Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The books that we read, the books that read us

My friend Dhanuka Bandara, currently studying in the United States, sent me a comment the other day: “The decline of a reading culture is a serious problem, rather acute in America. I’ve even concluded that this has caused the current crisis in Western civilisation.” I was and still am not qualified to argue on the latter point, but I agreed wholeheartedly with his first point. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, after all, to comprehend the fact that we tend to disparage reading, and with it those who prefer to read more than anything else, as the years go by. The decline then is actually a descent, an inevitability that we choose to bring upon ourselves. Sadly.

But then there are problems and there are solutions. To get to the latter, you need to understand the reasons for the former. The issue here is that the current discourse on literacy plays out between the academics and the intellectuals on the one hand and the defiant dilettantes and the bohemians on the other. This dilemma, sadly, is worsened by the tendency of contemporary society to categorise and classify, between what is prescribed and what is prohibited (when it comes to what is read, written, and expressed). The minute you concede ground to this false distinction, and maintain a rift between what you should read and should not, the problem we are talking about here starts to materialise, and we end up becoming a nation of non-readers.

Why is being such a nation such a problem? Simply, that a culture that is opposed to readers is also opposed to writers, and simply, that a culture that is opposed to writers is opposed to creative, independent thinking, the kind of thinking that got us to where we are, culturally and socially, from where we were before. This is as true for those who read and write in the mother tongues as it is for those who prefer English, and in fact it’s truer of the former in very, many respects. A civilisation is predicated almost entirely (not completely though) on the language it thrives on, and once that language is cut off from literature through prohibitions on what we read, only an aberration can result. An aberration because we can no longer discriminate on our own, for ourselves.

Speaking at an official function a few years ago, a former Warden at S. Thomas’ College (I have unfortunately forgotten the name) observed, rather interestingly, that the impending death of the Sinhala language (a death that has a number of pallbearers and doomsday prophets, by the way) could be traced to a deterioration in our mass media. What he meant was that his generation and his children’s generation lived through the culture that saw, and enjoyed, Pissu Poosa, Dosthara Hondahitha, and (later) Tintin, Naana Katha Malliya, and Koombichchi. All these series were dubbed, mostly from Europe, and they managed to teach us the subtle intricacies of dubbing a foreign popular culture into the mother tongue (something I’ll get to in my next article). We revelled in seeing them and at the same time read into the language that was being articulated, unlike today, when children are exposed to a half-uprooted, neither-here-nor-there entertainment and media culture (particularly on television).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are parallels between the way children behave and the way they are depicted by our film and television directors. The difference between the Somaratne Dissanayake of Saroja and Siri Raja Siri and the Somaratne Dissanayake of Bindu and Siri Parakum is really a difference, not of personal conviction or sensibility, but of the attitudes entertained towards youngsters by adults. The children of those earlier films had an agency of their own, and in being themselves they transcended their youth in ways their age could not do justice to. The same could have been said of the television serials which depicted them, particularly Channa Perera’s miniseries that revolved around boy scouts (I am thinking of Punchi Weerayo here). But what did we get with Dissanayake’s later films? Children who have to be picked up and carried around forever, endlessly. (Perhaps that’s why entire sequences are repeated again and again in Siri Parakum: for us to get them, as though our attention spans have slackened.)

In other words, children onscreen had a sensibility they could call their own. They revelled in being the adults they were not, in a rather boy-scout-ish, intelligent way. Naturally, we revelled in being them. They were both book-smart and street-smart, and what they did was often supplemented by what they read. There was no real differentiation between the two, a wholly different world to what has transpired now: a culture whereby children are, on the one hand, pushed to mature beyond their years in terms of what they do, and on the other hand, constricted when it comes to what they read. We are a nation of readers limited in what we are given to read when we are young, which wouldn’t be so bad if this didn’t lead us to that problem I highlighted above: the emergence of a nation of non-writers, non-critics, non-artists. No society can survive without writers, critics, and artists, just as no society can survive without doctors, lawyers, and engineers. It’s a crazy, roundelay issue, come to think of it.

