When it comes to experimentation Prasanna Jayakody is a film-maker who maintains a sense of proportion. It is probably for this reason that both Sankara and Karma could be considered reasonably successful films. However, I feel that in Sankara, we find a Jayakody who is more in his element; at perfect ease with the craft and content of his film. In Karma, however, although bold, Jayakody’s craftsmanship is marred with flaws which are difficult to overlook. Karma transcends boundaries of conventional movie-making to explore themes that some of us will not find too palatable.
However, it should be said that in Jayakody’s experimentation in Karma, one hardly finds anything new. Non-linear, fragmented story-telling has been part and parcel of cinema for many years and Jayakody’s seemingly different cinematography, to a very large extent, depends on stock camera shots and angles. However, Jayakody’s experimental and creative mise-en-scène is refreshing and commendable. His fusion of theater and cinema is probably a first in Sri Lankan cinema. Jayakody also seems to be flirting with the idea of communicating through impressions; a technique that brings cinema closer to poetry.
However, even with its flaws, I could not help liking and enjoying Karma and I have no reservations about recommending it to the readers of The Nation. It is the best Sinhala film I saw since Prasanna Vithanage’s Akasa Kusum. Experimentation in Karma does not arrest it from telling a story that some of us may find ‘moving’. The film revolves around a bohemian musician, (Nadee), his cancer-stricken lover (Amanda) with whom he lives together and a young thespian (Piyal) who lives in their garage. The praise-worthy performance of Michelle Herft as Amanda makes a significant contribution to the overall success of the film. Herft seems to almost effortlessly pull-off Amanda’s challenging role. It is her performance that makes Amanda’s character credible. Since Amanda is the axis around which the narrative of the film rotates, Hurst’s powerful performance forms a cornerstone of the film’s success.
Jagath Manuwarna, who plays Piyal (which is a less challenging role), matches up to Hurst’s virtuosity and executes his role commendably. Nadeeka Guruge, is unapologetically being his robotic-self (probably he was asked to be himself). Rather than claiming that Guruge is a poor casting choice, I like to think that his performance, which is in stark contrast to the poignant performance of Herft and Manuwarna, through incongruity, finds harmony in an uneasy cinematic ménage-à-trois.
Amanda’s character is a rarity in Sri Lankan cinema, in that we find in her a woman who is, arguably, sexually liberated. It is not that we do not encounter in Sri Lankan or Sinhala cinema sexually rebellious women, in fact there are more than I could wish to remember. But for some reason almost all of them are prostitutes. Jayakody should also get the credit for ‘not’ depicting a prostitute in his film; something that Asoka Handagama and Prasanna Vithanage seem to find impossible.
Karma is arguably an exception to what I term as ‘sex pathology’ in Sinhala cinema; sex is almost always seen as pathological, as problematic. Sex is either rape, or commercial; if at all consensual it leads to an unwanted pregnancy, hence still a problem. However, I’d have liked Karma much better without the Eliotic scene where Piyal is shown weeping after sex with Amanda. This understanding of sex as a problem, is symptomatic of the cultural constraints which render sex a taboo; and the Sri Lankan film-makers operate within these constraints and fall short of challenging the idea that sex is pathological. I mean sometimes sex could be a good thing, come on!
Jayakody’s handling of sex is not too impressive and sometimes unintentionally humorous. Well for one thing - “that’s not how it is done against a wall” as someone at the theater opined. The so called ‘sex scenes’ in the film seem inhibited and call Jayakody’s directorial skills into question. This inhibition, on the part of the actors and perhaps the director, also seem to partake of ‘sex pathology’ that I have discussed above.
The unresolved oedipal issues of Piyal, which seem to engender his unconditional love for Amanada, (although the Oedipus complex is taken to a point of overkill by post-Freudian art) are well brought out through cinematography. In fact the film comes to a close with a parody of Michael Angelo’s Pieta. The final scene of the film shows fetus-like Piyal curled and submerged in a water-tank (the womb?) signifying re-birth, to my mind.
I feel that the director could have made better use of music in Karma given that music is a theme in the play. Jayakody could have filled up the silence ensuing from the notable lack of dialogue with music expressive of the tone of the film. The score of the film is below the par for Nadeeka Guruge (the score is by Nadeeka and Sumudu Guruge), I felt.
Anyway, in the final analysis, Karma no doubt deserves our applause more than negative criticism. In a time when the likes of Mahindagamanaya and Kuveni have become the norm of Sri Lankan cinema, Prasanna Jayakody’s Karma commands both our appreciation and respect.