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


Continued from yesterday

By Carmen Wickramagamage

As for the young woman: the film takes pains to locate her in a rural setting. It takes pains too to portray her as someone from an underprivileged background. Yet, in the movie, she breaks all bounds in terms of fictional verisimilitude. If we were to apply the litmus test of realism to her character, the question would be whether such a young woman from such and such a background act the way she does? In response to just such a question posed by an interviewer for Ravaya, Handagama says that the rural woman is far more street-smart than her urban counterpart and would be more aggressive to boot given that she has more to gain [Ravaya May 29, 2016]. Though I would not presume to speak for all ‘rural women’, invoking Handama’s own knowledge of rural realities that he draws on when speaking of/for rural women, I would ask: would most young Sinhala Buddhist women, be they from village or town, living in contemporary times, so brazenly flout the sexual mores that require that she be a virgin at marriage; that frown upon premarital sex; that penalize pregnancy out of wedlock? Maybe, as a figment of the imagination she exists. But the day is yet to come when a young woman can so openly flout such entrenched gendered sexual norms. This is not to say that all such young rural women uphold the code to the letter. They may not but their reasons for doing so would be vastly different and the consequences for those who do not uphold the code dire.

Even if we were to concede the presence of such a devil-may-care young woman hypothetically, we may still raise the issue why such a young woman would wish to exercise her sexual charms on an aging male professor. Is it a sign of her permissive personality and aggressive pursuit of her own goals or is it symptomatic of her social and economic vulnerability in what is very much a man’s world, which is very much the case with the academia? As Barbara Corcoran, a successful female real-estate mogul said the other day on CNN, in male dominated spheres such as business, women may resort to their sexual charms as a means of survival. Not pretty, not right, but it is the harsh reality.

Yet if Handagama refuses to conform to and confirm stereotypes [of the rural woman], he sees nothing wrong in invoking such stereotypes in the case of the middleclass wife. For Handagama, the mature woman in the film is expired goods. If the woman’s raison d etre is giving pleasure to her husband, she has no earthly use now. She is without sex appeal and she has no interest in a sex life—as signified by her constant presence in the shrine room and visits to the temple. Hers is an attempt at transcendence. Caught between a wife who is sexless and a young lover who is desire personified, what is a poor male professor to do? But, in this movie, he tries in good faith to resist that call to temptation. If so, where to place the blame for the professor’s lapse but on the women themselves? It should have been the wife’s responsibility to keep her husband sexually satiated; if she fails to and he looks elsewhere, the message writ large in the mirror says "men have needs; they need to be fulfilled; you are to blame."

In the movie, a young woman conveniently takes the place of his wife. The ‘Woman’ in the movie [after all, the two women are simply phases of each other, with the young teenage daughter destined to take their place at some future point in time] thus looks in the mirror and finds mirrored in it dis/approval as the case may be. She has no independent existence outside of this relentless male gaze. There is little consideration in the movie of the social and economic insecurities that make most women fight tooth and claw to hang on to their men, however unworthy. At a time, when more and more women are taking to a life outside of home as income-generating workers, the Housewife in the movie, played by Swarna Mallawaarchchi, personifies these insecurities. There is not much effort, however, in the movie to highlight her vulnerable status and thus complicate her subjectivity.

But, unlike in life, where such love triangles leave the wife and mistress ready to slaughter each other, in art there can be novel solutions: shake hands, pronounce "shanti, shanti," "peace, peace," and ride off into the sunset hand in hand. Or this is the proposed solution that the movie offers. It is only vulgar politicians, a bunch that we Sri Lankans love to hate, who give into unseemly displays of rage and violence as the politician’s wife does in the climactic scene at the Buddhist temple. And just in case we are tempted to harbor misplaced sympathies for the enraged wife of the politician, the Director takes pains to present her reaction as clearly excessive, bordering on the comical, when she gives chase to the mistress with one of the iconic fixtures from the temple as her weapon; for good measure, even a gun is fired. Our protagonist and his female partners, in contrast, adopt a non-violent path that even the Buddha would have been proud of. Having rescued the young lady from the melee at the temple, the husband drives away from the scene with all his female associates clustered around him. Sheltered from the rain and other such stormy turbulences in the car, they are seen to be looking for an alternative to the (stereo)typical display of sexual jealousy manifested by the politician’s wife. Even the wife’s tears we are told are cathartic: when the young woman queries why ‘Madam’ is crying, the male professor is heard to say ‘let her cry.’ His response most probably means ‘leave her alone; let her have a good cry, she would feel better afterwards’ though another meaning of ‘let her cry’ is ‘ignore her.’ There is no invitation here to see her tears as signifying her despair at her utter lack of options. After all, her social and economic security would not permit her to divorce the professor; her sense of middleclass respectability would not permit her to go through with the messy divorce proceedings; she would not have much social support anyway were she to do so as the dominant cultural norms uphold patience as a uniquely wifely virtue; if nothing else, she would be asked to put her daughter’s welfare and future before her own.

So what next, the inquisitive audience member may ask: will they bring the young girl-friend back to the middleclass family home where the wife would do well to take permanent residence in the shrine room from which she could direct a disinterested gaze upon the love-making between her husband and his young mistress, a titillating glimpse of which we have already had through the blanket hole? A very civil resolution that, to use a Sinhalese idiom, saves the ‘beard’ and the ‘porridge’ for the male professor. A veritable male wish-fulfillment….

There ARE roads not taken in this film—promising directions hinted at but not explored. A possible alliance between wife and mistress is one of them. As one critic has observed, when the male fantasy is permitted within the ‘reality’ of the bourgeois household, it may lose its allure. This may indeed be the wife’s plan. Indeed, an alliance between wife and mistress is hinted at where we are offered a close up of the discomfiture on the face of the husband as the wife narrates a Jataka story on a similar theme at the dinner table. There is even a hint of eroticism when the wife confronts the girl in her self-absorbed lotion application scene. But all these remain in the realm of speculation, roads not taken. Instead, movie-goers leave the hall with the conviction that equanimity is the better part of valor for wives confronted by their husbands’ infidelities. As husbands awaken to their fantasies, in tune with the theme song, women are expected to awaken to the drab reality of their lives. (Concluded)

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

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