Zooming back on a forgotten dark period
Reflections on Vijitha Gunarathna’s film “Valapatala”
By Dr. Asoka de Zoysa

Thirty seven years have passed after the first ‘Insurrection’ of 1971 when the state authority was challenged by a politically motivated paramilitary group of youth. The privileged class felt threatened and cold war conspiracy theories were whispered about during the curfew days of April 1971.

Today, not only the war ridden areas, but the entire island is faced with some kind of organized violence, however, Vijitha Gunarathna chose to locate his first film “Valapatala”, in that bygone era of the “I971 Insurrection”. One might ask why that particular era? Only a few Sri Lankans would recall vividly what took place then.

Some members of the ‘1971 JVP’ today are respected members of civil society. The party has many philosophies today. But the film director does not create nostalgia for the movement. Nor does he show actual confrontations of the Police and Army with the ‘insurgents’ or ‘trastavadin’ (as the JVP members at that time were named), but instead relates a chain of incidents in a most innovative way.

“Valapatala” is set in a village nestling on the Sabaragamuwa hills, a small village with the usual stereotypes – the Member of Parliament, the upcoming Mudalali... and the staff of the small hospital. The class distinctions in the village are clear. Each class is allocated with a space for negotiations with the more powerful ‘upper class’. Only the privileged like the Mudalali and his stooges are tolerated in the office room of the MP.

Only the prologue shows violence - thankfully there are no explosions with digital sound effects or black smoke. The school teacher who is the victim of politically motivated violence is just an observer.
There are no ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys, to serve us some morals from the screen. Vijitha Gunarathna has selected some of the best actors and actresses from the Sinhala theatre like Jayani Senanayake, Saumya Liyanage, Jayalath Manorathne, Nissanka Didddeniya, Dulika Marapana, Palitha Silva and Deepani Silva.

The most rewarding performance is by Gamini Hatthotuwegama as Dr. Manoharan. It is round this pivot that the village melodrama rotates.

The story may sound trivial, but the village-stereotypes relate a parable. Just like in Bertolt Brecht’s plays, the audience in the cinema must find an end to the story and ask the question “What led to that violent insurrection in 1971?”

(The writer is attached to the Department of Modern Languages, University of Kelaniya)

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