Renowned Sri Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage’s new movie features characters from the Indian state branded as “God’s own country” visiting a country frequently called “paradise”. Neither description fits, as Vithanage reveals in an elegantly filmed, riveting drama that captures the recent turmoil in his homeland as well as the simmering tensions in a marriage.

Vithanage’s Paradise is set in Sri Lanka in June 2022. In March that year, protests broke out across the country after its economy cratered, leading to severe fuel shortages, power cuts and punishing inflation. The precipitating factors includes a collapse in tourism because of the coronavirus pandemic and financial mismanagement by the ruling Rajapaksa clan.

In the movie, Malayali couple Kesav and Amritha (played by Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran) arrive in a hotel in Riverstone two months after Sri Lanka has officially declared bankruptcy. The region is part of the Ramayana trail, with sites that correspond to the locations mentioned in the epic.

Kesav, a filmmaker who is preparing for an important series, and Amritha, an aspiring writer, initially appear to be the kind of shallow travellers who would rather shooting videos than experience the attractions in front of their eyes. As Paradise reveals, it is only after their laptops and phones are stolen that they begin to see their surroundings differently.

Their understanding of economic hardship is initially distant too. Driven around by their guide Andrew (Shyam Fernando) – diesel is precious but has been made available to tourists – Kesav and Amritha are shielded from the full impact of the meltdown until the robbery. To Amrita’s reaction to a candlelit dinner – “Oh that’s romantic!” – the hotel’s waiter Shree (Sumith Ilango) succinctly replies, “Power cut, madam.”

The film is a dexterous interweave of the epic and the immediate. The screenplay by Vithanage and Anushka Senanayake packs into its crisp run-time an exploration of gender dynamics, Sri Lanka’s collapse into functional anarchy and the country’s contentious treatment of its minorities. The 92-minute film is in multiple languages to reflect its diverse characters – English, Sinhalese, Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi.

Paradise (2023). Courtesy Newton Cinema.

Paradise will be premiered at the Busan International Film Festival (October 4-13). Apart from the lead actors, Paradise has several Indian connections: cinematographer Rajeev Ravi, editor A Sreekar Prasad, music composer Krishna Kumar (known as K), sound designer Tapas Nayak. The movie has been produced by the Indian company Newton Cinema, which also bankrolled Don Palathara’s Family (2023). While Prasad has worked with Vithanage since 1997, Ravi shot Vithanage’s previous period drama Gaadi (2019).

There yet another Indian link: Paradise is being presented by Mani Ratnam’s banner Madras Talkies. Ratnam was supposed to shoot portions of his two-part Ponniyin Selvan in Sri Lanka, with Vithanage serving as line producer. Unable to do because of the pandemic, Ratnam instead got Vithanage to help out with the movie’s Sinhalese-language portions, apart from casting Shyam Fernando as a Sinhalese king.

Because of his associations with Indian talent, particularly A Sreekar Prasad, Chennai is a “second home” for Vithanage, the 61-year-old director told Scroll. Here are excerpts from an interview about Paradise, the importance of collaborations, and the resonance of the film’s themes for Sri Lankans as well as Indians.

Paradise is tricky to carry off because it tackles so many themes. What inspired the film?
The idea came to me last year, around June and July. Many citizens took active part in the aragalya [struggle]. This wasn’t an organised protest, it didn’t have a single agenda but many agendas, such as democracy and the cost of living.

I had taken part in the protests. But as an artist, I wanted to explore the situation using my medium. I wanted to look back on the protests and explore its impact on a personal relationship, on people who are not part of the aragalya or the history and destiny of Sri Lanka.

The film is fast-paced, it has a vibrancy. This came with the times. I have seen anarchy, protests, class divisions. How does this become visible to people who don’t know anything about the situation?

I shot the film in January in Riverstone, a central province in Sri Lanka. Even at that time, there was an embargo on fuel. The inflation rate was 65%.

We faced a lot of issues, but everyone was happy because they had some sort of work. Sri Lankan producers were scared to invest in the film. That is when [filmmaker] Geethu Mohandas introduced me to Newton Cinema.

