BahuChithawadiya alias smooth operator and anti-hero

2017-10-13 00:00:43

Credit is due to this young film maker for making an intelligent movie. The challenge now is to find an intelligent audience

The acting is excellent. Sasitha’s victims are played by Veena Jayakody, Damitha Hemachandra, Sulochana Withanachchi and Geetha Alahakoon

Malaka Devapriya’s debut feature ‘Bahuchithavadiya’ (The Undecided) could do with another title. ‘Smooth operator’ would aptly describe the film’s main character, a young delivery rider called Sasitha. He has affairs with four women, ranging from young to middle-aged, and director/script writer Devapriya makes an entertaining, highly intelligent comedy about this universal character.   

The discussion which followed the screening at the Tharangani cinema on Sunday was interesting, but those among the audience who voiced their views missed the main point about the film. One said this was the second turning point in Sri Lankan cinema, the first being Dharmasena Pathiraja’s ‘Ahas Gawwa.’ Others spoke of how it captured the frustrations of youth, speaking out for an entire generation as Ahas Gawwa did.   
But Bahuchithavadiya is nothing of the kind. What it does is to introduce a new type of anti-hero as its main protagonist, a type new to Sri Lankan cinema. Whether this is a turning point or not is matter of debate. Incidentally, there is rarely any talk, if ever, if ‘Battleship Potemkin’ was a turning point in Soviet Cinema or Citizen Kane was that for the Americans, or Pather Panchali transformed Indian cinema or if Rashomon was a turning point for the Japanese. But Sri Lanka is obsessed with turning points. It looks as if we are spinning or turning once every decade or so. At any rate, our cinema does.   
 ‘Bahuchithawadiya’ is about the frustrations of a particular youth. Sasitha (Kalana Gunasekara) isn’t just a womaniser. He has picked up the not-so-fine art of living off women, several at a time, and here we have a universal character which occurs in all ages, countries and cultures. It perpetuates the myth that women are more gullible than men. As anyone who has successfully gotten through Kindergarten knows, it isn’t just women who are gullible when it comes to being conned. Confidence tricksters find their victims without any gender bias. In this context, though, women end up with both their purses and bodies preyed upon.   

‘Malaka Dewapriya winning the Best film Cinema of Tomorrow award for his film ‘Bahuchitawadiya’ at the 5th Derana Sunsilk Film Awards 2017. 

In the film, four women are being tricked and fleeced by this predator. Ultimately, he’s the biggest victim, because the women have different motives for selecting him for their favours, from genuine love and affection to sexual gratification and companionship in their lonely lives. That’s the principal difference between Malaka Devapriya’s principal character and Pathiraja’s down-and-out dreamers. They are decent young men. They don’t prey upon lonely women just because they are sexually frustrated. Instead of preying upon widows, divorcees and spinsters, they start smuggling watches from the harbour due to sheer desperation. Because of that innate sense of decency, a generation of young men could identify themselves with Pathiraja’s characters.   
But Sasitha in Bahuchithavadiya is different. He has no sense of decency (unless Pathiraja’s characters, he has a job). If viewers could identify themselves with that character, then what we have would be a deeply troubled society in need of rehabilitation. That’s why Bahuchithavadiya can’t be the voice for any generation. In this context, as it was the case in mine, most young men focus on finding one suitable partner to share one’s life with. It was hard enough then and it’s still hard despite most people now having 300 or 600 or 3000 ‘notifications’ on Face Book. Decency is still a valued, but rare quality. That’s why Face Book is just a game of cards with smiling faces imprinted on them, and winners are rare. It’s all about shuffling without results. Occasionally, though, con artists like Sasitha score because that’s how Murphy’s Law works in such cases.   

Those who made a living out of snaring women have always been exotic curiosities in any generation. But they are universal characters, with inherently more dramatic value than the long-suffering husband who raises a family on moonshine jobs and loans, worrying about heart attacks all the time and eventually dying of cirrhosis of the liver or type two diabetes (nowadays from thirty plus). 

