Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Answering his critics: Reflections on a lonely artist

The sixth and the last in a series of sketches of the films of Lester James Peries.

Lester James Peries began his career in 1956. With Rekava he became Sri Lanka’s first professional director, of movies and not photographed stage plays. So simple and yet profound was the story of Rekava, so influential it was in gaining recognition for our dormant, static film industry, that no less a person than Mervyn de Silva, then writing to the Ceylon Daily News, put aside all historic and exogenous considerations, the fact that it was the 41st Sinhala film, and contended that it marked the beginning of our cinema. No film before it had strayed so remarkably from the confines of the studio, and no film before it had encountered so many troubles, logistical and otherwise.

19 films and 60 years later, Lester has gone down in history as the only local filmmaker who has attracted praise and censure from every corner of our critical fraternity: the intellectuals, the nationalists, the Marxists, the literary experts, the purveyors of feminist cinema, etc. In 1974 when Ahas Gawwa was released a pamphlet was published and copies of it disseminated. It was titled Appochige Sinamawa. Lester had fathered an entire generation of directors and scriptwriters and cameramen; they were now rebelling against him. He had hence bred, not slavish disciples, but independent artists.

The truth is that Lester, who turned 98 this year, is the last reminder of 1956 and the revolution it inspired that we have. As Regi Siriwardena noted, 1956 was no accident, but the congruence of the political and the cultural was. Lester hailed from the milieu that we the people were rejecting. So had his brother, Ivan. By resorting to a visual medium, they redeemed themselves in the eyes of their people.

But there were times when those deficiencies showed, when the man seemed to ignore a key element of the milieus he was depicting in his work. It happened in Rekava, where you don’t come across a single temple. It happened again in the three epics he directed and particularly, among them, The God King. The writers in the press were tepid in their reviews, naturally. Jayawilal Wilegoda, considered the first real movie critic in the Sinhala media, castigated him for mindlessly imitating the West. (According to him, this was partly proven by the man’s penchant for featuring cars, something H. L. D. Mahindapala noted in his review of Ran Salu when he observed, wryly, that the camera seemed to be obsessed with those cars.) But these critics belonged to a certain class, a certain category. The most devastating critics of Lester didn’t come as nationalists and intellectuals. They came as Marxists and literary purveyors.

With respect to the Marxists the problem is easier to understand. The election of a socialist government, the intrusion of the New Wave and the cinema of East Europe, as well as two insurrections that almost brought the country to a standstill proved to be too much for any critic who looked for a sign of commitment and secular upliftment in a work of art. Lester’s films did not, as I noted before, satisfy these parameters and yardsticks. They ended right when the poor and the wretched were about to suffer more (as with Akkara Paha, which culminates with Sena and Sandawathi departing to a life of destitution); they didn’t tell us how the poor and the wretched could tide over their suffering, rather that they were destined to suffer. The French, even at their most political, knew how to end their films in idiosyncratic flourishes and swipes (think of the ending of Breathless, where the dying Michel has just one thing to say to Patricia, his former fiancée: “You’re a real scumbag”), but the East Europeans were defeatist, adamant that their characters claim destinies they could never control. The Marxist critics looked for such characters. Lester couldn’t provide them. He hence became a betrayer.

In the seventies when these critics rode on a high wave, they were at their peak. Regi Siriwardena frequently implied that they wanted the cinema to be politicised the same way the theatre had been. The political theatre is a vassal of ideology, whatever ideology, and the theatre of the left tends to conflate reality for symbolism and resort to explicit add-ons to depict a particular social context. It was this kind of climate that prevailed in our film industry, though unlike many other left-leaning countries it survived: the truth is that after Dharmasena Pathiraja we never had a Mrinal Sen of our own. Pathiraja created a new standard, but only he could be measured against it; no one came close to him. Lester’s standards, on the other hand, spread more widely. He didn’t indulge in political polemics, but even without indulging in them he had liberated the industry. The seventies didn’t go beyond Pathiraja. It instead nurtured Vasantha Obeyesekere and H. D. Premaratne, both of whom conceived, not a political cinema, but a middle cinema.

The political left continues to inhabit and make the waves in our film industry. That is its greatest virtue and worst limitation, because our independent cinema is considerably hegemonised by a left-of-centre political sphere. Our art-house film movement never really picked up owing to this, barring the early work of Asoka Handagama, because no political cinema can survive on symbols and allegories and explicit add-ons without compromising on density. Some of the movies that directors like Handagama make are extraordinary, and they are the result of decades of experimentation, but they are far, far away from the technical craftsmanship of the old masters. Even at their worst, a mainstream Sinhala film retains a welter of formality which the art-house director lacks. The political left’s most powerful contribution to our film industry was the independent movement, but what it lacks in this respect has been its undoing and has hindered it from reaching a local audience. It survives, as always, on private donors and film festivals.

