Koombiyo

A sharp, realistic depiction of life in Sri Lanka, Koombiyo shows us the side of society that we’d rather not look at. Through a level-up in directing, production, writing, and acting, Koombiyo has become a 21st Century masterpiece that could resonate in almost any country.

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Priyantha and Jehan. Scene from Koombiyo, from ITN Sri Lanka (video here).

N.B. The following contains some spoilers.

Koombiyo is a gritty depiction of the dark underbelly of Sri Lankan society. Although it is about the travails of a con-man and his newfound sidekick, Koombiyo shines an equally harsh light on the hypocrisy of the Colombo 7 class, the socialists, journalists, politicians, and do-gooder non-governmental charity organizations, as it does on the working class, the slum-dwellers, the gangsters and drug addicts we first encounter. It spares no quarter in pointing out the corruption and two- faced perfidy of all segments of society.

Koombiyo artfully lifts up the curtain on this aspect of life with an impartial objectivity that imbues the show with realism and gravitas, making it extremely compelling. The one thing that takes away from its presentation is the terrible sound recording. Background noise is way too loud, and scenes filmed indoors are often plagued by echoes which make dialogue unintelligible.

The pacing of the story, the dialogue and well-selected cast of extremely skilled actors, combined with amazing cinematography and a poignant score, has succeeded in permanently elevating the standard expected of Sri Lankan television.

The story is not just doom and gloom though. There are many touching moments, lighthearted moments, and truly funny moments. And it really makes you think.

Who are the NGOs really helping? Why do journalists go looking for gossip about politicians? Why is it so easy to stir class envy in this society? Where is the rule of law? If we fall between the cracks of society, do we have any chance to climb back out? And if you, a smartphone-enabled, internet-savvy, citizen ended up in dire straits, would you really behave any differently to some of the “bad guys” we see in Koombiyo?

Watching this drama, we feel sorry for the drug-addicts who have no opportunities to lift themselves out of their rut. There is no way for them to correct their mistake and find a place in society. With no hope for self-improvement, they end up drawn to criminality as both a means to survive and as a source of belonging through gang-loyalty. Ultimately their fate, no matter where in the gang hierarchy they reside, is almost always a gruesome one.

In Koombiyo, we see the country through the eyes of the two main characters, Jehan and Priyantha.

Priyantha is a naïve young man from a village. With a foolish, open-mouthed gaze, he has come to the big city in search of opportunity. On a bus, he meets Jehan, a seasoned con-artist with underworld connections, and the pair soon end up working together. It is through their shared journey that the dark side of Sri Lanka is revealed to us.

Priyantha often questions Jehan, asking “Aren’t we conning people? Isn’t this a crime?” But he asks these questions in search of an answer to assuage his guilt. He tries to convince himself that he is a decent person, but he is always ready to accept whatever explanation or justification that Jehan gives him. And so rather than taking a moral stand, he goes along with Jehan’s schemes.

Later on in the story when Priyantha has become an elected local government politician, Jehan points this out to him, saying he knew that within Priyantha there was another, darker person, who was yearning to break free. Jehan merely provided the path for this other Priyantha to emerge from the shadow of the “honest” Priyantha who we first meet.

Around this time, while Priyantha condemns Jehan for causing the death of a socialist protester, when Priyantha sees that socialist’s widow coming to visit him, he complains to Jehan, predicting that she will not stop talking and asking for help for at least an hour. The next moment, as she gets close to Priyantha’s house, he smiles broadly and welcomes her in. So, “innocent” Priyantha has become just another two-faced politician.

The transformation of Priyantha exposes his hypocrisy, and shatters the widely held view that people from Sri Lankan villages are somehow unspoiled and innocent. It is not that they are innocent, but rather that they are naïve. They don’t act deviously only because they do not know how to. When they are shown the way, they pick up all the cynicism and corrupt practices very quickly.

Jehan, the driving force of the story, is presented to us as a con-artist. Intelligent, cunning, and entrepreneurial, he lacks the connections and opportunities to rise up in society. As the story really gets going though, we see through his actions and his own admissions, that he is a psychopath by most definitions.

He revels in manipulating others, controlling them, and nurturing the dark sides of people. He is keen to exploit and expose everyone’s hypocrisy, and freely admits that he does it not only in order to complete an objective, but also for his enjoyment. It is important to remember however, that Jehan only provides the path for people like Priyantha to change for the worse. It is Priyantha himself who decides to walk on that path.

It is easy to hate Jehan, but he is one of the few really honest people in the story.

In comparison are the NGO officials who express great empathy for and even give money to charity-cases such as someone who they think is deaf and dumb (Priyantha, in another of Jehan’s schemes). All the while, the NGOs have such little regard for their own employees that the woman who brings them tea doesn’t even have any shoes.

Another example is the band of socialists who call each other “comrade” but are more than happy to use all available means, including the death of one of their own, to further the revolution and cause upheavals which damage private businesses run by decent men and women who employ, train, and respect their staff.

The socialists seek to tear down the prevailing order through revolution in the name of workers’ rights, while depriving those workers of jobs, security and stability. In reality, it is only political power they want, and they will use anyone and anything to obtain this power.

Unlike these people, Jehan is honest to himself and to everyone else about what he is, and how he operates. In the end, what shocks us is not what he does, but the unexpected plot twist that has created massive speculation and theorizing all over Sri Lanka as everyone impatiently awaits the finale.

Dispensing with traditional Sri Lankan story telling techniques, Koombiyo is a qualitative improvement in Sri Lankan TV drama. From the two leads all the way to the smallest role, every character is played expertly by the highly talented actors and actresses that fill the cast of this show.

Part crime drama and part social commentary, Koombiyo is a much-needed piece of cultural criticism. All those who want to enjoy a good story and who want to learn about the reality faced by millions of their countrymen should watch this drama. You might  see a little bit of yourself in some of the characters. And by correcting and improving yourself, you may even be able to lift up your country too.

Watch it now.

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