Sunday, July 22, 2018

Debating beyond force and foes

Not every talker is a debater and not every debater is a talker, I've noticed. Talk is cheap. Debating, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish. While the one and the other do meet in and enter everyday conversations and tournaments, they are not the same, because debating is a craft, an art in fact, which requires tremendous reserves of concentration, creativity, and energy. That, plus the fact that while anyone can butt in and give their two cents on a given topic, a debate entails something much more: a seasoned encounter between two camps opposed to one another based on a given subject. This is true for English debating and it is also true for Tamil and Sinhala debating because the latter two have more or less evolved via the history of the former. This article, incidentally, is about Sinhala debating.

Pasindu Madhusanka, Mino Gallawatta, Ridma Raveen, and Navod Nethma are four active debaters attached to the society of their school, Royal College. The Sinhala Debating and Oratory Society, as it's known there, evolved as an appendage of sorts to the Sinhala Literary Association and broke away to venture on its own path, as an independent entity, in 2001. Among its most active participants and chairmen in the past, I can name Nalin de Silva (yes, THAT Nalin de Silva), the late A. V. Suraweera, and Prathiba Mahanama Hewa, who all happen to come from different fields. Such details, interesting as they are to me, nevertheless pale away when considering the trajectory it and various other school clubs around the country are following and how it has unearthed the true nature of Sinhala debating as a craft. This is therefore not a detailed recounting of the society, rather a delineation of those active in the society.

Pasindu, this year's Captain, spoke first. "There are some erroneous views regarding this field which we've tried to get rid of. For instance, the view that Sinhala debating is all hot air and depends more on force than facts. That is not true. Speaking for our society, we privilege facts over force and have come to realise that shouting for the sake of winning over judges will get you nowhere." Ridma interjected here: "The biggest lesson you can draw from being a debater, in whatever language, is that there's a time to shout and a time to sober down." I got their point immediately: if we are to talk about this topic, controversial as it is, we have to talk about how debaters evolve and graduate and what they learn about wielding rhetoric.

A typical Sinhala debate includes four debaters. Marks are allocated on two criteria, the way you present and the way you break your contender's points. "The Captain is allocated 60 marks for only his presentation, while the split between the two criteria for the second speaker is 40-20, the 3rd speaker is 30-30, and the fourth speaker is 20-40. The rest of the marks come from the style of your delivery, or vaag vilashaya, and your body language, or anga chalanaya," Pasindu informed me, adding that having counted in more than 340 debates (a whopping portfolio) he has ascertained that there's no easy way for a debater to evolve. This brings him, and me, to how he and his colleagues managed to break away those myths regarding what they are doing.

Before that though, how they got to the Society is pertinent. In Pasindu, Ridma, and Navod, I infer three routes through which one enters the Club. With Pasindu, it was a teacher who recognised his voice for its persuasive, stentorian qualities (she happened to be his class teacher and was also attached to the society); with Ridma it was Pasindu's friendship; and with Navod it was a notice for a workshop conducted by the Society which he attended. "When we are young, we want to try everything out. We want to indulge in every extracurricular activity," Pasindu told me. Over the years, and not surprisingly, the procedure for attracting new recruits to the club has not diverged from what it used to be before, though by now, the drive towards getting new and potential debaters in has accelerated: "We organise projects every month, bring in experts for workshops, and conduct massive recruitment campaigns thrice a year."

The 'learning curve' they undergo is formal as well: "Starting from practice debates, we move the better students to inter house debates, and from them we pick out the best to represent the team at inter school debates. Even with this process, however, we have hiccups. Those hiccups materialise as limitations of individual debaters." Such limitations, Pasindu explained, can dog them for months if not years, but they go away eventually. "Navod, for instance, had a problem pronouncing the letter 'ka'. When he began, he used to be hassled off a tournament after the semi finals. But with practice over time, he has, while not eradicating this issue completely, resolved it. Ridma on the other hand was afraid of 'opening up' in front of an audience. He resolved it by concentrating on facts in his speech. These are personal problems inherited from childhood, and they have a big say in how a debate is conducted. Language matters as much as delivery, and if problems affect either of them, you need to address them."

Debaters have their preferred topics and these three are not, it must be said, exceptions to that rule. Preferences of that sort are conditioned by what one studies. Ridma, who did his A Levels in the arts stream, prefers topics delving into social theory, which incidentally makes up the majority of debating topics in the country. On the other end, Pasindu prefers topics revolving around science, which happens to be in the minority among national debate topics. "Economics, law, sociology, and diplomacy attract more confrontation, so they are in the majority. Nonetheless, I feel there should be more topics based on science." Whatever the theme, however, they are adamant that facts should come before force: the latter must be a corollary, or should grow out of, the former. I asked Pasindu, Ridma, and Navod that given that one must balance the one with the other, what of students who by nature tilt towards one OVER the other?

