Her. Him. The Other; Condemning of where we are and hopeful where we can go
In 2015, artists of various disciplines from around the island were invited to a meeting at the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation with former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga. Amongst the writers, artists and musicians were perhaps our most internationally celebrated filmmakers; Prasanna Vithanage, Vimukthi Jayasundara and Asoka Handagama. It was a town hall style meeting to discuss ideas and proposals for art that spoke to the national post-war conversation, art that would actively try to foster or reflect the need for reconciliation. Her. Him. The Other is an anthology film created from this initiative. The film consists of three short films, each one directed by one of the celebrated trio running between thirty to forty minutes, and each tackling a different aspect of post-war life. While some characters do appear in multiple shorts, sometimes as leads, sometimes simply in the background, the main link between the three is thematic. The three directors work with their own casts and their own crews to tell their own stories.
Each short takes its name from one of the three words in the title. Her, directed by Vithanage, follows an ex-militant videographer for the LTTE (Keshavarajan) as he navigates post-war life, travelling from the North in search of a young widow of a government soldier that he wishes to make amends with. Jayasundara’s Him focuses on a young Sinhala teacher (Pradeep Ramawickrama) as he takes on a new job in a primarily Tamil-speaking town and is confronted by a young Sinhalese boy who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tamil militant. Finally,The Other, Handagama’s effort, tells the story of a Tamil woman (Perlua Jeyaraj) as she visits Colombo to protest with other relatives of missing persons, and then stumbles across a young Sinhalese man whom she is sure is her missing son.
Vithanage’s Her is perhaps the most fascinating from the outset as he follows his videographer protagonist as he stumbles onto a film set, and befriends the film’s director (Handagama playing himself). The two strike up a deal where the director will help the man with his quest in return for help procuring an actor at the last minute. There are shades of Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 masterpiece Close-Up in the narrative conceit, as the film tackles the unlikely bond between a man living on the outskirts of society and a celebrated (real life) filmmaker. Even the unfussy, almost workmanlike, camera and editing style echo the previous film. This doesn’t take away from Vithanage’s work, if anything, it adds yet a further meta-layer to each of the film’s constructs and furthers the conversation that the Iranian film began. Vithanage pushes on the idea of cinema as survival. First quite literally, as it keeps the videographer in employment during the war, giving him purpose and a job as we see in flashbacks to the war. Secondly, on a spiritual level as we see him confess to Handagama that the filmmaker’s art kept him alive, giving him hope during the final period of the conflict. If this all seems a touch too idealistic, it is admirably cut by the machinations of the narrative and the choices in style, both which seem to undercut the protagonist’s need for closure. There is a remove in how Vithanage tells his story, and the plot machinations also work to show life as a series of unrelated vignettes, devoid of connective tissue. The tragedy of the story coming from our protagonist’s struggle to give those vignettes meaning, to create reason where there may be none.
Him, by contrast, is a seemingly more straightforward narrative; even its more supernatural elements are told in the most matter-of-fact way. However, the thematic ground it covers is vast. Over the thirty minute running time, the film touches on historical narratives, the particularities that language has to the post-war conversation, Sinhalese attitudes towards the Tamil people, the burgeoning Islamophobia sweeping through the nation and even reincarnation and Buddhist mythology. That Jayasundara manages this without making the film feel cluttered or clumsy is achievement enough, but Him’s power lies between these more underlined moments. The trajectory of its central character is fascinating. The teacher is a strict ideologue who tells his students that all Sri Lankans began as Sinhalese and people chose to become other ethnicities and religions after. We watch as this man, blinded by his own judgment, seeks to help a young boy and in the process muddies the waters even more. There are obvious parallels to be made here, but the film’s power is quieter. My mind keeps circling back to the image of the young boy in question, surrounded by adults discussing the veracity of his claims of reincarnation. The adults are lost in the ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ of the conversation, but the child simply plays with a stick he has found and pretends is a gun; for him the question is simple; he feels, therefore he is.
Handagama’s The Other is a bigger departure from what comes before. The main action of the narrative takes place in Colombo and in the span of twenty-four hours as the elderly woman and her motley crew of helpers comb the city to find her son. This crew is made up of a young widow of a Tamil militant, also in town for the protest, and a Sinhalese tuk-tuk driver who meets the pair and takes interest and pity on the elder woman’s plight. The film is perhaps a little neat in its construction sometimes; mistaken identities over ethnic lines, peoples of differing backgrounds and ideologies working together, and mothers from both sides grieving together are all seen within its frames– there’s a lot of very writerly construction here, but Handagama’s power as a filmmaker overpowers it. The Other has the most striking imagery of the three shorts, with the inky shadows and bright fluorescents of the Colombo streets providing an otherworldly glow to the proceedings. Also, the spectre of the missing man hangs over the proceedings, giving it weight and forgiving some of the narrative coincidences. But it is especially in its trio of leads (Jeyaraj joined by M. Raj Shri and Roshan Polwathege) that the film finds its power. Jeyaraj stops the whole film cold in several moments with a thousand-yard stare and eyes that speak to a lifetime of being marginalised in ways both public and private. There is a lived-in sense of ensemble in the film, each story beat and emotional scene is worn by the actors like an old t-shirt, snug and perfectly fitting. The intimacy they bring to the film makes everything in the narrative not only believable but downright heartbreaking.
But Her. Him. The Other is one feature, not just three shorts, and it does work as a cohesive whole. Each film, accentuating the one before, filling in the blanks left by the previous. The loose narrative threads that link the films together are of little importance, its true power coming from the fragmented nature of the triptych; as if each of the narratives can only barely skim the surface of a much larger, much more systemic issue. One walks away from the film with a feeling of having seen art that really speaks to the times we live in; depicting a nation coming apart, as splintered as it ever was before, but desperately reaching for conclusion, sometimes without first considering how it became splintered in the first place.
There is an inclination to scoff at projects such as these, government backed art that speaks to a national narrative, but if anything the format produces the most focused work from each of the filmmakers in quite some time, buckling with and against them, challenging them in all the best ways. Confines always help to create good art, and all three filmmakers have created work worthy of their canon: work that admirably shirks easy answers and pat conclusions, that questions the concept of reconciliation but also speaks to the urgent need for it. Her. Him. The Other is at once condemning of where we are and hopeful where we can go. Like its first third comments, the film speaks to the power of cinema and how it helps us survive.
Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke is a Playwright and Actor based in Colombo.