Monday, August 25, 2014

Siri Raja Siri: Looking back

I was not yet 15 when the film first came out. That was a time when I abhorred films. Especially Sinhala films. Luckily, this gemstone was broadcast on television earlier this year. Looking back, one feels that the issues captured and examined in the story are still relevant for our time. This is an attempt at examining the examined. Forgive me if I become a little too ecstatic in this. Because I am.

I have searched again and again for a Sinhala film that appeals to both heart and mind. Again and again have I stumbled along the way. Many a time I have struck gold, only to clutch at stone. There have been exceptions, and a good many of them. But I have realized that, as I go on with time, and as I come to the modern Sinhala film, these exceptions prove few, if at all, in number. So helplessly I stare around, desperate in my search for a film that will hold onto both my intelligence and emotions: a story that will explore its issues with neither high-minded sophistication nor populist artifice. A story whose parts all cohere, and whose near-classical unity leaves no space for any digression.

I reach my hands for the children’s section – for I know that such a story can only exist in the mind of the child and the children’s cinema – and find, to my utter joy, Siri Raja Siri. I have a feeling that this will not flout my expectations of it. I have a feeling that it will make me transfixed to every shot of it, that it will endear me to its lovable tale, spruced by the most sensitive of scripts and by the ablest of players. I have a feeling that I may be right. And, as it turns out, I am.

Seldom in our modern cinema do you come across a Siri Raja Siri. Like the best of films, it uses technique after technique of filmmaking without, for an instant even, letting us forget its story. In no other film can you find such deep issues, such grappling themes, being transposed to an essentially children’s parable. And in no other film can you witness such a convincing, an almost larger-than-life cast of children, as in this. To watch them act is to be with them, and we are with them every step of the way. Not surprising, that.

In every hurdle that our young hero finds himself in, and in every twist and turn he faces, it is almost as though we are beside him, expressing every emotion he feels, and even distancing us from ourselves in this process. Not even Handaya, our first children’s film, was able to indulge these feeling in us. It is a testament to Somaratna Dissanayake’s mettle that he indulges them in us during every minute that passes in this film, without making us forget, at the same time, of those harsh realities diffused throughout the plot. Surely this has to be his masterpiece! We cringe at those dark themes that are explored by him, but with the aid of several plot devices and dénouements Dissanayake leads us to a most satisfying, but not melodramatic, conclusion.

If there ever is a need to place its ending with a deus ex machina climax, the director keeps himself from doing so. No last minute salvation awaits our young hero. Rather, Dissanayake constructs his climax so subtly, that not until the very last minute do we realize, with triumph, that Sirimal’s tragedy, to be forced to act out the traitor to the kingdom, is in fact his very same victory. It is almost deliciously ironic. And unlike that implausible turnaround of character by the drunken father in Handaya, and those innumerable changes of mood and temper in the two Veddhas in Sooriya Arana, here we find a truly coherent climax to a children’s film, one that flourishes with candour before our very eyes.

It does this with unassailable joy, and with the inextricable brotherliness that, as the plot unfolds, binds all those children together, both in class and at the hostel. Not since Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups have I had the privilege of witnessing a set of children so convincingly play – themselves. We have seen children play other parts, other roles, other adults, with a mimicry that looks quite accurate, a little too honest.

And when left to their own devices, they will play themselves with a noticeable lack of pretension: where they bring forth pretension is where necessity demands that it be so. But a talented set of children is not enough: you need a talented director as well, one who can honestly empathize with them, one who can project his own hope, ambition and viewpoint to them. Truffaut’s ability to evince these in Jean-Pierre Leaud was well known. And in Siri Raja Siri, Somaratna Dissanayake proves himself Truffaut’s modern-day counterpart with sleek agility! For this film is but a loose reworking of his own real-life experiences growing up, as Les Quatre Cents Coups had been of Truffaut’s.

These experiences do not, of course, extend into every arena explored by the film. But many of them are reflective of actual experience. And Dissanayake, in this ruthless but nearly optimistic study of the defects in our education system, projects them into the film’s opening shots. In them we see some village children, making their way delicately across hill, river and field, and finally joining up with friends and teachers by the gateless entrance to their school.

