Prasanna Vithanage’s Gaadi takes place in the last year of the Kandyan Kingdom. It begins with an encounter between Ehelepola Adigar and John D’Oyly and moves on to scenes of the two of them negotiating the transfer of power in Kandy and the deposal of the king, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe. In the opening sequence, the Adigar informs the British emissary that should he succeed Rajasinghe, he will allow the English to conduct trade in the highlands. He adds that this should not come at the cost of the social order in his realm: once they drive out the Vaduga king, they must do all they can to protect and preserve that order. He then exacts a promise from D’Oyly and makes the latter swear on the Bible.

Episodic as they may seem, these scenes lay the groundwork for the story at the heart of Vithanage’s film. One of Ehelepola’s allies is Bulathgama Dissave. The two of them despatch a missive to as many noblemen as they can. Several of them come to their support, and with their support Ehelepola and Bulathgama organise a coup. This, however, turns out to be abortive, and they and their troops flee from Kandy. That leaves their families at the mercy of the ruler and his loyalists. They suffer the fate typically reserved for the families of those accused of treason: either death, or the prospect of their caste being lowered. Most families choose death. Bulathgama’s wife Tikiri, however, does not.

From this deceptively simple set up, Prasanna Vithanage charts the travails of a woman who chooses to live and then has to put up with a society that would have preferred her to die. The director, the cast and the crew all make us aware that this is not an easy decision; in the context of the social formations that dominated the Kandyan kingdom, particularly in its last phase, case strictures were inflexible. Tikiri’s desire to live and her willingness to lower her caste and marry into a shunned community hence comes at an exorbitant cost – she is exiled from her old world and finds it difficult to enter her new. It is this conflict that forms the crux of Vithanage’s film and makes it the fine, evocative film it is.

Gaadi operates at two levels; the historical and the personal. On both, it represents a break from the director’s previous work. Vithanage’s films so far have been limited to a contemporary timeframe. The furthest he took us back to was in Pawuru Valalu (1999) and that was set somewhere in the 1960s. Gaadi takes us further back to a period that has been the stuff of countless films, plays and other objets d’art in the country. With the visual elan that one has come to associate with him, Vithanage conjures up a Kandyan society different from most popular reconstructions of it. In doing so, I think he charts a new path for a genre that has never been properly tapped into in Sri Lanka. What Gaadi achieves, in other words, is something of a miracle; it gives us a different kind of historical film.

Such an achievement cannot be overrated. The Sinhala historical film has always suffered from an excess of form over content. There is little to no human interest in the storyline. The heroes of these films become instruments of the plot, driven by ideological predilections which tend to dominate the plot. This is true particularly of films set in the Kandyan Period. These latter typically dwell on three themes: the predominance of the Buddhist clergy, the cruelty (or the benignity) of the Kandyan king and the oppressiveness of British rule. Utterly predictable, such works end up promoting an overwhelmingly ethno-religious view of history. On that count Gaadi achieves a significant, if unprecedented, break and departure from convention.

It’s not that other films have failed to achieve such a break but even these have been unmitigated failures. Devinda Kongahage’s Girivassipura, for instance, attempts to depict a different Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe, not the cruel, oppressive, spendthrift playboy king that colonial propaganda and Sinhalese narratives promote but the tragic figure of Gananath Obeyesekere’s reinterpretation. Kongahage’s film was essentially a visual transposition of Obeyesekere’s work – both Gananath and Ranjini Obeyesekere were present at its premiere in 2019 – but in terms of its merits as a film and a work of art, it left much to be desired. That is what distinguishes Vithanage’s work from conventional historical epics like Ehelepola Kumarihamy and atypical exercises like Girivassipura; it does not dwell on the motifs which figure prominently in them. To get a sense of proportion here consider that Gaadi features no Buddhist monk, depicts British colonial officials only elliptically and excludes Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe from the plot, making us feel his presence by his absence.

Against that backdrop, the director’s attention to detail and his historical research must be lauded. Gaadi does not pretend to present every aspect of the late Kandyan period but it goes to remarkable lengths to depicting life as it may have been lived in those hard, harsh, tumultuous years. Consider the way Tikiri, on the verge of suicide, decides to lose her caste status instead. The choice is starkly clear; either she marries into a low caste community or she must drown herself. If we are to believe colonial and popular Sinhalese accounts of the incident, Ehelepola Kumarihamy was given a similar choice. Writing of the Kandyan practice of caste degradation, for instance, Emerson Tennent notes that “[t]he most dreaded of all punishments…was to hand over the lady of a high caste offender to the Rodiyas.” This is intriguing but what distinguishes Vithanage’s film is that it records the exact specifics of the process. “The mode of her adoption,” Tennent writes, “was by the Rodiya taking betel from his own mouth and placing it in hers, after which till death her degradation was indelible.” The sequence by the Mahaweli River depicts this down to the last detail.