It's a challenge, but as all three inform me, it can be resolved. "There are students who have never uttered a filthy word in their lives. There are also students who by nature are assertive and tend to be forceful in what they say and how they act. In both cases, you have got to understand that a language, any language, is based on formal lexicons and on slang. They carry equal weight. To this end, we need to teach students how to be aggressive at a given moment and how to be sober and calm as well." Pasindu, by nature aggressive in how he speaks, is at the other end of Ridma, who is more collected. It's a veritable mishmash, and given that this is debating and not a literary association, it is to be expected. This, however, brings me to another persistent issue: that of language. More pertinently, how flexible language can get.

Obviously, judges, being the human beings they are, bring with them their notions of grammar and rhetoric, so it's to be expected that language and delivery depend on how these human beings take to them. Debates about religion, for instance, can get testy when judged by the clergy, but as Pasindu and Ridma tell me, they have faced tournaments where such awkward confrontations have occurred. This extends to the use of the language: "There are no hard and fast rules about what kind of Sinhala we should use. We teach our students to use as much Sinhala as possible, to be very resourceful when resorting to English, except in the case of technical terms with no vernacular equivalent. Our biggest challenge is with students steeped in neither Sinhala nor English. They are, for the lack of a better term, gandabba."

In fact it is interesting to know that while there are several dialects of Sinhala spread right throughout the country, from Kurunegala to Matara, in debating circles such dialects, at least among experienced societies, disappear and give way to a distinct dialect that only debaters conjure up. "This dialect is ridden with inconsistencies in grammar which would infuriate some. As an example, one term we always use, which actually traces its origins to the Royal team from 2011 and 2012, is 'athishaya avasthawa.' Those two words cannot, strictly speaking, be used together. But over time and through constant use, it has become a word on its own right. We do concur that grammar must figure in a language, but in this field, we are not rigid."

As a final point, Pasindu and Ridma dwell on the most important project that debating team at Royal are engaged in, Samprapthi. Each year, the project is formed with the intention of promoting unorthodox debating, and to this end it is planned to raise the camaraderie between debating societies in Sri Lanka. As these two inform me, in 2011 they brought together schools weak in Sinhala, in 2012 they brought together schools slightly less weak in Sinhala, in 2013 they conducted workshops in peripheral schools throughout the Western Province, in 2016 they trained societies from schools which had not made that many strides in the field, such as Carey College, while in 2017, they attempted (rather successfully) to tone down the confrontational thrust of Sinhala debating by inviting junior members and by deliberately 'mixing up' teams from different schools so that instructors from one school would be heading another school team. I was there at the last Samprapthi, and I saw how all those debates, all that confrontation, ended in an awards ceremony where there were no winners, only boxes of chocolates distributed among contending teams to (what else?) promote harmony.

So what's in it for the team? "Probably the most important thing we've learnt in debating is to not be ruffled by praise or blame, by victory or defeat. When we win, we don't flaunt. When we lose, we don't sour. Moreover, debating has taught us a lot about people, their preferences and their prejudices. I won't say that it has taught us everything that we need to know about those people we come into contact with in our tournaments, but it's gone a long way in helping us understand other perspectives. This in turn has helped us understand that this is a field which is not exclusively reliant on confrontations and fights. There's more, much more to debating, especially Sinhala debating, than shouting and hollering and bringing your competitor down. I suppose we are all united in saying that we've learnt to be immune to pressure, and by being immune to pressure that way, we've learnt to comprehend this field better."

And in the end, what debaters pick up and learn, what they discard and unlearn, what they perpetuate in the name of what they do, helps us understand what debating is and is not. Especially in Sinhala. In that sense, the stories Pasindu and the team can say speak a lot. Louder than their voices, certainly.

Written for: The Island YOUth, July 22 2018

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Reflections on some wonderful friends

My friend Hiruna, who is studying for his A Levels, yet somehow finds the time to write the most beautiful Sinhala poetry I have ever read from someone his age, is something of a rarity. Not because he writes poetry (don't we all, at some point?) but because his preferred cultural icons are so far removed from the Sanukas and the Santhushes of this era that he has become virtually isolated. He has written essays and essays on everything from the era he panders to - the sixties, seventies, and eighties - ranging from Hansa Vilak to T. M. Jayaratne to Amaradeva to Sekara. Because of my inability to read between the lines when it comes to poetry, sivpada or nisadas, I have come to appreciate the critic in him rather acutely. He has read much more on the subjects he tends to than anyone his age.

And yet, he is not alone. There are others. Perhaps not as "into" what he likes as he is, but nevertheless with a sensibility which has been honed to past objets d'art that the young today are rubbishing day in and out. It's hard to tell whether this is a miniscule minority or whether it has the potential to grow up and mature. In that sense there's a lot to be expected from the families and friends of these youngsters, because with the correct guidance, they can and will become the wielders of the arts tomorrow.