Here we see a difference with his portrayals of the village between this and his previous films. In both Saroja and Sooriya Arana Dissanayake portrayed it as a haven tempered with violence and prejudice. In Siri Raja Siri there is presented to us a chasm between village and city, Sinhala and English, native and brown sahib. Unashamedly and perhaps a little unjustifiably, he paints the village here in an adulatory, idealistic light, unhampered by nothing, except perhaps the outsiders’ intrusion into it.

And that is exactly what happens when Sirimal becomes the highest scorer in the land at the Grade Five scholarship exam. We watch, with suppressed smiles, at the first inklings of this “outside intrusion” – a group of journalists who fire away “වැල් වටා” questions at an utterly confused Sirimal’s father (Mahendra Perera). These are the first signs of “urban sophistication” that will later threaten to rent Sirimal’s world apart.

And this rural-urban dichotomy, so essential to the story, rarely threatens to render even one incident or character implausible, to make either or both needless slaves to the demands of that same dichotomy. We “see” this dichotomy even before little Sirimal boards the train to the city: with an understandable difficulty he has with wearing shoes to school, and a song sequence aboard the train arousing sweet and soon-to-be lost memories in him.

And then we come to his new school. If Dissanayake can be criticised for an overreliance on stock figures, on larger-than-life characterisations, this maybe the starting point where that criticism could be levelled. But it won’t go far. That first shot of Sirimal’s class, where we see him being teased around for his “other-worldliness”, is humorous, a little bitter perhaps (for we see what the so-called “national” education system inculcates in our children). Snippets of pop culture are used here to illustrate the wide chasm between Sirimal’s world and the world of these other children (notice that “popular” rap song sung by one of the children), and Dissanayake’s insistence on magnifying this chasm in (almost) every shot we see of them is quite noticeable.

It is a sign of his dexterity, however, that he does not let this insistence of his degrade into a series of petty clichés. In large part this is due to his ability to “witness”, rather than “see” (there is a difference), the habits and acts of every child he puts in front of the camera. Doubtless he can be pointed at for using every possible scene to their maximum capacity as a means of emphasizing this chasm. But, at the same time, he does hint at reconciliation between these two worlds. Thus, eventually, Sirimal begins to befriend one of these “brown sahib sons”, and even forms up friendships with every other kid – except, of course, for the class bully.

Which brings me to what best illustrates this chasm: the drama competition. That first scene in the drama class is quite expository. It is what first redeems and restores respect to Sirimal in the eyes of the other children. It is what shows best the ignorance of our customs and ways in a supposedly “national” school. And, more crucially, it is also what typifies the urban-rural divide, as depicted in the bully’s curiosity on playing the king’s part, a role more suitable for our hero. From then on, Dissanayake pushes the tension of the story forward, centering it on the enmity between these two. And if you expect Sirimal to emerge as victor in the end, do not for one moment doubt it.

How Dissanayake paves his way to victory, however, is different, and not at all as how you would expect. This is where he eschews both cliché and optimism, in favour of a less clear-cut climax. Granted he douses us with optimism in these scenes, especially at the very end, where all of Sirimal’s class (except, as expected, for the young hulking bully) get together and pay a tribute to him in the village itself by re-enacting the whole drama with him as king. At the same time, however, it is no small irony, in this sequence, that he is “crowned” king back in his home village, and that he is reduced to playing the traitor and peasant in the city.

This is where, I think, Dissanayake completely does away with any optimism. And I have trouble accepting it if he allowed this sequence to be optimistic. At the film’s close, he never answers the question as to whether Sirimal decides to return to his village. He wisely leaves it unanswered, rendering the final freeze-frame shot of the crowned Sirimal very provocatively ambivalent. There may be hundreds, if not thousands, of little Sirimals scattered across our country, and Dissanayake cuts away at almost nothing except melodrama to make us aware of their plight. And what a wretched plight he does show us!

He shows us, subtly, the needless agglomeration of prestige, influence and familial background prevalent in the “national” school, and asks us a question: if it is the aim of any country’s education system to produce useful and humane people, then why has ours managed to deter the brightest of our kids from the same perks and benefits unjustly exploited by other children, whose only reason for their access to them are familial and political patronage? It is a question that he instills into us at the film’s conclusion, and we seem to shed even a few tears at its continued, unresolved nature even today. “A pearl of great price,” Dr. Kannangara once called our free education system. A phrase that has done an almost complete turnaround today. A phrase that is yet to be vindicated.

