by Carlo Fonseka

The film opens with a glimpse of a Venerable Bhikkhu (unmistakably Sanath Gunathilake with a clean shaven head) descending a flight of stone steps in a little island. He embarks on a small boat to sail to the mainland nearby. Primed by the visual images of an island and the mainland, watching the opening scenes of the poignant story the film recounts, brought to my mind metaphysical poet John Donne’s memorable lines: "No man is an Island, entire of it self/Every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main/…Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in Mankind…" Sanath Gunathilake is certainly involved to the hilt in Sinahawa Atharin. He wrote its screenplay (his third) and directed the film (his second) and he plays two of its major roles. One is the role of the Bhikkhu who opens and closes the film. The other is that of Wimal Wickramasinghe the central character in the film. As it happens Wimal, a Buddhist man of the world, later becomes the Bhikkhu. So literally and metaphorically SG is the beginning and the end of Sinahawa Atharin.

Existential Question

The Bhikkhu who opens the film turns out to be the biological father of Hasanthi, a distressed young woman in her late teens who has come all the way from Canada in search of her biological father. Having discovered that her father is none other than Wimal before he renounced the world and donned robes, when Hasanthi meets him she greets him reverentially by falling down at his feet in obeisance. She hands over to him a document and a letter. The letter is from her mother Kumari Wijewardane addressed to her father Wimal Wickramasinghe. The hand-written document is Hasanthi’s account of what her mother told her about the story of their complicated lives. Hasanthi pleads with the Bhikkhu to read the document and in the light of its contents to tell her why, oh why, he—her own father—completely disowned her or anyhow ignored her very existence from birth. She then respectfully takes her leave of the Bhikkhu promising to return in a few days for the answer to her question. The film (munificently produced by Sunil T. Fernando) is a superbly photographed visual unfolding (by cameraman Sujith Nishantha) of Kumari’s version of the social and emotional history of their lives as documented by Hasanthi.

Buddhist Film

If readers have got the impression that Sinahawa Atharin is an out and out Buddhist film opening and closing with a Venerable Bhikkhu, I have done SG an injustice. As I understood the film it seeks to provide an answer to a perennial question: What is this thing called love? As the film unfolds, at various stages one is even tempted to wonder: What! Is this thing called love? However that may be, Sinahawa Atharin is indeed a film about love—love both as (biological) concupiscence and as (spiritual) loving kindness. The crucial message of the film is innocently and unpretentiously delivered by the heroine of the film Kumari (convincingly played by middle-aged, busty, seductively attractive Semini Iddamalgoda). Kumari, a Buddhist by birth and given to practise her faith conspicuously, tells Wimal (portrayed by suave, dapper, handsome and eloquent Sanath Gunathilake): "Wimal, what you and I regarded as love is wrong. What this thing called love really is, we learnt from Richard (a white, non- Buddhist foreigner.) True love is about giving; not about receiving. For Buddhists love should necessarily be about making endless sacrifices for loved ones. You and I are Buddhists by birth, but in practice Richard proved to be more Buddhistic than we have ever been."

In the film Richard Bartholomeusz is Kumari’s husband. His character is that of a disciplined, scholarly European working obsessively for his PhD. It is played with superb realism by Chris Henry Harris, a real, white foreigner. He is a great admirer of Sinhala Buddhist culture. Kumari married him against the wishes of her family. From the very beginning their union did not go merry as a marriage bell because Richard’s priorities were specific and definite: PhD first, making babies afterwards.


Sociobiology teaches that the chemical basis of life, Desoxyribo-Nucleic Acid (DNA) programmes us to love life, love sex and love babies. Richard’s DNA has evidently programmed him above all to chase a PhD and in that pursuit to abandon his marital bed temporarily. Consequently, night after night, Kumari lies awake in bed counting sheep in pursuit of "the balm of hurt minds" sleep. During waking hours Kumari’s cultural baggage drives her to the purveyors of "the opiate of the people," in her case the Buddhist temple. To the temple comes Wimal, a mesmerizing popularizer of Buddhist philosophy, with the looks of a cinema star. Kumari remembers him admiringly as the stage actor who magnificently played the role of the lion in a drama when she was a schoolgirl. To Kumari longing for love and Wimal a bachelor floating like a butterfly, this meeting proved to be a world-shattering conflagration. They are, remember, pruthagjanas like you and me, made of flesh and blood. In a recent article titled Self transformation, Bhikkhu Bodhi says: "….The Dhamma was never intended for those who are already perfect saints. It is addressed to fallible human beings beset with all the shortcomings typical of unpolished human nature: conduct that is fickle and impulsive, minds that are tainted by greed, anger and selfishness, views that are distorted and habits that lead to harm for oneself and others. The purpose of the teaching is to transform such people…." (The Island 2nd June, 2015).

