Prasanna Vithanage’s “With You, Without You” captures the scars that the civil war has left on Sri Lankan society through an unlikely love story.
Sleeping with the enemy is not a new theme for the purveyors of potboilers but what if the boy and girl come from communities who were actually at war till yesterday and are still nursing the scars. Most filmmakers either tend to push real conflicts under the carpet or romanticise them, but celebrated Sri Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage tries to walk the razor’s edge and has come out with the right blend of intensity and melancholy without taking sides with “Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka” (“With You, Without You”).
An adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story “The Gentle Creature”, it is about the relationship between a Sinhala boy and a Tamil girl set in a post-war scenario in upcountry Sri Lanka. The way he has portrayed the dilemma that they can neither live with each other, nor survive without each other, is unnerving.
Releasing in India this week with English subtitles, this is Prasanna’s third film set around the bloody civil war that corroded the social fabric in the island nation. He puts his effort to bring the conflict between four walls as “my idea of cinema is to show less and make the people feel more.” And this minimalism reflects in his storytelling where silences and visuals speak more than words and together put a disturbing picture of the social psyche.
Prasanna tells us that originally he had set out to do something else. “I was invited by a Delhi-based art collective called Aakar to make a documentary on masculinity. While researching for the theme, one of my colleagues came up with the idea of adapting Dostoyevsky’s short story ‘The Gentle Creature’. I had read the story but never thought that it could be adapted not only as a story on masculinity but also as a metaphor for the Tamil-Sinhala problem.”
Dostoyevsky’s popular short story deals with the relationship of a pawn shop owner and a girl who frequents his shop. It has already been adapted by Mani Kaul as “Nazar” (1991). Here Sarathsiri marries Selvi, who is facing not just penury but is on the verge of being sold off to an old man. However, in the process the saviour starts behaving like a god to her. “He wants her to become a subordinate in the relationship. He wants her to work for his goal,” explains Prasanna. His silence is deafening. “Silence could be used as a weapon against women,” he reasons.
And against a minority community as well? Putting things in the larger perspective, Prasanna, a Sinhala himself, says the film suggests that “as a majority community we should acknowledge the past. And both communities have to learn to forgive and reconcile with the past. Innocent Sinhalas have also lost their lives in the civil war.”
The story ends with the girl committing suicide which Dostoyevsky described as a meek suicide, and perhaps that’s why the story is also translated as “The Meek One”. But Selvi is anything but compliant and considering Sarathsiri ultimately submits himself to her makes the drastic step look a little forced.
“She tries to forget the past but when she comes to know about his past, her wounds and scars open up again. She is in love with him but she knows that it is momentary and it will not last. And she doesn’t want to love him half-heartedly. So she preserves the moment forever by taking her own life,” Prasanna reflects. He says the current situation is bleak and the film projects the yearning for love as both parties are still in a state of denial.
Some critics have found Shyam Fernando’s performance single-note, but Prasanna says the whole idea was to use his stony silence to generate the coldness in the relationship.
The bleakness reflects in the production design as well, as shades of blues and greys dominate the colour scheme. “We shot mostly in the mornings and evenings to avoid sunlight. Blue and grey depict coldness in human relationships. We have used red only once when Selvi enters his house and brings some cheer to his life.”
On Selvi speaking Sinhala, Prasanna says, “In the upcountry, Tamils usually know the majority community’s language.” He wanted to cast a Tamil actor as Selvi but discovered to his dismay that because of the polarised atmosphere there are not many Tamil actors around. “While going through the photographs I came across Anjali Patil, who had just passed out from the National School of Drama. She is a unique combination of vulnerable eyes and strong body language. That’s what I wanted. And she managed to dub in both Sinhala and Tamil (for the Tamil version). It is quite a feat for an actor who didn’t know both these languages when she was signed.” Not only Anjali, his long time collaborator editor A. Sreekar Prasad also doesn’t know Sinhala. “But he understands eye movement like no other. Whatever ideas a director has, the film comes alive through moments between actors, and Prasad knows how to put them together.”
Prasanna says Bollywood films are big in Sri Lanka. “Once upon a time we used to copy their songs and themes. Liberalisation has led to a situation where we don’t we need to copy because theatres mostly run Bollywood films.” Interestingly, language doesn’t come in the way. “Language was never an issue. Though dubbing and subtitling of Bollywood films is not allowed in theatres, language doesn’t come in the way. Today the biggest stars in Sri Lanka are Shah Rukh Khan and Ranbir Kapoor.”
The film has not been released in Sri Lanka yet because Prasanna has shot in digital format and most theatres in the country don’t support it. “It requires a lot of money to convert it into print and I am looking for support.” In the past he has faced backlash from Sinhala groups for making films on war. “My first film on war (“Death on Full Moon Day”) was banned because the authorities felt it could prevent youngsters from joining the army. The Supreme Court had to step in.”
In the post war situation cinema and theatre are seen as a great healer. “But what can you do when some people want the healing also on their own terms. They are not ready to accept the ambivalence that exists between black and white, but I am not ready to conform to a political agenda,” he signs off.