Vimukthi Jayasundara’s mother liked to tell him all sorts of stories. The way she told them was always different; others could narrate the same story and it wouldn’t be the same. Cinema was a kind of storytelling too, she told her son, and he remembers his first trip to the movies with her — his first encounter with the moving image. It was a “magical” experience, recalled the 41-year-old Sri Lankan auteur when I met him recently at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, where he was conducting a masterclass.
The magic would endure, inspiring him to tell his own stories, about his war-ravaged country and the perilous times we live in, in the form of motion pictures. Sri Lanka’s Civil War is a familiar setting but Jayasundara’s works offer fresh insights and a newfound intensity. Often allegorical and abstract but always deeply lyrical, his films evoke memories of war, comment on its futility, and view the modern world as a wasteland, while critiquing modernity — or a simplistic understanding of it.
A still from Chatrak.
He won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes with his debut, The Forsaken Land (2005). He couldn’t have been more proud — the jury that year was headed by Abbas Kiarostami; the two became friends soon after. His other films, Between Two Worlds (2009), Chatrak (2011) and Dark in the White Light (2015) took him to every important film festival in the world. He made new friends along the way; Carlos Reygadas, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Naomi Kawase among others. “I don’t want to be influenced by these filmmakers, but I ought to know their work to understand my place in contemporary cinema,” he said.
Born and raised in Ratnapura in the south of Sri Lanka, Jayasundara grew up watching a lot of sci-fi and horror films at home, because of his science teacher father’s interest in these genres. His childhood was marred by the violence of the military campaign in the south that suppressed the Marxist uprising in 1989. He couldn’t go to school for a year and the situation left him traumatised, but he spent the time reading all the books they had at home. An early and close reading of Karl Marx instilled in him ideas of fairness and justice, he says.
After winning the Caméra d’Or at Cannes, Jayasundara received a hero’s welcome in Sri Lanka; he was the first Sri Lankan to win the coveted award. But the euphoria soon dissipated. After The Forsaken Land released in theatres, he was besieged with threats, and military personnel appeared on television to attack the film, which is critical of the armed forces.
Still from The Forsaken Land.
Jayasundara said that he had a feeling Sri Lankan audiences didn’t really understand his films — the narrative is never linear, nudity and sex feature prominently in his work, and people suffer in his films. Laughing, he said, “I am glad my films are causing some provocation. Even if you dislike them, that’s an equally worthy reaction. I am not interested in making easy films. Cinema should enhance, rather than compress, our knowledge of the world.” In 2018, he set up the Colombo Film and Television Academy. The school currently has about 100 students and hopes to attract many more from South Asia.
Sri Lanka makes about 30 films each year, including both commercial films and arthouse cinema that is championed by the likes of Jayasundara, Prasanna Vithanage and Asoka Handagama. Most of these films are joint productions with foreign producers, or made with the support of grants received from film festivals abroad. This has also ensured steady visibility and circulation for political cinema, which has to contend with censorship at home. The box office, however, is still dominated by Bollywood, Hollywood and Kollywood films.
Sri Lanka has witnessed many catastrophes, including the recent Easter bombings. Jayasundara says that the biggest threat the country faces today is ethnic tension between the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities. He doesn’t think there is an easy solution to resolve the impasse, which the recent blasts have exacerbated.
Still from Dark in the White Light.
Climate of fear
“It is always the politicians who gain from a standoff. They are fanning sentiments of hostility and ill will. The Buddhists feel threatened, the Muslims are being told that the majority will overthrow them, and the same rhetoric is fed to the Tamils. The politicians create a climate of fear to justify their existence,” he said. Another grave concern is the growing presence and clout of China, which is helping build roads, airports and other infrastructure projects.
He is, however, hopeful that Sri Lanka’s youth will help rebuild the country. He spoke of how groups of young people from different communities worked closely together after the Easter bombings to prevent attacks on any particular community.
As we prepared to part, he said, “I don’t want to be completely thrown off by violence. I want to find life within it. How will I make films otherwise in this disturbing reality? Every film makes me feel more inadequate, and to overcome that inadequacy, I want to be able to continue making films.”
The writer is a culture critic and teaches literary & cultural studies at Flame University, Pune.