Sunday, June 4, 2017

‘Visi Ata’: Searching for Suddhi

Prasanna Jayakody’s world is filled with people who want to make you react to them but can’t: they end up repressing if not muting their feelings instead. His stories can be rooted in both psychology and Buddhism in that regard, the former contemporary and the latter transcendental. People die, endure, and nurse guilt (often lifelong), but we don’t feel these. We merely perceive. Consequently, his characters aren’t too expressive, and when they do become expressive, his stories tend to deteriorate.

Visi Ata isn’t your typical over-analytical study of the human condition. If it was, it would have deteriorated even before those characters became expressive. Prasanna doesn’t channel Bergman, Antonioni, or Fellini, like our art-house directors often do. His narrative is deceptively simple. In visual terms, there isn’t much that he throws at us through it. Because of how he’s structured it, it also tends to be rather literary. What saves it from being theatrical is the acting and the subtlety of the story.

The “story” as such is minimal. A man called Abasiri (Mahendra Perera) and his nephew Mani (Rukmal Nirosh) are called to Colombo to identify the body of a dead woman. That woman happens to be Abasiri’s wife Suddhi (Semini Iddamalgoda), who left him months after they married. Because they have no way of transporting her, they trick a van driver called Lenin (Sarath Kothalawala) into getting them back.

The best part about Visi Ata – and it’s not without its share of flaws – is that it never betrays its convictions. Prasanna is very elliptical in his plot and in his characters. His aim is to shame us into realising how patriarchal we are, to make us feel how women suffer so much but still can say “Forgive them, for they know not what they do!” of the men who abuse them. That Suddhi is the only female character we see alive is, of course, no coincidence (the two other women we see up close are dead). This is supplemented by a wall between the living and the dead: while Abasiri, Mani, and Lenin bicker, Suddhi relates her story to the audience from her own coffin. It’s only at the end when husband and wife are reconciled, in a way.

In the hands of lesser actors, an elliptical narrative along those lines would have floundered. Mahendra, Rukmal, Sarath, and Semini ensure that it does not. They make us want to react to them despite the fact that all they can do is be hysterical, hum and fool around with some old Sinhala melodies, and brood. Mahendra in particular gives out his best: as Abasiri, the bereaved husband, he opens up his character so much that he cleverly hides from us his feelings towards his bereavement until the very end. His real co-star in that sense isn’t Mani the nephew, but Lenin the driver.

Sarath Kothawala is primarily a man of the theatre, and in role after role he plays out variations of the conceited, self-important, but essentially well meaning (and never actually arrogant) wayfarer. He lacks Mahendra’s vitality and affirmation of life but retains the latter’s bitterness while being contemptuous and at times angry about it.

When he’s taken to the funeral parlour and sees the nephew measuring the back of his van, he blurts out, “There’s a freezer inside!” and mutters inaudibly, obviously disturbed. A few sequences later, though, he’s convinced so well by the uncle that he has to transport an EMPTY coffin that he cheerily tells the nephew to pack up “100mls of joy” (you know what he’s alluding to here) for the ride. Sarath’s character isn’t just naive, he exists to be manipulated. By the time he realises what he’s into, the other two begin to brood: a few moments later, despite his anger, it is HE and not they who’s made out as the insensitive outsider.

As for Rukmal, the man’s thin and short, and like all thin and short people he feels what he does intensely: when he cries, when he laughs, when he grins, and when he’s confused, he’s very expressive (though reserved) about it. Mahendra and Sarath are almost always at each other’s throats. Rukmal as Mani the nephew, by contrast, sits back, observes, and on the whole is very flippant about what he sees.

There’s nothing flippant or expressive about Semini Iddamalgoda’s Suddhi. Semini’s best performances so far have had her as an animated woman. Here she’s denied motion, even life: all she has to do is look at the camera and tell us what she’s been through. She is for that reason the most theatrical character, a given since the theatre has always depended on characters who deliver the kind of monologues and soliloquies her Suddhi is provided with in abundance.

