Woman in a Whirlpool


Sri Lanka / 1984 / Sinhala

Directed by Dharmasiri Bandaranayake

With Swarna Mallawarachchi, Cyril Wickramage, Somi Ratnayake

Still from 'Woman in a Whirlpool'The beautiful coloring of a snake – the diamond backs, the coral stripes – are self-defense just as much as they are an aid in killing. The two skill sets are often related. Killing is adaptive, a means of survival, and just like other organisms, people are often pushed by their surroundings to do the same. Woman in a Whirlpool, not plying us with visual poetry or statements about love and sacrifice, illustrates the inherent brutality of survival. Without pontificating on the subject or brooding over its implications, it casts its keen, voracious eyes over a human landscape as desiccated as the unforgiving outback that surrounds it.

The pitiful Suddi is a woman alone, living alone, fending for herself. In the sparsely-populated rural community in which she lives, she has nothing but her body with which to survive. Her husband, Romiel, is in prison, and a note from him, nailed to her wall, promises, in vague terms, that he’ll “be home soon.” In the oneiric opening sequence we’re acclimated to the fierce tenor of her existence, as a neighbor leaves her bedroom, promising to bring her a pumpkin the next day. As bare-bones as her struggle for survival is, we gradually perceive Suddi to be adept at negotiating the convoluted emotional terrain and swampy sexual politics of her surroundings.

Wobbling with hunger (not having received the promised pumpkin), she finds her way to the village shop owned by Mudalali, a pushy, aggressive brute who immediately reads her come-hither body language – in all likelihood before she even started with it. Their first encounter happens almost right away, but gets interrupted before it can begin by the return of Mudalali’s assistant, Banda. With Banda watching the shop, Mudalali disappears into the dry jungle where Suddi waits for him. It is only after he has finished with her that he notices that she is a person suffering from starvation. He goes back to the shop and brings her his lunch, as well as provisions to take home. Meanwhile his wife, Menike, has come to the shop, but the assistant doesn’t know where he’s gone.

Menike is the sister of the rich land-owner known to all as the “ex-headman”, but may as well still be called “the headman” of the village. The underlying web of associations – some of them important, others not – begins to come into focus. When Mudalali first came to the village – he tells Suddi – he looked for a wife who would afford him the most economic mobility. He struck gold with Menike, but her powerful brother, this ex-headman, doesn’t like Mudalali, and consequently won’t talk t either of them.

Still from 'Woman in a Whirlpool'Avusadaya, a laborer on the headman’s land, has been agitating to get ownership over part of it. He argues that he’s been working the land all his life (as had his family before him, for generations), and the indeed, the law is on his side. Indigent and frequently drunk, he spouts half-remembered lines from Fanon, backed up by a well-dressed advocate from the city. The ex-headman brandishes a rifle and chases the sloppy farmer away, but in private fears losing his land to him. Avusadaya’s more successful brother, Peter, is married and has land of his own, and seems more adjusted to the social system in which they live. While he works, Avusdaya harasses him, feuding over who should get what scrap of land.

We get a strong sense of Romiel even before he abruptly appears one day; his name injects a sense of vague unease among the characters when mentioned. But she comes home and he’s there, back from prison, in their bed. How did she get by? he asks. “Using my paramours,” she tells him, teasingly and powerfully. He can neither punish her nor argue with the logic. Suddi has moved up from the poor farmer at the beginning to the shopkeeper, her nutrition becoming less precarious as she moves up the production ladder.

The ex-headman wastes no time in offering Romiel another job. Since killing Avusadaya would be foolishly obvious (as he’s a public thorn in the landlord’s side), the plan is to instead frame him for the murder of his own brother. The ex-headman knows that the poor Romiel will do anything for some money, even risk further jail time. And he knows that the man is a dead-eyed assassin – and, as it turns out, not a very good one.

The set-up seems fine: he crouches in the bushes with a rifle and waits. Peter eats dinner, oblivious to who is out there in the darkness, while his brother Avusadaya rages drunkenly at him. When Romiel finally pulls the trigger, even the victim and his wife think that it was Avusadaya who did it. But the bullet doesn’t kill him, so everyone is impelled to help in a farcical bid to to take him to the nearest hospital, by lamplight, in the bull-drawn wagon. To sabotage it, the ex-headman provides them with a lamp that is nearly out of oil, so they have to pull over when the light goes out.

There’s not much reason to summarize more, but like a runaway cart, things get out of hand, and the amounts of money involved climb. The film becomes a tad more melodramatic, and meanders a bit, but it doesn’t waver in its slow, engrossing cruelty. Suddi, who isn’t directly involved with the murder and the slew of events that follow in its wake, but still has a significant stake in all of it, ultimately runs the risk of falling on the proverbial stick that she helped whittle to a point. She wants to run Romiel and Mudalali simultaneously, benefiting from their benefactors (the ex-headman, his sister, and the peasants who work for them), taking on hosts as a parasite does, attaching herself to a social food chain of sorts.