The most common excuse dished out by those who are fascinated by the icons of the present is that "the past is dead, live with it!" It's a flimsy excuse, though one I've come across from youngster after youngster wherever I go and am. Perhaps it's to do with how the media has suppressed the old in the programs they broadcast. Either way, an entire generation is growing up not even having heard of the usual icons - Amaradeva, Victor Ratnayake, even Clarence - and this despite the fact that these names are hardly ones we can pass over. Someone once said somewhere (I can't remember the name or the time, though it was way, way back, a long time ago) that if Sri Lanka chose to send something that demarcated "ape kama" to the moon, it would send the songs of Amaradeva. Laudable, but consider that we have children, and students at that who are studying in GOVERNMENT schools, who have not even heard of his name, much less his songs. So yes, people like Hiruna are rather rare.

There are reasons. For one thing, schools have rarely produced artists the way they produce and are structured to produce engineers, lawyers, doctors, and accountants. Parents have set notions about what they want their children to become and this impedes on the ability of individual societies to do with the arts to nurture up and coming artists. If you are studying science for your A Levels, chances are that no matter how suitable for chairing and leading literary, drama, and debating societies you may be, you will be compelled to exit them abruptly to concentrate on passing that Z score and entering university. And this isn't resolved by handing these societies over to those who study arts. As Ayath, whom I interviewed last year over how Sinhala drama is taught and sustained at schools in and around Colombo, argued, there is a discrepancy between those who take to the arts and those who debate, do drama, or write poetry for competitions. More often than not, it's those other streams - Science and Commerce - which produce the bulk of the members who want to do something. More often than not, also, those who choose arts opt for it because they have nothing else to offer. "They just aren't interested" was what Ayath told me.

That's one reason. Not the only reason. It's easy to go on lambasting structures and institutions. Looking inward, at the fault in ourselves, however, is much, much more difficult. The truth is that many of us from this generation and generations after us are rabidly averse to the past, or anything that is too old to be venerated in hagiographic terms. When Amaradeva passed away, for instance, there were howls of protest over one particular young vocalist who contended that there were much better voices than the maestro's among his (the vocalist's) colleagues. Whether or not this was true (such judgments, subjective though they are, can be assessed), the timing of the statement was hardly apt. And yet, this is but just one part of a broader phenomenon. Young people I talk to take to the guitar and the microphone as though God has willed it. The richness of technology, in other words, is drowning the richness of imagination, and imagination, a key prerequisite to the production of art, is lacking among them. Sure, they know how to please the ear. It's just that they don't know how to please the mind.

Poetry, the most potent and literary of all cultural forms (the novel and the short story, by comparison, are newer, more recent), is a veritable yardstick when it comes to other cultural spheres, in particular music. "The young don't have the time to read, and even if they do, they just aren't interested" was what Ajantha Ranasinghe told me during our interview. He has a point. As a people, we aren't reading enough. Literacy rates, premised as they are on the ability to read and write on a rudimentary level, are hardly adequate by way of assessing whether we should be reading and writing more.

How can the culture of a country thrive if its poetry languishes? As Garett Field notes in his book "Modernising Composition: Sinhala Song, Poetry, and Politics in 20th Century Sri Lanka", the cultural revival we saw in the preceding century was supported by a plethora of lyricists who were able to preserve the literariness of their work while contributing to the country's musical sphere. It was for this reason, Field observes, that Chandrarathna Manawasinghe was able to come up with a new poetic meter for his masterpiece, "Wali Thala Athare", and that his "student" Mahagama Sekara contended in a 1966 lecture that "a test of a good song was to take away the music and see whether the lyric could stand on its own as a piece of literature." (This quirk, which we are used to in Sri Lanka, confounds Field so much that he admits the inadequacies of Western ethnomusicology when it comes to the Sinhala lyric.)

Ultimately, in a country and a region which has historically privileged the fusion of words and rhythms (regardless of how sophisticated or not our ancestors were, they were able to musicalise what they read in ways which baffle scholars today), the first step towards the flourishing of a cultural sphere is the dissemination of our poetry, and lyrics, among our students. This is not an easy task, but it is a task which we must engage in. After all, we're talking about generation after generation who grow up indifferent to history (which, during the social studies experiment of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime and even the dates-driven approach of the curriculum prior to it, was taught rather well). We're talking about an entire generation neglecting the need for the lyric, in favour of technology. The allure of the guitar and the boy band is too strong to be overcome. If ever they venerate the bands of the past - the Moonstones, the Super Golden Chimes, right down to the Gypsies and Marians and the Jayasri Brothers - we forget that these groups, superficially appealing to juvenile, adolescent tastes, nevertheless had members who did not neglect the lyric. Such a generation, growing up in indifference, can only be salvaged by our generation.

