Film Review: Let Her Cry — Handagama’s abysmal sexual fantasy

The entire film looks spurious due to its phony plot. It appeared as if the filmmaker had contrived this particular plot as it would give him the licence to show the nudity of a young woman and throw in some sex scenes which can be a drawcard for the Sri Lankan cinemagoer.


by Maximus Jayantha Anandappa 

( July 30, 2016, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) Celebrated filmmaker Asoka Handagama’s eighth feature film “Aege Aesa Aga” (loosely titled in English as “Let Her Cry” coined from a phrase from its final dialogue line) is surely one of the weakest, most flawed and least artistic of his creations. This and his previous film Vidu (2010) shows a downward trend in his creative prowess and what he tries to accomplish as an artist Handagama seems to be getting increasingly confused about his role as a commentator and is backpedalling as an artiste.

If the role of an artist is to portray the nature of human relationships incisively and with accuracy using the artistic tools at his disposal, in this work Handagama has failed somewhat abysmally. In addition to the blatantly deceitful nature of this work, even his cinematic craft looks somewhat disappointing and unconvincing. Whether the storyline is read as a realistic portrayal of actual events or whether it is to be taken as part fantasy or part imagination, the ultimate outcome that unfolds on the screen looks flawed and jejune. I am even hesitant to consider this as a serious work of art. If someone wants to associate the word “art” with this film, certainly it should qualify to the category of counterfeit art, if I am allowed to borrow an age old phrase from Tolstoy (What is Art- 1897).

As an artiste, Handagama is a daring iconoclast which is also a chief point of attraction in most of his successful work. When the iconoclastic approach works, it gives incredible power to his art. In order to achieve this, Handagama typically is reliant on recreating some unusual or near apocryphal incidents and asking his protagonists to react in these situations and in the process would ruthlessly expose the nudity (niruwatha) or the bankruptcy of his characters and even that of the viewer. The key is, though the incidents may look improbable, Handagama is not far off the mark in depicting human nature or the nature of a conflict. This is no easy or simple task to accomplish. Only a mature artiste highly skilled in his trade can do this. This approach is also laden with risks because if it fails it is the artiste who will expose his artistic nudity. In the case of “Aege Aesa Aga” it is the latter that had taken place.

The plot and the storyline

The plot of this film can be described as the obsession an attractive young female undergraduate (Rithika Kodithuwakku) has towards her elderly professor (Dhritman Chatterjee) and her desire to have his child by having sex with him. Appearing to be still in late teens, her obsession is so compulsive she cannot get on with her routine studies and in fact we are told that she is skipping lectures regularly. The professor has a comfortable home and a settled lifestyle, and drives a newish car to work which shows his financial stability and prosperity. In spite of having the luxury of driving his car to work and back, he seems to be struggling to get through the day’s work, presumably lecturing (which is never shown). We are shown with repeated monotony many frames how he comes home dog-tired or exhausted, to be greeted by his wife and his young school going daughter (Sandali Ash), who seems to be alienated from both parents.

Ashoka Handagama
Ashoka Handagama

The director’s silence in offering a plausible explanation to validate the young female protagonist’s desire to bed with her old professor- of all people, is not only deafening to say the least, but spoils the credibility of the storyline from the very outset. And he looks just a very ordinary run of the mill professor who seems to be ageing graciously. One critic remarked that he is as charming and lively as the padlock in his bedroom. Certainly the professor did not look like the figure who can entice a young girl, particularly to bed with. He looked well past his retirement age and more like a grandfather to her.

Said to be from typical rural background and without a father, the girl is fiercely independent and lives in an apartment in style all alone allowing the professor to visit her whenever he fancied. (How good will it be if the average village lass or a boy entering the university can afford to live in a self-contained apartment in Colombo?). She seems to have nothing to distress her- academically, financially or socially except her irresistible fascination and carnal desire for the ageing professor. She also loved to claim that she was a (hot) sensation in the village, terrifying even the clergy.

