How the (female) mind works:
A scene from Nisal Gira
Anthropologists say that there is evidence that there were dope
addicts in this world long before there were farmers. By the middle of
the Stone Age (between 10,000 and 3000 years BC) when humankind had not
learnt how to domesticate plants, they had learnt how to dope themselves
with extracts from the fruits of the opium poppy plant (Papaver
The question immediately poses itself: What impels healthy men and
women to resort to the use of dope? In the 1950s Aldous Huxley offered
an insightful answer.
"Most men and women", he wrote in The Doors Of Perception, "lead
lives at the most so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and
limited, that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if
only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal
appetites of the soul".
In the 1980s psychiatry professor Dr. Nalaka Mendis reported that the
typical dope addict in Sri Lanka is an uneducated, unemployed,
unmarried, urban slum-dwelling male between 18 and 30 years of age.
In Nisala Gira starring national and international award-winning
actress Nita Fernando as the key character Radha, it is an educated,
even sophisticated, upper class mature woman married to a very decent
man (addicted to politics) who resorts to dope.
She does so presumably to obtain what Huxley called "chemical
vacations from intolerable selfhood".
When a gunshot fired by the drug mafia at her incorruptible,
anti-dope husband Saliya (played with a sureness of professional touch
derived no doubt from real-life experience by Ravindra Randeniya) kills
her only little child, piano prodigy Arjuna, the base of her existence
is smashed to smithereens.
The light goes out of her life and survival becomes unbearably
painful. Because the man she is married to is passionately wedded to
politics, she gets no emotional support whatsoever from her life's
partner to cope with the mental depression precipitated by the death of
her sweet little son.
In the event her life becomes not only so painful but also so
monotonous, poor and limited, that she is mentally primed for seduction
by a consoling opium of one sort or another. In the secular world in
which she lives and moves, it is the opium of the kind surreptitiously
supplied by the underworld, international drug cartel to which she
It is possible to read this film as a sensitive, realistic, even
sympathetic exploration of the whole phenomenon of non-medical resort
to, dependence on and gradual addiction to psychotropic drugs, that is
to say substances which alter mood, consciousness or other psychological
The death of her little son, her sole reason for living, depresses
her to the point of psychosis or madness i.e. losing touch with reality.
She develops psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations (objectless
sensations) and delusions (unalterable false beliefs).
At that point a trusted family friend Cynthia, a socialite with
unsavoury pecuniary connections with the drug mafia (convincingly
portrayed with style and sophistication by Angela Seneviratne) offers
consolation with a hidden agenda. She subtly engineers Radha's
initiation into the dope habit. Radha swallows Cynthia's prescription
hook, line and sinker, charmingly retailed to her by Marko (handsomely
depicted by Saumya Liyanage).
The formula he offers to Radha's emotionally traumatised brain hooked
on dope is: good eating, drinking and copulating.
Given her purposeless, meaningless existence Radha predictably plumps
for it and in the process gets impregnated by Marko seemingly without
her knowledge but not against her will.
Female Prison Behaviour
In the meantime, the trusted friend Cynthia has no compunction about
exploiting Radha's privileged and influential social status as wife of a
powerful politician for trafficking illicit drugs. This eventually lands
Radha in prison.
The scenes shot in prison are what give this film its unique artistic
flavour. The prison is filled exclusively with mature women controlled
by a domineering foul-mouthed garrulous woman.
The impression becomes inescapable that even as the whole prison is
filled with women, so the whole film is a product of the collective
female mind. And so it nearly turns out to be. The story and screenplay
are by Yolanda Weerasinghe, an Australian citizen of 32 years' standing.
She is also executive producer and has been responsible for casting too.
Nita Fernando who dominates the film is also its producer. Veteran
actress Iranganie Serasinghe is there as Radha's sympathetic
mother-in-law trying to understand her depression and drug addiction,
but totally ineffective in her attempts to console her.
Chandra Kaluarachchi, Angela Seneviratne, Damitha Abeyratne, Kanchana
Mendis, Nimmi Harasgama, Rozanne Diasz, Jayani Senanayake, our
glittering female stars, are all there.
Like a rabbit fascinated by a snake I watched their behaviour in
prison. Their frustrations, verbal abuse, physical fights and lesbian
frolics were enthralling to observe.
The behaviour of some of the characters seemed so authentic to me
that the suspicion grew in me that they are based on women in real life.
At this point the illusion was created in me that this film must be a
documentary. The male director of the film (and Screenplay) Tanuj
Anawaratne must have worked on the premise that a good director is one
who directs little and works to achieve his aim so unobtrusively that
when his direction is done and his aim is achieved the players should
feel that they did it themselves.
Aim of Film
And what is the aim of the film? It seems to me that the aim was to
enable us to see and understand - and sympathise with - those
unfortunates who willy-nilly get inextricably entrapped in dope's net.
Somewhere down the line their brains rot, their life's skills decay and
they earn society's contempt and reproach.
When one encounters a person like Radha, however, one is made
momentarily to feel that in a manner of speaking, "there but for the
grace of God go I". If that is true of Radha, the ethical principle of
universality enjoins us to apply the same standard of judgment to
Thereby all those who are victims of the illicit drug menace also
gain our sympathy. However that may be, what redeems Radha is not human
sympathy but motherhood.
To my socio-biologically oriented stereotyped mind, Radha's behaviour
both after she loses the first child and after she gives birth to the
second is most easily comprehended in terms of the designs of
Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid.
DNA is the chemical double helix endowed with the property of
reproducing itself. Perhaps unwittingly the film conveys the implicit
message that, when it comes to brass tacks, humans are just survival
machines for the human version of DNA. It is DNA that ensures the
continuity of Homo sapiens the animal species to which we belong.
Radha could be an understanding wife and suffer outrageous neglect by
her politician husband (a highly principled one dedicated to the rule of
law and independence of the judiciary) so long as she could enjoy her
son (half of whose genes are hers).
What a wonderful little boy Arjuna proves to be. A musical prodigy he
has set his mind on becoming a world-class pianist. Pansilu Sannasgala
plays the role with a sensitive intelligence and a touching innocence.
When this innocent, helpless prodigy gets killed solely because he
was born into an evil society, one begins to understand the psychotic
depression into which his mother sinks.
Thereafter life ceases to have meaning and purpose for her. To escape
from "intolerable selfhood" she resorts to illicit drugs and sex and
becomes accidentally pregnant.
With the birth of the child in prison Radha's life becomes endowed
with a new meaning and purpose (which is nothing but the original
meaning and purpose inherent in DNA designed by chemical evolution to
perpetuate itself, come hell or high water).
The little daughter's role involving growing up in prison is
deliciously played by Sasindi Senanayake with whom Radha eventually
walks out of prison in the final scenes of the film.
The technical aspects of the film, cinematography (by Suminda
Weerasinghe); editing (by Ravindra Guruge); and choreography (by Channa
Wijewardena) are so well executed that they escape notice.
Music director Aruna Lian making his debut merits a special word.
Fresh to the art though he is, with unerring instinct he has pressed
veteran playback singer Nanda Malini's ever-fresh voice to render a
meaningful lyric with a haunting melody, which still reverberates in my
brain. It was like the enchanting icing on the Nisala Gira cake.
Let me end with a possibly gratuitous word to moviegoers. This film
is not for the likes of those who flocked to see the film called
Parliamentary Jokes (as I did) and found the jokes amusing (as I
didn't). Its unrevealingly obscure Sinhala and English titles Nisala
Gira and Silent Honour respectively notwithstanding, for film-goers who
take film art seriously as well as for those who wish to make some sense
of how the (female) mind works, this film is mandatory.