And it doesn't end with poetry, by the way. We all write poetry, especially Sinhala and Tamil poetry, when we are young. It's when we grow up that our tastes "part ways" and compel us to follow one path at the cost of all other paths. It's the same story when it comes to other cultural spheres, be it drama or literature or painting. Many of those teenagers I talk to who like drama, for instance, tend to be interested in the movies. Hardly remarkable, until you consider that the film industry in Sri Lanka has almost always depended on the theatre for its reserves of not only actors, but also scriptwriters. (If ever there was an actor here, a proper one, who did not hail from the theatre, I am yet to hear of him or her.) And of course, until you consider that acting today has been confined to models and dilettantes who lack the seriousness, the controlled grace, of the actors I admire: from the very recent past, Uddika Premaratne, Saranga Disasekara, and the newest face of them all, Thumindu Dodantanne.

Hiruna isn't alone, as I mentioned before. There are others. Many others. All of whom profess an interest in various other spheres, the movies included, with an interest in being active participants in those spheres. Hiruna, by nature introspective, prefers the path of the poet. Those others prefer the path of the director, the scriptwriter, and the discerning actor. To be all these things, it is necessary to be a discerning human being. Are our institutions, of learning and power, enough to channel their innate sensibilities and respond positively to what they want to become? I certainly hope so. Until that transpires, though, I can only hope and continue being friends and talking with them.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Psychology or demonology: Where 'Garasarapa' lies

Garasarapa, Jayantha Chandrasiri's latest, was given a special screening at the Tharangani Hall at the National Film Corporation on Friday, the 22nd of June.

Dewnaka Porage, in one sense the hero of Garasarapa, is the definitive younger face of Kamal Addaraarachchi, who plays his character as a psychology lecturer when he grows older. Everything is there - the frown, the firm mouth, the aquiline eyes, even the stubborn resolve - and so when he woos a girl (played by the charming Kavindya Adikari) who happens to be swayed by morbid and supernatural forces, we only hope that when SHE grows older, she will be played by the actress who more than any other actress has been paired with Kamal in the movies. But this excitement, this sense of nostalgia with respect to the film industry and its plethora of stars, is not at the heart of Jayantha Chandrasiri's latest work, which meanders along, sometimes with purpose, sometimes without it, and ends up in a climax that is as anticlimactic as it's going to get. The payoff, so essential to Chandrasiri's oeuvre, even in his television serials, is absent, and in a tragic way. When Hail Caesar was released I contended that it was precisely what the Coen brothers, with their descent into abstractions, intellectualisms, what-not, had us expect. Roughly the same argument can now be made of Garasarapa. Perhaps that answers the question I posed at the end of my last piece on Jayantha.

Garasarapa is about memory, the discarding of memory, the keeping of promises, and the potency of love. It is about all these things, and it is about everything else too. At its centre is an intriguing figure we see in only two or three scenes, rightly, someone who pops up from the deepest recesses of our collective consciousness and taunts our hero, the lecturer in psychology, for a wrong he committed decades ago. As with Jayantha's other works, Garasarapa hence interweaves two different eras: the present and 1980. Significant, because the love story at the heart of the plot takes place against the backdrop of racial tensions and these years signify two eras with respect to the history of those tensions (Sinhala versus Tamil). In that sense the film is probably Jayantha's most culturally multifaceted yet, because Sinhala and Tamil cohabit with Sinhala Buddhist and Catholic. What more can you say about a film which pits the famed kalu kumaraya against a cane wielded by a well meaning but strict padre?

The story's simple enough. A boy, Sandaras Edirisinghe, and a girl, Vidya, fall in love (it's love at first sight, of course) on their way to the church at Gadagama. The girl, possessed by the kalu kumaraya, can only be healed by the priest, played by Sriyantha Mendis, though the kumaraya finds his match in the boy, who owing to the potency of his love for her manages to dispel the villain, at least for the time being. (A few exorcisms later, all of which have the churchgoers dance in madness, overcome with the possession, the boy manages to get him out of her for good.) The girl, however, has to leave for Canada owing to rising tensions between her family and elements sympathetic to the LTTE. Decades later, having seemingly forgotten her and yet also having struck a deal with the kumaraya himself to find her, he marries a painter, Frankie, (Ameesha Kavindi), moves into a comfortable, upper middle class life, and finds his past catching up with him when she gets possessed by the serpentine prince.

The film has some of the fluidity and the crazy grandeur of Jayantha's previous work, only this time he's emboldened it all by resorting to some visual effects (Jayantha in the Divaina: "Whether we like it or not, and whether we can or cannot, we have to try to join the rest of the world when making movies here"). Two sequences stand out: the scenes of possession in the church when, while the Lord is being praised by the padre, the churchgoers dance out with our two lovers as the only sane ones among the mob; and the sequence in which these two finally realise their affections for each other and they run out, the only animated people in a crowd that's clearly been made absolutely still by CGI. It's Orpheus and Eurydice in Sri Lanka, a point driven home by the unfolding of the plot later on, with Sandaras striking a deal with the prince, who promises her that if ever she returns to the country, she and he will find each other.

