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Prasanna Vithanage: A Political Proof of Western Cinema

By Gouthama Siddarthan

16 July, 2014

The famous school of post-modernist art and literary thought enjoins one to study a work of art not only from just an artistic perspective but also from a multi-dimensional viewpoint which will ferret out the subtle features of the work. We are living in a critics’ world driven by the sensationally talked about theory of postmodernism.

They have dissected creative works of arts, digging out the hidden subtleties, from perspectives ranging from that of Michel Foucault who asks ‘what is an author?’ to that of Roland Barthes who declared the ‘The death of the author’.

A still from the film ‘With You, Without You’

By an extension of all this, Tamil Nadu is witnessing a spate of spicy critical theories being floated about Prasanna Vithanage’s film, ‘With You, Without You’.

The critics are putting forth the political matter very subtly constructed in the film. They are, however, no writers or poets, but only those subscribing to the Tamil nationalism as an alternative politics.

Ironically, creative poets and writers are mocking at these ‘politicians’ who, they say, do not know anything about creativity and are not looking at the film as a work of art and instead, blabbering trash about it.

Putting aside the views of these conflicting groups, we can go into the film afresh.

The story unfolds in a Tamil-dominated mountainous region in Sri Lanka.

Tamil girl Selvi has been living in her relative’s house, having lost her family in the Eelam war. Now and then, for livelihood she mortgages her jewels and gets money. Pawn-broker Sarathsri, a Sinhalese, empathies with her and yet retains his commercial stance.

When her relatives try to marry her off to some old man, she walks out on them and attracted by Sarathsri’s offer, marries him.

At one point in their married life, Selvi happens to know that her husband is a former army man and gets depressed with the knowledge dawning on her that he is a representative of the Sinhalese army that has obliterated her family and race. She is unable to either give him up or continue living with him. Driven by total helplessness, she commits suicide.

The central theme of the film is the one handled by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story, ‘A Gentle Creature’. This story has already been made into a film ‘The Gentle Woman’ by well-known French director Robert Bresson. Also notable is the fact that Bengali director Mani Gaul has also made a film ‘Nazar’ revolving around the same theme.

These two films have told the story based on the common emotions involving man and woman, not interfered in by racial, linguistic and religious considerations. The scenes in the two films have been structured in such a way that the husband is, in a flashback of memories, trying to find out the reason for the suicide of his wife.

The feeling of guilt that runs through the mental pressures of the man and his wife is the central theme of these two films.

But in the Sinhalese film, “With you, without you’‘, Vithanage fixes the same-old feeling of guilt on the race and on the language. “This is an aesthetics of feelings of guilt’’, he says.

But he has miserably failed to distinguish the difference between the aesthetics of feelings of guilt happening to just a man and a woman and that happening to the characters with the racial and religious trappings.

The pretentious frills of the so-called word cinema rooted in western countries such as America and the European nations have come to an end quite a long ago. Today the artistes of the Third World have started travelling in the world where they depict their countries’ identities, cultures, power abuses and disintegrations.

The outlook of the Third World countries, which have been affected by the dominant West’s various ‘isms’ and neo-aesthetic trends, is filling with political views the yawning gap between art and human life.

I have to put forward here a theory which I have been reiterating.

An artiste has to subtly ponder over the trend of creating works of art in the background of the globalization.Within the framework of a work of art, without the knowledge of the creator, several political constructions, historical twists and dominant aesthetics are hidden. These subtle features are fuelled by the changes of taste, thanks to the study of global works of art, particularly the western works. They are enshrined in the psychological network, changing slowly the tastes of the creator, and become vital features of the work of art. It is imperative to identify the subtle political dimensions operating in these nuanced features and streamline them.

This is the challenging facing the creators of the Third World countries.

We have to approach Vithanage from this viewpoint.

He is operating with a pro-Tamil identity and is glittering with the Leftist thinking. He has been putting forth his critical views on the Sri Lankan racial issues in his films. His ‘Death of a Full Moon Day’ speaks about the cruelty of the war that has devastated the life dynamics of the Sinhalese.

A Sinhalese citizen hailing from a simple family background joins the Army for the welfare of his family. He dies in a war. The Sinhalese army has left behind scores of soldiers’ bodies on the battlefield. It sends a coffin with bricks stuffed inside to the parents of the young armyman, with an order not to open the coffin. The father, however, breaks open the coffin; yet he continues to live in the hope that his son will one day return home.

On the surface, the film speaks about the injustice meted by the Sinhalese government to the army men. But beneath the exterior runs an undercurrent. The image of the war being the fountainhead of all the economic troubles that have ruined the common people’s lives is deeply engraved in the collective unconscious of the simple Sinhalese people. As a corollary, the hatred of the Tamilistic fighters gets nourished in the minds.

