An Indian couple visiting Sri Lanka on their fifth anniversary witness unexpected hostility in acclaimed Sri Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage’s first Indian language film, Paradise. The air is ripe with protests and uproar concerning the economic crisis in Sri Lanka in 2022, when Kesav (Roshan Mathew) and Amritha (Darshana Rajendran) arrive, sheltered in a car as tourists. When their car is allowed to pass through at one of the protest sites, Amritha wants to know why they were given the permission to leave. Because you are tourists, comes the answer. (Also read: Amar Colony review: A striking exploration on loneliness and desire)
Prasanna, who also wrote the script, chooses to tell this story through the lens of this central relationship. Keshav is euphoric after he gets a big deal from a streaming giant to start a series. He wants to start a family, he informs her that night. Yet, matters turn significantly worse when both Keshav and Amritha are robbed at knife-point later on the same night. Keshav’s iPhone and iPad are gone, and he needs them immediately. He files a police case, and warns the inspector Sergeant Bandara (Mahendra Perera), to bring back their stolen items within a day or else he will be forced to call the Indian High Commissioner. What’s next? Three probable suspects are brought in, and one of them is subjected to police brutality. As tensions arise and the safety of the couple is threatened, the action escalates. The world suddenly doesn’t resolve around them anymore.
Vithanage, who teams up with cinematographer Rajeev Ravi and editor A. Sreekar Prasad, frames the scenes from a distance. It helps in building up the sinister edge that takes shape as Paradise progresses. Still, there is a heavy-handedness with which the narrative tries to embed the stories surrounding Ravana and Sita into the framework here. Their tour guide Dr. Andrew (Shyam Fernando), takes the couple to spots where crucial moments of the Ramayana appeared. At an early scene, Amritha asks about his opinion: Will Sita still need a Rama to protect her from Ravana today? She is fascinated with the sight of a deer, just like Sita. Yet, when it is about to be shot, she is the one to stop them. “It’s too beautiful to be killed,” she says. A latter scene that escalates in the bungalow is punctured because of a lousy editing choice, where the swift act of loading a gun feels stretched and missed in its vital energy.
The central relationship, although put under the scanner, doesn’t really give us any straightforward answers about these two individuals. How did they meet? Why did Amritha leave her writing a few years ago? Why is Kesav’s family never mentioned? Paradise is not keen on going into these details, and keeps it deliberately minimalist in terms of their past history as a couple. The friction grows with their different responses to the hostile ecosystem surrounding them- Kesav stands by his instincts and sees no other way out, whereas Amritha feels increasingly responsible within her orbit of privilege.
As the drama inches its way closer to that shocking denouement, Paradise grapples to interrogate questions around politics and the state. How does our response affect the lives of others? With the logic of the ideological state apparatuses not withstanding, it is a machine that enables the ruling classes to operate through coercion. Kesav and Amritha are but subordinates in exile, defined by their existence and experience, respectively. Paradise is a stirring, important piece of work.