Seduced by the girl’s approaches and insistence, the professor’s world oscillates between reality and sexual fantasy. The storyline reaches comic proportions when the professor’s ageing wife (Swarna Mallawarachchi) fearing that a scandal might eventually break, if he keeps visiting her abode secretly, brings the young female undergraduate on her own accord as a lodger in the professor’s house entirely for the convenience of the filmmaker. Amazingly this too is after the female undergraduate tells professor’s wife on phone about her uncontrollable passion for the professor, and her desire to have his child (by going to bed with him). One critic remarked that professor’s tormented wife must be canonised for this act of benevolence!

The arrival of the young female undergraduate as a lodger in the professor’s household sparks a series of family conflicts involving the undergraduate, professor’s wife and the daughter. Thanks to his “accommodating” wife, the professor is now free to chaperon the female undergraduate to the university in his car after dropping his daughter at school. The undergraduate is not satisfied with this state of affairs- she announces that she wants to be alone with her darling professor, somewhere else in a quiet corner, only both of them. How romantic and how stupidly contrived!

The latent tension in the indifferent relationship between the father and the daughter erupts one day when the daughter reacts unexpectedly when the professor shows some partiality towards the young female undergraduate during one of their petty teenage squabbles in the car. Reacting instantly, the irate daughter jumps out of the running car and amidst all traffic in Colombo makes one dash to the rail track to commit suicide. Mercifully the daughter is immediately trailed by the undergraduate who saves her life in the nick of time by pulling her away from a fast approaching train. The professor too seems to be able to beat his age and keep pace with the two young girls and reaches the place where the suicide is attempted just in time. Mother later expresses somewhat coldly her token gratitude to the undergraduate for saving her daughter’s life. A juicy climax to the crisis

Even though brought in by professor’s wife, the young girls’ continued presence in the household must lead to inevitable conflict between the old couple which starts with predictable verbal confrontation. While trying to take his dodgy silly story to its climax, Handagama wants to create drama on how jealousy and suspicion overtakes the hapless wife’s judgement.The height of this conflict is depicted in an episode which can be either interpreted as professor’s own fantasy of having sex with the young girl or his wife’s imagination that professor has had a sexual union with the same girl or both. Though economically and somewhat cleverly contrived and brilliantly edited, this episode, reliant on showing professor’s genital erection or his erection as imagined by his wife while he still sleeps like a baby, is finished in poor taste. This was possibly intended as the climax to their conflict.

The film ends in a scene not related to the main story, but with an apparent connection to the so called implied theme of “infidelity” of the film. In a highly contrived clumsily arranged episode, the four protagonists (professor, wife, daughter and the undergraduate) are brought to a temple to worship the Buddha. Also in the temple, assembled are a politician and his wife who had come to demonstrate their piety and to pledge support to the temple. The politician is seen in conversation with a plump looking Buddhist priest when his wife, seeing her husband’s mistress who had also come to the temple to pray, charges violently to physically assault the young mistress creating mayhem in the temple premise. The film ends with the four protagonists returning in the car discussing the event with divergent views- the wife marvelling womanhood and how women can muster unbelievable strength to react in extreme conditions, the daughter claiming she saw nothing untoward or special in the incident and the professor making a concluding somewhat irrelevant seemingly triumphant remark “let her cry”. The film also starts with the same scene.

The entire film looks spurious due to its phony plot. It appeared as if the filmmaker had contrived this particular plot as it would give him the licence to show the nudity of a young woman and throw in some sex scenes which can be a drawcard for the Sri Lankan cinemagoer. The early nude scene which shows the partial frontal view of the young university girl coming out of the shower, gesturing mischievously to him with his car keys, as if to tease the old professor that he had no way to escape, also looked a cheap narrative device to hold the interest of the viewer. I do not want to sound a moralist or a conformist, but I am sure many would agree with me that nudity or sex in an art movie must be shown only if it is absolutely necessary. One might come out with the counterargument that in the case of “Let Her Cry” the plot of the movie dictated the need for nude scenes.