Why did war break out?

Who initiated it?

The film does not move towards the subtly political direction.

With just a bird’s eye view, it just captures the mass mind’s dharma and reason.

Similar to Vithanage, there are other Sinhalese film directors such as Asoka Handagama, VimukthiJayasundara, DharmasenaPathiraja who have criticized the publicly taught reasons for the war.

Handagama who has a faith in the national welfare puts forward his outlook in his films, “Ithu En Nila’’ (This is my moon) and very strongly and clearly in his latest work, “IniAvan’’. He cloaks his ideas in an artistic tapestry; ideas on racial harmony, national wellbeing, war-torn lives and amnesia about the past things; all these ideas are related to the Sri Lankan multi-racial fabric.

Strident criticisms of his film have come from all quarters ranging from the simply ideated Tamils to the pro- and anti-Tigers Tamils.

He has, in an interview, branded the Eelam struggle as terrorism.

In this context, it is worthwhile to recall others too. The contemporary political pundit Chomsky, in his interview given to the Lanka Guardianabout the genocide, has said that those indulging in violence repeatedly and the war criminal are worthy of severe condemnation. Only after the pressure from the Tamil loyalists, he has condescended to concede that the genocide is a tragedy and that the minorities (Tamils) in the island-nations must be accorded equal rights.

John Pilger, who is well-known for making docu-films on war genocides, human rights violations and war crimes happening in several parts of the word, has not made a film about the Sri Lankan genocide and human rights violations that happened in the island-nation. (I have posed a question what is the politics behind it, in my erstwhile journal, ‘Unnatham’, and also in an e-mail; but there was no answer.)

Jaffna, which is conjured up by Handagama in his films in the post-Mullivaaikaal war background, is filled with a sense of guilt in the scenes describing the miserable lot of the Eelam fighters.

While delineating the fighters as having changed into mafia gangs now, he has not pointed to the ‘rishimoola’, that is, the root-cause of the malaise. He has nor created moments that make the viewers think on the lines. Ultimately, he is laying stress on the racial harmony between the Sinhalese and the Tamils.

A trend similar to this is subtly shown by Vithanage in his film, ‘With you, without you’. He seems to be seeking pardon on behalf of the Sinhalese army, driven by a sense of guilt plaguing the Sinhalese racial suzerainty. “Ok. Past is past; let us start a new life and live in harmony’’; he seems to be putting forth this kind of outlook.

This imagery of sense of guilt is derived from Dostoyevksy whose teenage was constructed by the Russian leftist literature. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turganev and Chekhov have stirred in him waves of moral and virtuous thoughts. That is why he, unlike Handagama, is unable to express an open solution to the problem.one who doesn t spend time with family is not a real man.

While in reality the Sinhalese settlements and their culture are usurping the Tamil-dominated areas, Vithanage’s film has created an ambience which is quite uncritical of the reality and in fact, turns a Nelson’s eye to it. In his scenes which show a background marked by the Lord Muruga’s hymns and third-rate masala Tamil films and their playing-to-the-gallery songs, he has created an illusion that the war has hardly impacted the Tamil psyche and maybe, it has just made an economic impact.

The symbol of a Sinhalese soldier lying prostrate before a Tamil woman, seeking pardon has got only the common mind’s outlook. He calls it an aesthetics of the sense of guilt.

Is the art of showing in a few scenes compromises and harmony in the post-genocide background an aesthetics of the sense of guilt.

“You are calling us to mix with you, after having usurped our land where we were born and lived thousand years ago. How can we come? You are calling us after having robbed us of our land and our culture and made us naked. You don’t need a fellow human being, but a slave’’…. Are these lines, quoted from a letter that leader of Red Indians Dan George dashed off to the English, not applicable to the EelamTamils.

Rajapaksa calls upon the residual people post-genocide to come and live with the Sinhalese in harmony. There is only one difference between Rajapaksa and Vithanage. That is, the latter only has admitted to the sense of guilt.

Ok. The Tamil nationalists in Tamil Nadu are not direct participants in the problem. They are just spectators, unaware of the pain and complexities of the problem. But Handagama and Vithanage are forward-looking creators, belonging to a race directly involved in the war. When they sow ideas of changing a race wriggling in an incurable pain and boundless grief, according to their way of thinking, we cannot criticize them, labeling them as just Sinhalese; rather it is an imperative need to criticize them as tottering forward-looking creators.

