The "windbird" sings a discordant song

by Malinda Seneviratne
Rajpal Abeynayake, reviewing Sulang Kirilli`EE made a very interesting statement: "Apparently ‘Sulang Kirilli’ is to be exhibited at some of the better known film festivals of the world, as well as some alternate festival venues, because Satyanganie — an avowed film buff — knows probably where her movie is going to be appreciated. Wherever it may be appreciated, it is sad that whether it will be appreciated at home is still quite uncertain."

I know there are "levels" of appreciation; the connoisseur’s verdict has a different social value than that of the student, and could be strikingly at odds with the assessment of the iuninitiated`EE, those who have not studied film, those who seek entertainment and (cheap) thrills, sex included of course. The "success" of a film, I am sure Rajpal would argue, is not reducible to the amount of money it rakes in for the producer. This is why "critics choice" whether it is about films, novels, theatre or any other form of art, is a coveted category to be classified under.

Inoka Satyanganie’s "Sulang Kirilli" is a success, in this sense. It has done the rounds, and won the commendations of "those who count". I don’t know how the film is doing in "theatres near you" so I cannot ascertain its success along those lines. For me, anything but a film buff and one who hardly ever goes to the cinema, these things are of little relevance. I watched the "media show" and I have things to say about the film. I watched the promotional theatrics of the director, have read her litany of charges against the Film Corporation and named and unnamed detractors, and I have observations to make. Both because I believe Satyanganie is serious about her work and because her work speaks to me.

First the film. And the story line, of course. Rathie, played by Damitha Abeyratne, a garment worker, falls in love with a soldier (Linton Semage). The obvious happens, Rathie gets pregnant. Satyangaie traces the thoughts, hopes, fears, doubts and confusion of an unmarried pregnant woman, jumbled (naturally) between two events that take place within a few seconds: Rathie stepping on to the street after her pregnancy is confirmed through the result of a urine test and being knocked down by a car just before she reaches the other side of the road. The "before" of the pregnancy is clear, the "after" was a mix of fact, fantasy and extrapolation and confusing. Perhaps the latter was the deliberate intent of the film-maker. It was all too sexy for me, though. I lost the thread.

Anyway, in fragment, Rathie’s flight into dream cum nightmare takes us to the "fact" that the soldier is already married, wants her to abort, her misgivings and frustrations regarding love, abortion, the law and its clinical and insensitive character, her hopes and dreams of motherhood, and of course the ethical and moral dimensions of all this.

The dynamic between the two that Satyanganie unwraps was, I thought, well crafted, even though there was nothing startling that could be revealed. The vulnerability of the woman, the moral dilemmas she has to face alone and the complications which family and expectation weave into her world of concerns suddenly turned upside down, are real products of a patriarchal and sexist social formation ranging from perception to legal stipulates.

Satyanganie not only lays it all out convincingly, but gives us as full a range of the disparate and terrible universe of crises that Rathie finds she has to deal with as is possible. We are able to see much of the spectrum of decisions, alternatives, possibilities and despair she is forced to concern herself with. For this alone, "Sulang Kirilli" is a film that needs to be seen, especially by men.

Satyanganie’s sensitivity to nuance in the world of such a woman is highly commendable. Her attention to detail, not just in cinematic terms but the generalities of the human condition, the interplay of joy and sorrow, the intertwining in fact, speaks of her ability to lay bare the human condition. She employs the character Rathie extremely well in this regard.

Still, I found the laying-it-all-out rather tedious. Granted of course that the subject is such that it forbids sunshine portrayal or elucidation, the film still suffers from what I believe is Satyanganie’s desire to make a says-it-all film. All that is on Rathie’s plate can never be captured. Satyanganie says much, but there is a sense in which she seems to have spread herself too thin by attempting the do-it-all. There is "suffusion" in the film that I believe loses the audience. To me the "too much" not so much evokes empathy as provokes suffocation. "Sulang Kirilli" was not meant to be a two-hour film. Had Satyanganie cut it down to eighty minutes or less I believe she would have achieved a better balance of content, viewer disturbance and cinematic finesse. The film disturbs but for the wrong reasons.

