29 May 2013

FILM REVIEW: ‘Siddhartha’: an exploration of the abhinishkramanaya oddity

As a Buddhist growing up in Sri Lanka in a household where there was a time and place for religious activity (limited to Poya Day visits to the temple and nocturnal recitation of gathas), the story of Prince Siddhartha was obtained mostly from the Sadaham Maga, the school text book on Buddhism.  That made for early and even definitive etching.   Invariably, subsequent versions get measured against the early script. 

This was so when I watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1993 film ‘The Little Buddha’, which traced the ‘Siddhartha Story’ for the benefit of a little child believed to be a reincarnation of the deceased Lama Dorje.  It was as though the Sadaham Maga version had been turned into a film.  It has been over 15 years since I saw ‘The Little Buddha’ and many decades have passed since I touched the Sadaham Maga, but the images conjured by both remained reference points when I watched ‘Sri Siddhartha Gauthama’, produced by the Light of Asia Foundation.
An overture at the beginning of the film gave a nutshell ‘postscript’ of sorts to the main story, which focused on the life of Prince Siddhartha up to the abhinishkramanaya, i.e. the leaving of the palace, household, wife and child.  The overture was a set-up then, taking the audience from the point of abhinishkramanaya to the point of Enlightenment.  It did not contain the Sathara Pera Nimithi, or the four encounters that are said to have precipitated the abhinishkramanaya.  My 9 year old daughter asked me whether or not these would be shown.  I told her I did not know.  Early versions, I concluded, leave strong impressions.

My ‘Grade 1-4’ memories were not wounded by this version and even if they were, there’s no one to blame.  What was different here was the treatment of the abhinishkramanaya moment.  Whereas the Sadaham Maga  version had us believe that the disenchanted prince left the palace in secret, at night, with no word of parting or inclination of the fact, to Princess Yashodara, his wife.  A seven year old child might not see that as ‘odd’, particularly since the character of the prince, the ascetic and the Buddha in that evolutionary order are of stature that makes this ‘oddity’ marginal.  Nevertheless, it is story-quirk that perturbs for it is incongruent with the wisdom, compassion and even diplomacy associated with the principal character through all these incarnations. 
‘Siddhartha’ irons it out or rather seeks to do so by dismissing the notion that the prince who enjoyed all material comforts suddenly became disenchanted by accident.  The main character, then, is shown as not just wise and skilled (as in the school text book version) but consistent in being deeply reflective.  It downplays the sathara pera nimithi and frames them in more believable dimensions, i.e. of precipitation.   

On the other hand, the sathara pera nimithi, marginal though they are to the story in this version are portrayed in less telling terms than in the Bertolucci version, whose focus of course was different, where these factors were treated as ‘key’.  This film is less ‘grand’ and perhaps deliberately so, given preoccupation with a reflective lead-up to the abhinishkramanaya.  That preoccupation, paradoxically, given the Buddha’s thesis on upaadaana (attachment), detracts in perhaps unintended ways. 
None of the characters, apart from the arrogant, jealous and short-tempered Devadatta, are developed to levels where they cease to appear as add-ons, not even Siddhartha.  Yashodhara is nothing like the ‘ideal’ that Siddhartha conjures to put off his father’s fascination with succession. She is ‘beautiful’ but the wisdom and understanding she is supposed to be endowed with doesn’t come through in script, acting or voice.  There is however a single redeeming moment; when Siddhartha takes leave silently and the princess, although appearing to be asleep, sheds a tear.  She is not unprepared.  She is not abandoned callously.  In this version, Siddhartha ‘provides’ for the eventuality of solitude in the form of Rahula, his son. 

Ranjan Ramanayake’s rendition of King Suddhodhana is a stand-out performance.  Prince Nanda has been accorded a greater presence than in the Sadaham Maga version where he is mostly remembered for the encounter on day of the themagula and subsequent entering of the Order.  This version is far more believable and amounts to the correction of a historical injustice, for he was after all Siddhartha’s half-brother.  Channa, the friend, consequently suffers in portrayal but that could be a quirk of childhood perception.  

