Colombo, February 11 (The New Indian Express): Links between Indian and Sri Lankan cinemas have had a long history, going back to the late 1940s. But while many Indians have directed Sri Lankan movies, only three Sri Lankans have directed Indian films so far.
The three Sri Lankans are: Batticaloa-born Balu Mahendra, maker of the prize winning Veedu, Sandhya Ragam and Thalaimuraigal; Punguduthivu-born V.C.Guhanathan, who turned out commercially successful films like Thanikkattu Raja and Michael Raj; and Ratnapura-born Vimukthi Jayasundara, who has made the Bengali art film Chatrak.
Of the these, Vimukthi Jayasundara is unique for two reasons: he is the first Sinhalese to direct an Indian movie, and also the first Sri Lankan to make a film in Bengali.
Chatrak (Mushrooms), made in the tradition of the renowned Bengali film maker Ritwik Ghatak, was shown in the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, and also at the Toronto, Pacific Merdian and Vladivostok international film festivals.
Within a screening time of 90 minutes, Chatrak brings out significant aspects of the realities of urban India as seen in the metropolis of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), in which corporate interests determine the pattern of growth irrespective of social consequences, and where ambitions to succeed as per the parameters of the day, tear the social fabric and create traumas.
The film shows how values promoted by the corporatization of the economy and society lead to conflicts, isolation, remorse, disappointments, irreversible mental imbalance and even suicidal tendencies. The situation created by corporatization leads to the creation of roles and duties which are performed mechanically and often brutally. But even so, remorse creeps to the surface on occasion because, after all, the denizens of the modern world are, at the core, human beings, not automatons.
Chatrak is about architect Rahul (played by Sudip Mukherjee); his long-time love interest and Kolkata working girl, Paoli (played by Paoli Dam); Rahul’s unnamed deranged brother (played by Sumeet Thakur); and a foreign border-guard (Tomas Lemarquis).
Rahul goes to Dubai, like millions of other Indians, to earn a decent pay packet. But his younger brother fails in his attempt because of his disability. Dejected, the young man seeks refuge in the thickness of a tropical jungle. Since this happens to be at the border of another country, the border guard (Tomas Lemarquis) notices him, and after a brutal struggle, pins him down. But it does not take him long to realize that both had been pushed into doing what they were doing – killing people brutally in his case, and going abroad by hook or by crook to earn a living in the case of the young man. The two alienated souls strike an unusual camaraderie.
Given the mushrooming construction of luxury condominiums in Kolkata, Rahul comes back from Dubai and takes up a job on one of the sites. The growing inequalities in Kolkata, the pauperization of the already poor original residents of the many construction sites; and his indifference to his brother’s fate, gnaw at Rahul’s conscience. These also lead to a disconnect with Paoli. But she doesn’t want to leave him, despite his saying that she would be better off without him.
Rahul and Paoli go looking for the brother, guided by typically Indian do-gooders. Finally they locate him in a thick jungle and bring him home to live with them. But the deranged brother, having forgotten social mores, becomes an embarrassment and the couple take him back to the jungle. But Rahul continues to be deeply troubled. In a moment of frenzy, he dives from the top of the concrete tower he was building.
In a conversation with this writer after a special screening of the film in Colombo recently, the 40 year old Director, Vimukthi Jayasundra, revealed how he hit upon the idea of making a film in Bengali, how he got people to back it, and how he chose the subject for the film.
Born in the sylvan surroundings of Ratnapura in 1977, Vimkuthi did not want to be a doctor or engineer but a painter. “Eventually I settled for film making, which in many ways, is like painting,” he said.
And he was in love with India.
“I used to go to India frequently. I drew spiritual sustenance from it as a disciple of Jaggi Vasudev at his Isha Yoga ashram in Coimbatore. I travelled far and wide in India and made many friends in the film world. As a student at the Film and Television Institute in Pune, I saw a lot of films and was particularly fond of Bengali film makers Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak,” Vimukti said.
Back in Sri Lanka, the war was on. Vimukthi made a documentary film for the government on wounded soldiers. In the process of making the film he realized how some people are made to sacrifice their lives and limbs for somebody’s else cause.
As for the idea of making a film in India, it came up at a meeting with his long standing friend, Bappaditya Bandhopadhyay, a producer and director of Bengali films, in Kolkata. Bappaditya said he could rope in Vinod Lahoti, a Kolkata film enthusiast and financier, to fund the venture.
“The subject and story line were left to me. But Bappaditya was always around to tell me what is not correct. He would also point his finger at cinematic clichés, and tell me to knock them off,” Vimukthi said.
On choosing the subject and story he recalls: “I hadn’t a clue about what to portray. So, I decided to roam the streets of Kolkata day after day, observing the lives of the people in various parts of the city at various times. What struck me at the time, was the mushrooming of posh high rise buildings in sharp contrast to the squalor around. I saw the sharp differences existing between the rich and the poor and how the poor were duped into parting with their agricultural land for small sums of money on the promise of jobs on the construction sites.”
From the middle classes he learnt about their aspirations and problems. He also found that at least a section of Kolkata society was aware that people were being taken for a ride, but others were indifferent.
He pointed out that there is a scene in the film in which an old man is trying to wake up a younger man sleeping under a bridge by telling him how the British bought for a mere Rs,1300 the three villages which became the nucleus of the imperial city of Kolkata, and that a similar thing is happening now.
Vimukthi also saw how, despite grinding poverty, lack of employment, insanitary conditions and the mad rush to modernize Kolkata, people stuck to traditions tenaciously as seen in the annual Durga Puja celebrations. Beg or borrow, the Puja had to be conducted is a grand way. The Puja’s cathartic effect on the participants was brought out vividly in Chatrak.
In the story, the main facets of Kolkata’s physical and socio-economic landscape were portrayed through the lives of the successful but troubled architect, his independent minded lady love, and the deranged younger brother. Vimukthi has portrayed India in all its complexity, both gross and nuanced.
Asked why the architect does not die even after jumping from a multi-storied building, for he eventually opens his eyes, Vimukthi said: “ I wanted to suggest that there could be renewal of hope,”
As Rahul re-awakens, a tortoise at the construction site which has been in hiding because of the destruction of its habitat, also emerges from its shell, symbolically.
(The featured image at the top is that of Sri Lankan film maker Vimukthi Jayasundara)