Handagama’s Ini Avan


A scene from Asoka Handagama’s Tamil film Him, Here, After (Ini Avan).

Asoka Handagama is a pacifist. He and another talented director, Vimukthi Jayasundera, produced several films on the ethnic conflict and the raging war and were wrongly accused of taking offense at the manner in which the armed forces were conducting the war. They ostensibly supported a peaceful settlement and in doing so, they were accused by chauvinists of being critical of the armed forces.

Handagama strived to dissociate from this mindset of the majority and produced ‘Aksharaya’ which eventually was banned. As the lawyer who defended Handagama, in the Magistrate’s Court, when there was move to arrest and remand him, I was able to thawart it and was given a copy of the film in the DVD format. Therefore, I was fortunate enough to see this film in the DVD format. I believe the judicial pronouncement, in another forum, on ‘Aksharaya’ was a great travesty of justice. To me and many other discerning filmgoers ‘Aksharaya’ was the best Sinhala film produced to that date. Even now, when I am dejected by what is shown in the Sinhala Cinema and Sinhala Theatre, and often being reminded of the quote of Sir Ivor Jennings, which is blasphemy to many, ‘Ceylon is a cultural desert’, I watch ‘Aksharaya’ to prove to myself that, still amongst us, we have artists who could produce a work of Art that could be the envy of any discerning filmgoer, international film maker or critic.

I went to see Asoka Handagama’s next production ‘Ini Avan‘ with much trepidation, as I was disappointed with young Vimukthi Jaysundera’s second film ‘Ahasin Weti’, which followed his cinematic classic ‘Sulanga Enu Pinisa’. I thought I would rather preserve my positive thoughts of Handagama and my pleasant and enchanting memories of ‘Aksharaya’ as I believed Handagma would find it difficult to match the cinematic pièce de résistance he had created in ‘Aksharaya’.

He was, by then, constrained by the vulgar and barbarous, who had very little notion of what good cinema or a work of art was. Restrictions imposed by impotent imbeciles would thwart Handagama from producing another film which would offend the Victorian pruderies and Judaic morality, which today passes as Sinhala culture. In his previous films, he had strived to explicitly expose the hypocrisy of moralists who had notions of myopic superficiality in discussing the human conflict and its baser instincts and desires. Those people were driven by pseudo morality, which they strived to impose on the public, forgetting that those moral standards were imposed by an alien culture.

Similarly, Handagama had his own notion of the Tamil ethnic conflict and the war. As an artist, he had strived to depict what he felt as the truth about the conflict, which was not very palatable to the majority. The racialist classified such an unconventional approach as unpatriotic and even traitorous. Handagama, therefore, had to veer away from his favorite thematic expose of base human instinct, craving, lecherous inclinations of an amoral society, and the futility and the horrendous impact of the war and had to abandon his theme as he was hounded by various nitwits who held positions in deciding the future of Sinhala Cinema. After his film was banned by hypocritical messiahs, sermonising the corrupting influence of Handagama’s films had on the society, and thus having suffered financially and mentally, he chose the path of reconciliation and rehabilitation of the former rebels, as the present theme and had to act on self-imposed restrictive canvass, lest he, like Socrates, would be found guilty of corrupting the youth and branded a traitor to the cause of the Sinhalese and forced to drink Hemlock.

Handgama’s resilience, like that of the Jaffna people he portrays, is remarkable. The tantrum he underwent was sufficient for any lesser mortal to give up film making. His next film ‘Ini Avan’ discusses even deeper message about the suffering masses and their post war syndrome and symptomatic association that people of the North undergo in adjusting to a wholly different situation that they experience after 30 years.

‘Ini Avan’ is a creation which is more thought provoking and sensible than banal propagandist films. This is the post conflict Jaffna seen through the eyes of a Tamil, a former terrorist who had been rehabilitated. The depiction of the present day northern civilian is much more poignant and deeper than even that of his previous film on the war.

The war, the most debilitating, devastating and destructive of all human endeavour, is over. The rehabilitation of former rebels is a measure adopted by the government to infuse some life and spirit and well being into those who had been taken into custody. The anguish of the returnee to form a part of the civic society is a foreboding experience. Without the gun, without authority, without control and without any professional training and the re-emergence of the cast conscious feudal society, destroyed by Prabhakaran, with its the Vellahla hegemony, slowly but surely raising its ugly head, the ex-combatant is thrown into this circuit. He has not lost his belligerence and without the war and a gun, he finds, to his dismay, to obtain or update his driving license he needs to give a bribe of twenty thousand rupees.

