When Prageeth Rathnayake (as Pawan, the protagonist of his debut film, Adarei Mang) enters his unfinished, drab, concrete-laden house with a bunch of flowers and a sense of exhilaration (he’s passed his university final year exams with a First Class), and looks into each and every room calling out his sweetheart’s name, it’s almost out of the scene in Brian De Palma’s Body Double where Craig Wasson does the same thing in a more expansive home.
Except that in De Palma’s film the hero finds his girlfriend in bed with another man, while in Prageeth’s film the hero finds his wife unconscious (we later learn she has a brain tumour): the one punctures the protagonist’s idealism so much that he turns away, the other punctures it so much that he becomes a brawny macho, carrying the comatose wife to the hospital. (In fact the editing, which had been so happy-go-lucky and optimistic until that point, detoured rather wildly to what was, for me, a parody of the hero-saves-his-woman trope that our mainstream movies indulge in again and again.)
Adareyi Mang plays around, subtly and (I suspect) despite the director’s own intentions, with this kind of inbuilt self-parody. You feel something coming up, something that will culminate with the exhilaration of release, but it never does quite materialise; all you have are bits and pieces of the conventional cinema being tossed out to the audience, edited quickly and rapidly in one scene, then slowly in another, then cutting into a series of close-ups that end with the lovers, shocked at the callousness of their elders, either defying them openly (the husband) or dropping the tray of sweetmeats she’s holding on the floor, shocked (the wife). It’s dazzling, though strangely limited to one town (the entire story unfolds along Galle Road and in Mount Lavinia, except for the song-and-dance sequences, where you simply don’t care where the lovers are), and its editing, though rather reminiscent of kitschy music videos and testosterone-laden melodramas at several points, is redeemed by the acting and Prageeth’s carefully laid out narrative.
Adareyi Mang plays around, subtly and (I suspect) despite the director’s own intentions, with this kind of inbuilt self-parody.
Movies tend to arouse certain special, private, hidden feelings, which I believe is the most essential function of any art form, anywhere. There’s no attempt at rationalising what you feel; what you feel is what you feel. That’s why I go to the Savoy, the Regal, and the Majestic, and closer to my hometown, the Tower in Moratuwa, intending not just to assess my relationship with the world and the people I have to put up with, but also to fulfill my expectation that once the show starts and the story unravels something will happen to me. I don’t want to spend too much time trying to make sense of what that something is. I believe, therefore, that I am a representative of the demographic that chooses to be enthralled by an otherwise conventional product like Dharmayuddaya and Adaraneeya Kathawak rather than be confused by the intricate workings of an art house picture. That is why I am thankful that Prageeth has chosen for his debut a love story that never quite gives up its devices to the conventional love story narrative, and yet doesn’t abandon that narrative either. This peculiar dualism – I long to see it being worked on in other mainstream Sinhala movies – is what I liked most about Adarei Mang.
It’s so simple minded (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, by the way) that the characters can almost be identified as the types they faintly are; the idealistic lovers, the forever-forgiving-employer (when Pawan has an altercation with Malmi, his wife-to-be, played by Chathurika Peiris, and she leaves the nursery she is teaching, the Principal doesn’t rebuke her, she tells her that only she has the prerogative to fire her), the forever-by-your-side-and-then-by-his-sidekick to the woman (who regularly alternates between her friendship with Malmi and her devotion to the romance between Malmi and Pawan, to the consternation of both), the inflexible capitalist-executive father (who, as with every mainstream commercial love story from here, happens to be the father to the boy), and the leftist-idealist in-law (Malmi’s father). When Pawan’s father, played by Robin Fernando, asks after his prospective daughter-in-law’s father, played by Neil Alles, and his associations with the July 1980 strike, you sense the undercurrents of contempt and snobbery, but that’s it; the friendliness deteriorates, the two elders part ways in a fit of fury and anger, and as for the love story, well, it’s left to be strewn together from scratch by the two lovers. It’s certainly refreshing, but then again isn’t it more of the same? It’s roughly the same thing with the sequence in which Pawan’s feelings of tenderness, aroused after his first real encounter with Malmi, are conveyed to us by his University friends singing ‘Sonduru Lovata Mal Vahala’; the same device, reworked, revisited.
