Sri Lanka’s most successful independent filmmaker, Prasanna Vithanage, has managed to thrive in an environment where Hollywood and Bollywood claim the lion’s share of his country’s theaters. Remarkably, Vithanage connects with audiences without sacrificing social commentary, artistic integrity or subtle restraint, despite (or because of) chronic budget constraints.
Direct from its world premiere in October in Busan, Vithanage’s latest engrossing saga, Children of the Sun (Gaadi), screens Saturday, Nov. 9, in 3rd i’s 17th Annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival: Bollywood and Beyond. (Yes, SFISAFF holds the record for Bay Area Film Festival with the Longest Name.). Set in then-Ceylon in 1814, the film portrays how the schemes of the haves (the British army and Sinhala nobles) to oust the Tamil king bring havoc to themselves and the have-nots.
The daughter of an aristocrat is punished for her father’s disloyalty; given the impossible choice of honor-saving suicide or marriage to an “outcast,” Tikiri (Dinara Punchihewa) opts for the latter. Claimed by the uncommonly virtuous Vijaya (Sajitha Anuththara), Tikiri and the film itself leave the family manor and fine period costumes for rags and the insecurity of living off the land.
Tikiri is understandably slow to warm to Vijaya, although her stubbornness is borne of ingrained prejudice and privilege. “The movie questions identity in a world where people are polarized on various lines, in a time when identity politics has come to the foreground,” Vithanage told an interviewer when Children of the Sun debuted. “And I thought the period setting was a reflection of the times we live in.”
Vithanage, who will be on hand for the Castro Theatre screening, needs only a few scenes to convey the arrogance and barbarism of British colonialism, and even less to evoke the horrific recent Sri Lankan civil war. His big-picture worldview is intertwined with Vijaya and Tikiri’s ground-level realization that they’ll need to trust each other if they are to survive in the forest. Children of the Sun puts us in mind of Adam and Eve, albeit with a more hopeful ending.