At a recent seminar-of-sorts I had to speak at, I was given a rather clich├ęd but perennial topic: the importance of reading. I pondered on the topic for some hours before writing down the points I wanted to get across at this seminar. Which, by the way, all congealed into the following truism: inasmuch as the act of reading, and of inculcating the habit of reading, is important, what is even more important are the mechanics that go into that habit, i.e. the questions of what should be read, what should not be read, whether one should remain in a library like one would in an ivory tower, cut off from the rest of society. To the best of my ability I brought out what I felt to be a pertinent fact: that it is as important to be a “kavi karaya” (a poet) as it is to be a “wada karaya” (a doer). I’d like to think that the audience gathered at this seminar-of-sorts got my point, because I intended them to: it was held in a library.

Dhanuka used to write a lot when I started out in this field, years ago. For reasons which I still can’t fathom, though, he left that field. A pity, because in him I continue to see the kind of writer we haven’t had since Ajith Samaranayake. Perhaps that’s a national tragedy at one level: we haven’t had any real, proper critic and writer since Samaranayake, certainly not in the English press. But I rather think that’s inevitable, since we continue to be a nation not only of non-readers, but also of anti-readers.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Savindu and Pasindu Herath: Reflections on brotherhood

Savindu and Pasindu Herath have been to the same school, indulged in the same sports and clubs and societies (well, almost), passed out with flying colours in the same subjects and streams, and entered the same University, resuming the same activities they’d done and encountered in their younger days. What they’ve done interests me less for their associations with various tournaments than for the fact that they (and this is something I noticed when I interviewed them) are so casual about what they’ve done. The fact that they can’t really be categorised the way I’ve categorised each and every person I’ve interviewed for this magazine speaks volumes about what they’ve triumphed in. Here’s their story.

Naturally enough, we have to start with the elder brother. That’s Savindu. Savindu’s parents and uncles and cousins had engaged in a variety of sports in their day – rugby, cricket, cadetting – and this, he tells me, had naturally enough led them to expect him to resort to and balance out both sports and academics during his student years. His father and mother were both engaged in finance and management, the father as a Director of Finance and his mother as an Auditor. Having entered Ananda College, Savindu hence lost no time in getting involved in extra-curricular activities. To find out which among them he could get used to the easiest, however, he had to wade through swimming in Grade One and gymnastics and chess as the years progressed. It was in Grade Four that he found what he’d hankered after. Hockey.

Why did he take to hockey? “Because I had endurance, I could run quickly, and I felt that the game was meant for me.” That conviction stayed with him for a long, long time, long after some tepid and harrowing first encounters with President’s College, Asoka Vidyalaya, and St Joseph’s College that saw his team being defeated. By this time he had, of course, let go of gymnastics and swimming, though in later years he got involved with power lifting (which culminated in the South Asian Junior Games held in Bangalore, India). He did not, fortunately, let go of chess: while he did not win age category matches as such, during his A Level years he got to be the Vice Captain of the College team, ending up as the fourth best national school team in 2011. He had waited until Grade Eight, however, to get selected to that school team.

Savindu also became Head Prefect, yet another responsibility he had to put up with while concentrating on probably the most difficult subject stream anyone could offer for his or her A Levels (in 2012), Physical Science. But he got through, not by passing but by obtaining A’s for all the subjects he had selected (Maths, Physics, and Chemistry). The results had been enough (he had incidentally been the Head Prefect to secure the highest marks in the stream he had chosen in the history of his school) to secure a placement at the University of Moratuwa for Mathematics, where, reflecting his career at school, he got involved in hockey. “I had to choose one sport, and it was basically a struggle of sorts between chess and hockey. In the end I opted for the latter.” For obvious reasons, hockey at University was different to hockey at school, since team members graduate and leave every other year. He then captained the team at Moratuwa, clinching victory at the Mora Sevens and the Kelaniya Nines and becoming runners up at the Inter University Tournament, organised by the Sri Lanka University Sports Association, last year. At school he had been the Left Insider, while at University he became the Right Insider.

That’s Savindu. In a nutshell. What about the younger brother? Pasindu too had got involved with hockey, inspired no doubt by the elder, though at an earlier age: while Savindu had to wait until Grade Four to discover his passion for the game, Pasindu discovered it quite easily in Grade Two. “I got to be the first Captain of the first ever Under Nine Hockey team inaugurated at my school,” he told me, adding rather wistfully that the category has since been abolished. Hockey had obviously been the first choice, but it had also been (for him, that is) the only option. It was in 2004 that he became the Under Nine Captain. Things moved quickly thereafter: the first match he encountered had been with and against S. Thomas’, and the team, he remembers, weren’t equipped enough: consequently, they had lost by a wide margin, 5-0. That first defeat, however, had not discouraged him, and it in fact emboldened him to push harder and wade on.

