Silence can be very violent," says renowned Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage whose latest feature Oba Nathuwa, Oba Eka (With You, Without You) is set in post-war Sri Lanka and is an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novella The Meek One.
"I use pregnant silences in my movies as a weapon," adds the Colombo-based filmmaker ahead of the India release of his film on June 20.
Screened and applauded at several film festivals like the Chicago International Film Festival and the Montreal World Film Festival as well as the International Film Festival of India, 'With You, Without You' is the last in Vithanage's trilogy on war after Death on a Full Moon Day and August Sun.
The latest revolves around Sarathsiri (Shyam Fernando), a Sinhalese pawnbroker whose path accidentally crosses with Selvi (Anjali Patil), a Tamil girl.
They get married but their conflict-ridden past catches up with them and life goes awry again.
Shaping up characters over a period of time is something that Vithanage, 49, has been doing since his theatre days. "A director needs to be a good midwife; he must deliver. Working with actors is also a very fulfilling experience" he says.
He remembers how his film buff father instilled in him the love for cinema. "My father would never miss any Sinhalese or Bollywood movies. I have grown up on Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar movies," says the filmmaker, born to a Sinhalese family in the coastal town of Panadura.
"I wanted to become an actor initially. Then I realised that I wanted to tell stories more than I wanted to act."
Apart from silence, Vithanage's auteurial armoury also includes stunning imagery. 'With You, Without You', set in a remote Sri Lankan town with tea plantations, opens to a couple of arresting frames, both drenched in different shades of blue. In one, you catch Selvi staring out of a window on an old grey wall with a few faded blue billboards.
In the other, Sarathsiri gazes out from the same window with faded indigo curtains on each side. "I structured the frame in a way that it strings a dialogue between them through their monologues. I rely heavily on visuals. I need to tell my stories visually, without my characters saying much. I feel characters these days say too much; they wear their heart on their sleeves."
For a story that stems from the aftermath of a three-decade long civil war, With You, Without You silently overpowers you. "The war was the predominant event in our lives; I spent half my life around it. I have seen the youth of my country become cannon fodder of violence," says Vithanage. "I come from a middle-class family that could not stop the war. Maybe, my movies are a result of my vulnerability and my guilt. Even today, people feel the polarisation that the war has left in its wake."
Vithanage relies on his memory, his curiosity for life and his observation of human relationships to sculpt stories on the screen. "Once Ritwik Ghatak had said that a filmmaker must carry the memory of his childhood in one pocket, and the quarter of a liquor bottle in the other. You can't take that literally, but if you lean into your memory and look, you will see the world at large. One cannot imagine the way humans are capable of behaving." says Vithanage.
He is thankful to his Indian friends who have helped him from funding to post-production. His stunning protagonist, Anjali Patil, is also from India. "The last three films I have worked on would not have happened if it wasn't for documentary filmmaker Rahul Roy, who helped fund the film," says Vithanage.
His next movie, a docudrama on the status of the social justice system in Sri Lanka, is in the making.