By Priyaa Ghosh
Lecturer on Film Studies,
University of Kolkata, India
It was over a casual conversation that I had broached the name of Asoka Handagama to a Sri Lankan friend of mine and I still remember the awe on my friend’s face, gaping at me who asked, “have you really seen his films?” followed by a laughter which meant far more than just a facial gesture. I answered, “ I am sorry I haven’t , I have read some reviews but would love to see them” So this article is rather a belated appreciation of the genius of the Sri Lankan New Wave filmmaker, Asoka Handagama, and now perhaps I can read into my friend’s “awe”!
Handagama is breaking fresh grounds to kick-start a bold New Wave film culture bordering on issues of silences and speech, issues which are maybe formally “intimate”, but cannot control its spillovers, here is a director for sure who is throwing up controversy to make minds think, bidding the audience to feel a little uncomfortable in their seats, engulfed in the screen-lit darkness of the movie-theatre. This article focuses on his three most debated films, prior to making of his Vidhu- what has been hugely circulated as “a family film.”
Handagama embarks on a journey of exploration of desire in all its veritable forms through the three films I will talk about here;- Letter of Fire (Aksharaya), Flying With One Wing (Thani Thatuwen Piyambanna), and This is My Moon (Me Mage Sandai). It is true that all three are independent films addressing completely different issues at stake like, an Oedipal drama, the complexities of a lesbian relationship, and war with its inevitable corollary of the dispossessed. However, all of them have a common thread of desire and sexuality underlying them, where sexuality in its various facets is deployed as a tool to explore the different levels and arenas of desire. It is this commonality that enables to locate a point of intersection among all the three films. Aksharya, begins with a double framed close shot of ceremonial measuring of the little boy’s body, part by part with a measuring tape held by a pair of feminine hands donning scarlet nails, further accentuating the atmosphere already pregnant with speculative impulses. The camera gradually reveals the mother measuring time as it has etched itself onto the body of an extended self, setting the melodramatic tone to re-trace a nostalgic past severed from the present by the normative brutality of individualizing the son from the mother, the half brother from the half sister by the physical severing of the umbilical cord. The body in this film gradually becomes a map for lost time as it grows into maturity weaving the matrix to spill the trauma of “an excess”, to reveal the trauma of breaking free from mutual dependence, which formed a harmonious unison. The double frame and the Western music will gradually bear more significance when the life of the female protagonist and that of a fictitious prostitute from a popular soap opera will meet at the crossroads – one reflecting the other. Remember, the common language of speech is English, hardly they burst into Sinhala, only to speak to characters who belong to the non elitist class, and are more close to the real world, and the matters of the everyday. What happens in the household within the huge colonial bungalow of the retired chief justice, is a constant repetition of the past of a lost moment and a lost time, which has entered into a mode of perpetual stasis, symbolically through the indefinable sexual impotence of the master of the house. What remains of the trauma is imposed on his daughter/wife (born of the maid) who is stifled towards insanity with her nonnegotiable trauma, guilt, sexual desire, crises in her own identity, and finally in performing the role of a magistrate, sorting out the strengths of the discourses of public ethics an maternal morality. The trauma of a colonial past, a fractured journey into modernity looms large and as if doomed to the madness of the body and the desire. Aksharya is a film about a desire to re-live and undo the ravages of time. The bursting libidinal desire of the mother and her indignation suddenly exposes itself in an odd space of the museum, surrounded by dead objects trapped in their historical time. So is her body which suddenly breaks free from the stasis. Sometimes this film reminded me of Truffaut’s 400 Blows, where Antoine being unable to communicate with his parents at home, plays pranks with his friend like looking at pictures of pin-up girls, exploring the music of Parisian city life, and finally being punished, which he longs to escape. Here too they indulge in an adventure of similar order, and it finally culminates in an accidental death of a prostitute. It is only that the little boy here doesn’t try to escape to the sea, he finally flees after he unknowingly stabs his own mother (a play on the Oedipal drama, instead of stabbing the father, it is the mother, since the father is already dead, and perhaps nom du pere has lost its symbolic value).
