The three women who take in young Suvisal to the family mansion – the mother, played by Radha de Mel, and the two aunts, played by Veena Jayakodi and Priya Ranasinghe – are nameless. They don’t talk, they just laugh and smile, and when they sing to one of the aunts playing the piano, Suvisal (and we) don’t hear them: he can only hear that piano. Emotionally they are estranged from them, though they try their best to pander to him, and emotionally, we’re estranged from them too.
The whole sequence at their mansion, coming right after we are made aware of the story’s central conflict, is a flashback, and in it we come across the indifference of the world that Suvisal, the protagonist, was brought up in: somewhat puritanical, tempered by rigid class hierarchies. So when Suvisal sees a girl his age (the daughter of the manservant), he is not a little astounded: it’s the first time he’s come across young, nubile beauty. When they grow up, and meet as adults, that beauty is still nubile; it compels the story’s central conflict, and with it its tragedy.
Anantha Rathriya, Prasanna Vithanage’s second film (after Sisila Gini Gani and before Pawuru Walalu), may be, like Sumitra Peries’s Sagara Jalaya, one of the three or four most perfectly constructed films ever made here. When it first opened in 2001, the reviews were rave – “The film fillips the soul” (Nan) – “a thought-provoking cinematic experience” (Malinda Seneviratne) – and the reviewers were astounded by its effortless economy. At a little more than one hour and 20 minutes, it may have been one of the first contemporary Sinhala movies to liberate itself from the lengthiness that Sinhala movies in general succumbed to. “Editing could not have been a piece of cake,” Malinda Seneviratne wrote, and he was spot on: there’s practically no scene, no sound, no background element, which can be put off or deleted. Largely self-financed (the producer, Damayanthi Fonseka, by then married to Prasanna), it opened up the possibilities that the independent cinema could usher in here.
Although Anantha Rathriya, at the outset, is about the redemptive power of guilt, it’s also about the burden that such guilt can perpetuate: neither the protagonist (Ravindra Randeniya) nor the woman he rapes and, in one instant, abandons (Swarna Mallawarachchi) can really opt for reconciliation. Prasanna’s films play around with this dualism, and even in his lesser work, it comes off convincingly (as when Selvi, by jumping off the window and killing herself at her husband’s home, compels an epiphany of profound but impossible passion from her abusive, yet also tormented, husband, in Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka). Ashley Ratnavibushana and Wimal Dissanayake, in Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema, trace Prasanna’s fixation with the power of guilt to his childhood encounters with Catholic friends. If that’s indeed true, I think we can safely say that the worldview which comes off in his work is Catholic: be it a film like Pawuru Walalu, with its Catholic overtones, or Purahanda Kaluwara, with its Buddhist undertones, his characters hope for an effable, otherworldly reconciliation. Sometimes they achieve it (like Wannihami in Purahanda Kaluwara, by opening up his dead son’s casket); sometimes they achieve it facilely (like Violet in Pawuru Walalu, by departing to a new life with her paramour); and more often than not, they don’t. Suvisal in Anantha Rathriya belongs to the third of these. He tries to bridge his past, but he can’t.
And to a considerable extent, I think this has to do with the fact that more so than his other work, Anantha Rathriya neatly contains itself within: nearly every character in the story seems to have something to hide from the other, at a time when everything in the country seems to be at boiling point (the setting of the film is hinted to be the second bheeshanaya, with security checkpoints and distraught fathers of arrested insurrectionists adorning the narrative at various points). This rift, between the apparentness of a public tragedy and the repressiveness of a private dilemma, translates to another, between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Without pandering to political polemics, I believe it’s best to examine what a Marxist critic, writing in Sinhala, had to say about the film, and the response he got from a critic writing in English.
Sucharitha Gamlath, in his review of Anantha Rathriya, contended that Suvisal’s class orientation, of and towards the bourgeoisie, could not really be squared with his later acts of remorse and reconciliation. Perhaps the bigger problem here was that Prasanna’s sympathy for the girl, Piyumi, seemed at certain points to be overtaken if not transcended by his equally apparent empathy for the protagonist who impregnates and then abandons her. In both cases, for the political pamphleteer at least anyway, the best intentions of the humanist in the director may have undone a political and social reality: that the bourgeoisie lived on an ethic of self-indulgence and exploitation, that its abandonment of a girl like Piyumi could often be trivialised by them. (In Anantha Rathriya we don’t even see this act of brushing off from Suvisal’s family: neither his mother nor his aunts seem to notice what he has done.)
