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With you, without you: film review

This guest post by IPSITA SENGUPTA is the first of a four-part series reviewing the films that form LTM 2.0

Lost and loved- a take on Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka (With you, without you)

Can love ever be too late? Isn’t it one of those eternal things that are true when you see them, because they are so evident? Is there any such thing as love that’s not enough?

Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka, or With You Without You, is a heart-warming film by director Prasanna Vithanage, based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “A Gentle Creature”.

A young woman stares out apprehensively toward distant cloud-covered hills. There is a nostalgic note in her voice as it floats over the landscape. She fears she has been destructive, that she has not been able to love as much as she should.

A man’s voice chimes in with his own regrets. We are slowly taken back a few years in the life of a pawnbroker, Sarathsiri, who marries his client. Out of a sense of being her saviour, rescuing her out of poverty and the clutches of an old businessman she was about to be married to? We do not know. At least her initial refusal to his proposal, according to a fellow character, is due to her pride. The same pride with which she refuses to take the rosary which she brought, when he offers it back along with its cash worth. But then again, this young lady did catch his attention since the first time she is seen at the counter.

Sarathsiri takes the lead in all the decisions within their married life. Of course, he had to teach her the business of the pawn shop. But between them, from consummation of the marriage to the nature of conversations between them, to her movement outside the home, Sarathsiri initiates and governs behaviour. Her chirpiness is met with silence, and a straight face that smiles ever so rarely. He berates her when she makes her own decisions regarding his customers’ requests, and his very presence stops her in her tracks whenever she’s even a little animated.

In fact, throughout the 90 minute span of the story, silence is as much a wall around the characters as the hills are around their house. When the newlywed Selvi danced in joy around the dining table, inviting the domestic helper to dance with her, she mimed her feelings with no music around, only the solitary sound of her anklets. In the last sequence, her fall from the window ledge was as inconspicuous as someone walking from one room to another.

Sarathsiri let his past be a mystery. He made sure that he himself was a mystery. And understanding that a relationship is a give and take affair, or perhaps because he was wary of the related complications of this give-and-take, he ignored the question of his wife’s past as well.

Even within all this control, something sweet slithered in. Thus the air of regret introduced in the beginning of the film, which guides us toward what was to come. He understands in hindsight how he oppressed her being. Her dreams challenged his own. Things that were simple joys for her, like watching movies, he scoffed at as a “waste of time”. Her love made him “afraid”.

To assert an upper hand over Selvi, he used as a weapon the argument of economic support, and how she would not be able to speak this much and this way if it wasn’t for him providing for her. The centrepiece of the table is food, covered and uncovered constantly. This centrepiece of sorts is a central character to the film itself. It speaks for itself- as integral to the relationship of this provider and the one he “sheltered”.

The severity of his power games is reduced because of the realisation voiced in bits and pieces with every event shown. Life’s circumstances led both of them to be what they were, and all actions follow logically from one to the other, even if the end was tragic. But then, one cannot possibly avoid the dialectic of having and losing.

Sarathsiri worships a little statue of the Buddha on his mantelpiece everyday. We learn later that he is trying to absolve himself of a war crime. Not something he did directly, but for standing in cover for other perpetrators. We also learn, and so does Sarathsiri, that his wife is hiding some pain from her childhood, pain that is related to the same kind of war crimes he is trying to make up for. This pain is aroused at his confession, and the revelation that he belonged, once upon a time, to the enemy camp, which had harmed her family for no fault of theirs.

The psychological pain takes a toll on her physical being. While skeletons come out of the closet for both of them, S understands more and more the individual that Selvi is. “I only saw what I wanted to see from you”, he says when all is over. He tries to make up for his emotional absence and mental distances, showering love on her, promising fulfilment of her desires like movies and travel to India, that she had managed to convey to him between his coldness. But by that time she feels she is causing him inconvenience even expecting the least bit of attention. So her assertion also, “I was afraid of your love”.

As important as the dining table is the window in Sarathsiri’s house, prominent from among the first shots. Sarathsiri is shown meditating there after she is no more, the way he would divert all his attention to his TV set those days before he shared his home with his wife, and also when he did not want her getting close to him. For Selvi this was the window to the world beyond the boundaries Sarathsiri kept her in, and ultimately was the “opening” to an alternative reality- death.

As the protagonist says in A Gentle Creature, “I worried her to death”. Well adapted into a glaring ethno-political situation in Sri Lanka, Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka takes us through the journey of a man, and the pride that he used to disguise past anguish. How one situation of regret led him to another because he refused to let go, to admit his guilt and face his fears head-on. It may be assumed that Selvi represented the peace he was yearning for, and in his desperation to achieve the golden eggs he lost the goose.

Could there have been any other way? Was it necessary for her to “turn back and smile”, like Sarathsiri hopelessly reflects? Would that have made it easier for him? But then, can we blame him for not taking agency of his own freedom from past actions?

 

Ipsita Sengupta is pursuing her Master’s in Film Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi.

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