Friday, January 4, 2008

Sri Lanka’s Daughter wins People’s Choice Award

Director Salinda Perera’s low-key, low-budget film is set among the needy fishing community eking out a living on Sri Lanka’s stormy coastline, with leading Sri Lankan actress Sangeetha Werraratne. The film was a surprise award winner, having collected the most votes from viewers attending the Dubai Film Festival

The only non-Arab film to win an award at the recently concluded Dubai International Film Festival was Sri Lankan filmmaker Salinda Perera’s debut work, Dheevari (Fisherman’s Daughter). This is because Dubai’s Muhr Awards are open only to Arab filmmakers. This year, Dubai instituted the People’s Choice Award for which the public votes for their favourite film. Salinda Perera was told on the last day to attend the evening event, which gave him his first inkling that he would be on stage as an award winner.

The director stated that the film was shot way back in 1994, but financial constraints led him to get it ready in wearying, stressful stages until it was completed eleven years later. “The negative itself is that old, which has muted its colours and tones”, said Perera.

Set in Sri Lanka of the 70s, Dheevari follows Valli, now no longer a child, and therefore forced to leave the missionary orphanage where she was raised. Fearful of an unknown life ahead, she reluctantly returns to her native fishing village to live with her aunt and uncle. Earlier, Valli’s father had been denied his own boat by the powerful mudalali, the fish-trading village chief. Not to be cowed down, he fashioned his own boat to make his living, but both he and Valli’s mother perished at sea.

The educated and protected Valli initially feels out of place in the rough, earthy life she must adjust to. She learns fast and becomes an asset to her family, warding off the predatory men around her. She balks at the inequities of her new life, especially the prejudices against women. She questions the fisher community’s submission to the traders who exploit them and their belief in self-defeating superstition. They in turn see her as a bad omen, saying that her parent’s defiance led to their death at sea. To them, a woman’s place is on land and never with men out at sea.

With mechanised fishing boats being introduced in Sri Lanka, Valli shrewdly sees the advantages in government incentives offered to fishermen. She urges her uncle and his mate to buy their own boat as a way out of feudal control. To help her, fellow fisherman Kiera uses foolhardy methods to raise quick money for which he is shot and killed by the police. To pay for Kiera’s funeral, Valli takes a job as a domestic in the spacious home of the mudalali, whose young son both admires and covets her. She becomes the pillar of the house with each member treating her with affection and regard. Her brief respite when she gives in to the advances of the young son are shattered when he marries the rich girl his family has found for him. Valli returns to her village determined to blend with its people and improve their lot. She leads them to a more independent life by opposing their beliefs and the conniving traders.

Present in Dubai was leading Sri Lankan actress Sangeetha Werraratne, who plays the role of Valli with compelling subtlety and confidence. Director Perera told the packed house in his post-screening discussion how he was fortunate to get the best in Sri Lanka’s towering acting talent to take on key roles in the film. They lend a powerful realism to the film’s narrative and its visual and visceral immediacy.

Courtesy of Screen India