Equally impressive is the film’s depiction of the social practices in the Kandyan period. On more than one occasion the Rodiyas, walking on the road, pass by high caste noblemen. Johann Heydt notes that in the event of such encounters, the low caste group “must go a few steps out of the way, whether [it] is loaded or not, and show due respect.” The film also makes it clear that once degraded, a high caste offender cannot be redeemed; he or she remains tethered to his or her fate. If the strictures governing these social codes are broken, then the community does not hesitate to retaliate through violence or personal vendettas. “A woman of the Padua caste,” Heydt notes, after coming upon a mob at a bazaar, “had been nearly killed by some indignant Wellales and Chandoos for ‘having presumed so far to forget her degraded lot in life as to throw a kerchief over her neck and shoulders’”. Such incidents may seem alien to us even if caste remains an open secret. But Gaadi shows that it was a fact of life then. You could not escape it. You resigned yourself to it.

None of this is to say that Gaadi’s merits can or should be judged only on the basis of its fidelity to history. Indeed, what salvages Vithanage’s work from becoming a mere historical construction is its skilful incorporation of factual and fictional elements. To the best of my knowledge there was no Bulathgama Dissave, still less an incident involving his treason or the punishment of his family. Yet by including Tikiri’s entry into the Rodiya community and Vijaya’s infatuation with her, the director gradually makes us realise the complexities that would have governed the breach of Kandyan strictures and taboos. On that account, Dinara Punchihewa and Sajitha Anuththara Anthony capture the emotional nuances that a couple caught in their situation would have had to put up with. In capturing them, I think Vithanage achieves that rare combination of historical fact and humanist fiction.

At least one critic has suggested that, when compared with Prasanna Vithanage’s earlier work, Gaadi’s characters fail to rise above their stereotypes or, in other words, that they become one-dimensional. This critique is no doubt grounded in the fact that the characters remain, until the very end, bound to their caste position. To this my response would be two-fold: firstly, that against the backdrop of the social codes which governed and dominated the Kandyan era, the real life prototypes of these characters would have found it hard if not impossible to be anyone other than who they were decreed to be by the ruling class and secondly, that the two protagonists in Vithanage’s film do make an attempt, futile as it is, to pass off as someone other than their restricted selves. In that sense, the best sequence in the film is its middle section when Tikiri and Vijaya make it into the good books of a farmer, played by Ananda Kumara Unnahe, and make a living in the forest by trapping cattle. This is where the director points us to his own critique of caste by showing us how such codes and taboos constrict our basic, innate capacity for empathy.

My only criticism of the film, as far as plot is concerned, is that it deserved better subtitles. All too often in Sri Lanka, one comes across films which have much to commend them but are ultimately undone by poor if shoddy subtitling. This is as true for contemporary films as it is of those that top the greatest ever made lists.

My critique should not of course belittle the objet d’art being critiqued. By all accounts, Vithanage’s latest effort should be watched, not just for how well it communicates a timely, and timeless, message about the resilience of the human spirit but also because visually it is an astonishing feat of craftsmanship. One can certainly expect nothing less from Vithanage. But coming from a director who in his recent work forayed into Bergmanesque chamber music (in particular, Akasa Kusum and Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka), Gaadi represents a triumph of form and a visual feast, a film for all ages.

There is one somewhat jarring note towards the end – the film’s admission that the fall of the Kandyan kingdom and the British takeover spelt out the end of the caste system. Such a message may be warranted by the triumph of humanism at the end as epitomised by Tikiri’s acceptance of Vijaya. But regardless of the vindication of humanist ideals there, we must acknowledge that life after the deposal of the Kandyan king was not as positive as the film’s ending may have us believe. British rule did not eradicate caste but revived it in a different form. One may welcome the triumph of colonial “modernity” over feudalism here yet as so many sociologists and anthropologists have observed, the modernity we celebrate today, in this country, has in fact retained many of the elements of that same system which Vithanage critiques so well in his film. On that basis, the moral in Gaadi cannot be forgotten, still less neglected. It remains as valid in its time as it does in ours.