Comments on the film Gamani

There have been many reviews of Rear Admiral Dr Sarath Weerasekera’s film Gamani, all of them positive, congratulatory, even adulatory. I agree with the reviewers in applauding the success of the film and its commendable plus points. I however want to go a step further and look into negatives and see whether my criticism is justified or not. Hence this article is not a complete review of the film; it is only a comment and I won’t dwell on the plus points of the film from plot to direction to editing and acting. They were all commendable.

My critical eye was dimmed very often with tears at the sheer pathos, deplorable difficulties faced and tragedies submerging the poor villagers of Gonagala in Ampara. This moving an audience to tears is a major achievement of the film since tragedy, unless directed with a sure hand and acted with sensitivity can turn to tragic-comedy. The filming was also done with sensibility since all the gruesome murders of the barbaric LTTE were not fully shown on screen; only the raising of a knife with ferocity.

My first point is that the film was entertaining in spite of the weight of the theme and the murders and mayhem. It was more a film that entertained than a documentary on our war in one part of the island - in a threatened village. There was humour to liven the audience’s overwrought emotions. That is following Shakespeare in one of his most effective tragedies – ‘Macbeth’. Soon after the murder of King Duncan with the high strung speeches of Macbeth when tension would have been at breaking point even among the roughs in the pits, the porter comes along with his monologue on rogues of the time and outright vulgar references. Similarly the script writer/director introduced humour and even a mite of bawdiness in the training of the rough home guards to emerge as efficient guardians and fighters, soon after the mass massacre of the villagers as they returned home from a bana preaching. Introducing lighter action to amuse the viewer is not a negative but a positive. The film had many diverse elements in it, humour included of the slapstick kind and innuendo-dialogue.

Another element of entertainment, to me taking away from the intensity of the film, was the martial arts fights. The monk is sent a ‘golaya’ to be with him in the temple and this golaya turns out to be a superb martial arts practitioner. He saves the monk when the Tigers slip in to the temple, and kills them all barehanded. Thus he is co-opted to train the home guards in self defense and aggressive attack without firearms and knives. The many karate or whatever fights were gems of entertainment, appealing mostly to the gallery.

The end is happy since the LTTE unit that had killed 57 villagers in one fell swoop was wiped out by the home guards. If we interpret the clasping of the hands of the school teacher and the army commander of that area at the very end of the film as more than a handshake, we could hear ‘jayamangala gatha’ in front of a ‘poruwa’. I did, since I wanted the lovely girl to be married to that oh-so-handsome army guy. Their wills would have clashed but the man would have given in like he did when the slip of a teacher preached to him about love of country and fellow humans. A happy ending is fine, but that classifies the film into the entertainment genre and not documentary. Thank goodness for that, anyway.

One point that bothered me was the area army commander – Major Vikum, played by good looking, well built Bimal Jayakody, sending in his papers for retirement and waiting for acceptance when the film begins. He looked far from retirement age and at the height of the war – the period the film depicts – I don’t think army high-ups were allowed to retire for personal reasons. (I stand to be corrected). Well, that was a point to emphasize the effect the girl had on the army man – a man due to retire but induced to get back in the saddle with renewed patriotism and commitment. I liked the army man to be young and handsome, who wouldn’t, and it left room for the teacher and him to fall in love and get married and produce plenty young patriots! But the point of his comparative youth against sending in retirement papers did not gel with me. The story needed him to be brought back to a fighting army officer to showcase the girl’s commitment and concern and of course leave room for romance to develop. Here it called for a suspension of belief.

The new teacher to the school at Gonagala, role-played very competently by Dilhani Ekanayake, left me a bit astounded, not by her obvious good looks but by her brashness and even impertinence in the way she speaks the first time she meets Major Vikum and even interrupts the monk at the first village meeting she attends. True, she makes a worthwhile suggestion – that of forming village groups, but we expect a mite more modesty from a raw young school teacher, even though a daughter of a Navy high-up. Before Rear Admiral Weerasekera and his admirers descend on me in wrath, I’d better qualify what I say here. There are brash teachers, leaders among village women, but most Sri Lankan female young adults are more modest if not shyer than Sulochana Weerasekera. So if she had downplayed her role a bit and given the impression of a softer nature with a mite of charming mukulu, the teacher would have been more believable and acceptable, at least to me. But many will say unless she had been what she was – bossy, demanding, a fighting patriot, the villagers would not have been saved.

