Adapting novels for the screen has always been tricky, and filmmakers all over the world have commonly got accused of departing from or distorting the original. Nela is an adaptation by filmmaker Bennet Ratnayake of a 19th century Spanish novel – Marianela by Benito Perez Galdos.
Despite criticism of departure from the original, the director has succeeded in capturing the essence of the story, which is wild and hopeless romance resulting in inevitable tragedy. The film ends inconclusively, but there’s much to appreciate before we get there.
Nela is an orphaned young girl disfigured by a childhood accident. She is in love with a handsome young man blind from birth. Nela in the film is played by Shalani Tharaka. Unfortunately, Udara Ratnayake as the handsome, wealthy prince of her dreams is not really effective, and looks blind not just to his surroundings but to the possibilities in his life, too. This makes him the odd man out in an otherwise excellence cast – Roshan Pilapitiya, Semini Iddamalgoda, Thumindu Dodantenne, Udari Perera, Tharuka Wanniarachchi and Palitha Silva - a gifted and experienced actor who unfortunately has not had enough opportunities on the silver screen.
The film is visually a feast to the eye. Set in a colonial era tea plantation, the visuals are sometimes breathtaking, and both indoor and outdoor light has been captured lovingly by cinematographer Ruwan Costa. The musical score by Suresh Maliyadda, though often repetitive, complements the film’s overall romantic mood while departing into sub moods of despair and anxiety as the story unfolds. The editing feels a bit haphazard, but this may have something to do with the director’s preference for relatively static shot compositions and lengthy scenes.
The screenplay was written by the director, along with the dialogue. While the latter can sound a little starchy at times, he should be given credit for his ethnic sensitivity – the Tamil plantation workers speak in Tamil, with Sinhala sub titles, which could be a first for a Sinhala film though that needs to be verified. It is certainly rare.
There is too, a discussion of William Wordsworth’s poetry and the nature of beauty (a hot topic for 18th and 19th century Romantics), and that puts the dialogue in a class of its own, for one can think of only a very few Sri Lankan film makers who would dare discuss Wordsworth in a film – if they have read any Wordsworth to begin with. It’s a nice cosmopolitan touch in an artistic culture which is increasingly overwhelmed by the rude essentials of survival, titillation and subject matter of gossip columns. To mention Wordsworth, or Shakespeare or Lao Tse should not be taken as an exercise in cultural high mindedness. It is rather an attempt to stay in touch with a wider world which we have lost.
Cinema is mass entertainment, and it is sad to see such a poor spectator reaction to Nela. To class Bennet Ratnayake as a commercial film maker (in the same vein as Udayakantha Warnasuriya) is to do him an injustice. Nor is he an intellectual film maker like Asoka Handagama. Though he has made only three features so far, starting from ‘Aswesuma’ in 2001, he has made a considerable number of good tele dramas (with his own production house) and belongs to the pantheon of our notable film makers. He should be lauded for his hard labour and honest efforts. I still think his forte lies in the action film, as exemplified by Aswesuma. But he chose to follow a different path, selecting slowly unfolding stories, and that shows a certain artistic daring and a willingness to take risks.
But our film world is a wilderness, and he is still looking for an audience. This isn’t a unique fate. One could say that Lester James Pieris, Dharmasena Pathiraja, Sugathapala Senarath Yapa, Wijeya Dharmasri, G. D. L. Perera, Manik Sandrasagara and Dharmasiri Bandaranaike were still looking for an audience after making so many films. There are those who argue that these directors always had their small but faithful audiences. But audiences have their politics and politics is a fickle thing. Audiences have lost touch too, with the meaning of beauty; this is a direct result of an entire generation who from the 1980s on were prevented from studying literature as a school subject. Reading some romantic poetry again could help rehabilitate a generation of lost spectators.
But there is a more subtle kind of dramatic tension, borne of emotional conflict, which requires a more sophisticated viewer. When it’s done with less than artistic finesse, we have melodrama and endless family feuds (Dynasty is a famous example). When it’s handled with more finesse, we have films such as Lester’s Ran Salu, Dharmasiri Bandaranaike’s Hansa Wilak, Pathiraja’s Bambaru Ewith or Manik Sandrasagara’s Kalu Diya Dahara. We can include Nelu in the same category.
The film has its defects and there are moments when the finely woven thread of dramatic tension is lost in the film. But there are two powerful episodes – the scene where eye surgery is performed, and the scene of domestic violence in toddy tapper Ramaswamy’s house. That is very good cinema. But it takes a more sensitive spectator than the average we have today to appreciate that. Such dulled sensibilities are an inevitable product of neo-liberal economic and cultural policy, which tries to provide everything in the SMS format at inflated prices.
The film has its defects and there are moments when the finely woven thread of dramatic tension is lost. But there are two powerful episodes – the scene where eye surgery is performed, and the scene of domestic violence in toddy tapper Ramaswamy’s house
What is it about Nela that puts off these dull spectators? Silly love stories about young love draw crowds. Nela too, is a story of young love. The rich boy and poor girl formula has had considerable success all over the world. But in this case the hero is blind and the girl disfigured. Does that disgust the neo-liberal spectator, weaned on endless beauty products? Surely, this stupid girl doesn’t buy lipstick. She can’t afford it and doesn’t need it, anyway. Even if she has make up on, that coot is blind and can’t see it. So what’s the point? Or can love blossom only at the MC, and won’t happen in a tea plantation?
Heaven (along with the architects of neo-liberal thinking) only knows. If they remain insensitive and unwilling to risk their rupees to see a film like Nela (rupees spent so willingly at McDonald’s and the like), sensitive and artistically bold film makers shall always be condemned to live in this wilderness.
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