Kandyan past, untold culture
A scene from Beherunda Pakshiya
Bherunda Pakshiya, a film based on a historical novel by the award
winning author and director, Sarath Dharmasiri, is the cinematic debut
of young producer Upul Nishantha.
The plot takes place in 19th century Sri Lanka when the British
extended the railway lines from Ambepussa to Kandy, through mountains
and hitherto untouched Kandyan villages, where the primitive life-style
flourished in spite of the dawn of a new era.
Besides the breathtaking sceneries of the hill country, Sri Lankan
filmgoers have the opportunity of embarking on a journey into a distant
history and to get an insight into the primitive Kandyan village and its
largely agriculture-based closed economy.
The village headman (Sriyantha Mendis) plays a vital role as a ruler,
exorcist, and vernacular doctor, thereby exerting an enormous influence
over the lives of the ignorant villagers. The polygamous marriage and
the institution of family in the ancient context is vividly captured and
translated ably into a wholesome cinematic experience by the Director,
Sarath Dharmasiri, who has taken great pains in editing each and every
footage to suit the plot.
Though the village headman is fully contended with his two wives, he
constantly worries over the dim prospect of having a child by them. It
is obvious that in that primitive society, marriage is not a consensual
union between two individuals, but a union that serves the prime motive
of bringing up an offspring to carry on the lineage and attend to
household needs, including bathing the husband with hot water.
Meanwhile, "Punchi Menike", Widane's daughter, comes of age and as
suggested by the village headman's aid (Jayalath Manoratne), the village
headman begins to develop an attraction to her and wants to marry her (Punchi
Menike) as his third wife.
However, a youth, a close relation of Punchi Menike, shows an
interest in her, and later falls ill, as suggested, due to black magic
by the village headman. The same fate befell on the British engineer
Thomas who is in charge of the construction of the railway line to Kandy,
and was interested in Punchi Menike.
Thomas was able to get the consent of both, Punchi Menike and her
parents to marry her, but was tragically prevented by an accident that
occurred inside the tunnel which is attributed to black magic performed
by the village headman who wanted to win over Punchi Menike.
Ultimately, the village headman marries Punchi Menike. As a twist of
fate, Punchi Menike gives birth to a child, the much-needed offspring to
carry on the village headman's lineage, but strangely, with European
The story ends in a tragic note with the village headman who is wild
with rage, jumps onto the approaching train, which, in his madness, and
settling of scores with Thomas, he mistook for a powerful animal which
could be driven away as he did to the wild elephant, by means of black
magic. In the process, the train runs over him amputating a leg.
It is a film, which has all the ingredients of a commercial and
artistic film. Though a classic, Bherunda Pakshiya is captivating the
audience by the panoramic beauty of the hill country and the director,
Sarath Dharmasiri should be commended for his effort in creating an
interest in Sri Lankan filmgoers in the history of the country, at a
time when the youth have little interest in the history.
It is obvious that the director had done his share of research into
the primitive Kandyan life in the latter part of the 19th century and
the people's resistance to the construction of railway lines through
their villages encompassing steep mountain ranges, which the villages
believe a Herculean task.
Director cum author, Sarath Dharmasiri has also made use of the
opportunity to highlight the people's beliefs such as exorcism and black
magic, which have been effectively exploited by the village headman to
achieve his ends and the polygamous marriage in little Kandyan hamlets
which are more or less beyond outside influences.
The only educated person in the village seems to be the Hamuduruwo
(Buddhist priest) who undertakes to teach Sinhala to the British
engineer Thomas. Thomas in his broken Sinhala acknowledges Hamudurowo's
fluency in English.
Sriyantha Mendis, Jayalath Manoratne, Kusum Renu, Jayani Senanayaka,
Indika Upamali, Nilanthi Wijesinghe play their roles convincingly, and
the foreign actors also play their roles brilliantly and the able
director has made use of the talents of each and every actor to suit the
Besides a journey into distant history, Beherunda Pakshiya gives a
novel cinematic experience that you will never forget. It exposes,
willingly or unwillingly, the dark aspects and ruthlessness of the
Kandyan society in the latter part of the 19th century.
It changes our deep-seated code of morals which most of us have taken
for granted, and the remnants of such primitive cultural practices which
need to be redefined with a critical eye. It is always prudent for us to
criticise our own culture and move on from that point towards a more
civilised society where all stakeholders' rights are preserved without
being influenced by evil forces.