Interview with Sri Lankan auteur Prasanna Vithanage on his film With You, Without You
Just last week, 52-year-old Sri Lankan auteur Prasanna Vithanage was excited about his critically acclaimed romance drama With You, Without You finding a nationwide release in India through PVR’s banner for indie films, Director’s Rare.
After a long chat with movie buffs over dinner following the premiere of his film in Mumbai, he grabbed the bill and ran toward the bar to pay, on sensing that we were not going to let him get it.
We chased him down and grabbed the bill back from him. “You’re a guest here. When we come to Sri Lanka, you pay,” I said, as a friend from PVR put down his credit card to get the bill. We won that round.
Two days later, the film-maker got a very different taste of Indian hospitality when local stray groups protested against the release of the Sinhalese film in Chennai.
After Shoojit Sircar’s spy thriller Madras Café and Santosh Sivan’s Inam, which looked at the war through the eyes of a child with Down’s syndrome, the boycott of Vithanage’s With You, Without You is the third instance of mob censorship of films based in Sri Lanka, cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification, in the last 18 months.
Vithanage and the producers appealed to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to support the film, but the government’s silence and the reluctance of the police to provide security to the only two screens playing the film forced him to head back to Sri Lanka disappointed.
The film-maker answered questions in an exclusive email interview with The Hindu.
Isn’t it ironical that a film that tries to reconcile differences through love is targeted by the politics of hate? Did you even imagine this would happen?
Any work of art will be targeted because our subcontinent is polarised on ethnic identity. This is not the first time I faced it. Political groups who promote identity politics thrive on promoting hate. Unfortunately, that’s the reality. Though I didn’t expect this to happen in Tamil Nadu over this film, I will face it.
For the benefit of those who haven’t seen the film, can you clarify what exactly you have tried to do with this love story between a Tamil girl and an ex-Army officer? Which side do you sympathise with more?
The love story was in a way a metaphor for post-war Sri Lanka. As the storyteller, I tried to put myself in the soul of both characters and bring out the beats of their experiences. I didn’t want the audience to sympathise with any of these two characters; I wanted them to empathise with them.
How did the Tamil Nadu government respond to your plea to support the film?
As far as I know, the letter forwarded by the co-producer Rahul Roy and signed by signatories in Tamil Nadu hasn’t received any response. Anyway, PVR has issued a statement that they will not take a chance by releasing the film.
Do you have this form of mob censorship in Sri Lanka? Or is the law and order machinery stronger there?
In Sri Lanka, censorship has different faces. Sometimes, films are banned by organisations and institutions other than legitimate censor boards. Mob censorship is the most unruly face of them all. In Sri Lanka, there were instances where the mob took their protests into the streets and harassed the public. Then, due to pressure, some films were withdrawn by the producers.
Do you think cinema can help heal wounds or scars caused by wars? Or help us see the larger picture and help each side understand the other better?
The father of film, D.W. Griffith, said, “My task is to make you see.” There will always be people who do not want to see beyond their perception. If people are without prejudice and are open-minded, they will see the larger picture and understand each other better. That’s what happened in Chennai too, which I witnessed in the jam-packed theatre after the screening of the movie (before the threats happened).
What sort of response did you get from the rest of India during your premiere and screenings?
As a film-maker I received a bigger audience with this release. This film brought me closer to the Indian independent film-making community. Mob censorship in Tamil Nadu aroused curiosity about the film and the film-maker and it brought me even closer to young movie lovers there. Though it was a limited release, this past week was probably the most eventful week of my life.
How do we fight hate and censorship? What practical solutions do you see?
When you look at film history, whether it’s McCarthyism, Stalinism or religious fundamentalism, in the struggle with all adversaries, film-makers were forced to find new forms of storytelling to communicate with the audience, which brought out the best in their creativity. Film-makers like Howard Hawks, John Huston, Andrei Tarkovsky, Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf were able to smuggle their ideals without compromising their vision. Fred Zinnemann replied to McCarthy’s witch-hunt by making a film about his era in the form of a western called High Noon.
Hate and censorship are not individual expressions; those are political tools of suppression, so I believe you have to fight back collectively as a movement.
Keywords: Sri Lankan film, pro-Tamil nationalist groups, withdrawal of screening, freedom of expression, Sri Lanka civil war, film censorship, Prasanna Vithanage, Tamil nationalist groups, Madras Cafe, Tamil Eelam struggle in Sri Lanka