Frangipani; 90 min. Sinhala feature film with English subtitles

Frangipani is a Sinhala film made in Sri Lanka in 2014 written, directed and produced by Visakesa Chandrasekaram, a Sydney-based lawyer and creative writer.  While it is an important and welcome addition to the genre of queer film in South Asia, it would be doing it a disservice to label it just as a gay flick.  Rather it is an exploration of complex sexual identities, desire, fate and the role that socio-cultural and economic factors and realities play in the lives of those who do not fit neatly into either traditional heterosexual or even homosexual moulds. In a broader sense the film is an invitation to explore fundamental issues of what one calls the human condition.

Presented by Trikone Australasia, a Sydney-based community organisation, Frangipani was shown in Australia as part of the 2015 Mardi Gras Film Festival to a sold-out audience. It was also officially selected for more than fifteen film festivals worldwide and has garnered many accolades such as the ‘Award of Excellence’ from Canada, nominations for the ‘Best Foreign Film,’ the ‘Director of Best Foreign Film’ from Madrid and a ‘Honourable Mention’ from Berlin.

The film at an elementary level is a love story set in a remote, traditional village in Sri Lanka between two young men, Chamath and Nalin, and a young woman named Sarasi who is caught between them.  Sarasi is attracted to Chamath, the only male participant in her dressmaking class.  She wants to marry him but Nalin, a newcomer arriving in their village to work as a mechanic at the temple throws the proverbial spanner in the works when he and Chamath form a romantic and sexual liaison, gradually cutting Sarasi out of the picture.  Livid by Chamath’s rejection and recoiling from the thought of an arranged marriage, she turns her amorous attentions to Nalin.  He in turn reciprocates positively, not so much out of love but for practicality’s sake  ̶  the chance at financial gain and to satisfy behavioural expectations imposed by outmoded local norms.  On the other hand, we follow Chamath’s tortured path where he finds the courage to accept his true sexual identity which in turn allows him to transcend personal barriers, thereby overcoming his family’s prejudice and the hypocrisies and deceits of his upbringing.

We witness Nalin and Sarasi’s marriage, the birth of their child and their challenging relationship and Chamath’s heartbreak at the betrayal of his companions.  Chamath’s defying of rigid family and cultural pressures to follow his heart to live the life that he wants is juxtaposed with Nalin’s anguish in leading a double life in constant fear of being discovered.  The glamourous disco balls where Chamath sings in glitzy drag are in contrast to the torchlights shone by police officers illuminating Nalin who meets up with men at dingy beach locations.  The ritualistic dance and drums of the thovil employed to ward off evil in Chamath in the village is set against western dance with modern song in the urban settings of his choice where he feels more accepted and comfortable in his skin. A filmed bridal commercial of Sarasi and Chamath at the beginning of the film and Sarasi and Nalin’s real-life wedding add another dimension to one’s interpretation of what constitutes as make-believe.

The viewers are privy to glimpses of the complex and often fractured lives led by the protagonists as well as the other characters.  At the end we watch as their lives intertwine again five years later – could we expect mulled anger and recriminations or witness forgiveness and the developing of a staid, platonic love between the three?

In one of the scenes with the three lead characters, we’re reminded that the frangipani flower has five petals but occasionally it bears six, bringing us to the title Frangipani, dubbed Saya Pethi Kusuma (සය පෙති කුසුම) in Sinhala.  In short, it is how it is.  We are not all ‘wired’ in the same manner where our sexual identities are concerned.  Sri Lanka still has archaic laws leftover from its colonial past which consider homosexuality illegal.  Also homophobia is still widespread despite it being a predominantly Buddhist country which is starkly in conflict with its philosophy of unconditional loving kindness and tolerance towards all beings.

Relative newcomers to the cinema screen, Dasun Pathirana, Jehan Srikantha and Yashodha Rasanduni are excellently cast and perform wonderfully in Frangipani.  The cinematography is minimalist yet powerfully striking.  Considering that actors were hard to source due to the film’s subject matter and the fact that the shoot was completed in a short timeframe of eighteen days, kudos must be proffered to the director’s tenacity and courage.

Prior to attending the screening of Frangipani, the writer of this article was in conversation with Chandrasekaram who corrected her misconception that this was the first Sri Lankan gay-themed feature film.  He acknowledged previous Sinhala films which had dealt with such issues such as Malata Noena Bambaru (මලට නොඑන බඹරු) directed by Chandaratne Mapitigama and Shelton Payagala (1982), Asoka Handagama’s Thani Thatuwen Piyabanna (තනි තටුවෙන් පියාඹන්න; 2003) and Vimukthi Jayasundara’s Sulanga Enu Pinisa (සුලඟ එනු පිනිස; 2005).

Continuing the work by directors before him, Chandrasekaram delves much further into the LGBT community’s right to love and acceptance.  He focuses on perceptions of personal freedom, gender stereotypes, ambivalent sexuality, and explores themes of gender expectations and marriage, laying bare the stifling conformity that is the cost of approval prevalent within some families and cultures. He is a social artist who should be applauded for making this film, which invites reflection by creating a work of art with critical and philosophical dimensions needed for understanding. He manages to push the boundaries without adopting a hostile standpoint of the socio-cultural setting and focuses on individuals and their evolving emotions as they grapple with their lot.

There are a few shortcomings in the film that need to be pointed out.  Some of the scenes could have benefitted from tighter editing without losing impact or general clarity of the plot.  Also, the inclusion of too many LGBT characters (though admittedly interesting personalities) was at times a bit confusing and detracting from the overall theme and muddied the waters so to speak.  Likewise for a mainly non Sri Lankan, Australian audience, the subtitles were sometimes inaccurate or at times curiously non-existent.

While this is Chandrasekaram’s directorial debut as a film maker, he has in the past written and directed several stage plays in both Sinhala and English including Forbidden Area for which in 1999 he won Sri Lanka’s esteemed Gratiaen Prize.  Holding a PhD from the Australian National University in Canberra, the prolifically creative Chandrasekaram’s recent work includes the novels, Tigers Don’t Confess, The King & The Assassin together with its Sinhala version, Raja Saha Gaathakaya (රජ සහ ඝාතකයා) as well as a CD of hauntingly beautiful Sinhala songs for which he compiled the lyrics and the tunes.

Despite the international acclaim for Frangipani, it has sadly been shown only in two venues in Colombo due to the country’s strict censorship regulations.  Self-funding this artistic film, the director’s main objective is to encourage discussion about LGBT concerns and it would definitely be a lost opportunity for us if mainstream screening for this film were not permitted. If it were possible to reach a wider audience, Frangipani could only encourage constructive dialogue thereby helping to cultivate a more inclusive attitude within and amongst ourselves.