The story of the Sri LankanTamil, is in the main, a story of prolonged tragedy. The post war realities compound the tragedy. We have been able to defeat the megalomaniacal murderer Prabhakaran. With him we have also taken away Prabhakaran’s message to the Tamil people; pride to be a Tamil; belief that Tamil is the oldest and the noblest language in the world; to be passionate and endure the struggle for independence and freedom. We, in the South, would never even understand why Prabhakaran, to us, the most ruthless terrorist leader in the world, was the a greatest hero of the Tamils after Elara, even though their children were being conscripted, their property and wealth destroyed and kith and kin killed in fighting an un-winnable war, the mental subjugation of the Tamil people, based upon the deliverance to the ‘Promised land’, made the Tamils forsake all other sacrfices they made towards this utopian scheme. They believed Prabahkaran, they also believed in his propaganda that no Sinhalsese government would ever give them equal rights and would deceive them eventually.

We, in the South, believe that economic empowerment would sever northerners from the past. There is massive development which is taking place in the North. There are more earthmoving equipment in the North, in one village, than in any part of Sri Lanka, building bridges roads and buildings. One witnesses the heavy vehicles driven by Sinhalese drivers building massive roads but one could hardly see any Tamils labourers joining in the development. This is akin to the loans provided by many developed countries to the developing countries where a large percentage of the money is appropriated by the granting country for their expertise, leaving the grantee more impoverished and burdened with loan repayments. The development in the North benefits the Sinhala worker than the Tamils living in their villages.

The post war afflictions and the fast track cure by rehabilitation and the effects of such schemes on Jaffna inhabitants are poignantly and expressively depicted in ‘INI AVAN’. Handagam’s captures the landscape of Jaffna with most extraordinary astuteness. The Palm tress the fences the houses and the people are portrayed with the reality of a sadness and melancholy elegy, which shows the pathetic and pitiful state of these people. When the rehabilitated fail to find livelihood, there comes the odious unflappable smuggler, who is an iconic symbol of the resurrection of the horrendous past, whether we call him Prabhakaran, the murderer, or the smuggler who extends his unfriendly hand to the ex-terrorist to lead a life of violence and crime associated with smuggling, like how Prabahkaran started his life. In this background, the tragedy that unfolds is not people battered bruised and flummoxed by brutality of the war. But, people who had lost their wellbeing and honour and the resultant tragedy that had engulfed their lives. The transformation of this human tragedy to celluloid is an unenviable task.

Cinematically ‘Ini Avan’ is moving without melodrama of people wailing, mourning in grief and re-living in the past. Life in itself in the context is excruciatingly painful emanating not only from the wounds of war but from the very existence itself. The tones, the subtle variations of colour, the landscape and the sensuality of the two female characters, had been captured by Handagama, who has the uncanny ability to focus on the characters to show the innermost feelings which have the likeness of a Greek tragedy.

The Cinematic experience of Handagama touches the very rudiments of humanity, its pathos and its ethos, and touches your conscience, if you have one. Vividly, Handagama portrays the tragedy of man created divisiveness, racial rancor and the cruel un-compassionate un-buddhist nature hidden in us. The less time we take to understand, the longer will the suspicion and hatred of the Tamils linger. The cry should not only be Justice to the Chief Justice but to the Tamils too. The sooner we understand the pitiful existence of the northern Tamil Community it would be better for all of us.

This film was chosen to be shown at the Prestigious Toronto Film Festival. Festival directors added a very graphic but poignant note about the film ‘Juxtaposing serene landscape with strangely beautiful rendering of urban decay. Handagama’s elegiac allegory neither wallows in grief or mourns a lost past, but rather explores the unsettling realities of postwar Jaffna. And yet, there is hope within this desperate lyrical portrait-hope of an ‘after’ for those who have lived through the traumas of war’.

In my isolation, I would now have three films to invigorate my spirits and my abiding interest in Sri Lankan Arts. Vimukthi Jaysunderas ‘Sulanga Enu Pinisa, Handagama’s ‘Aksharaya’ and ‘Ini Avan’, which would remind me that in spite of great efforts made by the Vulgar to kill the Sinhala Cinema, it is still alive and kicking.

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