But while visually exciting, I felt there was something missing. It had to do with Jayantha's theatricalism. He divorces speech from movement, words from action, and thus isolates the two from each other to such an extent that even the song sequence in the film lacks the mobility it clearly needs. (We see the two lovers from two separate frames crooning at each other. The movement, the action, takes place elsewhere.) Not that this issue stabs the eye; the sole redeeming point of the story is that it manages to transcend the hollowness of the theme of love. And yet, hollow it is, not only because we have seen this kind of romance before (from Ali Mankada to Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka), but also because the payoff we await is the payoff we get, particularly when the two do meet years later, and that in a contrived way. Even the deal the boy strikes with the kumaraya, despite its Mephistophelian overtones, fails to deliver a bonus of any sort, because the catch to the deal is the catch we expected from the start: that he will meet her in circumstances which forbid them from seeing each other ever again.

The cast redeems the plot the best way they can, and given that this was directed by Jayantha, to think that they could not redeem it is impossible. It's the first time since Guerrilla Marketing, more than a decade ago, that Kamal Addaraarachchi, Sriyantha Mendis, and Jackson Anthony have been cast together, and while the three do not meet in the plot (Jackson, as I mentioned, is barely visible), their presence, together with that of Yashoda Wimaladharma (in a cameo) and Sangeetha Weeraratne (who is in a role we so eagerly expected her to be in the moment we saw her name in the credits), helped discernibly. Jackson roars and winces, passionately in love with a woman he cannot have, while Sriyantha, world-weary as always, does what he can to "purge" her. When we see the two meet at a church (of all places!) and when the hymns and sermons intersect with a "pagan myth", we are astounded. The performances help sustain our interest through this paradox (which is not a paradox once you think about how Catholicism in here has mingled with Buddhism, as with the poruwa), something I concede with respect to the new faces as well.

Given all this, what did Garasarapa entail or thematise? I refuse to believe or concede ground to the power-of-love claptrap that so easily induces one to fall in love with any work of art from the beginning. The theme, on the contrary, is to be found towards the end. Sangeetha, a doctor, explains to the audience that while Western science does not fit in easily with demonology, the two can and will cohabit, given the link between psychology and superstition. This explanation, rudimentary at one level, is to me important, because it reveals the Jayantha Chandrasiri who got swept away in the rest of the storyline thanks to that power-of-love rhetoric. This is the Jayantha who believes in a link between the West and the East, superseding those dichotomies between magic and reality sustained by intellectuals and rationalists. (Demonic possession, to give just one example, is not the preserve of Sinhala or even Indian societies.) That, and not the love triangle, is what came out at the end, though by the time it does come out, that triangle, and the overdrawn subplots around it which get nowhere (we see a friend of Kamal come and argue with him about finding the girl he loved; the conversation ends there itself, arbitrarily) ensure that such a theme gets washed away by the Butterfly Symphony-like idealism of the two lovers.

My friend Sahan, who sat next to me at the screening, comes from a generation that idolises Kamal, Sriyantha, and more than anyone else, Jackson, with the kind of devotion we exhibited when we were his age, and is more culturally sensitive and informed than the milieu I hail from. While enjoying the film (and predicting the "climax" and grinning at it as it unfolded), he seemed to feel that something wasn't quite right. "There's a lot to extract from someone like Jackson, and a lot to extract from a plot like this" was his comment to me when we walked out. True. There was a lot in what we saw, and a lot in what we should have seen but did not. In that sense Garasarapa left us groping for more. But in the lot it contained, particularly with its performances, it is a return to form for Jayantha, one which may well strike a chord with both the young and the old. As it has with pretty much all his previous work.

P.S.: Garasarapa is the second film by Jayantha after Samanala Sandhwaniya to not be scored by Premasiri Khemadasa. It is, as the opening titles make it clear, a tribute to the maestro, whom the young today are all the poorer for not hearing.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Jayantha Chandrasiri and the intersection of magic and reality

Jayantha Chandrasiri likes to talk, I have always noticed. And how. He can explain and rationalise something that appears to be so portentous and heavy that once he stops talking you are left telling yourself, "Damn, why didn't I think of that before?" At times, though, he can get mysterious, offering explanations for something none of which make sense or hold the key to the truth. This latter personality comes up when his films are concerned. That's natural, and to be welcomed. Directors love revealing threads from the plots of their work and Chandrasiri, being an exception, likes to tackle the eager journalist, writer, or spectator by giving him clues as to what those plots hold. That, plus the sense of mysticism packed into his films, helps explain why they are so intriguing and why only a very narrow section of the critical fraternity has done justice to them. This is a review of his latest film, Garasarapa, which I feel deserves full treatment by a worthier critic elsewhere and which, over here, needs to be prefaced by a few thoughts on a director everyone loves to get confused over.

