Groundviews

Handagama and the Political: Incomplete Reflections on “Let Her Cry”

Writing about Handagama’s cinema is no easy task. The subsequent debate, predominantly in Sinhala, generated by the first public screening of his latest film “Let Her Cry” – which has the much more powerful Sinhala title “ඇගේ ඇස අග”, translated literally, meaning ‘In the Corner of Her Eye’ – makes this simple fact abundantly clear. Perhaps there is no other filmmaker, or indeed no other artist in general, in Sri Lanka, who has the same capacity to generate, in response to his or her work, such sharp debate, harsh polemic and create such deep political division within the society. Handagama disturbs and disrupts, forces us to step outside of our comfort zones and take sides in larger political debates. Already, at this level, we have touched on the inherent difficulty of writing about his cinema – like a moth to a flame we are drawn by the enigma of Handagama’s artistic practice, forcing us to explain ourselves and justify our positions.

Along with Prasanna Withanage and Sudath Mahadivulveva, Handagama represents, perhaps, the last generation of filmmakers in Sri Lanka whose cinematic practice is intricately bound to the historical Left. This is not to say that the younger generation of Sri Lankan cinema are mere sell-offs, succumbing to the Hollywoodization of cinema. To be sure, there is much hope left in Sri Lankan cinema in spite of the defeat of the historical Left. One can easily recognize a younger generation of filmmakers – led by the ingenious Vimukthi Jayasundera – who hold strong to an idea of cinema that is not entirely saturated by its Hollywoodian incarnation. However, I would cautiously add, that it is prudent to distinguish Handagama’s generation from those of the younger generation, even though they all share an idea of an Other cinema.

To return to my initial point, now, writing about Handagama is difficult because the exact determination of the causal relationship between, on the one hand, a certain idea of politics based on a hypothesis of an egalitarian society, and, on the other, a modern artistic practice that depends on an industry of capital accumulation for its survival, is a task at the face of which many others have faltered. Moreover, it is also a task that cannot be reduced to the level of the concept. Put simply, and naively: if we accept that there is a political dimension to Handagama’s cinema, where exactly can we locate it? Can we say that it is in the overall ‘message’ of his films? Or is it in the artistic form, through which his films are inevitably marked? Or, for that matter, in the praxis of Handagama as a filmmaker, organizer and a highly vocal representative of Sri Lankan cinema, ardently fighting the cause of its survival in the difficult waters of the globalized entertainment industry? Or is it a combination of all these? Or, finally, and if we accept that it is indeed in all the above, combined, how exactly do we determine the totality of these elements?

By raising these questions, I do not claim to have found the answers. I would simply say that, sometimes, it is more important to search for an accurate formulation of the problem than rushing to find solutions. Above all, I believe, these questions open up one significant way through which we can approach Handagama’s latest film “Let Her Cry”. Anyone familiar with the oeuvre of Asoka Handagama would admit that there is something different about this film. One simple way of marking this difference would be to state that, of all the films by Handagama, this is his least manifestly political film. In all his previous works, it is not easy to miss the manifestly political elements. “Chanda Kinnari” focuses on the middle class poverty and the exploitation of women; “This is My Moon” is based on the character of a Sinhala soldier who returns to his village, along with a Tamil woman, with obvious allusions to the civil war; “Flying With One Wing” is centered on oppression of heteronormative society; “Letter of Fire” works around the powerful metaphors of the judicial power and the idea of preserving tradition epitomized in modern museums; “Vidu” focuses on a child who challenges the dominance of local politicians; and “Him, Hereafter” focuses on the life of a former Tamil militant who returns to his village, after the end of the civil war. This does not necessarily entail that locating the relationship between, if you like, the cinematic and the political is an easier task in these works. No, my claim is more humble than that: the manifest content, at least, of the previous films by Handagama invariably included elements that are easily recognizable as overtly political in nature: war, oppression, exploitation, juridical power, capitalism.

