Courtesy - Sunday Observer By Dilshan Boange
Prasanna Jayakody’s Karma became a notable topic of discussion since it debuted in film theatres. Part of the hype could be attributed to the director’s casting decisions if one looks at how the highly talented musician Nadeeka Guruge made a debut as a screen actor while the film also marked the entry of English stage drama actress Michelle Herft to the screen. As for Jagath Manuwarna who possibly delivers the most compelling performance from the main characters, it is I believe his first, doing a lead in a feature film though not a stranger to screen acting.
In every film there is of course the ‘politics of casting’, which could gain both positive and ‘not so positive’ remarks to the work as a whole. One of these ‘remarks’ which I feel would be food for thought was in the weekly column of satirical comments in a Sunday English paper, titled ‘Wealth of a Nation’. The columnist raised the question as to whether Jayakody directed Herft or whether he was directed by her.
Understandably, the aspect of some mild nudity of the female body of an appealing looking young Sri Lankan woman will lend to the ‘perspective’ developed about the film and what its politics could be.
Perhaps the director could have intended it as well.
The billboard cut-outs of the film are suggestive and teasing and one cannot dispute the ‘marketing communication’ quality generated through them. On the matter of acting talent being marshalled for Jayakody’s project one cannot say that Herft did not show an appreciable delivery of what was scripted as her character. This is looking at Herft’s acting and not the credibility of the young woman Ama in the ‘context of the story’.
I have seen Herft perform at the Lionel Wendt and her prowess as an actress cannot be contested. Her portrayal of Penelope Toop in ‘See how they run’ staged last year, was a praiseworthy performance.
But how much life can an actor infuse to a character scripted in a story which would have deficits in its credibility altogether to make the character stand out as true to life is another matter altogether.
Admittedly when the story lacks in its plausibility derived from the behaviour of the characters which forms the base of the story, the scope for an actor’s acting prowess to be discerned in abstraction gets limited and understandably obstructed. What can be said of Herft’s performance in general is that she did not seem uncomfortable in her role.
A comment worthy kiss
A bold, comment worthy element in my opinion in terms of Sri Lankan filmmaking, more so than the exposing of the female’s role would be executing a French kiss or a ‘lip kiss’ as we tend to distinguish it in Sri Lankan parlance, convincingly. Manuwarna and Herft do present it as something striking in the abandoned ramshackle bungalow despite criticisms that could be levelled at the film and its creator for the insufficiencies in logic and unity.
Yes, I do believe a work can and in fact should be noted for whatever elements it would posses as appreciable even in abstract since discussion on aspects isolated from the work as a whole could lend to the furtherance of analysis approaches and study of a work. And I also hope the reader will be kind not to accuse me of a fetish with the ‘lip kiss’ as something sensational and gossipy.
Whatever my personal take on the depiction of ‘bodily interactions’ and ‘physical propinquities’ in a ‘Sri Lankan film’ may be, it must be said that possibly more acting skill and effort may go into convincingly pulling off a French kiss for the camera than what is required by two people to act out being entwined in bed with faces partly hidden and the backs of the upper body facing the camera to present a sex scene.
Nudity and the naked female
Thinking on the lines of the politics of nudity in a film I’d like to raise the question whether the naked body becomes a separate character altogether when there is a closely knit nucleus in the cast of characters who form the story? Karma has a trio of protagonists –‘Nadee’ played by Nadeek Guruge, ‘Ama’ played by Michelle Herft and ‘Piyal’ played by Jagath Manuwarna.
Given the manner in which ‘marketing insinuations’ may engender certain perspectives was there a ‘fourth character’ perceived in the minds of viewers in the form of Herft’s naked body? In all fairness to the director’s sense of capturing his (visual) ‘direction’ on celluloid and the actresses ability to act to the camera I for one did not see the character Ama becoming a ‘newer persona’ merely on account of the moderate nudity. And please do note that I for one believe in distinguishing the character from the actor.
The character analysis of a critique would limit in its reference to the character and not extend to the actual person who portrayed it while the ‘performance’ upon being analysed for its acting as a skill would be attributed of course to the actor. However the same may not be said when it comes to the direction of the film. The director behind the camera is not a person with a ‘character persona’. All analysis of the ‘film’s direction’, the overall work, the remarks both negative and positive would of course be ‘directed at’ the ‘person’ whose name appears in the film credits as its ‘director’.
