Flying Fish and the Fornicating Army


Last week, there was a mighty furore over the screening of an anti-war film Igillena Maaluwo (Flying Fish) at a French Film Festival held in Colombo. The festival itself was halted, probably the first time that such a thing happened in Sri Lanka. This has led to cries that the freedom of expression was being stifled. Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, a veteran film maker has said that  ‘regimented jackboots’ were ‘crushing artistic expression’.  Rajpal Abeynayake, editor of the government owned Daily News countered by pointing out that in almost all Western countries, it is still a punishable offence to deny that the Holocaust took place and that for many years after the Second World War, it was illegal to paint the victorious allied armies in a bad light and that the West was now trying to deny the same right to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is no stranger to films with overtly political content and especially anti-war films. From time to time, controversies have erupted about the content of some of these anti-war films. There is no denying that there is a great deal of prudery with regard to sexual matters in this country and this acts as a dampener on artistic expression. A case in point is the banning of the film Aksharaya, directed by  Asoka Handagama. The film sought to examine sexual themes which included the taboo topic of incest. But the film was crushed under the weight of Sri Lankan prudishness. If someone asks the present writer whether Aksharaya should have been banned, my answer would be, absolutely not! But it was banned.  The fury directed against the latest movie Flying Fish (Igillena Maaluwo) is because the nature of the sexual content in it was seen to insult the armed forces.

Since the 1990s, there have been many anti-war films produced in Sri Lanka. One of the first in this genre was Purahanda Kaluwara (1997) directed by Prasanna Vithanage. This film won several international awards. This was a story about the father of a youth from a poverty stricken family who had joined the army and got killed in a landmine blast. When the sealed coffin of the soldier is brought home, there is hardly enough room in the thatched, wattle and daub dwelling to place it. The ageing and blind father refuses to believe that his son is dead as all anybody has seen is a sealed coffin and he steadfastly refuses to accept the paltry Rs. 100,000 compensation payment that the government gives to the families of armed forces personnel killed in action. Later, as he increasingly comes under pressure to sign the application, the ageing father digs up the grave and when the villagers open the coffin, they don’t find a corpse in it but the trunks of a plantain tree.

Compared to the anti-war films that were to come later, this was pretty mild stuff. But at the time it was released in the late 1990s, this was nothing less than an artistic nuclear bomb. This film was banned by the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. The director of the film Prasanna Vithanage himself had told the Sunday Times that the government banned his film because they thought it would adversely affect recruitment into the armed forces. At the time this film was released, the Chandrika Kumaratunga government was in a desperate fix, suffering one military debacle after another in the war against the Tamil Tigers. On top of all that one section of the government led by Mangala Samaraweera was orchestrating a war against the war through the anti-war Sudu Nelum movement.

Prasanna Vithnage’s

wretched Sinhalaya

In addition to having a traveling anti-war show called Thawalama, the Sudu Nelum movement also had anti-war TV advertisements. One such ad featured four women representing, mothers, sisters and wives carrying the bier of a soldier dressed in Army green fatigues to the sound of mournful music. Yet another Sudu Nelum TV advertisement featured a herd of deer crossing a stream while ravenous crocodiles seized as may deer as they could in a feeding frenzy. No doubt was left in the viewer’s mind that the LTTE were the crocs and the deer were the soldiers. The Sudu Nelum message was that that the war was an exercise in futility and that joining the military was the way to an early grave. Prasanna Vithanage’s film Purahanda Kaluwara reinforced the Sudu Nelum message  – the Sinhalese are poverty stricken, incapable, hapless ‘nethi beri’ wretches and the only result of the war would be death at the hands of a powerful and capable enemy.

The Kumaratunga government disbanded the Sudu Nelum movement in the year 2000 and it was no surprise that they banned Purahanda Kaluwara as well. The present writer does not blame the government for banning Purahanda Kaluwara at that time for political reasons. However it has to be said that Purahanda Kaluwara was not a distortion of the reality. Some soldiers did come from extremely poor backgrounds. Some had huts for dwellings. As newspapermen, we have heard of many such instances over the decades of the war. And when the bodies of soldiers were sent home in sealed coffins (after landmine blasts especially), what the coffins contained were actually pieces of flesh picked up at the scene with no certainty as to which part belonged to which soldier. Some bodies would be obliterated completely. That was the stark reality. The Supreme Court lifted the ban on Purahanda Kaluwara in late 2001 during the last few months of that ill-fated government and even awarded the director compensation for the ban.

