13 February 2015

Extracting 'scent' from Bora Diya Pokuna ('Scent of the Lotus')


Three reasons made me accept the invitation extended to me by Satyajit Maitipe to view his debut film, ‘Bora Diya Pokuna’ (‘Scent of the Lotus,’ he calls it in English) at the Goethe Institute. It is a fi lm that is gathering cobwebs in the corridors and shelves of the minds of those who people the Public Performances Board and this is a natural incentive to watch the fi lm. Indeed, it is no secret that some directors get multiple orgasms when the PPB sits on their little masterpieces.

The second reason is the title. ‘Bora diya’ or ‘muddy waters’ coupled with the lotus makes for a very Buddhist metaphor, so much so that the sub-heading ‘a Buddhist parable in three parts’ was unnecessary. There was some philosophical/cosmological exploration promised and that was reason enough for me. The third is Satyajit himself. A man with a mind and a mind that knows word, colour and form and something of juxtaposition.

‘Buddhist parable’. Okay. To be honest I didn’t know quite what to expect. If a short hand was to be employed to capture the plot, one could say ‘young love’ and this, like anything is eminently suitable for parable treatment, so to say. Satyajit could have been inspired to employ any number of meanings, subtle, profound and/or obvious, weaving these into a fairly commonplace, believable, interesting story. I confess I lost out on the ‘parable’ business not too far into the opening frames. The story was compelling enough to stand on its own strength with or without ‘parable promise’ as a prop.

The ‘Buddhist’ was recognisable of course. I would even say there were many ‘Buddhistics’  (to coin a term); some clearly intended and others read as such thanks to prior readings. I reflected on this and remembered Satyajit telling me once that he is greatly inspired by Buddhist philosophy. It would naturally percolate into the script and much else then, I thought. the classic preoccupations of youth, were the nodes around which Satyajit weaves his parable(s). 

Three young girls, their different approaches to and encounters with men, relationships, love, sex, life and self, over time: these constitute the meat of the story. I shall not go into that. The synopsis is given in the website and goes like this (for those who are interested): 

‘Three rural, working class, garment factory girls – a pampered prima-donna (Mangala), a saferunner (Swineetha) and tormented vixen (Gothami) go through certain trials and tribulations. Lovelorn Gothami makes life difficult for everyone around her and creates her own tragedy by falling in love with Mangala’s sexually frustrated lover, Vipula. The friends go their own ways. An accidental meeting of the two girl’s years later results in a confession that shocks Gothami. Gothami thus learns something about life, about winning and losing, suffering and emancipation, in a completely different perspective that she did not know existed.’  

It took some telling, this story, and this fact took away from what I believe is a very keen perception that Satyajit has of the dhamma and also his rare ability to let the parable reveal the underlying philosophical lesson. Satyajit frames the questions that he explores in the film in simple and compelling ways. But a par-able is not an epic and even if an individual’s life is by definition of epic proportion, the Buddhist story-telling tradition is characterised by economy. There was enough ‘message’ with respect to impermanence, the paticcasamuppada, the jathi, jara, and marana, the anitta, dukka and anatma, and of course the all-pervading lessons of the Satipattana Sutta. There was too much. I didn’t quite get the ‘three parts’ of the break up he promises in the title, but it occurred to me that perhaps Satyajit ought to have considered a trilogy.

There are limitations that young film-makers have to contend with of course and perhaps he didn’t have the luxury of making such a decision. We know, after all, that his film is still languishing in the PPB for whatever reason. Still, I believe that Satyajit has the perception and the creativity to do more with the little story. Here he ends up doing less with the grand narrative. Saying-it-all is the business of the Sammasambuddhas. Satyajit gives insight but overwhelms with detail to the point of erasure. The longer it dragged, the more apparent became the denouement and this robbed the effect of subtlety. A pity, I thought.

 Let me explain it this way. In ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ Garcia Marquez gives us almost an almanac on love. We recognise ourselves on every page. ‘Of love and other demons’ is a novelette. It takes a small incident, a small unfolding, and sheds light on a large universe of emotions and meanings. The latter tells us more about love, in a deeper, more abiding kind of way. The former makes us grin from ear to ear, leaves us with loads of anecdotes that can liven up any conversation. ‘Bora Diya Pokuna’ should have been a film version of the ‘Of love and other demons’ kind. The parables would have appeared clearer and in a more telling manner. I think I missed most of it.

Kaushalya Fernando’s performance in the lead role was nothing less than brilliant; in comparison what she did in ‘Sulanga Enu Pinisa’ is pedestrian. The script, as in the ‘parable’ intention, might just have been ‘Gothami’s story’. She captures the parable(s) or at least what I managed to extract from the film, in her face, her expressions and nuances of gaze. Satyajit didn’t have much to do, I told myself, for the story was all there, embedded in an exceptional portrayal of a troubled and therefore troublesome character. 

Overall, Satyajit has handled his cast very well and for a long film economically too. With veterans such as VeenaJayakody, Chandra Kaluarachchi, LiyoniKothalawela, ChandaniSeneviratne, Iranganie Serasinghe, and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, little could go wrong, of course. As for the ‘young ones’, Duminda de Silva and Dilani Abeywardena, they are certainly not outclassed by Kaushalya Fernando in terms of ability.

Overall, I would say that ‘Bora Diya Pokuna’ is the first work of a mature mind. Whereas others like Handagama and Vimukthi were savvy enough to pick out short-cuts available in the political, Satyajit’s promise rings more true. There is nothing contrived, no working in of controversy. His is a believable story, tastefully presented, and an overall work that reveals a film maker who has passed his juvenile years without much scarring.

I want parable. Many more. I am sure Satyajit is capable of greater things, a story-telling that has a jathakakatha or dhammapada brevity, eloquence and therefore universal appeal. ‘Bora Diya Pokuna’ had too many lotuses or else, a few lotuses among all kinds of flowers on the altar of portrayal. It was, in the end, a scent that was hard to extricate. Or maybe I just didn’t possess the nostrils.


This was first published in 'The Nation' on July 21, 2006.  The film, unfortunately, was held back by the Public Performances Board and its release was approved only recently.   
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