The framework of the characters
On the matter of character analysis what can be noted is that Jayakody has not offered the viewer holism. Ama, Nadee, and Piyal are to be understood for their presencs in the film and what their background is in terms of who they are, (or even ‘were’ for that matter) and what larger context of society they are of is left unsaid. That is of course not by itself a failure on the part of the story’s writer or creator by any means. On the contrary one could say the filmmaker has adhered to certain postmodernist outlook as to character portrayal and thereby offers the viewer three people whose present is their individual statement.
A scene from the film
Jayakody has therefore indicated that his film’s theoretical approach to the characters is not meant to be taken in the traditional sense of contextualisation where each character’s credence lies in being a ‘plausible entity’ in the larger ‘fabric of society’. However this is the more conceptual side of it. How much of that conceptuality has Jayakody worked into the film through what the character’s depict of themselves to be credible, plausible entities who would carry within them (based on what is shown to the viewer) the logic of their ‘individual being’?
The ‘rocker’ Nadee
Nadeeka Guruge’s character is Nadee, since that is how Ama’s character addresses him. And if it is taken for granted that the man with the overawing beard and hair is named ‘Nadeeka’ then that is pure assumption and ‘reading in’ to the text of the film what is not there since within the ‘confines’ of the ‘film’s narrative’ the director hasn’t provided any material to christen the rock musician as Nadeeka.
Nadee’s state of being is such that his ‘constructive desertion’ (not to be taken strictly in the legalistic sense of the term) of Ama when she is in need of emotional support and strength renders him selfish and uncaring though his amorous affair with the young woman isn’t purely physical either and shows a want to share his life with her.
Perhaps Jayakody intended to depict Nadee’s inadequacy to be a more emotionally fulfilling lover as a form of impotency? That a male is not only about virility when it comes to keeping a woman attracted to him? But then Nadee, apart from delivering Piyal a manly slap in the face after he discovers the latter playing peeping tom when he makes love to his woman, makes no clear depictions of being the alpha male whose magnetically masculine physicality becomes the ‘lust factor’ that keeps his woman tied to him.
Yes, it may sound primordial but it isn’t unreal and illogical if one were to consider it without reading a vindicating discourse of ‘women’s lib’ gender politics in to it. Lust binds people together. That is a fact. And its effacement can render a ‘relationship’ on the wane. But what I find to be an insufficiency to the inherent logic of the character’s behaviour is how Ama a young woman as endowed with attributes that makes her anything but the average Sri Lankan hussy finds herself attracted to a man as Nadee whose selfishness is manifest when he disapproves her seeking to resume treatment for her cancer in Melbourne.
The Melbourne factor
Melbourne being an element to indicate how class positing may work about the character since the dialogues suggests she has family or close friends with whom she had been living before. Since Nadee isn’t the alpha male whose lustful prowess alone can keep her bound to him her decision to stay and risk the chances without going to Melbourne to resume treatment is on account of the baby she conceives with him, which mind you he is not all that ecstatic about.
But the miscarriage that occurs leaves her free to now go overseas and seek treatment. It proves that it wasn’t lust alone that kept her with him, he is not the quintessential apex of physical pleasure giver to keep her bound to him. But then what was it that kept her with him till that point? Surely she isn’t naive to the point not to be able to see his lack of genuineness in whatever love she may have whiffed off him? The character of Ama seems that way to have been thrown into her ‘arrangement’ with Nadee since that is what the script said and since that is what Jayakody had the actors play out to the camera.
Piyal’s character gives an account of his station more detailed than the other two. He is disaffected from the familial set up, possibly wilfully, and seems to seek a solitude or an estrangement from his father. His mother being no more (which is narrated visually from the photo album he flips through in which are snap of a woman’s funeral) Piyal seems to have turned to a life of a bohemian youth who is involved in drama. This being assumed from the scene shown of an absurd drama being acted in a theatre and that the coffin in which Piyal reposes and wakes up in is carried by a bunch of young men jovially as if after a performance and in good spirits, along the train track.
While the scene of the stage play seems a surreal element in the film’s ‘texture’ it may work I feel with a dual purpose. Firstly, as a means to gauge a symbolic aspect of Piyal’s mindset. The scene being a dreamy vision either within Piyal’s own mind or a depiction by the director to symbolise Piyal’s psychology. Secondly it could mean to show as said earlier a facet of Piyal’s actual life, that of a thespian. How precisely the element works is not fully clear. And that to me is a point of insufficiency in the narrative to give cohesion between and amongst the diverse visual elements that are assembled together. Piyal’s loneliness and his natural yearning for not just companionship but also a lover finds the estrangement between Nadee and Ama to his favour but there is a clear subtext of the class element at play as well I contend. Before going into that aspect of the story a remark must be made about how Piyal’s yearning for Ama shows that she is to him at the outset the unattainable woman who is incidentally quite literally the girl next door. There is an irony to the scope of the ‘stationing’ of the two characters. ‘The girl next door’ in the ‘western conception’ is generally the desired female who isn’t distanced by ‘class’, since the inhabitants of a certain neighbourhood would be of more or less in a similar socio-economic scale.
