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A trip to the cinema

Paromita VohraAfilm released this Friday, which you probably won’t go and see. No one can blame you as such. There will be few, if any, reviews of Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage’s Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka (With You, Without You).

Cinema enthusiasts have not been tweeting about it, thus not piquing your curiosity. Its faint presence in the social discussion, also called public discussion, will not be attributed to censorship (because disinterest is not censorship).

With You, Without You is made in a rather classically arty style, mining minimalism for melodrama. Its exquisite frames are all in shades of blue — who knew there were so many! It traces the self-arranged marriage of a rather recognisably surly Sinhala pawn broker and a rather predictably beautiful, helpless Tamil girl in a small Sri Lankan town. At first these two alone and lonely people become lighter — there is sex, happiness, dancing, food, relief from the unremitting, dull grey-blue solitude and the acute sense of vulnerability it brings.

A still from the film Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka
A still from the film Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka

Soon enough anxieties and baggage re-surface. “I was afraid of your love. I grew silent,” says the male protagonist. From a lover he becomes ‘man of the house’. She is confused but quietly plays her wifely role. He takes refuge in talk of practicality — scared of the things love opens up by bringing us out of the prison of fixed ideas and templates. In love, we fear that our past selves will return to shame and destroy us. We try to suppress them, relying on love to make fresh starts. But it isn’t always enough. Something like that happens between these two, rooted in Sri Lanka’s history of civil war.

This is not a film that believes that love means never having to say you are sorry but rather asks the question — is love enough to heal all wounds, personal or political, does saying sorry erase the past? Love makes us see each other as individuals but soon, our social identities, our histories, political and personal make themselves felt.

The film has its shortcomings, for instance, this rather aestheticised tragic heroine, an irresistible trope for male art filmmakers it seems. Yet its achievement is how, as the story progresses, the relationship between men and women and the relationship between Sinhala and Tamil people become metaphors for each other. The way in which political and personal are same frets through the film.

Men and women know well how in relationships there are moments when they resort to gendered behaviours out of fear, or need for control, thus wounding each other. We know that such relationships are forever changed by the moment of wounding, that sense of betrayal. The film suggests it is so with history and society — violence between communities changes their relationship forever. What are the gestures that rebuild these relationships and on what terms? Do these gestures exist? Or are we trapped by history forever?

Is this film the best ever that I’ve seen? No. Is it the first to say or do something? Not that I know of. Is it the definitive film about Sri Lanka, conflict, South Asia, gender relations, sexual violence, race relations? Not really. And no, it didn’t cost R100 crores.

I don’t think any of those are good reasons to go to the cinema. I guess I’m old-fashioned that way. I do not go to films to have my mind blown each time, but to come out with something to help me to understand life and the world even a little. That has always been the purpose of art. I often wish, our society would give it back that rightful place.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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