This is where this film’s success lies. Sasitha is an original character in Sri Lankan cinema. That’s a real breakthrough. There have been conmen before, but not on this scale and intensity. Sasitha is an intelligent young man who is inherently lazy. He is too lazy to support his struggling sister and her home-based dressmaking business. His voice is lazy. So are his body, his gaze and his movements. In one scene, he gives in to an uncharasteristic, frenetic tribal dance. Then it vanishes from his character, like a deluge in the Sahara. He’s smart enough to figure out how to dupe women and live off them. He isn’t smart enough to know that his only way out is to marry one of them before he’s found out. His confusion lies in an impossible dream – to marry a white woman and live off her in the West (even Cyprus is OK, he concedes to his middle-aged mistress, and he doesn’t mind someone mind 20-30 years old). His tragedy is that, while an attractive dark-skinned woman who’s well off offers him everything – a visa to Dubai and a job, a home, love and marriage – he rejects her for a white woman he’ll never find. People blinded and destroyed by their utopias while the reality they reject offers survival, even a shot at happiness, are all around us. It can happen to the most intelligent of people. The director has succeeded here in taking a very ordinary type and making an utterly believable, and tragic, figure out of that. That’s a very intelligent piece of script writing and direction.   

He’s a new type of anti-hero in Sri Lankan cinema. Examples of precedents can be found in Handagama’s films, or in Dharmasiri Bandaranaike’s ‘Thunveni Yamaya,’ or even from the 60s or 70s commercial cinema. But such anti-heroes – Gamini Fonseka, Senadheera Rupasinghe or Wally Nanayakkara were dashing crooks and conmen. They were also more ethical and morally upright. They were loyal to their friends and faithful lovers and husbands to their wives. They were in fact heroes. 

But Sasitha isn’t a dashing screen figure. He’s neither handsome nor ugly, neither tall nor short, and has absolutely no charm. He’s physically a coward. He talks of serious crime (robbing a bank) but opts for the ‘softer’ crime of conning women. In the one scene where he’s threatened with physical violence, he backs out. He’ll never be a hero.   

But he’s a smooth talker when it suits his purpose, and succeeds in getting money as well as sex from all his partners, an astounding rate of success. But this is not a profound study of what makes such people so good at conning women (they appear regularly in the news, having wed or bedded anything from four to forty partners while ripping them off. Instead, it’s an amusing, but ultimately tragic, study of one such character’s self-destructive path. It isn’t a study of inner psychology but of outer mechanisms, and it works because here is a character straight off the street or office of anyone’s experience – everyone knows someone who looks and talks like Sasitha. He could be a technician, driver, lawyer or company executive. He’s everyman. As an anti-hero, he’s more fully rounded than any other Sri Lankan cinematic character one can think of, and it’s a bold, mature director who can cast such a type in the main role of his debut feature.   

Why do women find him so attractive? The film doesn’t try to explain that. Another problem with this film is that all the characters are without any redeeming quality (a factor mentioned earlier when reviewing ‘Motor bicycle’), unless we take the character of Damitha Hemachandra and think of her love for Sasitha as a redeeming quality. His nameless friend in the film (Rajitha Hewathanthirige) is having an affair with his friend’s sister behind his back. Sasitha’s employer is a former leftist who’s exploiting the only employee he has. Sasitha’s girl friend (Sulochana Withanachchi) becomes the employer’s mistress after dumping him. The present generation of film makers, one can conclude, have a very harsh view of the world. It’s their privilege. Pathiraja’s characters didn’t live in paradise but there’s a charm about them totally lacking in contemporary cinema.   

The acting is excellent. Sasitha’s victims are played by Veena Jayakody, Damitha Hemachandra, Sulochana Withanachchi and Geetha Alahakoon. Prasadini Atapattu plays the role of Sasitha’s friend’s ex-wife. Chintaka Somakirthi’s cinematography is dark and moody, and the superb opening sequence hints at the mentally unstable and predatory nature of the main character. Chithral Somapala’s score is unobtrusive, leaving the drama to unravel without propping it up.   

Credit is due to this young film maker for making an intelligent movie that is (intentionally or not) very funny at times. The challenge now is to find an intelligent audience. Tharangani cinema was packed and most of the crowd could not get in. But distributors live in mortal fear that these ‘festival films’ will not bring in a return. This film was made five years ago, but still hasn’t found a distributor. The distribution system is chronically ill and the film corporation cuts a pathetic figure in this context.   

There is too, a lengthy kissing scene in the film (perhaps the longest kiss in Sri Lankan cinema, and there have been very few to date) which the censors have failed to notice. Or they may not have seen it yet. Dinosaurs can’t be made to dance the tango, but they can at least look the other way when those who can, try it.     

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