A review of ‘Paangshu’ | Sunday Observer
A conscience beyond the Court

A review of ‘Paangshu’

11 October, 2020

On the evening of September 25 this year I was invited to a screening of ‘Paangshu’ at the New Empire Cinema at the Independence Square Arcade complex. It was a well attended screening where the director, writer and producer of the film Dr. Visakesa Chandrasekeram cordially welcomed all before the screening commenced, expressing his optimism that despite the prevailing circumstances in the country due to the pandemic, cinema halls will hopefully see more patronage from cinemagoers in the coming months.

Paangshu unfolds a cinematic narrative of a by and large conventional style with a good storyline. Featuring a talented cast of talented actors this movie will surely work for mainstream Sinhala cinema audiences. Not pretentiously high strung with arty flairs, it shows a relatable context in terms of issues. Although I am tempted to write a detailed account of the narrative and storyline, I shall resist that urge as the movie is being screened on the theatre circuit and thus such an account would be a ‘spoiler’ for those who have not yet watched it.

The premise is that of a single mother, Samarappuli Henayage Babanona, living in a rural area in Sri Lanka, seeking an answer as to what became of her only child, her son who was an undergraduate, after he was abducted at night from home, by a group of military personnel. The reason for the abduction being that the young man was suspected of involvement in the insurgency perpetrated in the late 1980s, by the hard line leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) party. The narrative shifts between the periods of the Presidencies of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

The abducted young man, although is portrayed outwardly as an innocent victim of the State’s extra judicial killing scheme to quell the insurgency, becomes known to his mother’s personal knowledge as having been an active insurgent involved in the assassination of a popular female politician in their village who was contesting elections from the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya, the party formed and led by the late Vijaya Kumaratunga.

The slain female politician and her family incidentally are known to Babanona as she has been providing her services to the family as their washerwoman. The narrative takes the viewer through the different ‘spaces’; institutional, personal, occupational and so on, that Babanona inhabits, to provide a glimpse of how she lives her ‘life’ while being on a relentless journey for justice and closure. But the question that the film raises in the eyes of the viewer through the conscience of Babanona, as she wades through the social fabric and the legal justice system to bring to book the only abductor whose face she had seen on the night of her son’s ‘disappearance’, is whether in fact ‘justice’ has already been performed by the powers that grip our mortal lives.

Chandrasekeram in his construction of the plot has deftly woven the twists and turns of how Babanona’s conscience and humanity gradually take shape on being revealed details that cause her to rethink how her search for ‘justice’ may be nothing more than a manmade concept to ‘even the score’ in the construction of what is called a civilised society governed by law and order, and not necessarily the means for the closure that she needs. Is forgiveness nobler than institutional justice? Is the courtroom truly the final arbiter of what matters to the conscience of the aggrieved? Can those who seek justice for the slain speak only of the wrong done to their own, while being silent on the wrong done by their kinsman to others? These are a few sharp questions Chandrasekeram offers the viewer as food for thought through Paangshu, his cinematic triumph.

A work that subtly looks at the foundations of what holds Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist traditionalism as a self preserving ethos. An identifiably Sri Lankan right-wing film.

It is also interesting to note how the factor of caste in traditional Sinhala society has been woven in the story, which reflects an important socio-political facet in Sri Lanka which needs to be adduced as an additional facet to the ‘economic class’ oppression basis that gives central impetus for leftist movements to gain traction. Babanona is from one of the lowest rungs in the traditional caste strata, the ‘rada’ or ‘dhobi’ caste, whose traditional occupation is as launderers.

What Paangshu infers as the social injustice perceived by the likes of the abducted son of Babanona, is not necessarily only to do with the ‘rationale for revolution’ cried out by a member of the ‘starving masses’ as per Marxist dogma.

It was not necessarily an unbearable poverty of starvation that drove most economically underprivileged rural youth in Sri Lanka to rage against the system, brandishing ‘socialism’ as their token weapon.

Chandrasekeram must be congratulated on his casting as the film shows appreciable performances from the overall cast. Veteran actress Nita Fernando delivers a memorable praiseworthy performance. Talents of the new generation are seen too, and must be applauded, such as the performances of Jagath Manuwarna who commendably portrays the State Counsel prosecuting the soldier accused of abducting Babanona’s son, as well as Mayura Perera who plays the role of the abductor on trial.

Now into the second decade of the 21st century, Sri Lanka cradles a new generation of children growing up in a post-conflict nation still dealing with memories of mass scale violence rooted in the JVP’s insurrection and the battle against terrorism.

In this context Sri Lanka has a generation that is still grappling with closure and trying to find means for inner peace.

‘Paangshu’ arrives as a story of how closure is about finding one’s peace of mind for a more peaceful tomorrow by letting go of vendettas. Paangshu is a film Sri Lanka should see. Paangshu is a film the world should see of Sri Lanka.