The result? “We ended up as the Second Runners Up at the Sri Lanka Schools Hockey Championship in 2004, the same year I became a hockey player at Ananda.” From then on he had secured the captaincy for the Under 11 (2005) and the vice-captaincy for the Under 13 (2006) teams. His preferred hockey icon, incidentally, had been Jamie Lundmark, who had also in a way inspired Savindu. “Jamie taught us that being tall and stout wasn’t an automatic qualification for this game. He taught us that what mattered was pushing your stamina to its limits.” There was another point: Jamie was a centre fielder, the same position occupied during his school years.

This was in turn followed by a series of veritable wins and mild defeats as the years went by: in 2010, for instance, he captained the Western Province team that went to Malaysia, but they could not (“because, to be honest, we weren’t good enough”) break into the quarter finals, while a more promising encounter aboard the Under 21 Sri Lanka Schools Championship (the Junior National Hockey Tournament) had seen them break into the quarter finals, though they were defeated by a team from Kandy. That latter encounter, by the way, had been Pasindu’s first real achievement in the game. Eventually, they managed to become the Runners Up in 2012 at the Under 17 National Championship.

But then it wasn’t only hockey which moved him. This is where I get to his involvement with chess and an activity that he remembers with deep nostalgia, police cadetting.

First, chess. Having started out in Grade Two (“I discovered that the queen, for some reason, was my favourite piece”) he nevertheless had to wait until Grade Five to be taken into the College Team. That year, he became the fifth in an age category match nationally, which had spurred him to try harder and end up representing Sri Lanka at the 3rd Asian Schools Chess Festival, held in Sri Lanka. He became the 11th in Asia there. For some reason, though, he had to give up the game in Grade Seven, which meant that he had to divert his attention and energy to the other activity he got involved with, police cadetting. That had come right after yet another Club he joined at Ananda, which had only recently been started back then: mountain running, a mishmash of athletics and mountaineering which saw his team win the top national slot in both 2014 and 2015. That feat, over two consecutive years, was adequate for him to win colours.

He began police cadetting in 2012. Like mountain running, this was an activity that his brother had not been involved with. It had in fact been a coincidence which got him into the cadet team: a much needed member had become absent owing to exams, and they needed a replacement. That replacement was Pasindu. As with every other club, society, and sport he had got entangled in, this too had fascinated him, enough for him to (what else?) push himself into trying harder and winning big. The end-result was worth it: from a Cadet member to Lance Corporal to Corporal to Sergeant and finally to Company Rank, Pasindu had led the team to several victories at the Rantembe Camp, where the team as a whole had to undergo a set of written and performance-based examinations. “We missed the top slot by just four marks in 2012. Four years later, when I volunteered to be the Sergeant owing to the fact that the person who was the Sergeant had to obtain study leave for his A Levels, we triumphed with eight trophies and secured that top slot.”

All these had been supplemented by intermittent trysts with English debating, English drama, and the Model United Nations (“I started out as an administrative staff member, and then graduated to be a delegate of Lebanon and the Congo”). They had in turn been supplemented by his being appointed as the Head Prefect for the period 2016/2017, though these had not got in the way of his studies too much. With enough results (again, in Physical Science) to get a placement at the University of Moratuwa, Pasindu would no doubt have followed his brother’s footsteps for his higher education, when, on the day before I interviewed him and Savindu, he received news that he had been selected for the MEXT scholarship to study in Japan. The package was enticing: 120,000 yen a month, plus medical insurance and tickets to Japan. “I spent two weeks at Moratuwa. For the scholarship, I decided to offer Mechanical Engineering.”

Everything I’ve written here speaks for itself, I should think. In what these two brothers have done, have engaged in, have from the sidelines partaken of, and have decided to do for their future. Their story hasn’t ended. Obviously. It has only just begun.

Written for: The Island YOUth, January 21 2018

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Left in a crevice: Reflections on a sensibility

For decades we have been told that, regardless of the fact that movies are based on falsifications of reality, we have to assess the medium on the basis of its fidelity to that same reality. This is probably why we take for granted the oppositions between art and entertainment. Such oppositions echo Ananda Coomaraswamy's thesis that modern sensibility has differentiated between mass consumption and discriminating tastes, or as Regi Siriwardena put it, between a Chinese porcelain vase in the drawing room and a kitchen clay pot from Kelaniya. Probably no other industry has this dichotomy done more harm to than the film industry, and for good reason: it’s the most technologically driven art form.