Acting and Cast Direction

Much has been written about the acting in this film. Debutant Rithika Kodituwakku has shown courage in accepting the role of the young undergraduate and must be commended for demonstrating a high level of professionalism. She had done her very best to bring life to that faked caricature of a character, who must show her admiration and passion for a man who looks like her grandfather. Whenever the mismatched “couple” are together her acting is nullified or diluted by the casting of the professor and the flawed plot. With due respect- the 71- year old talented Bengali actor Dhritman Chatterjee tries his bit too, but obviously looks too old for the role. His dialogue diction in Sinhala was terribly out of place which did not help him either. The blame for this blunder should be aportioned to the director. In his defence, a renowned film director from Sri Lanka, in a personal conversation told me that Handagama was compelled to work with an overseas actor because the leading Sri Lankan actors who have the potential and the talent had refused to play this role.

Sandali Ash (I understand that she is Handagama’s own daughter) looks adequate as the indifferent teenage daughter glued to the television, but the repeated frames showing how she opens the door to let the father in and gets back to the business of watching TV maes her look stereotyped at times. The repetitious frames inserted to show the lack of bonding between the father and the daughter (especially the father chucking a bag of sweets on the daughter’s lap without even looking at her and the equally cold manner that she accepts this) was too stereotyped. The frozen faced wife praying in the shrine room shown repeatedly through the identical camera angle was equally irksome.

In her comeback after 23 years, Swarna Mallawarachchi does not look impressive at all. Has she lost the art of acting or with time forgotten how to act? Whether it was the director or her own choice, the wooden stony look in her face wasn’t impressive. There were one or two moments where she showed a glimpse of her talent in subtle facial expression, but these rare moments could go unnoticed due to the way her character has been cast or acted on the screen. During her heyday as a character actor she was compared with the best

Reviews

I was amazed to read some very positive reviews on this film particularly in Sinhala print media hailing this as an unqualified masterpiece and an accurate portrayal of the state of women in the contemporary society and marriage. One distinguished female academic even called it an elegy to womanhood and urged all women to see the film!

Handagama is saying nothing serious in this movie about women or their status or sexism or marriage or family life or even about contemporary life in Colombo. The sham storyline is too silly and flawed. Besides I doubt whether Handagama was ever serious or sincere as an artist in this work. Ravishing praise searching non-existing merits of the film reminds me very much the story of the emperor’s new clothes.

The prototype of that young female undergraduate can exist only in the figment of imagination of the director, and in this case she exists merely as a marketable commodity. Her altercation with the professor’s wife when harshly questioned about her parentage, which ends up in the girl showing her full frontal nudity to the professor’s wife, marvelling her own body, is another silly fabrication of the director. Perhaps Sigmund Freud might be able to explain the psychology of such behaviour.

The wife’s character is much more plausible but the director has faltered by manipulating her too much to suit the script. It is unusual that the teenage daughter should distance herself from both parents but I can live with this incongruity. Professor’s dilemma, temptation, sexual urge, sexual act or the fantasy (whatever intended by the filmmaker) cannot be dismissed as totally unreal on the account of male physiology, but sounds very much contrived and comical the way it was portrayed.

As for the redeeming features of the film, I have to scratch the head and think hard. Channa Deshapriya (cinematography) and Ravindra Guruge (editing) have contributed significantly to the technical excellence of the film. Both are highly skilled and experienced in their respective fields and hardly ever falter in their work. Handagama is a skilled director who knows how to tell a tale without causing boredom. The film moves at an absorbing pace though there were jejune moments. There are also some shots in the film which look more like a staged drama than a film. But this is again essentially part and parcel of his style.

Chithral Somapala who has been living outside Sri Lanka for a long time, making his debut, has given a reasonably good musical score adding something to the soundtrack. A rock musician, Chithral has opted for the style of chamber music using the piano and a cello/violin to a good effect for his background score, emulating Laxman Joseph de Saram, who possibly is the best exponent for film background music nowadays. Based on a fragment of the melody of the background music, the film’s promotional song “Aeherenda” (not included in the film) sung by Chitral himself showcased his strong and stable voice and effortless vocal rendition. Ironically this was possibly the only redeeming feature relating to the film.

Handagama also appears to have achieved another first in this film- this must be the only film relating to a university professor and his student and university life where there isn’t a single shot showing the university or its landscape. On a more serious note, credit must be given to him for running the entire film without using names for any of his four protagonists.

What is really disappointing is that Handagama does not seem to be sincere in his work has this spurious work scripted by him certainly has exposed his artistic nudity.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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