A 2021 look at Bambaru Avith – the gently sensual Sri Lankan classic
Dharmasena Pathiraja’s 1978 drama, now revived, elegantly broaches universal themes with its story of city slickers disturbing a fishing village
By Steve Rose
Painstakingly restored from the sole surviving, badly damaged 35mm print, this realist drama from 1978 is well worth the effort, not only because it is a landmark of Sri Lankan cinema (the three lead actors are all local legends), but also because it addresses universal socio-political themes with elegant simplicity.
The setting is a remote fishing village, barely touched by the modern world, where the Christian villagers still haul in the nets together by hand. Cruising in from the city comes Victor (Vijaya Kumaratunga), returning son of a local fishing boss, who sticks out like a sore thumb with his fashionable flared jeans, bouffant hairstyle and taste for western music. He’s soon joined by his friend Weera, a hippie-leftist type who sees the village as some idealized Marxist utopia. “It’s like the beginning of civilization here!” he patronizingly proclaims as they swim naked at the beach.
Their urban values soon rub the community up the wrong way. Victor’s aggressive business tactics bring him into competition with local big fish Anton (a lively Joe Abeywickrama). Meanwhile, his roving eye settles upon the village beauty, Helen (Malini Fonseka), who is supposedly betrothed to another. “The city is a better place for you,” Victor tells her, but Helen is understandably torn. Tensions are brewing, and by the second half, they spill over into violence.
This is an emblematic clash of urban/Western values versus rural/traditional ones, but the themes are treated with subtlety and even-handedness. Despite the realist authenticity and political intent, there’s also a gentle sensuality to the story, with soft folk music and moments of tender romance. The characters are believably complex and conflicted, and the sandy, sun-bleached landscape is evocatively portrayed. It feels like a precious snapshot of a place and time rarely glimpsed.
Bambaru Avith (The Wasps Are Here) is available on Wednesday (14) on Mubi.