From his first tele-drama, Wedahamine, to his most recently screened film, Samanala Sandwaniya, Jayantha is one of the few visual artists from here whose body of work I've watched, re-watched, and pondered over seriously. What I think about them has a bearing on what I think about Garasarapa, because in more ways than one Garasarapa is to Chandrasiri what, say, Hail Caesar is to the Coen brothers: it's an inevitable consequence of everything which preceded and prepared us for it. This is true when it comes to his most discernible motif: the intersection of magic and reality, and in the context of our history. Supplanted by romances that never run counter to that motif, it is coloured by dichotomies which both pit the past against the present and bring them together: village versus city (Wedahamine), old versus young (Dandubasnamanaya), man versus woman (Akala Sandya). He was, and is, at his best when he is dwelling on a theme no one without even a smattering of Sri Lankan history can understand.

That "history" is Sinhalese and Buddhist, but it is never exclusionist. That his best work ran parallel with the rise of a middle class Sinhala Buddhist consciousness which in turn ran parallel with the rise of an urban nationalist political movement (think of the Sinhala Urumaya and its successor, the Hela Urumaya), is not, I believe, a coincidence. When Gamini Akmeemana, in his review, castigated what he felt to be the "middle class nationalist" outlook of Agnidahaya, Jayantha's first film, he was contending that it entailed nostalgia for "the mythical and the pastoral." In a reply penned just days after the review was published, Malinda Seneviratne, in his own inimitable way, suggested that the people of the 21st century aren't as rationalistic as Gamini implied them to be, and that the mythical and the magical in Agnidahaya wasn't as superfluous or unnecessary as "rational" critics described them as being.

Here's the problem with taking a rational stand on the movies in societies like ours: once you bring in the concept of cultural identity and heritage, you are bound to alienate a broad section of the population which has never really understood the workings of that culture. I don't think this is a problem with the director. It is a problem with the critic. Agnidahaya, being Jayantha's first, was slightly overdrawn. Technically and formally, it didn't stand out: the intersection of love and hatred (the tagline, let's not forget, was "vairaya aadarayata vada ganakamai") between Kamal Addaraarachchi and Jackson Anthony over Yashoda Wimaladharma wasn't properly sketched out, to mention just one defect. But most of the critics, particularly from the "cosmopolitan", "liberal" English press, seemed to ignore that. The Sunday Times's R. Wickramasinghe, to give just one example, in a review tellingly titled "Step out of history" suggested that it was wrong of Jayantha to concentrate his entire plot on the year 1664. Forgetting, of course, that much of Jayantha's forays into our history revolve around the 16th and 17th centuries, near-perfect centuries to delve into considering that they entailed a dichotomy between the reality of colonialism on the one hand and the reality of our cultural presence in the rural hinterlands on the other.

I think the mistake made by the English critic when he or she tries to assess films like Agnidahaya or television serials like Akala Sandya is the confusion that is sustained between magic and reality. As scholars much more experienced in the field than me will tell you, hundreds of years ago what is considered magic today was treated as a living, breathing reality. And not just in societies like ours. Even in the West, the concept of magic evolved out of a desire to explain what couldn't be explained, to rationalise what couldn't be rationalised. There was hence nothing erratic in Jayantha resorting to the supernatural. Everything, and practically every last detail, has been so well researched that he leaves no room for arbitrary effects. As Akala Sandya, which in this respect is his most "supernatural" work, illustrates, the "concept" of reading and communicating between minds and the power of yogic meditation (let's not forget time travel) had a definite historical foundation during the reign of Rajasinghe the Second, who ruled at a time when there was a interest in the martial arts (angampora) and swordsmanship.

Guerrilla Marketing in that sense was a departure of sorts, though not completely, from what he had been leading up to. This, the most theatrical of all his films (it owes as much to our folk cultural forms, particularly with Premasiri Khemadasa's music, as it does to the theatre of Beckett and Brecht), also brought to light a basic problem in Jayantha's universe. I still think Guerrilla Marketing is his best work, and not because I have a penchant towards seeing popular political figures from yesteryear being parodied and rather well at that. (I am, of course, talking about Jackson Anthony's performance, one of the best performances I've seen in a Sri Lankan film.) I also think that his primary fascination - the rift between what can be explained and what cannot be, or between the mythical and the real - found its way to the director's depiction of that most contemporary of "magical" devices, advertising. ("Guerrilla marketing" is a cheap, crude advertising tactic, and the last scene, of our protagonist returning home along a road that has huge cut-outs of the man he "marketed", is an indictment on the monsters he has released through his own cheap, crude deception.) It also has some of the best performances that a Jayantha Chandrasiri cast (Kamal, Yashoda, Sriyantha, and of course Jackson, not to mention Sangeetha Weeraratne) could ever have had.