I would like to propose here that art house audiences are drawn to their conception of the cinema in much the same way that those who flock to see Doctor Nawariyan are drawn to theirs: on both counts, it’s an act of self-congratulation. I am aware that I am generalising here but such generalisations are meant (in this series of essays) to be more suggestive than definitive. So here’s what my suggestion leads me to: the theory, validated by personal experiences on my part, that the cinema is far, far away from redeeming reality. Those who believe that movies can thrive on theories about reality and the redemption thereof through the art house sector are, frankly, deluding themselves. They have their coterie and they have a loyal following. But they are mostly purveyors of a minority art. They survive on patronage. Not popularity.

Pre-bourgeois civilisations did not operate on a rift between art and non-art like this because in those societies, art was a product of human labour, not intellectualisation. Modernism was a consequence of industrial capitalism, in that art more or less became an experience withdrawn from the majority. But even in the modernist era – as one can infer in the writings of such critics as Walter Benjamin – we didn’t witness a separation of academia from general audiences. There were writers and critics and intellectuals who communicated what they felt to be art (with or without a capital A) to the consumers of that art. Modernism thrived on a linear conception of culture. What postmodernism achieved was the separation of academics and critics from their readers. Culture was no longer seen as linear. Consequently, the search for order, for any form of meaning, no longer seemed necessary for these new critics.

Of all art forms it was probably the novel that had to bear an undue burden with respect to this paradigm shift, since the novel, more than even the movies or the theatre, was a text, an inheritance from the same 19th century bourgeois civilisation that postmodernism sought to combat, and in this age of postmodernist polemics, texts no longer depended on a definitive author: their meanings were dependent on what the reader wanted them to be. Extrapolating from this, Barthes’s assertion of the death of the author gave way to a culture of criticism whereby singularity, and coherence, no longer was deemed necessary. That is why most of those postmodernist polemics – be it the notion of “intertextuality” or the “distancing” of the author from his own text – were absorbed in other art forms quickly: because they were so pervasive as to intrude on everyone’s individual perceptions of those art forms. Especially the cinema, where talked of the death of the auteur, or the death of the director as a film’s author.

The result was an implosion of intellectualisations and a diminishment of sincerity. The preoccupation of the director in this new era was to do away with a need for any narrative (the postmodernist’s lack of regard for what are commonly referred to as “grand narratives”, which are buttressed by cultural or other hegemonies in a given society, is his most distinctive quality), and although it took a long, long time after Dharmasena Pathiraja brought about a New Wave and succeeded Lester James Peries, it nevertheless made inroads in Sri Lanka. But for this postmodern revolution to materialise and be disseminated more effectively throughout the country, it had to be conveyed to the masses, a largely Sinhala and Tamil speaking population. That’s when the X-Group came in: they took it upon themselves to fulfil the role they were evidently ordained for, at a time when Barthes and Derrida didn’t make sense to the lay Sri Lankan reader. That they succeeded in part speaks volumes about whether we actually wanted to make sense of the writers and academics they translated for us.

In pre-bourgeois societies art was for the most self-referential. It depended on the standards that it had created for itself. Even when those standards – one can think of perspective in drawing, or tonality in music – were supposedly demolished, they depended for the most on the assumption that those demolishing them, like Picasso in drawing and Jean-Luc Godard in the cinema, were aware of these foundational standards. Postmodernism did away with any need to know the latter, because of which it became a withdrawn experience that was easy to purvey: all you needed to do was fill your objet d’art with vast obfuscations which, if you didn’t understand them, were supposed to test your intelligence and your creativity. From the richness of the paintings that the Modernists and the Pre-Raphaelites came up with, we have now entered an age in which a solitary orange dot on the centre of a white canvas can compel aahs and oohs and positive comments from “discerning” spectators.

