Mediating on the Silent, Undying Darkness | Sunday Observer

Mediating on the Silent, Undying Darkness

20 January, 2019

A familiarly ‘unusual and unconventional’, characteristic of the cinema craft of filmmaker Vimukthi Jayasundera pervades Sulanga Gini Aran which carries its English title as ‘Dark in the White Light’. The story begins with a young man’s equanimous internal monologue of why he embraced ‘renunciation’, abandoning prospects of entering the medical profession to search for a path to overcome death. The cinematic journey Jayasundera takes his viewers on is somewhat a meditation on the morbid, grim, gruesome and collective yet secret self loathing, humanity contains within its bowels. It is the darkness, the void, the abyss that is ever present and existent. The brightness of ‘light’ what may be called ‘life’ is but an illusion and never eternal. The light cannot sustain itself indefinitely, for it must always give way to what has always existed; beyond time, beyond measure and ‘birthless’ –the undeniable truth known as darkness. Thus a discourse on existence beyond the existential seems to come out of the characters and scenarios one meets in ‘Dark in the White Light’.

The young forest dwelling monk played commendably by prolific artiste of the English theatre Ruvin de Silva speaks of how he thought becoming a doctor would perhaps lead him to find a means to overcome death. But the path along medical studies acquainted him deeper with the human body and thus opened up the reality of its degradable, incurable, unsalvageable nature.

The cinematic path Jayasundera takes his viewers on is something of a cursory meditation (as incongruous as it may sound!) on the perceptions about the humankind beyond the dimensions of the physical body and the perversities, desperations and helplessness that keeps the body ‘running’.

Victims of existence

Steve de la Zilwa plays a doctor with deranged desires that make him see sexual gratification as but a means to exert his power over another’s human body. His long suffering faithful driver played by Roshan Ravindra is a hapless creature who hangs on to his job desperately since he needs the income to support his impoverished family. Popular veteran actor of the screen Mahendra Perera plays a racketeer brokering ‘orders’ for kidneys between ‘donors’ and recipients, and enlists the doctor’s services for his business.

Each of them though at different levels, shows to be a victim of existence. ‘Captives of a life’ from which they seem not to make any ‘meaning’. Jayasundera’s work thus appears to debunk the presumptive human notion of life having ‘meaning’ and uncovering it being the goal of man’s ‘journey’ in this world. Moments of solitary comfort in which the doctor and driver are shown in their separate spaces too are fleeting. The doctor is shown drinking by himself at a bar and is later shown being dragged out and beaten by three men who presumably the doctor had offended in the course of his presence in the drinking establishment.

The driver is shown for a moment taking comfort in eating what appeared to be a koththu roti in a small commonplace dining establishment, and is shown next in a dark thicket, squatting down to defecate. This element resonates with what the medical student turned mediating monk says how a human is what he consumes and that what we consume is what comes from the earth to which we too finally return.

This movie is not as realist based narrative as Jayasundera’s Cannes award winner ‘Sulanga Enu Pinisa’ nor as richly surreal as his second work ‘Between Two Worlds’. ‘Dark in the White Light’ has its moments of ‘abstractness’ to drive home elements of symbolism that may seem not fully compatible with a realist narrative approach, nor are such elements sufficiently amplified to weave a surrealist fabric over the work.

This mixture of approaches brings the impression the filmmaker was trying to break boundaries and do a bit of a ‘free fall’ perhaps. When looking at the overall picture and its resonance with its English title, the Sinhala title of the movie which can be translated to ‘The wind has caught fire’ becomes a conundrum. I honestly believe the script was likely to have been developed with the meaning of its English title in mind and somehow later the Sinhala title ‘Sulanga Gini Aran’ seems to have catapulted in a spirit of ‘abstractness’.

In the movie a discourse unfolds in defining the might of ‘the lord of death’ as per the English subtitles, personified as ‘Māra’ as per Buddhist canonical teachings, through the character of a senior monk shown in a single scene, played by the late Bandula Vithanage.

This guru of the young monk speaks of ‘Māraya’ or ‘Māra’ in the more holistic sense of who or what ‘Māraya’ or ‘Māra’ is as per Buddhist canon. But the English subtitles provide a narrower understanding of the Sinhala discourse as I noticed. To add to this topic it is pertinent to see the word/name Māra occupies manifold significance and multiple embodiments in Buddhist literature. ‘Vasavaththi Māra’ is generally stated to be a deity from the highest pleasure bound realm, the heavenly abode –Paranimmita Vasavatti. He asserts himself as the overlord of sensual pleasure, lust, desire.

He is not necessarily the dealer of death to mortals. But however there may be overlapping colloquialisms between Vasavaththi Māra and ‘Māraya’ a figurative embodiment of the phenomena of death for which the Sinhala word is ‘maranaya’. In this regard I wish to offer further elaboration on the variants of Māra with reference to Treasure of the Dhamma (1994) by Dr. K. Sri Dhammananda. In this work the author presents the following (in p.215) –Māras are personifications of various states.

Five kinds of Maras 

According to Buddhist literature there are five kinds of Māras, namely: 1) Devaputta Māra – Deity, 2) Kilesa Māra –Passion, 3) Abhisamkhara Māra –Kammic (Karmic) Activities 4) Khanda Māra –Five Aggregates and 5) Maccu Māra –Death.

The English subtitles of ‘Dark in the White Light’ define the word ‘Māraya’ exclusively as ‘Lord of death’. A narrowness I would say done to both the overlord of sensual desires and also to the lord of death. Two separate positions conjoined in the course of translation it seems!

The ending evokes an element form Jayasundera’s ‘Between Two Worlds’ (which I reviewed in the 26/02/2012 issue of the Sunday Observer) found at the early stage of that film’s narrative. Dark in the White Light ends with four young men in a rural landscape talking about the ‘story’ of a monk who lived in the forest and was believed to have attained nibbana (nirvana) and of a doctor who killed himself by self emollition and became a spirit who haunted the forest.

Jayasundera brings in at the end what seems an indulgence in the romance of mythologizing what is extracted from the real and gilded into legend and lore through storytelling. I would not call this film a work of Buddhist cinema, but it clearly is a film that intends to bring the path of a Buddhist discourse to look at existence beyond European existentialist outlooks. As a work of Sri Lankan cinema Dark in the White Light looks at new paths to bring the truths of eastern antiquity to a world enamoured by western modern thought.