#1: There are spoilers here and there. Marked by SPOILER ALERT! and SPOILER ALERT!- OVER
#2: I’m really, really bad at names. So if I’ve got any of the character names wrong, please forgive and correct me.
#3: These are my personal opinions. Maybe the director didn’t intend any of this. But I feel art is open to interpretation.)
Sometime back a friend told me about Frangipani, I watched the trailer and had a feeling it was a must-watch film. It tackled issues that Sri Lankan cinema is hesitant or afraid of even acknowledging and more than that, it seemed like a nice film. But of course, back then there seemed to be no way I could watch the film unless I found it online, which I couldn’t, so imagine my happiness when I heard it was coming to local cinemas.
Then came the next problem. A friend and I wanted to watch it but where could we watch it? Very few cinemas were showing the film, which really is a bummer because people need to see this film. It need not be everywhere we look the way Maya seems to be, but people need to see that such a film is being screened and they need to go watch it. I very wrongly assumed people wouldn’t miss a chance to watch the film.
My friend and I decided on City Cinema, Mount Lavinia, because it seemed like the safest option for us, but they were screening the film only at 10.30am. We got there at around 10.20 and found one other person waiting to watch the film. We were told that unless there were five people, they won’t be showing Frangipani.
The other person there to watch the film was a somewhat elderly gentleman. He had been there for a while, I suppose, and during that time, a couple had also shown interest in watching the/a film. When he reminded the guy at the ticket counter of this couple (with them, there would be five of us), the guy at the ticket counter explained that they mayn’t be watching the film.
Before I could come to any conclusions about they were really there for, he explained that a lot of people, especially couples, come to the cinema intending to watch a film. However, hearing what the film is about, they leave.
I was shocked to hear this. And I was angry too. But at that time, I was more worried about not getting to watch the film. The guy at the ticket counter assured us he’ll do his best to show it since otherwise it would be unfair on the people who actually do want to watch the film.
Thankfully, three more people showed up and they screened the film. And let me say this, very few films have made me react (tears, goosebumps, etc.) to the film without it being a reaction towards a character. It’s not that the characters are weak or uninteresting, because they aren’t, but the film is such that I found it difficult to respond to individual characters. It was the situations that got to me.
For instance, and this scene is in the trailer but SPOILER ALERT! There is a scene where Sarasi is seated on the veranda of her house with Chamath. When she leans into kiss him, he moves away. Then she starts hitting him. SPOILER ALERT!- OVER Now in this scene, I didn’t sort of respond emotionally to only Chamath’s character for his inability to love Sarasi or Sarasi’s character for wanting someone she can’t have.
This may seem like a weakness to some, where the characters aren’t strong enough to affect the viewer. And this is perhaps something only I felt when watching the film. But even now, two days after the film, I’m not thinking about each character individually but as lives that intertwined and cannot be looked at individually without one or both of the other characters.
What this does is that it doesn’t force you to play favorites. SPOILER ALERT! When Nalin accepts Sarasi’s offer to use one of her family owned shops for his own business, Chamath is angry. SPOILER ALERT!- OVER And if the characters weren’t so ‘can’t have one without the other’, I would have agreed with Chamath. But in this film, you find yourself understanding Chamath’s anger but also understanding why Nalin made that decision. And a film that can do this is bloody good, in my opinion.
Now the basic storyline is a love triangle. Yes, it can be boiled down to such a simple thing. Three people, two who have known each other all their lives and one who is a recent addition to the group, want each other in very different ways. And perhaps for this reason, a ‘love’ triangle is the wrong word, because Frangipani isn’t a love story. Despite being about friendship, intimacy, sexual attraction, etc. the film manages to not be a love story.
You are introduced to Chamath and Sarasi right at the beginning of the film. They’ve been friends since childhood and we find them getting ready for a bridal wear collection their teacher is presenting for a TV program. The first half of the film revolves around this TV program and it is what gives us a look into the needs and wants of these three characters.
Nalin comes to the village to do some electrical work and stays at the temple. Chamath’s brother, a monk, asks Nalin to help out with the TV program and he ends up taking part too. Not too slowly, with very little beating around the bush, various relationships quickly form between the three.
Sarasi is ill and as she says, her mother is looking for a man for her. They both have their eyes on Chamath, but Chamath finds himself attracted to Nalin. When the feelings are mutual, but Sarasi has expectations from Chamath, they have a falling out. Chamath goes to the city to study designing, while Nalin stays at the village and starts his own electrical business and later, gets married to Sarasi. We then see how each of these characters’ lives meet and part over time, with a somewhat clichéd but not bad ending.
There are quite a few things I really liked about the film. The main thing being that finally we have a film that doesn’t hint at homosexuality through innuendo. It directly talks about not only homosexuality, but the entire LGBTQIA community and also the various problems they face.
We see how men in search of men must hide behind bushes, never being able to let down their guard and constantly risk being arrested. We see how men are forced to choose the ‘safer’ option of marriage to a woman and even having a kid or two in order to not be ‘caught’ by society.
The film also talks about the trans community, which I think is incredibly important. One of the trailers they showed before Frangipani was what they claim was Vijaya Nandasiri’s last film. 66 Mayam seemed to belong with those films that are supposed to be funny but are mostly just offensive and far from funny. The trailer shows a transvestite, typical in cinema, especially Sri Lankan comedies. You have the garish makeup, shrill voice and exaggerated gestures. They are mostly for comedic effect, a character to ridicule, laugh at.
