20 March 2015

Bambara Walalla: a life-dance common to us all

Athula Liyanage is a persistent young man.  I, on the other hand, am hard to catch.  My friend and part time boss, Irvin Weerackody says I am like a firefly, that I disappear. I’ve corrected him on numerous occasions, insisting that it is not that I am not around, but that I am at times invisible.  Athula did his best to show me his film before he sent it to the 43rd WorldFest Houston Independent International Film Festival USA.  He was, apparently, convinced that his debut film, Bambara Walalla (Whirlwind) would win an award and wanted feedback from eyes not dis(mis)coloured by the fact.  Didn’t happen.  I didn’t play truant, but I never got around to seeing it.

Still, I am not one of those people in awe of award or award-winners, knowing very well how subjective such exercises tend to be.  They do encourage, this I recognize, but they also inflate egos and thereby can very well dent the natural creativity of the awardee.  Athula, so far, hasn’t shown any sign of things going to his head, as they say, and this is good.  I finally saw the film a couple of weeks ago.  The award, the Jury’s Special REMI Award for the Best Direction, was not easily dismissed from mind, but I think I managed to keep it footnoted.

The term ‘Bambara Walalla’ refers to two things. First, ‘bambara’ means ‘of bees’ it is known that bees, when they engage in collective attack, sometimes do so in the form of a ring (walalla).  More interesting is the second definition. Bambara Walalla is a dance sequence peculiar to the low-country where the exponent spins around like a top (bambare) and within a specific circle. It is a sequence that only the best dancers can attempt.  Indeed, you need a particular kind of training to ‘enter the dance’ as well as to exit it; amateurs and adventurers can very well break their limbs attempting it. 

The dance-allusion of the title is intriguing and apt.  Life is, one might argue, nothing more than an invitation to enter this dance.  Indeed, it can be argued that it something that each and every one of us is required to dance, whether we like it or not, whether trained or not, and consequently, a process that ‘makes’ (a few) or ‘breaks’ (the vast majority).  Some are born with rhythm, some not. Some are quick learners, some not.  Some have intuition, some do not. Some have the requisite footwork, some have clumsy.  Nothing is scripted, though, and even the naturally gifted have to be vigilant, keep practicing, keep turning and turning and turning in order to survive. 

It has been said, I believe by Boodie Keerthisena that Sri Lanka film lacks people who can write stories.  What we have are people who are good at playing with a small (sometimes profound) idea, with ‘story’ being a somewhat mish-mashed something that is more frill than substance.  We have good role players, editors, make-up artists, music directors, cameramen and directors who have a great feel for cinematography. We lack, some have argued, people who can put these things together.  This is perhaps why we speak in nostalgic terms about Nidhanaya or go to any lengths to watch re-runs of Bambaru Avith and Paara Dige.  Bambara Walalla is not the first ‘story-film’ of course and there’s nothing to say that what could be called story-less or less-storied creations are somehow of lesser quality.  Still, this film has it all, I thought.

The film is tagged, ‘loin-cloth to jeans’ but that should not frame the engagement with the narrative, I hope.  It is only a purely materialistic sense that such evolution can be talked about. Our engagements with the larger corpus that is the human condition of which we are, admittedly, a part is a constant and unpredictable clothes-switch, metaphorically speaking, sarong to denim to tie-coat to briefs and nothing and not in this order either.  There are many other ways to view/frame the cinematic experience, I concluded.

A straight forward reading shows us a boy whose growing up is scarred by terrible circumstances.  ‘Podi Eka’ – The Small One, played by Liyanage himself --  is distraught and livid when his step-father rapes his sister. He kills the rapist and spends 17 years in prison.  Now this does not mean that one has to undergo trauma and embrace violence in order to dance the whirlwind, but Podi Eka’s story is not uncommon.  He struggles to return to a normal life. His mother, recipient of tragedies beyond average human quota, loses her mind and her life.

Enter Mel, an undertaker.  Mel (Mahendra Perera) notices and earmarks Podi Eka for recruitment as assistant long before circumstances offer him an opportunity to take the boy under his wing.  Mel is ostensibly a decent man who claims that his business is with the dead and not the living.  From the moment that the orbits of these two characters intersect drawn slowly but surely into a vortex of intrigue, violence, revenge, stratagems and confusion where every character trait of the human being is drawn out, evaluated, twisted and ground to dust in the play of personal agenda and the primordial need to survive in the harsh and unforgiving moment(s) of truth-making and falsification.   

Mel is not a pure villain and Bambara Walalla is not your classic good vs. bad narrative.  Neither is Podi Eka the quintessential innocent, tested by circumstances not of his choosing, drawing from hidden resource-reservoirs and triumphing over evil intent and evil-doers.  No, none of the main protagonists are clean-cut characters. They are all the ‘you’ and ‘I’ we meet on the street, workplace and family gathering and sometimes if we care to look, even in the mirror. What gives insight is their interaction with one another within an ‘overall’ of a fast, furious, violent, dramatic and yet so familiar and poignant unfolding. 

Podi Eka has to figure out Mel and the world of Mel, discover the Mel within himself, the Podi Eka within Mel and come to terms with these character-entities and their play which, in the end, is his play with himself.  Brilliant portrayals by Mahendra Perera and Athula Liyanage elevate the narrative to one of exceptional quality.  Mahendra brings out every nuance of a complicated and complicating character while Athula treats us to the tumultuous and at times surprisingly serene ‘within’ of Podi Eka.  The interplay of these two is excellently handled by the Director, with fidelity what requirements of balance and taste demanded by the narrative and his message-objective. 

The engagement is of a kind that it made me wonder if Mel and Podi Eka were really two characters or if they were two elements of a single character called MYSELF.  There is a final denouement of course.  The characters play out the ‘fate’ of script and in according to the narrative frame implied by the title of the film the skilled survive and the powerful perish on account of a single and even simple flaw; in this case, being slow at second-guessing the other and of course oneself.  We are left wondering where we are located, in what or before which whirlwind, and asked to consider the true dimensions of our individual characters as well as traits; the size of the Podi-Eka within us and how much of Mel we have. 

There is a claim at the beginning, not a lofty philosophical frame, but in fact rather somber and disappointing.  It struck me.  ‘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.’  It is a call not for the disavowal of ethics but in fact an invitation to engage in a more ethical kind of self-conduct.  The onus, Liyanage suggests and the film promotes, is on the individual. We don’t make the whirlwind, but we do inscribe on it our personal signature. There is nothing to say we cannot reshape it closer to the heart’s desire or dissolve it altogether.  It is up to you. Up to me. 

With this film, Athula Liyanage makes a statement.  He’s entered the whirlwind.  The Bambara Walalla of a creative existence is not by nature a one-off affair.  It is life-long.  He has showed that he can enter the dance.  I am not sure what skills he has to learn or to protect (as the case may be) to survive the long night of the dance.  Let him be assured that it will be long. Dark.  Violent.  Let’s hope he has the stamina, footwork, humility and the kind of integrity that references a personal universe of ethics, the kind that is ‘irrelevant’ to society and societal engagement.  He’s just said that he is not a ‘Podi Eka’, but perhaps he needs to be one if he wishes to mature and inhabit the full potential of his talent.   

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com