Piyal and Ama
Ama being not merely a beautiful looking woman but a woman who is of a higher class than Piyal makes her seem as though of a higher plane and this is doubly symbolised by how to play voyeur Piyal must climb up a storey’s height. Piyal as a character may seem more plausible than Ama’s but then again when trying to asses all his merits of selflessness and altruism made for Ama does make one wonder can a selfless love to the extent of what Piyal presents be true to life considering that there had hardly been a solid relationship developed between him and the woman he pines for?
To rationalise it would have to be that Piyal being so completely devoid of a purpose and more pressing responsibilities in his life that his existential being can only find some meaning by making himself emotionally enslaved to tend to Ama who becomes a debilitated patient who is not even able to do her ablutions without some assistance.
The foot in the bath water
There are two instances that make his pathos come out rather pitifully. One is at the earlier stage of the narrative where in one scene he puts his foot in the drain which runs through his ‘dwelling’ to have a part of him touch the soapy water flowing out from the bathroom next door where Ama is bathing. Even to touch her bath water is a pleasure to the pathetic loner.
The second point is where at the hospital where in one scene Ama, wheelchair bound is barely conscious and Piyal sings Shania Twain to her; words of the song ‘From this moment on’ he had caught from her moments of singing in the shower which he listens to attentively in the earlier part of the story. Rather than producing what would be meaningful from the sense of being what his lingual sensibilities would better master Piyal merely orally regurgitates words which in my perception made him even more pathetic.
If it was an attempt to hit on the viewer’s emotional strings of empathy for the sincere lover, to feel sorry for his powerlessness and get teary over his sweetness to her, then I must say the whole element has a superficiality and sugariness that simply doesn’t work for an audience that expects some depth and plausibility in what they are offered. Piyal’s character to me sank to an all new level of abjectness at that point.
The voyeur and the exhibitionist
One of the interesting inroads that can be charted to dissect the characters of Piyal and Ama is by reading how they play off each other to reveal two sides to their inner selves. Piyal is a voyeur. Ama has a thing for exhibitionism. The former is very obvious in the film but the latter is not as jarringly pronounced.
Ama’s blog post of a naked female body neck down that is very likely her own, is indicative of her exhibitionism along with the one instance when she spots Piyal peeping on her making love with Nadee where she makes no sudden shriek or expression of disdain but actually shows a slight smile which shown as a close up shot may either be that she was smiling at him or smiling to herself on the knowledge that she is being watched. These character attributes would not be unveiled had the ‘dwelling conditions’ been as they are in the story.
Demands of realism
On the matter of how the story as a whole has insufficiencies in holding together a unity or cohesion in the narrative of visuals and its story I feel there is something that needs to be addressed in terms of how this film could and in fact would be approached by many a viewer. The majority of viewers tend to judge a film’s artistic success and the plausibility of the story by its approximations to reality, the very world we live in and can identify with.
The ‘realism’ in the story and its distances in relation to what the director has offered often is the basis to hail or decry the acceptability of the work as something ‘real’. How ‘real’ then would Starwars or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter be for that matter in such an approach? The matter here is of course genre.
The story Jayakody unfolds with his flow of visuals cannot in my opinion be approached with any other framework than realism since it does not contain in its thematic and storyline constitution a form that delivers something built on a ground as surrealism, as for example Vimukthi Jayasundera adopted for his second film ‘Fallen from the sky’. The test therefore that Jayakody’s Karma submits itself to is the test of being proven ‘realistic’.
Piyal the foetus
The symbolism presented in the scene where Piyal is submerged in water crouched like a foetus is of course linked to the human being’s earliest form of life and perhaps communicates Piyal’s desire to once again be a foetus untroubled by the realities of the world and closer than a child could ever be to the source that gives it life –the mother.Piyal could thus also possibly be the image the symbolic embodiment of the child that Ama never gives birth to.
The scenario of a bizarre oedipal complex between Ama and Piyal is also indicated through the last scene as well. The ‘bodily reality’ of Ama as a woman who has lost one breast is a shock to Piyal that triggers a flashback of a scene where a small child begins to cry after being jolted by some people who disturb the moment of breast feeding, which results in the mother’s breast being bitten.