Simply put, therefore, art was no longer considered as self-referential. It’s easy for it not to be, harder for it to be. And why exactly? Because there was no need for objectivity. “There are no facts, only interpretation,” Nietzsche quipped: it would be in this postmodern era that the truth of its validity would be tested. With one important caveat: it wasn’t just facts that postmodernism sought to do away with, but also the cultural values, or any unifying factor, that would validate such facts. It’s hence probably no cause for wonderment that along with Nietzsche, postmodernist philosophers and academics were heavily influenced by Althusser (his notion of the ideological state apparatus) and Gramsci (his notion of hegemony): these were the backdrop figures for a whole new critical culture, and they eventually found their way to art forms that had not experienced this kind of critical polemics. Even the cinema.

It seems to me that what we initially went through in the postmodern culture was a period of critical democratisation, in which values were free, for all, to be demolished. But as with Marxism, it bred its own gurus and students, the latter rather adulatory with respect to the former. It had substituted one kind of ideological dominance for another. To be sure, Derrida and Barthes, particularly the latter with his notion of “readerly” and “writerly” texts (which assumed that no one could be an “authority”), would not have known that their death would be followed by the usual bantering and bickering which would breed a culture of slavish disciples, but this was anyway the case with all other intellectual figures before them: from religious leaders to Karl Marx. The sad footnote this compels is that when the generation of Barthes and Derrida died, they left virtually nothing for those disciples to improve on. What was the outcome? A sensibility in which everything was rationalised by theories.

Perhaps that’s why this rift between art house movies and mainstream movies worries me so much. Not because I oppose that art house, but because no culture can survive on it alone if there isn’t an alternative, majoritarian, mainstream sector operating elsewhere. Films like Konsthapal Punyasoma make sense not because they are artistically fulfilling (whatever that means), but because we NEED them. They don’t rely, for one thing, on brochures that elaborate on their own workings. (I had to wade through one such brochure to make sense of some of the sequences in Handagama’s Age Asa Aga, a brochure which the director had distributed on the night of the premiere.) Those workings need to be left to be discerned by the audiences. When they aren’t, when there is no proper centre to hold them, and when even the majoritarian movies theatres screen are also devoted to their own workings (like the Ranjan Ramanayake, Bandu Samarasinghe, and Tennyson Cooray vehicles), audiences eventually get tired and decide to shirk those theatres. The postmodern culture is wonderful, but it has left us, or rather our cinema, in a crevice.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The elders can relax, but can we?

There are days when I run out of ideas and topics to write on. Those are days I suffer from creative blocks, on account perhaps of drowsiness or the languor that a full stomach tends to invite. All it takes to get out that block is a quick perusal of my bookshelves, a random flip-through of a book I’ve just finished reading, but sometimes even that method never works out. That’s when I stray from the usual topics I like to write about and instead read what other writers from here have come up with.

The other day I fell into such a block, and after hours of reading and thinking and still not coming up with anything to ponder on, I decided to browse the web. Browsing through several sites brought me to Malinda Seneviratne’s blog and an article he wrote recently, “Elders of the world relax, the kids are fine.”

Rather tellingly titled, I felt. The article was basically about how young people prefer to look beyond ethnic and communal rifts when celebrating or protesting a particular course of action taken by authorities, in this case the deforestation underway at Wilpattu. There are those who feel that more important issues are ailing our polity in far more insidious ways and I would be inclined to agree (no one, for instance, talks about the deliberate robberies and thefts from the electorate perpetuated by the leaders that make possible something like Wilpattu), but for the time being let’s forget that. Let’s instead focus on the crux of Malinda’s argument: that the young who converged about a month or so back, at the Viharamadevi Park, to campaign against the destruction around the Forest, were far more perceptive about the communal-less-ness (I have invented a term there, I know) of the issue than their elders, who on the one hand were accusing the Other of encroaching on their property and on the other reacted defensively to this allegation with the claim that Wilpattu has housed their kind for years. It’s an argument that merits scrutiny.

The old call the shots. For that reason, what they say of the young in whatever sphere the latter operate in – politics, literature, music, drama, indeed the arts in general – are generally disseminated, promoted, and affirmed by the majority through the press and mass media. The idealism of the committed, who almost always happen to be young, tend to drives me a little crazy for this reason, since I have been conditioned by the old to accept the weariness and the disillusionment that goes with the passing of time: sooner or later, according to these elders, that youthful idealism congeals into its own opposite. This is as true for our young musicians as it is for our young politicians, who creep in with the promise and hope of doing something new, anything new, and to trump the conventional wisdom. They want to rebel by being pop revolutionists. How do they become pop revolutionists? By letting go of any desire to be committed to anything. These are the rebels that the sixties and the seventies bred, the flower power youth. We are seeing a resurgence of that flower power youth, here, right now, everywhere.

