Sulang Kirilli (The Wind Bird)

by Carlo Fonseka
noka Sathyangani’s maiden film is a passionate affirmation of the sanctity of human life. It rejoices in the sensuality of healthy, vigorous youthful sex. It hints at the abysmal ignorance of young women in our prudish society, about the basic facts of life. It implicitly makes the case for sex education of adolescents. It questions the rationality of our law on abortion. It demonstrates how the law on abortion permits doctors to exercise their propensities for greed and fraud without compunction. Perhaps unwittingly, it provides insight into what a physiologist would recognize as tranquillizing sex, pair-formation sex and pair-maintenance sex (as opposed to procreative sex). Realizing, no doubt, that she had bitten off more than what a maiden film-maker can possibly chew in the realistic mode, she has imposed on the bulk of the film the format of a fantastic dream sandwiched between two episodes occurring during waking hours.

If the film is essentially about a dream, does it depict reality? Inoka Sathyangani who is responsible for its story, screenplay, direction and production, says that Sulang Kirilli is based on a true story. Her film art seems to imitate nature. Dreams are part of human life and Shakespeare’s Prospero goes so far as to say that "we are such stuff as dreams are made of". So there is no reason why dreams cannot be used to explore reality. Who knows, Inoka Sathyangani may have had a dream like the one Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King had in 1963; and Sulang Kirilli may be its cinematic documentation! But this film is not a documentary. Therefore it must be a fiction-film, which probes a real life problem in all its intricate complexity. Inoka Sathyangani is clearly a cinema buff and the film is replete with symbolism and technique. In fact in one or two places I found myself wondering whether film technique wasn’t overpowering film art.

To an old medic like me the pervading theme of the film - an unanticipated and unwanted pregnancy and the consequences thereof - is neither novel nor shocking. Inoka Sathyangani’s celebration of the theme, however, held my sustained interest. Sulang Kirilli deserves to be seen by all intelligent adults with a sensitive conscience who wish to let themselves bump into current social reality. Being the creation of a young woman with an independent and controversial cast of mind, Sulang Kirilli does have the potential for becoming a tremendously influential film.

The film opens in the waking world with an unmarried, rustic, young woman, living away from home as a worker in a garment factory, learning for sure that she is pregnant. Her lover happens to be a soldier who has put his life on the line in order to preserve the physical integrity of his motherland. Biologically speaking, the purpose of sex is reproduction and in the natural world, when a young woman discovers that she is with child, she should feel fulfilled and jump for joy. No longer, however, do we live in a state of nature. Unlike in the animal world, society has imposed cultural and ethical norms on sex and reproduction, which vary enormously from place to place and from time to time. In a given society at a given time, the prevailing norms demand conformity and the price to pay for defying them could be terrible even for a famous philosopher let alone a humble village lass working as a factory hand. Thus, at one time Bertrand Russell, perhaps the most influential philosopher of the 20th century, lived together with Miss Dora Black without getting married to her. They professed the belief that true marriage had nothing to do with signing on the dotted line in a marriage register. In 1921, however, when Dora Black became pregnant, much to her great disappointment, Russel insisted on getting legally married to her before the birth of the child. He gave two reasons. First, the child may grow up feeling resentful of its parents for making it a legal bastard. Second, as an unmarried couple with an illegitimate child, they will have great difficulty in renting a house to live in and hiring servants to work for them. Such were the mores of Christian England in those days. Since then the world has seen profound changes in social and sexual mores.

But to return to Sulang Kirilli: for the young woman in the film, life itself becomes a real bastard when it transpires that her soldier lover is a married man with a pregnant wife. He turns out to be a duplicitous, selfish, brutish character. Everybody including Inoka Sathyangani knows that in our country the kind of ruthless self-interest manifested by this character is best exemplified by our doctors, who strike at the drop of a hat realizing full well that such action may kill poor, innocent patients. But, of course, she couldn’t have credibly cast a medic in this role of impregnator because medics know all about contraception and if contraception fails, how to procure cheap, safe, abortions.

