Paradise Movie Review: A Fraught Tale Told With Gentle Detachment
Director: Prasanna Vithanage
Writer: Prasanna Vithanage, Anushka Senanayake
Cast: Roshan Mathew, Darshana Rajendran, Mahendra Perera, Shyam Fernando
There is an odd but gentle detachment at the heart of Paradise, like a sweet, lulling voice telling a tragic, blood-cut story. Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage’s first Indian language film, Paradise trails a married couple, Kesav (Roshan Mathew) and Amritha (Darshana Rajendran), as they decide to vacation in Sri Lanka, as the small island-country is boiling over in protest and anger.
Kesav is celebrating Netflix slurping up his pitch, potentially cushioning his bank account, and five years of being with Amritha. At night, they kiss. It is soft, this kiss, but he bites and pulls, and you can see strains of roughness. That very night, post-coital bliss aside, they are held at knife-point, their laptop, tablet, and phones are stolen. They want to file a complaint with the police, but it seems futile, given that, you know, the country has turned on its head. What are a few lost appliances when a civilization is restructuring?
But Kesav’s important files and folders are there — presumably, not backed up, silly man — and so he insists with his big-city arrogance that they need to find the devices. A mousy Sergeant Bandara (Mahendra Perera), made pliant by power, is put on the job, and as the suspects pile up, custodial violence meted out, and the country’s directionless anger finds more excuses to be given shape, Paradise meanders calmly.
Shot with a clean, symmetric eye by Rajeev Ravi and edited by Sreekar Prasad, the film refuses tension, even as the circumstances demand it from the form. It prefers, instead, to keep the camera still, at a distance, unmoved by the lives at stake. At first, it feels like a set-up, as though, through static slow-burn, the film will rumble into action. But as the story builds, the framing remains.
After a while this stillness begins to feel like the ambivalence of form to substance. Nothing that takes place in the frame is elevated. No stakes are felt, no anger pulsating, no break-in feels lethal, no gunfire feels final. Even the climactic burst of blood is rendered meek by this gentle distance.
Amritha and Kesav spend their time taking the “Ramayana Tour”, being carted around to see mountains and temples and depressions — here is where Ravana landed after kidnapping Sita, this is where Hanuman gave Sita Rama’s ring, there is where Ravana is said to be in slumber. This overlaying of the Ramayana over Paradise makes the central thematic questions of the two texts converge — the fraught question of return, and how this journey undoes people. The parallels are not striking or clear. You could argue what is being kidnapped here are the devices. You could argue the parallels of Rama and Sita with Kesav and Amritha — his ebullient, single mindedness, her calm resignation; Amritha even stands enamoured by a deer, much like Sita. But these parallels don’t elevate either story by re-rendering the ur-text. Instead, Amritha mouths the familiar liberal talking points, about the 300 Ramayanas — AK Ramanujan’s iconic, now controversial essay — subverting a single reading, a single interpretation. It is in the clash of the many readings, even more interpretations, that Paradise rests.
At one point, Kesav tells Amritha, “We’re doing them a favour by being here”, and, suddenly, the sociopolitical reading erupts, where Indians save Sri Lankans, like Rama saving Lanka — the former with dollar denomination notes; the latter with an army of monkeys and a strident sense of maryada. This is a slightly meta reading because in interviews, the director Vithanage notes about the virtues of shooting this film through Sri Lanka’s rabid inflation, “Many people in the industry got job opportunities because of the film.”
However, the first, most apparent and enduring charm of the film, which won the Kim Jiseok Award for the best film at the Busan International Film Festival 2023, is the way it deploys language. Kesav and Amritha speak Malayalam and English with each other, Kesav breaks into Hindi on the phone with his colleagues, and Amritha breaks into Tamil talking to the local children. They speak in English to their tour guide, Andrew (Shyam Fernando) and then, there is Sinhala. There is even a Muslim, Iqbal, and a Tamil man, Shree, working in the country lodge the two are staying at, completing the Amar-Akbar-Anthony-ing of the tale.
The triumph of Mathew and Rajendran’s acting, is in their seamless movement between these languages, without drawing too much attention to the switched linguistic lilts. Rajendran, especially, who is the moral centre of this film — she is only seen eating plants and leaves; Kesav only meat — is given the most trite lines. Sample this: “This is human life. Doesn’t it have any value?” When she sees a deer that is about to be hunted, she stops the guns from firing, “It’s too beautiful to be killed.” (A subverting of Sita demanding the golden deer.) And yet, she imbues the lines and her role with an urgent yet fragile consciousness, as though her concerns are palpable even if they are expressed in pithy rhetoric.
Together, with Mathew, she produces a portrait of a compelling, broken-in, and fragile marriage, which until now, in the wild, was never allowed to be challenged or questioned. What is it about the liminal forests where all our assumptions of life and dharma are turned over and poked at? A bard asked this, some 2000 years ago. Millennia later, we are still juicing through the possibilities of that question, as though eternally unresolved, eternally compelling.