Rathie is not the unforgettable character she ought to have been because we see too much of her. Damitha Abeyratne’s portrayal of Rathie is on the whole tedious, and this says less about her talent as it does about her script. There are moments, particularly in her interactions with the child of her lover and the little child in the car that knocks her down, that are convincingly played. Those images remain. Not so her anxieties regarding her situation.

One could argue, perhaps, that I say all this because I am a man and therefore I lack the epistemic privilege to understand, read and articulate the condition of a woman, especially a woman in Rathie’s situation, that I am a victim of a certain vile masculinity that society is infested with. Even if that were the case, then I needed to be educated in some way and Satyanganie fails to retain my attention.

Linton Semage, on the other hand, lived up to his reputation as a top class actor with an amazingly controlled and balanced performance.

I know very little about style. I tend to have an aversion to sexy devises. The mixing up of tenses I know can be powerful and this doesn't disturb me. Indeed, Satyanganie demonstrates great skill and finesse in her juxtapositions and in the employment of the back-and-forth to build up tension. The problem is that she goes overboard with it. The whole "two-layer", reality-fantasy mix, didn’t work for me for other reasons. Not because I like things neat, but because the devise didn’t seem to be doing anything special.

I don’t know much about colour and music, but in this case I felt they were well employed and admirably complemented the script. The use of symbols in the film, however, seemed inordinately contrived. They just didn’t work for they arrived almost with announcement, preview and bill-board ads: "Okay folks, we are giving you a symbol now, and this is what it means. Got it? Got it??" I am sure those images could have been worked into the script in a far more subtle and therefore more powerful manner. The only symbol that worked, as far as I could see, was Rathie vomiting into the biscuit tin and tightly closing the lid over it. There was spontaneity there.

I don’t know if Rajpal is correct in his prediction. But, if the film does not run here, I am convinced it has little to do with our audiences being uneducated or being challenged appreciation-wise. Let’s face it, the soldier on leave and the innocent garment worker vulnerable on all counts, may be "new" to an international audience that even if it knew of such characters can still be enamoured by the wrappings they arrive in, but to us they are all too familiar tropes in the discourse of patriarchal social relations. They are hackneyed as much out of our general apathy as by their endless treatment by filmmakers, especially in tele-dramas and tele-films. And these are for the most part poor quality productions to boot. The moment you bring the war into your script with the soldier, the moment you bring in the discourse of production and class relations and the issues of social justice and exploitation with the garment worker, our audiences can demand a delving into those universes. This is why I believe Satyanganie chose poorly when she picked a soldier and a garment worker to play out the discourse of social privilege, prejudice and persecution.

Overall, "Sulang Kirilli" is a brave film, and one made by a filmmaker with great potential. As a first film, I believe it stands out. Satyanganie can and probably will go far. She obviously knows her craft. With time, she will I am sure be able to pick and choose more judiciously from the vast reservoir of her knowledge of the medium, and this in terms of plot, character, style and the general employment of cinematic devises.

I would not do either Satyanganie or the general public justice if I did not mention something whichbothered me so much that it took too long for this review to get written. There was a "before" and an "after" in the media show that troubled me a lot. The "before" consisted of the reading of a short statement authored by the director. It was a plea which hinted at how she had to deal with all kinds of obstacles throughout the exercise. This anxiety is also evident in the "after", where a slim volume of comments (including Rajpal's review, both in English and its transliteration in Sinhala) on the film. This too included a plea.

All this surprised me because Satyanganie obviously knows enough about films to be mature enough to let her text speak for itself. She may or may not be the victim of some vicious persecution, but that’s really not new. The superior artiste expects it, suffers it, overcomes it and, one could add, even thrives on it. He or she does not fear the politics of isolation or the solitude it can produce but embraces it. "Sulang Kirilli", or any other film for that matter, can certainly be "brought down". That is a risk that all filmmakers have to accept. Allowing anxieties on such counts to creep into the filmmaking process can never benefit the film. It will only detract.

The "wind bird" doesn’t deserve such distractions, and certainly not the addition to the distractions that its author is guilty of. Satyanganie should allow her creation to answer her critics. Enemies she will certainly attract, both for her choice of subject and her style, in and out of the screen. No one likes to hear complaints, especially from an artist. They suffer. Period. Let us hope that the suffering engenders greater creative energies, for there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Satyanganie has it in her to be a great filmmaker. There’s baggage that needs to be shed, however, and she should shed it fast.