Photo via Fragments
A university professor named Carmen Wickramagamage has written a long article to The Island claiming that Asoka Handagama’s latest film Age Esa Aga (Let Her Cry) is a “Profoundly and disappointingly male fantasy on women’s sexual desires, their sexed lives and their very raison d’être’’. She further says that this extremely patriarchal movie is just ‘’to please men” . The title of that article which appeared in the newspaper in two parts on two consecutive days was “ Let Her Speak: A female Spectator on Asoka Handagama’s Aege Aesa Aga (Let Her Cry)”. About two weeks ago, I also wrote a small write-up after watching this movie. In that piece, which was published online (Vikalpa.org), I claimed that this was a movie women in our country should watch without fail. Saying that, I tried to highlight how the director provides insight into the contemporary social realities of our country and its people through the manner in which the two main female roles are portrayed. As a female spectator, my reading on Ege Esa Aga is drastically different to the reading of the female writer of the above article. This ironic contradiction of two female views of the same movie is interesting.
I could not help the thought that the writer of this article had gone to the cinema preoccupied with the feminist ideology and clutching it as a rigid measuring tape. She quotes feminist scholar Laura Mulvey (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema) and uses the Male Gaze theory in her critique. She seems to be an ardent follower of the Feminist Theory and it is clear that there is a particular stereotypical way she prefers to see women characters on the screen. Maybe she is always pleased to see valiant, self-reliant women who fearlessly challenge men, who have their own independent identities, who are strong enough to say goodbye to men who hurt them, who don’t go after men pleading for love and security: and she may childishly believe that only then could a movie be hailed as not being anti-feminist. That is the ideal situation all the men and women (including myself) who stand for the freedom of women wish to see. But sadly, the ground reality in our society is drastically different. I am of the opinion that the responsibility of a sensible artist is to awaken the spectators to the reality they are drowning in and make them realize the need to rise to reach a better place. Artists are not expected to falsely portray fake heroic characters to satisfy a handful of critics who measure everything with the rigid tape of theories. The writer of the above article has conveniently ignored the fact that it was not Asoka Handagama’s objective to make a propagandist feminist film in order to “empower women” by morally uplifting them. She slams him for not doing what she expects from a film.
It never occurred to me that Ege Esa Aga is an anti feminist movie or it promotes patriarchal ideology. Instead I felt that the director has looked at the women in our country with a lot of dignity. The writer of the article is just clinging onto the void argument that the portrayal of the female characters in this movie is regressive and she is disappointingly unresponsive to the contemporary Sri Lankan socio-political reality exposed by it. It is surprising how she indifferently ignores wondering why Buddhism and Buddhist temples are frequently confronted as the primary theme of the movie and why the lethargic monotonous existence of the securely established upper middle class families in Sri Lanka is highlighted in it. She never sensed the strong personalities director has given to female protagonists in the movie.
One of her main criticisms against the movie is that it puts its audience in the perspective of a heterosexual man, (Male Gaze) so the scenes and the characters have been defined by the director to please the male spectators. She takes the scene in which the Wife enters the room of the young female undergraduate clad in a bath towel, when she was provocatively applying lotion on her legs as a classic example of director’s male gaze. According to the writer, by coyly shielding what might be visible through the girl’s legs, were she to turn towards the camera, and making her spread the towel and bare her nude body to Wife with her back to the audience, director is clearly titillating the masculine gaze. In the movie this scene is projected to the audience through Madam’s (Wife) gaze. So, it is obvious that it is what Madam is seeing and looking at. Madam enters the room uninvited after seeing the girl’s bare thighs from distance. She enters the room driven by the curiosity wrapped in the jealousy about the young body her husband is attracted to. It is to this Madam the girl bares her nudity by opening the towel. Whether the males or females seated in the audience are or are not curious to see her nudity is not relevant to the movie. If the director’s objective was to treat the sexual curiosity of males or females in the audience, he could have made the girl drop the towel to the ground. But he has not done that. It is the responsibility of the sensible, open minded spectator to cinematically read the scenes of a movie.