Is it not a tendency to further defeat the already defeated people in the name of magnanimity and harmony? What they need is not harmony, but justice for the killing of tens and thousands, fixing of moral responsibility and judgment in the case of the blood-soaked Mullivaaikaal.

How to pigeonhole the neo-Tamil intellectuals who insist on seeing films just as films which speak about racial harmony on the soil where the 13th Amendment hs been buried alive at Mullivaaikaal?

This outlook of racial harmony is, in fact, a past European streak of thought. It is only a residue of the dominant Western aesthetics that runs through the works of art infused by a surface-level sense of guilt, which pivot on a few intellectuals, defending or rationalizing the elimination of the Blacks, their culture and lands for centuries on end. There is an umpteen number of such Western films which have been celebrated and awarded in the name of the greats who were actually involved in the unjust game of elimination.

Here, it is apt to recall the film, “To Kill A Mocking Bird’’, based on novel which was written by White American lady Harper Lee and won the Pulitzer Prize. The film was directed by Robert Mulligan. Just have a look at the storyline.

The novel revolves around the struggle of Atticus Finch, a White American lawyer, to get a Black man acquitted of the foisted charge of raping a White woman. When it was published in 1960, it was widely acclaimed among the Blacks for at that time, the domination of Whites on the Blacks was its peak.

The mocking bird is a symbol of the black race. The scenes where Atticus Finch tells his children not to hunt the bird have been constructed artistically in such a way that they are highly moving.In this novel, a fusion of fiction and fact, the idea of racial domination on the Blacks has been superficially constructed. It can be said that the novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe about the elimination of the Blacks and published in 1852, created this type of genre.

(It is also applicable to the Dalit literary genre widely spoken about in the modern art and literary Tamil world.)

In this context, if someone poses a question whether Roman Polanski’s film, “The Pianist’’ and Steven Spielberg’s “The Schindler’s List’’, also should be viewed from the same-old perspective, it will be ridiculous because they were works of art belonging to a different genre, created by the Jewish creators who were affected by the Nazis’ cruel action of genocide.

Nowadays the Blacks themselves are creating their own works, putting forward their outlooks.

The spectator set against the post-colonial political background in the Third World countries has to approach a work of art only in this manner.

But Vithanage’s film does not have any consciousness of time, leaving viewers wondering when all the scenes happen.

It is a worldwide critical theory that a work of art should be approached, taking into account whether it is set in the pre- or post-Second World War.

The film, ‘Bicycle Thieves’, made by Italian director Vittorio De Sica, speaks about poverty, economic crisis, unemployment, ruin of humanism and misery of struggling for livelihood, all occurring in the post-Second World War. Vittorio De Sica has narrated with a touch of artistic realism how the protagonist has been searching for his stolen cycle which is the pivot of his livelihood. Had the story been narrated without proper time setting, it would have passed off just an ordinary work of art. Its biggest strength is its timing.

Now let’s see the ‘art’ of the film, “With You, Without You’’, bypassing its political milieu, as suggested by the neo-Tamil intellectuals.

First of all, we can see the contractor nature of the characters involved. The protagonist, desiring to get out of the war life and settle in a simple life, plumbs for a pawn-broker’s occupation (the director has changed the original storyline). Does he help the poor? No. He tells his basically compassionate wife: “You just say the 25 per cent of the mortgaged commodity; extract one-month interest even if there is a delay of one day in repayment of debt’’.

This is also a kind of military bent of mind.

However, he has a change of heart; fundamentally ruthless in nature, he takes pity on a Tamil woman and gives life to her. But the scenes that describe his volte-face in nature are not convincingly made.

All through the film, he is watching with gusto the WWF, a cruel boxing match; that is in a way an extension of his military psychology. In a sudden twist of narration, he leapfrogs to the scene of lighting a candle and offering prayers in front of a Buddha statue.

When there are arrangements to marry the Tamil girl off to an old man, she makes a great escape and marries a Sinhalese man. Does it mean that she can live with a Sinhalese man and not with a Tamil? Will the concept of art be spoiled, if the woman is shown as loving the Sinhalese man, setting aside the idea of marriage with an old man?

In a scene where, in a difference of opinion with his Tamil wife, the protagonist hides his gun. The flow of narration would have taken on poetic overtones, if the Sinhalese husband had given his gun to his Tamil wife, saying, “If killing of me is the only solution to your problem, then you shoot me’’. But here it assumes some sneaky overtones, seeming to ferret out a sense of alert towards the Tamils from the deep recesses of the Sinhalese psyche.