So why is it that I was able to wade through those reworked, revisited devices without bothering to be tired by them? Again, that dualism I mentioned before. It’s the sort of dualism which elongates a scene or sequence and then suddenly punctures it: the discovery by the jovial husband of the comatose wife; the shattering of their idealisations of their elders by Robin Fernando’s abruptly delivered hints at Malmi’s infidelity (how many other men, he asks rather cruelly, has she been seeing before Pawan, and how many more men will she be seeing even after marrying Pawan?); the sudden outbursts of self-righteousness from Pawan after he finds out that Malmi borrowed some money from her mother (he sees this as a compromise, the sort that he is not at all willing to reach with his now emotionally distant father), followed by a reconciliation under a rainstorm (we expect them to reconcile the same way the lovers from Chandran Rutnam’s Me Wage Adarayak reconciled after the frail wife tried to get her father-in-law to talk to her husband and gave up after the husband lashed at her, but no: she merely tells him that she forgot the spare key to their house, evincing not tears but laughs from the audience).
With five musical numbers, and no fights, Adarei Mang is a peculiar product; the boy is rich and the girl poor, but neither the boy nor the girl has to put up with the indifference of the elders
The plot opens up almost like clockwork (he meets his girl because his car breaks down and he has to take the bus; he meets her again because he has to drop his niece at the nursery where she works at) but that doesn’t mean that everything follows the same conventional narrative that love stories usually follow. The hero doesn’t have to beat anyone: he has to be beaten up by everyone (i.e. the bus passengers who think he’s molesting Malmi).
He doesn’t have to sing to her to win her; he just gives her a homily about love (it’s a reworking of the ‘love means never having to say sorry’ one-liner, though I won’t reveal what Prageeth, who is his film’s scriptwriter, philosophises by way of explaining what true love is to Malmi). He doesn’t have to find the money to save the dying wife; the father, in a change of mind (perhaps he was testing his son’s fidelity to his newlywed by refusing to finance her operation), goes back on his earlier decision and gives the son the money to save her. The result? Everyone’s saved, everyone’s happy. But then, owing to the freewheeling-ness of the second half, I felt that the first half of Adarei Mang was rather mechanised, as though the director was afraid of loosening up a little, as though slackening up was, in his opinion, antithetical to the meticulousness of his editing. Even the acting reflected this shift from the first to the second part of the story, especially Prageeth’s acting: rather too cautious in the first few sequences, only later being liberated from the straitjacket that overly careful acting can compel. Perhaps that’s to do with the fact that Prageeth, who I used to see as a child in the occasional teledrama, abandoned the movies for the stage and hence, upon his return to the cinema, couldn’t evade the careful planning, the in-your-face expressiveness, the rigid playing, that the theatre inspires. This could be seen in even the songs: the first two or three (the music is by Victor Ratnayake, who performs duets with Uresha Ravihari) pieces felt forced and contrived, while the very last (“Neela Guwan Thale”) felt rather less so.
With five musical numbers, and no fights, Adarei Mang is a peculiar product; the boy is rich and the girl poor, but neither the boy nor the girl has to put up with the indifference of the elders, since their elopement is so quickly edited that we don’t bother with those elders either. Perhaps Prageeth felt that slow editing and putting up with expository dialogues and sequences and dances and fights would have punctured the economy of the whole plot. Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh here when I say that Prageeth may not be in the right completely there. And perhaps I’m being a bit fair by him, and his debut, when I say that the tagline for the film (“For those who have truly loved and for those who have not”) aptly sums up the demographic it’s aimed at. Which happens to be you and me.
NOTE: The opening titles of Adarei Mang inform us that this is Prageeth’s tribute to the man who taught him ‘acting, directing, and life’, Salamon Fonseka. Who? A great man, a great teacher, underused in his own country. I intend on writing about him, soon.