Questioning identity politics

It was 1992 when acclaimed Sinhala filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage thought of the story. Sri Lanka’s civil war was raging. The ethnic divide between the majority Sinhalese and northern Tamils was deepening with no end in sight. It made him question the politics of identity that he saw at the heart of the strife. “We fought a war for some 35 years based on our identities. And at the end of it, we did not understand each other any more than we did at the beginning,” he says.

He was echoing a sentiment that many Sri Lankans often voice — that the war may have ended in 2009, but the conflict hasn’t. The Tamils are still demanding political rights and the distrust between the two communities or their political leadership hasn’t evaporated a decade since.

Giving his scepticism of identity politics cinematic expression, he made Gaadi [Children of the sun], about 25 years after he conceived the storyline. Except that the film, which recently premiered at the Busan Film Festival in South Korea, doesn’t talk about Sinhala-Tamil tensions. Instead, he chose to turn the lens inward on the Sinhalese society, zooming into the caste hierarchies and identities around them.

Contrary to popular perception outside Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese society is hardly homogeneous. While Buddhists and Catholics, for instance, bring their respective religious dimensions to their Sinhalese ethnicity, the society also maintains caste divisions, though perhaps not as visibly as in India. “See our matrimonial ads in the Sunday papers — it’s all caste-based. And caste also plays a part in our elections, often influencing decisions around candidacy and voter behaviour,” Mr. Vithanage notes.

The film, set in 1814, speaks of a relationship between a woman of a dominant caste group with a man from the Rodiya community, who were outcastes in ancient Sinhalese society. They were not allowed to work and had to survive only by begging. The name Rodiya is said to have come from ‘Rodda’ or dust in Sinhala. Buddhism did not encourage ‘nachha, geetha, vaaditha’ [dance, song and playing instruments], considering them to be attachments. The Rodiyas were dancers, explains the filmmaker.

All the same, his film, he insists, is not about the past.

Historically, the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community has always created an “other” based on identity, he observes. “First, it was the Tamils, today, it is the Muslims, and tomorrow, who knows, it could be Christians. We are forever threatened by people who are different from us,” says the filmmaker. Gaadi is his commentary on “the futility” of identity politics. “Sri Lanka and India are plagued by it today, be it in the assertions of religious, ethnic or caste identities. But identity politics has not led us anywhere or helped us better understand the “other”. My film explores the need for love and respect, irrespective of differences.”

India connection

Mr. Vithanage’s familiarity with India is no surprise. He has been collaborating with Indian technicians since the 1990s. “The cultural life in Chennai was my main inspiration.” In Gaadi, co-produced by Mumbai-based Jar pictures, he has worked with the editor Sreekar Prasad, cinematographer Rajeev Ravi and music composer K from India.

As a young filmmaker, Mr. Vithanage keenly watched Indian films, including those of K. Balachander, Bharathiraja, Balu Mahendra [who hailed from Batticaloa, in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province] and the “early” Mani Ratnam. “I benefited a lot from those. But the last decade or so has also seen some fantastic talent in independent cinema. Even young directors like Karthik Subbaraj started off making small, independent films.”

Though an independent filmmaker, Mr. Vithanage follows mainstream Indian cinema closely. “A range of existential issues are being powerfully captured in Tamil and Malayalam films today,” he says, citing films such as Pariyerum Perumal, Visaranai, and Maheshinte Prathikaaram. He has also been watching the journey of filmmakers like Pa. Ranjith, who “did a great job keeping the subject bigger than the hero [Rajinikanth]” in Kabali.

In his view, telling stories of caste-based oppression is a progressive departure from conventional scripts, but he argues that “assertion of one’s identity can never be an end in itself,” unless it is part of a broader struggle. “Even nationalism started off as a progressive, anti-Colonial movement in our countries. But it always runs the risk of turning narrow and morphing into chauvinism. We see that in our countries today.” (The Hindu)

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