Visakesa Chandrasekaram’s ‘Sayapethi Kusuma’ (Frangipani) is a landmark film in Sri Lanka, perhaps in the entire region.
Deepa Mehta’s Fire was about lesbian love, which may be put by some males in the same context as women’s cricket, women’s rugby or women’s brawls, something exotic and not of any real significance as far as they are concerned. Sex is traditionally seen as a male domain with women as junior partners.
Anything that is strictly between women is OK but ‘Sayapethi Kusuma’ challenges male complacency by turning the whole thing upside down with a story about a heterosexual woman consenting to marry a gay man, and then kicking him out and marrying his bisexual friend, who finally opts to be gay.
It’s a daring concept, more than enough to get cinemas stoned if it had been released when the previous macho regime, fuelled to the brim with rugby machismo, was in power.
As it was, the two cinemas (at Borella and Ratnapura) which dared to show this film were not stoned, nor were its actors attacked in the streets.
All this augurs well not just for formula-driven Sri Lankan cinema but to Sri Lankan culture too, because both are lagging way behind the more enlightened parts of the world, when it comes to viewing and portraying sex-love. This is also true where the non-heterosexual sphere is concerned.
In Western Europe (except Italy) gay marriage is now legal. In India, the Supreme Court is vehemently against it, and as Sayapethi Kusuma reaches its end the screen reminds us somberly that homosexuality still remains a punishable offense in Sri Lanka, a carryover from the England of Oscar Wilde.
"‘Sayapethi Kusuma’ is a moving drama, very well made considering that it’s the film maker’s debut effort, and much more sensitive in its portrayal of love and friendship than the recent, and much hyped, ‘Motor Bicycle.’"
But more and more film makers all over the world now address this issue in artistic terms.
The Indian film festival which screened this film is called the Kashish Mumbai Queer film Festival. That may sound like a peculiarly Indian sense of humour, but the phenomenon of the New Queer Cinema came to being in the 1990s, with filmmakers using the cinematic medium to tell stories about the post-AIDS experience.
But none of these were Cannes quality movies. The first to get through that hurdle was Ang Lee in 2005 with his Western ‘Brokeback Mountain’ which won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival. ‘Far From Heaven’ by Todd Haynes and Kimberley Pierce’s ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ too, are films which can be put into this genre but well above the New Queer Cinema average.
A film such as Brokeback Mountain would have been unthinkable in Hollywood three or four decades ago (few people knew that Rock Hudson was gay until he contracted HIV and died of AIDS). Today, LGBT stories can be made and distributed in the mainstream. That doesn’t mean that there is a rush of directors trying to mimic Ang Lee or Todd Haynes.
"All this augurs well not just for formula-driven Sri Lankan cinema but to Sri Lankan culture too, because both are lagging way behind the more enlightened parts of the world, when it comes to viewing and portraying sex-love. This is also true where the non-heterosexual sphere is concerned"
The subject remains, shall we say, queer to many people. That’s why Sayapethi Kusuma is an important film for Sri Lanka. Thematically, it can be justifiably called the most daring film ever made by a Sri Lankan, (I have heard of an older film in which Joe Abeywickrema acted as a gay individual; unable to find a copy to watch, I’m unable to make a comparison).
Since the 1990s, the term LGBT has been used to identify people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. But there is no call for a specifically LGBT cinema, because that would be make it an ‘alternative’ to the mainstream. The name ‘Sayapethi Kusuma’, which means a flower with sex petals, seems to work against the concept of the film.
Frangipani (araliya, botanical name plumeria rubra or plumeria obtusa) is a flower with five petals. In the film, one of the characters picks up an araliya flower and claims it has six petals. Hence, ‘Sayapethi kusuma’ implies that this particular flower is an aberration in nature. By implication, the sexuality portrayed in the film becomes that, too (someone can correct me if I’m wrong).
This is an obsolete view of same-gender sexuality. The modern view rejects the idea that gay sex is abnormal. But we are not here to discuss the psychology, biology or genetics of LGBT individuals. ‘Sayapethi Kusuma’ is a moving drama, very well made considering that it’s the film maker’s debut effort, and much more sensitive in its portrayal of love and friendship than the recent, and much hyped, ‘Motor Bicycle.’
Chandrasekaram uses a minimalist but intimate style which recalls the cinematic art of Rainer Werner Fassbinder who, incidentally, was a gay filmmaker though he did not make that obvious in his thematically rich and complex films. Though their frustrations are obvious, the three main characters in this film (played by Dasun Pathirana, Jehan Sri Kanth and Yasodha Rasanduni) display a tenderness and sensitivity rarely witnessed in our ‘heterosexual’ cinema (girl-boy love story).
There is a subsidiary transgender character Which leads to a sub-plot which looks unnecessary since the principal conflict has enough dramatic tension to hold the film together.
The musical score by Shantha Pieris complements the storytelling and cinematography by Kularuwan Gamage, but its lack of thematic development limits its effectiveness.
One problem, however, is that the screen looks dark much of the time. Whether this is due to what is known as underdevelopment in analog terms, or underexposure, it’s hard to say, but it certainly gets in the way of enjoying the film.
Altogether, this is a remarkable first film, all the more so since it has the first lip kissing scene between two men in a Sri Lankan film to the best of my knowledge. In a country where lip kissing between a man and a woman won’t pass the film censor, it’s hard to understand how this came about. Either the censor board got unusually broad-minded, or we have made some progress in the right direction, albeit without knowing it ourselves.