Walapatala's cinematic integrity

Walapatala is the well-known dramatist and writer, Vijitha Gunaratne's first Sinhala film. Penumbra is the English title. It premiered on the 27th of May at the Tharangani Cinema. It is due to be on general release from the 19th of this month. Its cinematic integrity is worthy of reflection.

At the outset we are told that it is derived from an actual experience of the '71 insurrectionary period. The film is set within it. Though straightforward, the whole film is tightly embedded in the narrative. The location is cinematically relevant. It is the small town of Neboda in Kalutara District, which is beautifully brought to life visually to express the petty social relations and small-town-mindedness in a dramatised manner. A commonplace community discussion organized by Bowatte, a socially aware young school teacher, is disrupted and broken up by thugs within minutes of starting. Dr. Manoharan, a senior doctor recently come on transfer to the local hospital, is the resource person for the meeting. The, injured are brought to his hospital. We learn that the breakup is the work of the local manthrithuma or Member, Jayasundara, who angrily asserts that the last thing he will permit is to allow these young radicals to challenge his hegemony on local power. The young rebels are busy printing posters and conducting classes. The setting is unmistakably the dark times of April '71.

Into this main plot which brings together the Member and his cronies (Chartin Mudalali, the Police Sergeant, the Secretary) on one side, and Bowatte and the youth on the other, Dr Manoharan and his hospital staff get innocently embroiled. Among them are Dr Delgoda, a young doctor, Piyasena, the pompous and talkative attendant and the nurses. The Member orders a brutal witch-hunt of all youth in the movement. Bowatte narrowly escapes detection and hides in Dr Manoharan's official quarters. The doctor's inherent sense of justice compels him to offer refuge-Now the antagonism widens to engulf the Member and Dr Manoharan. Attempts to make Dr Manoharan bend to the Member's dictates fail dismally. His integrity precludes it and he will not bow down to bullying. Bowatte's cadre contact a rival of the Member, Samaraweera, in order to work out an escape strategy for him. Samaraweera is only too glad to undermine his rival. There is a group that is potentially neutral in this growing conflict - the nurses and the attendant, Piyasena. At one point he shrewdly lets out, "We should not get involved in these things because we gain nothing from them". But they cannot be detached and are sucked into the vortex.

Into this growing clash of personalities and petty power play, a poor innocent mother and father, Sumana and Amarapala get enmeshed when they rush into the hospital carrying their wailing baby, with a critically infected navel. Dr Manoharan on seeing the baby, decides to do an emergency operation, despite the lack of an operating theatre. Dr Delgoda used to swimming with the current and knowing the stakes in the power play, tries but fails to dissuade Dr Manoharan from performing the emergency operation, and instead, sending the baby to the base hospital. Amarapala in his desperation runs for help to the Member who uses his influence to get an ambulance to rush the baby to the base hospital. When he hears of Dr Manoharan's emergency operation, he is furious, charges his way into the operating cubicle, assaults the Doctor and stops the last step in the operation, stitching up. In the meantime the Member also complains against Dr Manoharan to the Provincial Director and insists on a disciplinary inquiry against him for dereliction of duty. The ambulance arrives and the child is rushed to the base hospital with the mother and father. While the operation is proceeding the overwrought mother and father go through the agony of waiting outside the theatre door. Sumana makes a prophetic comment "Though all these people pretend great interest, I don't think they really feel for our baby". Its the unfailing instinct of an impoverished mother.

The Director comes and inquires into the complaint. Dr Manoharan refuses to talk to him. The Director declares that Dr Manoharan was acting well within his professional norms when he decided to operate. He is exonerated. But he orders him to be immediately transferred out. Just then the telephone rings. The baby has died! This is the climax. An anticlimax immediately follows. Bowatte who has been hiding all this time in the doctor's house stealthily speeds away in Samaraweera's car.

Key in the film is its sure structuring. Main and sub plots, the rich diversity of characterization of a small town community, the cameolike portrayal of the beauty of a small town in which is played out the sordid drama of power, injustice, prejudice and rebellion. All this is so tightly interwoven in the script, that the film is rich in cinematic tensions, which is the essence of good cinema. Two other dimensions enrich this structuring - tempo and nuance. The film is made to move very fast intensifying the dramatic momentum. It is also rich in nuances 'Which are needle-points of visual and narrative detail. The injured youth Jayasoma stalks the verandahs of the hospital, silently gazing at the goings-on around him, a silence so expressive of frustrated anger and anguish. Piyasena's angry hitting of the dog is similarly eloquent. Nuances are also contained in the close-ups of the eyes-looks-and-gestures recurring through the film, which are woven to yield a poignant cinematic idiom. Later, they linger in the viewer's memory. Integral to this integrity is Dr Manoharan, a respected citizen from a minority community, whose humanity transcends the sordid dynamics of smalltown politics. The success of the carefully wrought script has enabled the brilliant fast-track editing, which enhances the film's integrity.

Walapatala or Penumbra is symbolic of elusive hope. The film is a fine imaginative portrait of anomie, petty politics, injustice and helplessness in our society. The emotional thread of the narrative is carried consistently throughout the film.

The whole cast is skillfully directed. The acting is of a high order. The music and sound supports the film. Like all good art, the film is enjoyable at many levels and transcends age differences. Obviously Vijitha Gunaratne ably supported by a talented production team, brings to his maiden directorial effort, decades of mature reflection and criticality from his over thirty year old theoretical engagement and experimentation with radical Sinhala theatre. His commitment to Bertolt Brecht echoes in the sub-text of Walapatala.

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