Asoka Handagama’s journey in Sri Lankan cinema thus far has been one where his name has become more or less welded to the reputation of a controversialist. Controversy seems almost what Handagama has inherited as a result of what he bequeathed or tried to bestow to Sri Lankan cinema. His latest work however has not suffered the fate of his previous work Aksharaya (The letter of fire), and has found acceptability with the authorities.
Towards a Sri Lankan cinema
Ini avan (Him, hereafter) has been much talked about as it debuted in the local cinema circuit for several reasons one may suppose. One would be that it is by Handagama, a name that smacks with the gossip-worthy juiciness of what is controversial. And another would be that this film although by a director who belongs to the Sinhala ethnicity in Sri Lanka, doesn’t really qualify as a Sinhala film. Ini avan is a Tamil film by a Sinhala director which marks a milestone in the gradual formation of a fuller ‘Sri Lankan cinema’ genre, one may propound.
Through the theme, the language choices he has made in creating this work of cinema, Handagama has certainly engaged an array of politics that is not only related to the post-war situation in our country but also how art as a means of expression to understand human conditions and realities in the post-war scenario needs to be looked at anew.
The means to capture the situation of the war-affected in a geography that is worlds apart from the ‘Colombo centricity ethos’ is unlikely to be achieved without grasping the factors of language that reflect even the basic truth of the demography portrayed. There is a severe language divide that affects reconciliation. But it is not language and that alone either.
A North –South dialogue
There is much food for thought in what Handagama impresses upon the viewer through Ini avan. It is in certain respects a filmmaker’s endeavour to produce a statement of the North to the South through the dialect of the North, to spur a North–South dialogue. One that will perhaps show that the need for understanding is not purely the issues of economics and politics taken in abstract but also there is an issue in ‘communicating’ them. That kind of dialogue is surely much needed in these times where ‘reconciliation’ is foremost among what is needed for the country’s path ahead.
In terms of cinematography and the cinematic tones which project the inner beings of the characters I feel that the filmmaker did not venture into dabble with what is ‘experimental’. In this sense Ini avan shows a marked difference from Handagama’s Thani thatuwen piyabanna (Flying with one wing) as it touches more on what is along the lines of mainstream to our Sri Lankan audience and does not push the viewer too much to decipher the unspoken, the unsaid, narrated through ever so subtly nuanced visual elements which at times may even get lost in translation. Handagama has developed his film with his audience in mind without losing sight of the possible politics his work would represent to the people. Ini avan isn’t a piece of cinema that the filmmaker indulged in the form of an ego trip to display how his intellectuality could be encoded in audio visual language. It is in this respect a film that an average filmgoer will not find disappointing in terms of narrative clarity. It is unpretentious and should be saluted for that merit.
The manner in which the politics of persecution for the people in the North is not just about the ‘aggressor’ who comes in the form of the Sri Lankan government, but also the cultural foundations within the Tamil community is stated rather boldly. There is in this aspect of the filmmaker his sensibility of projecting what is clearly visible and thereby not one sided. The manner in which the LTTE’s conscription policy compelled marriages between unwilling civilians in the North during the time of terrorism surely has left its share of unspoken frustrations on the psyches of people who found their lives coursed beyond their control in respect of even one of the most fundamentally personal decisions.
Handagama makes it clear through his protagonist the rehabilitated ex-LTTE cadre, and the two female characters that get entwined in his life that there is hardly any space sanctified as the completely personal or private in the lives of those who were devastated by the war.
They do not have the luxury of claiming to have at least some little sphere where their individual selves may find the ability to exercise a purely ‘personal choice’.
Be in whatever form, the larger picture of ‘power’ as I see it, is the ability to course people’s lives, regardless of their consent. And this notion seems to be abundantly manifest when looking at the ‘path’ the protagonist is coursed on in the post-war scenario.
What is very hard hitting about the plight of the protagonist is that in the aftermath of the war he has become the estranged one in his community although he was one who at the time of the LTTE’s hold over the North, seen as a figure of authority and a symbol of the Eelam ideology to which the average Tamil civilian up North was made to subscribe unquestioningly.
