Machismo is mostly seen as a measure of manliness. In 2012, Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage developed that thought into a film, set against the backdrop of the 25-year-long Sri Lankan civil war. “War and conflict are the highest manifestations of masculinity and show the degree of manliness in a person,” says Vithanage, whose latest film With You, Without You (Obba Nathuwa Oba Ekka) explores the qualities that define a man. The film won awards and recognition at film festivals in Dharamshala, Kerala and the Asia Pacific Screen Awards in Australia. It releases in theatres nationwide on June 20.
The 90-minute film is inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story The Meek One. The story looks at the curious relationship between a man, who owns a pawnbroker shop, and a woman, who frequents the place to sell her jewellery and personal belongings for a meagre sum. Vithanage uses the same premise for his film, but sets the characters in the middle of the ethnic and communal tension that has divided Sri Lanka since the beginning of the war. “I wanted to explore how a man’s egoism and assertiveness pans out with a woman, in a relationship. What made it more complex was the backdrop of the war. It gave me a chance to look into myself and at my relationship with my wife as well. I wanted to see how attitudes that men take for granted affect others,” says the 52-year-old, who started off as a theatre director in Sri Lanka in 1983.
Vithanage’s story starts after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the hands of the government forces in 2008. While the pawnbroker is a native Sinhalese, the girl is a Tamil refugee, who fled to Bogawantalawa, central Sri Lanka, which was least affected by the war. Their marriage exposes their dark pasts, and reveals their personal dilemmas that clash with their conscience. Shyam Fernando as Sarathsiri is a former Sri Lankan army soldier and Anjali Patel as Selvi has lost two brothers in the war.
The picturesque location of Bogawantalawa, with tea plantations, lush green countryside and overcast weather, helped in revealing the complexity of the characters and the thought behind the story. “That place gave a certain kind of coldness because we are taking about the coldness between the two characters,” says the director, who shot for 35 days in 2012, within a budget of US $ 250,000.
Fernando, a Sri Lankan stage actor, makes his film debut and Patel won the Best Actor for this film at the International Film Festival of India, Goa, in 2012.
This is Vithanage’s seventh film in a career spanning two decades. In effect, it brings him full circle with the completion of his war trilogy (the first two being Death on a Full Moon Day in 1997 and August Sun in 2003). Though his latest, With You, Without You, comes after a gap of more than a decade, Vithanage says that he was not consciously attempting to complete a trilogy. “The stories are not related except for the civil war. I wanted to tackle the many questions that came up with the war. In the first two films, I was looking at what it is like to lose your next of kin, and here I think it is about the impossibility of reconciliation,” says Vithanage, who still stages plays.