Siri Raja Siri abounds in technique. You can see its story unfold in an idealistic fashion, then swerve into a downbeat mood, and then suddenly liberate itself with a satisfying climax. If you, in this narrative structure, are reminded of Jefferson Smith’s plight in the Senate in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or of George Bailey’s suicidal pessimism slowly ebbing away from him in It’s a Wonderful Life, the comparison is not unwarranted. Frank Capra’s influence over Somaratna Dissanayake, even if unwitting, is evident clearly at times in this film. It is this Capra-esque vision, bittersweet yet triumphant, which pervades its structure. But this is not all.

In all its key associative sequences – like that fight between Sirimal and the bully intercutting with memories of playing chak-gudu at the village – one notices Eisenstein’s “tonal montage” at play: a type of intercutting dictated by the emotional density of the sequence. Sirimal’s various encounters at College – the swimming pool, the marathon race, and of course the drama competition – are juxtaposed with their rural counterparts. This type of montage is, incidentally, used to add water to the urban-rural dichotomy explored by the film.

Finally, the image of the slow moving actor (as the King) at the village theatre shows up with increasing frequency as the story progresses, linking Sirimal with the village and his obsession with playing out the king’s part. What interests me here is its purpose. In near-Proustean method, this image links up past with present, Sirimal with his school.

It also accelerates the bridging of the two worlds, between Sirimal and his classmates: all the children are brought together for the play, and in the end, they even come to watch him act out the king in the village. In this regard, it serves the same purpose, for me, as that of the image of the woman rocking the baby in Intolerance, which is there to link up the different ages portrayed in it together.

However, unlike the at times overused nature of that “link image”, the tension in young Sirimal’s mind is complemented more convincingly by this slow-moving image of the actor. And, towards the end, when the image is liberated and plays out in real-time, with the actor reciting a song for us, we realize that Sirimal’s obsession has become firmly rooted in his mind, and, come what may, he is innocently determined to play the part. That actor is the ideal for our little hero, and Dissanayake, in the use of this link image, gives to it more utility, more force, than that woman who weaves time in-between the Acts of Intolerance.

Technique, however, rarely supersedes the wonderment we feel at its story. Dissanayake is certainly among the few directors of our time here able to weave both popular and sophisticated tastes together. Certainly, in no other genre of cinema can you find such a fusion of taste so possible as in the children’s cinema. Its history here, as discussed previously, has been less than satisfactory, though more satisfactory than certain other aspects of our overall film history. As recent films have indicated, however, we are entering a saturated era in it. Films such as Challengers and Dhoni, being the melodramatic family dramas they are, are mere borrowings of the American family film. I have seen Challengers’ plot in countless American films, though none of them resemble it exactly.

But I have not seen Siri Raja Siri’s plot in any other film. Originality of plot may well be Somaratna Dissanayake’s greatest strength, coupled with his ability at handling children. And in this masterpiece of his, I cannot help but wonder whether he has set a standard for our children’s cinema that is yet to be surpassed. Indeed, given that even his latest film, Siri Parakum, seems too overdrawn to achieve this feat, I would not be surprised if in Siri Raja Siri we may well see the target of children’s cinema we all try to shoot at in vain. It is doubtless one of the most redeeming milestones of our recent cinema, and I cannot but in all fairness be thrilled by it every time I see it. Watch it! That is all I ask of you.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The languid lion

Peter O'Toole: 1932 - 2013

I wrote this piece the day I heard of his death. I wrote not out of deference to someone's dictate. I wrote to experiment. To see whether I could in word and paragraph sum up what I had watched and relished. Looking back, I feel I have a lot more to watch. And to relish. For the time being, this will do. In Memoriam.

Thespians and theatre lovers alike across the world are mourning today. They are mourning the death of one of the English theatre’s most treasured sons. Peter O’Toole, larger than life giant of the stage and the cinema, is no more.

Few actors of his time displayed such temerity, such bravado, in all their performances. Few actors will be as missed and wept over. This giant, who left behind a legacy of a 50-year career, was all of 81 on his demise. His death, which occurred on Saturday, was reported “peaceful" and "painless.” The giant has been laid to rest, and we feel the pain of his loss with a striking numbness and dullness of vitality worthy of a Keatsian ode.

