20 March 2015

Asoka Handagama’s Vidu: an invitation to unwrap ‘hero’ and ‘heroism’

Vidu, the child-hero of Asoka Handagama’s film by the same name, is tagged by the film-maker as an ‘our kind of hero’.  The Sinhala equivalent is more meaning-laden. ‘Ape jaathiye weerayek’ confers on ‘kind’ a number of collective identities among which is the unmistakable nationalist strain given the social, political and cultural context of the day.  The term ‘our’ naturally offers itself as counterpoint to a real or imagined ‘their’ or a hero who is essentially alien to an ‘our’ experience. 

After watching ‘Vidu’, I was reminded of a conversation that took place about 8 years ago, outside the Colombo Public Library Auditorium.  This was immediately after an X-Group event. Deepthi Kumara Gunaratne gave me some advice (this is the rough English translation): ‘You will be just another journalist if you don’t give new knowledge to the public’.  I asked him what he meant by ‘new’.  He replied, ‘Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Althusser.’ My reponse: ‘Buduhaamuduruwo is more “new” to me than any of these people’. 

Handagama in theme song calls for a hero, a home-made hero, rubbishing in the rush the popular big-name heroes, Superman, Spider Man and the latest ‘super hero’, Harry Potter.  In the larger text of the film the call is not for a local hero but a local-local hero, a subaltern creature that challenges things-as-they-are including the powers that want things to be ‘as they are’, in idea and in act.  That’s Vidu. 

There’s drama throughout.  Enough to hold one’s attention.  The story is tight; perhaps too tight for the adequate development of the key adult characters, the principal, the politician’s local point-man and the child’s mother.  Saumya Liyanage (as the local politico), Chandani Seneviratne (mother) and Gamini Hettiarachchi (principal) have come up with stand-out performances.  Ravindra Guruge (editor) and Channa Deshapriya (camera) have done ample justice to their respective reputations. Overall, entertaining.  

It is a feel-good film, the kind that one would not associate with Handagama, and yet one which asks typical Handagama questions and contains typical Handagama invitations to peel off surface and explore the unsaid, unacknowledged and unrepresented elements of our social life.  Like in his other films, there is a lot of ‘message’. Unlike his other films, though, the relevant ‘message’ is pronounced to the point of being raw and unreal. 

Admittedly, a feel-good film can legitimately be unreal.  Handagama’s previous films catch slices of reality; marginal, true, but nevertheless real. He cannot be and need not be straitjacketed to make films that one expects Handagama to make.  The departure is fresh because it is unexpected of the film-maker.  Still, the thematic signature of the film; Vidu’s philosophical and not-at-all-hidden transcript of subaltern angst; seems contrived, even though the child-hero does a decent enough job of delivering message. 

Handagama’s call, the way I see it, is for a return to two things: an ‘ourness’ and an innocent, pure time and way of being.  It is not a call for some virginal clarity and a society of the pure, no.  He is smart enough after all to understand that human beings are flawed and that even the more flawed have their moments of redemption.  Still, in a land that is not empty of heroes, cardboard and otherwise, larger than life and made larger than life, the call for the kind of hero that Handagama would like to see is not out of place. 

We are a society that has been celebrating one kind of hero, that of the battlefield and related spheres, i.e. concerning efforts to eliminate the terrorist threat.  Outside of the need to be vigilant, this society is unhappy in the Brechtian sense, following Galileo’s famous words to his student in the play by that name; ‘unhappy is the land that needs a hero’ and not, as the student says ‘a land that has no hero’.  Or at least Handagama seems to think so.  If we do need a hero (and as such are an unhappy people) it is important to talk about what kind of hero we need. 

Handagama wants us to go for an ‘our kind of hero’.  Who is the ‘us’ implied in the articulation?  What is the real life Vidu required to deliver?  Handagama says ‘value’.  One could call it dignity. Or self-respect.  At the end of the tree-top speech the crowd breaks into a chant: ‘ape vatinakama apata diyau’.  Could be read as ‘recognition of worth’ or as a demand for fair compensation for services rendered.  If it was the latter, then it’s a call for trade unionism. If it is the former, it’s sad. 

Vatinakama is not something that one has to solicit; conferring after all assumes hierarchy.  It is something that one has to acquire.  It is about refusing the play according to someone else’s rules, refusing to inhabit someone else’s version of one’s reality and being the master of one’s own fate.

Nice words.  Good slogans. Good feel-good stuff. Real life, however, is unforgiving.  The boy’s mother cuts corners on the moral-track. She has to.  And yet she comes off as a character worthy of salutation.  It took me back to a line in Athula Liyanage’s film ‘Bambarawalalla’: ‘‘Good and bad exist only when we are alone with our thoughts; out there when among others, in society, in the world, good and bad don’t count.’ There is a need, I believe, for private heroism, an on-my-terms heroism, a heroism whose dimensions can be progressively expanded as counterpoint to ever expanding and corresponding ‘other’ sizes; from individual to household to community to nation. 

I do not think we are an unhappy nation.  I don’t think we need heroes.  I believe we are not lacking in heroes or heroism and certainly not in the ‘our type’ typified by Vidu.  This was amply demonstrated during the 30 year long struggle against terrorism.  ‘Our’ was an idea that was conferred pariah status. ‘Their’ had value. ‘Their’ was deified, worshipped and allowed to define the contours of ‘our’.  The ‘our’ heroes persisted. They did not pick the dollar dished out by the voyeuristic foreigner, holidaying and clicking a camera.  Sure, many did, but there were enough ‘our’ heroes who refused to be devalued.  They delivered. Vidu is not a future hero, then. He is a clone of heroes whose existence Handagama (and others) for a long time did not see any worth in acknowledging. That’s something to think about.

There was a brilliant old-Handagama moment in the film. Right at the end.  Vidu, after scampering over one obstacle after another, finally makes it to the event in school where he has to deliver a much-hyped speech.  He gets there and begins by thanking those who came to hear him speak.  Curtain fall.  Handagama tosses the political ball to the audience.  I could hear him say ‘your ball to hit’. 

Vidu is, in this sense, more than a feel-good film.  There is a lot of old-Handagama in the film than meets the eye.  Some of the ideological wares of the film-maker are crudely show-cased, but he has given us some think-points.

There are no saviours out there.  You are your own hero. I am mine.  It is up to us to deliver ourselves from evil and indeed ourselves, i.e. evict the corrupting and violating ‘other’ that resides within us.  That’s Siddhartha Gauthama speaking.   Now that’s a kind of ‘our’ hero I can identify with, even in these times when heroes are not needed. 

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.  This article was first published in the 'Sunday Observer' in December 2010.