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Weaving poetry out of protest

The International Film Festival of India opened in New Delhi on October 10. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN meets Prasanna Vithanage, Sri Lankan film-maker whose ``August sun" was featured in the Asian Competition section.

From ``August Sun"... blends three stories with poignant irony.

THE FILM-MAKER from Sri Lanka has always dared to go against the tide. But what strikes you after viewing ``August Sun," Asian Competition section, IFFI 2003, is not the choice of subject so much as its treatment. Refreshingly, here is someone who does not underestimate audience intelligence, whose boldness doesn't stop with protest, but makes poetry out of it. Prasanna Vithanage achieves clarity in the visual, without underlining situations and moods. And his music director (Lakshman Joseph de Saram) knows that the score must evoke ambience without over simplifying the complex and the subtle.

``In my country, you have to pay a price to be objective," says Vithanage, especially over the decades-old ethnic strife that has reduced his homeland, once a Green Paradise, into ruddy battleground. Sinhalese newspapers call him traitor. He had to go to the Supreme Court to get the ban lifted on his earlier film, ``Death on a Full Moon Day." It became a hit. ``I try to give voice to others like me in my country. I am not a Sinhalese, but a Sri Lankan film maker, reaching out to all my countrymen." However, it is yet to be seen how his fifth film ``August Sun" (2003) will fare with the censors next year.

With poignant irony, ``August Sun" weaves together three stories to make a narrative of displacement, based on real life accounts. People constantly journey on bus, car, cycle, auto rickshaw and boat. The young wife of a Sri Lankan Air Force pilot, persuades the London based journalist to let her accompany him to a secret tryst with the Tigers, hoping to find her husband who is their prisoner. A soldier on furlough goes into a brothel and discovers his sister working there. A child has to leave his dog behind when his family flees from home.

The third story is of the Muslim community in the Mannar region that is forcibly evacuated by the LTTE on the charge of being quislings. The Muslims are Tamils too, proverbially called thambi (younger brother) by their Tamil Annas. But because of their prosperity in business, the Thambis have to leave on crowded boats to the Muslim region of Kalpitiya.

The ruthless snatching of their property and life savings, followed by their numb faces on the boat, make for palpitating moments in the film. ``I was influenced by lines from Cheran's poetry calling Muslims the victims of victims. Other Tamil poets too have questioned any `liberation' that involves the suppression of brothers, making people refugees in their own country." For viewers today there is more irony in recalling Prabhakaran's apology and invitation to Muslims to return to Mannar. This meant of course, the evacuation of the Tamils occupying the Muslims' former homes.

Prasanna... swimming against the tide.

The film doesn't traffic directly with politics. It merely shows a child and a dog lighting up their deprived lives with mutual love in the midst of bombs, murders and tyranny. The girl insists that the Sri Lankan air force does not target civilian regions, but the next scene shows bombardment.

Similarly, the soldier's furious bashing up of his `errant' sister is set against the backdrop of a war which has turned the ancient capital of Anuradhapura, the pride of Sinhalese civilisation, into a brothel where 2,000 sex workers serve soldiers to and from the battlefront. The Buddha sits still, indifferent to the lotuses his devotees bring him. There is a reconciliation for the siblings though. The brother brings her a gift, his wordless gesture of love and understanding. A hint of seduction and the journalist tells the woman that he will try his best to help her find her husband, and she would never have cause to employ such tactics.

The camera (M. D. Mahindapala) has a hard task — to capture the sense of passing hours at high noon, a time most unkind to face, landscape and camera. ``August is our hottest month, but I chose it because it is also unpredictable, you can have sudden showers, as you see in the film. Besides my cameraman was able to get the nuances even under the scorching sun." Vithanage never uses a word when he can convey with a visual, and his actors (led by Peter D'Almeida, Nimmi Harasgama) are minimalist without turning wooden.

Editing (Sreekar Prasad) decides the pace of the film - from a slow unfolding of segments, the intercuts accelerate towards mounting tensions.

``Prasad was guided not by the dialogue or narrative but by the rhythms of the moods. He read the minds of the characters," remarks Vithanage.

At the start the journalist rues the fact that war reportage simulates the patterns of cricket commentaries - 25 dead but an echo of 25 not out.

Cricket game and war game - the 1996 match emphasises the unreality of the real. ``Today my people have lost all sense of community and social responsibility. It is each one for himself, his own nuclear family. We don't see that our `enemies' are also waging the same struggle."

At the end the Muslim trader cycles past the bus bearing the girl and the soldier as they straggle `home.' Nothing is resolved, for the characters or for their country. But ``Will the audiences see how these strangers belonging to different camps share the same destiny of displacement? That is my hope."

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