the latter transcended the narrative. It’s as though the plot had been set up to introduce her, but she wasn’t bothered by what set her up in the first place.

For that reason, everything I took to in Vaishnavee – the effects, the romance, the likeability of the characters – ballooned to such a level that I was baffled. I liked Ruchira’s empathetic figure, but owing to two computer-generated sequences I got tired of her hysterics. Those two sequences, moreover, were incongruous with the effects that preceded them (in particular the transformation of puppet into woman, which was so sudden that it was unsettling). As for the father and the grandmother, they don’t take too well to the puppet’s antics, but they aren’t too uptight about it either. Normally that wouldn’t have bothered me, except for the fact that their reactions never seriously merit our attention.


Of course if we assume that all these are rooted in Osanda’s feeling of hurt at being rejected, the plot will parse. But then the ending also bothered me. Consider this: you have a puppet that defiantly stays with our hero even when his family and Rohana Baddage try to banish her to her world with a thovil ceremony. Then you have her justifying her position by pointing out that one can’t love someone to compensate for the anguish of an unrequited love. All fine and well, but consider what happens next: she returns to her world with a fadeout that’s abruptly followed by the credits.

The opening credits establishes Sumitra’s world – so out there, so clear, so naive, so innocent – and so does the closing credits. But what really preceded the latter? Are we supposed to empathise with the puppet? If we do, what do we make of her (forced) return to her world? Does her parting line, about love being both divine and human, mean anything when considering that Osanda’s affair with his betrothed amounted to nothing? And what of that subplot involving that betrothed and the man she runs away with (Roshan Pilapitiya)? Why don’t we return to it? For that matter, should we? These are questions that haunted me as I left the hall, with the caveat that they didn’t disappoint me.

Vaishnavee takes us back to that time when a movie could entrance you by narrative power alone. Unlike Sakman Maluwa, there aren’t any undertones. Unlike Yahaluwo, there aren’t any overtones. Which is a relief, I should think. Consequently, there’s nothing in it to intellectualise or academise. This is Sumitra asserting her purest, simplest self, something I took to at once despite an overspent final half-hour.

To be sure, one review isn’t enough to dwell on these points. All I can then say is that I went to watch her movie as a critic, not a director. Technically, formally, aesthetically, it pleased me. Despite its manifest incongruities, I liked it. And not for nothing: in a world that’s inhabited by blacks and whites being touted as shades of grey by our art-house directors, Sumitra’s movie is a refreshing contrast. It takes us to the past because it belongs to the past. I can only hope (and I do believe) that this will be enough to salvage its limitations, discernible as they are.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 1 2017