Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage on his intense post-war drama 'Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka' (With You, Without You)

When acclaimed Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage read the Fyodor Dostoyevsky novella A Gentle Creature, he found the perfect subject to explore masculinity.

His seventh film Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka (With You, Without You) is an intense, poignant portrayal of the conflict. The film explores post-war trauma through a turbulent angst-ridden romance that tears even the most beautiful of relationships apart. In his fascinating adaptation, they can’t be with each other, they can’t be without each other.

After a private screening of the film in Chennai, the writer caught up with the filmmaker for an interview:

Which aspect of the romance drama interested you more — the political or the human?

I was commissioned by a Delhi-based film collective group called Aakar to make a film on masculinity. They gave me $50,000 (the film ended up costing about $200,000). When I read the short story, I realised how masculinity affects the way you love. So I thought I could use it as a metaphor for post-war Sri Lanka and look at how it affects human relationships. Dostoyevsky’s story set in 1876 is relevant even today. It was perfect material to adapt, explore and understand male-female relationships through these characters affected by the war. In a relationship, if we don’t understand the other partner’s point of view, we will never be able to reconcile. I’m part of the Sinhalese majority. If we don’t understand Tamils, there won’t be any reconciliation. Similarly, if the Tamils don’t understand the Sinhalese, there won’t be any resolution. I want the audience to know that love will only come when you understand the other person and the perspective they have.

Is there a market for films like this in Sri Lanka?

Yes, all my films have managed to get a release there. My last film ran for 50 days. I am looking at a release in the next three months. There is a young audience, the middle-class that watches cinema.

How did you discover the young Indian actor Anjali Patil? She is a revelation, reminds us of the intensity of the legendary Smita Patil.

Do you know she also did the dubbing? Anjali came to Chennai from Mumbai to meet me and we did a test. Her face has a certain vulnerability and she has very sensual, expressive eyes. Within a week, she was able to deliver all the lines. She dubbed in Tamil and Sinhala and brought a lot of intensity to her role. I am grateful to her for that. She won the award for Best Actress at IFFI, Goa for the role.

You also seem to love collaborating with Sreekar Prasad.

He has edited four films for me and Sreekar Prasad also co-produced my last film Akasa Kusum. He doesn’t understand Sinhala. He reads the film through the subtle nuances of the actors. Because he is editing without knowing the language, the film becomes more visual. I rarely change my script once I have shot but this time, Sreekar suggested we change the structure of the film. The idea of using two monologues running through the film came from him.

It is fascinating that while most independent filmmakers are moving to digital, you still shot on 35mm film.

I work with a cinematographer M.D. Mahindapala who loves film. We wanted to speak to the audience with the mood of the film. The negative has a certain look. Especially when you are shooting when it is raining, the greys and the blues... helped us capture the atmosphere. In future, I might use digital for practical purposes. But personally, I feel that video has taken away the drama of cinema. Whether it is the colours or the lighting or emotion it captures, there is nothing like film. The negative can do wonders.

You have made references to Tamil films especially Vijay’s.

Vijay has the maximum fans among the current generation in Sri Lanka. So we mentioned his films. The rest of the references were decided on the editing table.