But she never overdoes it: she’s neither angry nor depressed. When the coffin topples down a cliff and the uncle, the nephew, and the driver turn back to retrieve it, for instance, Prasanna abruptly cuts to a close-up of her face, one that symbolises both fatigue and relief. “I am afraid that my sari is torn up,” she informs us rather apologetically: in death as in life, she has to be sorry about being a woman. And even when she’s giggling about various incidents which would have turned another woman insane (as when her uncle once peeped at her in her bathroom), she’s flippant only outwardly: unlike the clichéd, rebelliously synthetic female depicted in our art-house movies, she can shrug off and at the same time be sensitive to her pathetic plight. Consequently, Prasanna achieves his goal. He shames us all.

Visi Ata isn’t without its flaws, however, and it would be unbecoming of me not to say that they have as much to do with the director as they have with the narrative.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Prasanna’s world is filled with barren men and women. Because of their attitude of repulsion towards lust, his movies are as Catholic as they are Buddhist, with the caveat that he doesn’t want us to be afraid of sex, rather to affirm it. This concurrently traditionalist and modernist outlook on a tabooed theme is best supplemented visually, not verbally. The problem with Visi Ata is not just that it’s not visual, but also that there’s nothing in it which can make it visual.

By that I am not blaming the director. To his credit, he doesn’t shove needless dialogues down our throats. On the contrary, those dialogues are incidental to the larger narrative, even if they don’t take us anywhere (as when Abasiri tucks or throws away – we’re never sure what he does – some substance to evade a bunch of policemen they never meet). But then there’s a point at which it deteriorates, with a cell-phone: surely, after all those calls demanding where Suddhi is, wouldn’t it have been better to just switch it off, without (as Mani does) placing it next to Suddhi’s body to compel some profoundness we never really get?

In such a context, only the mountains and the roads that take our characters from the city to the village betray something that can be simplified in visual terms. To compensate for that visual poverty, he spares us the self-important conversations we’ve wearily grown used to in other art-house movies. And it doesn’t lack imagination completely. I was intrigued, for instance, by how the sequence of the three men carrying the coffin to higher terrain to pile it atop the van was played out. The men move towards the edge of the frame, but they never leave it. It’s visually very tantalising and simple, since we are made to share their fatigue and exertion, wondering as to when they’ll let go of that coffin.

Most movies entertain. Others provoke and make us think, though they are in the minority. In that sense the Sri Lanka director has a disadvantage: he or she must work with the many logistical and financial limitations in our industry. To recoup and to recover investment, naturally, he or she must pander to the common denominator. That is why there is a box-office and why, given that we are a small country, the industry can’t survive on art alone. The little of art that remains, not surprisingly, subsists on obscurantism, which in the end alienates the audience.

I remember running out of Tharangani in frustration at Asoka Handagama’s Age Asa Aga. I remember being angered by the many laudatory comments it received from the young and the old. I remember Pauline Kael and how much she despised audiences that kept on applauding their own appreciation of culture and art. I remember being angered by directors who say they’re profound, because they seemed to believe that profundity can only be achieved through those souvenirs and supplementary texts which explain to the audience what they haven’t the foggiest clue about in what they’ve seen. I remember all these and I am disappointed. Truly, madly, deeply.

But then those were theatrical movies, the kind that tried to channel Antonioni and Bergman without the subtle nuances the latter captured in their work. Prasanna’s movie isn’t theatrical in that sense, as I’ve pointed out. It’s literary. I suppose that has a lot to do with his background. In any case, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it didn’t alienate me. Yes, Visi Ata didn’t please me visually, but it still told a story. I didn’t need a souvenir to help me understand what I was seeing. In aesthetic terms it was not, of course, particularly great, but then what work of art was ever aesthetically great? For that matter, was that ever really a reason not to see a movie?

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, June 4 2017