A rocky road: ‘The Road from Elephant Pass’ directed by Chandran Rutnam

A rocky road: ‘The Road from Elephant Pass’ directed by Chandran Rutnam

Elephant Pass is the narrow strip of land connecting the island landmass of Sri Lanka to its northern Jaffna Peninsula. Bordered on left and right by lagoons and marshes, this isthmus carries both the main A9 Highway and the railway line connecting Jaffna to the rest of the country. In the nearly 30-year civil war between the LTTE and state security forces, the Jaffna Peninsula was of keen strategic importance for both sides, and control over this vital link has been fought over on at least two modern occasions. During the course of its struggle to establish a Tamil homeland in the north and east, the LTTE first attempted to capture the Elephant Pass military camp in 1991, but was thwarted. Its second attempt, however, in April 2000, was brutally successful, and was considered the biggest debacle suffered by the Sri Lankan forces at the time. The LTTE proceeded to hold the territory until the final phase of the war, when the Sri Lankan forces recaptured rebel areas and eventually eliminated its top leadership, including its leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Sri Lankan feature films based around the civil war have been few and far between since the conflict began in the early 1980s. In 2001, the human-rights activist Sunila Abeysekera noted that it was "quite remarkable" that contemporary Sri Lankan cinema had "failed to deal with critical moments in the history of the island that have led to sometimes violent social and political upheaval". For Abeysekera, the "most critical silence and absence" was "that relating to the ethnic conflict and the subsequent state of civil war in the country". Despite Sri Lanka's claims to being a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, its cinema, says Abeysekera, is exclusively in Sinhala and "represents and reproduces the lives and concerns of the majority Sinhala-speaking people of the island. In the context of a history of discrimination and marginalization of minority communities … this absence could also be considered as part of the same process of erasure."

What Abeysekera said ten years ago remains relevant today. To date, only about a dozen films have been made on the subject of the civil war; and, it could be argued, out of these only five have attempted to deal with the conflict in any meaningful way, with a creative use of the language of cinema. Among those that have attempted to do so can be counted Prasanna Vithanage's Death On A Full Moon Day (1997) and August Sun (2003), Asoka Handagama's This Is My Moon (2000), Sudath Mahadivulwewa's Shades Of Ash (2003) and Vimukthi Jayasundara's The Forsaken Land (2005). These five films are set in the Sinhalese-majority milieu, and in the main the conflict is seen from the perspective of the ordinary Sinhalese people – especially villagers eking out an existence on the borders of the battle zones in which their sons and daughters are combatants, not so much due to their patriotism but rather because the army pays a better wage than what they would earn working the land. These films are deeply analytical and troubling. The negative way the war has impacted on all aspects of the lives of the Sinhalese polity is examined in stark detail, with a keen sense of the possibilities of the cinematic language, seen in its various usages in Vithanage's minimalism, Handagama's experiments with form, and Mahadivulwewa's and Jayasundera's stylisations. Unfortunately, the latest addition to the genre, The Road from Elephant Pass, does not fall into this rare company.

It uses the opening moments of the 2000 LTTE attack on the Elephant Pass army camp to begin its narrative. A captain in the Sri Lankan Army arrives at the checkpoint, which borders the rebel-held area, to collect a female LTTE cadre who is defecting with vital information about the Tiger leadership. As they are leaving the area in the army vehicle, the first salvos of the attack begin; they are caught in the crossfire and their vehicle is destroyed. Thus, the two are forced to escape into the jungle and continue their journey on foot to Colombo, where she will divulge her information to the army high command.

The thrust of the story is the relationship that develops between Captain Wasantha and Kamala, the LTTE informant. Wasantha is the quintessential army boy, who insists on using the standard rhetoric that there will be no division of the country – that Sri Lanka is one nation in which all races and religions will live in peace and harmony, and where the state respects everyone's human rights and gives all of its peoples full freedom. Kamala counters with an angry response that the Sri Lankan Tamils will not be given their freedom, but rather will take it themselves. Wasantha and Kamala are initially openly hostile to each other, but by the end of the film they have each presented their side of the case, discussed and argued the rights and wrongs of their conflicting ideologies, faced obstacles and threats along their journey, saved each other from harm, and eventually begin to like each other to the point of having sex. In the story, the motivation given to Kamala's joining the LTTE is the burning of her home and subsequent death of her father due to injuries suffered during the horrific pogrom of 1983 carried out by state-sponsored Sinhalese mobs against Tamils. Director Chandran Rutnam has to be given credit for his courage in portraying this event in graphic detail on screen, perhaps the first time this has been covered by Sinhala cinema.