But it’s not just the political left or political theatre that has hindered the birth of an honest independent cinema movement. It’s also the literary purveyors, the intellectuals and academics who tend to either put down the cinema or assess the worth of a movie on the basis of its fidelity to qualities that are more suited for a book review. These are the critics who lambasted Lester and A. J. Gunawardena over Baddegama. The debate over the equivalency between two modes of narratives – moving image and prose fiction – has, as Gunawardena himself observed, largely grown obsolete in other countries, but in Sri Lanka, owing perhaps to the dominance of Romantic and Edwardian standards of literary criticism in our English Departments, it has persisted. Lester was a literary-minded director – he adapted several works of Sinhala fiction, all of them landmarks for their time – but even this was not enough to salvage many of his works, particularly with respect to the Koggala Trilogy, from criticism at the hands of those experts.

Apart from these critics, the man stoically endured years and decades of criticism. He raised some flak among nationalists and intellectuals (especially Jayawilal Wilegoda) but they were transitory, because their standards could and did change. The political left and the literary intelligentsia were not malleable this way, because their standards remain stubbornly present in our cultural spheres. That he lacked commitment, that he lacked enough foresight to keep to the letter and spirit of a literary masterpiece, have been two of the most frequently cited indictments against him, over the years and including, I must add, his penultimate film, Wekanda Walawwa. They deserve to be answered, elsewhere, in full, because in those indictments we can infer Lester as Cooray’s lonely artist. “But aren’t all artists lonely?” Tissa sceptically asked. The answer to that, of course, is yes, they are, but that with this artist it was a different story.

Lester turns 99 next year. There are others who’ve made more films over a fraction of the time it took for him to make his. That’s a tragedy at one level, but a blessing at another. For the films he made, though intermittent, were awaited. Rekava was a leap of faith. But like all leaps of faiths, it wasn’t vindicated immediately. Sandeshaya was a hit, but that wasn’t really Lester. Gamperaliya, Delovak Athara, and Ran Salu weren’t hits, but they recouped at the box-office. And then, Golu Hadawatha, his sixth, won an entire nation to his side. Yes, it took some time. But that’s how icons operate. They are patient. Never in a hurry.

And in the end, this gentle human being, who was never in a hurry, took his time and proved to us, in his own special way, that one can never assess the worth of an artist by a fidelity to arbitrary standards. Whether they were manufactured by the Left, whether they were disseminated by our Universities, they remained standards that did not require their designated targets to be their vassals. Perhaps Lester himself offered the most appropriate response to them all: “They work with symbols. I work with human beings.” He told this to me two years ago. Two years on, our filmmakers continue to work with symbols. They were inspired by him, but failed to retain that quality which defined him. They were all students who wanted to imitate, but they all repudiated his élan, his zeitgeist.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 21 2017

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Michelle Dilhara: Acting on, moving on

Michelle Dilhara is something of an enigma. For the most. By her own confession she is still learning her craft, which means she is still a student in that perplexing, disillusioning field called television, but what she’s learnt so far has given her enough confidence to pause, take stock of what was, and prepare herself for bigger and better roles, scripts, directors, and shows. I met her several months back, promising that I’d write on her within a couple of weeks. Never happened. In hindsight I realise this owes less to my carelessness than to a manifest inability to unscramble her story in a meaningful manner. Well, weeks have passed, as have months, and here I am typing down that story right down to the last detail. Naturally then, I will begin at the beginning.

She was born in Chilaw and was educated at Negombo South International until her O Levels, which she sat for as a private student, before joining Newstead Girls College for her A Levels in the Arts stream and in the English medium. While she secured enough results to obtain a placement in a local University (which means, clearly enough, that those results were good, or more to the point excellent), she dithered owing to her passion for and fascination with acting, a field which people her age would normally be discouraged from pursuing but which was actively encouraged by her father and mother. “They were very supportive,” she remembers, smiling at me, “I made it clear that I wanted to know this field before I worked in it. So a few months after exams were done, I joined the Abhina Academy run by Anoja Weerasinghe. She became my first guru.”

Now I have been to Abhina and I have seen Anoja teach and instruct and direct. While I haven’t been to her classes as a student, I know enough to understand what Anoja is doing: transplanting her years of study and research at the London Academy of Dramatic Art (LAMDA), which she attended in the early nineties courtesy of a scholarship financed by the Lever Brothers, in our children. Anoja has that remarkable ability to compel attention from you while being serious and jovial at the same time, and this, it must be said here, was what intrigued young Michelle. “I got to know of her Academy through word of mouth, given that she hadn’t advertised it in the media,” she tells me, “What I learnt there centred not just on acting, but also on personality development, on being more outgoing, a problem since I was an incorrigible introvert.”

