Let Her Speak:
A Female Spectator on Asoka Handagama’s Aege Aesa Aga ["Let Her Cry"]


By Carmen Wickramagamage

I just watched Asoka Handagama’s movie Aege Aesa Aga ["Let Her Cry"]. What can I say? It is a profoundly, and disappointingly, male fantasy on women’s sexual desires, their sexed lives and, what is worse, their very raison d’etre: which, if the movie is anything to go by, is to please men. Director Handagama confirms that this was indeed his objective in the movie in an interview in the Ravaya newspaper: "Woman is always trying to figure out who she is in her husband’s eyes, where she should position herself [in his mind]." Of course, Handagama claims that he sympathizes with this uniquely feminine dilemma.

Since the rest of this piece will explain why I declare the movie as a male fantasy on women, let me first explain why I call it disappointing. I find it disappointing coming from a director like Asoka Handagama who, over the years, has come to acquire a reputation as an iconoclastic film maker unafraid to flout so many taboos and boundaries in mainstream Sinhala society and cinema. But in this film, his portrayal of women is only slightly more sophisticated than that in Sunil Ariyaratne’s Pattini also currently playing. I won’t refer to Ariyaratne’s movie anymore in this piece as it is so boringly literal in its take on women’s sexuality. Handagama’s movie is more sophisticated technically-speaking and sports some fine acting. For this reason, it would be easy to overlook its very regressive portrayal of women.

So what makes it so "profoundly patriarchal"? Writing in 1975, feminist film scholar Laura Mulvey had described "mainstream [western] cinema" as "profoundly patriarchal" for the ways that they instate and reinstate a distinct gaze or look: male/masculine. One would have thought, 40 years later, a lot has changed with regard to these positionings of spectator and gaze. Women now make movies; they play lead roles in movies; they come in their numbers to watch movies. But watching Handagama’s movie, I began to wonder if anything has changed.

Indeed, though Handagama’s ostensible focus is the Sinhala [Buddhist] woman, it would not be incorrect to detect, concealed behind its take on Sinhala [Buddhist] women, the lurking presence of some homogenized Woman: a woman who views herself in a mirror held up to her by men; whose very existence depends on male approval; whose world comes to a grinding halt with male disapproval. This is what the proverbial Queen in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" discovered once upon a time. When the Mirror on the Wall, a euphemism for the masculine gaze, fails to reassure her that she was the most beautiful of them all, all hell breaks loose. She goes after the daughter who replaces the [step]mother in the Patriarch’s eyes. In Handagama’s film, too, a daughter [the female undergraduate young enough to be the male professor’s and his wife’s daughter] replaces the [step]mother [the professor’s wife] who is presented as a figure of waning beauty who has lost her place as the most desirable of all in her husband’s eyes. Just in case we did not get the point, a photo of the wife in her "salad days" adorns the nightstand in their bedroom.

Let me explain: no scene in the movie better expresses this (self)-objectification of women than the one where the young female undergraduate, clad in the iconic white bath-towel, applies lotion on her legs. Her total absorption in and worship of her own body is very clear in this scene. Yet, this is not a simple example of narcissistic body-worship. A camera focuses on her legs that she so lovingly applies lotion on; the camera angle coyly shields from us what might be visible if the girl were facing the camera while a heteronormative masculine gaze is titillated by the prospect of what he might see were she to turn towards the camera. The titillation reaches a peak when the girl bares all to the wife with her back towards the camera and audience. The wife sees; we don’t; the heteronormative male spectator can only wonder at and bemoan his inability to occupy the position of the wife. The wife’s reaction is of course very different: this is the only time she loses her cool and rewards the girl’s bountiful display with a choice epithet. Yet, the scene also brings into focus the concealed masculine gaze/mirror through which they both regard themselves. Just before, the aging wife had taunted the young female lover of what awaits her with age when she would inevitably take the wife’s place. Though the nubile young woman responds to this "home truth" with defiance, it drives home the point: all women are destined to lose their place one day in their man’s eyes. The film does not offer a corresponding home-truth for men: that they too will one day lose their sexual appeal and virility—that, indeed, the male professor’s ongoing affair with the young woman could be read as an attempt by the male professor to defer the inevitable truth, in that sense, his dying swansong.

The movie takes as its theme a love triangle between an aging male professor, his equally aging wife, and his young mistress who is also his student. Though she is allegedly one of his brightest students, as one critic has pointed out, we do not see any life of the mind; only a life of the body. The male professor is at least once seen on TV engaging in an academic discussion which of course has obvious relevance to the theme of the movie. The girl is never seen reading a book; attending a lecture; hanging out with other young undergraduates. She is seen at the university only once: then too her purpose is to rekindle the male professor’s interest in her. Her only mission in life appears to be to tempt him; lure him away from his wife. In that sense, she is a version of the proverbial femme fatale. At a time when Sri Lankan state universities are seeing an exponential increase in female undergraduate enrollment, not just in the traditional feminized disciplines of the Arts but in the various ‘Sciences’, when many of them are graduating at the top of their classes, we encounter in the movie a young female undergraduate from a supposedly underprivileged background whose primary preoccupation is her body, her one goal in life to have a child by the professor. The seed here is to be sown in the womb, not the brain.

This makes me wonder: why introduce a university into the narrative frame at all? Is it that the university appears an ideal location in which an encounter between an aging male professor and a nubile young woman can be more convincingly staged? Reality bears Handgama out at least in that respect: yes, the University is one place where aging male professors may easily come across gullible young women in whose eyes such professors appear at twice their natural size distanced as they are by the teacher-student hierarchy and glorified as they are by an academic aura. But Handama loses touch with reality when he projects the scenario as one where a well-intentioned male professor whose only objective is to help a gifted young female falls prey to this young woman’s machinations. The movie goes to extraordinary lengths to underscore the professor’s altruistic intentions vis-à-vis the young woman: in the only scene where the two are placed in what we take to be a university context, he yanks open the door to his office which the young female undergraduate had deliberately shut upon entry as obvious precursor to another scene of seduction. The Professor is almost relieved when two male undergraduates appear at the door seeking his academic guidance. The audience who is allowed to witness and share the professor’s discomfort can only say ‘naughty, naughty’ to the brazen young woman, who for a while seems a Sri Lankan version of the mistress in Fatal Attraction.

But for those in the know, this is not a case of art imitating life, at least the life as we know it within Lankan university campuses where the direction of the initiative would more often than not be the other way. A psychoanalytic reading is possible: the whole thing as a dramatization of an inner conflict, a life of the mind v life of the body, within the professor. But then why take such pains to contextualize it? (To be continued)

(The writer is a professor in the Dept of English, University of Peradeniya)

To be Continued

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