A fire that cannot be stoked | Sunday Observer

A fire that cannot be stoked

24 March, 2019

On Friday January 18 a film that Sri Lanka has been waiting for some time, and now well past its 50th day in the film theatre circuit, premiered amid much enthusiasm at the Regal Cinema in Colombo. Seasoned filmmaker Anuruddha Jayasinghe’s latest creation to the realm of Sri Lankan cinema –Ginnen Upan Seethala which carries its English title as The Frozen Fire is a film that the majority of Sri Lankan moviegoers would very likely enjoy.

The theme and central character of the film positions this work as a movie that no Sri Lankan would not want to watch. The late founder leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramunu (JVP) Rohana Wijeweera has over the course of time become an enigma to both, the Left and the Right. The Frozen Fire thus propositions the collective Sri Lankan psyche of today, an enticement that cannot be resisted. Is this movie a biopic that seeks to unravel one of the most impactful figures of 20th century Sri Lanka? Is it a narrative that seeks to present history through the medium of cinematic storytelling? That doesn’t seem to be the case.

Portrait of Wijeweera

And in all fairness to the director one cannot declare this movie to purport a factual facet of history. Many things that happened during that turbulent period, of course, is blurred and blacked out in the pages of official history. Yet, if one looks at this movie with the presumption that it is a cinematic portrait of Wijeweera during the second insurgency of the JVP, what one sees in this movie cannot, in my opinion be definitive as the portrayal of ‘the real Wijeweera’ who was a highly elusive character adopting a brand of insurgent warfare against the State that declared him practically a ghost whose shadow commanded fire to blaze as a symbol and a weapon.

Starting from the confines of the Welikada Prison with the announcement of Wijeweera’s release after incarceration for attempting to topple the Government in 1971, Jayasinghe’s narrative seeks to capture both, the man and the mission spanning up to Wijeweera’s ‘disappearance’ in 1989. This is not an action packed film that roars on a streak of adrenaline depicting the drive of revolutionary insurgent war.

The focus is more on the man and what may be seen of his mission through him. It is my opinion quite understandably, that it is a subjective rendering of who Wijeweera was as a human being. Possibly, a cinematic semi-eulogy for a man, who for the larger part of mainstream history, was demonised. However, the Wijeweera that Jayasinghe seeks to humanise, borders a man who is almost devoid of true fire and grit. The degree to which Jayasinghe’s Wijeweera is ‘softened’ makes one wonder if a man as that can actually lead a successful revolt against the State.

The attributes of the enjoyableness of the movie to the mainstream audience aside, does Jayasinghe’s rendition of Wijeweera come through as a service to the man’s legacy? Does ‘The Frozen Fire’ champion Wijeweera ‘the humanist,’ at the expense of Wijeweera ‘the firebrand revolutionary’? The politics of this film can be problematic in that regard.

Veteran Sri Lankan screen actor Kamal Addaraarachchi’s portrayal of Wijeweera stands out as a performance unlike any before by the unrivalled Addaraarachchi. There was barely a visible trace of the actor’s individuality within the character being lived out. In this regard I wish to speak of how distinctions must be made as to Addaraarachchi’s success in his portrayal of Wijeweera as differentiable from Jayasinghe’s conceptualisation. The latter’s success rests on conceding a character who resounds credible proximity to history within the fabric of the film, whereas the start to assessing how good a performance was delivered by Addaraarachchi rests on how divorced the actor was from his distinguishable ‘Addaraarachchi charisma’ to create something totally new.

Character portrayals

In terms of credibility of character portrayals, one of the shortcomings in this movie was how Sri Lanka Freedom Party heavyweight, the late Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike (FDB) was presented. I use the term ‘presented’ in opposition to ‘portrayed’, consciously. FDB’s presence in the movie is but a cameo of a few minutes but it was more like the character was visually shown that given ‘portrayal’. While of course I have never seen the man in person, the stories I have heard from elders, and known to my own family, speak of FDB as a man who commanded presence in a way with a demeanour that was domineering and spoke of an indomitable being. Further, the manner in which FDB was addressed as “Mr. Felix” (and not as ‘Mr. Bandaranaike’) by Wijeweera, evinced scripting that didn’t have the benefit of being thoroughly checked for finer points in norms of speech that relate to how an English dialogue of that era ought to be.

Wijeweera’s posse, portrayed by artistes such as Sujeewa Priyala, Thusitha Laknath, Priyantha Sirikumara, Jagath Manuwarna and several others, were forceful and credible in functionality. When looking at how the portrayals of those characters, such as, Gamanayake, Bopage, Somawansa et al who made up Wijeweera’s inner circle, were delivered, one cannot help but feel that the character of Wijeweera failed to be the formidable leader he was believed to be. I do not by any means say that the girth of a leftist revolutionary’s formidableness of character sits on a propensity for fearsome loudness.

But, the extent to which Jayasinghe crafts his Wijeweera in the light of a silent humanist deprives the late ‘supremo’ of the JVP of any sense of ruthless drive to triumph.

Do the politics of this film seek to offer to the Sri Lankan moviegoer, Wijeweera the humanist? Yes, seems very much so. Does Jayasinghe seek to bestow martyrdom on the iconic founder of the JVP? Yes it does seem that way. But then, how efficient a revolutionary was Wijeweera meant to be in this film? The insurgency of the late 1980s marked a stage of bloody violence that gruesomely ruptured the fabric of civilian life in this country. Neither the machinery of the State nor the JVP practically held back any punches. Glimpses of the State’s ruthlessness are visible in this film while the JVP’s position in the carnage is indicated more as the underdog’s compelled bite.

Enjoyable work of cinema

The ending is bound to be a moment that is romanticised and a tad cliché in my opinion, but nevertheless tastefully executed to align with the expectations of mainstream popular cinema. The manner in which the directorial eye treated landscape and character behaviour is noteworthy. Stilled inner turmoil and the possible secret search for tranquillity within Wijeweera gets ensconced in the depictions of the hill country environs that form much of the latter part of the movie. Jayasinghe does evince his skill in cinematography through the course of cinematic storytelling, which is an appreciable facet of this work.

Despite the shortcomings that I have discussed in this review I do not by any means say that this is a film not worth watching. On the contrary it is an enjoyable work of cinema, which makes it one that can be watched more than once. It does in that sense contain the clear streak of being entertainment.

How great a service does ‘The Frozen Fire’ do to the cause that finally cost Rohana Wijeweera his life is debatable. Is the ‘revolutionary’ that Wijeweera may have wanted history to remember him as, to be found in Jayasinghe’s film, is in my opinion a legitimate question that must be asked.

As a work of cinema that shows high quality camera work and cost a colossal production budget, the producer Chamathka Peiris and the production company Cinepro Lanka International must be applauded for their endeavour. I have no doubt ‘The Frozen Fire’ will do well in the cinema theatre circuit and prove to be a film much watched and discussed.