There are only a select handful of actors whose very personality and manner matched those of the roles they played. O’Toole was at the pinnacle of that set. His style towards the midpoint of his career was dismissed as overblown, pretentious and unnatural. In reality it was merely a dismissal in itself of naturalistic acting, and an adherence to what he doubtless would have felt as more than just genuine: larger than life, in other words.

By the time the critics had got around to castigating him, the world had changed – big-screen epics and theatrical acting had become outdated. Yet O’Toole was master in both, and no other performer, to his last, entranced his audience with an enigmatic style representative of them as did he.

Born Peter Seamus O’Toole in 1932, the man destined to play the roles of the morally ambiguous was upon his arrival presented with two birth certificates – one listed in Ireland, the other in England. His childhood was spent amidst poverty, though not of the stultifying sort (“I’m not from the working class,” he once declared, “I’m from the criminal class”). His bookmaking father was, eerily reminiscent of Dickens’ childhood, troubled with creditors, and once allegedly had his knuckles broken by them.

His education, which was spent largely at a Catholic school, was of a harrowing sort. He was terrified of the nuns who ran it, and this could in part have accounted for the atheism that remained with him for the rest of his life. An irredeemable love for Christ, however, remained (“No one can take Jesus away from me,” he said in an interview with The New York Times), and it could be this, in part at least, which arguably electrified his performances.

His main love had always been the theatre, so much so that he was fired from the staff of a newspaper office with the parting words “try something else, be an actor, and do anything.” His inability to master the Irish language barred him from the Abbey Theatre; instead, he landed in the class of ’52-’54, alongside Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Brian Bedford, at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. “The most remarkable class the Academy ever had,” he later remembered.

Performances in The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice brought him renown at the Old Vic, and he got his first film role, albeit a supporting one, in 1960’s The Day they Robbed the Bank of England. Just two years later, though, he would be offered a more expansive and ambitious role, one that had been passed over both Marlon Brando and Albert Finney. O’Toole’s acceptance of it would charter his career, and his life, henceforward.

The film was Lawrence of Arabia, and the role that of T. E. Lawrence. It was ostensibly an epic, but unlike any of its kind made before. Where it differed from the “standard” of its kind was in its characterization – and O’Toole, in his portrayal of perhaps the most enigmatic British soldier of all time, took on the main role with an ambiguous sense of proportion unheard of at the time.

His Lawrence was not the clear-cut epic hero found in Ben-Hur, in The Robe, or even in King of Kings. From the languorous curve adorning his smile to the soft, lanky drawl, this was a hero of a different breed. Laced with a hint of sadomasochism and homoeroticism that is never fully explained in the plot, Lawrence the soldier was elevated to the status of a myth and God-like figure. Only O’Toole could have achieved this feat.

From then on, there could be no turning back. He played a multitude of roles, got Oscar nominations for eight of them, and electrified us with even the worst of them. He was a dictatorial, autocratic Henry II in Becket, and a patriarchal one in The Lion in Winter (he got Oscar nominations for both – the second time this ever happened in that show's history). Alongside women he sparkled and laced the films he was in with irrepressible charm and wit – with Katharine Hepburn in Lion, with Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million Dollars, and with Petula Clark in the remake of Goodbye Mr. Chips (for which he got his fourth nomination in a decade).

But he had his share of lesser roles too – he was most unconvincing as the tragic hero in Lord Jim, a less than angelic angel in The Bible… in the Beginning, and quite condemnably hilarious as Tiberius in the disastrous Penthouse production of Caligula. Ups and downs in the cinema were matched with ups and downs in the theatre. His return to Shakespearean roles with the 1980 Old Vic production of Macbeth was castigated for his “monotonous tenor bark.” Television redeemed him – with an Emmy nomination in the ABC miniseries Masada – and he gave an impressive performance as Tanner in the West End production of Man and Superman in 1980.

His personal life, at this stage at its worst nadir, was ebbing away from its past as well. A divorce settlement was reached with his first wife, Siân Phillips, in 1979, on account of his temper. Insulin-induced diabetes was accompanied by removal of his intestines – legacies of a chronic alcoholism. And in various television interviews – including two given to Johnny Carson – he exhibited the typical “O’Toole eccentricity” which had so typified his roles. One of Carson’s interviews was done during a drunken stint. Rightly he called him the “most difficult guest” he ever had.

