Sri Lankan expatriate helmer Salinda Perera returns from Hollywood to his native land to make his first feature, “Fisherman’s Daughter,” based on a ’70s novel. Perera vividly captures the evolution of a character over time as the film’s titular heroine totally integrates herself into a succession of very different roles. Though too long, flat and rather gauche in exposition, pic’s bald, feminist presentation of a slow self-actualization process in the Third World is strangely convincing and should assure continued fest play.
With downcast eyes and garbed in an immaculate white confirmation gown, Valli (popular Sri Lankan star Sangeetha Weeraratne) reluctantly leaves the soaring columns, sacred music and close-knit girlish community of a convent orphanage for a crude hut and a bare subsistence-level living with her feisty aunt (Trelicia Gunawardena) and kindly uncle (Cyril Wickramage) in a fishing village.
At first fastidiously holding a hankie to her nose to minimize the smell, soon Valli is slinging her fish basket with the best of them and organizing villagers to resist the feudal monopoly of the rich mudalali who owns the boats, controls the market and guarantees that the fisherfolk are trapped in an unbreakable cycle of poverty and dependency.
In her activism, Valli is indeed her parents’ daughter, since they died piloting their own boat in defiance of the system.
Debts force her to accept a job offer from the mudalali‘s playboy son, so Valli becomes a nanny to the son’s younger siblings in his parents’ home. Valli quickly establishes her indispensability as housekeeper and confidante to the mother (Veena Jayakody), trusted bookkeeper and de facto daughter to the father (Joe Abeywickrama) and cherished mistress to the son (Roger Seniviratne).
Each chapter in Valli’s saga plays like an entirely separate set piece in a strangely heroic text that is half inspirational soap-opera, half political allegory. The same amount of fervor and dedication that was directed to freeing the villagers from the mudalali‘s yoke is now directed to getting every last penny into the mudalali‘s coffers, Valli throwing herself and her loyalty into whatever she undertakes.
When her lover takes a wife, Valli is welcomed back to her village. She uses the knowledge gained from the mudalali, the gold he bequeathed to her and the inside info attained from his feckless son to win the support of the church and unite the fishermen to foil a plot to sell the villagers’ livelihood.
Somewhat murky lensing does not fully exploit the beauty of the coastal landscape, and clunkily obvious setups mar the flow of action. But well-rounded characterizations, particularly as put across by star Weeraratne and by Gunawardena as her unforgettable fishwife aunt, make the most of pic’s meaty story.