| by Malinda Seneviratne
(January 24, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Half way during a private screening of Boodee Keerthisena’s ‘Matha’, i.e. during the intermission, someone asked me what I thought about the film. My necessarily quick response was ‘too much war’. Perhaps this is because we did indeed have ‘too much war’. Thirty years is a long time in a man’s life, after all.
‘Matha’ is not the first ‘war film’ based on events in Sri Lanka. We’ve had Ashoka Handagama’s ‘Me Mage Sandai’, Prasanna Vithanage’s ‘Purahanda Kaluwara’ and ‘Ira Mediyama’, Vimukthi Jayasundera’s ‘Sulanga Enu Pinisa’, Sudath Mahadivulwewa’s ‘Sudu Kalu Saha Alu’ and a host of other films which drew from or drew in ‘the war’, at times in tasteful and appropriate ways and at times as an add-on that jarred. That’s how it is, I suppose, when one lives in what appears to be a perpetual war zone, so to speak, and in certain cases when vilifying the state makes for brownie points from high places where white men and women expiate participatory guilt by rewarding those who speak of other horrors in other places, real or imagined, true-dimensioned or exaggerated.
A single film cannot do a capture-all of any war. Wars are about death, destruction, displacement and dismemberment. They are about history and narrative, politics and machination, brinkmanship and error. Through it all there is countless human stories made of tragedy and triumph, solidarity and betrayal, tough choices and tears, loss of childhood and innocence, growing up and growing hard, times of determination, stoicism, pity and pitilessness. ‘Matha’ speaks to these things but is inevitably incomplete in narrative. And yet, ‘Matha’ is different and refreshingly so because it captures a human story or human stories rather against the backdrop of inevitable horrors of war, a ‘backdrop’ which moreover inexorably invades and intertwines with the unfolding of the human story.
Wars are not happy things and the world can very well do without them. Now that’s a truism that need no elaboration. Most of the films mentioned above played on that theme, using the human angle. Left out of the idealist posturing is the hard and sobering fact that a people don’t always have the luxury of making easy choices. To put it bluntly, we can opt for no-war (because wars are terrible things) and have a gun-toting maniac walking all over our lives. You won’t want a thug doing the ‘as I please’ in your house and to your property and what is logical for the individual is not illogical for the collective.
There were close to 300,000 people held hostage by the LTTE. The LTTE, in fact, had held the entire country hostage for three decades. When terrorists held people hostage in a Mumbai, they had to be taken out. It was not pretty, but had to be done nevertheless. Same principle.
Saying is easy, doing tough. It is to the credit of the script-writer, Ariyaratne Athugala, and the Director, Buddhika (Boodee) Keerthisena, that the film captured the toughness not just of executing the twin operation of taking out a terrorist and saving a captured people but the ‘tough’ of being, suffering, getting wounded, dispossession, exploitation of vulnerabilities, loving and caring even as bullets whizzed by, and dying.
I did get the sense that the script tried to do it all. Key aspects of the war were woven into the story (the LTTE massacring hundreds of Muslims at worship in Kattankudy, for example), admittedly tastefully, but putting everything in is impossible and selection always raises questions about that which gets left out (inevitably). Parvathi was not a willing recruit. She was, unlike her younger brother, did not hold the LTTE in awe. She had no admiration whatsoever for the Army either. This cannot be put down to ‘brainwashing’. When she urges Yoga to cross lines, it is only on account of concerns for the baby in her womb.
The film accurately portrays the LTTE’s brutality and captures much of that organization’s inhumanity that other film-makers essentially pussy-footed around. While reiterating that no one can do a capture-all in a single film, one notes that two very important and signature elements of the LTTE have been left out: goading the wounded and disabled into buses and them blowing them up since the LTTE couldn’t treat them and couldn’t afford to let them leave, and the shelling of a church that housed orphans and hundreds of children in order to ferret them out for recruitment. A third, that of fathers impregnating their daughters to save them from recruitment, is a film in itself.
On the other hand, ‘Matha’ leaves out the unnecessary violence unleashed on innocent peoples by the security forces, especially in the first two decades of the war. These acts helped the LTTE recruit people. As much as the Tamil people in these areas hated the LTTE or else supported it grudgingly, they had little love for the Army. When they finally fled into liberated areas, they came with many questions, doubts and a lot of fear. The question is ‘Why?’ and it hasn’t been adequately addressed. The humanity of the Sinhala soldier who ultimately steps in to save a Tamil woman he had known in a different time and different context is also real. The humanity of a Tamil combatant to a Tamil is evident, but I am sure that humanity was not put on hold at all times when Tamil combatant encountered a Sinhala soldier in reduced battlefield circumstances. I didn’t see that in ‘Matha’. I am not for a single moment advocating a scripting of artificial ‘balance’, but I did feel a slant that worried.
At the end of the film I didn’t think ‘too much war’. I thought ‘as much war as reality warranted or warranted by the needs of portraying reality’. I took a couple of other thoughts away. First, that this film, more than any other production that refers to the conflict instilled in me the conviction that we cannot afford go back there again. Secondly, by laying out the human condition in all its glory and all its frailties, the desperation and the resolve, even in the throes of intense battle, ‘Matha’ told me that we can never conclude ‘all is lost’.
The last days of the war were not pretty, but neither were the decades that Sri Lanka lived through before it got to that denouement. It is much prettier now, but there’s nothing to say that ugliness is dead and buried for evermore. ‘Matha’ to me is a reminder of what can happen and gently speaks about what might prevent it from happening all over again; the tenderness that is never extinguished, the humanity that survives all and has no colour, ethnic identity, language or religion.