But what is politically and socially “correct” in one specific context may not always be so in another. Then again, it’s easier to identify with a character that is from the class interests you represent because, at the end of the day, Marxist, feminist, or anarchist, a critic is always haunted by his political inclinations the same way that such characters are haunted by their own dark pasts. My problem with the late Professor Gamlath’s take on Anantha Rathriya, then, is not just that the rich aren’t always unredeemable (even when the poor, whom they’ve exploited all their lives, refuse to forgive them for what they’ve done), but also that Prasanna’s film has nothing to do with the overtly political, even with its barely visible reference to the bheeshanaya.
The agency of the human being” – a convenient erasure of a political reality, or a perfectly apt riposte to a damning indictment by the committed critic?
I think Malinda Seneviratne provided the best response:
“The remorse that overcomes him is clearly not in concert with the general conditions of the bourgeois ethic and its lifestyle sustained by the exploitation of the poor. In this I agree with Gamlath. At the same time, I find the story to be less about the issue of class than about the perennial themes of responsibility, guilt, and more importantly the agency of the human being, both the dominating and the dominated.”
“The agency of the human being” – a convenient erasure of a political reality, or a perfectly apt riposte to a damning indictment by the committed critic? It’s human agency that we see in Anantha Rathriya, underscored by political polemics the characters never succumb to. The greatness of a film like Anantha Rathriya was, in this sense, its refusal to enter the explicitly social; though it’s difficult to suggest that Suvisal’s rape has nothing to do with his class background, it’s equally difficult to suggest that it had nothing to do with his personal frailties, transcending, at the time of the rape, that background. Malinda’s contention was therefore to the dot, then: it tells us everything we should know about a film indicted by that committed critic.
The bigger problem here was that Prasanna’s sympathy for the girl, Piyumi, seemed at certain points to be overtaken if not transcended by his equally apparent empathy for the protagonist who impregnates and then abandons her
Jayantha Anandappa, writing on Ira Madiyama when it was first released in 2007, implied that neither Pawuru Walalu nor Anantha Rathriya deserved the critical praise they got, and that Anantha Rathriya seemed to betray the filmmaker’s confusion, as though he was “not sure as to what to do with Tolstoy’s post-conversion masterpiece Resurrection.” Despite its economical handling of the players and the settings and the plotlines, despite its deft interplay of the past and the present, I am inclined to agree with Mr Anandappa with respect to one crucial point: the way Suvisal progresses from indifference to remorse. When Suvisal, reminded of Piyumi after coming across his secretary, cruelly shouts at her to get out of his office, the secretary is as confused as we are: because the scene never actually rationalises itself. (The only rational explanation for the scene, for me, is that Suvisal is perpetually and sexually obsessed with young, virginal beauty.) Roughly the same thing can be said of his second telephone conversation with his lawyer friend, played by Asoka Peries, who scoffs at his shows of remorse, scorns him, tells him to do whatever (the hell) he wants, and puts down the phone. We aren’t really prepared for these sudden fits of temper and anger, because the film hasn’t prepared us for them: it flows so gracefully, even when Suvisal creeps to Piyumi’s room and makes love to her on night (we never see the lovemaking), that these scenes detract. They are needed to explain the cruelty and the indifference of the bourgeoisie, but they come out rather jarringly.
Regardless of all these merits and demerits, one pertinent thing stands out: the Prasanna Vithanage of those early years was, and still remains, the Prasanna Vithanage who mattered the most. In Ira Madiyama, as in Akasa Kusum, he got as close to the political as he could; when he opted to go beyond, as he tried to in Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka, it was rather like Icarus getting too close to the sun. It’s a different world which thus greets us in even as clumsy a debut as Sisila Gini Gani (which nevertheless has its moments of beauty and brilliance, symbolised by the cat’s-eyes-sensuality of Sabeetha Perera), a world rich in human beings and their flaws, as opposed to the types that we see in Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka (Anurudda Pradeep Karnasuriya in 2015: “The war has ruined our cinema”). One clamours for life, the sense of humanity, which only the cinema can epitomise visually. One sees it abundantly in Anantha Rathriya, but one struggles to see it elsewhere. The wood, as always, was missed out for the trees. What happened eventually was that both the wood and the trees were lost, and we were left with a cinema of overinflated ideas.
Stills of the film courtesy of Prasanna Vithanage