Considered within this lineage, the manifest content of “Let Her Cry” contains very little that could be identified as directly of political relevance. The film works around the life of an old university professor who is struggling with an affair he has had with a young female student– although we are not entirely certain as to the actual level of their physical and affective engagement. On the one hand, we see all the ingredients of a boring, repetitive middle class life with routinized daily practices, rendered increasingly meaningless but sadly inescapable. On the other hand, we see the complicated and surreal relationship not only between the old teacher and the young student, but also between the latter and the rest of the family members of the household – frustrated wife, and the daughter. If my memory serves me right, there were only two moments in the film that could be identified as references to politics in the ordinary sense we understand that word: at one point we hear, in the background, the daughter of the professor listening to a talk given by her father on the television, concerning economic neoliberalism; then, at the very end of the film, we see a politician entering a Buddhist temple, with his armed body guards. Apart from these two fleeting but significant references, there is virtually nothing that can be considered as political – once again, I emphasize, in the ordinary sense we understand it. At this level, the film appears to be centered on the pathos of middle class life and the entailing existential anxieties. Of course, one can argue that all these issues are not only intricately ‘bound’ with politics but also they are all political tout court. It is certainly possible, and even legitimate, to read this film from this point of view. I contest, however, that we would miss out on a significant chunk of the overall mood and the atmosphere, created within the cinematic situation, if we reduce it to a thematic of ‘sexual politics’, pure and simple.

Before proceeding to explicate my remark, and detail out my take on the film, there is another problem concerning interpretation that we should, however briefly, address. It is well known that Handagama is influenced by the critical works of my old Master, Deepthi Kumara Gunarathne, who is instrumental in popularizing a certain brand of Lacanianism in Sinhala during the past two decades. Jacques Lacan was one of the most influential thinkers to have emerged from the volcano of French philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century, leaving his mark on a wide range of clinical practices, academic disciplines and even political forms of organization. Lacan’s radical interpretations of Freudian psychoanalysis helped managed to elevate the latter to new theoretical heights and also to understand the properly philosophical dimensions of the Freudian breakthrough. Deepthi’s Lacanianism is primarily derived from the works of the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek – Lacan’s contemporary heir – who has impressively combined Lacanian theory with the philosophies of German Idealism, especially the one of Hegel. Given this context, it is quite natural that Handagama’s film is filled with details that are calling out for a Lacanian style analysis.

It is possible to understand the whole narrative as an unceasing dialectic of desire. On the one hand, we have the obvious desire of the professor for the young female student. More complicated, perhaps, the desire of the student herself and the desire of the old wife. A series of strange and surreal features helps to bring these aspects to the fore. First we have the notable feature of the male protagonist being played by an Indian actor, Dhritiman Chatterjee, highlighting his difference from all the other characters. In the brief occasions when he utters a word or two in Sinhala, it is not difficult to identify that he is not a native speaker. And even when he speaks in English, his accent reminds us immediately that he is not a Sri Lankan, as if to suggest that he is not rooted in any particular culture, but some strange and impossible existence that is simultaneously a part of the external world while being outside it. It is not difficult, from here, to take the additional step and assume that he stands for nothing less than the Lacanian subject: empty and devoid of any identity in itself while split off from the object of its desire. In this sense, it is even possible to see the whole film itself as a fantasy of the protagonist: the film begins and ends in the same scene where we hear several voices talking to each other in the background while the camera stays focused on a beautiful but simple shot through a windscreen of a moving vehicle on a rainy day, at night. We see the passing lights blurred through rain and the windscreen: isn’t this a wonderful image of the Lacanian notion of the fantasy as an imaginary screen that frames the reality in tune with the coordinates of our desire?

On the other hand, we have the obvious reference to the desire of the woman: a difficult and a controversial theme in Lacanian psychoanalysis. Ever since Lacan’s notorious proposition claiming that ‘the woman does not exist’, the rift between Lacanianism and mainstream feminism has become a matter of course, although, Lacan’s s thesis is hardly an endorsement of the superiority of men or patriarchal society. With his characteristic taste for raising provocative slogans, Lacan was simply trying to theorize the difficult question of the feminine sexual pleasure, which is more difficult to empirically identify than the obvious masculine sexual pleasure. If I am allowed to make a brutal simplification, Lacan claims that feminine sexuality is ‘other’ than the standard masculine sexuality that aims at the ‘phallic’ enjoyment attaining the impossible object of desire. This ‘other’, however, does not mean something that actually exists, or, if you like, a real object. It is in the ability to complete the enjoyment in the totality of the instance, without a reference to a transcendent authority or an external guarantee. The three main female characters in the film, the wife, the female student and the daughter, it can be said, all occupy the various positions of the feminine jouissance: the responsible mother, the playful lover and the silent daughter.

