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DateLine Wednesday, 7 November 2007

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Nisala Gira

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 somniferum).

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 pathetically succumbs.


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 attributes.

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 others.

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.


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