The Sunday Leader

Bambara Walalla (Whirlwind): A Review

By Chammika Weerasinghe

Last week, while walking down the streets of Colombo, I was curious in seeing a dull, cheap looking poster pasted on the walls with three crosses depicting the threesome: mama (my self), amma (mother) and akka (elder sister). This turned out to be a teaser campaign for the sinhala film, Bambara Walalla (Whirlwind).
Interestingly, with more hip and happening movies like Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables and the latest movie of the twilight saga Eclipse doing the rounds in the Colombo cinema circuit with large crowds waiting in anticipation in long queues to get in, I was surprised that I didn’t face any such problem in securing a seat to see Athula Liyanage’s film Bambara Walalla even though I walked towards the Regal Cinema at 6.30 pm on a Saturday evening without any prior reservation. The film maker immediately connects to the poster by establishing the background to the story fast in a few minutes. It’s the story of Podi Eka (small one), a village boy without much education who cant even write the words Mama (myself), Amma (mother) and Akka (Elder Sister), but who draws three crosses in charcoal depicting them. Podi Eka who is supporting his step father in the illicit liquor business, soon finds himself in jail for killing his step father who rapes his sister, which results in the sister committing suicide. Thus a larger part of the film deals with the situations that arise after Podi Eka (Athula Liyanage) is released from prison after 17 years. After been attacked by the villagers who set fire to his home, killing his mentally unsound mother played by Neeta Fernando, Podi Eka is given a new start in life by Mal (Mahendra Perera) the funeral undertaker. Soon, Podi Eka under the guidance of Mal, gets entangled in the big bad world of murder, gang warfare, high way robbery to make money at any cost.

Athula Liyanage has interestingly named the film Bambara Walalla, a traditional Sri Lankan dance form coming from the Southern part of Sri Lanka where the dancer rotates within a slanted perpendicular axis at high speed similar to a top (Bambaraya) while moving in a circle. The dancer has to keep moving so as to not lose his balance. The best dancers attempt this dance after being trained vigorously to perform well. The filmmaker connects to this concept first through a beautiful shot of a traditional harvesting festival where Podi Eka takes part in a race with the other able men of the village, to be crowned the strongest and the most able man in the village. Mal first spots Podi Eka during this race where he competes and wins amidst obstacles after running in circles in a muddy paddy field. But the viewer is kept guessing till the very last frame whether Podi Eka will win through all obstacles the circle of life presents to him in his ruthless journey from rags to riches. In order to do so, will the Podi Eka be able to maintain his rhythm and keep spinning through each situation like a dancer performing the Bambara Walalla or will his step father and get eliminated by Mal. At times I wonder whether there is any stark contrast between Podi Eka and Mal. As the movie progresses, the line differentiating these two characters becomes a fine thin line and Podi Eka and Mal seems to live within each other.

Athula Liyanage in his brilliantly written screen play, maintains and reinforces the name Podi Eka given to the protagonist of the film, to show even though he is a big strong brawny man, still inherently he is a Podi Eka by his child-like, primitive and impulsive nature which is used by the cunning, scheming Mal to his benefit. Mal’s subtle attempts in getting Podi Eka under his spell is fittingly portrayed in how he gets Podi Eka to use his right hand instead of his left hand when feeding himself. Mal’s constant proclamation that he only buries dead people as an undertaker also signifies that he will not be hesitant to spot the weak and vulnerable and use them to his benefit as shown in the situation where he uses the unemployed graduate played by Sujeewa Priyalal to later engage in a high way robbery.

Bambara Walalla is a brilliantly directed movie with superb casting which to me draws a parallel to some of the more acclaimed movies of the recent past like No country for Old Men, the Hollywood movie directed by Ethan & Joel Coen based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Cormac McCarthy. Even though Bambara Walalla is not an action packed movie, the audiences are kept spell bound in suspense like in No country for Old Men through desperately compelling performances by a stellar cast. The suspense is maintained through the cycle of evil that unfolds in a constant form throughout the movie. The filmmaker has cleverly set the mood through brilliant direction, tight script writing, selecting the right locations for the shoot and proper lighting to keep the audiences spell bound from the word go.

Amidst excellent performances without any over-acting among the highly acclaimed cast comprising of Athula Liyanage, Mahendra Perera, Sriyantha Mendis, Neeta Fernando, Jayalath Manoratne, Damitha Abeyrathne, Bimal Jayakody, Sujeewa Priyalal, Anuruddika Padukkage and Dasun Madushanka, the performance by Mahendra Perera stand out as ‘Mal the undertaker’ with his brilliant acting, supported by his ability to express a range of facial nuances. It is interesting to note that the climax of the film is towards the very end where the emotional, diffident Podi Eka shows his inner charisma and wield authority as he steps into the position of Mal, who is portrayed as somebody indispensable among his close allies. The story line refers to the universal theory of evolution as said by Charles Darwin “In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.”

It is interesting to see how Sri Lankan audiences will react to this film which I think is one of the more bold attempts in the recent past in filmmaking by a new wave Sri Lankan film maker with a flair for creativity. The film, not surprisingly, has been the official selection for the 43rd Annual WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it has been awarded the Special Jury’s Remi Award (Gold) for Best Cinematography and a Special Jury’s Remi Award for Best Direction.

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