Prasanna Vithanage’s award winning Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka (‘With you, without you’) produced in 2012 is yet to get the censor’s approval to be shown in Sri Lanka. This film will sit comfortably with the most subtle and captivating cinematic creations of our time. I have not stopped savoring its haunting moments, its underlying power and the relevance of its theme since seeing this movie in Sydney.
My esteem of Vithanage having been somewhat dented after his bland and somewhat jejune Akasa Kusum (2009), I was nearly forsaking the idea of seeing his Oba Nathuwa when by chance I noted that the film was based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella The Meek One or A Gentle Creature. This minor work of the Russian master had eluded me. When I walked into the theatre I had no clue about his work or what to expect on the screen.
Lack of pre-knowledge of the storyline or the synopsis of the film made watching it an intriguing absorbing and thoroughly rewarding experience. The film’s abrupt ending had such a profound effect on me – it almost moved me to tears and compelled me to ask myself; why did the film end like that?
Impressed by the topicality of its theme in relation to the ethnic gulf and ethnic prejudices, I was certain that the film must be a loose adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novella. I was astonished when I read the book. Vithanage had stuck to the Russian master’s story diligently. He had substituted the heroine – the meek one with a destitute young Tamil girl and changed the backdrop to the post-war period – a brilliant ploy indeed. (Credit must to go the person who picked this story and spotted its potential analogy).
Allow me to first sketch the storyline of Meek One. This will demonstrate Vithanage’s brilliance and to what extent he had relied on Dostoevsky’s sharp insight – a major reason for the film’s expressive power.
Meek One (1876) though obscured by his more famous work, is typically Dostoevskian in its depth of psychological observation and power – the story containing a range of themes common to his major works. Cruelty, freedom, utopianism and suicide are the themes that recur in Meek One – those who saw the film will instantly recognize these themes.
Dostoevsky’s nameless Meek One
“Meek One” chronicles the relationship between a 41 year old unnamed pawnbroker (a retired lieutenant who gives up his Commission having refused to fight a duel) and a 16 year old poor orphaned girl who frequents his shop to pawn her virtually worthless goods. The pawnbroker (the narrator) develops an interest in the girl and makes a marriage proposal which the young orphan girl in dire straits accepts. She has been living in near slavery with two of her hostile aunts and is about to be ‘bartered’ as a bride to a much elder widowed shop owner looking for a mother for his young children after some failed marriages.
Pawnbroker is delighted that the girl has no choice but to accept his money and his magnanimity. He is (wickedly) pleased with his prospects and her helplessness and with a sinister reflection that he was forty one and she was only sixteen. “That fascinated me” tells the narrator in typical Dostoevskian insight: “That feeling of inequality was very sweet, was very sweet”.
The marriage starts out cordially enough, but the pawnbroker’s miserly uncompromising ways are too much for his delicate wife. Disagreements about how the pawnshop should be run result in arguments. The narrator’s wife starts digging into his past to find out his shameful departure from the regiment. Unable to cope with his ways, she is driven to the point of trying to shoot him. One morning, half awake, the narrator realizes that his wife is standing near him with a revolver pointed at his forehead. He closes his eyes and pretends that he is asleep, but he is convinced that he had conquered her by showing her his readiness to accept death. She does not shoot. That same day she becomes ill.
Fearing losing his wife, the pawnbroker nurses her dutifully. She recovers. A watershed moment of their relationship happens when she begins to sing in his presence. The pawnbroker kisses his wife’s feet and promises to be a changed man. He recounts the story of his shame in the regiment, and promises to take her overseas. Several days later, the narrator leaves the house to make arrangements for travel.
When he returns home the narrator is met with a crowd of people outside his house. His wife has committed suicide: She has jumped out of the window holding her icon. The narrator is regretful of her death and the delay in his arrival but it was ultimately his narcissistic love that drove his gentle wife to suicide. According to him he was only “just five minutes too late”.
The story is written as a muddled confessional flashback from the point of view of the confused pawnbroker immediately after the suicide while the dead body is still in the room. Vithanage has retained this narrative technique and to his credit Dostoevsky’s tone. The suicide is a surprise ending in the movie.
In a masterstroke Vithanage has substituted the nameless 16 year old orphan girl with a destitute young Tamil girl Selvi (Anjali Patil). During the times of war she had made the journey from the war-torn Killinochchi to Bogawanthalawa to live among the upcountry Tamils in relative safety. Her two young brothers had been killed by the army and parents had feared that she could get raped by the Army. War is over now. Selvi had lost her parents and has no home to return to, no future and she is a huge burden and a nuisance to her down-trodden Aunts in spite of doing her bit to help them and their kids. The pawnbroker is a guilt ridden ex-soldier Sarathsiri (Shyam Fernando) who lives in self-exiled style guarding a secret and with a utopian expectation of accumulating wealth to buy a vast tea estate.
Crushed by poverty, Selvi too keeps bringing her worthless goods to the pawnshop and catches the eye of Sarathsiri. A marriage proposal is made through his maid Lakshmi (Maheswari Ratnam) which she accepts for identical reasons. Cohabitation starts. The girl blooms in happiness, expectations and love. There is no reciprocation of love. Sarathsiri is aloof, engrossed in how to make a fortune from his pawnshop and watches wrestling fights on television as a pastime. He tells his young wife about his single minded ambition to purchase the vast tea plantation that is overlooking his dungeon like shop which is also their family home now. Like Dostoevsky’s pawnbroker Sarathsiri too was not going to bribe her with love.