Should we be worried? Yes and no. I have reason for hope and reason for lament. Before getting to the latter, though, let me come out with my rationale for hope.

I am sincerely emboldened by the new Youth Spring that’s taking the country’s polity by storm, be it the Viharamahadevi Park protest against the destruction in Wilpattu or the countless and frequent protest campaigns conducted against otherwise politically tainted issues like constitutional amendments and the bond issue. These are remarkably less politically motivated than, say, the demonstrations against unfair pay hikes, discrepancies between the private and the public sector when it comes to medicine and education, and laws and regulations curtailing trade union action. And why? Because the latter, regardless of the idealisms of their provocateurs and agents, tend to turn out to be exercises in protests that are aimed at procuring monopolies and benefits for those provocateurs. The Youth Spring is considerably different, therefore more welcoming.

What of my reasons for worry? Call me conservative, call me outdated, but I simply can’t see this “Spring” as anything to seriously reckon with. I know some of the people who attended the Viharamahadevi protest and that less than half of the participants come from the Kolombian subset which is satisfied with candle vigils that go nowhere. These youngsters are committed, and not to political groups. Still.

Regardless of my reservations about what transpired after the January 2015 election, though, I am encouraged by the fact that the mainstream political parties (well, the UNP more than the UPFA, but let’s forget that for the time being here) consciously engaged with the young in a way that left the young in a state of disillusionment after those First 100 Days. It’s that sense of disillusionment which helped them become a class of their own, or to be more specific, become committed pop revolutionaries free of old political affiliations. And yet, even with this tide of youthful idealism, I am worried by the fact that it may well be a temporary phenomenon. It’s roughly the same story in other countries.

And it’s also roughly the same story in the arts. If we have never progressed beyond the old masters – in the cinema, in music, in dance and drama – it’s because there’s a disturbing disjuncture between the young rebel’s desire to defy what those masters did and the material needed to validate that act of defiance. When a particularly ambitious young singer lampoons the personal life of an established musician, he gets crucified, not by the old, but by the young (the reactions and comments that such works of art glean from his fan base indicate this only too well), and when another ambitious young singer sidelines another master with the remark that there are better singers from his age, he gets crucified again by the young. You see the point I am making here: the pop revolutionaries don’t seem to have what it takes to transform defiance into cohesive action plans. That’s the contradiction at the heart of our youth today.

Are our youngsters “disconnected” from their surroundings? The old seem to think so. The last few years, however, have taught me otherwise. They may appear to be indifferent and informal (they have progressed in the way they address elders, because to them everyone is an aiya, an uncle, an auntie) but that is because they believe they know everything, so much so that they are willing to look beyond problems and realities to make way for their own solutions. To them, hence, the problems of destruction and deforestation at Wilpattu are a sign of political apathy, and not racial discord. To me those problems are remarkably and unfortunately different, because racial discord has become a living, material reality: no one can escape it, and no one can ignore it. But the allegation that this indifference to such discord makes the young uprooted from their reality is, at best, misconceived and a result of what we, the elders, think to be the correct attitude to such problems. The young are not disconnected, they are not indifferent.

I rarely write about the young to this paper because I too, because of my conservative streak, believe that there’s nothing serious to write about when it comes to them. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t written on them at all: the various events that school clubs and societies organise, the music concerts, the photographic exhibitions, the book stalls and quiz competitions, I have gone through in this newspaper. These are all handled by a demographic that has, thanks to social media, and to the multiplicity of voices that YouTube and the blogosphere has brought about, is becoming more powerful in the country. These youngsters, from that demographic, are supremely confident of what they believe in. They may be erroneous, fundamentally wrong in their assumptions, but I feel that their beliefs are to be welcomed.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting schoolchildren who dabble in poetry in ways that trump and stimulate my imagination. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting schoolchildren who listen silently and reverently to elders who chastise them and then succinctly point out where they are wrong, often to their faces, if not to me. They have become emboldened by a false consciousness of their own strength. A false consciousness, because it’s buttressed by what they read, often do, but all too often engage in online. The internet and social media has democratised opinion, so when youngsters come across those opinions, they tend to be suave and smug, thinking they know everything they need to know. This attitude of being overconfident can in the long term be its own descent, but I see in them, particularly those who can be referred to as street-smart and book-smart (i.e. those who think and do at the same time), a new hope for the future. They are friendly, eager to accommodate, but they can also get testy when they are questioned unfairly.