What was difficult with him, however, was neither arrogance nor plain exhibitionism, but a style that had by this time taken firm hold over his very mannerisms to near comic, and effective, heights. It was almost as though O’Toole the Actor had become indistinguishable from O’Toole the Man. Each had become reflective of the other – reflective of the roles he had played, and would be playing.

Four more nominations would follow – The Ruling Class in 1972, The Stunt Man in 1980, My Favourite Year in 1982, and Venus in 2006. Three years before his last nomination he was offered the Honorary Lifetime Achievement Oscar. His reluctance to accept it was most understandable – back then he shared, with Richard Burton, the record for the most number of unsuccessful nominations, and as an actor who was yet to retire, he would have doubtless felt justified in waiting for the final catch. But accept it he did, and with what wit, too! – “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride - my foot. I have my very own Oscar now to be with me till death us do part!” From then on, it was a gradual road to retirement.

There are many words that can be used to characterize Peter O’Toole, and none of them could be “pretentious.” His method, which wasn’t as much a method as it was a personal signature, left many in the dark. It could rightly be called the theatrical version of literature’s infamous “purple prose”: attempts at the colourful, the poetic, with no compromise on breadth of style.

My idea of O’Toole is that of a languid, but by no means inactive, lion, who crept into performance after performance and distilled from them all a larger than life vibrancy unmatched by any other actor. He was the perfect Lawrence, the perfect Henry II, and the perfect Arthur Chipping.

And, like how Arthur Kennedy in Lawrence summed up its hero’s life, we could say this of Peter O’Toole – that “he was a poet, a scholar, and a mighty warrior.” And yes, it can also be that he was the “most shameless exhibitionist,” though maybe not since Barnum and Bailey. But that exhibitionism was not representative of a need to overplay, to over-dramatize. Rather, it was merely a hallmark of the “O’Toole style,” devoid of any pretentious attempts at naturalism or method acting, which in the hands of lesser artists would crumble away into dust. It’s a cinch we shall never get to see the likes of him again.

Peter O’Toole is well and truly dead. The Lion has finally departed, to rest in the Eternal Winter. That winter, no words or film will ever describe. Just as well. His was a life no epitaph can sum up. Or even hope to, for that matter.

The magic of Tintin

In a way I think we all grew idolizing some fictional hero. For some this would be a superhero. For others it would be a mythological figure. For yet another group it would be a Disney character, like Pinocchio or Dumbo. Some would even idolize super-villains – and, for better or worse, even grow up emulating them. As for me, I grew up with an unlikely hero. Why “unlikely” can be seen easily.

Imagine a reporter who hasn’t got any figure of strength. Neither the body nor the looks. He looks more boyish than actually is, and less the boy reporter than the typical street-boy. His only companion is a faithful little fox terrier that’s as puny looking as its master. Now imagine them going together on a world-spree to beat up gangsters, discover hidden treasures, solve unsolvable mysteries, and break up conspiracies. If you can’t imagine this, you are by no means unjustified.

But this was exactly what one cartoonist made us imagine and believe. This was what Tintin and Snowy did in every adventure they were in – even in the most ridiculous ones. They awed us. They enticed us. It mattered little whether we were 18 or 80. Young or old, we forgot our age and gave ourselves up to their magic.

Since that day in 1930, when Hergé drew up Tintin’s first adventure, In the Land of the Soviets, for the controversial pro-fascist Belgian journal Le Petite Vingtième, a lot has happened – a World War, a Cold War, wars in the Middle East and Africa, and even a war in our country. In all of them we seem to imagine a hero clad not in arms or uniform, but instead in a long overcoat and plus-four trousers, with a reporter’s notebook in his hand, a long pointed nose, and a trusty canine by his side. If you can imagine this hero in almost every earth shattering event in world history since that day, you are again by no means unjustified.

If the 12th century was that of Robin Hood, and the 14th that of William Tell, it’s safe to say that the 20th century was almost entirely Tintin’s. Every country has its national hero, real or imagined – in Russia it was Alexander Nevsky, that romantic warrior later beatified as a Saint. In Sri Lanka it was Saradiel, that irrepressible bandit who took up quiet arms against colonialists. Similarly, Belgium too had its own half-imagined hero, albeit a less aggressive one, in the form of one determined reporter.

