Me Mage Sandai: what it is and is not

sandai.jpg (9204 bytes)by Malinda Seneviratne
"This is my moon" is the poor English translation of Asoka Handagama’s new and much acclaimed film "Me Mage Sandai". The word "sanda" in Sinhala has evolved along far more sophisticated paths than the word "moon" in the English language. In fact in the latter case it is associated more with lunacy than with the soft, tender, nurturing and even all-encompassing meanings associated in the former. But all this is little more than fiddling around with semantics. Asoka Handagama’s film deserves better.

Handagama has broken new ground, that’s for certain, and not just in terms of technique. He has refused to screen the film in the 5th circuit cinemas. Instead "Be Positive Media" is encouraging groups of people to arrange shows and be responsible for ticket sales. Thus a more discerning audience has been guaranteed the director. Usually these shows either precede with or are followed by a seminar on the film, with film critics and other knowledgeable people invited to comment and engage with the viewing public in discussions on the themes, characters, politics etc., embedded in the film. So far, these shows have drawn full houses wherever they were organised. This alone is an achievement.

The debates surrounding the film, as in the case of all good films, have been of high quality. The film has elicited passion from those who celebrate it as well as those who vilify it. In short, Me Mage Sandai has popped out of the silver screen and has been tossed back and forth in political sea made rough by the cross-currents of ideology. Another sign of a landmark film, I think.

It goes without saying that the work of art belongs to the artist only until it is publicly shown. From that inevitable moment, it is "read" and belongs to individual readers who themselves are in constant engagement with each other’s readings. It is this interpretative field where the high priests of criticism play football with people’s opinions.

I have read Sucharitha Gamlath’s piece in the Divaina. I have read Champika Ranawake’s rather negative reading in the Lakbima. I have listened to Wimal Weerawansa and Deepthi Kumara Gunaratne play the masculine game of trying to be the most perceptive reader of the film. And most recently I read Nan’s review of the film in the Sunday Island. While all these certainly gave my engagement in the discourse a certain buzz, I couldn’t help wondering if I had watched some other film. But then again I shouldn’t have, since it is now accepted that there is a different world drawn into the imagination of each set of eyes.

What was Me Mage Sandai about for me? Was it the anti-Sinhala Chauvinist that Sucharitha makes it out to be? Is it the masterpiece that says the war should be stopped immediately as spokespersons for the peace industry would have it? Is it the final insult to Sinhala heritage and the much needed fillip to Prabhakaran’s ideological brethren that Sinhala nationalists believe it is? Is it an unreal story about an unreal place? A violent attack on the notion of the Sinhala village and a way of life that some people celebrate as being much more fulfilling than anything that modernity has devised? Does it subject tradition to the historical dustbin? Does it seek to demoralise the troops? Is it a perceptive capturing of a society being gradually consumed by capital’s so-called relentless putsch? Is the Buddhist order vilified in the film? What I know of the village, the Buddhist order, the war, sex and life tell me quietly that the answer to all the above questions is "no".

This is a piece about the film that I saw, set against the received background of critique blending with two salient factors about the film industry, especially when it comes to sambhavya productions. If Sinhala directors were obsessed with dealing with the problems of sexuality "suffered" by the middle class in earlier times, it seems like a paradigm shift has occurred at the turn of the century. Today it is essentially a matter of catering to the sulu jathika dukgenavilla, that interesting political space which is the last refuge of Marxists on their way out of serious political discourse. This is how ethnic-conflict related films came to be made, received high acclaim, nominated for awards etc. And this is why people like Sucharitha are over the moon with Handagama’s film. This is the realpolitik of Pura Sanda Kaluwara and Saroja and the controversy/accolades they enjoyed. Perhaps this is also why Handagama chose this topic to examine.

I enjoyed the film. The sparse dialogue was quite in tune with the issues Handagama was exploring, questions which do not yield easy answers, and appropriate to the dry and unyielding landscape where the life stories of the characters are made to unfold. I don’t know about other people, but I was not distracted one bit by the seemingly disjointed handling of image by Handagama, for life like thought process moves in similar ways, connected in a disconnected way.

Social landscapes are complex spaces with lines of class, caste, ethnicity, political affiliation, petty jealousies etc., intersect in unpredictable ways. It is to Handagama’s credit that he has been able to portray rurality without being trapped in notions of romanticism or its antithesis, the idea of a stagnant and backward doomed to be overrun by The City and all that this term implies, for there is no neat line that divides the rural from the urban. Only those who have never lived in "villages" and those whose vision is impaired by the glitter of the "city" would disagree. There are no idyllic villages. And that which is referred to by that name is no more or no less "screwed up" than the social space we call the city.

Even in that harsh world suffused with suffering, disillusionment, distrust, profiteering and prejudice, Handagama insists that the positives of the human condition are not totally absent. In the general painting of the social landscape, Handagama demonstrates the fact that he understands much better than most sociologists such places and the intertwining of human relationships. In Me Mage Sandai this is as evident as it was in his teledrama Diya Keta Pahana.

