Physical absences and imagined presences | Sunday Observer

Physical absences and imagined presences

Written and directed by Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Withanage, ‘Oba Nethuwa Oba Ekka’ which carries its English title as ‘With You, Without You’ is a cinematic story that looks at a marital relationship that unfolds in the Central Province’s ‘tea country’ between a middle aged Sinhala man who served in the army and a young Tamil woman from the country’s war torn North. The narrative speaks of looking at the whole time the two spent as husband and wife from seemingly detached perspectives, giving voice to the two main characters to look back on what they were to each other.

The husband, the lead male character played by veteran actor of stage and screen Shyam Fernando runs a pawn shop where his main clientele is the impoverished Tamil community in the tea plantation economy centred town. He is a recluse with no visible social life and displays a general apathy towards human interactions. However, his world gradually takes a turn for significant change when a young Tamil woman played by Indian actress Anjali Patil, tries to pawn a few items which do not fit his scope of business, which has to do with gold based items such as jewellery. He offers to loan her the money free of surety but she rejects his overture. Through his domestic servant who is an aged Tamil woman, he gets to know that this young woman who has caught his eye is about to be married off to a much older man, regardless of her wishes. The young woman is of a higher ‘social grade’ as revealed. She is from a high caste Tamil family in Jaffna and is thus seen as a good match for a wealthy Tamil man who is seen in the light of a good suitor by the girl’s caretakers. She being one who has fled the North to find refuge in the hill country is virtually at the mercy of whatever decision is made about her future by those in whose custody she has been placed.

What transpires afterwards is a rather unconventional scenario. The man, who is motivated by his domestic servant to proposition marriage to her on the assurance that she likes him, makes his overture at a bus halt where she is arranged to meet him.

She agrees to accept his proposal and thus they embark on a life together. The man who is by no means gifted as a conversationalist keeps his past outside the scope of what his wife should know about him.

Eventually, following the sudden visit of an old friend of the husband through whom the young wife gets to know her husband had served in the army, turmoil brews in the household. Distrust grows and causes the young wife who suffered due to the war, whose two young brothers were killed by the Sri Lankan army, to fall into depression.

The husband who early on in the story tells his wife that his aspiration is to eventually save up enough money from his pawning business to buy the tea estate that faces the house they live in, realises at that juncture how much she means to him and that he must try to salvage their marriage by saving her.

He abandons his desires to own the tea estate and instead raises money by selling off his business and looking at the prospects of travel to provide his wife and himself a chance at enjoying life together with new experiences. The prospects of travelling to India captivated the imagination of the wife and so he decides that they should visit India and sets about making flight plans.

However, the wife’s condition takes a turn for the worse as she becomes suicidal and ends her suffering by jumping out the window.

The narrative Withanage offers his viewers is one that gives voice to the couple beyond their mortal frames and what they could be saying to each other when they are physically absent from each other. It is a story in retrospect and introspective.

They are in that sense without each other, but in thought they are still with each other. There is symbolic echoing of the movie’s title in that sense. The impression one gets is that this is a narrative that predominantly offers the widower’s desolate mindset to look back and have a conversation in his mind’s confines about what his marriage meant.

‘Oba Nethuwa Oba Ekka’ is not a movie that is likely to appeal to those seeking the ‘animatedly dramatic’ in cinema. It is not in my opinion a film that caters to mainstream entertainment. I cannot help but feel that the fabric woven by Withanage in this movie sought to stamp and enforce a depth of artistic profoundness through the paucity of dialogue between the man and wife.

This aspect is compounded with somewhat unrealistic reactions such as how the domestic servant’s behaviour is observed at the point when she sees her mistress has jumped out the window to her death.

I cannot say the overall acting seen in this movie provided soulful windows to the characters. A cinematic canvas being brushed with stillness and silence as prominent hues in my opinion doesn’t automatically render the lengths, depths and breadths of the characters to be unfolded of their interiority. Rather the voiceovers that the viewer experiences, ‘speak’ a depth that is appreciable, while raising the question as to how credible is the inertia that is seen to envelope the beings of the characters.

In my honest opinion ‘Oba Nethuwa, Oba Ekka’ is a story that perhaps needed better craft in ‘performance’. A movie whose tropes of apathy and stillness needed to be better assessed and configured for credibility.