What starts off as a special anniversary get-away turns into a nightmare: this one line descriptor of Prasanna Vithanage’s fabulous Paradise wouldn’t be, strictly speaking, off the mark, but would do it no justice.

The film, starring Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran as a Malayali couple arriving in a scenic Sri Lanka spot, declares its differential from the get-go: sure, the Ramayana tour the two have signed up for, promises to be a once-in- a-lifetime kind of experience, and the sylvan estate, their temporary abode, is surrounded by green trees and rolling hills.

But when Keshav and Ammu are being driven from the airport to their homestay, they can see signs of a terrible economic crisis. It is June 2022, and there is utter chaos on the streets, citizens are out protesting, there’s no petrol or diesel, and every avenue of income generation has dried up.

As spending tourists, escorted by their tour guide Mr. Andrew (Fernando), and welcomed to the estate by the caretaker Shree (Ilango) and cook Iqbal (Samsoodeen), they are made welcome. But even the most generous visitors can be major disruptors as they have no way of discerning the rhythms of the place they have flown into.

A break-in and a robbery escalate tensions already simmering: Keshav, pumped up by the news of a major deal with a streaming giant (his web-series has been green-lit, and a great deal of money is in the offing), behaves like an entitled tourist, his aggression flowing like waves, demanding that the local police inspector Sergeant Bandara (Perera) find the thieves and their electronic gadgets immediately, or else. Ammu is equally shaken, but is also trying to keep calm, and refuses to join her husband as he throws his weight around: clearly, she is more sensitive and attuned to other people and their predicaments.

Festive offer

The 93-minute film, presented by Mani Ratnam and Shiva Ananth under the Madras Talkies banner, is so layered that you may need a couple of viewings to unpack it all: a crisis like the one Keshav and Ammu have been plunged into, mirrors the chaos within and without. We are never specifically told that the marriage is under any kind of strain, but we also see a couple at variance in their attitudes, managing their differences yet aware they exist. How can you be so happy while all this is going on, asks a miffed Keshav. You want me to be unhappy, replies Ammu, the question in her voice not finding an answer. Both bring a lived-in quality to their relationship, signaling past arguments and current hurts, making it one of the most realistic portrayals of a married couple I’ve seen in a while.

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The surrounding area, pockmarked by picturesque tourist spots, looks deceptively peaceful but is simmering with centuries-old discontent about identity and belonging: there’s the Tamil-Sinhala divide, the class divide, and the interplay of brute power between the cops and the people. The tour guide is slightly above on the totem pole, plus he’s one of them; the caretaker and the cook are still considered ‘outsiders’, much easier to victimise. Who decides who is the culprit? And are those who are fingered for a crime they did not do, leading to a fatality, have any recourse to justice?

Veteran Sri Lankan director Vithanage has come up with a deftly-plotted-and-executed film, knitting together a political-personal story filled with powerfully-calibrated emotions, well-judged performances, and a stunning, shocking climax. It brings up the possibility of how ancient stories seep into the landscape, and how epics never really lose their power, their impact everlasting: Sita may have escaped from Ravan but will she ever be free of Ram’s suspicions of her having ‘lived with a paraya’ mard’? Will Ravan wake up from his slumber and rescue Sri Lanka? Is this Paradise, or, Paradise Lost?

Paradise movie cast: Roshan Mathew, Darshana Rajendran, Shyam Fernando, Sumith Ilango, Mahendra Perera, Azhar Samsoodeen
Paradise movie director: Prasanna Vithanage
Paradise movie rating: 4 stars