While Michelle did not obtain a certificate or qualification as such from Anoja’s classes (to obtain that one must continue with her yoga sessions, which Michelle did not), it compelled her to seek instruction from other gurus in the field. And so, in 2014, barely one month after she left Abhina, she joined an acting class run by Damayanthi Fonseka, a qualitatively different teacher. “At Anoja Madam’s school I had studied about how to be myself and let my character out through meditation and reflection. Damayanthi Madam was more focused on acting, specifically on transforming a character from a script to a living, breathing entity. However I did not spend much time in her classes. After about two weeks, I left it and landed on another class, conducted by Randika Wimalasuriya and held at the Abhiranga Arts Centre in Negombo.”

Randika was, as expected, a qualitatively different guru. More focused on the theatre, he nevertheless made it clear to his students (Michelle took private classes from him as well, by the way) that there was a wide gap between the stage and the screen. One of his exercises, which he resorted to frequently, involved getting his students to act in front of a camera. Given that we love to overact and by default onstage at an early age most of the students would, obviously, overact. Randika chastened them. He got them to see the medium differently. In short, he was the kind of guru Michelle wanted right before she left the class to start her career. This, incidentally, had been compounded by an acting workshop conducted by the Indian playwright Ujwal Singh, who came down to Sri Lanka in 2016. “Ujwal got us through the Indian theatre and the children's theatre. That helped open up my perspectives on the medium.”

After her studies were done, at least for the time being, Michelle went for a screen test at Susila Productions, through which she got selected for two dramas: Dhara (in which she was a main character) and Sal Sapuna (which at the time of our interview was still being shot). Having built up the necessary contacts she got into another production: Bodhi, directed by Sanjaya Nirmal. Of these three, it is Sal Sapuna that interests her especially, since it was directed by a veteran: the formidable, reckonable, and in many ways larger-than-life Nalan Mendis (whose speeches, at various events and functions I’ve attended or heard of, are as expansive as his TV series). I start things off here by telling her, rather wryly, that he can be overwhelmingly and brutally honest about a person’s acting capabilities, especially first-timers, and she agrees wholeheartedly. I am pleased to hear, therefore, that he’s had nothing but praise for her acting.

Like Nalan’s other productions, Sal Sapuna is rooted in a largely middle-class milieu and involves love triangles, plot twists, and character changes that are too wide to describe in a single article. Suffice it to say, therefore, that in it Michelle, who plays the role of a girl called Preethika who has recently returned from London after completing her A Levels there, is a journalist who enters the family at the heart of the story and basically falls in love with the protagonist, a privileged and somewhat spoilt but well-meaning boy. The other members of the cast, including Rohana Baddage and Damitha Abeyratne, had all but completely and unconditionally encouraged her, going as far as to provide moral support for her portrayal. “They were all quite helpful,” Michelle remembers, smiling. Her next production, Dhara, was more vigorous, requiring up to 13 scenes a day. Shooting had been tight and the schedule uncompromising, but what Michelle remembers most clearly about it was the fact that its director, Suranga Lakmal Seneviratne, allowed more scope for the actors by encouraging them to improvise. Considerably.

These have been followed by other promising productions: Rathu Pichcha and Bodhi, both of which are being telecasted on Sirasa TV and the latter of which had her play, of all things, a she-devil named Kali Amma (though not the Kali Amma of Indian folklore). “That latter production taught me about the research an aspiring actor needs before delving into a character, any character. If I’d just gone ahead with Kali Amma without doing the needful, I would have survived, but I wouldn’t have been convincing. That’s where I need to remind myself, ‘Your learning experience isn’t over yet. You need to reflect on what you’ve studied and study some more.’ It’s hectic, but useful.” As for films, while Michelle hasn’t got any offers yet, she is hopeful as always. “If a good script comes my way, I will be more than happy to take part in it. I don’t want to go with the flow and be allured by easy, convenient fame. I want to learn more about my field.”

Three years, naturally, are not enough. I believe Michelle Dilhara has more to tread through, to wade through. Judging by her performances so far however (and I have seen them, though I normally don’t watch television these days) I believe also that what she has to wade through, she will wade through easily. So easily, not because she has built up a veritable network of contacts, but rather because she has that earnest love for her field that comes only to those who wish to pursue it less as a career as more as an interest. She will only do well, I am forced to conclude. Which is what all of us predict.

