Films & Feni: An Interview with Prasanna Vithanage

Posted on November 29, 2008


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NOV 30, 2008 – Prasanna Vithanage is at Goa to present his latest film, Akasa Kusum (Flowers in the Sky), which I’d caught a while earlier, while still in Chennai, courtesy its editor and co-producer, Sreekar Prasad. While I found the film thoroughly engaging and, often, quite moving, I was more intrigued by the frame of mind that brought about this atypical effort. And hence my first question to the director…

Your films, so far, have been macroscopic to a large extent, looking at life in Sri Lanka through the lens of war and strife. But with Akasa Kusum, you seemed to have entered extremely personal territory.

So far, I’ve aimed my camera at the society in general. This time, I wanted to aim the camera at myself. I was determined to make a film about my own profession. That’s how Akasa Kusum came about.

Are you saying you wanted to make something like 8-1/2, which revolved around a director, or Day for Night, which was about the making of a movie? Because your film is about the travails of an actress…

And why not? Actresses are from the same profession. We use images of women all the time to ignite the desires of audiences, and then we discard these women. We are a part of this process. So even if the film may not be autobiographical – as in, it isn’t about my life – it is about the life of an actress I know.

What made you focus on an actress instead of an actor? Is it because their careers are typically short-lived, and once their ability to, as you put it, “ignite the desires of audiences” fades away, they fade away too?

In Asian countries, when a woman becomes a star, she becomes the victim of a particular lifestyle. She forgets her true self, over a period of time. She’s looked upon not as a person but as an actress, as an embodiment of what she does. And suddenly, when you’re out of a job, you’re not even a person any more, because the only thing you ever were is an actress. That, to me, was interesting.

Malini Fonseka is wonderful in the film. Were there any associations she brought to the script that made you choose her?

She’s the queen of Sri Lankan cinema. Even today, she’s busy with her acting and her teledramas, so she’s not exactly faded from public memory, the way Sandhya Rani (the character she plays) has. I thought she could depict both the faded-from-public-eye aspect, as well as the star quality. And she made the film her own. She’s my sister-in-law in real life, and I used a lot of her life while writing the screenplay. It’s possibly more her autobiography now than mine.

Didn’t that prove problematic, because, to an audience that doesn’t know better, it could come across as her life story, especially since you use clips from her famous films?

When I first suggested she play Sandhya Rani, she refused. This was in 1991. She did say that people would think it was her life story. Then she fell ill with cancer and underwent treatment, and afterwards, she agreed to the film. When the film was premiered in Sri Lanka, no one came up to congratulate her. They probably were stunned or embarrassed by what they must have thought was a real-life story. She was very upset, but then the congratulatory calls started coming in.

What about the title? What does that connote?

I wanted it to be some sort of metaphor for stars. Akasa Kusum refers to the stars in the sky, and also to their impermanence. They disappear after a while.

That’s beautiful. In the story, you have two sets of mother-daughter relationships, one between Sandhya Rani and the soap star Shalika (the marvellous Dilhani Ekanayake), who moves into the older actress’ home, and the one between Sandhya Rani and her estranged daughter Priya (Nimmi Harasgama). But the latter comes very late into the film, and we do not quite feel that Shalika’s arrival into Sandhya Rani’s life is some sort of compensation for Priya’s departure. Is this intentional?

We wanted to keep the relationship between Sandhya Rani and Priya as discreet as possible – because once that relationship comes to the centre, the interaction between Sandhya Rani and Shalika automatically takes a backseat. And we didn’t want that. Also, Priya hated her mother for abandoning her and had forgotten about her till Sandhya Rani resurfaced as a soap star. Only then did Priya call her mother. If Sandhya Rani is the protagonist, Priya is the antagonist. And we wanted to keep her in the background till their destinies collide.

When Priya becomes pregnant and she moves into an apartment with her woman-friend, it appeared to me that they were a lesbian couple. Is that the case, or did I over-interpret this situation?

Yes, they were a lesbian couple, but we didn’t want to emphasise the fact and make it sensational. That would make it seem that they were not normal, while we wanted to treat them very normally, as just another family. Highlighting this would have taken away the focus from the rest of the story. The main thing to concentrate on, in this part, is that Priya decides to keep the child because she wants to prove to Sandhya Rani that she is nothing like her, that she is better than her mother.

It’s interesting, then, that Priya’s profession as a karaoke bar hostess – a sort of geisha – requires her to be a sexual fantasy for men, while in reality, she’s with a woman.

She’s not exactly a prostitute, if you’re suggesting that. She has to hang around with the men and make sure they have a lot of drinks and end up shelling out a lot of money. Her job is to entertain. But when I visited these bars for research, I found that many of these girls are sick of men. They mistrust men, they hate men, and they lie to men all the time. And they find it easier to be in relationships with women.

Another interesting aspect of your film is that the homosexual relationship is shown to be the stable one, whereas the heterosexual ones (between Shalika and the married man who dumps her, or between Sandhya Rani and the husband that she dumps) are brittle and ephemeral. Is this, again, a deliberate subtext?

Not really. Sandhya Rani represents a class of people who do not marry because it could affect their career, and then end up without anyone wanting to marry them. Even Shalika, being an actress, is drawn to someone from her profession, someone always in close proximity, but it ends up an unstable relationship. It just happens that Sandhya Rani and Shalika are subconsciously searching for relationships, whereas Priya is the one who finds some sort of stability.

Finally, what has the response been like, to this very women-centric film, which is quite unlike your earlier work?

Akasa Kusum was very well received at the Pusan International Film Festival, in Korea, and also at the New York South Asian Film Festival. The women in the audience, especially, loved it and took to the character of Sandhya Rani. As for me, I’ve made films about relationships earlier, but there was always a historical or political aspect to them. This time, I wanted to move away from the war. That’s why Sandhya Rani changes channels on TV when she comes across war footage being shown. I wanted to show that other things are happening in Sri Lanka too, after the impact of globalisation, like the disintegration of family. After engaging with the environment and the society so far, this time I wanted to engage with the self.

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign