The Terror Management Theory and the Movie Bambara Walalla
Posted on November 23rd, 2011

Dr. Ruwan M Jayatunge

Man is constantly building the “Image.” It is an Edifice for the entombment of bones –Irvin Kauffman

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Sri Lankan film director AthulaLiyanageƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s award winning movie Bambara Walalla discusses an uncommon topic that has close connections with the futile human existence and death. The movie Bambara Walallaunveils the unsophisticated reality of existence and death in rural underworld in the Sri Lankan society. AthulaLiyanagepontificates unfounded and senseless existence of a man who is persecuted by lifeƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s miseries through his movie.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ existence and meaning of lifeƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ constitutes a philosophical question and some believe that human life is mostly a dream, from which people never really awake. Meaning in life varies from person to person, depending on each one’s variable mental state. Bambara Walalla echoes that in a world filled with chaos and suffering human existence becomes absolutely hollow.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The Main Characters of the Movie

Mel Mahaththaya (Mr. Mel) and GonamdithhePodiEka (the little fellow) are the protagonistsƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ of this film around whom the events of the narrative’s plot revolve. The movie Bambara Walalla could be classified as a gangster movie that has touched the imperceptible mob rules in Sri Lankan rural communities.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ As Lee Horsley once stated the mythologized gangster can only be understood in relation to the wider society, whether he is cast as a villain whose actions confirm the need for law and order or as an outlaw hero admired for the toughness and energy with which he defies the system.Lee HorsleyƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s edict is mostly applicable to Bambara Walalla .

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ There are no heroes or archetypal heroes in BambaraWalalla.The two main characters – Mel Mahaththaya(Mr. Mel) and GonamadithhePodiEka (the little fellow) represent the rudiments of rural underworld that is prevailing in modern Sri Lanka. Both characters are complex in nature. Mr. Mel is a kindhearted businessman (an undertaker) who is ready to help anyone in need. But in depth there is an alligator inside him. Although Mr. Mel accommodates people he always expects something profitable in return. Mel is driven by power, ulterior motives and he is ready to commit murders if anyone obstructs his path. PodiEka or the little fellow blindly follows MelƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s orders until he realizes that Mel is a mean character like his uncle who raped his sister and brought irreversible misery to his family.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Bambara Walallaand theMortality Salience

Mortality Salience is vastly associated with the movie BambaraWalalla. The Social Psychologist Jeff Greenberg hypothesized human behavior is motivated by the fear of mortality. In 1986 with his colleagues Jeff Greenberg introduced a new theory named Terror Management Theory (TMT) that concerns the psychological consequences of juxtaposition of a biologically rooted desire for life with the awareness of the inevitability of death.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Mr. Mel is an undertaker and his world is surrounded by the symbols of death.

Although he sees death and dying on an everyday basis, unconsciously he de cognizes these mortality related indicators. Instead he embraces life deeply even committing murders.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  He is a soft spoken man with snake eyes and strikes unexpectedly and callously.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Ernest Becker (1973) who stated that humans, unlike other animals, have the cognitive capabilities to realize that they will die, which causes deep anxiety(ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Vaugh 2010). Mel phonates his motility salience anxiety in numerous expressions and in his noxious behavior patterns.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Mr. Mel and the Existential Death Anxiety

Mr.Mel is a special kind of gangster whom we have never seen before in the silver screen. He is not like Tony Montana (Scarface) who has emotional outbursts or like Capone (Untouchables) who is driven by sadistic instincts or like any other villainslikeJohn Rooney (Road to Predation) Ace Rothstein (Casino) or Cody Jarrett (White Heat). Mr. Mel is a gangster who has becomedeeply consumed by his double life.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Mr. Mel is driven by the death anxiety on most occasions. As Dr. Robert Langs points out existential death anxietyis the most powerful form of death anxiety and its activation is based in humans on the definitive, conscious awareness and anticipation of the inevitability of personal demise.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Death anxiety prompts people to believe in anxiety as a uniform or single entity. In Mr. MelƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s instance he responds in a distinctive manner. These responses are both conscious and unconscious.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The anthropologist Ernest Becker argues all human action is taken to ignore or avoid the inevitability of death. The terror of absolute annihilation creates a profound subconscious anxiety in people.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Mr. MelƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s reaction the death anxiety is pronounced throughout the move. His famous expression ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-I bury only dead peopleƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ sometimes gives us a premonition that eventually he would bury the living too. ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ In fact at the end of the movie the audience realizes that Mel was capable of committing such acts.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The Hit Man PodiEka or the Little Fellow

According to the social disorganization theory a personƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s physical and social environments are primarily responsible for the behavioral choices that person makes. GonaMadithhePodiEka or the Little Fellow witnessed the sexual exploitation, incest and eventually the suicide of his sister and these family calamities made him kill his own uncle. After the crime he was imprisoned for long years. When he comes to his native village after serving the prison term his mother had become a mental patient following the overwhelming psychological trauma.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ His world was devastated for the second time when he found his pet cow was stolen and sold to the butcher. When he found the perpetrator he unleashes extreme violence on the thief.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  The cessation of his objects of love (sister / mother and the pet cow) leads him to become an emotionally numbed and he acts reflexively on MelƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s orders

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ GonaMadithhePodiEka or the Little Fellow is illiterate and unable to express his romantic feelings to the girl that captured his heart.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  When he expressed his desire, the girl discards and humiliates him. He becomes furious and cuts her hair. These events show the immaturity and the imprudent nature of the Little Fellow.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ When he was beaten and banished from the village, Mr. Mel the undertaker helps him with a hidden agenda. Subsequently the Little Fellow becomes Mr.MelƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s one of the hit men. Gradually GonaMadithhePodiEkaƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  becomes a deadly character like the grim reaper with his scythe. ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The third episode of GonaMadithhePodiEka or the Little FellowƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”s life reminds us of Luca Brasi – Don Vito Corleone’s loyal assassin who was immortalized by the great novelist Mario Puzo.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Puzo describes such hit men using these words.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ “Man who goes around life with a sign that says ‘kill me’ painted on, this makes everyone want to kill him, but yet no one can. Eventually this man finds someone who he doesn’t want to kill and fears that this man will be the one to kill him”.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ After the final robbery GonaMadithhePodiEka or the Little Fellow had a gut feeling that he would be killed. He goes in to an emotional outburst and asking from Jinne (Mr.MelƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s assistant) Please tell me Jinnewho is going to kill me? Whether you orƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  MelMahatthaya ? He knew that his days were numbered. His life was saved unexpectedly by MelƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s so called son.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Although we see asenseless and callous murderer inGonaMadithhePodiEka there is an immature child inside him.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Largely career criminals and psychopaths have a distinctive type of behavior that is characteristic of satisfying their emotional and psychological needs.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  This ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-needƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ actually feeds the motivations of the individual to commit crime and then relish it. ButƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  GonaMadithhePodiEka became a criminal due to life circumstances. Criminal intentions were never in his blood or in his genes.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Death Anxiety and Allegiance

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Mr. Mel. builds a criminal organization and recruits henchmen. They become loyal to him and often carry out his orders without rationally analyzing the outcome. Mel expands his business and meets new enemies. When he makes a move he is compelled to strike his opponents with a deadly force and let his foes shed blood.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

Mel has a gang of murderers who are allegiance to him and fulfill his orders. Affiliation to MelƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s organization gives his followers a sense of security, a sense of belongings and meaning of life.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Being anassociatein MelƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s anti-social organization each member unconsciously tries to minimize their death anxiety. This rural criminal organization declares wars with other gangs killing a number of people. For the members it is like being in a war front and die for their leader. This is a primitive form of organizationand its function explained by Greenberg in 1986.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The war system provides the basic motivation for primary and social organization. In so doing, it reflects on the societal level the incentives of individual human behavior. The most important of these, for social purposes, is the individual psychological rationale for allegiance to a society and its values. Allegiance requires a cause; a cause requires an enemy.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ (Greenberg 1986)

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ MelƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s gang needs enemies and they find enemies in every territory. Mel expands his business and in each time his meets new rivals. Business rivalry was causing a heavy damage to his criminal organization and Mel takes every step to silent his opponents. Eventually the enemy comes within the organization. When the explosion occurs from inside Mel barely had chance to stay alive.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The Death Anxiety Continues

As social psychologists pointed out man has an inherent tendency for self-preservation and has cognitive capability in acknowledging lifeƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s impermanence. HeƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  is capable of coexists with death and makes attempts to lower his death anxiety(Olivarez 2010).

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The Little Fellow alias GonaMadithhePodiEka escapes his death and becomes the new leader of the criminal gang. The old Don was murdered. The family needs a new leadership.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  GonaMadithhePodiEkawas unanimously appointed as the head of the family by other members and hence he becomes the new Don.No more internal conflicts and bloodshed. Peace is prevailing within the family. Like Michael Corleone he does not feel likeƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ wipe everyone out,just his enemies.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Again they are ready to sell coffins. The entire scenario reminds us the definition of TMT (Terror Management Theory) which follows thus.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ TMT theorists believe that an individual will be so freaked out by being reminded of his death, or mortality salience, that he will invest more belief in his worldview and resist or even attack anything perceived as a threat to his worldview.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ What is the worldview of this rural criminal gang? They too have a fundamental cognitive orientation, possess ethics and values. To the outside world they are bunch of businessmen (undertakers). Their dark images covered by the coffins. Outsiders only see the shows moving. They are ready to oblige to their silent customers who donƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢t yell or curse at them.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  Like the previous Don they too say ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-we buryonly dead peopleƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚.

2 Responses to “The Terror Management Theory and the Movie Bambara Walalla”

  1. Asanga Says:

    Actually, I understood quite well, the points the Good Doctor was trying to make through his examples. Must be a poor reflection of myself too, I guess.

    Sometimes, when an author posts on a bulletin board , some of the original text can appear distorted, particularly if the fonts of the original text and the fonts of where he or she is posting to, have incompatibilities.

    For example the text ‘inGonaMadithhePodiEka’ might simply have been written quite clearly in Dr Jayatunge’s wordprocessing software, but when pasted on here,might have become ‘muddled up’.

    Dr.Jayatunge has posted very interesting and thought provoking essays, particularly on his work with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) vicitims. He has, in my opinion, had some amazing experiences in meeting veterans of many wars in all corners of the world. And he should be thanked for his varied and interesting writings and not insulted as being ‘pathetic’ or contemptible.

    If he had committed some errors in grammer in getting his ideas across, surely that could be excused can it not?

  2. dliecht Says:

    Dr. Jayatunge,

    First of all, your English is easily understandable to a native speaker. LasanthaPethiyagoda unfortunately comes across above as what we affectionately refer to as a pompous ass.

    Secondly, you cite a couple of sources – Vaugh 2010 and Olivarez 2010. Could you please provide the full citations.

    I am considered to be quite knowledgeable on Ernest Becker’s work, and I very much appreciate your analysis of this film. If you don’t already know about The Ernest Becker Foundation, please visit our website at


    Daniel Liechty

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