Another criticism against the movie is that Asoka Handagama’s portrayal of the Female Undergraduate is totally unrealistic, irrational and false. Writer asks if a Sinhala Buddhist young woman from an underprivileged background, living in contemporary times could so brazenly flout the sexual mores such as remaining a virgin until the marriage, not having pre-marital sex, not getting pregnant before the marriage etc. She says that day is yet to come when a young Sri Lankan woman can openly flout such entrenched gendered sexual norms. But I say that young Sri Lankan women have now progressed to a level which the writer can be proud of as a feminist. I confidently say that our female University undergraduates are no longer holding to the extremes like “I’ll kill myself if I lost my virginity before marriage”. (One who is doubtful of this could confidentially carry out a research using a sample of female undergrads who are willing to speak openly about life). This doesn’t imply that every young girl is similarly brave. But it is obvious that the old rigid situation has significantly changed. It is not a rare occurrence that young females nowadays go to ‘rooms’ with their boyfriends. If somebody denies this, they do it out of misunderstanding or lack of exposure to true information.
The writer, who applies the litmus test of realism to the undergraduate’s character, does not do the same with the Madam’s character. She doesn’t say that women like her who always search for her identity in her husband’s world, are not a reality in our society. This implies she believes such characters are there in abundance around us. Then why does she so categorically accuse the director of the regressive portrayal of female characters? Doesn’t her argument contradict itself here?
Commenting on introducing university into the narrative frame of the movie, the writer again claims that Handagama loses touch with the reality. I personally think that she is not very well informed of the realities of love affairs between female undergrads and lecturers in Sri Lankan universities. She says that in reality the initiative would more often comes from the mature lecturers, not from the female students in whose eyes the professors appear at twice their natural size and distanced by teacher- student hierarchy. Maybe this is what the writer has observed and experienced in her university life. But aren’t there female students in our universities who try to seduce, attract and win their male lecturers driven by various reasons? ( an uncontrollable feeling of love borne in a student’s heart for a teacher could be one of these reasons) Are we living in a society where it is so simple to draw lines and categorically say “things always happen only in this way, never in that way”? Human beings and their relationships with each other are not simple enough to be defined with boundaries and there is no absolute truth about them. Therefore can we say the portrayal of the female undergraduate is far from reality?
(I don’t believe that characters of a movie should always be representations of a majority society is familiar with. The director chooses characters that enable him to say what he wants to say. If those characters are exceptions, it cannot be a reason to criticize the movie.)
The writer further questions why in a contemporary context where females enter universities in thousands and a lot of female students are brilliant scholars, the director has not included a single scene in the movie in which the female undergraduate is seen reading a book, attending lectures, engaging in an academic discussion or hanging out with other young undergraduates. She argues that portraying her as somebody who is only bothered about caring for her own body, whose only goal in life is having a child by the professor she is madly in love with is a clear manifestation of the masculine gaze of the director. My opinion is that in Ege Esa Aga, director has very economically and skillfully chosen only the very bit which he cannot dispose in any condition. It is only this bit that he wants to show to the audience. He has been extraordinarily sparing when choosing the scenes. Showing how smart and studious the girl is or introducing her friends is not relevant to the story or helpful for the director in taking the audience to the desired target. Isn’t it a commendable quality of a brilliant cinematographer, not to wander and waste scenes?
I don’t know if the writer of this article considers human relationships as simple as some folders that can be cleared and shelved urgently with a few pre-defined solutions or hasty decisions. When reading the last few chapters of her article one cannot help feeling in this way. If one concludes that- the only reason why women put up with unfaithful husbands is to avoid social retribution or due to economic insecurity or that the only thing that binds a married couple is their sexual attraction to each other, and when this is threatened, the best thing is to leave the relationship, and financially independent women are capable of making this decision,- does it not reflect the thinking of someone who adopts an overly simplistic interpretation to complex human relationships? The writer who says that in life, unlike in movies, the wife and mistress slaughter each other, verbally mock those who seek alternatives. (In art there can be novel solutions: shake hands, pronounce “shanti shanti”, “ peace peace” and ride off into the sunset hand in hand) Maybe it is because of a lack of life experiences and little social engagement that she says she meets such characters only in the movies. Or could it be because she is used to looking at the human condition through theories? According to her reading, the male director’s message to the audience at the end of the movie is “ equanimity is the best available option for wives confronted by their husband’s infidelities”. For me it is a blatantly primitive comment like someone concluding “women are always unfaithful” after watching the classic ‘Maname’.
I believe that an artist blends the characters, situations and incidents of his choice to bring the creation to a pinnacle with the objective of providing insight into life and society for its audience. Therefore what we are supposed to do as members of the audience is not to sever the characters and incidents of a movie one by one and interpret them with our favorite theories, but to open heartedly make an effort to grasp the ideas the movie in its entirety is seeking to discuss. The value of a creative piece is defined by the fact that it sheds light on the audience. In that sense, I believe Ege Esa Aga is a praiseworthy, brilliant movie.
I reiterate here that it is a film women in our country should not miss.