Vimukthi Jayasundara’s Sulanga Enu Pinisa (The Forsaken Land) isn’t an easy film to watch. Languorous, minimalist, shorn of all established narrative norms, it plays out in the form of a series of long takes that record a small gallery of characters going about their lives in the most desultory manner imaginable.
Lazy filmgoers not accustomed to cinema that communicates primarily through images and subtle sound effects rather than by means of words and elaborate musical pieces might find its ponderous pace and enigma-laden narrative an impediment.
But as a debut effort designed to break new ground in Sri Lankan cinema, The Forsaken Land is certainly one of the most important films to come out of south Asia in recent years. It pushes the envelope completely unmindful of how the market back home will respond to the challenges that its substance and style pose.
The rest of the world has already warmed up to the stunning quality of this unusual cinematic essay. In May last, Jayasundara became the first Sri Lankan ever to win the prestigious Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. The French-funded film was selected for the premier festival’s Un Certain Regard section.
The Pune FTII-trained Jayasundara has made no effort to simplify any of the basic components that have gone into his remarkable film. “I wanted to capture the state of limbo that Sri Lanka is in. There’s no war, but there’s no peace either. My film is about this frozen timeframe where war, peace, morality, religion and justice and are mere abstract notions.”
The Forsaken Land is unlike an average south Asian film in another important respect – its matter of fact approach to sexuality and nudity. “It wasn’t easy to get the actors (all of them from television) to shed their inhibitions,” says Jayasundara. “But I spoke to them and explained the film’s context to them. Once your actors begin to believe in the film, everything else falls into place.”
In The Forsaken Land, sex is equated with all the other daily chores that the characters perfunctorily perform in their struggle for survival. “Sex is just another aspect of these cold, tormented lives that are teetering on the edge of complete meaninglessness,” explains Jayasundara.
The landscape also plays an important role in The Forsaken Land. “It is, in fact, the principal character,” says the young director who once worked for the leading Indian ad agency Lintas in Mumbai. “I am particularly interested in the passage of time. Cinema is the best medium to record time,” he adds.
The Forsaken Land is a sort of an observation post for perceptive viewers: Jayasundara presents his characters – a couple, their daughter, the husband’s unmarried sister, an old man and an army man – in an aimless pursuit of their basic physical and emotional needs. They respond to the heat, wind and rain in an almost unfeeling sort of way.
Now that The Forsaken Land, which won a Special Jury prize at the just-concluded Osian’s-Cinefan Film Festival in New Delhi, has garnered international encomiums, will its passage be smooth in Sri Lanka? “That’s doubtful,” says Jayasundara. “We do not have an audience for this kind of cinema. People in Sri Lanka are hooked to Bollywood films.”
If the film does make it past the hawk-eyed Sri Lankan censors, Jayasundara intends to invite Aishwarya Rai to the premiere of his film in Colombo. “She will draw the crowds to the theatre,” he says. Could Jayasundara be serious about that strategy? Even if he isn’t, the statement re-emphasises the courage that young director has shown in making a film as personal, as uncompromising, as unconventional as The Forsaken Land.