Director: Chandana Prasanna
Writer: Chandana Prasanna
Cast: Yashodha Rasaduni, Samanthi Lanarolle, Kaushalya Fernando, Nadee Kammallaweera, Mayura Kanchana, Anjana Premarthne, Chandana Aluthge, Kaushalya Mendis, Sathsarani Chanchala Bandara, Julian Garwith Galindawatta
Running time: 18mins
Before I dive into this review, I should say that I know very little about South-East Asian cultures, and so I will not be going into specifics when it comes to discussing the socio-political context A Democratic Proposal is part of. The film is only a glimpse to the traditions of South-East Asia; traditions that hold a woman unable to decide what to do with her life; traditions that existed (and partially still exist) in my own culture until very recently – but that does not necessarily make me eligible to comment on the topic. I do want to share the frustration I felt while watching the film, however I would like to accredit it to the wonderful cast and director (more on that in a bit). If anyone reads below anything that they find offensive, please do get in touch with me via the comments section, as I would like to educate myself on the matter.
With that being said; what a pleasant cinematic surprise this film was! Chandana Prasanna has handled a difficult topic brilliantly.
The film begins as young Kanchana’s family is waving excitedly to a car driving away, while she is standing at the threshold, hands tied and frowning. As they enter the living room, the family is joyful, but Kanchana remains silent while she starts undressing. The family discusses the similarities they saw between them and their guests. The suitor would make a great husband to Kanchana, and everyone seems to think as much except for Kanchana. She politely – yet firmly – turns down the offer of marriage. And so the trouble begins…
Initially, her brothers-in-law reassure her they understand where she is coming from and that no one will talk her into marrying someone she does not want to… But that is precisely what they begin to do; after all, she has to think about her parents: who is going to take care of them? Her father should be retired already, they claim, but he has to keep working because she is still single. It is quite apparent what the extended family is trying to achieve: they are manipulating her by using her parents’ age and status to convince her to accept the marriage proposal. Kanchana remains silent; she locks herself into her room and everyone is afraid of what she might do. When she walks out of the room, having taken off the traditional sari, they go back to brainwashing. Kanchana, always laconic, has a counter proposal that leaves the family speechless.
What I found specifically clever was the transition from outdoors to indoors: the film begins with the family standing right outside their home entrance, waving joyfully but the energy changes when they walk back into their living room. By the moment the door closes, we are prepared to witness what the family really discusses behind closed doors. The whole film takes place in the living room and the kitchen, two places that are predominantly designated for family time and help us understand: this is a subject in which the whole family has a saying. Editing is simply impeccable – no surprises there, taking into consideration Prasanna’s background in editing.
On the other hand, there is space for improvement when it comes to photography and sound. Something that I felt my brain struggling with was getting accustomed to the sound of a new language. This is only one indication of how unused I am to watching non-European/American films- how alarming for someone who is writing film reviews!
Finally, I found the acting to be excellent. Even though we do not get “proper” introductions to all characters, we manage to tie the pieces together and understand how everyone is related, what their temper is like and what the role they play in the decision is. Unfortunately, the cast is not accredited, but they sure did a great job- from the children to the eldest actors, the result is complete. The true revelation, however, is Yashodha Rasaduni.
Acting in silence is one of the most difficult tasks an actor has to perform, nevertheless her performance is peerless. From the very first moment, we understand and sympathise with her annoyance with the whole scenario. She is seemingly listening to her family’s arguments calmly, but her movements show a thinly-veiled anger: this subtly shows us she respects her elders but she will not abide by their decision. It all ties in perfectly when she is sharing her proposal with them – and that is the moment of catharsis, a great way to end a film with linear storytelling.
I feel lucky A Democratic Proposal came my way, not only for its near-flawless delivery, but also because it made me want to explore Asian cinema more. I am curious to what I can learn from it, both as a human being and as someone with an affinity to arts and culture. It was also a good reminder that quality art can be found beyond our reach – we just have to look for it! If you are like me and want to start exploring South Asian cultures, I highly recommend including A Democratic Proposal to your watch-list!