Much effort has been expended on the set and the frills.  Nothing seems ‘out of place’.   The palace scenes could have been edited better.  The cinematography of the ‘overture’ served, unfortunately, to diminish that of what followed. 
The lead-up holds, but barely.  We are constantly told of the prince’s disenchantment, his need to ‘find the truth’ etc.  There seems to be too much burden imposed on dialogue to drive the point home.  There is an obvious conflict between responsibility to family, especially father and wife but not discounting to subjects, and the meaninglessness of it all, but word is not complemented by overall setting.  It therefore emerges as being contrived.  Labored.  Still, there is more justice done to this conflict in this version than in ‘The Little Buddha’ which looks all-too-simple in comparison.

Overall, the narrative adds a believable dimension to the commonly held story.  And yet, having ventured to unearth context that has been neglected by narratives such as ‘The Little Buddha’, I felt not enough was brought out, or rather that it is an incomplete archaeological exercise.  Ven Mudalankuliya Rathanajothi Thero’s ‘Sabae Siddhartha’ (The Real Siddhartha), based on extensive doctoral research, for example gathers the entire social, political and economic universe of that time, especially the Sakya-Koliya tensions.  That narrative gives better and more believable context to the abhinishkramanaya.  Nothing secretive in it but everything is in the public domain and set out in far more believable terms. 
The purpose of this film of course is different and its reading does make a good story.  It is a delving that ought to inspire further excavation.  It is a tough ask to reincarnate a character such as Prince Siddhartha.  It could never be perfect or conclusive.  ‘Siddhartha’ the film pleases, in parts, but importantly it did not scar the versions etched in mind from so many decades ago.  For a prthagjana, that is important. 



Arjuna Seneviratne said...

I didn't see this movie but I agree with your observations if such were the ways in which they were depicted.

Prince Siddhartha was NOT detached while he was in the palace. He states this in the Sukumala Sutra (Anguttara three's, Deveduthavaggo, 9). At the start of this sutra, he outlines the splendor and delicateness of his life as a prince (Sukumalo aham bikkhave, paramasukumalo - the translation is obvious here). He goes on the describe how he feasted on the choicest of meats, how he was attended upon exclusively by dancing girls, how he never even moved from his palace during the winter season because he was so involved in enjoying the sensual pleasures of life.

Conclusion: Whoever stated he was "reflective" was talking bunkum.

He then goes on, in the second part of this sutra, to say the following about the threefold price of human beings that blinds us and keeps us tied to sensuality by the five chords of attachment (Upadannakkandha):

1) It is when I saw the old man that I lost my pride in my youth
2) It is when I saw the sick man that I lost my pride in my health
3) It is when I saw the dead man that I lost my pride in life.

NOT before. This is clearly stated by the Buddha himself.

As with the treatment of the Dharma these days, either in whole or in part, the pruthagjanas (the base, the crude, the intelligent, the worldly) have lost sight of the fact that the Buddha's Dharma is Svakkaththa. Complete in itself, non-contradictory,with neither requirement for interpretation nor the application of various facets/gradations/tiers of "belieavability".

While the application of banal methods of interpretation is convenient, it is by no means truthful.

This sutra proves that the nishkarma (the karma or act of leaving behind) was directly tied to the three triggers from the Bodhisatva's past. Before that, the prince was enjoying his life to the fullest (this is the pristine sensual enjoyment at its highest possible level as a human being and is the karmic reward of previous meritorious action only a Bodhisathva can accumulate and that only a Bodhisathva enjoys completely and that too only in his last birth (paschim bhava).

Thus, by ignoring the nimithi and superimposing a non-existent "reflectiveness" upon the prince, all that the film's makers have managed to do is display their naiveté and ignorance of such matters.