Written for: The Island YOUth, November 19 2017

Friday, November 17, 2017

The State withers away


Somewhere in the late eighties, with the collapse of communism, the world that had hitherto been split into two camps shifted into an “Us versus Them” dichotomy of a different sort, this time between the multilateralists and the unilateralists. As Professor Nalin de Silva so eloquently put it, the world didn’t become multi-polar, which means, obviously enough, that history did not end. Fukuyama was wrong, Huntington was not. Superpowers had been built on the assumption that there was an enemy to be fought, somewhere, and it could include entire continents and cultures and civilizations. We were promised that life would get simpler. It did not. The truth is, it could not.

Today the multilateralists have, for all intents and purposes, sided with the unilateralists. Vast wars are embarked on, vast sums of money are spent on weapons, and what was described by Eisenhower as the military-industrial complex has expanded so exponentially that no number of leaked documents can do justice to its scope. Life couldn’t get simpler because the idea of two superpowers fighting against each other, or keeping the peace with each other, insured the rest of the world against one country, one empire, gaining a monopoly over everyone else. Once that was out, things could only get more complicated. Sadly, for better or for worse, that is what has transpired today.

Right after the end of the Second World War, when the Soviet Union began to be demonised and considered as the Enemy, down to the eighties and nineties, when the promise of a world free of bloodshed and conflict was aborted, despite the collapse of communism, by the commencement of the Gulf War, aggression was largely based on rhetoric, because both sides of the global polity knew, at least to an extent, that fighting against one another would mean suicide as far as they, and the world in general, were concerned. That is why we look back at the sixties and seventies as the era of James Bond fighting unseen global elites who want to flare up war between the Communists and the Free World so as to appropriate power for their members. As far as history, literature, and propaganda went, it was a dangerous time to live in, but it was also a nostalgic time, the time of spy novels, conspiracy theories, and the Profumo Affair.

Obviously, the tactics, the strategies, and even the philosophy guiding the movement against the Global Left changed during the eighties. The West has, for whatever reason, been shy about calling out its opponent in clear-cut, cohesive terms, which is why it tends to smother those opponents with politically correct slogans: the Evil Empire, Drugs, and of course Terror. As historians have pointed out, after all, even the American Civil War has been smothered with such feel-good slogans and labels (the best of them, and in fact the most mythical of them, being the “War against Slavery”) that people do not know the real intentions behind Lincoln’s campaign against the slaveholders. There was and is nothing different in the way the West, the Free World that is, sought to endear itself to nations that were springing out of communism and socialism. One way of suffocating the Global Left in this regard, therefore, was the empowerment of a Global Anti-Left. That came about in turn with the rise of the NGO intelligentsia.

This was the fatal contradiction at the heart of the Old Left: its susceptibility to the machinations of outside parties that had no interest, much less enthusiasm, about prolonging the leftist ideals it stood for. That contradiction was by and by the outcome of the discrepancy it reflected within itself between, as I mentioned last week, the stated aims of an equal society and the largely bourgeois ethic of the leadership it helped prop up. In Sri Lanka radicalism was, until the emergence of the New Left, limited to the “saadukin pelena wun” rhetoric of the Communists and Trotskyites, whose lasting achievements to the political sphere of this country cannot be discounted (they were, after all, behind the drive this country tried to move with towards an industrialised society, something the colonial bourgeoisie could not attempt, much less achieve). Unfortunately with the dissolution of the Old Left’s credibility courtesy of the 1971 insurrection, it felt rather abandoned. It needed to make a comeback. That comeback came about when we substituted an ethnocentric project for a class-oriented one within the Left Movement.

Hidden beneath the sloganeering of that movement was one key concept that the NGO intelligentsia was able to, inadvertently, pick up: the withering of the State. In Marxism that refers to the means by which a society of equals could be attained. It indicated an absence of not just class barriers, but also class consciousness, and it had to be preceded by a society that privileged the State as a necessary evil. What this meant, clearly enough, was that the State was always an instrument, and never an agent that could act on its own. When the intelligentsia intruded on the Left Movement in this country, it made use of this concept, or theory, and helped propel a private sphere that would remain independent of the State while making the State its primary instrument. The channel through which this contortion could be realised was the Old Left, and the method through which the Old Left could be made to yield to the contortion was the substitution of ethnicity for class. After 1956, after 1971, the single most significant political phenomenon in this country, for me therefore, is the emergence of the federalist-devolutionist discourse.

The man chosen to head this movement was Vijaya Kumaratunga. There were several advantages to be gained by having Vijaya. Firstly, he was popular. He courted voters in both the South and the North, and at a time when Sinhala politicians were considered as parvenus by the top rung of the LTTE, he was amenable even to the likes of Prabhakaran. (The fact that his funeral was attended by members of the LTTE attests to this.) As I have pointed out elsewhere, he was adamant in considering the war against the Tamil Tigers a chauvinist government-led project against the Tamil people. For the supporters of the conflict, it was the only way through which centuries of interethnic disparities could be corrected (this is true of the Sinhalese and the Tamil equally), but for the likes of Vijaya Kumaratunga, it was nothing more than a “jaathivadi yuddhayak”, a term he used during a television interview. Vijaya was the Southern politician that the North had been looking for, and he was the perfect foil to the then ascendant New Left, which as I observed last week was doing a pretty good job of being cultural nationalists and fervent Marxists.