Ingredients and incongruities
On the whole one cannot help escape the feeling that the mix of ingredients carefully picked out by the director did not blend masterfully to become a praiseworthy preparation. Some of the long wide angle shots, especially in the abandoned bungalow Ama and Piyal go to, appear to have a touch of the craft of the Russian film master Andrei Tarkovsky, yet what warranted the filmmaker to keep the actors in a state of inertness stilled as if to impose a profoundness by virtue of the motionlessness alone is a question.
It is in respect of such elemental incongruities that I say that the flow of visuals did not seem to possess an integrity of being particles of a whole and evident of its unity of substance. It is in this regard that I feel that Jayakody seems to have almost ‘picked out’ his ‘symbols’ and then woven them as a story, rather than sketching out the story and then building in the symbolisms to give it nuanced meanings and giving them the purpose of being ‘devices’ of the story’s narrative.
Two technical aspects
On the matter of some more technical aspects of the film there two matters I would like to highlight as warranting discussion. One is the clear visible digitalising at work where the photo album Piyal flips through shows a picture of him as one of the coffin bearers. Manuwarna’s face was clearly transposed digitally to an actual picture from a funeral.
The second was the subtitling. The subtitles gave the strong indication that the film was intended for an overseas audience. The first giveaway was that when Piyal flips through the album the subtitle states that the pictures are of his mother’s funeral. The role of the subtitles would be to be a translation of the dialogues and mention the presence of certain audio elements like significant sounds to viewers who could be challenged in their hearing. There was nothing spoken by the solitary Piyal in that scene to establish that he was going over photos of his mother’s funeral.
Film as storytelling
When looking at how storytelling has evolved as an art that grew out of the oral and into the most modern forms of communication media we could be propelled to ask does the film have to do what the raconteur of olden times did in that very same way, moving on a linear path observing all the conventions that leave no gaps to be filled by the listener and if need be even allows for clarifications and ensures the listeners curiosity is satisfied to leave no doubts as to the storyteller’s ability to perform a role with no deficits? Perhaps that is better answered not only by looking at the age of mediatisation we live in and the tools used for storytelling but also the diversification of the audiences and their tastes as to what kind of story would appeal to them. Did Karma have ‘gaps’ that needed filling? Yes, a great many. But the question at hand would be was it to the benefit of the viewer to become part of the storytelling approach devised by the filmmaker?
Is ‘Karma’ the kind of film, visually narrated nonlinear story whose gaps incite the mind to move into contemplations and enjoy the conjectures left for the viewer to infuse to the story that develops in the viewers mind? The answer could vary according to the taste of the audience. I recall how Vimukthi Jayasundera’s ‘Fallen from the sky’ after its screening at the Goethe Institute in Colombo had mixed reactions from the audience on account of its narrative method and story substance. A few remarked that they enjoyed his debut feature Sulanga enu pinisa more than the film in question where as for me it was the other way around.
But the matter at hand is that the ‘space’ Jayasundera gives the viewer in ‘Fallen from the sky’ to read in to the story’s text is masterfully woven into the narrative as not a burden of filling the ‘missing links’ but rendering newer meanings to the material given to develop a larger picture of what the story could mean in our own psychology. But one must also keep in mind that Jayasundera’s ‘grammar of logic’ is not meant to play in realism but surrealism.
Jayakody seems to have left a wide open task to the viewer to perform if such a filling of gaps is needed by the viewer. The opaqueness of the characters as to why and how they are in the stations they are in their lives, and being thus stationed would people act towards each other as they do is such a matter leaves a notable gap in the logicality the viewer is meant to exact from the material that unfolds as an audio visual array.
That sacred silence
The editing style that Jayakody has opted for also shows a jaggedness that by its very cut in scenes at times seems to cue the viewer that the gap filler may be applied in their head to achieve a holism, if they wish to.
‘Silence’ is sometimes interpreted in relation to the art of film as being an element that is often construed with profoundness and indicative of the director’s ability to narrate an idea an emotion without relying on the power of the spoken word in the moment depicted, and thereby maximising the power of the picture, the visual, and doing justice to the art of film media.
But silence if used without constructive purpose in the larger scheme of things becomes merely what it is –silence. A lacuna, a void that does not facilitate a nuanced deeper meaning but merely states its existence as the lack of any sound based communication. The paucity of words in Karma does not necessarily, in my opinion, create that ‘sanctified silence’ seen by some as characteristic of the cinema of some of the masters. In the very basic sense of defining film as being a medium that narrates a story through a sequence of ‘moving pictures’ Jayakody has made Karma demonstrative of that definition. Did I enjoy it? No, to be quite honest I did not. But that does not mean it doesn’t have its merits as well as demerits that warrant it to be discussed and studied as a work of Sri Lankan cinema.