So yes, perhaps Malinda was right. Perhaps the elders should be relaxing. Perhaps they already are. Either way, we get the point: however smug and smart they (think they) are, the young can carve a different part, one free of political and communal parameters.

Written for: Daily Mirror, January 18 2017

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Dharmasiri Bandaranayake: Beyond the personal

The four films of Dharmasiri Bandaranayake stand out like zeitgeists of the eighties and the nineties. They reflect what could have been, but was not, a more illustrious, colourful career. The alienation of the individual from his surroundings, the unreliability of an objective voice, the solace of psychological confinement, are all themes that brings these four films together; they differentiate them from his political plays. Bandaranayake’s cinema is never totally political in that sense. They never concede to political polemics. Based on the rift between power and its absence, the helplessness of the loner in the face of patriarchy, feudalism, and the many manifestations of power, they delve acutely into the personal. The late Cyril Perera observed that his films never really received the critical treatment they deserved. He was correct.

I remember the launch ceremony of Kumar de Silva’s book on Irangani Serasinghe more than two years ago, in which Bandaranayake (who had worked with Serasinghe and her husband Winston several times) subtly but confidently differentiated his generation from hers: “They were the generation of Ernest MacIntyre and English theatre. We were the generation of 1956, the children of 1956.” It was that generation which in later years, particularly after the disillusionment which the 1971 insurrection compelled in young idealists, fresh from University, determined that the local theatre belonged to a left-of-centre political sphere. Bandaranayake took over Henry Jayasena’s version of Makara and transformed it into Makarakshaya, reflecting this shift from Jayasena’s aestheticism to his deeply felt, sincerely articulated political convictions. The message that the play gave out, that there are more burgomasters than there are dragons, was aptly valid for a period in our history in which those burgomasters flourished in our political culture.

But that was the theatre, a manifestly different medium to the cinema. To trace Bandaranayake’s as a film director one needs to read on his childhood. He was born in 1949 and was educated at Vidyarathne College in Horana. Even then there had been a politically active theatre culture throughout Sri Lanka, particularly outside Colombo, and the man had felt this acutely through one of his drama teachers at his school, Hemasiri Liyanage (who also hailed from Horana). Apparently Liyanage had been one of his figures of destiny, who had let his student’s imagination run riot through the many plays he staged at school. This was during the sixties, a tense, uneasy period in our history.

Surprisingly, he was only a teenager when he first encountered the cinema. While he had not been a film fan as such before, his many encounters with the theatre had enabled him to meet Dayananda Gunawardena, who was directing his debut. Those who have seen Bakmaha Deege would no doubt remember Bandaranayake as the manservant, the childishly silly and innocent Premadasa. I believe he himself, speaking at that book launch ceremony I alluded to before, offered the most fitting comment or riposte: “When Avurudu is around the corner and when TV stations telecast the movie, I hear laughter throughout my neighbourhood and, I suspect, the country whenever Premadasa comes in.” He was about 17 at the time. Surprisingly, however, he never was interested in pursuing acting in the cinema thereafter: he was more interested in the camerawork and the editing, and hence struck up a friendship with Willie Blake and Sumitra Peries: “What fascinated me were the technicalities involved in the making of a film.”

Young Bandaranayake’s assessment of Gunawardena was clear: “He kept an admirable balance between the theatre and the cinema. He was, in other words, conscious of the differences which existed between the two mediums while being aware of their parallels. The film was an adaptation of an Italian opera. Gunawardena was very careful about vetting if not filtering out the theatrical side to it when transposing it.” To me, and no doubt to countess other viewers, this was and is one of the two biggest strengths of Bakmaha Deege, the other strength being the fact that it can’t really be sourced, i.e. that one can’t really state that it was an adaptation at all in the first place. I therefore put to Bandaranayake that the man indigenised the story so well that it became truly Sri Lankan, a point he agreed with at once.

