Sri Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage loves Russian literature, and it is not surprising that he should have made two movies based on it. His second feature, Dark Night of the Soul, was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection, and it won many awards, including the Special Jury Mention at the First Pusan International Film Festival.
Vithanage’s latest feature, With You, Without You, which was part of the recent International Film Festival of India at Goa, is inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story, The Meek One. During a chat with me at Panaji, the acclaimed Sri Lankan helmer says”when I was reading Dostoyevsky’s work over and over again, two things struck me. One, its probe into masculinity, and two, its questioning of consumerist values which tend to destroy human relationships”.
Mind you the Russian literary giant saw the evils of consumerism even as early as 1876, when he penned the story, which like Vithanage’s movie is about a pawn-broker and a young girl who frequents his shop. It was a news report about the suicide of a seamstress in April 1876 that set Dostoyevsky thinking, a suicide he described as “meek”, but which kept “haunting me for a long time”.
But for Vithanage, it was not just a death, but thousands of deaths that pushed him to make With You, Without You. He says that “when adapting the Russian story into a film, I based this upon the biggest issue of our country which is the ethnic conflict between the majority Sinhala community and the minority Tamil population. We live in a society which still has unhealed wounds from a war that lasted over thirty years, killing over tens of thousands of people. Confrontation of a Sinhalese man and a Tamil woman became the dramatic premise of my script. Their struggle with their own past for me was a metaphor for the struggles of the nation as a whole.”
Easy to label the work as political, With You, Without You goes far deeper than the mere war which one community fought against the other in the tiny island nation of Sri Lanka. Actually, the movie is a poetic study of humanism, of forgiveness, and, above all, the overwhelming sense of love with its power to break the mightiest of barriers.
Narrating the story of a 45-year-old Sinhala pawn-broker -- who earns his livelihood by lending money against gold jewellery and leads a lonely existence, watching wrestling on television for entertainment, which probably ups his sense of masculinity, the film shows us how a young Tamil woman changes all that.
Pawn-broker Sarathsiri (played with gripping intensity by Shyam Fernando) has a dark past, while Selvi (Anjali Patil, who won the Best Actress Award at Goa) has had a torturous existence. Her two school going brothers were killed by the Sri Lankan Army, and her parents had sacrificed a lot to save her from the rapist soldiers. Brooding and sombre, Sarathsiri takes a while to win Selvi’s affection, and finally when the two are just about able to push their past away, death intervenes. “The girl finds it impossible to reciprocate the man’s love, and in a way that is the tragedy of our nation”, the auteur adds.
With an actor like Fernando ,who has sorrow and guilt writ on his face, and actress such as Patil with her utterly fragile, vulnerable looks (and what a change this is from her role as the fire breathing, cussing and kicking Naxalite in Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuh), Vithanage had the right cards to play with. Shot by one of Sri Lanka’s best known photographers, Mahindapala, With You, Without You is visually arresting, cinematically stunning (with haunting pauses and very little dialogue).
It would be a pity if Vithanage’s masterpiece is not screened in India, with some reading a political meaning into a work that actually transcends any such barrier, if at all.