There have been criticisms levelled at him for being inappropriate in the depiction of sexuality. Some have argued that rural people are not as liberal in real life as Handagama makes them out to be. All I can say is that I have seen this village and these attitudes that Handagama works his camera around in all parts of this country. It is only the most "modern" character in the film, the bookmaker, who shows the most amount of confusion when it comes to sex. He suffers from a typically urban middle class malady borrowed from Victorian England, confusing sex and marriage. His first overtures to a woman, the widow of a soldier, ends with her dismissing marriage out of hand, but leaving him with the option of engaging in occasional sex. He refuses. Next he wants the Tamil woman. And when she surrenders her body (out of fear, lack of choice or whatever, it is not clear), he is unable to go through with it. In the end, he joins the Buddhist order.

All the other men and women are totally relaxed about sex, cohabitation and marriage. People in such places usually know who is doing what with whom, only they are open about it, whereas in the city, it is always hush-hush stuff. The only problem I had with the depiction of sex was the roughness, excusable in the young people doing it for the first time, but difficult to understand in later encounters as well as in the way that that the soldier and the woman he was to marry does it. I am not sure if the argument that it is the war that makes them violent holds water.

Some argue that the armed forces and "the war" are painted very negatively. Wrong, as far as I can see. The soldier, the main male protagonist does rape the Tamil woman who walks into his bunker. He is detached about the incident, as he is about the war and most other things. He insists several times that he could have killed her, but that he didn’t, saying that this was not out of love, adding that when he kills it is not out of hatred. The telling explanation: "nikan"!

This is his stock response to life. Peace merchants read this as an indictment of the war. Not so. What the soldier’s actions and his comments say is simple: "This war does not have meaning". Absolutely true. Two possible courses of action can follow. The peace lobbying branch of the Eelam enterprise will say "stop the war". Knowing that Prabhakaran is who he is, I wouldn’t take that risk. For me the logical course of action is to give meaning to this meaningless war, for war is a reality that will not go away until such time that the LTTE is crushed or Prabhakaran lays down his arms. Right now the war is run by people who are unable or unwilling to recognise that Prabhakaran is serious and that he has to be treated seriously, meaning that you can’t be in two minds when you fight him.

The war has not taken anything out of the human being that he is. He is fallible, for he does rape the Tamil woman. He is also capable of love, generosity, has a sense of humour and in my book a decidedly superior approach to life in all its muddled, tragic and comic expressions. He embraces life with zest but without clutching it too tightly. The same with the young boy who joins the army. Unlike his rival for the affection of the young girl, he seizes things with a hearty laugh, is capable of intense feeling and is definitely a winner. In contrast, the rival ends up trying to rape the girl and failing in this, rapes the Tamil woman. "The soldier" is not an inhuman character. Neither are the Sinhalese taken as a whole. Their prejudices and violence not notwithstanding, they do show compassion, kindness and generosity in ways that are not condescending.

Then there have been reservations about the portrayal of the Bikkhu. Nan, for example, finds him "shocking" viz., "He looked evil, overbearing and never led his villagers or moral-supported them as we know monks in the threatened villages did and do...instead of fighting the demon of temptation within him he invites the girl to visit him in the temple". Nan also believes that even if such things did happen in real life, it is not necessary to depict on film, adding that it "tar brushes all Buddhist monks, and that it is blasphemy....some even suspect deliberate mud slinging".

Not at all. To begin with, his "evilness" is a matter of opinion, little else. There is nothing wrong with him saying that there is a niruvath minisa under his robe, for he is no arahat . And there is nothing wrong in showing things as they are. It is not an indictment on Buddhist religious practices or the philosophy of the Buddha. The priest is the principle conduit through which Handagama allows the spiritual dekma of that society to speak.

Recently, I was at a funeral where the son of the dead person told me that all the priests who attended to the last rites were crooks. According to him, the only reason that they were tolerated by the villagers was this, the fact that they were needed to perform the ceremonies attending death. If this argument is true, in the film, when it did matter, the priest plays his socially defined role to perfection. There was no instance where the priest’s moral guidance was seen to be needed by the villagers, for the moral code is something that was never clearly scripted to us by Handagama. Thus it is essentially a non-issue.

To me, he is the one person to whom the Tamil girl gives herself without ambiguity. And it is in this instance that sex is depicted as something more than the satisfying of a physical urge. Once he removes his robe to break the vinaya rule, he does not wear it again.

I wonder how a Tamil audience would read the film, its depiction of the Tamil woman and the questions of promiscuity, rape, helplessness, courage and agency. I am not a Tamil, so I wouldn’t know.

The way I see it, the Tamil woman is the one character who most strongly demonstrates that human beings even in the face of tragedy, loss and insurmountable odds, have agency. I read her lifting of the skirt not so much as to distract the soldier or "not see the actual attack". Handagama makes her do it, I believe, to show that even while being raped, she retains her identity for without her face, so to speak, she is nothing but a piece of flesh. When the soldier has sex with her for the second time, she doesn’t cover her face. Neither is this suggested in her encounter with the priest.

Whatever Handagama’s intentions were, the film will necessarily be waved as a flag by various grandmasters of criticism with various ideological prerogatives. It will be bought and sold in the black market that is political game-playing. If it sparks debate and hones our sensitivities to re-examine ourselves, then Handagama’s work is done. If it persuades us to dream new utopias or modify those which drive us as we make our way across the minefield of political activity, all the better. I believe both will happen.