Machan: The faces of illegal immigration

Bright yellow posters demanding various rights are a common sight in the streets of Colombo, or any suburb for that matter. However, last week a poster which carried a very unusual quote caught my eyes; it read ‘Demuda Gemak Machan?’

What were these posters, why are they displayed for; another protest or a rally? I later found out that these were the promotional posters of the much awaited movie Machan, Directed by the renowned Italian producer/ director Uberto Pasolini, best known for his production of The Full Monty and produced by Sri Lanka’s own Prasanna Vithanage.

The Sri Lanka-Germany-Italy co-production Machan which premiered at the recently concluded ‘65th Venice Film Festival’ became the Best Film in the section ‘Venice Day- 2008’. The film provides the back stories, as imagined by Ruwanthie De Chickera and Pasolini, of 23 Sri Lankans who went missing in Germany after having obtained visas to the country under the pretext of being the island’s ‘national’ handball team playing an international tournament in Bavaria.

The Nation met the dynamic brother and sister combination, one of the main characters of the movie and the writer of its phenomenal script respectively, Gihan and Ruwanthie de Chickera, ahead of the film’s public release at local cinemas on October 23


By Lakna Paranamanna

Ruwanthie de Chickera has written and directed several plays, with her first The Middle of Silence being written and produced when she was just 19. Ruwanthie founded the ‘Stages’ theatre group that prides itself on producing original scripts for Sri Lankan and foreign audiences. Last Bus Eke Kathawa, a one man play translated by Ruwanthie has been performed in Sri Lanka, India, the UK and Japan. Machan was Ruwanthie’s first foray into scriptwriting for the big screen.

Q: How did you get involved in the production of Machan?
One of my dear friends and colleagues, Ameena Hussain was approached by Uberto Pasolini, the director of the movie and had informed her that he was searching for a Sri Lankan writer for this movie. Then she had suggested my name. Afterwards, she dropped me a mail saying a ‘first time director’ was interested in working with me. Before getting to know him, both of us thought it must be a young enthusiast just out of film school wanting to do a low budget South Asian movie project. But still, I thought, as long as it’s not another film about the tsunami by some well meaning white kid, I lose nothing in talking to him. So I contacted him and it was only half way into my first phone conversation with Uberto that I realised that this ‘first time director’ was the producer of one of my favourite and one of the world’s most successful films – The Full Monty!

Q: Why did you pick this particular subject of illegal immigration to work on as your first film script? 
When Uberto contacted me, he already had the story in mind. Of course I knew about the incident, I think most Sri Lankans remember it since it created quite a commotion in the country.

Q: The back stories to this factual news story – were they your ideas or the Uberto’s?
The film is based on a true incident which is 23 men who formed themselves into a fake handball team in order to leave the country. Uberto gave me that basic fact and asked me to first come up with a variety of characters that might make up the team. By my next meeting with Uberto, I had written up a few characters and he had thought of a few too. As the script developed between us, we dropped, changed and added new characters and plot developments.

Q: How did you gather material for the back stories of the 23 characters? Was there actual research into their identities and backgrounds?
Uberto got the stem idea from a news item. But other than the bare facts, we did not do any research into the actual group of men who pulled off this prank. We talked to people and visited places like ‘Little Italy’ in Negombo, where practically everyone has either been abroad or is waiting to go abroad. But the characters are completely from our imagination.

Q: Your brother Gihan, plays the part of Manoj, the person from whom the idea for the Handball Team germinates. He eventually decides to stay back in Sri Lanka. Do you think there was a real Manoj?
There are ‘real Manoj’s and ‘real Stanley’s’ all around us. Otherwise the characters won’t ring true in the movie. I meet these characters every day of my life and so does everyone else. It is through simple encounters with people in our day to day lives, like taking a trishaw ride somewhere, or while eating out at a restaurant, when we simply inquire from the driver or the waiter if he has ever been abroad or thought of going, these characters in the movie come into life. Asking them about their knowledge on immigration laws, you would actually be amazed at how forthcoming people are about this, and how many of our people’s lives this issue touches.

Q: What was your primary message from the script?
What Uberto wanted and what we have tried to do is to provide the back stories, the human stories to this largely anonymous group of people called ‘illegal immigrants’. This is why the film is both funny and sad. Its objective is not to just to create pity for these people. So, it is not just about the harsh reality of their lives, while living in Sri Lanka or after they migrate. If something is too wretched, too hopeless and too unlike our own experienced reality, it’s easier to distance ourselves from it. Instead, through humour and humanness, we have tried to give our characters a three dimensionality that will draw audiences in; make them laugh; maybe recognise something of themselves in these people. It is as Uberto put it, to make people in the West realise that the nameless person cleaning their windscreen at a busy intersection is a man with a story, a family, a sense of humour, a set of principles and beliefs.

Q: What do you think of the movie; do you think it has done justice to your script? 
In a word, yes. I like the movie very much. I think that Uberto has made the best possible film with the material that he had. Of course I pine for the 30% or so of the script that never made it to the final cut, but this is the nature of this art form. You need to be brutal in your editing and everything you leave in is at the expense of something that you leave out. There were difficult decisions along the way and I wonder if I will ever stop thinking of the script, as opposed to the film, but I have decided to stop talking about it.

Q: Do you see any difference between your script and the script of Mille Soya, which was also another movie which focuses on the same issue? 
Of course! They are two completely different movies. I really liked Mille Soya. I think it’s a good movie. I don’t think it’s necessary to compare the two movies. At least, I’m not going to do it. You can, as a journalist, in your next article!


