‘Vi­ra­gaya’ : The Way of the Lo­tus

Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka) - - NEWS -

The late Dr.Tissa Abey­sek­era di­rected four films:“Loka Horu”(1976), “Karu­makkarayo”(1980), adapted from Gu­nadasa Amere­sek­era’s novel; “Ma­haged­era”(1983), and his mas­ter­piece“Vi­ra­gaya”(1987), which un­for­tu­nately turned out to be his last film. Adapted from Martin Wick­remesinghe’s epony­mous novel, it was con­sid­ered to be ‘un­filmable’, largely be­cause the book was an in­ner char­ac­ter study of ‘Aravinda’ (the pe­cu­liar pro­tag­o­nist of the novel). Ever since its pub­li­ca­tion in 1956, the pro­tag­o­nist of“Vi­ra­gaya”has been an­a­lyzed and dis­sected by academia with vary­ing re­sults. But if there was any­one who was qual­i­fied to tackle this dif­fi­cult source, it was Tissa Abey­sek­era. A su­perla­tive screen­writer, he pre­vi­ously turned a bare five-page short story into a qual­ity, fea­ture-length script— the out­come be­ing“Nid­hanaya”(1972), con­sid­ered the apex of Sri Lankan cinema.

The story be­gins with a cer­tain Sammy dis­cov­er­ing Aravinda’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy; at this point Aravinda is dead, and the events of his life are re­layed on-screen as a flashback, all ac­cord­ing to his writ­ten bi­og­ra­phy. We see Aravinda’s ini­tial dilemma which be­trays his sen­si­tive char­ac­ter: he does not want to study medicine, sim­ply be­cause it in­cludes the dis­sec­tion of an­i­mal/hu­man bod­ies. Aravinda is a pas­sive char­ac­ter, he is not aroused by earthly achieve­ments, but he is not en­tirely with­out ‘ra­gaya’ (de­sire) ei­ther. Es­sen­tially the whole story and its char­ac­ter-arch could be in­ter­preted as his in­ner ef­fort to achieve ‘vi­ra­gaya’—a state where all de­sire, at­tach­ment, feel­ing are purged from the mind.

Tissa Abey­sek­era was well-versed in Sin­hala lit­er­a­ture, and one won­ders whether the fram­ing tech­nique of a ‘story-withina-story’ de­ployed by Wick­remesinghe in “Vi­ra­gaya”, that of Sammy pre­sent­ing Aravinda’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy to the reader, in­flu­enced the struc­ture of “Nid­hanaya” (which he scripted back in the 70’s). In it, the pro­tag­o­nist Wil­lie Abe­nayake also presents his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy to the viewer. There’s no doubt Wil­lie is an un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor, and Aravinda is quite re­li­able—I say ‘quite’ be­cause, even though we are made to be­lieve that he is the prod­uct of a ru­ral Sin­hala Bud­dhist en­vi­ron­ment, we do not see Aravinda as a con­ser­va­tive reli­gious per­son. He was ba­si­cally a rebel, go­ing against so­cial mores of the time; for in­stance, his de­ci­sion to take Bathee (a vil­lage girl) un­der his wing, was frowned upon by so­ci­ety who did not un­der­stand Aravinda’s gen­uine mo­tives. Hence it’s hard to as­sume that Aravinda’s pe­cu­liar mind was a prod­uct of the times, and it’s open to de­bate whether he was con­sciously pur­su­ing‘The Way of the Lo­tus’.

As a stand-alone film“Vi­ra­gaya”is ad­mirable, its tech­ni­cal mer­its com­ple­ment the slow-burn story—the smooth, track­ing cam­era lov­ingly cir­cles the char­ac­ters; the edit­ing is sparse, eco­nom­i­cal as be­fit­ting Aravinda’s pas­sive men­tal­ity. The com­po­si­tion and stag­ing is the­atri­cal, evok­ing the do­mes­tic dra­mas of Ing­mar Bergman. A sem­i­nal film in Sri Lankan cinema from an equally chal­leng­ing book,“Vi­ra­gaya” is con­sid­ered one of the top three films made in Sri Lanka, pre­ceded only by“Nid­hanaya” and“Gam­per­aliya”—both of which in­cluded Tissa Abey­sek­era’s ex­cep­tional cin­e­matic writ­ing skills

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