Oddly, the film belongs more to the genre of a 'road movie' cum 'buddy movie' than to that of a war movie. Rutnam's filmmaking is in the standard style of classic narrative or Hollywood cinema, which gives priority to the unravelling of the film's storyline. The story is told in a chronological sequence, with a beginning, middle and end; and in the true 'story structure' style of scriptwriting (a la Robert Mackee and Syd Field), we have the sacred triad of classic narrative: order, disorder and, finally, order restored. But there are a few holes in Rutnam's use of the classic style, particularly surrounding the director's use of an 'act of god'. Classic narrative generally deplores the use of 'acts of god' to create disorder or order to carry forward the story. Yet at one crucial point in the narrative, as Wasantha is about to be exposed as an army officer by an LTTE cadre at a checkpoint deep in LTTE territory, Sri Lankan Air Force helicopter gunships suddenly attack the checkpoint, thus allowing Wasantha and Kamala to escape back into the jungle. In another sequence, which can only be attributed to sloppy editing, Wasantha's and Kamala's makeshift camp is attacked at night by army deserters who poach game in the jungle. Wasantha is shot and left injured, lying on the ground, while Kamala is captured and taken away. Yet in the very next frame, Wasantha is seen carrying a rifle, holding a machine gun and attacking the poachers hut to successfully rescue Kamala. How he acquired this weaponry is not explained.

Rutnam's film is based on the English-language novel of the same name by Nihal de Silva. In 2003, de Silva's work won Sri Lanka's premier literary award, the Gratiaen Prize for creative writing in English, as well as the State Literary Award. A keen amateur naturalist and birdwatcher, de Silva uses the beauty of the flora and fauna of the Wilpattu National Park, a game reserve in the northwest of Sri Lanka, and the threats from dangerous animals, army deserters, poachers and Tiger rebels lurking in its depths, to give the essential perspective to the developing relationship between the two protagonists as they traverse it en route to Colombo. It is sadly ironic that, in 2006, de Silva himself was killed in this same jungle game reserve along with some friends, when their vehicle hit a suspected LTTE landmine planted on the road.

Of course, the use of literature by filmmakers as the primary source for their scripts is nothing new. A casual look at the film industry around the world would show a high percentage of films made from novels and plays. Sri Lanka's leading filmmaker, Lester James Peiris, made his career on film adaptations of famous Sinhala-language novels, the most famous being his trilogy Gamperaliya (1965), Kaliyugaya (1982) and Yuganthaya (1983), based on the novels by Martin Wickramasinghe. Yet making a film from a highly successful novel is a risky business. Comparisons are inevitable, and unless the film is an exceptional work in its own right, as Gamperaliya is acknowledged to be, the simple act of comparison will oftentimes outweigh the film's own accomplishments.

De Silva's novel had already been widely discussed and appreciated when Rutnam purchased the rights to make it into a film. Rutnam has a track record as both a filmmaker and producer. His Sinhala-language feature films, A Love Story and Witness to a Killing, have won national awards and have represented Sri Lanka in many international film festivals. He has produced films by leading Sri Lankan filmmakers such as Vasantha Obeysekera and Lester James Pieris, and his production company, Asian Film Location Services, is well known internationally for providing both technical and creative line production support to many local, international and regional films shot in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. These have included Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Deepa Mehta's Water, and Regis Wargnier's Indochine.

Indeed, Rutnam has a better reputation in the movie business as a producer than as a writer/director. Unfortunately, The Road from Elephant Pass does not work either as an adaptation of the novel nor as a film in its own right. In the novel, de Silva uses the mode of the first-person narrative, with the reader thus looking at and understanding the world of the novel through the eyes and mind of the "I" that tells the story. We are subject to, and engage entirely with, the slowly developing and changing opinions, idiosyncrasies, contradictions, emotions and ideological worldview of this one character. Indeed, it is this approach that ultimately contributes to the power and success of the novel. The film, however, does not do this. It takes an objective, neutral stance – there is no first-person narrator, with the events of the story simply unfolding chronologically.

The novel also has the luxury of time, space and the use of as many words as is necessary to intertwine the political arguments between Wasantha and Kamala into the rest of the narrative. But Rutnam has only about 120 minutes by which to do so, and is thus forced to confine these critical elements to one or two rather long, and ultimately boring, segments of dialogue between the two in the middle of the film.

Another aspect that contributed hugely to the popularity of the novel was its use of natural history. The bulk of the story takes place in the Wilpattu National Park, and this game reserve, with its fauna and flora, eventually becomes the third lead character in the narrative. How the two human protagonists engage with and form a relationship to the park, and how this impinges on their own developing relationship, is what made the novel work for the Gratiaen Prize jury. In the film, Rutnam does not have the luxury of visually translating to the screen the long descriptive passages of prose describing the game reserve, which de Silva uses to good effect throughout the novel. There is only so much one can do with a greyish-green mise-en-scene of jungle foliage, unchanging from frame to frame, scene to scene and sequence to sequence. Thankfully, given this constraint, Rutnam does not indulge in making his film into a feature-length version of a National Geographic-type documentary. Nevertheless, it is this critical aspect that thus remains untranslated, even untranslatable, to the screen. Perhaps in the hands of another filmmaker, with a different approach to the translation from page to screen, it could have been achieved.

~ Robert Crusz is a writer, filmmaker and educator. He coordinates the Media Unit of the Tulana Research Centre in Kelaniya, Sri Lanka.

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