The soldier’s knee-jerk reaction to the pregnancy he didn’t know how to prevent and anyhow doesn’t want, is to procure an abortion. For his part, he somehow materializes the big money required for the illegal operation. The young woman is plagued by mental conflicts and attacks of conscience. She considers various options open to her. What is the most practical solution? What is the most expedient solution? What is the solution that will most please her lover? What is the right solution? She is torn between these options but finally decides that come hell or high water, she will let her child come alive to this world. The substance of the film tracks her wayward and lonely course over a very stormy ocean of anguish, not to a safe harbour, but to a toilet in a shanty, where the child somehow enters the world by itself. What a price for a lovely woman of the 21st century to have paid for no greater crime than following her healthy, natural, biological instincts. Her fate is almost identical to that of the lovely woman who stooped to folly in the 18th century and found too late that men betray. Oliver Goldsmith immortalized her in a memorable verse. Inoka Sathyangani’s Sulang Kirilli is a memorable cinematic parable of the same problem.

The film revolves round four principal characters: the garment factory worker (Rathi), her mother, her bosom friend Vijitha and her soldier lover Shantha Bandara. The role of Rathi the young woman in rude health, is played with deep understanding and emotional maturity by Damitha Abayaratna. Rathi the rustic young village lass fallen in love with a virile soldier and frolics with him in gay abandon until the inevitable happens. She dreams of a blissful life of married happiness until she discovers the worst about him. Then trouble begins. She copes with it magnificently. Her advocacy of the right of her child conceived in love but out of wedlock, to life and dignity is compelling. Her lambasting of her impregnator’s patriarchial attitude is devastating and often reduces him to a simian whimper. She has what it takes to survive in what is for her, probably the worst of all possible worlds.

The role of Rathi’s mother is portrayed with aplomb by Grace Ariyawimal who is the embodiment of solid, traditional Sinhala womanhood, Jayani Senanayake sensitively depicts the nature of true friendship in her role as Rathi’s friend, through thick and thin. It must be of such people that the Dhammapada says visvasa parama gnathi (the trusty are the supreme relatives). The women in the film are all admirable.

Linton Semage, the superb character actor, who specializes in the realistic portrayal of socially obnoxious men, has been cast for the role of the soldier, Shantha Bandara. He is a man obliged to leave behind his hearth and home and risk his life in the inhospitable North, for the sake of his country. He turns out to be a nasty, brutish, lustful villain, who seems to be engaged in impregnating women when he is not fighting in the North. One scene shows him in bed with Rathi, relieving his sexual tension by self-indulgence.

Willy nilly, Sulang Kirilli depicts accurately the relationship between nervous tension and sexual indulgence. It is understandable in physiological terms. A soldier at the front waiting for battle is in state of high nervous tension. Every now and then his nervous system finds the strain of such tension unbearable. Faced with an overdose of frightening, conflicting stimuli, he tends to seek escape in the performance of an act, which he knows from past experience to be tension-relieving. As Desmond Morris says, "The soldier at war, waiting for battle... may seek momentary peace in the arms of a responsive female" (see: The Human Zoo, 1969). This kind of sex is what he calls ‘tranquillizing sex’.

On the occasion when distraught Rathi was non-responsive, Shantha Bandara did not rape her (as soldiers habitually do when they invade enemy territory). Instead he relieved himself by self-indulgence. So he was not an unmitigated brute. And the sexual activity depicted in the film is what physiologists would recognize as wholesome "pair-formation sex", "pair-maintenance sex" and "tranquillizing sex". What it was not intended to be was "procreative sex". If Rathi had been taught the elements of family planning when she became an adolescent and therefore capable of attaining motherhood, her story would not have been the tragedy that it became. Perhaps that is the moral Inoka Sathyangani wished to convey through Sulang Kirilli. If, however, Rathi had received adequate sex education in the higher forms at school, Inoka Sathyangani would have been hard pressed to find a socially relevant and important theme for her maiden film. After all, it was the blissful ignorance of a young woman that resulted in the true story on which Sulang Kirilli is based.