The story of the film has a clear beginning, a coherent middle and a conclusive end. It unfolds without the use of irritating gimmickry. It depicts how truly civilized members of the species self-styled Homo sapiens (Homo = human; sapiens = wise) live up to that presumptuous name. Sakman Maluwa offers a vision of what we human beings, descended though we are from apes and retaining as we do some of the emotions and reactions of our animal ancestors, can aspire to be, given time, education and a decent standard of living. The film comes as a most wholesome relief from the stuff of life depicted in most recent Sinhala films and teledramas. These films and teledramas have relentlessly driven me to the conclusion of one of the characters of Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence:
"The leech’s kiss, the squid’s embrace,
The prurient ape’s defiling touch;
And do you like the human race?
No, not much."
In this film, Tissa, an upper class gentleman and old-style civil servant in his forties (played neatly by Sanath Gunatilleka) marries for love his vivacious and charming cousin Prema, who appears to be less than half his age. It transpires that Tissa actually carried Prema when she was a baby. Kanchana Mendis has been cast for this critical role and she fits it like a glove. She is the centre of the universe of Sakman Maluwa. Tissa has misgivings about the age-wise compatibility of this match and seems to hesitate. It is Prema who provokes the desire in Tissa by subtle body language. To cut a long story short, she marries him and comes to reside in Tissa’s ancestral manor which is benevolently ruled by her erstwhile loving aunt who is now her mother-in-law (Iranganee Serasinghe). She is totally supportive of Prema. The manor is lovely, especially its garden (sakman maluwa), which is full of flowers – and snakes.
Snakes and flowers
The garden is looked after by an old, slightly eccentric gardener (Daya Tennakoon) who provides some comic moments. He is hell-bent on exterminating the snakes in the garden especially after one of them stung the family pet dog to death. He is, however, ordered by the mistress of the manor not to harm snakes, even though a snake killed their pet dog, who was her constant companion ever since her husband died many years ago.
Snakes – or more generally, serpents – have been an important part of all known human cultures. Almost all human beings have seen snakes in their dreams. We know of Freud’s interpretation of the symbolic significance of snakes in our dreams. The serpent is the universal emblem of the medical profession. In Buddhist culture the cobra is venerated. It is believed by devout Buddhists that in the sixth week after the Buddha’s enlightenment, the serpent-king Mucalinda protected the Buddha from thunder showers by holding its hood over his head.
The association of snakes and flowers in this film reminded me of a famous biological experiment done with rhesus monkeys.
Briefly, monkeys reared from birth in laboratories show absolutely no fear of snakes. Wild monkeys, however,
are terribly frightened of snakes. If lab-reared monkeys are made to see wild monkeys reacting with terror to snakes, they too acquire a fear of snakes. But they can never be conditioned to be frightened of flowers. In biological jargon, monkeys’ fear of snakes is driven by a combination of hard-wired inherited instinct and experience. As with monkeys, so with humans including Prema in Sakman Maluwa. At a critical point in the film, Tissa is confronted by a snake in the garden and he asks Prema who is there, to pick up and give him the mammoty which is lying on the ground, for him to defend himself. But Prema is too terrified to do anything except flee for dear life.
Had she a child, and were the child so threatened by a snake, the selfish genes in her would have almost certainly made her behave more altruistically. As it happens, a child derives half its genes from its mother and in protecting her child a mother is unknowingly ensuring the propagation of her genes. Husbands and wives do not share genes. Therefore husbands and wives are not instinctively driven to risk their lives for each other. Literary people call this the "ultimate otherness" of husband and wife. Sociobiology offers a rational explanation for this otherness. In the film, the husband and wife happen to be first cousins and therefore shared 1/8th of their genes, but the overpowering effect of biology (will to live) and culture (veneration of snakes) evidently combined to prevent Prema from aiding and abetting the destruction of a snake.
In fact, Tissa flatly accuses Prema of wishing his death through a snake. Why does he say so? Because he is afflicted by sexual jealousy. That green-eyed monster — or in the metaphor used in the film — the venomous snake of sexual jealousy is provoked by his loving younger brother Ranjan who has come home from medical studies in Russia. Ranjan (portrayed by newcomer Dinnidu Jagoda), is an immensely and immediately likeable young man and during his brief visit everyone dotes on him. He confides to his erstwhile cousin and now sister-in-law Prema that he married a much older Russian divorcee with two children. He says that he can well understand why Prema felt attracted to the much older Tissa.
Tissa is a workaholic who, after he comes home from office, is reading books when he is not gardening. So Prema does not get the youthful companionship appropriate to her age from Tissa. Cousin Ranjan provides it naturally and innocently and Prema manifestly enjoys it. This is what irks Tissa and finally arouses the snake of jealousy in his heart. The way this venomous snake moves to poison the life of the household is worked out in this subtly underplayed film. Like a rabbit by a snake, I too was fascinated by this film. Sumitra Peries directs it with a sensitivity and delicacy, born, it seemed to me, of a felt experience. Her gentle style is quintessentially a feminine version of Lester James’s. If, as Hamlet put it, "man and wife is one flesh", what else would one expect?
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