Liyanage Amarakeerthi in an otherwise critical piece on Gunadasa Amarasekara and the politics of the Jathika Chinthanaya contended that the problem with our political parties and the NGO sphere was their inability to produce engaging thinkers. With respect to the latter I think the problem goes deeper: the truth is that our NGO sphere has been unable thus far to produce an sincere enough thinker who can go beyond the monolingual elite and capture the hearts and minds of the monolingual masses and/or the bilingual middle class. They have failed to do so even today. A careful perusal of Susantha Goonetilake’s book Recolonisation will show that these intellectuals were well equipped with the language of the coloniser. But they could not acquaint themselves with the cultures they were involved with, Sinhala or Tamil.

Amarakeerthi himself noted this: “Writing mainly in English, they could not really reach out.” This explains, to a considerable degree, the cynicism with which we regard those self-styled leftists academics, who write one piece after another justifying the policies of this government and any government that has supported their fundamentally flawed views on majoritarian hegemonies and chauvinism. I call them flawed not because they don’t merit scrutiny – no one can deny that a hegemony based on Sinhala Buddhism does exist in Sri Lanka – but because they don’t go beyond lambasting it by trying to find out reasons for the hegemony and its wide appeal among the people of this country.

What happened after the bheeshanaya is interesting to reflect on. The Vijaya Kumaratunga Front (the United Socialist Alliance) collapsed almost immediately after the man’s tragic murder at the hands of a New Left operative. The party that he and his wife had created congealed into an influential political movement, one that immediately forced the Old Left it had been associated with to be its vassal. Chandrika Kumaratunga, in what was seen as a landslide victory, swept into power promising change (based on the federalist-devolutionist discourse that the USA was premised on). It’s a testament to her foresight, her vision, and her policies that not even two presidential terms by her then most serious contender from the SLFP, and a potential third (which didn’t materialise), could erode her ideological sway. What we see today therefore is a return to that political discourse, though minus the Old Left, which has bifurcated between her (the Jayampathy Faction) and her erstwhile contender, Mahinda Rajapaksa (the Vasudeva Faction).

Where this has led us to, and what it means for the New Left, I will explore next week.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 17 2017

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Vasanthi Chathurani: The girl next door

There’s a sweet, almost naive sense of innocence in the early performances of Vasanthi Chathurani. It’s a new sensibility, to me, since a very few actors here, male or female, have been as able as she has been to project a form of purity that is at once enticing and delicate. Most of our actors are content in entrancing us and forming part of our wildest fantasies. Vasanthi doesn’t get us to think of her like this. More often than not, she wins our sympathy, our deepest fears and sorrows, because she’s at home with characters, with daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers, whose main role is to puncture their beauty and sense of charm with a welter of delicateness that can break apart at the slightest intrusion. As Kusum in Gehenu Lamayi and as Nirmala in Ganga Addara – the twin peaks of her early career – she epitomises this kind of female figure so well that she transforms herself into a different acting sensibility, the sensibility I referred to above.

It’s pertinent here to place Vasanthi in a particular context, in our cinema, before moving on to her career. Our actresses more or less continue a tradition begun by Rukmani Devi, a tradition that was passed over to Malini Fonseka in the early seventies. I believe it was Asoka Handagama who observed that Fonseka’s characters are definable by their ability to get every man to hanker after her. This is as true for her mainstream ventures as it is for her less commercial essays – Eya Dan Loku Lamayek and Baddegama – and her roles in films that take an intermediate position between the box-office and serious art – including Apeksha and Diyamanthi. She epitomises, not rebellion, but surrender.

Between the Malini Fonseka of the seventies, who symbolised feminine goodness (largely patriarchal, reflecting the attitudes of popular audiences), and the Swarna Mallawarachchi of the eighties, who symbolised rebellion and retribution, we have Vasanthi Chathurani, who falls into neither category and yet somehow is at home with both. Vasanthi’s most discernible quality in this respect is her voice, because it can alternate between rebellion and submission. In Lester James Peries’s Awaragira, she articulates respect towards their family manor and, later, her love towards a very abusive husband (Lucky Dias), with that voice, signifying the conflict at the heart of her tragedy. But before Awaragira there were other films, all of which followed her transition from the girl next door to a veritable matriarch, and all of which reflected her penchant for delicate beauty. It’s the kind of beauty that can waste away at the hands of abuse, which incidentally is her eventual destiny: to be made use of, rather cruelly and unfairly.

