Title: Machan
Year: 2009
Publication: The Leisure Times

Review of film on Sri Lanka's notorious handball team.



Many people love that film Jerry Maguire. I am not one of them. I found it nails-against-blackboard excruciating. For me, cringe-worthiest of cringe-worthy moments was when Tom Cruise finishes his "You complete me" speech and Renee Zellweger replies, "You had me at hello."


The film Machan opens in the wee hours on a rubbish-infested Colombo street. Three young men are smearing paapa and political posters on grubby walls. Conversation veers to where most Sri Lankan discussions go, whether you spend your time in golf clubs or rubbish-infested streets. "Why don't we get the hell out of this country?"

The case for the negative is familiar. "Nothing like Sri Lanka. Abroad they treat you like second-class citizens." Stanley, played by Dharmapriya Dias, points to his filthy clothes, soaked in sweat, paapa and dog urine and says, "What are we now? First-class?"

Not only did the next 103 minutes surprise, delight and enthrall me, but most importantly, I finally understood what Rene meant. Machan had me at "first-class."

To say Machan is now my favourite Sri Lankan film is not to say much. A week ago that honour belonged to One Shot One. I joke you not.

There's always a caveat when we evaluate Sri Lankan attempts at art, be they the latest Gratiaen-prize winning unreadable or the noisiest new metal heavy. We go in expecting nothing and applaud anything that doesn't make us gag. "It was crap. But good for Sri Lanka, no?"

Good for Sri Lanka. In other words, only fit for undiscerning locals. Let me make this clear. Machan is good. Perhaps even great. And it's not just for Sri Lanka. It's for anyone with a sense of humour. And for anyone with a heart.

* * *

In 2004, Uberto Pasolini, who began life as a runner on The Killing Fields, saw a newspaper report of a Sri Lankan Handball team going AWOL in Germany and had a that'd-make-a-great-movie moment.

Machan is cut from the same cloth as two of Pasolini's previous production credits, 1996's triumphant The Full Monty and 1995's underrated Palookaville. A light-hearted underdog story, set not in the north of England or the wrong side of New Jersey, but in our very own slums of Mutwal.

This is a world of shacks by polluted rivers, where if you don't sell enough oranges during the day or your horse doesn't come in, someone takes away your roof. This is where, we're told, a bunch of happy-go-lucky "Modera Buffalos" decide to form the "National Handball Team of Sri Lanka" and migrate to Germany.

It's a fascinating setting and it's photographed somewhat unpretentiously. There is little or no flair to the cinematography. My reactions to this are (a) Well done and (b) In vain.

On one hand I'm glad that Pasolini, making his directorial debut, did not decide to do typically Sri Lankan art film pans of rooftops and dish up 111 minutes where nothing happens. But after a glimpse of sunset reflecting off polluted streams and one stunning set piece of a young boy carrying a photo frame through a corridor of slums, I wondered if a little more visual poetry would not have elevated the story.

About the acting. Casting anything in Sri Lanka is tricky. You end up having to play the hand you're dealt. Doubly so with an ensemble.

The film is populated by delightful fringe characters like the woman with the TV that doesn't work, the superstitious mother and the two archchis who play the horses. Familiar faces like Malini, Irangani, Hemasiri and Chaturika play the cameos and support a cast of lesser-knowns.

Dharmapriya Dias, is superb as protagonist, Stanley, and Namal Jayasinghe as Vijith plays a brilliant straight man. Watch for the scene where Vijith's father, a latter-day Marxist, lectures Stanley on working-class consciousness while helping himself to Stanley's oranges. Dias' reaction is priceless.

Dharshan Dharmaraj and Sujeewa Priyalal, playing a struggling father and a gigolo to European ladies, respectively, acquit themselves well. Unfortunately, the weak link here is Gihan de Chickera's performance as Manoj.

A word on Gihan. I have seen him thrice in Dhanajaya's Karunaratne's Last Bus Eke Kathawa and if I was female and desirable I would've offered to have his children. That was amazing, amazing work. But here, not so much.

I think the problem was his English. When he spoke broken English it sounded like a polished English speaker trying to sound unpolished. When he said "We don't want your charity," I didn't believe Manoj would've used that word. And the more his character took on an interesting arc, the less I believed.

Does the performance harm the film? Not really. Ruwanthie de Chickera is author of Two Times Two is Two and many of Sri Lankan theatre's brighter moments. Her wonderful script is not only a triumph of imagination, but it combines laugh out loud moments with a true beating Sri Lankan heart.

A criticism of Machan points to certain plot implausibilities. How did debt-ridden, slum dwellers afford 23 tickets to Germany? How did they get through 3 games without arousing suspicions?

I don't think this matters because De Chickera, Pasolini and producer Prasanna Vithanage know which side of the street they're working. This is not a political film aimed at social commentary, though there's plenty of both. It's a comedy that looks at the absurdity of it all. Where the message plays third fiddle to the characters and the laughs.

Back to the acting. Mahendra Perera gets the meatiest role and revels in it. His thanking of the German customs officer who stamps his visa is a priceless moment. Though I must say the translation didn't quite cut it for me.

While I applaud the decision to tell the story in Sinhala, I lament that the subtitles didn't have the sizzle and crackle of the dialogue. Was the script translated from English to Sinhala or vice versa?

If the former, why was the Sinhala translator's brilliant work not credited? If the latter, the writers failed to answer one of the great questions of our time. How does one say "Yako" in English? I believe there's an answer to this, but one the subtitles failed to unearth.

The stand out performance, for me at least, was from Pitchchei Selvaraj, who I'm told is a non-actor. As gravedigger Nesa, he exudes screen presence and while he only gets a few lines, he certainly makes them count. The final scene of Nesa is perhaps the most moving of the entire picture.

I've heard murmurings that this film glorifies illegal immigration. But looking upon the unforgiving blandness of Wittislingen, Bavaria, I see little glory to aspire to.

Like it or not, Sri Lankans are proud of their mischief. We're secretly chuffed that the New York porn shops are run by Sri Lankans. (Or is that just me?) We know that even if we don't make the best heroes, we certainly make the best crooks.

Side note: Not only is this film about art imitating life, but also about life imitating art. One of the cast members went missing during the shoot in Germany. See if you can guess which.

* * *

Ultimately, Machan is not about immigration or handball or even about the plight of the poor.

It is about a human being's ability to dream, whether we sit in cinemas or lie in roofless slums. About how hope is something to be nurtured and pursued. It tells us that even though life's triumphs can be little more than solitary goals in one-sided thrashings, these victories are significant and should be savoured.

It's a Sinhala film that doesn't ape the Bollywood song and dance or roll out well-worn middle-class teledrama cliches. A film grounded in who we really are.

The real tragedy here is both times I saw it the theatre was less than half full. While Swedish pop songs masquerading as cinema played to packed houses down the road. Why such paltry publicity, considering what an achievement this film is?

Machan could inspire Sri Lankan storytellers to explore what it is to be Sri Lankan and to tell uniquely Sri Lankan stories. If this happens, cinema in this country over the next few decades would be something to behold.

If that does happen, Machan will be remembered as the film that started it all. And if you're lucky enough to see it this time around, you can say you were there, when it all began.

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