How to treat/read Machan?

Those who consider Abha the greatest movie of the nation now have a problem: Machan has arrived! Abha celebrates sacrificing of one’s life for the mother country. Machan celebrates people risking their lives to leave the mother country.

When I watched Abha in Kandy I saw something quite telling: Even before Abha, the hero to be could finish his last line which runs something like, "Until my death, I will fight to protect my country", the youths in the audience were turning their cell phones on! The movie’s last scene, one that meant to be the punch line, apparently did not work. The spectators, particularly the younger ones, were not in awe of Abha at all, instead they made calls to get back into post-modern consumer culture. One cannot fight for the mother country with a cell phone. Abha’s sword faded back into the screen along with that anti-climactically childish cry. In a Sinhala piece on Abha, I read the movie against the grain by arguing that, with great deal of sarcasm, of course, it was a film on the uselessness of patriotism - particularly its racist variety. That reading was literally false but metaphorically true.

In spite of its huge publicity campaign of Abha, the film is not equivocally and universally received. Its ideological programme did not go unchecked. Running the risk of being called ‘anti-patriotic’ many critics maintained that it was an artistic failure. Our small cinema industry, however, did not have a better movie running simultaneously to be compared with Abha. With Machan better things are here. Cinematically and thematically Machan is far more superior. And in acting, Machan is a feast for filmgoers- Dharmapriya Dias, Dayadeva Edirisighe, Mahendra Perera, Malini Fonseka and others are outstanding with their beautifully controlled cinematic acting. Even great Malini is greater in Machan than in Abha.

The counter-punch

Machan is the counter-punch we need to set against patriotic hype Abha is trying so hard to create. One of the paradoxes of the ideology of Western hegemony is that it wants all the freedom for its capital to travel all around the globe while demanding people to stick to their cultural homes. Therefore, travelling northward is an activity exclusively for the privileged in the global south. Sri Lanka’s urban poor does not belong in the group. They can choose to toil in the Middle East.

As the opening scene of Machan suggests the urban poor do not belong in the cities even in their home countries. They are awakened by the police in the middle of the night and sent away to sleep nowhere. Nowhere is the place for the poor. When the temples of neo-liberal consumerism, in the shape of shopping malls and the like, invade their homes the urban poor have to wake up to fact that they no longer belong there. The word ‘home’ no longer makes sense. So does the term, ‘home country.’ Machan is the heroic story of a group of such people trying to come to terms with this reality. For nearly five hundred years the Western powers could travel Southward with their capital and accumulate capital in the South, but people of the South were kept in the South helping the Western investors accumulate further capital. Colonialism and neo-liberalism profess universal truths and human standards; want to create a global culture. But they make every attempt to restrict poor people travelling to metropolitan centers in the West. The beauty of Machan is that it celebrates the way a bunch of urban poor sneaks through the wall of restriction on international travelling in order find a better life in Europe. We do not get to see if they found what they were looking for. But we do get to see that many of them deserve better than what they are leaving behind.

‘The National Handball Team’

After failing many attempts get visa to Europe, a group of buddies responds to an invitation for a handball of tournament in Germany. They present themselves as the National Handball Team of Sri Lanka. Emails are sent back and forth. An experienced human smuggler gets ‘forged official documents’ from the Ministry of Sports Affairs. When two police officers join ‘the National Handball Team’, the group seems to have got local law enforcement agencies too in their side. They receive visas in almost no time. But they are no handball players; there is no such game in Sri Lanka. It does not matter now for they have been given visa as international players of the game. Off they go to Germany.

The game of handball is a metaphor for regulations on international travel enforced by the powerful Western countries. As the group of Sri Lanka urban poor painfully realizes to travel to greener pastures in the West one has to beat the West in their own game. The Sri Lankan team, needless to say, loses all the handball games but wins the main game they set out to play. Playing by the rules set by the West they lose one game and win the other. When the final captions say that none of the players was captured, hardy anyone in the audience could not be delighted at the Sri Lankan victory! Obviously, the Italian director celebrates the innocent shrewdness of the Third World poor.