Frangipani, thankfully, only portrays the trans community as the humans they are. Chamath’s closest friend in the city is a transsexual and she comes off as a friendly, helpful, caring person. And this isn’t done in a way that feels like the director is trying to make a point. He is, of course, but it doesn’t feel like he’s using the film as a way to force people to acknowledge the LGBTQIA community in anyway. Instead the film and all incidents that happen feel natural.
Related to this and the topic of sexuality, is how the relationship between Chamath and Nalin progresses. SPOILER ALERT! When Chamath and Nalin first kiss, the scene is intense, long and shows the desire between the two. SPOILER ALERT!- OVER I was worried the film will merely hint at their relationship the way Giniyam Rae hinted at the girl’s bisexuality. But of course, a film like this will never stoop to that level and so we saw these two clearly-attracted-to-each-other men making out and later sleeping together without the usual shame, confusion, anger, etc. that follows such a turn of events.
Throughout the film, Frangipani talks about desire and needs and wants and these are of a sexual nature. And it’s not only between Chamath and Nalin. Films like Let Her Cry talk about women’s sexuality but it seems to make it look very dark and twisted. SPOILER ALERT! In Frangipani, Sarasi takes the initiative with Chamath. She kisses him. She guides his hand to her breast. SPOILER ALERT!- OVER The film acknowledges that women are sexual creatures and that they are aware of their needs and desires.
And this is why I think it’s unfair to look at this film as a ‘gay film’. The label is cringe-worthy, I know, but it is a label used by so many people. I remember telling someone about this film and they said, ‘oh the gay film.’ Sometime back when I told another person I wanted to watch Frangipani, they asked if it was that film with two men. And so Frangipani has got that ‘gay film’ label and I really think it should be removed immediately.
Because Frangipani isn’t about two men falling in love. It’s not the gay version of those godawful cheesy love stories. It’s a film that looks at so many aspects to society. You see how a family react’s to finding their son dressed as a woman by having a thovile or exorcism. You see how a monk reacts to the thovile but how he is also accepting if not also understanding of his brother’s life. You see how a family is worried about an unmarried young man because of what society may think. You see a girl pushed to ‘settle’ in life because her future is uncertain.
And this is why you shouldn’t watch the film looking for a love story of any nature. In very natural ways, the director makes us question our own beliefs, attitudes and opinions. Don’t we also make jokes about (and this is a horrible but direct translation of a phrase I’ve heard too many times) ‘men in skirts’? Don’t we question not only the sexual orientation, but also success, luck/fortune and sometimes even sanity of anyone who is unmarried? Don’t we too think of homosexuality or transsexuality as an illness? And don’t we also make the ‘safer’ choice instead of the one we really want to make?
And Frangipani successfully and beautifully addresses such things without a condescending or confrontational tone. But this doesn’t mean that the film isn’t ultimately also making people acknowledge and accept the LGBTQIA community, especially in Sri Lanka.
We, for some reason, treat the LGBTQIA community like a relative who did some godawful thing and so although still a part of the family, isn’t acknowledged and is treated as nonexistent. And yet, each and every member of that family knows about the relative and what he or she did, but they refuse to talk about it.
Everyone knows that heterosexuality isn’t the only way of life. We know that sexual desire and romantic feelings aren’t that black and white. And yet, we refuse to acknowledge it, perhaps in fear that we will be labeled something we aren’t or aren’t ready to admit. But Frangipani, especially by not being a film one can only watch at film festivals or special screenings, has made people accept that the LGBTQIA community in Sri Lanka is very much in existence but also that it faces a lot of injustice due to unfair laws that need to be changed and social beliefs and attitudes which also need changing.
Religion plays a huge role in our lives and whether we really understand what religion is about and whether we really believe in what we claim to, we will be tied to religion, sometimes not even by choice. One of the main arguments made by Camp Heterosexuality is the Only Way of Life is that religion says homosexuality is sinful. ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’, right?
Buddhism plays an odd role here. Admittedly, my knowledge of Buddhism is quite low, but from what I’ve read and learnt, the Buddha never said that homosexuality is wrong or sinful.
Frangipani makes use of this aspect to Buddhism, which all these ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ types may not like. Chamath’s brother who is a monk never gets preachy about Chamath’s life. The only time we see any opposition is when he tells Chamath that there is some turpentine that can be used to remove his nail polish. Later, SPOILER ALERT! when Sarasi shows the monk a picture of Chamath all dolled up in a dress, there is nothing but acceptance. SPOILER ALERT!- OVER
Such monks, I’m sure, are rare but honestly, if the clergy speaks more, not only about the LGBTQIA community, but the various issues we all face in society, whether it’s homophobia, racism or sexism, then I feel, society will change sooner. But for some reason, the clergy remains more or less silent, maybe hesitant to stir the pot.
But the pot needs to be stirred, and I’m glad Frangipani is here to do that. Because while making a point or talking about the LGBTQIA community, it is also ultimately a beautiful film with such easy to love and understand characters. It’s a film that will make you emotional and want to just sit with the characters and talk to them.
I’m not saying Frangipani is flawless. It has its moments, but overall, it’s a must-watch film. And if you’ve been over the fence about watching it, just give it a shot (And take me with you because I’d like to watch it again).