It’s 2022. Sri Lanka has declared bankruptcy, the people are up in arms (sometimes literally so), and this is when an Indian couple decides to visit the island nation to celebrate their fifth anniversary. They are Keshav and Amritha, played by Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran. Their driver, Mr. Andrew (Shyam Fernando), takes them on a “Ramayana tour”: he points out places where Ravana imprisoned Sita, the place where Ravana is in a slumber, and so on. “Now might be a good time for Ravana to wake up from his slumber and save Lanka, “Amritha says. It’s clear she is mildly amused by the “legends” being narrated by Mr. Andrew. She has read many versions of the Ramayana, and knows that, in the Jain version of the epic – for instance – Sita fought Ravana with Rama as her charioteer.
In a way, that is the crux of Prasanna Vithanage’s Paradise: that there is no single version of any story, and that truth is a complex creature. When Keshav is asked to confirm if three suspects are burglars, he nods. But is he sure about the “truth”, or is this the version of the story that is most convenient for him? When Sinhalese cops beat up suspects, are they convinced about the guilt of these Tamil men, or is this the version of the “truth” that is most expedient for them? When a shooting happens, is the person with the gun sure about the version of the truth, or is the dead person a victim of a story that suits all parties involved? For that matter, is the lovey-dovey relationship between Keshav and Amritha the “truth”, or is it just a fiction they are telling themselves?
And slowly, the portrait – the “story” – of a marriage emerges, in all its versions. A little after landing in Sri Lanka, Keshav and Amritha settle into a cosy (and costly) retreat in the hills. The place is practically empty, because the average Sri Lankan cannot afford it. This “paradise” is cut off from the surrounding reality. The title is quite ironic. At first, we are invited to gaze at this couple – the “ideal couple” – as though they were Rama and Sita. (“Keshav” is actually a name for Krishna. Maybe gods have versions, too.) There is a near-magical deer that is spotted when Keshav asks for venison – the moment is right out of mythology. But Amritha – who marvels at the deer like Sita did – says it is too beautiful to be killed. And that is just the starting point. Slowly, the differences in the couple emerge.
Keshav asks Amritha to stop vlogging and write the novel she has always wanted to. The remark is dismissive. After all, her vlogging is just an extension of her personality, which delights in simple sights like the one of roadside children selling guavas. Keshav is more interested in his Netflix documentary deal – and then, all hell breaks loose. There’s a robbery, and the paradise becomes, in Keshav’s words, a “shithole”. If you still wish to consider Amritha as Sita, then this becomes her agni pariksha – having to deal with an increasingly distant and intolerant husband. Keshav’s disdain for the “shithole” is mirrored by the cops. At first, when asked to rush to the retreat, they complain about lack of fuel. But the minute they discover that foreign tourists are involved, they snap to attention. They are okay with the locals complaining about things, but they cannot have an influential tourist complaining and giving a different “version” of their nation’s story to the world!
As always, the gifted Prasanna Vithanage leaves enough room for ambiguity in his story, and every viewer will come away with their versions. For instance, there is the curious symmetry of the three blue-collar people in the lodge, named after three religions: Iqbal, Shree and Andrew. At a festival screening, Prasanna refused to elaborate on this. K keeps his music threadbare, and Rajeev Ravi’s camera is exquisitely alert to the faces. All the actors (Shyam Fernando, Mahendra Perera) are in form, but the controlled intensity of Darshana’s performance is especially brilliant. Given Keshav’s increasing sulking, Amritha has to humanise the both of them – and Darshana does it beautifully. Roshan, too, is in his element. He gives us a man who tries to act powerful in order to cover up his powerlessness. Paradise is what you get when the version of the story you have heard is different from the one that unfolds in front of you. Some may say, it’s like life itself. Expectations are one thing, the reality quite another.