Last year, as Sri Lanka grappled with a massive financial crisis, millions of its citizens were plunged into poverty. Widespread shortage of essential goods, electricity and fuel, coupled with skyrocketing inflation, led to outbreaks of violence across the island nation. Sri Lanka was in dire need of foreign exchange earnings from tourism, and looked eagerly towards India. Many Indians jumped at the opportunity as Sri Lanka had devalued its currency to avail a loan from an international agency. Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage’s Paradise, which recently premiered at the renowned Busan International Film Festival and received the prestigious Kim Jiseok award for best film, explores the relationship dynamics of an Indian couple on a ‘Ramayana Trail’ in Sri Lanka during the crisis.
Vithanage, widely regarded as a luminary in contemporary Sri Lankan cinema, is remarkably skilful in weaving tales of human relationships against the backdrop of the sociopolitical tumult in his homeland. “I believe human relationships are most revealing during times of crisis,” Vithanage told THE WEEK over Zoom. “The conflicts I choose for my characters often manifest in various forms. They grapple with inner conflicts and simultaneously they confront external challenges posed by the political environment and society.”
While Paradise primarily presents the challenges faced by the Indian couple during their trip, the film effectively serves as a compelling critique of how the state machinery treats the rich and poor unequally. It also highlights the continued scapegoating of ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka. Except for the lead roles, most characters in the film are played by Sri Lankan Tamil tea plantation workers.
“My empathy for the minorities in Sri Lanka stems from the belief that their rights have been consistently abused, and their demands have often been disregarded,” says Vithanage. “The Tamil tea plantation workers are descendants of individuals who were often forcibly brought from India some 200 years ago.”
Even today, he says their living conditions remain dire―they earn only about $3 a day and their life expectancy is notably short. “Despite their significant numbers, which form a substantial vote bank for certain politicians, not much has been done to improve their situation,” he adds. “I find it troubling that these individuals are often treated as expendable or ‘guinea pigs’ when something goes wrong.”
Born in Panadura―a stronghold of the Trotskyism-inspired Lanka Sama Samaja Party―into a Sinhalese family in 1962, Vithanage looked up to his father, E.W. Dharmasena, a follower of leftist ideologies. “Even during my formative years, my father would discuss global events, such as the struggle for freedom in Algeria, which instilled in me a worldly perspective,” he recalls. “Growing up in Sri Lanka, I was acutely aware of the socioeconomic disparities.” He recounts how when he was just nine, he witnessed the first insurrection in the south, “somewhat akin to the Naxalite movement in Bengal”. “This event, known as the JVP insurrection, involved armed resistance against the Sri Lankan government and revealed the deep-seated disillusionment among the youth with the government and those in power,” he says. “These uprisings were brutally quashed by the military, but their legacy endures. In Sri Lanka, even with regard to the national question, there has been a dearth of genuine reconciliation efforts. Consequently, my feelings towards certain characters and sections of society are shaped by these perspectives, whether they are individuals from marginalised communities or women.”
Vithanage says that the filmmaking process has given him an opportunity to say things that are considered heretical by the dominant culture in the country. But that has also put his work at constant risk. His film Pura Handa Kaluwara (Death on a Full Moon Day; 1997), one of the finest works on the ethnic conflict and civil war that marred the island nation, was released in theatres after a legal battle. The film was originally passed by the Public Performance Board (censor board of Sri Lanka), but then banned by cabinet minister Sarath Amunugama, citing that it would demoralise the army. Vithanage fought it as a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court. “After a year-long battle, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka ordered the film to be released and asked the minister to pay compensation to me,” he says.
When he was shooting Ira Madiyama (August Sun; 2003), which had references about the eviction of Sri Lankan Tamil Muslims from the Northern province of Sri Lanka by the LTTE, he had trouble getting permission from the defence ministry to use firearms.
Much later, the censor board had asked to make a number of cuts in his Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka (With You, Without You; 2012), which was based on A Gentle Creature, an 1876 short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. “I didn’t agree to the cuts, but the Mahinda Rajapaksa government [which was in power then] fell and the new censor board under the new government passed the film [without cuts],” he says. In 2015, Vithanage made his first and only documentary feature, Usaviya Nihandai (Silence in the Courts). It chronicled the events that followed after the wife of a robbery suspect was raped by the presiding magistrate of the case, which was eventually exposed by a journalist. “That magistrate [tried to get] an injunction order against the film, but the court rejected it, but still the defamation case [against me] is on,” says Vithanage.
Produced by Newton Cinema, an Indian film production house, and with Malayali actors Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran in lead roles and cinematography by Rajeev Ravi and editing by A. Sreekar Prasad, Paradise is Vithanage’s first Indian film. He has a deep connection to India, especially to Chennai, which he calls his second home. He credits the works of legendary Indian filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Guru Dutt for shaping his cinematic sensibilities. “So, this is a high point in my career,” he says, “because I always wanted to make an Indian film.”