It’s a very carefully crafted movie. From script, casting, locations, music score and colour pallet, everything was designed to complement the theme of mental illness. Cinematographer Jaan Shenberger is mostly responsible for setting the mood. ‘Every frame has a mood ‘
Premaya Nam was forced to do the festival rounds before it was released locally. The film was locally released on February 17. “Only a certain kind of mainstream commercial movies get released locally as soon as they are made. Movies like ours have to wait three years,” says Kalpana.
“We can’t change the system. Distributers in their prejudice believe that mainstream commercial movies are the ones that are distributable. Our movie wasn’t their primary choice,” says Vindana. “There is no proven formula for success. For every successful movie Disney has 20 flops.”
But while they waited for the green light back at home the movie was selected to 13 foreign festivals. “This is what kept the movie alive,” claims Kalpana. But according to Vindana the Sri Lankan audience is their priority. “After all it’s a Sri Lankan movie,” says Vindana.
It’s a romance drama with a subtext on mental health, based on a true story. The real life experience of the director and co-writer Vindana Ariyawansa, Premaya Nam: Dirty, Yellow, Darkness is their maiden cinematic venture. Starring Shyam Fernando, Samanalee Fonseka, Suranga Ranawaka, Buddhadasa Vithanarachchi and Dr. Sathis Wijemanne, Premaya Nam was directed and written by Kalpana and Vindana Ariyawansa. Cinematography is by Jaan Shenberger who is also editor along with Kalpana Ariyawansa.
The movie was produced by Kalpana Ariyawansa, Prem Dissanayake, Athula Mahawalage and Sujeewa Wijesinghe. Rohana Weerasinghe composed the film’s score and soundtrack.
The story revolves around a married couple of the upper middle class. Vishwa, played by Shyam Fernando, works for an advertising company and has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). He fears that when he urinates, it splashes all over him and his surroundings. He insists on taking a bath every time he uses the washroom. He only realizes the depth of the problem after his wife leaves him when he refuses to take his medication. In order to get her back he admits himself to a mental hospital for treatment.
Jungle book is the movie that inspired Kalpana to get into movie making. From childhood drawing has been his passion. And he was awe inspired by colours and the drawings. “I remember thinking I am going to make a movie like this one day,” says Kalpana. Of course he was in grade two at school and didn’t know the first things about making a movie. Twenty years later he was studying under these same art directors.
Kalpana worked for Warner Brothers on a project basis. He did storyboard for blockbusters such as Harry Potter. He also worked for Disney at one time doing storyboard and concept design. He studied Visual Communications at Columbus College of Arts and Design, Columbus, Ohio. “This was when the animation industry was booming in 1994 when animated Classics such as Lion King became a huge hit,” says Kalpana. “All my friends wanted to work for Disney.” He also dabbled in graphics design and advertising.
But then the whole industry shifted to CGI. “But I had always wanted to get into live action director after graduation,” he says. It was in 2002 that the seed of an idea for making Premaya Nam germinated. But it became a reality after 13 years. “We were both living in the US and we knew that making a movie in Sri Lanka is not something we can survive on,” says Kalpana. Vindana was studying Information Technology Engineering at Kentucky University. “It also took us some time to realise that everything in Sri Lanka happened based on the right kind of connections, unlike Bollywood and Hollywood,” says Kalpana.
Commenting on how his father Kularatne Ariyawansa’s whose work influenced them, Vindana says that they were exposed to the arts at an early age. “We were art enthusiasts and film buffs,” says Vindana. Being the sons of renowned lyricist Kularatne Ariyawansa, both VIndana and Kalpana got the opportunity to meet a lot of industry professionals. The association and exposure bolstered their appreciation of art. While their father picked lyrics as his favourite form of artistic expression, Vindana and Kalpana picked film. But before filmmakers they are film fans. Vindana says that they want to be a part of the tradition of storyteller movie makers.
“Our intention, first and foremost, was to make a movie,” says Vindana. “After all we are filmmakers.” They picked this particular subject matter because it was closer to home. “It was my personal experience, but the whole family went through it,” added Vindana. And then there is that ‘novel’ factor. It’s a fresh subject not many Sinhala films have yet shed light on. “Awareness level about mental health problems is very low,” says Vindana. “We thought that if we’re true to the original story when we transfer it to the movie medium and if we use all our cinematic expertise, we’d be able to make a good movie experience.”