After that first encounter with the cinema, however, the man let go of any ideas about the industry he may have entertained, and concentrated on the theatre. During the seventies, when our political theatre (and, to an extent, cinema) matured, he displayed his talent, proved his mettle, and took over from the stylised and the kitchen sink plays that had been the norm in the preceding decades. The shift from Ediriweera Sarachchandra to the likes of Sugathapala de Silva had been one of mood and temperament, from the former’s reliance on imagery to the former’s reliance on speech. The shift from the likes of de Silva to the likes of Bandaranayake was less of mood than of conviction, although the kitchen sink play, the best example of which was Boarding Karayo, reflected the personal agonies and social angst that would be unleashed in gushes and torrents after 1971. Boarding Karayo, in that sense, was a precursor to Makarakshaya, if only distantly so. As with Nanda Malini in our musical sphere, hence, it is to Bandaranayake that we owe our understanding of political potential of the arts, in his case the theatre.

It was in this context that Vasantha Obeyesekere selected him for the role of the protagonist in Palagetiyo. Between this and Bakmaha Deege there had been a space of 10 years, a long enough time for attitudes, idealisms, and personal convictions to change and, if provoked, sour beyond expectation. In Palagetiyo we come across a different actor in Bandaranayake: as Sarath Gunawardena, the embittered protagonist who works as a manager for a rich mudalali and then elopes with his daughter, he virtually distilled the alienation from personal feelings the youth of his time might have, against their will, felt. In Obeyesekere’s hands there is no attempt at romanticising the elopement (which occurs secretly, and quickly, at night) barring the first few sequences in Sarath’s village. The misery and the harsh realities that the girl (played by Dammi Fonseka, slain tragically in Kahathuduwa after the film was released) forces herself to are poignantly depicted, as is her confused, repressed feelings of love towards a neighbour (played by Ranjan Mendis) in the shanty house they are compelled to live in, given Sarath’s unemployed status.

Even on a first viewing, the parallels between Palagetiyo and Bandaranayake’s debut, Hansa Vilak, are certainly hard to miss: both have Bandaranayake as the condemned protagonist, both have Henry Jayasena as a ramrod figure of the establishment that he is pitted against, and both involve the conflict between eroticism and social discrepancies. But while the latter conflict in Palagetiyo is tempered by class rifts, the conflict in Hansa Vilak is tempered by a forever irreconcilable rift between personal feelings and familial obligations. Not even the acceptance of the divorce between the vague Miranda (Swarna Mallawarachchi) and Douglas (Jayasena) by the courts is enough for those obligations to be swept away in favour of personal feelings, and the message we finally get – that the institution of marriage represses, absorbs, and does away with everything that comes in its way – is enough to tide over what I consider to be a deliberately and provocatively confused ending. Hansa Vilak (which Regi Siriwardena referred to in his review as a “permanent landmark”) was probably the first technically superior debut made by a film director here. (The freshness it evokes is reminiscent of the freshness that Sugathapala Senarath Yapa’s Hanthane Kathawa evoked: both filmmakers were avid film lovers, and both never got beyond three films thereafter, with Yapa entering the Government Film Unit and Bandaranayake resuming his career in the theatre.)

In Thunveni Yamaya he went beyond the psychological subjectivity depicted in Hansa Vilak, to varying degrees of success. Perhaps the relative failure he encountered with that film – the authors of Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema correctly surmise that in it there is a disjuncture between the director’s “bold outlook” and the “complex demands” the themes he explored required – compelled him to fall back on adaptations of literary texts thereafter: Suddilage Kathawa, Bhava Duka, Bhava Karma (the latter two of which were filmed together). The complexities of mood and milieu that these films open the viewer up to can’t really be ascertained or described through one review, let alone a newspaper sketch, so suffice it to say that they reveal the director’s belief that the personal always has a hand in shaping the social, that relationships between individuals can congeal into power relationships between different layers of society. In these three seminal films, those layers are determined by a feudal structure, which is where an interesting historical contradiction in Bhava Duka and Bhava Karma comes out: the fact that colonialism was so easily able to intrude on our society because the stratifications in our society, between the favoured and the unfavoured, allowed the conqueror to easily disrupt our lives.

Perhaps that’s the most fitting tribute we can make to this all too misunderstood director. And perhaps that’s why the last word should be his: “People come to me today requesting permission to remake Suddilage Kathawa with me. Forget the costs involved in doing that. The fact is that one can’t remake Suddi. The fact is that I simply won’t.”