The category of Third World people is not one single thing: there are many Third Worlds, so are the Third World peoples. One major weaknesses of the film is that it does not deal with the multifaceted nature of Third World life. Sri Lanka is not all about shanties. There are palaces too. Ministerial palaces alone are in the hundreds! It is not only the global capital that drives some people into run down slums. There are other structural causes systematically created and maintained by status quo of the home countries. Sri Lanka’s shopping malls and other centers of consumerism are as ‘good’ as those in the West. Sri Lankan car culture is a burden even on my unborn great granddaughter. Well, my daughter is barely a year old! Sri Lanka also has a very vocal class of new rich who benefited by neo-liberal capitalism. Those machans of neo-liberalism can travel to Europe with almost no restriction. We do not get to see any of those machans(Buddies) in Machan.

As Iranian nationalists banned the movies of neo-realism for realistically depicting the rural poor of Iran, Machan could be met with opposition from those who think that there are much more beautiful things and people to show in Sri Lanka. My argument is not of that kind. For me, Sri Lanka is also a metaphor of entire Third World as much as the game of handball is a metaphor for international travelling regulations of the First World. But had the director chosen to show the richer and nicer side of Sri Lanka, he could have also stressed the fact that the Third World’s poor is twice marginalized firstly by the nation state and secondly by the global capital.

Illegal migration

The theme of illegal migration to rich countries has drawn the attention of creative writers and filmmakers in the recent past. South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer picked up that theme in her novel The Pickup. It tells the story of love between a South African white woman and a Muslim illegal immigrant from an unnamed Middles Eastern country. Metaphorically speaking, the novel tests South Africa’s capacity for love as a country of the world’s poorest continent. And the novel also suggests the meaninglessness of national boundaries in the human quest for love, care and friendships. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake and the recent novels of Amitav Ghosh deal with these issues. Hollywood, as usual, has made an industry out of this theme. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is great in dealing with many cultures meeting at globalized spaces. Whether the West likes it or not, migration to the global north, legally or otherwise, will increase in the years to come. Yet the rich countries respond by building walls on their boarders while continually outsourcing their investments. Writers and filmmakers are already intervening in the discourse on human condition in an era of post-nation state.

Nations and home countries do matter. Many of us still live and die in our places of birth. People’s rights to live in their traditional homelands must be protected. But if the West wants to dictate terms for development, education and living standards everywhere in the world, it is natural for people wanting to migrate to places the ‘true development’ originally has happened. People are headed ‘West’ wanting to enjoy riches that the West itself claims to possess. The West does not want us to enjoy the original development, they only want us create its copy for among ourselves. They are more than happy to help us make that copy by lending us their capital. The West either has to let us create our own mode of development or grant us the same freedom that we are made to grant their capital. The movie Machan takes us directly into these debates.

We in Sri Lanka these days have two ideological opposites to deal with or to synthesize, and those two ends are represented by the two movies: Abha and Machan. Abha represents the ideology of dying for the mother country. Machan suggests the view of transcending national boundaries. The first celebrates purity of nation’s purest blood while the latter suggests mingling of that purity with other things. Disappearing into the West is not transcending national boundaries. That is exactly what the West has wanted the rest to do. People, however, are much more creative and resilient, and cultural identities do not disappear so easily. I am sure all the members of ‘National Handball Team of Sri Lanka’ are still in Europe spending much of their earnings on coconut sambola, Katta sambola, gotukola, curry leaves, dried fish, egg-hoppers and so on. I have met them in many American cities. For me they are heroes.

For dignified people living does not mean disappearing. Who make the poor disappear instead of living? Who make the living costlier than disappearing? Umberto Passolini, the director of Machan, poses these questions to the rulers of the West. I hope many more talented directors use our pool of acting talents to make good movies. As a movie buff, I do not mind their nationalities. At the same time Prasanna Vithanage has all the skills to make a movie in Italy. Let’s also hope that the movement of talents is not one-way traffic.

(Liyanage Amarakeerthi teaches Literature at the University of Peradeniya)

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