In the tastefully constructed sexual union scene Vithanage shows how flimsy and brutally one sided the relationship is. There is no foreplay- no tenderness – no love – no intimacy. The young wife has no choice but to submit to the torture.
Sarathsiri’s closely guarded secret, his ex-Army background gets exposed unexpectedly when one of his former army colleagues Gamini (Vasantha Moragoda) makes a sudden appearance. Confrontation between the mismatched couple starts in earnest. Selvi announces that she would have never married him if she knew his true background and that two of her brothers were killed by the army. She also tells him that she had to leave her parents due to fear of getting raped. In her eye Sarathsiri is a villainous ex Sinhala soldier who had killed Tamils and now an unscrupulous pawnbroker exploiting the poor (Tamils again) in a lopsided money-lending trade. She does not hold back her views. Sarathsiri defends himself that if not for him she would be starving.
Then there is also the revolver scene (less convincing than the book), followed by Selvi getting sick, her recovery, the singing scene, attempt for reconciliation and Sarathsiri’s confession explaining his self-exile and guilt and his connection with Gamini. He had falsified evidence to protect some fellow soldiers including Gamini who had been accused of raping and killing a Tamil girl. He had left the army in indignity for having to lie. The confession is the final nail on the coffin. It punctures the vulnerable relationship irretrievably. Selvi heads into a bout of depression. Realizing that he might lose her Sarathsiri cares for her and plans to take her to India by selling his business as soon as she shows signs of recovery. He is prepared to start a new life; the relationship has breached beyond repair.
One day Selvi says that she is sorry that she had failed to be a matching wife to Sarathsiri and promises to make amends. Overjoyed Sarathsiri kisses her from head to toe and leaves to buy air tickets for India. Selvi starts praying. She has made her decision about their future and how to end her agony which is shown to a devastating effect to a stunned audience.
Vithanage’s tight script, directional skills, the economy in sketching his characters and the sympathetic portrayal of human nature is all in full display in the movie. Dialogues are minimal but the effect is powerful and profound. So too is Laxman Joseph de Saram’s lingering musical score. The plaintive melodic phrase played softly on the keys of a piano in a very slow tempo almost like a largo, was in perfect sync with the sad mood of the story. It also interspersed beautifully with the tone of the mournful narration and the imagery. As customary with his previous works, the cinematography (MD Mahindapala) with some iconic shots and the editing (Sreekar Prasad) are at their best, though the repetitious nature of Selvi frequenting the pawnshop could have been curtailed a bit at the beginning. I am loath to complain much though.
Shayam Fernado as the guilt ridden ex-soldier looked authentic. His diction and the tone of voice full of repentance and remorse surely added significantly to the somber atmosphere of the film and to its overall appeal.
Anjali Patil the Marathi speaking Maharashtra born actress was even more impressive and convincing as Selvi. I was amazed to learn that Patil had done her own dubbing completely by herself which makes her the first Indian actress to dub in Sinhala language. Her fresh face and the Sinhala diction with a slight ‘Tamil accent’ to me is another masterstroke of Vithanage. Her performance won her the best actress’s award in an International Film Festival in India in 2012. The film having been co-produced by Lasantha Nawarathna and Mohamed Adamaly (Aakar productions India) choice of an Indian actress must have increased its marketability in India – a forward step by Vithanage to overcome the limitations in the local market.
Dostoevsky’s Meek One was doomed to perish because the pawnbroker decides from the start of the marriage to be “stern” with her and to taunt her on his generosity and withhold love and affection. Vithanage’s poor defenceless Selvi full of innocence and eagerness and with a tragic past too is doomed to perish. Sarathsiri makes absolutely no effort to bridge their gap or sympathize with her. He too cherishes his superiority and their inequality. As if preordained, circumstances had forced the hapless girl to unknowingly strike a relationship with an ex- soldier with a dodgy past. Continuing to live with that ex-soldier would have been a huge scuffle against her conscience. She is too candid to deal with this. There is no respite or escape for the poor girl.
It is clear that Vithanage is equating the doomed relationship between the ex-solider and the orphaned Tamil girl figuratively to the unbridgeable gulf that seems to exist between the Sinhala and Tamil communities – a gulf that has widened with decades of war. The analogy has given an exceptionally powerful ending to the film and food for thought. Though the title in English is less suggestive, in Sinhala it is unmistakable in alluding to the cause of the strife. Oba Nethuwa Oba Ekka – suggesting something like: “Well, I am happy to cohabitate with you but without really accepting you as you are as my equal”. Therein also resides the essential duplicity of the Sinhala-Tamil relationship and the aversion of the Sinhalese to accept the Tamils as their equal. The recent brutal history has not helped to bridge this gap. Wounds must heal first.
Lovers of serious art must not be denied the opportunity of seeing this beautifully crafted hauntingly powerful masterpiece soon without being cut and chopped willy-nilly.