Shyam Fernando (left) and Roshan Mathew in Paradise (2023). Courtesy Newton Cinema.

What led you to Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran?
I had worked with Anjali Patil in With You, Without You, where she played a Sri Lankan Tamil woman. This is the first time I am working with two Indian actors who are playing Indian characters. I consider this my first Indian-language film.

I had seen Roshan’s work. He acts with a lot of restraint in most of his roles. Physically too, he suited a character who lives in a commercial capital like Mumbai, someone who is cosmopolitan but also rooted. It’s there in his body language.

He was introduced to me by Geethu Mohandas, who directed him in Moothon. He came with his notebook. I too went with my notebook. Both of us immediately felt that we were on the same wavelength.

It is rare for actors, especially male actors, who agree to roles that elevate them as actors but not as stars. An actor has to travel the extra mile to reveal certain things that we don’t accept as men. Roshan was ready to travel that extra mile.

I had seen Darshana in CU Soon and some other films. She too matched the character of a Malayali living in Mumbai. I’m not exaggerating when I say that she is the finest actor with whom I have worked in terms of the timing of her expressions, the brevity that is there in poetry as well as in acting. In a short span of time, through muscle movements and eye movements, you have to bring out what is happening inside yourself.

You have woven the Ramayana into a movie about your country’s present. Paradise has a consistent inward-outward dynamic – the Indians view Sri Lanka from the inside of their vehicle, while you too are driving the idea of inner states coming to the surface.
Amritha awakens little by little and begins to form independent ideas. So in a way, the film is an inner journey getting an outer release. The characters are inside the car, with the car’s windows acting like frames. The situation in Sri Lanka at the time makes them look into themselves, especially for Amritha. During a crisis, the relationship blows open.

As an artist, it is important, without hiding, to be truthful to what’s happening around you, to understand humanity. Cinema is how I relate to the world, to my inner self.

Also, the destinies of both our countries are intertwined. People think nationality and religion are the most important things. We have been through a Sinhala Buddhist hegemony, but we have also had elections and democracy. It has happened in Sri Lanka and it may happen in India too.

Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran in Paradise (2023). Courtesy Newton Cinema.

Cinematographer Rajeev Ravi has a reputation for subtly stylised realism. What conversations did you have with him?
Rajeev had shot my previous film Gaadi. He immediately liked the Paradise script.

We worked on establishing the journey of the characters. The film needed to establish the geography but also be dynamic, with movement all the way till the climax. The relationship between the couple as well as haves and the have-nots is dynamic.

The way Rajeev has shot the kitchen [at the hotel] is different from the dining table. The colours are pastoral but don’t take away from the characters. We needed to shoot their every eye movement. That is how you feel their relationship turning.

It’s not easy to shoot inside vehicles. A team from Kerala came with a rig to shoot the vehicle from the inside and the outside.

Rajeev’s approach is like the sharpening of a pencil. It’s minimalistic even while there is a lot of information within a shot. Rajeev was possessed – meaning he was so fast that we were able to complete the shoot in a month. He understands cinematography, human relationships and politics. It is rare to get this combination.

Tell us about your lengthy collaboration with A Sreekar Prasad.
About Rajeev, Sreekar said, I enjoyed the film because I had all the shots I needed.

Sreekar has edited all my films since Death on a Full Moon Day in 1997. At the time, he ran a negative cutting unit.

Death on a Full Moon Day was a success. The marriage is still going strong. It is a happy marriage. He starts editing my films even as the scrips are being finalised. I will send him my first draft, he will give his feedback, and then we will work on the script. He gives many suggestions.

Sreekar goes by the eye movements of the actors. That is how the conflict is built up. It’s a great privilege to be able to work with him. That is why I have made Chennai my second home.

He is a person who reads the actors and the process. He will suggest a pace, but he also knows when to slow down the pace in order to understand the characters and their journeys. For him, editing is not about combining shots. The way he edits, it is like shots are fused and some kind of electricity happens.

Prasanna Vithanage.