The death of the prostitute in the soap opera and the death of the mother lead one to the other, juxtaposing the real and the fictional temporalities of the narrative in the film and that of the mise-en abyme, opening up the rites of passage from a colonial hangover, a moment of limbo, to a moment inscribed in a spatio-temporal matrix of parallel modernities.
Handagama embarks on using the female body as a site of gender politics, as a site that exposes the crises in the politics of “othering”, emanating from a phallocentric discourse, thereby revealing a plethora of other debates in relation to the peripheral or marginal status within the dominant discourse of the society. Ethnic conflicts, military aggressions, identity crises and issues of the legitimate and the illegitimate, the trauma of overcoming a colonial past, and the attempts at reframing modernity in the light of ethics over morality. The fractured and mutually contested tensions of these binaries become starkly visible in the contexts of all the three films I am referring to but most strongly in Letter of Fire and Flying with One Wing. Handagama in an interview had explained his choice of the English title for Aksharya as something which is unnameable, drawing on a Derridian philosophy. In its effect, the unnameable breaks free from the semantic chain of signifiers, at the very moment of trying to crystallize it within the limits of representation against the normative tendencies in being contextualized within any discursive practices. All the narratives of relationship, of bonding, as they develop through the three films, borders on a perpetual flux, defining and redefining them throughout the films vis a vis the men/male concerned, none can be named in relation to the mainstream or the normativity of kinship ties. It is the uncertainties, the confusion, the inabilities that run the subtext of a negotiation with a narrative of simultaneous modernity, which is ethnic by virtue of being hybridized and not super imposed. The confusion remains at the level of how the characters negotiate their way through such forces and pressures, and how they ultimately come to terms with their identities and their selves. The mother in Aksharya, construes herself, her femininity in relation to her son, the lesbian “husband” in Flying with One Wing, construes herself as a man in relation to the dominant performativity of the phallic order, the Tamil woman in This is My Moon situates herself in relation to the dominant ideology of male desire, the “masculinity” of the soldier.
Opening up into a world of grim comedy, of indecision, of boredom, of despair, and a strain of coldness, Handagama’s camera explores the ethnic war between the Sinhalese and the Tamils to the background score of ethnic music, harping on a mellifluous note of loss, apprehension and melancholia on a mélange of string instruments. While exposing the tragic pathos of cheated youth, and the conflicts between a ethnic-nationalist necessity of the war, and a human necessity of peace and reconciliation, This is My Moon, opens up a series of diverse questions, maybe all with a feminist edge. At this point I must mention that Feminism as I mean it here is not in any activist parlance, but as a philosophy that vindicates the rights of any and every socially segregated group demarcated in theory and practice as the “other”.
In Flying with One Wing, and Letter of Fire, the community looks like as if in a state of lull, and anticipation like the protagonists in Fellini’s films like Amarcord, or I Vittelloni. There are changes on the cards but the time is too far away.
This is My Moon, uses female sexuality as a weapon or a lure to preserve the desiring self. When the Tamil women jumps into the bunker of a Sinhalese soldier, who is confused whether or not he must pull the trigger, finally relinquishes the feigned military spirit, as he is wooed by the helpless self surrender of the Tamil girl, who literally invites him to rape her in exchange of her life. The struggle at this point for her is to live, the same gesture is repeated in front of a bookie when the army comes to take her to a refugee camp. The question is who legitimizes rape as a weapon in war?, is it the war mongers or the people themselves in their natural instinct to live, is a question that Handagama poses to his viewers, and therefore who controls the sexuality?, is it the high priests of patriarchy or its victims whom it wants to subjugate; are not the tools being overturned, causing us to think again the renewed notions of the self vis a vis the dominant notions sexuality, of resistance, defiance and surrender, This film starts with a very simple desire, that is to live even at the cost of self abnegation – but this eventuates into a desire to “become”, by being someone who bears her own agency, and is her own interlocutor.
