Earth once shaken | Daily News

Earth once shaken

Those in their forties would never forget that period. They had their prime youth spent amid the smouldering embers of a youth uprising. Those in their thirties were only the baby boomers. Anyone below that age group would not have the faintest idea what the 1988/89 means.

But then the earth shook and trembled. It was perhaps the biggest massacre Sri Lanka ever witnessed. Genocide, annihilation and whatever term it could be called, the country was the spectacle of 60,000 youths sacrificed to a cause (perhaps) untrue. Unlike the closing stages of the civil war, we have hardly any evidence to revisit that period. The technology was far from what we live off today.

That probably explains the scant attention that the artistes have paid (in contrast to the body of works on the civil war) to this dark period. Long before the Sri Lankan audience gets to set sights on his work, Visakesa Chandrasekaran had the Nice International Film Festival draw attention to his film. Paangshu, it is called, which is the vernacular to soil or earth and many implied layers of meaning.

The film recounts the narrative of Paba Nona, a rural mother, seeking justice for her son abducted during the 88/89 insurgency.

Chandrasekaran has to satiate himself with a nomination for the best screenplay, though the team under his direction has secured two awards. Nita Fernando receives the Best Actress Award in the Foreign Films category for the lead role, Paba Nona. Kumara Karawdeniya is the recipient of the Best Costume Designer Award.

Paba Nona is the toughest character Nita had to play. The role posed her quite a few challenges. First, she was not in the country when the 88/89 saga unfolded. Second, she is mighty scared of the waters. Nita Fernando tried to convince the director quite a few times that she cannot swim. But Chandrasekaran was not to buy that excuse. His directorial instinct insisted that she must not be dropped that easily.

“The director gave me six months. But still, I could not learn swimming. Once you drop me to the water, I am immediately looking for the bottom for support. I had been struggling with that for some time. Visakesa was not listening to me either when I asked him to find a replacement. One day he asked me if I could try to float up. I tried that and found that a little all right. I was on board, finally,” Fernando recalls her struggle to breathe life to another struggle.

Quality weighs over quantity in Nita Fernando’s filmography. She has earned a reputation following a handful of films. Duhulu Malak and Pavuru Walalu are the most notable among them, now complemented by Paangshu. In all these three films, she has portrayed the role of a woman in love. That love rests in three layers: sympathy, taboo and mother-figure.

Depicting the motherly love was Nita’s newest challenge with Paangshu and Visakesa. The director wanted her not to act a single second, on the other hand.

“The cast and crew had a workshop two weeks before the shooting began. I was shown everything related to the period on the storyboards. I gained a visual idea. I had to think the way Paba Nona would have thought and refrain from acting. I think that guidance paved the way for the award,” Nita remarks.

For Kumara Karawdeniya, costume designing was easier than eating a piece of cake. He survived that period in his prime youth.

“It is exactly the period we lived as youths fresh out of school. I still have the photographs taken off negative. I can relate to the tension that prevailed back then. I remember a laundry lady who used to visit us. Her name is Rosalind. And she was just like Paba Nona.”

But the challenge emerged when some of the costumes of the time are no longer available. Karawdeniya had to go an extra mile to find an equivalent.

The process of accessing a screenplay requires expertise, as the scripts are not submitted along with the film. The experienced Jury goes through the subtitles to gain an idea of the screenplay. They examine the originality of the script plus how it can depict cinema. Generally, a director makes amendments to a script to suit his visual essay, but the Jury can spot such instances as well, according to Director Visakesa Chandrasekaran.

Dr Visakesa Chandrasekaran is a senior lecturer at the University of Colombo. He has nevertheless taken up many roles as an artiste. That comes as no surprise, however, as Sri Lanka has only a handful of professional artistes. If you have imagination skills, Chandrasekaran notes that any professional can become an artiste.

“As lawyers, we are trained to switch parties and argue. Equipped with that legal discipline, I can easily take on the third person narrative. The director has many responsibilities. He has to ensure the artistic side while taking care of the technical side. On the other hand, he is a human resources manager. I have experience in project management. So I kind of find it easy to manage and plan,” Chandrasekaran explains.

The closing stages of the civil war offer an almost-firsthand experience thanks to the sophisticated technology. The same cannot be said in relation to the 88/89 period. Chandrasekaran grew up amid the charred bodies scattered on either side of the road, violent propaganda posted on city walls, families burnt beyond recognition, corpses afloat on the rivers and the sound of bullets leaving some distant barrel at supersonic speeds. These relics, never to be revered, inspired a budding filmmaker.

“There is a reason why I asked my actors not to perform. The seasoned actors have a style of their own they had improved through trial and error. It is all right to perform in such a manner to the small screen camera. But when you do it to the wide screen, it gets exaggerated. So I asked my cast to think over. Think over and act. Then the camera will capture those moments. That’s what they teach at contemporary acting schools,” Chandrasekaran notes.


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