Compassion Personified

By Priyangwada Perera | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 17 2021
Echo Compassion Personified

By Priyangwada Perera

If you saw the amount of poetry and almost hollow glorification and advertising gimmicks that appeared in May, you may have gotten sick of mothers. Thanks to consumerism, motherhood is portrayed at a new ‘low’. Gobbled down by business tricks we have ignored hundreds and thousands of mothers. We prefer to write the story of the ‘mother’ as it pleases us. It appeals to audiences. That might also be why, at a post-screening discussion of the movie Paangshu, certain spectators were enraged at Visakesa for letting Baba Nona forgive the enemy. Thirty years of war and even the ones who did not really suffer the terrible consequences of war are adamant that forgiveness is not possible. They say it is a cinematographer’s fantasy. 

But meeting the same Nandawathi Amma, all versatile Vishnu Vasu knew it was not a fantasy. In fact, he had gone, walked the same roads, and lived with the very people to know for sure. “It was on 5 June 2006, that a bus bomb killed 69 people of the same family.” That choice of one phrase ‘same family’, speaks volumes because his simplicity has boundless depth. It is up to us to deconstruct the sentence, in the background of the larger picture he paints. Vishnu Vasu does not let it remain a story in Yaka Weva, 30 kilometres off Vauniya heading towards Nikaweva. Fifteen years later he goes back to Yaka Wewa. In Vishnu Vasu’s documentary Amma (mother), he isolates the divinity of humanity.

Born in a family of nine brothers, Nandawathi Amma is Vishnu Vasu’s protagonist. Sadly, this is not fiction. Vishnu calls her, “A poem which spreads the fragrance of the Virya Paramita” - the heroism and virility of Bodhisattva that comes in his sacrifices on the journey to attain enlightenment. Virya is much more than just heroics and courage which is its closest translation. Nandawathi Amma’s heroics are both mental and physical. Nandawathi Amma who goes to school till Grade 5 and gets married in 1982 voices her thoughts. “I cannot remember a time when I was happy.” Yet, she says it with no hint of remorse or regret. But her story would make us question why she is not crying, why she is not wailing and cursing.

Vishnu Vasu uses Nandawathi Amma’s children to tell the story, to fill in the gaps. Otherwise, Nandawathi Amma is so serene, so undisturbed that we may even miss the intensity of this heartbreak. She is so undisturbed that we may normalise the grief. It is the voices of her children that disclose the tragedy. But Vishnu Vasu does it with such precision. It is in the music, it is in the camera angles. It is also the pictures and the backdrop he uses. It is that resounding heartbreak where three children, now grown up, tell us of the day their father disappeared. “He bathed us, cooked dhal and fried dry fish and told us to wait for Amma,” tells Lalith, one of Nandawathi Amma’s children. That was the last time he saw his father. His mother never remarried but raised her children alone. Her struggles were immense.  

The apt use of background music has to be mentioned.  A grandson goes on to become a monk and is full of reverence for his Kiri Amma’s understanding of Buddhist philosophy and compassion. Years later, how does it feel to have the LTTE soldier who abducted your husband/father being caught? He is brought under the justice system and finally you get to have the justice you were denied. But Nandawathi Amma has already forgiven and forgotten. Since she has not cultivated or passed on hatred, her children too are free. “Losing our father was tragic. We were devastated. But seeing the person responsible, we felt nothing. We did not want him killed. It must be somebody’s child who represented the LTTE. If punished, that family too would go through the same pain we suffered,” says the daughter of Nandawathi Amma. The words that speak volumes, “By the time we saw the culprit, we were already free.” This is the essence of Nandawathi Amma’s life, with which she has nourished her children.   

Had this been a feature film, it would give ample time to stress on these emotions. But this masterpiece was even bigger than that. In such a short time, Vishnu Vasu captures the heart wrenching in all its raw honesty. But the difference is that it comes out from men and women who have healed themselves. It is of no less agony but acceptance. Every word uttered in the short film is potent that you can create your own piece of literature with that being the base. But the ultimate message, be it nahi verena verani, or the words on the cross, “Forgive them for they do not know what they do,” screams loud. It is unbelievable for an ordinary human being. But that is exactly what Nandawathi Amma has done. If you have listened to hundreds of monks preach, sermons of priests, Vishnu Vasu’s Amma would still defeat them all. 

Oscar Nominee Dick Young calls it, “Touching and beautiful.” Film critic Barbara Green from San Francisco Chronicle sent Vishnu Vasu a message saying, “Your film is visually beautiful and the life story of the mother and each family member is portrayed with such care and respect. What an inspiring documentary you created, one in which (you) the filmmaker and the subject of the film are both rooted in the Buddha’s teaching on compassion for all.” 

Vishnu Vasu’s documentary Amma has won accolades. Richard Brooks from the Wisconsin State Journal goes, “You have found an extremely profound story and told it beautifully. You have a deep, deep reverence for water as part of the story telling. You have a remarkable ability to discover the right moments and images… You are able to open other people’s minds about Buddha’s teachings and karma. There are many, many things worth remembering and sharing in this film. Like what suffering can mean and the path to transcending suffering.” 

Amma has so far been represented at 53 international film festivals including Gandhi Peace Film Festival in Durban, South Africa, San Diego Documentary Film Festival, Madison International Documentary Festival and Berkeley Film Fest.

By Priyangwada Perera | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 17 2021

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