The protagonist is very much the disinherited oddity in post-war Jaffna, and the inheritance that awaits him is the censure and contempt of a dejected community, the bleakness of a struggle to survive financially where he cannot find a means for survival without once again offering his services of ‘muscle’. He is a hand for hire whose value is in his past as an effective killing machine.
The terrorists made him, used him, and then once he is left to fend for himself in a world that no longer sees an ‘official’ use for him, he becomes a hand that is duped to serve unscrupulous business.
Sadly for him the only certain inheritance that waited him was to struggle once more, this time in a setting where guns aren’t brandished openly but violence is part of the landscape, in hidden corners, barren outlands and the cover of night.
After committing a lifetime to a militant cause that proved a failure, how can one pick up where things left off? How can some of the most basic needs like employment be met to return to a life of normalcy? Perhaps for ones such as the protagonist in Handagama’s film ‘peacetime’ could become a dilemma, when ‘peace’ materialised as a result of the defeat of the movement they followed dogmatically and believed would finally deliver their salvation.
‘People’ are human
Ini avan is also a window to see how communal disillusionment can volley persecution on an individual who drove them to support a cause that was purported to be for the benefit of them all.
The neighbourhood’s ways in treating the protagonist as something of an ostracisable element speaks of how people can be unsympathetic when engulfed in their own pathos. It says how people need scapegoats to grapple with their miseries. It shows how ‘people’ are human.
One of the questions that get raised from the character of the protagonist is as to who or what exactly is his fount of strength? As an LTTE cadre it was obviously the militancy he was part of with its power hierarchy and gun totting that would have been his strength to display power.
As a security guard at the jewellery shop in post war Jaffna whatever brawn based power he exerts would be what his employer warrants be used to protect the establishment, and then subsequently as his employer reveals the true face of his ‘entrepreneurship’ he is again made to feel strengthened by the gun, this time a source of power that is meant to operate in the shadows.
The paradigm of power and how the tools of enforcement can be caught in a flux as regards the legitimacy they hold is interesting to note in the film. This point is driven most strongly in the T-56 rifle the protagonist keeps buried in his garden and how its existence becomes a dichotomy. It’s a case of –you’re damned if you do it, you’re damned if you don’t.
The film appears to voice the plight of those who ‘lived by the gun’ once their guns have been silenced, and made to find reconciliation in a community that seeks to either exploit them or overpower them and renders their future almost impossible without baring arms.
To them renouncing violence completely may not be a pragmatic option. Their utility value it seems may be as purveyors of violence to serve at the behest of a power holder’s demands.
A somewhat hard hitting matter that Handagama tackles in the film is the dimension of the pro LTTE diaspora that served as a financial engine to the separatist movement.
The reluctance of the protagonist to consider the overtures of the man who says he is from Canada on holiday shows that the bonds of trust between the foot soldiers who faced the war for a separate state and those who financed it while in abodes of comfort have been ruptured.
The rebuttal by the protagonist to the member of the diaspora saying that the likes of him were handed guns to fight while the likes of those who migrated overseas on account of the war gained their passports by stepping over the dead bodies of the fallen LTTE cadres is a notable juncture in the narrative that reveals the sentiments of the protagonist and his disillusionment with what he was a part of.
The acting deserves to be noted as being applause worthy and showed something of a symmetrical display of talent when looking at the main roles.
The director in his casting decisions clearly was not moved to think of current big names of the screen over artists up to the task of delivering the role in the given lingual framework.
The acting and the mould in which the characters have been built renders them very much believable, it is one of the significant merits of this work that makes it a film worth watching.
A common inheritance
Among the numerous post war era films that have been made in the recent years centralising the separatist war as the story basis Asoka Handagama’s Ini avan stands out as one which deals with the post-war situation in the North, dealing with the human problems and the inevitable evils that eventually seep into average urban civil life. It is a film that stands out for many reasons amongst which is its unpretentious approach to depict and discuss the issues involved in the context of post war Sri Lanka; starting on the very basic differentiation of language, which has worked as a chasm that is yet fully bridged between two ethnic communities of a single nationality. A chasm that has become a common inheritance to most in our nation.
By Dilshan Boange-ww.sundayobserver.lk