- Asoka Handagama on the story behind his newest film
By Ravini Perera
Sri Lanka’s unique position in the Indian Ocean has seen it function as a hub for millennia, bringing countless people from all corners of the world to our shores who have had their lives immeasurably changed by our little island. On 14 February, Alborada, a film telling the story of one of these foreign visitors (who is renowned in his own right) was shown in Sri Lankan cinemas for the first time.
Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, better known as Pablo Neruda, was a Chilean poet, diplomat, and politician, who in his early 20s was a well-known and celebrated poet across the world. His poems read by thousands and books sold in millions also made him one of the most read and bestselling poets of the 20th Century.
Despite his fame and literary brilliance, Neruda was faced with financial difficulties that eventually forced him to seek employment overseas. In the late 1920s, he accepted a diplomatic position as a Chilean Consul and sailed to the alien land of Burma and was later transferred to Ceylon.
Alborada, a film by Asoka Handagama, revolves around the real-life events that took place during Neruda’s tenure as the Chilean Consul in Ceylon including a secret that, until now, has been largely buried across all accounts of Neruda’s life. Brunch spoke with Handagama on Alborada’s success and how he made the film.
Daring to explore the life and legacy of Neruda
Developing a storyline for a movie does not happen overnight. It is a process that sometimes takes months, even years. Although Handagama was fascinated by Neruda’s life and has often spent time reading and studying his work, it was not his intention to create a film based on the life of the poet.
However, a reference by Sri Lankan filmmaker, actor, writer, and political activist Deshanabu Tissa Abeysekara in his memoir; Ayale Giya Sithaka Satahan, changed his mind. It was a reference made by Abeysekara to Neruda and a particular incident involving a low caste Tamil girl that intrigued Handagama.
“Abeysekara’s book made a reference to an incident, extracted from the memoir of Neruda who lived in Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, between the years of 1929 and 1931. No sooner had I finished reading the book by Abeysekara, I got the memoir of Neruda to read. It was then that I first came across a connection that existed between Neruda and an outcast Tamil of the Sakkili caste – the toilet cleaning community,” explained Handagama.
Neruda’s memoir, titled Memoirs, was written in 1968 but published in 1973 and contained all that one needed to know about his time as a representative of Chile in Ceylon, his unexpected romances, and more. However, Handagama did not stop there. He dedicated more time to researching details of the incident and gained a better understanding of the happenings surrounding that time. The love, passion, and controversy involving Neruda was the perfect theme on which to base a movie and script.
The plot thickens
In 2018, a proposal to name the Santiago airport after Pablo Neruda was turned down following intense pressure and disapproval from the public. Activists, feminists, and various student movements rallied in protest against the decision to name an airport after Neruda, who they believed was a rapist and scandalous figure that was not worth being celebrated. Hence, many viewed that such a naming would be an irreversible mistake.
These circumstances led Handagama to rethink his approach and to dig a little deeper in order to find the truthfulness of these allegations. “These occurrences made me realise that there was more to this story than meets the eye. Thus, if I was to be successful in recreating these events in my film, I had to develop a different perspective altogether. Therefore, I altered my initial approach and formed the film to include not only the position of Neruda but also third party views.”
But trying to recreate an event hidden away for half a century and often illustrated inaccurately by socialists, politicians, and historians was no easy feat. “There have been so many publications on Neruda. However, many have, either intentionally or unintentionally, overlooked this incident. People may have deliberately disregarded it, fearing the consequences and disgrace it could afford while some may have believed it to have a negative impact on world politics. It may have also been viewed as an unimportant event, unworthy of attention, simply because it only affected a low caste Tamil girl,” explained Handagama.
Switching to survival mode: Making Alborada
The filming of Alborada was subject to incalculable obstacles, with the pandemic being the biggest and most uncalled-for challenge at the time. Although issues surrounding indefinite postponements, cancelled shoots and difficulties in casting arose, the team successfully overcame these hurdles owing to Handagama’s sheer determination.
“The Covid-19 pandemic may have slowed us down but it never stopped us. Whatever challenges we are faced with, one must simply learn to accept, adjust, and live with it. This is the mentality that will help us overcome and survive any challenge,” said Handagama.
The cast of Alborada consisted of both local and international actors and actresses. However, casting foreign artists amidst a pandemic was never an easy task. The character of Neruda, portrayed by Spanish actor Luis J. Romero, was originally planned to be depicted by a Chilean artist, but due to shooting schedules conflicting with the other appointments of the Chilean actor, he was forced to withdraw from committing his time to the film.
“As Neruda himself was a native speaker of Spanish, I preferred for the actor portraying him to originate from a Spanish speaking country too, and we initially found an actor who hailed from Chile,” Handagama said, adding: “Unfortunately due to shooting being postponed owing to the pandemic, our plans fell through.”
Though Handagama also sought an actress from Myanmar for the character of Josie, the Burmese lover of Neruda, Burmese artists were reluctant to accept the role. “The reluctance may have been fuelled by certain political reasons or the fear of any controversy that may arise. This led to the character being played by Anne-Solenne Hatte, a French actress. The other roles were portrayed by Sri Lankan artists, foreign artists, and actors from the English theatre in Sri Lanka that I have worked with before,” explained Handagama.
Behind the scenes
Alborada, the title of the film, has two distinct meanings. Firstly, Alborada is Spanish for ‘dawn,’ which Handagama chose for poetic reasons. “A truth that had been hidden away was finally being brought to light,” he explained, noting: “Likewise, one reason the film was given this title was to indicate the revelation of something, a secret, in this instance.” Secondly, Alborada was the name of Lionel Wendt’s house. The residence was named Alborada by Neruda who was a friend of Wendt’s.
The movie is packed with flavour and numerous breathtaking moments. When inquired about his favourite moments and scenes from the film, Handagama stated that there were two scenes in particular that he felt most drawn to. “Firstly, the rape scene. The voices, visuals, and sound effects of the scene were all-natural and authentic. The actress did a splendid job portraying the role of the outcast Tamil girl and undoubtedly did justice to the character. It was a scene that we shot very carefully but the final outcome was surreal. It has the potential to send shock waves through the audience. It is very powerful.”
“Secondly, the scene where Josie left Neruda. It was depicted perfectly by the actress playing Josie. The moment she leaves him, her tears and the sadness she felt added a taste of the end of her devotion and obsession with Neruda – closing of a chapter in her life. The sadness could be felt even by the audience,” added Handagama.
Handagama’s done it again!
Alborada, the dawning of the day, is Handagama’s 11th film and, like all his films, is a careful labour of love. “My goal was to treat this movie as a poem and to deliver a poetic feel throughout the film. Love alongside one’s passion and desire is all highlighted in this film. Hence, it is my opinion that the poetic approach I have utilised for this movie is what won the hearts of the audiences over such a limited time span,” opined Handagama.
Alborada gave rise to much discussion even prior to its release. The trailer delivered a taste of the magnificent creation that was lining up to be released in the future. Moreover, its cinematography complemented the movie’s screenplay, transporting the viewers to the world of Hollywood, hence, giving hope of a bright and excellent future for the film industry of Sri Lanka.
Alborada was invited to participate in the main competition of the 34th Tokyo International Film Festival held in October 2021. Furthermore, it has also been nominated in many other international film festivals, including the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). “If you are yet to watch this film, do hurry before the screening ends,” urged Handagama.