Refreshing dip into Bora Diya Pokuna
I felt great to have been invited to the February 14 premiere of Bora Diya Pokuna (Scent of the Lotus Pond), a film by Satyajith Maitipe that waited nearly ten years, post production, to be screened. The Censorship Board’s prudish disapproval of some sex scenes and passionate dialogue was behind the delay. The director stuck to his guns protesting that the sex was integral to the film’s overall theme, not just inserted for shock value and titillation.
Settling into my seat at the Regal Cinema, I thought a film conceptualized nearly a decade back might be slightly outdated now, but it was important that freedom of creative expression had prevailed. I anticipated an experience like slightly stale food, served up with some overpowering Sunil T-sauce in a futile attempt to jazz up the dish. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised. Refreshingly novel, Bora Diya Pokuna stands out among the recent crop of Sinhala films spinning nationalistic histories to massage the egos of would-be contemporary Dutu Gemunus.
The main characters of the film represent two industries that have propped up the rural economy in the last three decades or so, garments and the military, by generating thousands of jobs for young women and men. Their parents were shackled to the paltry incomes and indebtedness of agriculture (mostly paddy farming). Then, starting in the 80s, the sons began to feed the war machine, while the daughters fuelled the capitalist machine as garment factory workers or domestic labour in Gulf countries. They struggled hard to keep body and soul together and support their parents, siblings and extended families. The soldiers lived with the threat of imminent death or disability. Factory workers are compelled to endure substandard boarding houses, capitalist exploitation and
sexual harassment. The military men were elevated as ranaviruvo, ‘heroes,’ the women are reduced and objectified as mere ‘juki-kaeli,’ juki-pieces. Bora Diya Pokuna captures how these youth – ‘heroes’ and ‘pieces’ –reconstruct a precarious existence, uprooted from their homes, with little or no support from their parents and society. In a new environment, they experience the heady freedoms of love, romance and sex, under the shadow of new insecurities and vulnerabilities. The director captures this reality with a sharp eye, empathetic and compassionate, without moral judgment.
The film’s protagonist is Gothami, a woman born and raised in a rural village in Giribawa, in the North Central Province. She leaves her home for a garment factory in the city, goes to a remote village in Hambantota, then travels to a Gulf country before finally settling in Wennappuwa. Her journey symbolises the new mobility (spatial, geographic, economic, socio-cultural) thrust upon many working class women since the introduction of a liberal economy in 1977.
Gothami’s personality is striking. She has been at the receiving end of life since childhood. But she fights back in unique ways to realise the life she desires. The director brings Gothami to life with a delicate touch, avoiding the common pitfall of depicting women as virgin/whore, ingénue/seductress. Kaushalya Fernando plays Gothami’s multifaceted character with a high degree of acumen and discipline. She does justice to a challenging role with precision, nimbly sidestepping the dangers of overacting. As such, she is a strong contender for a best performance award this year.
Marking the film’s premiere on Valentine’s Day, women invitees received a single red rose in the foyer of the Regal Cinema. As I watched the film unfold, the ironic gesture became clear. Bora Diya Pokuna poses unsettling questions about labour and love, about the lives and bodies of the film’s women and men who make possible those pricey delicate trifles wrapped in thin cellophane film of tiny white hearts.
The director and producers must have suffered a great deal of frustration, not to mention heavy financial losses, while the film was in limbo. I think it a blessing Bora Diya Pokuna wasn’t screened ten years ago at the height of the war in the North and East. Bora Diya Pokuna’s fate was decided just as a decade of increasing political authoritarianism came to an end. Five years after the end of the war, we see the soldier of the film sans the heroic veneer of the ‘warrior who safeguards his motherland.’ The shine has been taken off the Sri Lankan garment industry by regional competitors, like Bangladesh and Vietnam. We can no longer close our eyes to the exploitation built into global capitalist flows positioning these countries as cheap labour nor write off incidents like the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse as isolated catastrophes. In other words, this is the ideal time for Bora Diya Pokuna, to relate to its narratives with a healthy sense of distance and introspection. Maitipe offers a quiet, well-composed reflection on recent Sri Lanka history and poignant characters whose dreams and harsh realities are shaped by a complex world.