Dancing in the light of dusk: a review of Pathiraja’s Swaroopa


By Sivamohan Sumathy

Gregory Samson looks up at the inn he is soon to arrive at, what can be termed colonially speaking, a hill station. One of his lady loves, a receptionist at the inn, appears to have been waiting for him; or as he finds out soon enough, having got tired of waiting for him, decided to marry someone else; more curiously, she and her newly wed husband are migrating, driven away by the unremarked upon Citizenship Act of 1948 that disenfranchised upcountry Tamils.

Swaroopa begins ominously and enigmatically on this minor and indifferent note on an incident that introduces us to Gregory Samson’s predicament as a human being. It seems an incongruous opening for Kafka’s novella, Metamorphosis. Soon after, it disappears, much like the Deleuzian rhizome, into another space, the space of the hotel, the room in which Gregory Samson sleeps, where you find a working man, again from the upcountry Tamil community one suspects, into the dark corridors of the hotel, or as happens in the end, the dark spaces of the hospital. A few words and the offer of a medical sample by the sales rep. to the working man, a wordless play of the exchanges taking place on the margins, speak volumes.

"The class war takes place within the body, even Karl Marx missed the point", says the Professor of Anatomy expounding on Mondino, the medieval anatomist. Class confronts us at every turn in this film, with its Chekhovian overtones of a dying aristocracy struggling against the forces of change. But while Chekhov was both mourning and celebrating the death of a decadent class, in his plays, the Samson family is not of the aristocracy; just a multiply displaced family with upper class pretensions and aspirations.

The film espouses a critical realism of its own making. The family is clearly on the margins. It is a minor language that the family uses: a certain form of Anglicized Sinhala that is not necessarily used by an English speaking middle and lower middle class, but suggestive of the class and ethnic moorings of the family. Anglo and Marginality are not aspects we usually associate together. Almost every other film on class in Sri Lanka will tag English onto an upper middle class family. But we have Herman, ex-serviceman, boasting endlessly of having been a member of the Royal Golf Club and of still being one, and of having been a business partner of Adithya, who studied with the King of Brunei! The struggling family, Herman, Martha his wife, Greta, sister, and Gregory himself, depend on the paltry medical salesman’s earnings. Yet, Greta wants to become a professional violinist and do Trinity College exams and Herman wants to continue to be a member of the Royal Golf Club. The family that wants to live like it is royalty has to turn toward work, with Martha the mother taking on sewing jobs and Greta, the aspiring violinist, somewhere in the firm of a friend’s. The father has to cash in on his erstwhile position in the army and become a night watchman. Swaroopa places a lower middle class Anglicized Catholic family at the centre of its deliberations on the postcolonial nation – a radical move. At the door step is the emerging capitalist market, represented ominously by the pharmaceutical companies. The anatomy lecture theatre stands for a tryst with death and at the same time is suggestive of how the medical establishment will be the new grounds for the class war. The tableau surrounding the anatomy class and the lecture theatre, representing a seemingly civic public structure, recalls poetic representations of renaissance art and recalls the discourses of early modernity; civic structures and the public space, including the public market place.One thinks simultaneously and subversively of early modernity and early postcoloniality!

Gregory opts out of the human race (an idea presented to me by Nicola Perera, following the media screening on 15th August), and in doing so, opts out of the nation itself, ironically, a lesser and a greater act of willing oneself. He chooses, if it can be called choice, to disappear into the nooks and crannies of his work, the bottles, the almyrahs, the notebooks, the ink stand, the clutter of the room; he dies, not as a man, but as a cockroach being,and is shoved into the dust bin and carted off in the municipal van to the waste dump.Wasting away, he becomes waste to be absorbed into the waste of human kind. Watching it post-Meethottamulla, one is struck by the futuristic overtones of the film.

At times, one wonders whether Gregory’s predilections, or his enforced encasement in the shell of an insect, are metaphorical. He is overworked, is a cog in the wheel in the rat race, bears too many of the family’s burdens, and ismetaphorically reduced to the status of an insect.

The Brechtian elements are marked in the figure of the three lodgers with their masked forms, their decrepit masculinity and their comical social snobbery. The realism, unfussy and parable like, is Brechtian. Yet, the Brechtian elements fuse into the allegorical and eventually mystical, marking the political with a tragic sense of the world. Nature as a wasted entity, but also as prescientic, flits in and out, in the form of birds and dead rats, announcing death and waste, paradoxicallyas beautiful and other worldly.The robbers, the nervous woman who accosts him at that point of the robbery, whose relationship with Gregory remains a mystery, the night scene with the mouth organist, and several other moments, point to, obliquely and in understatement, a political interruption of the aesthetic of linearity; and also, push the signification onto another reflection of humanity and its ultra-modern embodiment, MAN. The allegorical, and the parable like structure dissolve into a mystic sense of the universe as the film progresses; and the very real maid, at the beginning, with her prayers, her "superstitions" and her anxieties are replaced by a brusque modern-day one, who knows what is required of her; she becomes both the modern spirit and a kind of deus-ex-machina, as she handles the family and its anxieties with good cheer. She quietly takes over. She is progress at one level and, perhaps of all the characters in the film, barring Gregory, whose emaciated insect-body, wills itself to death, the most positive and forward looking. Yet, as she glances out the balcony at the waste dump, which could have represented the universe itself, with the early morning sun, giving the entire expanse a life-giving beauty, and as she smiles to herself, half smug and half cheerfully, one does not know where to place her. Is she real?

