Alimankada – The Road from Elephant Pass at Sandeshaya Sri Lanka

Alimankada – The Road from Elephant Pass   at Sandeshaya Sri Lanka

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I have to use superlatives when reviewing the film Alimankada, Chandran Rutnam’s cinematic production of The Road from Elephant Pass, the 2003 Gratiaen Award winning novel by the late Nihal de Silva. I strongly believe that where praise is due, it must be given generously. Certain reviewers feel that reviews are not worth their salt if only praise is given; if demerits however miniscule are not pinpointed; if no carping is resorted to. Not me. I judge a film by gut feeling, my sensibilities and of course the basic criterion that it is a medium of entertainment. And weighing this film by these criteria, it comes out top.

Plentiful kudos to Chandran Ratnam, the veteran film personality who scripted the film and produced and directed it. His directing hand has been both sure and sensitive. Thus he has got wonderful cinematic role playing from Ashan Dias and Suranga Ranawaka.

He has adapted the film from Nihal de Silva’s novel very closely and included most of the incidents met with as the army captain and the Tamil Tigress journey to Colombo for her to deliver some vital information to the head of Military Intelligence.

The nuances of feeling that are experienced by the two protagonists are cleverly captured on film. This is not at all easy. Consider depicting diverse feelings just by facial expression or slight body language. The director subtly brings out suspicion; light touches of humour; the consternation of the battle hardened captain as the girl comes upon him bathing nude; the tenderness that surfaces between them suppressed by the girl but then given into. This last is shown just by a hint of an act – her moving to his side of their sleeping piece of plastic. She stretches by him with face and body averted. How sensitively that was done since a lesser director would have shown them in each other’s arms. She crawls to his side when he calls out ‘Kamala’ in an emotion filled voice and the film is sharply cut at this point.

Easier to show anger, hate, blood thirst which the Captain particularly felt as the girl was abducted and taken away by army deserters hiding in Wilpattu. More difficult, but cleverly achieved, to hint at the girl’s determination and duplicitous nature. In the book this was stated, but the film conveyed this trait in the girl, cleverly hidden but hinted at which leaves us guessing as to whether she is what she says she is – betraying the LTTE, or playing a deadly double game.

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This brings us to the actors. Full praise to Rutnam for his choice of two cinema unknowns as the main characters. What if he bowed to convention, to the notion that only mega stars draw crowds and thus monetary returns and starred a well known actor and actress? Disastrous, in the second instance particularly. You needed an unknown girl, with no conventional beauty but basically plain who could look beautiful. More importantly, she had to have the looks of a Tamil hiding steel within to play the part of Kamala Velaithan. Ratnam’s new find, Suranga, was very good as Kamala with character complexities, both obvious and hidden, with resentment against the Sinhalese yet appreciative of goodness in them. She even managed slight Tamil inflections in her

Sinhala speaking.

For me the choice of Ashan Dias to play Captain Wasantha Ranatunge was brilliant. Dias, the ex MTV news announcer, was so much the brawny, brave yet sensitive battle scarred soldier. He was superb; completely focused when entering the dwelling of the deserters; grimacing with hate when aiming to blast a foe to smithereens; tender as he comforts Kamala on the balcony of his friend’s home; nervously aroused as his and the girl’s bodies are pressed together against a tree they are hiding behind when an elephant crashes through the jungle. He eats pieces off a fruit cut up with the huge knife he has in his hand and nonchalantly conveys them to his mouth poised on the cruel manna as he walks arguing amicably, this time, with Kamala. We admired Ashan when he read news in English as the language should be spoke; we admire him greatly now for speaking Sinhala with not a trace of accent and looking extremely comfortable running for dear life and leaping over rocks and roots and cycling in a verti or a sarong. All praise to you Ashan! Looks as if the food of Australia has added pounds to you – excellent for your role in the film!

Ratnam introduces the creme de la crème of Sinhala cinema in cameo roles. Needless to say they are gems in an already scintillating production. There’s Iranganie Serasinghe as the mother of the Captain – depicting the burden of sorrow by just bending her head down. Joe Aeywickrema is a Tamil shopkeeper up north; Veena Jayakody, the mother of Kamala who is dragged and almost burned by marauding rioters of July 1983. Sanath Gunatileke looks sufficiently military as Major Kiriella. The master stroke was having MTV Chavaan Daniel reading the news.

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Attention holding

Critics may look for nouve touches borrowed from say French or Italian cinema. We don’t need that. We went to see Alimankada to be entertained; to see whether it did justice to Nihal de Silva and his award winning novel and whether we saw a good film.

A loud ‘Yes’ to each of these. The film was so faithful to the novel and the author that bird lore was brought into the film too where the soldier and LTTE female cadre are able to point out birds to each other though only a while ago they had been arguing bitterly. I was critical of the novel because of the, to me, excessive description of birds. Maybe as a tribute to the nature-loving novelist, Ratnam thought it best to include comments on birds preceded or followed by various bird cries. In the book, to me, the bird lore stood outside the narrative, a distraction. In the film it blended in very naturally.

Issues such as colonization of so-called Tamil homelands by Sinhalese and wanton violence were discussed in the dialogue as the two walked along jungle paths or sat for a meal cooked by the girl. They both claim violently that their side would win.

The scenes were beautiful, whether of a parched Jaffna landscape or a lake bund or glorious red dry zone dawns. Most striking was the silhouette of the two striding against the backdrop of a red and orange evening sky. Battle scenes and aerial bombing were cleverly included.

I must add that the viewer’s attention was engaged every minute and it was the story one followed with of course appreciation coming in of the scenes, the acting, the sharp editing.

The end was clever. I won’t discuss it since that must never be done in a review. Suffice it to say that my niece and I who saw the film together had different endings: hers joyful that they lived happily ever after and mine sad and disillusioned with the girl’s inconsistency. Decide for yourself. The final shot was too distant, but a hint was given here too – the girl’s teasing voice of the Tamil word for crazy.

So here’s a must-see film by an expert, sensitive director.

Nanda P Wanasundera

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