Meenakshi Shedde: Death on a full moon day

Apr 08, 2018, 06:06 IST | Meenakshi Shedde

Last week, I watched Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage's brilliant film Purahanda Kaluwara (Death on a Full Moon Day) again

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeLast week, I watched Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage's brilliant film Purahanda Kaluwara (Death on a Full Moon Day) again. It is one of the great classics of contemporary world cinema. I revisited this 1997 film because of its eerie resonance with current events in India. The film is about Wannihami, a blind old man, whose son returns from Sri Lanka's civil war in a coffin, and who refuses the government compensation.

One day, Wannihami digs up the buried coffin and discovers only two logs of wood and a stone inside. As he has opened the coffin, the family will not be eligible for compensation. The Sri Lankan government banned the film, as its story hinted at an explosive government scam — sending fake coffins and offering compensation partly as blackmail to shut up — but their Supreme Court overturned the ban in 2001.

Last week, 38 Indian labourers, killed by Islamic State militants in Iraq in 2014 or after, were brought back in coffins by the Indian government. Some families told the press the district administration had instructed them "not to open the coffins, and conduct the last rites immediately 'within 15-20 minutes of bodies reaching homes'." The prime minister has announced an ex-gratia payment of R10 lakh to each family of the dead.

Wannihami has two daughters, Yamuna and Sunanda; his son Bandara is declared dead. Desperately poor, most pressurise Wannihami to take the compensation: Yamuna, Sunanda's labourer fiancé, who wants to complete building their pucca house, the 'gramasevaka', who had loaned them money. But the blind Wanihammi, who has a prophetic inner eye, stubbornly refuses, as he hopes his missing son will return. Poor but incorruptible, he asks, if we take the compensation and build the house, what will we tell Bandara when he returns?"

The film is a powerful anti-war statement; for Wannihami's family, the army is only a means of livelihood, not politics. Ironically, only the Buddhist monk, who asks for ritual alms, expresses a pro-war patriotism. The film is also feminist: Sunanda doesn't rely on her possessive fiance, and secretly finds a job.

Superbly scripted by Vithanage, the film conveys a great deal in a few, haiku-like strokes. Despite its explosive potential, there is no melodrama. Joe Abeywickrama plays Wannihami with tremendous dignity and poignancy. He is supported by a good ensemble cast that includes Priyanka Samaraweera and veteran Mahendra Perera. Superbly shot by MD Mahindapala, it is edited by India's A Sreekar Prasad: despite its quiet pace, it displays superb economy; its duration of 68 minutes is a feat few Indian features can achieve. The film was at the Busan and Montreal film festivals. It makes us reflect on the true nature of Shining India, whose poor seek a better future even in murderous Iraq — as well as the situation of desperate Rohingya refugees, knocking on India's doors, pleading for mercy.

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at

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