In Prasanna Vithanage’s more recent 2005 film Ira Mediyama, the spouse of an air force pilot who had gone missing in action seeks the help of a journalist who has contacts with the LTTE to find her missing husband. They try to visit the LTTE held area, but they fail to complete the mission because of the situation created by the LTTE’s expulsion of the Muslims from Jaffna. In a different strand in the story, a soldier on leave who visits a brothel in Anuradhapura with some of his colleagues finds his sister among the prostitutes. Once again, the soldier’s family is depicted as being so poor that the girl in the family has to prostitute herself to find the ware withal to get married. The dwelling that the soldier’s family lives in is only half completed.

Ira Mediyama once again depicts the Sinhala soldier as a poverty stricken wretch and conveys the message that the government forces are no match for the enemy. The film ends with the air force pilot’s spouse going to Anuradhapura to join a peace march to Jaffna in the hope that it would lead to being able to get some information about her missing husband and the soldier getting into the same bus to go to Anuradhapura. The motif is that of a desperate air force pilot’s spouse going in a futile search for her husband with a soldier going back to duty to fight a futile war. In both Purahanda Kaluwara and Ira Mediyama, members of the armed forces of the government are shown as victims of both the war and of poverty. The image conveyed is that of a kaalakanni Sinhalaya so much so that it is surprising why the film director did not think of completing the depiction by portraying death in battle not as a tragedy but as a merciful release from a wretched existence. Prasanna Withanage’s films are clearly propagandistic. In Ira Mediyama, a journalist is shown saying how futile it was to fight and extolling the virtues of a political solution. Be that as it may, both of Prasanna Withanage’s anti-war films did depict the reality that existed until the Rajapaksa government came into power in late 2005.


The rise of the randy Sinhalaya

Even though the present writer has no hesitation in saying that Prasanna Withanage’s films depicted the reality, the same cannot be said of some of the anti-war films that came in between and after the two films just discussed. In fact, after Purahanda Kaluwara, producing anti-war films seems to have become a shortcut to easy project funding from the West, international awards, and recognition. Every anti-war film produced in Sri Lanka has won international awards. Funding for local productions is an uphill struggle with the securing of bank loans and the like. But Western countries are willing to fund anti-war films because they were always against the war in Sri Lanka. Because of the goodies on offer, the story lines in the anti-war films have become wilder and wilder until the giddy limit was reached in Igillena Maaluwo (Flying Fish) released in 2011 after the war ended.

In this context, we wish to examine four anti-war films Me mage sandai by Asoka Handagama, Sudu kalu saha alu by Sudath Mahadivulwewa, Sulanga enu pinisa, By Vimukthi Jayasundara and Igillena maaluwo (Flying Fish) by Sanjeewa Pushpakumara. The present writer has seen the first three films and even though we have not been able to obtain a copy of Flying Fish we have read the story line and watched interviews given by the director Sanjeewa Pushpakumara about the film. The following common features can be seen in all the four above mentioned films.

1.      All four films have the war against the LTTE as a backdrop. All four films were funded mostly if not completely by western countries.

2.      The story lines of all four films revolve around the lives of members of the government forces – mostly soldiers in the army, and home guards.

3.      In the first three films, no member of the LTTE is shown even though the story is supposed to be about the war. In the last film, Igillena maaluwo, the LTTE is shown but only as a third part of the narrative.

4.      Even though all these films are supposed to be about the war, no scenes of confrontations between the armed forces and the LTTE are ever shown. (In Prasanna Withanage’s two films examined earlier, he too does not show confrontations between the LTTE and the government but in Ira Mediayama he does show LTTE cadres and their expulsion of Muslims from Jaffna.)