Marriage and Morals

The film depicts the consequences of the emotional conflagration between Kumari and Wimal. It is love as concupiscence in all its glory. Two hauntingly beautiful songs dexterously integrated into the narrative heighten the emotional power of the film. Both are exquisitely sung by Nirosha Virajani who directs the music in the film. Kumari embarks upon this affair to relieve her unbearable loneliness, but soon Wimal becames the centre of her whole existence and her reason for living. Having realized that Kumari is carrying on with Wimal, when her husband Richard actually confronts her about him, she tells him up-front that she has firmly made up her mind to leave Richard and live with Wimal for the rest of her life. Her reason is simple: their marriage has been non-functional and fruitless. As evidence there are episodes in which when Kumari, nurtured in Sinhala Buddhist culture tries to relate with her whole being to her husband Richard, he finds it an unwelcome and oppressive intrusion into his personal freedom. In subsequent conversations, Richard accepts the reality that between Kumari and himself there is a serious cultural gap. And that it was widened by his thoughtless behavior. He believes, though, that it is not too late for him to make amends for his callous neglect of her. But the critical event that permanently disrupted their re-union was a very human female reaction on the part of Kumari to Wimal’s seemingly fickle behavior.

Beginning of the end

Socio-biologists say that as a survival strategy humans have an inherited capacity to read expertly and quickly the intentions of others and to react defensively, very instinctively and reflexly. This automatically operating trait has been of paramount importance in the evolution of human social behavior. On her birthday Kumari with high hopes of delighting Wimal by a surprising revelation, tells him that on her birthday her gift to him is nothing less than their own baby: she is even now carrying it inside her. Wimal’s instant knee-jerk reaction is not an ecstatic "wow!". Instead it is a panicky "What do we do about this now?" reaction. That proved fatal. It was the beginning of the end for Wimal. Kumari’s summary judgment was instantly delivered: "I thought you would jump to high heaven for joy; but what you obviously see is only a serious gynaecological problem to solve". All subsequent attempts on Wimal’s part to explain his behavior as the expression of his prudent concern for her own welfare are to no avail. Her instinctive judgment is unalterable: all men are unmitigated scoundrels! Kumari simply scrubs out Wimal from her emotional world. She walks out on him and goes back home. And waiting for her at home is devoted husband Richard with a birthday card and a big bouquet of flowers. This is only the beginning of his incredible altruistic behavior towards his unfaithful wife. The Buddhist way to overcome hatred is to cultivate forgiveness, loving kindness and compassion. The way to overcome thanha or greed is to practise generosity, detachment and contentment. Richard’s behavior becomes replete with those virtues. Indeed, during her later final parting with Wimal after their sober reconciliation Kumari tells him up-front, "My love for you may remain, but I just cannot escape the conclusion that Richard loves me more than you ever did". Kumari’s judgment makes Richard the white European non Buddhist foreigner the hero of the film. One wonders why SG chose to make the hero a descendant of our white, non-Buddhist, exploitative, imperialist European rulers. My speculation is that had he made a traditional Sinhala guy to accept without fuss the paternity of the unborn child of his flagrantly adulterous wife, he might have incurred the opprobrium of Sinhala males for degrading Sinhala manhood. He therefore probably decided that it was better to be safe than sorry!


From that digression to return to the film: in due course Richard and Kumari leave Sri Lanka for Canada and Kumari gives birth to daughter Hasanthi who is brought up there as a Buddhist, believing that Richard is her father. Somewhere down the line many years later Richard meets with what turns out to be a fatal accident. Before he dies, however, he tells Hasanthi the story of her true biological father. It is in search of that father that Hasanthi comes to Sri Lanka. Having come, she discovers that Wimal her father is now a Bhikkhu. So she cannot relate to him as a natural daughter. That is why she urges the Bhikkhu to read her account of her mother’s story and answer honestly the burning question she straightforwardly asked him. In the final meeting between daughter and father several days later he tells her that for all Richard’s goodness, almost divine, Richard Bartholomeusz was a human being with inherent human defilements. For reasons best known to him Richard had violated the Buddhist precept that enjoins us not to lie, when from Canada he informed Wimal, that the child Kumari gave birth to, died. That was the day, Wimal tells his daughter, that he had decided to become a Bhikkhu, having learnt from his own experience that suffering is the fundamental truth about existence.

Final Message

According to the Founder of Sociobiology, Prof. Edward O Wilson, "the human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be…" The verdict "so it will ever be" is surely an unwarranted inference. The Buddha taught us the way to transcend the worst in our nature, greed or lobha and hatred or dvesha. That is the take home message of Sanath Gunathilake’s Sinahawa Atharin.


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