Saturday, February 28, 2009

Three Women, A Thief and Prasanna Vithanage

A Review by Robert Crusz

Prasanna Vithanage’s new film, set in the social milieu of the leisure industry in Sri Lanka today, has no male characters of any significance. The main protagonists in the story are three women, two of them actresses in films and tele-dramas, and the other a night club hostess – also an actress of sorts.

At the very beginning of the film we find the main character in her home, reading her letters, feeding her cat, making patties, saying goodbye to her guests and dealing with her younger sister who visits unexpectedly. This sets the pace and mood of the film. It is very much a sequence created by Vithanage to show a woman performing, or acting out, her daily life. Acting and women are two subjects very much at the heart of who Prasanna Vithanage is, both as a person and as a writer-director of films and plays, and he brings them together in this film with courage and creativity.

"Akasa Kusum (Flowers in the Sky)" narrates the story of Sandhya Rani, an ageing film star who was once the darling of the silver screen. Having lost fame and fortune in a changing world, she now lives quietly in obscurity. She ekes out a living by renting out a room in her home to the young film and television stars of today to satisfy their sexual desires.

The popular young film star, Shalika, uses this room to carry on an affair with a young actor. When Shalika’s husband discovers this, the scandal and its publicity forces Rani into the limelight again. Having left her husband, Shalika moves in with Rani and persuades Rani to act in a television soap opera with her. Sandhya Rani’s adoring fans are overjoyed as she returns to the public gaze. As she encounters her past again, the darker side of her rise to fame is revealed.

Her daughter, Priya, whom Rani was forced to abandon when Priya was just an infant, is now an attractive young woman who works as a hostess in a night club. But she is also three months pregnant and infected with HIV. Watching her mother acting on television, Priya becomes bitter about her childhood abandonment. Without meeting her face-to-face, Priya makes it known to her mother that she still exists and that Rani is responsible for her present plight. But this only makes Priya more lonely and depressed as she realizes she is hurting her mother. Rani’s guilt at what she did to her daughter in her rise to fame, drives her to search for Priya and seek forgiveness. The form in which that forgiveness is eventually given is not what Sandhya Rani expected.

Vitahange handles some controversial themes in this film with a directorial maturity not seen in the Sri Lankan cinema for a long time. Economic globalization and the all-pervasive culture which accompanies it is the template on which Vithanage unravels his story. However much the politically ascendant nationalist and ethno-religious panjandrums in Sri Lanka today struggle to control it and make counter claims that traditional cultural values are alive and well, the warped culture of globalization has dug itself deep into the Sri Lankan mind-set, specially of its younger generation. The normalization of extra-marital sexual encounters, the spread of ‘karaoke bars’ with their young women hostesses who drift into sex-work, the growing problem of HIV infection, the issue of illegal abortions, the complexities of same-sex relationships, and the power of commercial television with its massively popular soap operas are some of the aspects of modern Sri Lankan life which Vithanage dares to deal with in this one film.

Priya is played by Nimmi Harasgama who gives us a near-perfect mix of the seductively glamourous Karaoke bar hostess, the bitter abandoned daughter, the faithful and loving partner and the dutiful HIV stricken mother-to-be. Dilhani Ekanayake, playing the role of Shalika, is a delight to watch on screen. She gives her character a bright-eyed smiling approach to life which is the perfect foil to the melancholia which infuses both Priya and Sandhya Rani.

Sandhya Rani is played by Malini Fonseka, still very much the beautiful leading film star for many years in the Sinhala cinema of Sri Lanka. Fonseka brings to her role a life-experience which is very close to the character of Sandhya Rani. So close in fact that she was very hesitant to accept the role at first. But luckily for us, Vithanage’s persuasions worked, and she gives the best performance of her career.

Malini Fonseka won the Silver Peacock award at the 2008 International Film Festival of India in Goa for her performance as Sandhya Rani. She is the latest in a growing list of Sri Lankan performers who have won international awards for their roles in films directed by Prasanna Vithanage, confirming a growing opinion that Vithanage is the quintessential actor’s director in Sri Lanka today.

In a post-award interview about Akasa Kusum, Malini Fonseka jokingly accused Vithanage of “stealing” the role from her. It was an amazing turn of phrase and so very revealing about the relationship between Vithanage and his cast. The act of stealing happens when something a person possesses is taken without their knowledge because the thief wants it. When asked about Vithanage’s directing style, many actors and actresses who have worked in his films and plays say they do not know how to describe what he does because he doesn’t say much to them. Therefore ‘stealing’ is a very appropriate term. He gets what he wants without their knowledge. Sometimes the thief is surprised when he gets something better than what he was looking for. In his director’s note for Akasa Kusum, Vithanage admits that Malini Fonseka’s performance was something he himself couldn’t dare imagine.

In a biography due to be published this year, Vithanage reveals how acting was central to his childhood experience and how in later life, as both a stage and film director, he tries hard to create a rapport with his cast in order that he can get them to use what is in their personal lives for their role in the play or film. The fact that this often happens without their knowledge makes Vithanage a directorial ‘burglar’ par excellence.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

"Akasa Kusum" Wins Special Jury Mention at Vesoul; Tours India

Prasanna Vithanage has just returned to Sri Lanka after a three-week stay in France, where he has been giving a taste of "Akasa Kusum" to European audiences at the 17th Vesoul International Film Festival in France. The film was screened on 14th February at the Majestic Theatre in Vesoul.

The film won a Jury Special Mention at the festival. It was announced by Jury President Fatemah Motamed-Aria.

The France screening preceded successful limited festval engagements in India, where Vithanage and his First Assistant Director Daminda Madawela toured Kerala and Bangalore with "Akasa Kusum," screening the film to festival audiences, participating in workshops and educating film enthusiasts about Sri Lankan cinema.

The film first made a stop at the 5th International Film Festival of Thrissur (the capital of Kerala), being the film to open the festival. It was then screened a few days later in Cochin, the financial capital of Kerala. Due to the positive buzz being generated by festival screenings, the film was also invited to the International Film Festival of Angamaly, where the Chitrasena Film Society screened it in mid-January.

Returning for a brief stop to Chennai, Vithanage and Madawela then travelled to Bangalore, where "Akasa Kusum" was presented at the Bangalore International Film Festival 2009, where it received rapturous response.