Gaadi: History from below | Sunday Observer

Gaadi: History from below

26 February, 2023

Prasanna Vithanage’s Gaadi opens with a meeting between Ehelepola Adigar and John D’Oyly in 1814. The two of them are negotiating the deposal of the Kandyan King, and the issue of who is to follow him.

The British have their motives: D’Oyly tells the Adigar that all they want is to access the region for trade. The Adigar has his: he tells D’Oyly that he and the other native chiefs wish to get rid of the “Vaduga king”, but want to preserve the social order in their realm. The Adigar grants D’Oyly permission to do what he wants, then makes him swear upon the Bible that he will protect that order.

By this point, the Kandyan Kingdom was facing a blockade by the colonial Government, which had established control in the Maritime Provinces. As Gananath Obeyesekere has observed in his book on Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe, the blockade contributed significantly to elite feelings of resentment against the sovereign, given that they were deprived of material goods, including foreign merchandise.

This meant that the native chiefs who wanted to see him removed were easy to bribe. In the scenes which follow, Vithanage’s film establishes that aspect to them: D’Oyly makes a visit to one of Ehelepola’s allies, Bulathgama Dissave, and dispenses with one gift after another to Ehelepola, including a pistol.

From these deceptively episodic vignettes, Vithanage moves on to the story at the heart of his film. Bulathgamuwa Dissave’s wife, Tikiri, has established herself well in his household. Upon arriving at his house, the Dissave lets out his affections for her. The scenes between them reveal the gender distinctions governing such households: the women are subservient and passive, and they have to keep up the reputation of their husbands and fathers.

At one point, the manor is visited by a group of low caste rodiyas. We then see, perhaps, for the first time in a Sinhala film, how interactions with such social groups played out: the women of the house hide inside, the rodiyas appeal to their generosity and ask for rice, and one of the servants eventually come out and give them what they want.


After the Adigar’s campaign against the king goes awry, the king and his loyalists despatch soldiers to the houses of the conspirators. The families are then punished for the actions of their patriarchs. The film does not reveal how the Dissave’s wife, sister, and mother were complicit in his actions: all we are privy to is the punishment meted out to them.

Their fate is all too predictable. They must suffer the indignity of caste degradation: either they must marry into the rodiyas, or they must drown themselves. Faced with such a stark choice, the Dissave’s mother and sister choose to jump into the Mahaweli River.

Vithanage’s film really begins when his wife, Tikiri, refuses to take the plunge: she hesitates at the edge of the river and looks up. At that point, the film changes direction. From the highly ornate world of the nobility, it takes us to the world of the deprived. Within that set-up, it weaves for us a conflict, between Tikiri’s estrangement from her old world and her refusal to enter her new. Not until the end does the story resolve this conflict: until then, it takes us on a quest, as she and her new husband try to reconcile themselves to each other, and find their place in a society that is slowly crumbling down before them.

Gaadi is Prasanna Vithanage’s finest film in years, if not decades. It is the closest he has come to a Tolstoyan saga, three decades after he made Resurrection as Anantha Rathriya. It is as life affirming and humanist as anything he has made, but it is also far more expansive and wide-ranging.

He has never taken us as far back as he has here: the farthest he took us to was in Pavuru Walalu (1999), set in the 1960s. Moreover, Vithanage is the most visually adept filmmaker from his generation in this country. Gaadi, in that sense, is the kind of work he was meant to make: a historical film that doesn’t dwell on surfaces, that is occupied less by historical intrigues than by the men and women who make up history.

The Sinhala historical film has always suffered from an excess of form over content: it promotes an ethno-religious view as well as the notion that our past is the work of great men. Gaadi refuses to indulge in either. It does away with the two most typical elements in a local historical film: the Buddhist clergy and the omnipresent ruler.

Barring the occasional sound of ceremonial drums and a long-distance view of the Dalada Maligawa, the film does not depict the symbols of the Kandyan Kingdom that everyone tends to foreground. In that regard, the director’s goal is to depict history from the perspective of ordinary people: not just Tikiri and her new husband Vijaya, but also the farmers, hunters, and traders that they encounter. This is to be welcomed in a genre that has, since time immemorial, suffered from too much pomp and pageantry, and too little personality.

Main achievement

To me, the main achievement of the film is that it refuses to become a mere historical facsimile or reconstruction. In doing so, it does what the Russian litterateurs of the 19th century did: foreground the people and background the history. Without totally excluding the latter, Gaadi immerses itself, and us, in the two people it revolves around.

At the same time, it records rather accurately the values, codes, taboos, and prejudices which were part and parcel of the late Kandyan Period: the caste strictures, the rituals and ceremonies, and the historical intrigues which play out in the background, even as the protagonists get on with their lives. Gaadi in that sense is a historical epic from below; it features, not the lives and habits of an elite, but the fears and anxieties of a subaltern.

Vithanage’s world is broadly humanist: that is its defining hallmark. Like the films of Kenji Mizoguchi, Gaadi dwells on the innate capacity for empathy that defines us all, and how our better instincts are silenced by the world around us. Tikiri’s refusal to enter her new world, and her new family’s dislike of her, are all rooted in the social codes which dominated the Kandyan Period. At least one critic has implied that, in this respect, the film’s two leads are depressingly uninspiring and one-dimensional.

Yet I think such critiques miss the point of the story: they are uninspiring, one-dimension, and thus limited because their characters have been forced to be so. At the same time, despite those limits, the protagonists make some attempt to be more than their restricted selves: Tikiri’s refusal to take the plunge at the river, and Vijaya’s act of passing off as a member of another caste to a cultivator in the film’s middle-section, show that they are not caricatures or stereotypes.

Two multifaceted characters

That said, I must admit that the two leads remain the only multifaceted characters in the whole story. The other characters, even Tikiri’s family, and to a less extent Vijaya’s, seem to be props on which the protagonists can play out their drama. The only exception to this is the cultivator who hires Vijaya to trap cattle in an adjoining forest.

Even there, however, the protagonists maintain good relations with the outsider because Vijaya disguises himself as a high caste cultivator – or in other words, because he becomes someone other than his restricted self – emboldened in part by Tikiri’s decision to cover her breasts with a piece of cloth – low caste communities in Kandy were required by custom to bare their breasts. To me, what is interesting here is how Vijaya can at least temporarily abandon his low position because of his wife’s refusal to leave her once high status.

I am much more critical of the ending, in which Tikiri embraces Vijaya and accepts him for who he is. Such an ending is deeply and laudably humanist, and it is the only ending one can expect from Vithanage. Yet after the protagonists reconcile themselves to each other, the titles inform us that as an institution, caste was abolished after the British conquest. Given the evidence we have at present, we know this isn’t true. The British takeover of Kandy did not lead to the end of caste structures: such structures were in place even in the Maritime Provinces, which had been under European control since the 16th century.

In short, the British, as the Portuguese and the Dutch before them, did not abolish caste, but revived it in a different form. Any suggestion that they did away with it may be in line with the triumph of humanism over feudal despotism in the film’s ending. But it is not in line with history. This is the only critique I have of Gaadi, though that does not mar Vithanage’s work: it is, in all honesty, the most striking he’s given us in years, if not decades.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at [email protected].