At the end of Gehenu Lamayi, Kusum asks of everyone, including us, “Is this my fate?” The director, Sumitra Peries, resorts to a literal transposition of her imaginings with a dissolve into a carved question mark on a mirror. That was a pretty prescient indication of the type of roles she would be asked to churn out for the next 10 years – in Ganga Addara, in Siribo Aiya, in Parithyagaya, in Adara Hasuna – barring the occasional detour that didn’t always seem convincing – particularly in Biththi Hathara, where her depiction of a sensual woman, who seduces the protagonist (Neil Alles) didn’t, to me at least, seem congruent with her earlier character portrayals – but sometimes was, as with Para Dige, Siribo Aiya, and Kulageya. She wins us unconditionally at this point in her career when she’s denied proper agency, where forced against her free will to submit to everyone else before herself: the parents and the rich aunt in Gehenu Lamayi, the irate father in Ganga Addara, the tempestuous, almost insanely jealous husband in Adara Hasuna.

Vasanthi’s story has been recorded and put down in print so much that I will not go beyond a brief recapitulation of her biography. Born Doreen Peterson in Gampaha, she was educated at Holy Cross College, where she excelled in acting and the arts in general despite the opposition such institutions (it was a Convent) displayed towards girls who get ideas of becoming performers and actresses. She was discovered by Sumitra Peries, in the late seventies, but in those first few days of shooting for Gehenu Lamayi she disappointed if not shocked everyone by her refusal to act in front of the camera. Gehenu Lamayi would have come crumbling down were it not for Lester James Peries’s idea to shoot another sequence, with her clad in school uniforms, at St John Bosco’s College in Hatton, where production mercifully proceeded. Gehenu Lamayi was a success, as was Lester’s Ahasin Polawata, but it was Ganga Addara that propelled her to stardom.

She had to be young when playing these characters, obviously, because the submissive women she got to portray couldn’t have been portrayed with sincerity were she an elder, a matriarch. She attempted to return to her youth at the turn of the millennium with two movies that showed just how much of a hurdle age was when embodying fragility and sensitivity: H. D. Premaratne’s Kinihiriya Mal, where she was a convincing but altogether incongruously cast elder sister to Sangeetha Weeraratne; and Chandran Rutnam’s Poronduwa, a film that was aptly summed up with respect to its choice of cast members (including Vasanthi along with her love interest, Ravindra Randeniya) by Nanda Pethiyagoda as follows: “If I were asked to give a prize, a sort of Oscar, for this latest Sinhala film that is being screened at the Regal and other cinemas, I would award it to the makeup man.” Pethiyagoda would write of Vasanthi’s portrayal, “She is no spring chicken,” acknowledging that she had captured something of her earlier avatar.

You come across a faint trace of this new woman even in the eighties, and particularly in Giraya. As Kamini, Vasanthi doesn’t “inhabit” and “occupy” the plot in the way that her counterpart in Punyakanthe Wijenaike’s story (conceived as a series of diary entries, an epistolary novel) does, but her intrusion into that plot rakes up trouble from her mother-in-law (Grace Ariyawimal) and the ominous maid, Lucy Hami (Trilicia Gunawardena). Giraya’s success owes considerably to the larger texture, the wider scope, which its director, Lester Peries, and scriptwriter, Somaweera Senanayake, brought in and affirmed to take it beyond Kamini’s perspective. What happens in the end is that Kamini, far from being the fearful woman the novel depicts her as, triumphs over her fears through her interaction with the other characters: her sister-in-law (Chandani Seneviratne), the gamekeeper (Cyril Dharmawardena), and the village monk (G. R. Perera). Earlier she would have succumbed, yielded; now she persists, like the unnamed protagonist of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and towers over both the mother-in-law and the maid.

She tries to echo if not channel this kind of rebellious woman in Awaragira, but fails badly, because that is the fate set for her in the plot. Conceived as a vast family epic, Awaragira is rather episodic in its structure: ranging from the stubborn misadventures of the elder son (Kamal Addaraarachchi) to the thwarted idealism and romances of the younger son (Ranjan Ramanayake), its characters shift from one mood to another, from the hopefulness to deterioration and then complete annihilation. Set against such a large backdrop even Vasanthi changes wildly: in the very first scene she’s in, she proclaims her fidelity to the family and her father, but as the plot progresses she finds herself confusingly lost between her love for her family and for her abusive husband.