5.      In the first three films there is not even the hint of what kind of an enemy the government was fighting. (The audience would not know why the LTTE was officially declared by the FBI as the world’s deadliest terrorist organization and why this organization was banned in the USA, Canada, in the whole of Europe and in India. The last film Igillena Maaluwo (Flying Fish) in that respect, at least gives some indication of why the LTTE earned such a reputation.)

6.      All four films feature a lot of fornicating but no fighting.

7.      It is always the sex lives of armed forces personnel and their spouses and other Sinhala villagers that is the main focus. The other party to the war has no sex life.

8.      All four films have lengthy copulation scenes even though no fighting is depicted. The war is something secondary to all the fornication that goes on.

9.      In three of the four films copulation is performed standing, against trees. If we remember right, it is only in Sudu kalu saha alu that there is a copulation scene indoors. In all other films copulation is outdoors and mostly against trees. In a slight variation, in the last film Flying Fish, copulation is performed standing against a wall (instead of the customary tree).

10.  In every film, copulation is animalistic and frenzied and the wives of armed forces personnel are depicted as nymphomaniacs more aggressive than the fornicating soldiers themselves. In Me mage sandai, the pregnant wife of a soldier killed in the war, tries to rape another soldier against a tree just moments after leaving the scene of the still smouldering funeral pyre of her dead husband. She tells her husband’s friend that she conceived the child in her belly under that very tree with her deceased husband. (Which means that she too had been having sex under trees and not indoors even though they were a married couple!)

11.  The story lines in all four films are very similar and even the actors in the first three films are mostly the same. For instance, In Me mage sandai actor Saumya Liyanage (a home guard) is shown copulating frenziedly with Nilupuli Jayawardena against a tree. In another film, the same actor is shown copulating with another actress this time as a soldier. In fact the same actors are shown copulating in these films so it is difficult to keep track of who humped whom in which film. But if there is an award for the best humping scene, it should go to Saumya Liyanage - he does it like a wild beast.

12.  In all four films, voyeurism plays a central role in the story. In Sulanga enu pinisa, Nilupuli Jayawardene just before getting humped by the home guard Saumya Liyanage, watches a man and a pregnant woman copulating furiously against a tree. In Sudu kalu saha alu, a soldier coming home on leave finds his wife copulating with another man. In the latest film Flying Fish, a father sees his daughter copulating with a soldier against a wall (standing of course) and a teen aged son watches his mother (a mother of eight children) copulating with a man. The only one of the four films in which voyeurism is not central to the action, is Me mage sandai.

13.  Adultery is another key motif. If the wife of a member of the armed forces is shown copulating in the four films mentioned above, it is never with her legal husband. In fact no copulation takes place between married couples in any of those films. Only extra-marital or pre-marital sex is shown.


An unlikely sex paradise

The difference between Prasanna Vithanage’s films and the four films by four different directors examined above, is in the degree of reality depicted. We grant that a cinematic creation need not always be an extension of reality. There can be exaggeration, even an alteration of the truth. A film is a work of art. It can be based on a complete fantasy. But none of the film directors who have produced films on the war in Sri Lanka will say that their films are not a depiction of the reality in Sri Lanka. All of them tout their films as accurate portrayals of what war has done to Sri Lankan society. The director of the last film Flying Fish which is now at the centre of controversy, in fact said in two interviews that what he has portrayed is what he has seen and experienced in real life as a result of the war.

His depiction In Flying Fish of the extortion of money and forcible recruitment of children and murder of Tamil civilians who resist their diktat by the LTTE are well documented realities. However, when he depicts a son stabbing his own mother to death for fornicating with a man especially in a context where the mother’s promiscuity was at least in part motivated by necessity, to keep a large family of eight fed, that seems improbable. What teenage son who is himself employed, would not know the hardship his mother is going through to keep the other members of the family fed? We have never in this country heard of a situation even coming close to the son-killing-his-own-mother-for-economically-necessitated-fornication scene. The other line of the story is even more farfetched.