And with him there were unforgettable side players, such as that old sea-dog Haddock, that forever deaf Calculus, and those two clumsy “Siamese” Thompson twins. We can imagine them, all imperfect in their own little ways, alongside Tintin, as they try and bring down all the Rastopopulouses and Müsstler and Müllers who ever walked this world. The little fish against the big ones. For this message alone I am grateful to have read Tintin fervently as a young kid, as I am sure you are too.

Today we live in the world of the superhero. We even feel trapped in it. Helpless, we relegate all our authority to the whims of one hero who alone holds the power to save the world – or at least a part of it. Peter Parker has saved New York four times now, with two different actors. Clark Kent, through three actors and seven films, has saved the entire world. And on two occasions Bruce Wayne has saved Gotham City. Two years ago, he "died" in the third.

Well, Tintin too is an individual, like them. Batman has his Robin, and Tintin has Snowy. But this boy reporter, with all the deceptive looks of a schoolboy, showed us that it was the ordinary person with extraordinary determination who alone could show the world the power of the individual over the “big men”. He fought Al Capone and won. He fought Cold War spies and won. He fought big businessmen and won. At some points he was even left for dead – but he always did emerge, and how!

With this he was rightly elevated to the status of a national myth. The comparisons with Robin Hood and William Tell are, to my mind, quite acceptable. If you can imagine William Tell, who with his crossbow rose up against Gessler, then you can also imagine Tintin in his category, fighting with his notebook (and of course Snowy) against Rastapopulous.

Again, if you can imagine this, you are by no means unjustified.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Remembering Robin

Robin Williams: 1951 - 2014
When people commemorate the dead, they always submit that proverbial two cents’ worth. They couch their words with adjective and adverb, with a buoyant spirit that at once conjures for their listeners an image of the person being commemorated. All too often, however, words tend to supersede, glorify, or belittle the life of that person. That is inevitable. But then, there are those lives which scattered laughter and tears, and which no words can sum up. These were lives that wandered up high in their fields, and stayed there, at one point becoming the giants we knew they always had been. Robin Williams led such a life. Words pale before him. I can only try.

The man whose silence could be as riveting and revealing as his words was born in Chicago in 1951. His father was a senior executive at Ford; his mother, a model. The young Williams did not exactly spend an impoverished childhood, though by his account it was quite a lonely one. At school, at home, and very probably elsewhere, he was a shy lad, occasionally finding recreation by imitating other people’s voices.

That all ended when he entered Juilliard in New York, into a class that had Christopher Reeve as well. That was in 1973. Three years later, he left it without graduating. By that time, he had mastered what would become one of his greatest strengths in the career to come: an ambidextrous ability at imitating other dialects.

Williams’ career began with television. A brief appearance as an alien in an episode of a N.B.C. television series got him cast in a lead role in a spinoff series, Mork & Mindy. By all accounts, it was his launch pad, one which led to his performance being lampooned, imitated and featured all across America. Stints at various comedy specials and co-hosting an Academy Award ceremony would come. A career in film was waiting just around the corner.

Although his debut in the cinema was in 1977’s Can I Do It ‘Till I Need Glasses?, it would not be until 10 years later that his landmark would come. This was Good Morning Vietnam, a film that has since become as linked with Williams as Edward Scissorhands has with Johnny Depp. As the wisecracking radio D.J. Adrian Conauer, he plied his performance with a blend of improvisation and comedy that remained his hallmark for nearly all his major performances. Not even an Oscar nomination could overstate it. Williams, with a face as malleable as were his accents and dialects, had become as lovable in speech as Chaplin had in silence. This was just the beginning.

Actors have their crests and troughs. Williams was no exception. He reached his heights with roles in Disney’s Aladdin (1991), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Good Will Hunting (1997, which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Happy Feet (2006), all of them catching him in a twilight world between comedy and pathos. But then there were those ambitious failures, in Popeye (1980), Toys (1992), Jack (1996), Flubber (1997), and Patch Adams (1998, which Roger Ebert called a “quackery”). They were exaggerated, affected, and unforgivably so.

But Williams wasn’t just limited to comedy. He made up for his comic malapropos with those dark, untypical roles we found hard to associate with him. This was evident in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. As Walter Finch, the incongruously named serial killer parading as a writer, Williams found himself in a role that, like that of Chaplin’s as Henri Verdoux, teetered off to gritty authenticity, high drama, with only occasional glimpses into the comic frame that had marked out his earlier performances. Nolan never took him for such a role again. Neither, for that matter, did any other director, perhaps because they believed him incapable of ever being as amoral, as vice-ridden, and as harsh, as he had been in that film. Perhaps they were right.