The film of course is about the body as the Professor opines. From the beginning till the end, one feels it is about the body of Gregory, properly suited at the beginning, and in one instance, with a rose tucked in the lapel. When Gregory’s body disintegrates, no, transforms, first into a giant insect, and then into a cockroach, the body of the family takes over."Like father, like son". Residual patriarchy, lurking within the family structure in the film, is first shaken, undermined, and shattered by the end of the film, even as the older couple, Martha and Herman, reminisce about their honeymoon days in the closing scene. It is a parody of romance. The younger couple, Greta and her nameless fiancé, could point to something meaningful, with their affirmation of life at the end, but even here, the lingering sadness of Gregory’s insect body that has vanished into the garbage truck, predominates. The final push comes with the gravestone and Emily Bronte’s words in the epitaph, juxtaposing life and waste. The body of the family is intricately connected with the nation. At times this connection is stark like the opening scene, and in the scene in the anatomy lecture theatre, and in the struggling life of the family, newly turned to work for survival. Butthe connections are also there in the scene with the mouth organist, and the maid with her brisk demeanour and mouth-watering pancakes, full and ready to be consumed by Greta and the rest of the family.

It is about a nation of women too. The mother is the anchor in the film. Gregory’s humanity is kept alive through her insistence on his being her son. Greta,on the other hand, belongs to the future, but one worries about her. Her longings and her need to make it in the world of western music and the quaint urban milieu of the early postcolonial years represent a situation in which we find ourselves again and again: upward social mobility and the thwarted talents of a young woman on the margins. The film opens with one of Gregory’s old or new flames. As it closes, there is another episode, involving a sexual tryst he has with a nurse at the hospital. His fleeting, almost ethereal existence is accentuated by these fleeting relationships with these marginal figures. They present themselves not only as persons, but as figures offering a commentary on our national and human predicament.

In Kafka: toward a minor literature, one of Gilles Deleuze’s ‘minor’ works, he unravels and remakes Kafka’s work as enunciation, an utterance of the collective. Resolutely anti psychoanalytic, Deleuze claims a politics for Kafka that is diabolically subversive of the psychoanalytic ‘myth"of the family. Pathiraja, who has not read Deleuze on Kafka and does not care to either, talks about sheer politics when it comes to the family; a thwarted and humbled patriarchy is confronted with the decomposition of the body, in its class, gender, and national belonging. For Deleuze,

Writing for Kafka, the primacy of writing, signifies only one thing: not a form of literature alone, the enunciation forms a unity with desire, beyond laws, states, regimes. Yet the enunciation is always historical, political, and social. A micropolitics, a politics of desire that questions all situations. Never has there been a more comic and joyous author from the point of view of desire; never has there been a more political and social author from the point of view of enunciation. Everything leads to laughter .

It is fortuitous that Swaroopais an adaptation of Metamorphosis. Long before the making of Swaroopa, I remarked on the connections between Kafka and Pathiraja, and the significance of the the minor in his films in the introduction to An Incomplete Sentence (Netpac 2009).The subversive minor is present in all the films, unclichetic and untrendy, literally telling of a time to come later, an enunciation that came a little too soon. Swaroopa is unlike any Sri Lankan film I have seen, and unlike anything that Pathiraja has made so far.

In its surreal aspect, Swaroopa is closest to Paradige. When the eye of the corpse on the dissecting table half opens, one is jolted into a memory of the mannequin at the shop front, winking at the bystander. But, while Paradigeis about the postcolonial nation in its moment of emergence, fraught as it is, Swaroopa sees the dismantling of the postcolonial nation even before it is born.After 30 years of war, and after almost 70 years of independence, what do we offer as the progress of the nation? In its viscerality, in its tactile images, and its political mysticism, one is reminded of Tarkovsky. Yet, Swaroopa is not a Tarkovskian film. It does not carry a Tarkovskian idiom. Swaroopa pushes us to examine our own notions of film and the idiom of contemporary film in its making.

Swaroopa will be released in the theatres on 8 September, 2017.

(Sivamohan Sumathy is attached to the Dept. of English, University of Peradeniya, and is also a filmmaker and theatre activist.)

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