Flying With One Wing use sexual deviance as a possible tool for freedom from gender politics, a sense of crippledness, a sense of mobility despite shortcomings is what is captured by its title, but the question is what decides this crippledness? What is exactly the shortcoming, by which I mean the “lack”? A few orgasmic gasps, and then the sound of water….Quite audaciously, the film opens with the exit of a car mechanic from a toilet, and as s/he closes the door behind we see a penis and a pair of testicles drawn on it. The “lack” is thus established at the very onset. As the title suggests , the freedom is cut short by the dominant heterosexist norms and expectations of main stream society, and therefore questions the authenticity of practicing gender at the level of the performative, like the woman wearing a man’s clothes, hiding her breasts under a bandage, smoking a cigarette to prove her manliness, ,but s/he is never free from being an desirable “outsider” in the community of men, who even goes as far as to conceiving him as gay, (the advances made by the fellow worker at the garage, insisting that these manly bonds do not affect the institution of “marriage” ); or the man in the office(who is constantly indulging in sexual escapades with his secretary under his desk)—also referring to harassments in work places. But at the same time Handagama very rightly points out that such harassments not only pertains in relations of opposite sexes, but also at the level of the same sex, as we see the plight of the mechanic when in his refusal to bathe with the rest in the common bath. This simple act of non-conformity to par take in a domain of typically male pleasure is enough to trigger suspicion and attack. The Doctor who specializes in abortions (interestingly enough sucking at a baby honey-suckle), is aware of her biological sex, and more interestingly he falls for this woman who refuses to perform her stereotyped gender specific roles. For s/he the moment of performing the drag is when she looks at herself in the mirror as she puts on a gown and a gold chain the Doctor had gifted her, behind closed doors. She cherishes her reflection, filled with a sense of inexplicable satisfaction, which again interrogates the sincerity of her deviant gender roles as she performs in the everyday. Repetitively the graphities on the walls function like a choric intervention to voice the dominant heterosexist ideology. The walls and the streets become sites of protests against such deviance; but are these two sites for venting public intolerance also not the very same spaces where people congregate to fight for democracy and social rights? What comes up starkly is the in equal distribution of rights to be different. She dances to Hindi film tunes from Khamoshi, impersonating the male role, plays soccer with neighborhood boys, holds a manly job at a garage with many men colleagues work (actually all of them are men, but she), and also acts as the bread winner, thereby performing and living upto the functional definition of a man, and yes she does it successfully, since her feminine partner (who has although had been aware of the reality of her sexuality) expresses her satisfaction with him/her, and it is she who tries to redefine being a “man “ in her desperate efforts to stand by her even after her biological sex has been exposed. But you perhaps cannot masquerade with deviance in a conservative society is the message, she finally exposes her naked self before the ever curious and insatiable community, resorting back to the natural and the normative, in her final failure to be the self she desired. The closure is not as promising and rather conforming to the cultural milieu, but the ethnography of the desire to be different sheltering under the dimensions of performativity revealed its own limits, it is just the boundaries setting the limits maybe still pushed further. World cinema since the 1990s has been experiencing this kind of films on the “third sex” , specially from Taiwan (Tsai -ming Liang, Hou Hsiao Hsien), Hongkong (most notably Wong kar Wai), Thailand (Apichatpong Weeraseethakul), and all splurge on the canvas of the International Film Festivals, and it is through these circuits that these films gain their currency in world cinema cutting across the cartographic limitations of nationality. All of these countries are under new economic processes which consequently proliferates new modalities of life, choices, liberties and philosophies of gender and sexuality. Sri Lanka may still be conservative in its stand, but undoubtedly as a spectator of international cinema, Asoka Handagama, being an interlocutor of modernity and its related discourses, of peace and progress has been exploring very pertinent, and uncomfortable terrains of human life and its emotions with a stroke of brilliance setting Sri Lanka more prominently on the global map of world cinema.