The Tamil woman speaks Sinhalese fluently whereas the Sinhalese husband does not speak Tami at all. This is a classic case of racial chauvinism. Could a scene not be made, in which he, out of his boundless love for her, learns Tamil? If it was made, would the sanctity of art be corrupted? (By the way, it is a great irony that pro-Tamil Vithanage does not know Tamil.)

When she returns from a church, he asks her what her god has given her. He says, “It is I who have given protection to you’’ and goes to worship Lord

Buddha. That scene, in essence, boils down to his conviction: “Your god is useless and so, you accept ours’’.

The Tamil woman’s character too has been constructed in such a way that it is full of inconsistencies. A Tamil woman, fretting and fuming with an anti-Sinhalese bent of mind following the cruelties of the war, and suffering in penury, will not accept a Sinhalese man as her life partner on the spur of the moment and will not have sex with him. (The scene of sex has been made quite openly; even the third-rate masala Tamil film-makers would have made such scenes with a little bit of artistic touch.)

Moreover, it is an irony that the Tamil woman, who has been speaking about the larger issue of national racial politics, is shown as a fan of actor Vijay.

Vithanage puts forward a solution for the Tamil woman to escape from the cruel situation: going to Tamil Nadu. Thus, he creates an appearance that India alone is the country supporting the cause of the Eelam Tamils. But, the Indian mass politics vis-à-vis the Sri Lankan Tamils and Tamil Nadu’s subtle political dimensions are well known to all.

The Tamil woman in Vithanage’s film desires to come to Tamil Nadu, where a Eelam Tamil girl, despite her higher marks, was denied a medical education seat, just because of her ‘regugee’ tag. She thinks Tami Nadu alone is the sacred soil where medical seats are given on a platter to NRIs at the cost of the refugee students speaking the same Tamil language.

Why does she not dream of going to countries such as London, Canada etc.?

Taking a decision to go to Tamil Nadu, the Sinhalese husband makes up his mid to sell off her pawn shop which is finally bought by a Muslim who is introduced in the film rather as a symbol of the Muslims’ industrial and economic progress in Sri Lanka. Supposing that the shop is bought by some other Sinhalese person, it will not change the tone and tenor of the movie. The Muslim character seems to have been forcefully inserted.

What exactly is the politics behind this intrusion?

It is worth recalling that Vithanage, who has, in his film ‘August Sun’, expressed his critical point of view about the evacuation of Muslims by the Tigers, has nowhere raised his voice against the attack mounted on Muslims by the Sinhalese racial chauvinists.

While putting forward a criticism of his film from different perspectives, his another feature has to be put under an analytical scanner.

He has constructed his scenes from a bird’s eye view.

This can be attributed to his state of helplessness. It is a state of mind which just partakes of the events just as a fellow traveller and which asks what it can do more. His freedom to action operating in a fascist landscape has paralysed his thinking beyond a point.

Sri Lankan poets such as Manjula Wediwardena, Mahesh Munasinghe and political critics such as Sunanda Deshapriya, Bashana Abeywardane are living outside Sri Lanka and that is why their views are sharp and strong. Taking into account this truth, we have to approach Vithanage. Pro-Eelam creators support him for his voice comes from the opposite camp. But that ‘alternative voice’ has fallen a prey to the tricks and gimmicks of the Western art of cinema. This is my critical outlook.

However, in the final scene, the morally conscious activist in him wakes up. Finally, it dawns on him that it is impossible for one to co-exist with or live in dependence on the destroyers of one’s race; he questions the theories about the Sri Lankan government’s campaign for racial harmony and makes the Tamil woman Selvi commit suicide.

This is a sense of helplessness on the part of a desperate artiste. We can understand his wavelength and appreciate him for that. Yet we cannot help but criticising the hidden or inferred message that the Tamils can either live in harmony with the Sinhalese or die.

Had he expanded his horizon of thought, he would have averted the suicide of the Tamil woman and made her get separated from her husband and live on her Tamil soil independently, enjoying the songs of actor Vijay.

Either he must have thought that a tragic end to the story will lend it a poetic and epic charm or there must be some political reasons for it. This epic aesthetic outlook would have glittered, had she been allowed to live independently and moreover, it would have evolved into the Third World countries’ epic aesthetics.

On the contrary, if Vithanage says that he has made this film only as a work of art out of his own thinking uncoloured by any political basis, he will be a proof or an evidence of how the Western films have seamlessly impacted the thinking process of the creative artistes in the Third World.

(Translated by Maharathi)

Gouthama Siddarthan is a noted columnist, short-story writer, essayist and a micro-political critic in Tamil, who is a reputed name in the Tamil neo-literary circle. He can be reached at [email protected]



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