To all those who grew accustomed to seeing Chaplin the benevolent Tramp at the opposite pole to Chaplin the adulterous Man, Williams’ personal life was not too much of a shock to get used to. He married and he divorced. He got addicted to cocaine. He was an alcoholic, and regretted his inability to become sober. Above all, though, he was prone to depression, that malignant trope which figures in the lives of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ingmar Bergman, and Jim Carrey. Williams was comedy in parts: outside these parts, he was another human being battling depression and despair. Perhaps the cocaine intensified that battle. In the end, he lost.

Williams may not have been the greatest comic actor who ever lived. Comparisons with Chaplin may even seem erroneous. But one thing binds these two luminaries together. Both displayed certain idiosyncrasies which, whether in lighthearted or realistic roles, stuck to them. Chaplin could never escape that malleable face of his, as pliable as wax under fire, even in his serious performances. Williams could never escape that twinkle in his eyes. It was there everywhere, whenever and wherever his characters found a momentary pause in the story, perhaps long after the climax of it had been done and dusted. In those eyes of his, I think, were to be found the secret to his charisma, his at-times inscrutable penchant for the comic, larger-than-life finesse he displayed in role after role: a microcosm of the actor in him. It was most beautifully caught in Spielberg’s Hook, where he was a grownup Peter Pan who returns to a childhood only he could have so delightfully portrayed as an adult.

I think I have written enough. My two cents’ worth is done. But before closing this little tribute to a man I grew up and loved growing up with, I have something to say. I remember a scene from Dead Poets Society, a film I remember watching in my adolescence with enormous delight. Williams was in it, in what I consider to be his best performance, as John Keating, the defiant teacher who inculcates in his students a love of life, poetry, and spirit. Towards the end, after the school authorities dismiss him, he comes to his class one final time to pack up and leave. The class is overlooked by the stern headmaster. Slowly, but eventually, Keating reaches the door after retrieving his belongings.

Suddenly a student gets up. “Oh Captain! My Captain!” he exclaims emotionally. Keating stops. And then, one by one, the rest of the class, deaf to the headmaster’s warnings, follow suit, until all that’s left sitting are some timid boys who had never sided with him. Keating looks at them all, eyes shining with that familiar twinkle, suppressing emotion. “Thank you boys,” he quietly says, “Thank you.”

Robin Williams was John Keating. He was also those boys. He lived a life we laughed at and cried at. For all those laughs and tears, may we be ever grateful. And may words, no matter how affected they may be, neither understate nor embellish that life he led. For, truth be told, no eulogy or epitaph will ever sum him up. I certainly hope that this remains so. May we then wish that it be that way. Always.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, August 17 2014

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Sugathapala Senerath Yapa: A figure in the distant fold

History is a cruel thing. It grants some that heroic standing which ensures them immortality. It elevates them on top of the crest that makes their names synonymous with the movements they lead and forge. Others, however, bear the brunt of history’s axe. Obscurity invests a man with the vilest sort of insult, and yet, to obscurity are many condemned. Such is the case in Sri Lanka, that for every A there must always be an X, a Y, and the frequent Z. Very well. We cannot counter the slings of fortune.

But in this tragic scheme of things, we can spot out one or two names of those to whom such punishment was never due: victims of a grave insult. Nowhere can this be truer than in the realm of art, and in Sri Lanka, many are the names of those distinguished men and women forced to obscurity ere long. I wish to do justice to one man to whom such undue obscurity was meted out, and can only hope to have tried to be fair by him.

Vijaya Kumaratunge’s appeal can hardly be doubted today. When he first lashed out with his first role, a storm was unleashed. This storm lasted right through until his murder decades later. 1969 was when he starred in that first role, in Hanthane Kathawa. In it he was the bantering, boisterous youth typical of his time and place. But – you may ask, watching this film – who directed this illustrious classic, this gemstone of a film?

Alas, you will hear a name you may not have heard of. No matter, for such is the inevitable toll of obscurity. Sugathapala Senerath Yapa is a case in point, not because of what he directed, but of what he could have directed in the years to come: not of the crest he rode on, but of the troughs he was condemned to.