Lacanian interpretations of this nature – and no doubt in more detail, with a higher level of complexity – are all legitimate readings of this film and I am sure that this film will be able to fully explicate the richness, and also the limits, of Sinhala Lacanian criticism. I must add, though, that I would not be entirely satisfied by a reading of the film purely based on grand Lacanian themes of the barred subject and feminine desire, for it still fails, in my mind, to provide a sufficient account of locating the exact political dimension, assuming it exist, in Handagama’s film. This does not mean that what I suggest should be considered as anti-Lacanian or even non-Lacanian per se. As Alain Badiou remarked in a recently published conversation with Elisabeth Roudinesco, one of the things that distinguishes Lacan from Freud is that, the former struggled with the question of psychosis throughout his life whereas the latter was predominantly concerned with neuroses. To simplify brutally, for the sake of wide readability, psychosis is the technical term for what we ordinarily identify as ‘insanity’ while neuroses are those problems that are found in all others who are accepted by the society as ‘normal’ individuals. This is another reason why Lacanian psychoanalysis can only be developed in close proximity with philosophy, for it is in psychosis that we find one of the models of radical alterity that are sought by the philosopher. To quote Badiou himself: “the neuroses are ultimately a matter for clinical psychology. Everyone knows these little stories of failures in love, disturbing obsessions, latent impotencies, these stories that are so terribly identical and boring. I have always admired the fact that psychoanalysts could spend their lives, day in, day out, listening to these symptomatic confessions. It is in fact a form of heroism. Neurosis is so boring! Whereas madness haunts philosophy at its very origins: What is this violent form of the subject’s submersion? How can we conceive of this surging up all of a sudden of a radical alterity? There is no doubt that psychosis is much more interesting for philosophy.” (Jacques Lacan: Past and Present – A Dialogue, pp. 12-13).

This will allow us to re-articulate the problem of Handagama and the political once more: where can we locate the idea of a radical alterity, in the film “Let Her Cry”? The reason that allows us to make this adjustment is quite simple, even if over a century of blood stained political history has numbed us to the simplicities of ideas concerning radical politics. The classical definition of communism, in the canonical texts of Marx, is a society where politics would no longer be a necessity, a society that does not require a militant figure of subjectivity and a society without any kind of injustice. As Marx and Engels said in their celebrated ending to the second chapter of the Communist Manifesto: “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class. In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Naturally, after the totalitarian nightmare of Soviet Russia, this is the element of Marx that even his most ardent supporter in today’s world would find it hard to accept. The idea of a society without politics, it is argued, is only a thinly disguised eschatological vision of a Paradise that fails to take into account the unsurpassable finitude of human existence. According to this line of argument, every attempt to overcome this necessary finitude of human existence can only result in a totalitarianism of the Soviet kind and thus we must accept the inherent limits of human societies, getting rid of any illusions of a harmonious and eternally just social totality. This notion of human finitude, moreover, is the defining feature of philosophical modernity, for at least since Immanuel Kant we know that human reason is incapable of going beyond the world that appears to our limited sensory perceptions and finite conceptual understanding. To put it bluntly, we no longer believe that human reason is capable of attaining the heights of eternal and absolute truths. The idea of a radical alterity, in other words, is inherently a contradictory idea: for how could one think that which is radically different from human thinking? The moment one starts to think about a ‘radical otherness’ one would find him/herself within the world of ideas, and thus incapable of thinking this ‘otherness’.

One of the most important contributions that the new French thinker Quentin Meillassoux has made since he broke through to the world of philosophy, almost a decade ago, is the salient problem he detected in this dominant brand of modern philosophy: by prohibiting to think about the notion of radical otherness – the term he uses is ‘the absolute – within philosophy one does not simply get rid of the idea of radical otherness. It will continue to survive in its most thriving soil: religion. Meillassoux argues, in an ironical twist to the dominant narrative of philosophical modernity, the philosopher, by giving up his or her right to think about the absolute, has merely contributed the proliferation of religious and other non-rational absolutes. Not, of course, in the sense that the philosophers actively and positively stand in support for any of these non-rational discourses on the absolutes. No, the problem is the exact opposite. The philosopher merely claims the impossibility of rationally justifying any of these propositions concerning the radical alterity; he or she would merely stand for the limits of human reason. Nevertheless, this has the inevitable result of every other, non-rational, discourse on the absolute being equally valid in the eyes of the philosopher and they can only be determined as per the regime of faith. This is why Meillassoux argues that we have entered a new epoch of Fideism. If historical Fideism was a Catholic movement which claimed that God can only be reached via faith, the contemporary Fideism is the general elevation of faith over reason when it comes to the matters of ultimate truths of human existence. An unexpected rapport between the worldwide rise of religious fundamentalism and modern philosophy emerges, bringing into light the growing need to revisit questions that are deemed archaic and outdated, if not downright dangerous.