A reviewer adversely critiqued the song the teacher sang with her pupils. I considered that one of the highlights of the film: the song was wonderful, Dilhani’s gestures and body language marvelous and the kids, adorable. Not even the slightest detail was overlooked. While all the kids put themselves wholly into the singing under a tree (mercifully seated on chairs and not on the ground) the kid who had turned dumb seeing her family murdered, was shown with closed lips.

Tamil persons starred in the film as seen in the list of actors, which was as it should be. Cameo roles by Damitha Abeyratne, Sanath Gunatillake as a well fed army high-up, Mahendra Perera and Veena Jayadkodi were excellent. W Jayasiri as the monk was outstanding, a copy of the Dimbulagala monk, either intentional or coincidental. I would have preferred if a Tamil woman played the protesting woman that Veena portrayed. Hence my contention that entertainment and the box office were kept in mind and thus intense genuine-ness sacrificed.

The film was definitely didactic and wanted a couple of messages conveyed. OK to that so long as it is not obtrusive and does not make the audience feel that here are morals being taught and messages conveyed. One instance was the reps of an NGO being told off by the monk that a negotiated peace was impossible with the LTTE. The message conveyed was that NGOs were meddling and sympathetic to the Tamil terrorists. I will not class this as a minus in the film since it was very cleverly scripted and acted. Manel Weeramuni was excellent as one of the NGO representatives. A comment that a Buddhist monk was advocating war with its violence and killing was adroitly put in place by the monk explaining that ends justified the means taken. So Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera got his messages across effectively and not too intrusively, particularly considering the viewers, a local lot with the majority being Sinhalese.The subtitling at the beginning of the film, very effective with no music, only white lettering on a black background (or the other way around) ends with the statement that the film story is a true story. Accepted; but I for one thought two coincidental instances in the story were jammed in to heighten the drama and accentuate the excitement. These two incidents occur when the villagers walk safely to their homes on a poya day after a bana preaching. Unlike the walk at the start of the film where there was complete chaos and the murder of 57 with many more injured, this time the trained and armed home guards meet and vanquish the unleashed LTTE and even invade the Tiger hideout to kill the leader. One incident was when the woman escaping with the dumb child and her father remembers her jewellery and wants to go back for it. The man offers to get them for her and carrying the child returns to the house. LTTE cadres lurking around attack, but the father, trained in martial arts, overpowers them. The girl cries out – her speech is restored. Too pat for me.

The second incident which I objected to was the little Tamil girl taken in by the villagers under the monks admonitions as a refugee along with her elder sister and father, losing her doll and walking back to retrieve it on the night of the second LTTE attack. Surely her sister or the guard given them – Mahendra Perera – would not have lost sight of her and thus have her walk into the clutches of a Tiger terrorist. It was construed to give the audience a cliff hanger and also show the humanness of the home guard played by Mahendra - a not so subtle lesson on amity between the two races. Also a hint given that the elder girl has stronger feelings than mere gratitude to the injured home guard. I felt the incident trite and the parting of the home guard and little girl slushy with sentiment. Of course most of the audience lapped it up, but the deliberate playing on emotions and underscoring values to be imbibed was hard on me and will be on a more sophisticated Western or Far Eastern cinema audience.

I compared ‘Gamani’ to other war films I had seen and critiqued. I found that ‘Pura Handa Kaluwara’ with Joe Abeywickrema, a hapless mourner of his soldier son conveyed messages of the utter futility of war more effectively. There was a film with Saumya Liyanage as a soldier being followed back to his village by a Tamil girl. The plight of the Tamils was highlighted with subtlety. Chandran Ratnam’s Road From Elephant Pass, though backgrounded by the civil war was of a different genre. It did however entertain and send messages across too. Saumya Liyanage acted in a more recent film where he is killed and a soldier of lesser rank takes it upon himself to care for his daughter. That had all the starkness of war contrasted vividly with the life in Colombo of dancing and gangs of fast living young men. I apologize for not having in mind the names of the two films mentioned. Accessing Internet did not help much. Incidentally, on Internet Rear Admiral Weerasekera’s film is titled ‘Gamani – on a patriotic mission’.

Whatever the title and notwithstanding a couple of negatives mentioned by me, the film ‘Gamani’ is an outstanding Sinhala film. If you have not seen it, please go to the Savoy Cinema, otherwise you will miss a commendable film subtitled accurately in English.

Nanda Pethiyagoda

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