The definitive Sri Lankan road film (“movie” for American speakers) has finally arrived. “Yamu!” is a critical and box office success because it manages the impossible. It lets the viewer experience the layered contradictions of being Sri Lankan in a very entertaining way. The “local” audience, irrespective of their language will “get it”. So will global audiences clueless about Sri Lanka.
The film’s strengths are solid fundamentals. A script light on dialogue. A cinematography driven storyline. A diverse ensemble cast that work well together. All packaged into an uncomplicated narrative vehicle
The “plot” is simple. Three friends travel from Kurunegala to Elephant Pass. Their goal: to watch the first test match at the newly built Veeragamunu stadium. They have a cargo of alcohol to sell illegally at the match in their guise of being a papare band.
They hire a van (white) and take on other passengers to cover the costs of the hire, the journey, and the booze. Their other passengers add up to an interesting mix. A cricket and photography loving advertising executive who fought at Elephant Pass. An Oxbridge trained Sri Lankan anthropologist sent by her NGO to report on aid to the Jaffna library. A returning refugee from Toronto, determined to claim her ancestral home in Chavakachcheri.
During the journey they give rides to people along the road. Naturally all have pasts that interweave symbolically and perhaps a bit too neatly. We get front seats in an entertaining and enlightening spread of interactions. The sensation is of a satisfying rice and curry feed. Diverse dishes in a harmony that is greater than just being a big meal.
The restrained cinematography does more to move the story than the script. In true Sri Lankan style, the unsaid and the avoided conversations are the stuff that really matter. These are wordlessly clear in empathic visuals that cut through the usual barriers of language.
On the surface, the cinematography appears casual. It has the informality of a social media phone camera and the gritty focus of an investigative documentary. Yet it frames poignant visuals often enough that a close observer will realise that the casualness is an act. An act of skill, timing, and a gut level understanding of the story’s essence. It pulls all this off without giving into the temptation of becoming arty or overtly “cinematic”.
The visuals are strong because the story is an adaptation of Romesh Gunasekara‘s powerful book Noon Tide Toll. Readers will notice that Writer/Director Indica Mendis has cut out much of the original story. Instead he has folded the book’s themes and details to work on film. He creates his own vocabulary of the “telling visual detail” that makes for powerful cinema.
One example of this is the narrative voice of the van driver. It is the “voice” of the book. A lesser director would have resorted to a cliche of a voice over when “adapting” the book to film. Yamu avoids this pitfall. Instead the driver’s inner voice is woven into the dialogue. Or made silently clear with the camera.
Another visual narrative device is the windows of the van. The framing of the passing landscape becomes poetic. Sometimes all it takes is a perfectly timed (a credit to the cast) muttered phrase word to make a shot carry a powerful emotional punch. The looming monstrosity of the stadium amidst the desolation of Elephant Pass is a memorable example of this touch.
Despite the rich visuals the dialogue is not neglected. It’s sparse and tightly written. Yet its puns and dry humour is home to the film’s comedy. The format seems almost like skits built around the central theme of a journey. Even the small parts get at least one good line.
Yamu is a musical film. Yet there is no “cinematic” music. In an almost purist Dogme 95 style, all music occurs within the world of the story. So there is a lot of well played papare using a simple drum and horn. YFM plays a lot on the van’s radio. Its chirpy news briefs adds an ominous layer of meaning to the world outside the van. The ad executive whistles a riveting “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. While the three friends take a leak on a bleak roadside outside Killinochi. Standing in a line facing a landscape dotted by bombastic hoardings of empty government promises.
The ability of the cast to work together is an obvious strength. It’s a mix of veterans (Goliath White) and newcomers (Vinitha Laphantasmagorie). Yet this diversity produces restrained even acting that places the story first. Managing such a collaborative feat is another mark of Mendis’s directorial flare. As with any ensemble cast film, the swarth of characters seems unwieldy. It’s hard to decide who the main character is until you realise that it is the journey.
At its core, the journey is a quest for understanding. Between people and places kept apart by a generation of war. The audience too will stumble along towards that understanding. On the way, we get to absorb the mundane, real life human difficulties of such a process. A process that chips away at political power built on centuries of well cultivated tribal fears. Something that committees in Geneva have no patience for.
If this sounds like abstract stuff don’t worry. You’ll never see on screen. Yet the ideas just under the screen will stick to the back of your mind long after you have left the theatre. Discuss the film with anyone who has seen it. Your conversation will go in directions that make politicians squirm.
At another level, “Yamu!” opens the world’s eyes to a different Sri Lanka. A place more complicated than the caricature in the news, travel media, activists’ rants. It makes the film a journey like no other. One that is worth treasuring.