Even more importantly, for our current purposes, this allows us to think of the possibility of a different approach to the problem of locating the idea of radical alterity in Handagama’s film. As already noted the film begins with the scene of a group people commuting in a vehicle at night. It is only at the end that we understand that they are fleeing away from a Buddhist temple where a violent fight irrupted, between a woman married to a politician and another woman allegedly having an affair with that same politician. Important thing to note is that this reference to Buddhism in the form of a Buddhist temple of worship is not the only reference to Buddhism in the film. From the very beginning of the film we are confronted with imagery pertaining to Buddhist rituals. One of the regular images of the household where the main events of the film take place, is the image of the wife of the university professor, worshiping to a small Buddha statue inside the house. It is part of the daily routine of the household but also the part that offers any hope of escaping the mundane world of neurotic fantasies.

It is the solace but also the challenge of the shadowy play desires. At one scenes, after the wife of the professor bizarrely invites the young female student to stay in the house, the student reveals to us how she was not allowed to sit in the front when the priest delivers his bana in the village temple, fearing her attractive body would disturb the focus of the monk. One can perhaps link this to another scene where the wife discourages her teenage daughter from accompanying her to the temple, as if to suggest that this is not a valid path for emancipation for the youth, it is something that has only relevance to those who wants to give up on wide range of possibilities opened up by life. This also perhaps allows us to understand another enigmatic scene, when the daughter suddenly attempt to end her life by jumping in front of a moving train, before being rescued by the female student seconds before the disastrous impact. Is the only alternative we have is to choose between the decaying religious absolute and the empty suicidal gestures?

What is certain is that the image of the wife worshipping every day when the husband comes back from work, appears like a desperate but doomed attempt to find a way out of the deadlock meaninglessness of their lives. Her religious interest seems to grow with the increasing complexities of the domestic life of love and marriage, but without giving us the impression that she is succeeding in her attempt to find a solace. Let us make no mistake. Handagama is not trying to bring out the virtues of spiritual enlightenment, making his film quite distinct from a certain spiritualist trend of recent Sinhala cinema. Handagama is questioning the inherent meaninglessness and repetitive nature of Buddhist rituals and the role they play in the overall structure of ordinary existence in Sri Lanka. It is the point through which we, the majority of Buddhists, hope for a better life, a better world, a better tomorrow. This is our radical alterity and our absolute. Isn’t this the point that no one dares open up and scrutinize in public?

Perhaps one of the defining features of our epoch is that today an overwhelming majority of the people believe in various kinds of ideas on the absolute nature of reality, even in the form of rejecting the very notion of the absolute reality, but we are no longer allowed to ask any questions concerning these beliefs. On the contrary, it is one of the biggest taboos of contemporary societies to attempt to bring religious ideas to a rational critique – we are all forced to respect every kind of belief, merely because we no longer think that it is within the capacities of human reason to understand the ultimate questions of life. This in turn has made the life in contemporary societies an extremely strange one. On the one hand, we are celebrating advancements in sciences and the development in technologies, hailing the dawn of a new age where we are destined to break every conceivable frontier. On the other hand, we have given up the pursuit of understanding the truth of human existence and the reality of the universe, confining these interests to the logic of dogmatic belief.

Perhaps the greatest merit of Handagama’s film is the way he forces us to think the questions pertaining to human emancipation, anew. We need to think again of the idea of human emancipation, both individually and as a society. This is the powerful image at the end when, after the fight breaks out in the temple, the wife asks her husband to take them somewhere else, anywhere else. We must go on, as Beckett famously said at the end of The Unnamable, even if we can’t go on, even if we don’t understand where to and how, we must not give up hope of fighting through. Armed only with the understanding of the necessity of moving on, and faith in our ability to find a way. We must go on, even though right now we cannot heal our wounds. For now, at least, the only thing we can do is, ‘let her cry’.