What has really raised hackles in Sri Lanka by the latest film is the main story line of the film where a young soldier befriends a village girl and after the now customary standing copulation outdoors against a wall, gets her pregnant. Then the soldier is posted elsewhere and he abandons the girl. Then the girl goes in search of the soldier, and pretends to be still in love with him. She opens his pants, talks his penis out as if to perform oral sex, and cuts it off. When has anybody’s penis been cut off in this country? Some time ago an instance of a woman cutting off a man’s penis was reported from China or Thailand and flashed all over the world. If any such instance happened in this country, it would have become international news and certainly front page news for us journalists.

The sheer extent of licentiousness and sexual activity depicted in the four films that we have examined does not reflect the Sri Lankan reality. In the late 1990s, the Chandrika Kumaratunga government disbanded the Sudu Nelum Movement and banned Purahanda Kaluwara because their anti-war message was adversely affecting recruitment into the armed forces. That was by depicting the Sinhala soldier as a hapless wretch and a victim of the war. But if Me mage sandai and Sulanga enu pinisa were shown to audiences in the later 1990s, they would have boosted recruitment beyond measure. In both those films, soldiers don’t fight, they only fornicate. In Me mage sandai, even the soldier who dies is shown to have the girl of his picking before getting killed. If these films had been shown to our youth in the late 1990s, every young man in the village would have wanted to join the army to fornicate.

In fact this theme of soldiers copulating under trees is now so overworked that the only way to add anything new to it would be to give it a homosexual twist. The next international award winning anti-war film should be about a soldier sodomising a passive homosexual monk against a tree. The picture that comes to mind is of actor W. Jayasiri as the happy monk and Saumya Liyanage vigorously doing the honours wearing only an army T-shirt and an assault rifle slung over his shoulder. (I hope Mr Jayasiri has a sense of humour.) Another variation of this oft used theme would be to introduce bestiality and to have a soldier standing on an army backpack and banging a stray cow by the A-9 road.

If those four films - Me mage sandai, Sudu kalu Saha Alu, Sulanga enu pinisa, and now Flying fish, were all shown together in one film festival to foreign audiences, there will be a stampede by foreign tourists to come to Sri Lanka, because this will be the place to get laid. Every tourist will come to Sri Lanka expecting to get literally raped against tree at the airport by an army wife in heat.

A whole series of anti-war films with only slight variations in the theme, have won international awards. How is that possible? Don’t the judges check back on the copying of award winning themes? You can get an award for doing nothing more than showing a soldier copulating. Purahanda Kaluwara and Ira Mediayama may have been embarrassing to the military because they rang so true of the era in which they were produced. On the contrary, Me mage sandai, Sulanga enu pinisa, Sudu kalu saha alu and now Igillena maaluwo would infuriate people because they are so patently improbable. If someone is purportedly producing a film based on a war, then basic courtesy would require that they pitch the storyline as close to the reality as possible without introducing elements of fantasy into it. Some respect and consideration has to be shown for the dying and suffering in a war.

Artistic licence cannot be construed as the licence to deliberately insult especially when lives are being lost due to the very subject matter of the film. The film Aksharaya can be defended on the grounds of artistic licence – they were not insulting anybody, it was a film about incest which occurs in every country. They were not even suggesting that Sri Lankan society was incestuous, so Aksharaya should never have been banned. But Igillena maaluwo cannot be defended on the grounds of artistic licence.

Given the fact that no sensitivity or a sense of responsibility have been shown by film directors who have obviously been chasing easy foreign funding and international awards, the government should ensure that regulations are put in place to ensure that henceforth, no film director can produce anything that depicts the armed forces of Sri Lanka or even use the phrase ‘army’ ‘air force’ or ‘navy’, without the defence ministry approving the script. All these film producers discussed in this article have obvious cinematic talent. So a ban on producing films depicting the military will not only prevent this country from becoming an international joke, it will also wean these talented people away from the blandishments of easy project funding, easy recognition and easy awards, and channel them towards examining genuine social issues and quirks of the human condition such as those examined in the film Aksharaya. A different battle will of course have to be waged on the prudery that stifled Aksharaya – but that’s another matter.

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