But nevertheless, there was a basic problem. That problem had nothing to do with its plot or themes or cast or even technique. It had to do with the clash which came out between the cultural imperatives of the work and the melodramatic love triangle the work depicted. Deborah Young's review of Guerrilla Marketing in Variety is at times off the mark because it fails to account for the richness in Jayantha's madness (when she indicts those "innovative dance numbers that jump out of nowhere", she is both paying a compliment to Channa Wijewardena's choreography and devaluing a key component of the plot, because without those dance numbers, we would not get a sense of proportion, a foundation, through which we can make sense of the link between Gregory Muhandiram's rabid aversion to culture and his idealisation of mass deception), but where she is correct is where she takes to task what she sees (a little wrongly) as a "silly, star-crossed love triangle" between Thisara (Kamal), his wife Rangi (Sangeetha), and his former lover, who happens to be working at the same ad agency that Rangi and Thisara are, Suramya (Yashoda). Here, for the first time, we saw a dichotomy arise between two facets Jayantha had brought together before.

I can't tell or ascertain whether Jayantha came to terms with this dilemma (several reviews, both local and foreign, pointed it out), but what I and what we do know is that it took a good eight years for him to return to the movies, and when he did return, he made the most atypical work he has ever given. Samanala Sandwaniya is Jayantha Chandrasiri through and through (not least because it has Yashoda as the main actress, and because it induces nostalgia for the past, particularly considering the reference to Gamperaliya through the names of its protagonists), but as Sumitra Peries, who loved it, once told me, "It is catholic in the sense that it is universal." And so it is. Unlike the patently indigene qualities of his previous work, Samanala Sandwaniya is a film for everyone and anyone. It was a retreat, and a great one at that (though here too, in the form of two buffoonish Laurel-and-Hardy-like jokers who cause a debacle at the park after mocking Yashoda, Jayantha steps out of line thanks to his theatrical past), and without any overt reference to "the mythical and the pastoral", it could be rationalised by both the liberal and the traditionalist. Maharaja Gemunu, which followed it, is a film I have unfortunately not seen. But what these two works necessitated was a return to Jayantha's previous oeuvre. Whether Garasarapa resolved the fatal contradiction Guerrilla Marketing unearthed, whether he managed to bring together the historical currents of his plots and the romantic triangle in them, however, are questions I will delve into in my review.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 26 2018

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Anagarika Dharmapala: Shedding the invective

Anagarika Dharmapala is the worst thing that happened to Sri Lankan history. He was a racist, a political pamphleteer, a propagandist who, at the end of the day, served the interests of the bourgeoisie by providing an antidote to the proletariat. He was a betrayer, a peddler of myths, and a demagogue. He was hence the definitive ancestor to S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and Mahinda Rajapaksa. He might have been a German or Japanese collaborationist or spy, and his comments on the vileness of non-Sinhalese people are enough to rank him alongside Hitler and Mussolini. He did not present a nation-building project, rather a half-baked project that favoured the Sinhala Buddhist businessman, whose interests brought him more into conflict with his Muslim and Tamil competitors than with imperialism per se. Ostensibly anti-imperialist, he was less concerned with combating the exploitative structures of colonialism than with constructing a grand unifying myth for the Sinhalese, of course to the exclusion of every other race. He was, in short, an opportunist of the political sort.

That’s one way of looking at it.

Anagarika Dharmapala was the sole saviour of the nation. He rose up against the establishment and became the first member from the bourgeoisie to combat the British. He was the closest to a Mahatma Gandhi or, more relevantly, a Subash Chandrabose that we could have had. At a time when people were compelled to be cowards in the face of the British, he had the guts to get up and, despite the cost to his family business and fortunes, rant against imperialism. More than anything, however, he was a unifier, in that he recognised the Number One problem which was ailing our society: the absence of a proper industrial sector. He visited Japan, understood the importance of building up such a sector, and returned to call upon the members of the Sinhala Buddhist business class to build up an economy which would lead the way towards independence. He was greater than most of those hailed as national heroes today. He was a hero on his own right, and not just of the political sort.

That’s another way of looking at it.

Very few people have attracted revulsion, censure, and praise the way Dharmapala has. Not even Mahinda Rajapaksa comes close. I don’t think he was a saint. People tend to depict human beings as the angels and the saints they are not, and the popular culture, particularly in a country as small as Sri Lanka, has a tendency of turning individuals into icons and legends. When you take away the rhetoric of legend, you see those individuals for who they are. I believe the same can be said of the Anagarika and I believe that there are aspects to his life which have escaped the historian and the compiler. In this respect, I also believe that Sarath Amunugama’s attempt at sketching out this ambivalent figure deserves more than a cursory newspaper review. Such an attempt was called for. Clearly. Not because he was not a racist, not because he was not someone who tried to bring together the country in a bid to industrialise it, but because he was both and because human beings are hardly the monuments we worship. This is not a review, therefore.

