Police officers trot out myriad excuses for going slow with an investigation, but in Prasanna Vithanage’s ‘Paradise’, being screened in the World Cinema category at the 28th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), the sergeant supposed to lead an investigation into a robbery utters perhaps one of the most outlandish, yet basic, excuses for not venturing out of the station.
The police vehicles are short of fuel. But, when you get into the context in which he says it, the excuse appears quite justifiable, for the events are happening in Sri Lanka in 2022, when the country was mired in political and economic crisis.
How much attention can the police force give to a stolen laptop in that situation? But, as later events show, those with enough privilege can get the entire force scurrying to search for even a missing pen. Keshav (Roshan Mathew), an Indian filmmaker who has landed up in the country with his partner Amritha (Darshana Rajendran) to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, is the epitome of that privilege. The guy is aware of it too, in the way he says that he is doing a favour to the Sri Lankans to be touring their country at a time when the economy is in shambles.
That statement and a few he makes early on gives us a hint of his world view and his approach to fellow beings, which is in stark contrast to Amritha, an empathetic soul who also seems to live in harmony with nature while her husband jumps at the prospect of an illegal hunt. A study of their faces when three innocent Tamilians are being tortured inside the cell following their complaint, makes this contrast even starker. Amid the cries emanating from the cells, Amritha is a picture of helpless concern, imploring Keshav to intervene while he remains untouched with the only possible concern on the face being for his lost laptop, which has all the material he has been working on for his dream project for a streaming service. In these moments, one almost wonders how Amritha did not see through him in all these years.
Vithanage, a veteran of Sri Lankan cinema, uses the economic crisis as a backdrop to lay out a multi-layered narrative that also touches upon the long-standing racial tensions in the country and the power dynamics between communities and within a relationship. When the drama sets off gently, with the couple touring mythical locations related to the Ramayana, one would not get a clue as to how it is about to unfold. For that matter, even when things take a darker turn later, the viewers are not prepared for the effective blow that Vithanage lands in the end.
The conversations shift unobtrusively from Sinhala to Malayalam to Hindi to Tamil to English, adding a further touch of authenticity to the film. Shyam Fernando as the couple’s tour guide and Mahendra Perera as the investigating officer complement the lead pair with strong performances which elevate the film at many points.
In ‘Paradise’, Prasanna Vithanage in sparkling form, delivering a film that lands as an unexpected punch in the gut.