Love and war: In the thick of the battlefront

Film Review: Boodee Keerthisena’s Tamil film Matha brings a new dynamism to contemporary Sri Lankan cinema says Tilak Samarawickrema

Boodee Keerthisena’s new film Matha makes a strong and evocative cinematic statement: The film depicts the trauma and horror of the separatist war that consumed Sri Lanka for 30 years. The narrative tells the story of Parvathi (Yasodha Radhakrishnan) and Yoga (Dharshan Dharmaraj), a young Tamil girl and boy whose childhood innocence and love for each other is snatched away by war, later both forcibly conscripted by the LTTE.

A scene reminiscent of the beachhead landings in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Yasodha Radhakrishnan playing the role of Parvathi

A decade and a half after their separation, the two now hardcore LTTE cadres, meet again on the battlefield. Their love is reignited with the same intensity as the flames of war that rage around them. Parvathi becomes pregnant with Yoga’s child, violating a cardinal code of conduct of the LTTE for which she will have to pay dearly. With the war intensifying and the Sri Lankan forces closing in, death stares upon them as Yoga and Parvathi confront a dilemma: take a chance and surrender to save the child she is carrying, commit suicide, or face execution by the LTTE.

Matha is essentially a Tamil film with Sinhala and English subtitles. It is shot on location, from the jungles of the Wanni to the beach of Pudumathalan, where the last phases of the civil war were fought.
Matha graphically and evocatively depicts the fanaticism and ferocity that drove the fighting cadres of the LTTE. Focusing on the young women and forcibly conscripted child soldiers, it explores the brutal and single-minded nature of their total commitment to their dream of a separate homeland. It was a dream for which they were prepared to pay any price, violating even their most sacred family bonds. It is an all-consuming dream and it consumed all of us.

On the other hand, the film captures the fighting spirit of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces shown through scenes of fierce combat. Highly motivated and highly trained, these young men and women too had one objective: total victory on the battlefront. The film reminds us that this was the task they had been given and the goal which they had to achieve. In order to do so, they had to be willing to die.

Boodee Keerthisena evokes the traditional family bonds sacred to the people of the north. He paints a harrowing picture of people dragged from their homes and forced to live in makeshift shelters amidst the chaos and horror of war.

The conflict between traumatized and desperate parents and their children blinded by the fanatical quest and dream of Eelam is vividly portrayed in its gory, graphic detail. Native speakers of both languages are cast in the film adding an authentic flavour.

With its modern armory and firepower, accentuated by special sound effects, Matha throws viewers directly into the battlefront, at times quite an unnerving and uncomfortable experience though a feature now common to contemporary cinema.

Boodee Keerthisena’s cinematic prowess is best manifest in one spectacular scene where panoramic camera angles capture the Sri Lankan Navy and Special Forces’ amphibious landing on the golden beaches of Pudumathalan backed up by the relentless pounding of the artillery of the naval gunboats. Here one is reminded of the beachhead landings in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998).
In terms of cinematography and special effects, Boodee Keerthisena brings a new dynamism to contemporary Sri Lankan cinema.

However, before it is screened for international film circuits, a venue where it rightly belongs, the film needs tight editing. For instance, I felt the sudden juxtaposition of a Bollywood dream sequence with the battle narrative dilutes the film’s full impact. Further, the force of the story could be made stronger by trimming the language and letting the visuals carry the narrative. Especially towards the end, unnecessary dialogue between a Sri Lankan officer and Parvathi distracts one from the main thrust of the film.

Beyond any doubt, Matha embodies a new generation of South Asian cinema, which I hope will reach an international audience.

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