Ayu: Sri Lankan Film that Deconstructs the Structure of Samsara

Still from Ayu.

I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to watch the recently released film Ayu. Through the film, the director has been able to observe the depth of Buddhist philosophy from a different but useful perspective. The great talent of all those who contributed to the play has managed to keep the audience’s attention on the film ceaselessly. The director seems to have put a lot of effort into endowing this exceptional contribution to the Sinhala cinema. I hope his efforts will be appreciated and recognized nationally and internationally. I’m not a professional film critic or an expert in the art of filmmaking, but I thought it would be unfair for this film, if I did not to write anything after watching the movie.

By the time I got the chance to watch the movie Ayu, I was personally experiencing a disturbed painful event. I was suffering from deep despondency due to a bitter and frightening experience I had to face at my workplace a day before my birthday. An event that I had never dreamed of was happening in front of me and it was difficult for me to even understand whether it was part of a movie or a real event that I would have to face in real life.

Red eyes like a demon, a person full of evil behaviour and obscene words, threatening body language, death threats, etc. proved the complex mental confusion that a person suffers from. I thought that this was just another moment in my life as a devotee of the Buddha Dhamma. In other words, the practical reality of the Atalodahama (eight worldly conditions) preached by Gautama Buddha came before me. Living in this world, Buddha the enlightened-one says we constantly encounter the eight worldly conditions (Loka-dhamma), Labha (gain), Alabha (loss), Yasa ( fame/face ), Ayasa (obscurity), Ninda (blame ), Pasamsa (praise), Sukha (happiness), Dukkha (pain). As one author pointed out, “observing happiness and pain arising in the mind, and remaining open to them without attaching to or rejecting them, enables wisdom to grow in one’s heart, even in the most emotionally charged circumstances. Seeing these eight worldly states for what they are, and watching the mind’s reactions to them, gives rise to the liberating insight of the Buddha.”

Every event that a person experienced in life and the words that that person speaks as well as his actions continue to remain somewhere in the universe forever even after his body is deceased. It is the real legacy of a person’s life, given to the people in the environment in which he or she lived. Once someone speaks a word, the waves that contain those words will exist somewhere in the universe forever. This truth is eternal. We who are born to deal with that truth are temporary customers of this truth. Do we understand this truth and try to act accordingly? Or do we disrespect this truth and waste our lives in harassing and hating those around us as much as we can?  That is the fundamental challenge facing anyone.

Therefore, it is the duty and responsibility of every human being to take care of the most difficult gift of life, being born as a human. The profound teaching of the Buddha Dhamma bestowed by Gautama Buddha began to resonate in my mind. If a person does not have the discipline and courage to deal with even the simplest of everyday problems, he will lose the value of that life. This is the simple meaning of life. No matter how simple this truth may seem, it is very difficult to put it into practice.

The Ayu film tried to touch on the deep realities within this simple truth. A girl (Ayu) playing in solitude is well illustrated by its association with a butterfly and its caterpillar stage. The director first focused on the life of the butterfly playing with it, and then on the caterpillar stage, the butterfly’s earlier stage. It provides a psychoanalytic approach to understanding life’s circle. Since then, throughout the film, the director has broken the tradition of ordinary storytelling style and reconciled events between memory and present life. The director has managed to give meaning to every scene in the film, allowing the audience to realize that everyone is just another subject in the common factor, the Samsara. The paper used to build the paper-boat by Nishmi has written the identity of the person (Sachin) who has donated blood to her after the accident she faced on her way to the husband with a much waited good news, pregnancy. Sachin was infected with human immunodeficiency virus. Then Ayu received Nishmi’s paper-boat from Sachin’s wallet. Sachin who lived with one lung and smoked heavily wrote the letter to Nishmi using the same paper used for paper-boat before his death in the hospital. Nishmi reads Sachin’s letter before Ayu where stories of these characters met randomly were formally identified their similarities. The chain of events seems to be an attempt by the director to explore the Lacan’s fundamentals of psychoanalysis, unconscious, repetition, transference and the drive. Carl Jung, a well-known psychoanalyst has taught that ‘I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.’ Nishmi’s struggle throughout life is an attempt to identify what she really chooses to become.

Throughout the film, the director tries to demonstrate the depth of life through the coincidences one has to encounter with others who are searching for the same what he/she was searching for in life. It is also seen throughout the film that Buddhism is the solution to the destitution of life.

Buddhism is not a religion that issues orders or rigorous rules to anyone to follow or ensure the obedience to the master. It is a Dharma that allows one to understand oneself through life experiences. The director has grasped this flexibility of the Dhamma in a remarkable manner.

It is pertinent to mention here a basic point made by BR Ambedkar, a great intellectual who made a great contribution to the understanding of the teachings of Gautama Buddha to the people of India. “The teachings of Buddha are eternal, but even then Buddha did not proclaim them to be infallible. … If you study carefully, you will see that Buddhism is based on reason. There is an element of flexibility inherent in it, which is not found in any other religion.”

Some committed genocide to spread their religion. Others used violence as the tool to spread their religious ideologies. But the only tool that Buddhism chose for spreading eternal truth of every living being was nonviolence. Realizing the deep truth of life is the pathway of emancipation.

The Ayu movie has left the viewer with something deep inseparable in life to think about. As Jacques Lacan formulated – the unconscious is structured like a language. In Ayu, the director not only well understood this structural human behaviour but also does not hesitated to experiment with the original source of this Lacanian thought of psychoanalysis, deep insight of Buddhism.

Therefore, it is my understanding that Ayu is a successful and timely work of local cinema that has done justice to the audience. I think this work is an attempt to deconstruct the structure of Samsara in Buddhism. Ayusha is a manmade measure to calculate the time of an animal spends in one life of Samsara, ‘the cycle of death and reincarnation to which life in the material world is bound.’  But the quality of the life of each living being is measured by his or her reactions to the events in life. I think that’s what the director explains through Ayu.  Let us live a life worth for the common good.

(The views expressed in this review are the writer’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of any other organisation or employer he is affiliated to.)

Nilantha Ilangamuwa is a Sri Lankan born author. He was the-editor of Sri Lanka Guardian, an online daily newspaper. He was also the editor of the Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives, bi-monthly print magazine, co-published by the Danish Institute Against Torture ( DIGNITY) based in Copenhagen, Denmark.