There’s a sequence in Awaragira which shows this growing, irreconcilable rift between Vasanthi the girl and Vasanthi the woman. It opens up in the second half of the story, when the family has begun to deteriorate. Awaiting her husband, we see her on a sofa; there are dark spots under her eyes. The wind ruffles her hair, the camera closes in on her, and she gets up after hearing the sound of a car outside. Lucky Dias, cheerful as always, comes up the stairs. “You’re always complaining about me coming home late, so I came early today,” he tells her, handing over a cake to her. Without a word, she takes it and prepares to make some tea for him. The husband is bewildered: “Vasa? What is the problem?” he asks. She replies with an irresolute shaking of the head. Unconvinced, he tries to allay her fears by caressing her, smiling. She nods, barely. In the next sequence featuring these two, they are no longer smiling and nodding; they are fighting.

By this time the family fortunes have begun to sink, and in this sequence, brief and superficially unimportant though it is, Vasanthi becomes a new woman, moving away from the idealism of her youth. That she fails to make this shift owing to her naiveté proves to be her undoing and her brother’s. In the end she channels the woman beneath her, asserts herself, and kills that brother in a sequence that was so choppily and arbitrarily edited by its producer that it fails to do justice to her; but even with this limitation, the murder reminds me, as I mentioned elsewhere, of the killing of Zhivony in Wajda’s Siberian Lady Macbeth, also about a female figure torn between two men.

By this point in her career she had been repressed so much that she aged beyond her years. Her subsequent career, as a result, would never be the same again: Awaragira coincided with the era in which she began producing tele-dramas, almost all of which (starting with Iti Pahana) had her as a stubborn but well-meaning mother. It’s a different Vasanthi we come across here: no longer the girl next door, she has by now embraced the matriarchal figure she was destined to embrace. It’s that matriarchal figure she has now completely been taken over: as a mother, as a sister, as a wife, and of course as a teacher. No longer with that welter of innocence which shrouded her before, she has become the kind of understanding, but determined and assertive person she continues to be today.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 16 2017

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Revisiting 'Sagara Jalaya'

Not a review. Not a retelling. Rather, a memory.

The movies have inspired. They have taught us how to cry and how to laugh. They have lifted, saddened, reassured, and humbled. They have also chastened, confused, and angered. Speaking for myself, they have made my life easier to bear. They have lit dark corners, given me hope when there was anything but, and taught me how to see others as I see myself. Consequently, they have (I believe) unearthed the human in me. This is a rough sketch, a memory in fact, of the first real movie that transformed me on that count, and how it remains ignored by our critical establishment, and even audiences.

Simon Nawagaththegama wrote Suddilage Kathawa in 1978. Seven years earlier, he wrote a collection of short stories titled Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuva Oba Sanda. Four years after Dharmasiri Bandaranayake filmed Suddi, Sumitra Peries adapted the most poignant story from that collection, Ohu Mala Da Pasu.

When Sumitra filmed Nawagaththegama’s story, she was consciously or unconsciously moving away from her previous movies. Gehenu Lamayi, Ganga Addara, and Yahalu Yeheli were adaptations of puerile novels, the first and third authored by Karunasena Jayalath. Sumitra went beyond any other director here in depicting the joys, sorrows, and defeats of our women, though she raised some flak for observing without commenting on their plights. Like the neo-realists of Italy, she was accused of depicting without dissecting.

In Ohu Mala Da Pasu she found her first serious source text to trounce her critics. Unlike Jayalath and the author of Ganga Addara, Leticia Boteju, Nawagaththegama was voluptuous in his literary tastes: his library was filled with the best of the East and West, from Joyce to Tagore to Yeats to Hesse. He was in the least an eclectic. His prose was spare, almost verbal. There are those who believe that the short story was a preparatory exercise for Suddilage Kathawa. There arguably are parallels between the two, parallels which found their cinematic equivalent in the choice of both Sumitra and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake to cast Swarna Mallawarachchi as the protagonist.

At its most essential level, Sagara Jalaya is about the woman as a bereaved mother. With Gehenu Lamayi and Ganga Addara, Sumitra featured the thwarted daughter, played in both by Vasanthi Chathurani in two different social milieus. In Yahalu Yeheli, she let go of that daughter: Mudithalatha (Nadeeka Gunasekara) refuses to let her family’s status decide her fate. So she rebels. But because of her ideological predilections, Sumitra couldn’t depict the woman as a rebel without manipulating reality. The ending of Yahalu Yeheli, therefore, seemed to almost preach to the choir. She returned to her forte with Sagara Jalaya. Three movies in another context would have sufficed for a landmark, but Sumitra had by then mastered the cinema to give out more than a landmark. Several months back, on a Friday night, a TV channel telecast it (the first time in 15 years). Here’s what I remember and what came to my mind.

Even on a first viewing, Sagara Jalaya remains fascinatingly refreshing. It opens up (after the titles) with Swarna Mallawarachchi, visibly worried. The son enters the frame, remarks he’s going out to play with his cousin, is asked by the mother to come back quickly, and runs off to the road like any 10-year-old would.