And sure enough, by the looks of all the positive feedback they have received doing the international festival round it is testimony to the success of the movie. When asked whether he felt comfortable making a movie of his personal ordeal, Vindana says they were able to differentiate between real life and a work of art.
The directors unanimously agree that the movie has succeeded in portraying the travails of a person with a mental illness. “We needed the movie to be convincing,” reveals Vindana. But the rest of the cast and crew did not have the advantage of personal experience. In a society where awareness about of mental health issues was very low, Vindana and Kalpana Ariyawansa had to conduct preproduction workshops for cast and crew, working closely with the mental health hospital. Both cast and crew were given the opportunity to mingle with patients with mental illnesses.
Vindana pointed out that many movies have been made on the subject of mental illness, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Awakenings, Rain Man, Beautiful Mind, Forest Gump and Theory of Everything. “While we can’t compare our film industry with theirs, we do have our own identity”, says Vindana. In fact, before Premaya Nam, the subject of mental illness had not been dealt with in such detail according to the duo.
Vindana pointed out that the Sri Lankan film industry has always been polarized into art or expressionist movies and commercial movies, with nothing in between. That’s where all the workshops and seminars came in handy. “We took all the actors to the mental hospital and let them mingle with the patients,” revealed Kalpana. “We let the actors study their behavioural patterns.”
The cast and crew had to sit in seminars on mental health as well. “Outside the walls of the hospital everybody is taught to look down on people with mental health problems. I and my family know because we went through this,” says Kalpana. “When we think mental health, we think it’s a part of society that we can lock away. The truth is that everyone has some form of mental illness.” He explained that the movie explores all possible relationships such as husband and wife, mother and father, friends and the work place, doctors and other patients.
“It’s about the interconnected human relationships,” says Vindana. “It also explores the stigma attached to mental illness.” In fact, Vindana explains that their biggest challenge was not to stigmatize the issue of mental health further. “We didn’t want to make things worse by putting our personal story in a movie,” says Vindana.
They use the hospital scenes to deliver a message. They were careful not to sensationalise mental health problems.
“Simplifying such a complex message and then getting it across to the audience while also making it a watchable movie was a challenge,” reveals Kalpana.
Vindana explains that audiences often lose themselves in complex narratives of psychological drama such as Still Alice. “On the other hand, movies like Rain Man and Beautiful Mind tend to over-dramatise. They have only drawn inspiration from a true story and not based on a true story,” says Vindana.
“It’s a very carefully crafted movie,” explains Kalpana. From script, casting, locations, music score and colour pallet, everything was designed to complement the theme of mental illness.
Cinematographer Jaan Shenberger is mostly responsible for setting the mood. “Every frame has a mood,” says Kalpana.
Colours need to support the mood on screen. Kalpana pointed out that every scene in Premaya Nam is different. “It’s not colourful throughout. It’s not a fantasy or glamour film.” explains Kalpana. “It’s closer to reality, where Vishwa, the protagonist is plunging into this abyss. But in his recovery he finds brightness.”
One way of subtly conveying this message is through colour. “It may be hardly noticeable to the audience, but colour gets the mood across,” says Kalpana.
“It’s a very thin line between empathy and ridicule,” says Vindana. The director duo reiterated that they did not want to make a freak show out of Vishwa. “Performance had to be convincing and realistic, not over the top or over dramatized,” explains Vindana.
And Shyam Fernando fit the bill perfectly. You’d probably know Shyam Fernando from his previous movie ‘Oba Nethuwa Oba Ekka’.
When asked whether the movie was successful because it was a personal experience Vindana admitted that the audience does not automatically relate to a movie just because it is the personal experience of a director. “It’s all a matter of storytelling. Movies are a most influential form of art. The story has to fall in line with filmmaking aspects which consist of various platforms of art. This was our challenge,” explains Vindana. Another challenge was to present complex subject matter, such as mental illness, in a simple narrative that also provides an engaging movie experience.
“It’s a feel-good movie. Why would you go to the movies unless you want to feel good?” asked Vindana.
Vindana and Kalpana always looked at it from the audience’s perspective. “It’s a movie about mental illness and we didn’t want the audience to suffer watching it”, says Vindana.
Their primary objective was to make a watchable movie.