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'You Can't Understand Human Beings...'

July 01, 2024 14:34 IST
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'...without looking into yourself.'
'What matters most is human relationships and the human mind.'

IMAGE: Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran in Paradise.

A film-maker, who chooses to make a political film, is often a person with a cause.

For Sri Lankan film-maker Prasanna Vithanage, cinema is a medium to hold a mirror to society. His films are concerned with the complexities of socio-political events and their impact on individuals.

In his latest directorial Paradise, Vithanage sets the backdrop of tumultuous times in his homeland during the financial downfall of the country in 2022. The narrative is centred on an Indian couple that arrives in crises-ridden Sri Lanka for a holiday. The narrative tells a layered relationship drama that also wrangles with complex issues that gripped the Island nation.

Starring Malayalam actors Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran, Paradise won the Kim Jiseok award for Best Film at the Busan International Film Festival 2023.

"You cannot make an honest film without looking into yourself. Can you criticise society without being critical about yourself? You need a critical eye towards society, otherwise why would you make films?" Prasanna Vithanage asks Mayur Sanap/

Paradise is subtle in its exploration of human nature and relationships. At the same time, it serves as a compelling critique of a major political event. What inspired you to write this story?

There was a journalist named Oriana Fallaci. I think she became famous when she interviewed Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s.

I saw somewhere she said that situations like war and economic depression bring out the hidden truths about humans.

It's true, I think.

I did a trilogy on the background of the prolonged ethnic war, which happened in Sri Lanka from the 1980s to 2009 -- Death on a Full Moon Day (1997; Sri Lankan title: Pura Handa Kaluwara), August Sun (2003; Sri Lankan title: Ira Madiyama), With You, Without You (2012; Sri Lankan title: Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka).

For me, what matters most is human relationships and the human mind. But without understanding the social undercurrents, you cannot bring out the inner psychology.

That's what I have been trying to do for a long time in my cinema.

Paradise is kind of a culmination of that: An economic crisis that happens in Sri Lanka and two people, who have nothing to do with it, come to visit the country on Ramayana tour. They are indifferent to the surroundings but it overwhelms them.

IMAGE: Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran in Paradise.

You once said although the territory is Sri Lanka, it is an Indian movie. Can you elaborate on that?

There are three things.

First, it's an Indian production.

Second, the story happens to two Indians, and the lead roles are done by Indian actors. But it's with a Sri Lankan director (Laughs).

We have five languages in the film: Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, Sinhala and English.

That's why I am also calling it my first Indian language film.

IMAGE: Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran in Paradise. Photograph: Kind courtesy Prasanna Vithanage/Instagram

In the film's context, the title Paradise has a melancholic feel to it. How did you come up with this title?

The title was suggested by my producer Anto Chittilappilly of Newton Cinema, and I agreed.

It's melancholic, and at the same time, ironic.

Sri Lanka has been called paradise in various stories and by many historians. It's one of the most beautiful countries when it comes to natural beauty.

At the same time, a lot of blood has been spilled after the independence.

It saw two insurgencies, in 1971 and 1988, and a prolonged civil war from 1980s to 2009.

All this carnage happened as kind of a counter to the beauty. That's why I thought the title was apt.

Rajeev (Ravi, cinematographer) and I wanted to bring it out like that rather than making a garish film. We thought the natural beauty should be there as counter to what's happening in the foreground.

What are your personal experiences that have gone into making this film?

You cannot make an honest film without looking into yourself. Can you criticise society without being critical about yourself?

You need a critical eye towards society, otherwise why would you make films?

A film-maker brings certain truths that society doesn't want to accept.

I remember Tarkovsky (Andrei Tarkovsky, the late Russian movie maestro) once said, we are telling these stories so that the society will be better.

In my film, Kesav has been married for five years.

I have been married for 31 years.

You cannot understand other human beings without looking into yourself. Whatever I say to you, all these profound things, when it comes to the practicalities, what matters is how we behave in our close relationships.

It's a kind of a mirror that I am holding to myself and I hope that mirror will not only reflect on me but it will reflect on other human beings also.

IMAGE: Prasanna Vithanage with Roshan Mathew. Photograph: Kind courtesy Prasanna Vithanage/Instagram

How did you decide to cast Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran? Were you aware of their work in Malayalam cinema?

For me, casting is the most important part of direction. If you cast the right person, you have accomplished 90 per cent of your job regarding acting.

I wanted a person who is cosmopolitan, somebody who is from Kerala, and he should have some charm.

Roshan Matthew possesses all these qualities.

I wanted him from the beginning.

I have seen his work like C U Soon, Kappela, Moothon.

Darshana came later.

(The character) is little overshadowed by the husband. I thought she should be petite.

I knew Darshana is an amazing actress. I have seen her Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey and other films.

I thought their chemistry would be ideal for the film.

Both of them are really good in the film.

Can I add something?

Yes, please.

Yesterday, when I was watching the film with the audience, I felt male actors, especially in our part of the world, are not very keen to show their vulnerable side.

If you see a performance by, let's say, Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront or Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, you can see their vulnerability and understand the ache.

I am grateful to Roshan, who is such a well-known star, for showing a darker side (of his character).

We all have that but don't want to identify with it. What good actors do is that they open their hearts.

I'm not saying it's inside Roshan but he was ready to understand Kesav (his character's name) and not to judge him.

Also, I always believed that good actresses bring a certain kind of independence to their characters that even a director or script writer has not imagined of before.

And Darshana did that with Amritha (her character's name).

IMAGE: Mani Ratnam, A Sreekar Prasad and Prasanna Vithanage at the poster launch of Paradise. Photograph: Kind courtesy Prasanna Vithanage/Instagram

How did Mani Ratnam's Madras Talkies come on board to present this film?

I have been coming to Chennai from 1993 and working with Mr Prasad (A Sreekar Prasad, film editor) from 1997.

Sreekar Prasad, we fondly call him Nani, was the common link between Mani Ratnam and me.

I asked Mani Ratnam's manager, Siva Anand, if he would accept to present my film. He immediately said yes.

He gave me his banner out of love for the film. Siva Anand said there's no financial involvement and Mani Ratnam was ready to present the film. It shows his magnanimity.

Before this, Mani Ratnam wanted to shoot part of Ponniyin Selvan in Sri Lanka and I was the line producer. But it didn't happen because of the COVID pandemic and they decided to shoot it in India instead.

Our friendship continued and I'm grateful to Mani Ratnam and Madras Talkies.

IMAGE: Prasanna Vithanage with his crew on the sets of Paradise. Photograph: Kind courtesy Prasanna Vithanage/Instagram

It is a struggle for an indie feature to find a theatrical release. With the kind of backing you have got, what do you hope to achieve with the wider release of Paradise?

See, within these two weeks, there is a release of other blockbusters but we are still going ahead.

This is a small film; by small I mean, the scale, the business and the stars it features.

We are ready to face any outcome but I believe this film has a potential to hold the audience's attention.

I'm grateful to my producers at Newton Cinema that they decided to go for a wider release. They said we will spend money because later, they don't want to regret they didn't do justice to the film as producers.

Yesterday, when I was in this auditorium, there were so many people who felt closer to the film. They could relate to it.

We make films because we want to say something through our beloved medium of cinema and we hope it will touch others' hearts.

If that happens, I would be more than happy.

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