We stand today with our collective consciousness bruised almost beyond repair. We feel devastated by the chaos, anarchy and culture of impunity. As someone recently said, the beast rides again.
What is the role of the artist within the current socio-political context? The artist should delve into the roots that gave birth to this beast. The responsibility of the artist today is to explore realities of our times. They need to dig deep in order to examine the dynamics of socio-economic and political realities. It is too much of a luxury for an artist to live in a world of fantasy.
One of the film directors of “Her. Him. The Other” expressed his frustration on Facebook in the following manner;
“Religion and nationality are an anaesthetic making your mind agreeable to engage in collective killing. Society once injected with this anesthetic will automatically slide down to devastation. We witnessed humanity ablaze in 1983. We did everything humanly possible to avoid witnessing the recurrence of this destruction in our life time. But we have failed”. (Facebook, Ashoka Handagama, March 5, 2018)
The sad irony of our times is to see a celebrated film maker of high calibre such as Handagama being compelled to make a statement of this nature. Surely, he is not at fault. These words exemplify the frustration of all peace-loving people in Sri Lanka. Of course, we would never doubt for a moment that Prasanna Vithanage, Vimukthi Jayasundara and Ashoka Handagama, the three film makers of this film anthology “Her, Him and Other” will accept defeat and drift into inaction. They will hopefully continue to hold that mirror of reality to show the ugly face of society and force us to reflect on this continuing mayhem and our collective guilt.
Our “collective guilt” is brought on to screen through an almost confessional admission by a former LTTE videographer. We see dead bodies, supposedly of Sinhala soldiers whose wrists are adorned with what could be pirith nool, believed to be protecting Buddhists from harm. The radio messages being relayed announce that 13 soldiers have been killed reminding us of the 13 soldiers killed prior to the Black July riots in 1983.
The rasika (the connoisseur) in the audience is consumed with feelings of empathy when he or she listens to the conversation between Kesa, the videographer and Yaso, who believes that her fiancé is still alive. Kesa hides the fact that he has already been killed in action. It is a reality known to the audience but not to Yaso. It is deeply shocking and sad for the viewer to follow this fantasy world Kesa is creating for Yaso, with the ulterior motive of befriending her and extracting information of the army locations.
Why does Kesa have to play this role of trickster? Why does Yaso have to live in anxiety expecting her fiancé to turn up at her door one day?
The driving force behind this duplicity and agony is the scourge of war; a war that has been depriving people of human values. The anti-war stance as depicted consistently by Prasanna through his previous films is brought to bear in this film as well. It is considered to be based on a true story and this is only one of those stories. We all know that there are hundreds of stories hitherto being untold.
In the end, Kesa starts his journey to find Yaso and tender his apology to her. He is doing this with Handagama (Ashoka Handagama plays the character of a film director). While travelling in the van, Handagama asks for meaning of the song being played in the radio of the van. Kesa says:
“This song says: Our childhood dreams are no more. None of those came true”.
And Kesa keeps talking:
“The truth is…our expectations were never fulfilled. When we watched films of yours with other Sinhala film makers, we thought we should do the same and tell our stories. It became our dream. You understand? Nobody does.
Handagama, nobody understands our pain. We dreamed about a bright future and a happy life; a better future for our kids. Nothing worked out as planned. Look here…We have so much to say. But we are unable to say it. No one is willing to listen to us. That is our main problem”.
Ironically, this story of “Her” has finally been told not by Tamil film director Kesavarajan but by the Sinhala Film director Prasanna Vithanage.
The film of Vimukthi Jayasundara begins with a lesson being taught at a school by a Sinhala literature teacher. In this “lesson”, the teacher asks the students to read about the composition of diverse Sri Lankan communities and their languages. He unravels and clarifies the meaning of historical events. Within the first few minutes, the viewer realizes that the teacher stands for “supremacy” of Sinhala language.
The renowned Indian historian, Romila Thaper once said that the validity of construction of history is determined based on factual evidence. This teacher’s interpretation of “history” may not be the same as those of other Sinhala literature teachers in Sri Lanka. However, it clearly represents Sinhala Buddhist hegemony.
This teacher seems to be located in a school close to a coastal area in which Tamil and Sinhala communities are living together. The principal of the school is engaged in a business purchasing sea boats to make an additional income. He treats both his sea-boat business and his role as school principal as similar in nature because both need “management”. This film revolves around a story of rebirth; a LTTE member after being killed in action is supposed to have been re-born as a Sinhala boy. At one point in the film, the principal asks the literature teacher a critical question:
“Say you believe in reincarnation. Is it possible for a Tamil terrorist to be reborn as a Sinhalese?”
In this film, Vimukthi very astutely challenges perceptions associated with rebirth, stereotypes about the Muslim community living in Sri Lanka, and the role of the media, which is often devoid of any conflict sensitivity.
The media representative hoodwinks the literature teacher and gets him to hold a bottle of toddy and a glass. He captures the teacher in a photograph promising that he will not publish the image of the inebriated teacher. In fact, the picture is published in the paper on the following day with a splash of the rebirth story. Just after the teacher is photographed, Vimukthi shows us a snorting pig and two donkeys braying at each other – quite an apt symbolic appreciation of the role of the media, when it decides to promote sensationalism!
With brevity of words and aesthetically woven shots, Vimukthi presents his artistic production. When the story of rebirth is published in the newspaper and the family of the son considered to be reborn has been sent away for their “protection”, the principal says the following to the literature teacher:
“Only Lord Buddha is able to choose a time, place, caste and mother before birth. Nobody knows where or who, we would end up reborn as”.
Handagama in his segment of the film named “Other” says that living in coexistence does not happen automatically. He does it so subtly that the viewer eventually wakes up to the rude reality of politics in our times.
This achieved through the sound of a phone call which is never answered by the owner of the phone, a young Tamil woman. She is coming to Colombo to protest against the absence of educational services to children in the North including her son. She is silently telling us that she will not answer the call of co-existence and affection by the Sinhala three-wheeler driver until justice is done to the people living in the North.
The film “Other” begins with scenes of a protest march demanding to find the “missing people”. As usual, the media focuses not on the purpose of the protest but the road obstacles and traffic jams. The Tamil mother whose son is missing and the young Tamil woman who is fighting for her son’s educational rights represent the “other” in this film. When the Tamil mother visits the house suspecting her son is living there, she only comes face to face with a Sinhala mother whose son has gone to war but come back minus a limb. Any mother deprived of a son is helpless whether they are of Tamil, Sinhala or Muslim origin. The following quote in the film testifies to this agony of all mothers:
“When a mother loses a child, she is consumed with relentless, burning hope. She burns in that fire every moment”.
There are a few scenes in this film in which human values are upheld surpassing the feeling of egoism and self-interest. When the Tamil mother is committed to finding her son, the other young Tamil woman and the three-wheeler driver leave her behind in the streets. But both of them cannot go too far. They are overwhelmed with the feelings of guilt. From different directions, they come back to the mother again at the same time to join her. This symbolically powerful gesture of sacrifice reminds us of the committed and selfless people who repaired the burnt Muslim hotel in Anamaduwa recently within twenty-four hours.
Her, Him the Other:
This film anthology is meant for Sinhala Buddhist society. It speaks to our collective guilt. In that sense, this film is not only about “thundenek” or three people. It is about the young man who is sitting in a village shop, looking blank. He could probably be a former soldier who has come back after the war. It is the story of the school principal. It is also the story of three-wheeler driver. In the end, it is the story of all of us.
The question arises whether the film makers have sufficiently been able to explore the roots of this crisis emerging from socio-economic and political forces of the state, its institutional mechanisms such as rule of law and other institutions and the socio-cultural ideologies of our times. If such exploration is restricted through censorship and other forms of control, then the film makers need to find devious and alternative ways of presenting their artistic production. Although such devious ways are more or less demonstrated in this film anthology, the film makers may not have adequately wrestled with the political realities digging deeper to the root of the problem, well beyond the human-interest stories. Despite the fact that the three films are inter-connected in one way or the other, the film makers have to shoulder the responsibility of doing three short films on their own depriving them of the ability to treat their individual themes comprehensively.
Yet, this film is critically important for a discourse around the current fissures within the social strata at the grassroots. This film will definitely add value to the dialogue on reconciliation that could be initiated by all concerned activists and peace loving people. Our society does not seem to be ready even for short-term interventions of reconciliation prior to initiating any paradigmatic change of our political structures and ideologies. The state is yet to learn from the experience of other countries faced with similar crises. The culture of impunity nurtured over the last few decades by the state has seeped into the body politic of our society like a cancer. We have written reams of reports on “lessons learned” but we have failed to learn from them and implement them in a pragmatic manner.
After having experienced critically devastating socio-economic and political crises during the last few decades, this society is yet to adequately promote reconciliation and co-existence within diverse communities through a dialogue on justice, truth seeking, compassion and forgiveness. Some sections of our Sinhala Buddhist communities suffer from the “entitlement syndrome” believing that the country belongs to Buddhist people only. If we genuinely want to live in co-existence, we should be willing to turn this type of ideological positioning and belief upside down.
This film stimulates the viewer to question the nationalistic roots of socioeconomic and political structures of our society. This film ignites passion within the viewer enabling him or her to change those ideological postures. It forces the viewer to think about the futility of war. It persuades the viewer to reflect upon the past terror and violence and the need to re-build a new future.