Gihan de Chickera is a much loved stage actor, talented political cartoonist and journalist for a daily newspaper. Gihan, youngest brother of Ruwanthie, has proved his exceptional acting prowess in both Sri Lanka and abroad and has won wide acclaim in particular for his role in the one-man play, Last Bus Eke Kathawa. Gihan plays the role of Manoj in Machan, the level headed, intelligent young man, who for all intents and purposes looks like he ought to have a bright future, and provides the perfect antithesis to the character of the fun loving and desperate Stanley

Q: Tell us how you got the chance to be a part of Machan..
I should first mention that the reason for me appearing in Machan has not got anything to do with my sister’s influence in this movie. Just because she did the script for the movie, that does not mean that I received any favours from Uberto Pasolini; the director of the movie. Auditions were called for selecting actors for the characters of the movie, so Uberto contacted me and informed me about the auditions, since he had previously seen some of my performances on stage. The auditions were held at the Parakramabahu Maha Vidyalaya, so I thought I would try my luck for the characters. After a series of tryouts I was selected for the character of Manoj. After I was informed that I was selected, Uberto very clearly told me that it was not because of my sister’s influence over the film that he chose me for the portrayal of the character, but because my physical appearance fitted with the image of Manoj as he had imagined and also because he was satisfied with my audition performances.

Q: What is your strongest feeling about the character Manoj?
Although the storyline is based on a group of people who live in shanty areas, and have turned stealthy solely due to the fact that they suffer from all the hardships of life, Manoj does not fit in with the common perception of young men in such areas. He is brought up in a very closely knit family, so he is virgin to most of the evil which operates in these areas. So, in comparison to the other characters, he is very innocent. The character of Manoj goes through a process of self-realisation throughout the whole movie; in fact all the other characters do too. If I express that idea in terms of Manoj’s character – he grows up. He sheds the naïve ideas which he had bred in his mind about the West, and comes to terms with the harsh truth which is, that as long as he is serving Westerners, he is treated very well, but the moment he becomes a part of their system, he is no longer welcome or accepted. He builds illusions about the West because of his occupation. He is bartender in a very prestigious hotel in the city, which means he is always in close contact with foreigners. But the exposure to the truth moulds him and he is transformed from a schoolboy with dreams into a man who finally chooses to do the right thing when it mattered most.

Q: Although you are a not a stranger to local English theatre I believe this is your first experience in a big screen film. How would you describe the difference in the two scopes?
Yes, you are correct. This is the first time that I am working on a feature film. Previously I have appeared in a short film by Damayanthi Fonseka which was called Degoda Thalaa and also in another couple of short films produced by my friends when I was in the university. So this experience indeed was very special. I was engaged in the work of the film for about five months continuously, taking into account the rehearsal sessions as well the shooting sessions of the movie. It was a very different experience from performing on stage. I do not know whether I have done a good job because I still have not got the chance to see the film. All my movements had to be limited. Because when one is performing on stage, all the physical as well as facial movements have to be slightly exaggerated. But, once you are in front of a camera, exaggerated movements are unnecessary, because even the slightest movement or change of facial expression is clearly highlighted. However, coming from a background of realistic acting which is a technique of performing on stage which is commonly practiced in countries like India as well as Sri Lanka, I adjusted easily to the movements of the camera. Performing in front of a camera is all about having natural movements, so I think I did a fairly good job on that.

Q: What was it like working with Uberto Pasolini and the rest of the crew?
Pasolini was a very good Director because he knows how to bring out even the detailed characteristics of all the roles as he wants it portrayed. I feel very fortunate to have been working with him because I learnt a lot during these five months. The rehearsal sessions of two months provided a very solid ground for our performances in the movie, because we had a better understanding and approach to our characters due to the rehearsals. I had worked with most of the main characters, like Namal Jayasinghe and Dharmapriya Dias before in various stage plays so it was very enjoyable. They helped me a lot since they had worked in films before. There was a very good relationship between the directors and the crew, including the backup crew.

I believe that this great rapport within the crew resulted in the success of the movie. Especially in the actors’ performances, the success in the combination of acting and reacting gave the movie a very good effect. However, it was very hectic too, especially during the filming of the night scenes, because they continued at a stretch for about two weeks. I was in all the night scenes, and I was so exhausted that I reached a point of fatigue and even fell sick. Also during filming, Pasolini would go for several takes in several angles and during the first few days, I found it a bit tiring, but somehow I grew accustomed to it. Each one of the takes has to be at the very same level of performance and it was a real challenge to concentrate and deliver at the same time. Actually after acting in this movie, I would say that the respect I have for actors and actresses of films have increased by several fold because so much work goes into what we finally sit and watch at a cinema.

Q: The heart and soul of the movie – Stanley is played by Dharmapriya Dias your co-actor. How would you describe the experience of working with him?
Dias is a fantastic actor. He has portrayed very diverse roles in numerous stage plays and has even won several awards for his performances. I was very fortunate to have got the chance to be working with him. Above all, he is a wonderful human being. He is a person who takes his job very seriously and it was very easy to work with him. As I mentioned before, my acting would not have become a success if not for my co-actors because the combination of acting and reacting are vital in the success of a performance.

Q: Now that you have experienced performing in theatre as well as in film, which would you say you prefer?
Well, it is still definitely theatre. Although now the tradition has changed, most of the colossal figures of the local teledrama and movie field started their careers as stage drama actors. The training for a performer is provided through stage drama. When I was performing on stage, I always thought that acting was fun but now I realise that it is not necessarily so. Acting in a film definitely requires more work and concentration. But just because it is hectic, one should not make it an excuse not to deliver a good performance when it is required. However, overall, working in Machan was an amazing experience for me.