Although acclaimed director Prasanna Vithanage’s searing new movie Gaadi (Children of the Sun) is set in Sri Lanka a few centuries ago, its themes of feudalism, caste-based discrimination, gender violence and colonial perfidy resonate deeply in present-day India.

The Sri Lankan filmmaker’s ninth feature revolves around the relationship between an aristocratic woman and a man from the Rodiya community, considered the lowest in the caste hierarchy. “Outcastes are like dust – you play with them and you get dirty,” a character says in the film, echoing a bigoted sentiment that has endured over the ages on both sides of the Palk Straits.

Gaadi plays out in 1814, amidst the dying embers of the Kingdom of Kandy in the east of what is now Sri Lanka. Sinhalese noblemen chafe at being ruled by a king with links to southern India. They join hands with British officers who falsely claim that they only have commerce and not conquest in mind.

When a British-supported rebellion fails, the Kandyan king extracts a terrible price. He orders the wives of the Sinhalese nobles to be handed over like chattel to outcaste men. Women who do not want to lose their honour have the option of drowning themselves, and they do – all except young Tikiri. She is declared the property of the Rodiya Vijaya, and becomes an unwilling member of his group.

Tikiri’s presence soon becomes a liability for the Rodiyas, who are not allowed to work and must beg for alms to survive. Vijaya and Tikiri set out on their own, and Gaadi becomes part-road movie and part-love story. The bond between them is mostly unspoken, It is most powerfully expressed in a sequence in which Vijaya rehearses a conversation that he intends to have with Tikiri about shifting house, only to turn around and see that she has already packed her bags.

Period dramas make sense only if they speak to the present, Vithanage observed. He described Gaadi as an exploration of the polarisation over identity that has riven Sri Lanka over the years and continues to vex vast parts of the world. “There’s no point making a period drama just for the look and the costumes – it must shed light on the present world and the situation in your country,” Vithanage told in an interview from Colombo. “Most of us in the subcontinent are polarised over the issue of identity, whether Buddhist chauvinism or Hindutva. The film was my way to understand the meaning and validity of identity, which has playing out across the world too.”

Dinara Punchihewa in Gaadi (2019). Courtesy Prasanna Vithanage Productions/Jar Pictures.

Gaadi will be premiered at the Busan International Film Festival (October 3-12). Vithanage described the film as one of his most challenging productions because of the complexity of its themes, the period setting, and the difficulty of depicting the fact that Rodiya women were not allowed to cover their breasts.

One of the first signs of Tikiri’s loss of social status is being forced to shed her blouse. Tikiri’s struggle to deal with her changed circumstances, and Vijaya’s empathy towards her plight, become an important element in Gaadi. When the couple’s attempt to pass off as members of a less inferior caste is discovered, they are tied to a tree and flogged with ant-covered branches. For good measure, Tikiri’s upper garments are ripped off.

How can this painful reality, which tell us about how Kandyan society dehumanised Rodiya women, be shown in a serious and thoughtful movie that has no intention of titillating viewers?

“The idea was to show the horror of how the women were treated, but this was the most difficult thing,” Vithanage acknowledged. He had been working on the screenplay since 1992, and over its multiple iterations, the question of depicting the debasement of the Rodiya women was a constant. Actresses shied away from the role, as did producers (one of them told Vithanage that his wife didn’t want him to work on the film because of this factor).

Among the suggestions was to cover the upper portion of the bodies anyway, but that would not have been realistic. “Even during the preparations, we didn’t know how we were going to tackle the problem,” Vithanage said. “It came to my mind suddenly – it was the principle of the thing, of coming up with a cinematic solution that would give viewers the feeling without showing it.” In Gaadi, strategically placed props and long hair cover the upper portions of the women’s bodies. Whatever partial nudity there is viewed in long shots.

“It was not at all easy to shoot, since we were using real locations all over Sri Lanka,” Vithanage recalled. “It was challenging to shoot in the open, but luckily, nothing untoward happened. I have extra regard for all the actresses who worked with me and trusted me. Many of them have a background in Sinhala theatre, so there was that understanding.”

Tikiri was eventually played by Dinara Punchihewa, who has worked in short films and on the stage. “I needed an actress who could develop the character,” Vithanage said. “Dinara’s looks were perfect and at the same time, she developed the character arc. This film was made because she agreed to be in it.”