There were certainly two sides to the Anagarika's campaign: the ethno-religious, and the economic. But as with William Blake, the mystic and the social revolutionary, and Ananda Coomaraswamy, the cultural renovator and the believer in the caste system, it is impossible to isolate the two and consider them separately (which is what scholars do). Rather, as historians have pointed out, it is the intermingling of these seemingly opposed sides and aspects to his character which reveal the true face of his national project, shorn of the invectives it has attracted, sometimes rightly, over the years. To understand the Anagarika's economic stances, one must therefore understand the brand (if you may) of his faith which he propagated in the 19th and 20th centuries. George D. Bond's insightful, exhaustive account The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka (1988) distinguishes between two Buddhisms: this-worldly and other-wordly. It was the Anagarika's overwhelming belief that Arahantship, which had been considered the preserve of an elected few, was possible in one's present life, that it need not be deferred to a future life. It was a strongly rational interpretation of the faith, which meant that he frankly deplored the worship of gods: "No enlightened Buddhist... would ever care to invoke a god." (notice the use of a simple G).

While being rational, it was also reformist, just like his reformism when it came to the economic and social sphere. Traditional Buddhism argued that the supramundane path, or the path of the sotapannas, the once-returners, and the non-returners, was not possible for layman. Dharmapala effectively wiped away this distinction by claiming that everyone and anyone could participate in the religious life. While this is tentatively comparable to the efforts made by Calvin and Luther in Europe during the Protestant Reformation, as Regi Siriwardena has argued, there was no real radicalism underpinning this new and revolutionary variant of Buddhism: it still thrived on a fundamentally conservative base. Be as it may, one can't really discount Dharmapala's attempts at opening the path to the lay devotee. He emancipated that devotee by arguing, controversially at times, that there was no real need to defer the achievement of Nirvana to a future birth. Naturally, this was on the other extreme of the traditional monastic elite, who preferred a more otherworldly interpretation of their faith in which higher states of consciousness were reserved for those who had donned the robes and passed through several stages in Arahantship.

The traditional monastic elite had as their patrons the traditional elite, the Nobodies who had become Somebodies through capitalist accumulation. They too subscribed to the a more mundane interpretation, arguing (perhaps to protect their own vested interests in this birth) that the chief aim of a Buddhist was to procure enough merit to enjoy a happier, more meritorious next birth. While this interpretation had not been birthed by the Theosophists, it grew out of those who followed Theosophy (which even Dharmapala subscribed to, until differences between him and Henry Steel Olcott made them part ways). D. B. Jayatilake, for instance, in an essay titled "Practical Buddhism", contended that the efforts of one life were not enough to attain complete renunciation. It required a preliminary course, the preparation for a future life. The chief aim of one's present life, on the other hand, was to observe precepts, support one's family through right livelihood, and do good in this world. Herein lies the subtle but fatal rupture between Dharmapala (the reformist) and his opposing group (the neo-traditionalist): the former was fiercely advocating the shattering of distinctions between the present and the future, while the latter conversely advocated the maintenance of those distinctions, and of various other distinctions which approximated to the views of those in the group who believed, inter alia, in the liberal ideal of a secular state, with a separation between the government and the temple, between faith and personal life: in short, between precept and practice.

It doesn't take one much time to ascertain that the overwhelming support for this school of thought came from the new bourgeoisie, because in part at least, they were seeking ways to rationalise their business interests through a new interpretation of Buddhism. Dharmapala too was an entrepreneur, but was hardly of the sort that the new bourgeoisie were. One can contend that it was his line of family businesses, which involved manual labour and the transformation of material into industrial products, which spurred him into his nationalist crusade. One can also contend that it was the nature of those businesses which compelled him to strike out on his own when it came to a radical re-evaluation of Buddhism. Years later, when Kumari Jayawardena's father, A. P. de Zoysa, would join that battle against the new bourgeoisie, who by then would become leaders of the independence movement, the political landscape had bifurcated between a left movement which sought to industrialise this nation and a rightwing movement which remained complacent with the petty, primitive nature of their form of capitalist accumulation.

It is difficult to draw up imaginary lines dividing Dharmapala the national figure from Dharmapala the lay preacher. In an essay on Buddhism, published at the turn of the 20th century, for instance, he implores the British to "let industrial and technical schools be started in populous schools and villages." Perhaps more than anything else, if we are to chart Dharmapala's ascendancy as a crusader and a radical wielder of his faith, we need to consider that it is the intermingling of these two strands, rather than the separate analysis of each of them, which can best help us understand the man beneath the robe, and the robe and the enigma which made up the man. Free from all that invective.