‘Viragaya’ : The Way of the Lotus
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