Sajitha Anuththara plays the equally crucial role of Vijaya, the outcaste whose growing love for Tikiri is expressed in big and small ways. Anuththara moves with the grace of a dancer, which is unsurprising, given his background in the performing arts.

Sajitha Anuththara in Gaadi (2019). Courtesy Prasanna Vithanage Productions/Jar Pictures.

A raft of Indian technical talent shows up in the credits, including cinematographer Rajeev Ravi, editor Sreekar Prasad and sound designer Tapas Nayak. The Mumbai company Jar Pictures is one of the producers.

Gaadi is hardly the first time Vithanage has recruited Indian technicians. Prasad edited and co-produced Vithanage’s award-winning Akasa Kusum in 2008. Nayak too has previously worked with Vithanage. In 2012, the 57-year-old director made With You, Without You, an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s A Gentle Creature, which starred Indian actress Anjali Patil. In 2015, Vithanage’s first documentary, Silence in the Courts, was part of the human rights-themed Justice Project, which also featured Indian filmmaker Rahul Roy’s The Factory.

“My Indian collaborators have always given me their best,” Vithanage said. “For me, it is important to keep coming to India and be a part of the destiny of its people.”

Rajeev Ravi’s intimate and unsettling camerawork vividly captures Vijaya’s slow-burning love for Tikiri. His close-ups reveal the shifting emotions of the characters, and he also captures the brutality and violence that haunt the verdant and seemingly peaceful countryside.

Tikiri and Vijaya must always be on their toes, and the feeling of being trapped in an invisible cage is brought out in the erasure of the sky in certain scenes. “When the drama intensifies, Rajeev and I thought we should avoid showing the sky unless necessary,” Vithanage explained. “Even when Vijaya and Tikiri do ascend to the top of the mountain, they have nowhere else to go but down. To get that feeling, we ensured that the background was covered with foliage.”

Ravi was also the one who made the connection between Vithanage and his co-producer, Jar Pictures, with whom Ravi had worked on previous films. “I give full credit to Rajeev – most of my films have been chamber pieces, highly controlled and featuring only a few characters,” Vithanage said. “I liked both his work and him as a person. He has brought vividness to the movie. The camera intimately observes minute details. When he shot the Rodiyas, he used a handheld camera to create the sense that life had been uprooted.”

Gaadi (2019). Courtesy Prasanna Vithanage Productions/Jar Pictures.

Another cherished collaborator is Sreekar Prasad, the National Film Award-winning editor who works in Chennai and has handled both mainstream and arthouse productions. “One of the most enjoyable parts of making a film is working with Sreekar,” Vithanage said. “When I am shooting, I am always thinking of how not to embarrass myself before him. I have to cover all the emotions, and the continuity should be perfect. Since Sreekar doesn’t know the language, he cuts according to the actors’ eye movements. This is the best thing, since it gives audiences the beat of the characters and the narrative. I am often asked who I make films for, and I say I am making them for Sreekar Prasad.”

The cross-weave of themes in Gaadi includes the persistence of caste despite the presence of Buddhism in the Kandyan kingdom. The Rodiyas are forced to wear markers of their inferior status, such as garments made out of coarse fabric and neckpieces. They are oppressed equally by their rulers and the Sinhalese nobility, and must bend their spines and prostrate themselves whenever they encounter the upper castes.

“This is a real contradiction in Buddhism in Sri Lanka,” Vithanage observed. “Even now, the robes worn by the Buddhist clergy will tell you which caste they are from.” The title of his film refers to the name by which the Rodiya actually refer to themselves in Sinhalese – as gaadi, the children of the sun. Like the title, the movie itself is an act of reclaiming dignity – for the blameless Tikiri, and for the persecuted Vijaya and his people.

Prasanna Vithanage.

After Busan, Gaadi will be screened at several more festivals, and will eventually be released across Sri Lanka in January. “All my films have been released, but this time we will have more theatres because of the scope of the subject,” Vithanage said. He is already on to his next project, which is about the education system in Kerala told through the point of view of children.

Also read:

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The man in the middle: How acclaimed film editor Sreekar Prasad has stood out while blending in