Amaradeva’s music enlivens the sequence; it’s the last time we’ll see the mother and boy interact that way again. The boy’s father (H. A. Perera) has died. The entire village is in grief, but that grief is not enough for Heen Kella, the mother. Like most mothers caught in such a predicament, she wants help, not charity or sympathy. She gets the son to ask her sister (Sunethra Sarachchandra) to come visit her. She does so only after a while, which infuriates Heen Kella so much that she lambasts her away. Because the rest of her community are unable to think beyond charity and sympathy, she does the predictable: spurn them all and in turn get spurned by them.

It’s difficult to say how one movie can strike us with so much power. Perhaps it’s the acting. Or the music, by Amaradeva. Or the editing, by Lal Piyasena. More than anything else, though, it’s the gentleness. Even at breaking point, that gentleness never breaks apart: the boundaries set down by the village are intensely tight. The second encounter between Swarna and Sunethra comes quite close to disturbing those boundaries, but that doesn’t happen. Sunethra taunts Swarna, Swarna returns those taunts, and with a snide remark aimed at Sunethra’s husband (Ravindra Randeniya) she gets her to leave without a word. Even by the standards of Sumitra’s other movies, this is deceptively calm. So calm, in fact, that not even the director or the scriptwriter (Lester James Peries) could have ended it without resorting to pathos.

Sagara Jalaya opens with our little protagonist on a dry, parched field. We return to that field in the final sequence, where he remembers how he used to play with his cousin (who has become angry with him). Earlier they had joked with each other (children can be profoundly innocent, I thought to myself, as I heard them recount what their mothers had to say about them). Now even they have grown distant.

As he smiles bitterly, he remembers a letter sent from his uncle: that uncle, who never came for his brother’s funeral, wants the boy to help him carry on his shop. The mother had refused, so had the son, but then he “hears” his cousin ask him whether he’ll ever go with that uncle. We don’t hear his reply, but we observe him write a letter on the sand. What he writes, we don’t see. We hear. It remains the most insanely poignant voiceover I have come across in any movie, Sinhala or English:

මාමන්ඩියේ, මං උබ එක්ක යන්ඩ කැමතියි. මිඩියා තරහ වෙලා හින්දා මං දැන් මාකරඹවත් කඩන්නට යන්නේ නෑ. උබ එනකල් බලාගෙන ඉන්නවා. අම්මා යන්ඩ එපා කීවොත් මං අඩලා හරි එනවා. මාත් එක්ක යන්ඩ නොවරදවාම වරෙන්. මීට ආදරණීය බිංදු.

I was about that boy’s age when I first watched this. I didn’t know how to react or whether to react at all. Where was the happy ending? It took a good many more movies to convince me that the cinema, as with the arts or for that matter life, didn’t always subsist on happily-ever-afters. That night I started to mature. I saw the movies in a different light thereafter. It was the same kind of response that de Sica’s Shoeshine compelled from Pauline Kael: “Shoeshine was not conceived in the patterns of romance or melodrama; it is one of those rare works of art which seem to emerge from the welter of human experience without smoothing away the raw edges, or losing what most movies lose – the sense of confusion and accident in human affairs.” Almost word to word, the same point could have been made of this film.

Sagara Jalaya swept every major film awards ceremony in the country that year (1988). It clinched for Swarna Mallawarachchi her third Sarasavi Best Actress Award and for Sumitra Peries her third Best Director Award. The critics were unanimous in their praise. Regi Siriwardena loved it, at a time when to have your movie even remotely liked by Regi meant that it was good. It became Sumitra’s best, never to be equalled or surpassed. And yet, it remains virtually forgotten today. Why, I can’t tell.

In any case, it does not matter. I called Sumitra the day after they telecast it. She had watched it, so I asked for a comment. Here’s what she said: “When I see it today, I am taken aback by its mise-en-scène and pacing. That I did all that speaks volumes about how well knit my crew were: Amaradeva, Lal Piyasena, Donald Karunaratne, my husband, and of course Swarna and that little boy and the rest of the cast. I directed it, yes, but seeing it again, I can say that it has gained a life of its own.”

I have wept at three movies in my life so far. The first was Spielberg’s E.T., the third Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff. E.T. was the kind of childhood fantasy that Hollywood could manufacture. Sansho was more uncompromising in its sense of tragedy. Between these two stands the more rhythmic and composed Sagara Jalaya. I have cried at its ending, just as I have with the other two. I am not ashamed.

Some movies can’t be analysed. I just let them move me. Sagara Jalaya was like that. It was made to be felt. Not dissected. Like the best works of art, one can add.