April 12 2015
Banned in Sri Lanka, this film represents a generally assured and mature debut…
BRAVE and unexpected, the Sri Lankan feature “Frangipani” is in many ways, a very remarkable first time feature.
Screened for the first time in the UK during BFI Flare 2015, between March 19-29, the annual film festival highlighting work from and about the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual. transgender) communities, it is the first ever ‘gay’ film to emerge from the Indian Ocean island.
That’s a hardly a surprise when homosexual acts are still criminal ones in Sri Lanka and carry sentences of up to eight years in jail.
Against this backdrop Aussie-based but Sri Lankan born and raised writer-director-producer Visakesa Chandrakseraram produces a work of vitality, compassion, and perhaps, even of hope.
Centred around the predicament of three characters, Chamath (Dasun Pathirana), Nalin (Jehan Srikanth Appuhami) and Sarasi (Yashodha Rasunduni), it is a natural and affecting story that occasionally slips into more familiar South Asian melodrama.
But it is hard to file any great objection towards a film that shows life as it is, warts and all, and does not in any way absolve its characters, simply because of their sexuality. It isn’t preachy or keen to overstate its case and one of its impressive features is its natural narrative flow – unburdened by ‘issoos’ so beloved of some South Asian filmmakers based in the West.
And Chandrasekaram does this by making his characters’ lives utterly normal and unremarkable on one level.
Chamath and Sarasi attend a bridal dressing class and both get on famously. Sarasi is pretty and bold and encourages Chamath in both a physical and emotional relationship but Chamath feels compromised.
He finds Sarasi attractive, but only as a friend. It is clear his sexuality is better expressed towards men, though the opportunities are far and few between and fraught with danger.
That is until the arrival of Nalin – who quickly establishes himself between the two. There are a lot of hormones suddenly looking for a good home.
Chamath and Nalin get it on and for a time do not worry about getting caught out. In a village, their companionship seems hardly strange or unusual. In fact, Sarasi would attract far more attention as an unmarried young woman, if she was seen to spend long periods with either of the men.
While Nalin is the more confident of the two men, he finds himself drawn to Sarasi for the quality of life he might be able to enjoy with her.
As you might expect in a love triangle of this nature, someone is going to get hurt.
It’s obvious where Chandrasekeram’s sympathies lie and this is very much Chamath’s film, but the writer still invests enough in the other two to give a rounded picture of three people in varying states of emotional undress, as it were.
It’s also where the film slips slightly into a clichéd frame of the scorned one.
Yet it’s a minor quibble because the quality of the performances and the lush cinematography prevent it from turning into something you have all seen before – albeit in a thoroughly conventional (hetereosexual) context.
Its emotional sensibilities remind one of Pedro Almodovar and there is a dance hall/nightclub scene which would not seem out of place in one of the great Spaniard’s films.
Making a film like this posed dangers for Chandrasekeram and his cast and production team – the film remains banned in Sri Lanka – but what they have done is courageous and noble, peeling back a layer of repression and oppression to show that relationships are complex, awkward, and different at different times.
Being gay in a land where it is outlawed only compounds a central human issue – how do we love and how do we want to be loved…it’s a question as old time.
Chandrasekeram brings something fresh and original to that and reminds us all that in South Asian context, the question is made that much more acute by a very basic lack of understanding and humanity about the complexities and nuances of human sexuality.
Main picture: Chamath (Dasun Pathirana) and Nalin (Jehan Srikanth Appuhami)