Still from 'Woman in a Whirlpool'Are we meant to feel sorry for her? None of the characters is remotely sympathetic – except perhaps the unsuspecting worker, Peter, but even he is a bit of a lout. Eveyone is running a racket of some sort, and the only available tools are their neighbors and loved ones. Menike upbraids Suddi for not working, for drifting around the village like a sultry ghost. But it’s easy for her to say; she has family money and her husband owns a shop. Never believe a rich woman who scolds a poor woman trying to get by. She is like a romance heroine but minus any romance, and a few layers of corpulence.

Mallawarachchi turns out a nuanced performance as Suddi, who finds the most malleable element of any situation and works it like a ball of wax. At first she knocks about like a stray animal (and indeed, gets likened to one on more than one occasion), using people in order to survive. Even when Romiel isn’t sure about taking the job killing Peter, her adaptive instinct pushes her to ply him for increasingly lofty and dangerous gains. Suddi’s comportment snaps, in an instant, from artless to almost machiavellian. In some ways the film’s visual inconsistency does the same thing, mixing clumsily hand-held shots (that mimic the woman’s hungry unsteadiness) and carefully-crafted frames.

Her weakness and availability are an act, and a necessary one, like a snake’s beautiful coloring. Similarly, the film’s disorganized grouping of elements obscure the underlying focus and tightly-beaded cause-and-effect. Its slow-paced atmosphere conceals an intensity of design, like a Double Indemnity cut to ribbons and strewn across a long distance. Suddi’s boniness is camouflage with the parched brush around her. At the same time, she’s no snake in the grass; her intentions are often plainly seen by every other cynical character. Menike dislikes her at first sight, knowing innately what a single woman means for the community. And then, later, Mudalali himself (for he’s as schooled in conniving as anyone) catches on to the reason behind the attempt on Peter’s life and the subsequent cover-up.

Still from 'Woman in a Whirlpool'Certain characters, such as Mudalali, cling to the archetypes of melodrama (he has this overdone, Snidely Whiplash quality), but even he vacillates between sleep-deprived and intently-focused. Meanwhile others are acted with moving naturalism. Take Wickramage’s portrayal of Romiel, a frighteningly placid man, severe and spartan like a London gangster. His comportment is somewhere between Jack Palance and a Kathakali dancer, eyes tracking incrementally, and with deliberate languidness.

The ex-headman is referred to by everybody as just that, as though it were his official title. This is a society that has come out of feudalism, but only just. The film problematizes the ostensibly progressive changes, imposed on rural communities, that are meant to benefit the peasants. It’s not decrying the changes, of course, but interrogating how they’re thrown into the mix without the expectation of disruption. The property-holding class will do a lot to cling to what they have, and the ambient level of poverty means that ordinary people will be pushed further into deceit just to survive. Is the law meant to exist in a vacuum? Would a belligerent drunk like Avusadaya run the land better than its owner? Probably not, which is why simply inverting the social order and then walking away may not have the effect that the legislators desired.

The camerawork is often unfocused, occasionally out-of-focus, and sometimes impressive. The aimless collages of trees gazed up at from below are disorienting counterpoint to the primordial blandness of the scenery and the place. The pentatonic musical motif sounds Japanese-inspired. It has a cyclical form, and seems to issue from the air, as the forest sounds do. And it shores up a certain feeling of the suffering of a Japanese heroine, an Oharu or a Madame Yuki, but one who weaponizes her vulnerability, making it into an asset in the game.

The film burns slowly, like an impossibly grinding film noir. Without a readily discernible path, it wends through a dark forest lit by oil lamp, each event tessellating over the next with grim implacability. Nearly all the characters are unbelievably wretched, cynical, sweaty and hunger-gnawed. The dialogue, by Simon Navagattegama (adapted from a book that he wrote), is spit out in short, staccato punctures, like typewriter keys being hit with such force that they break through the paper. Although the film is long and marauding, he uses a bitter economy words.

Still from 'Woman in a Whirlpool'Woman in a Whirlpool deserves a second look, not just for being among the finest Sri Lankan films, but because of its incredible effect. It deviates significantly from melodrama’s standard dressing, as instinct – as well as basic hunger – are such decisive factors in it. It almost seems to be a hardtack parody of melodrama, emaciating its fantasizing on human fallibility, carnality and dastardly behavior. Of course, all of those things are deployed in service of a dramatic structure, but they are also trimmed of all filigree. Hunger for sex is satiated like hunger for food, and isn’t abstracted. Likewise, killing happens according to immovable logic, rather than as the nexus for dramatic events.

The film’s dire primitivism plows deeper than conventional caricatures of love and betrayal. Rather than running rough-shod over the story, it examines humanity more lucidly, more sensitively, than any conceivable counterparts do. It treats people, unsentimentally, as organisms, no more or less driven by nature than amoebas, insects, or jackals. While the title vividly suggests Suddi’s situation and its escalation, there’s also an element of vertigo of the deep; if she is in a spiral of sorts, she could be diving when it feels as though she’s rising. The deeper she goes, the later she will realize it, and then, only after having descended too far.


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