Sugathapala Senerath Yapa is a filmmaker with three features and 28 documentaries to his credit. Hardly a notable filmography, you may remark. But mark my words – in his first film can be found the intense vitality of an entire career. In it is to be found a whole textbook on filmmaking, rarely paralleled in Sinhala cinema, because in no other serious director’s career can be found as dazzling a first film as his. Hanthane Kathawa was neither too serious nor too blasé: I reserve judgment of it to those of better aesthetic taste.

Moving on. It is on a Friday evening that I sit down with Yapa, hoping and praying that I may gain from him some essential grain of truth. And I am not disappointed. Conversing with him, you are reminded of a yet vibrant artist, timeless in his love for the cinema, yet never bitter with the unfortunate tryst with it he had to endure. His life-story to me is as enriching, as event-ridden, as is his career.

He was born in Akuressa in 1935. As a child, he was “boisterous”. By that, he was referring to an antic which got him expelled from his first school, Rakvana Central College. The young Yapa spread a rumour that the buns given during interval time were covered with worms. The rumour got him into a school in Pelmadulla.

He remembers this with a half-mischievous smile, and in his reminiscences, I can spot out a painful nostalgic aura. In his new school, more serious than he had ever been at his studies, he completed his S.S.C. Preparatory Exams. A quirk of fate, however, would prevent him from completing the remainder of his school life.

It was here, he tells me, that his career with films really began. With both mother and father dead while quite young, Yapa spent his time painting out the titles of various films which would be shown at his village, not in cinema halls, but in those quaint “Mobile Halls” that, like circuses, would move from one village to another. Primitive, but to the villager then quite a frivolous novelty!

In any case, his tryst with filmmaking kick-started when, after seeing his talents displayed along the road, the manager of the circus-like Mobile Hall gained him free admission to its shows. From then on, “experience became my first teacher”. At a time when “film school” was as yet an unheard-of word in Asia, his education was chiefly through the films he would see firsthand. “I learnt nearly every technique of filmmaking through them”.

Hanthane Kathawa
After the 1950s, there emerged a cinema culture in this country. Yapa became part of it, first as an actor, then as a director. Compounding several very different influences, he made Hanthane Kathawa. No-one who has, to the best of my knowledge, seen it can deny its authentic “charm” – not the sort of charm that goes with a “photogenic” cinema, but the sort seen only in an inventive one.

The career which started on a promising crest, unfortunately, stooped down to its troughs. The two feature-length films he would make later on were despairingly “mainstream” and “commercial” in their outlook. The 28 documentaries he made would have been his salvation: one of his short features in fact even won an award at New Delhi. But, for the most part, it was a promising career cut down to fit a smaller hole. Hardly the treatment one could expect, with such talents at one’s disposal.

So what, or who, was to blame?

He himself cannot tell me, but I can guess. At a time when larger-than-life political concerns were making themselves felt, his craft would have been, to critics, nothing short of “indifferent”. “You either have to be committed, or be off!” Such would have been the unwritten law of the day. At any rate, he himself has spoken of the injustices meted out to him, which I cannot list down in their entirety here. But I can be sure of one thing: jealousy, malice and vindictiveness were always, and still continue to be, the three-fanged obstacle for any creative artiste. That this was so in Yapa’s case is not surprising.

Not surprising, and not comforting either. You would have expected such a man to grow weary of his own craft. But here I am pleasantly surprised. “Even if I were afforded the opportunity to make a film today, I would do so,” he tells me. Looking at those sparks of youthful candour in his eyes, I could not help feeling that such an opportunity should present itself immediately. A fertile and fecund mind he has; the means to transmute it into film can be afforded fairly easily. All that needs, I am sure, is the backing.

At a time when our film industry lies stagnant near the cesspool – indeed, at a time when it seems to be following either a populist trend or a minoritarian pattern – we need a Sugathapala Senerath Yapa more than ever before. He calls for a middle cinema – “it is depressing to see how dreams have replaced reality in certain films made here today,” he remarks – which would cater neither to highbrow nor lowbrow audiences, but rather to a healthy assortment of both. No film made here within the last few years fits this bill. I do not doubt that, secretly even, we all ought to lament this.

More than 40 years ago, one man, bent on achieving a commendable grasp of the cinema in this country, and on bettering its tradition here, was rudely pushed aside. You may not have heard of him. This quiet, affable man, seeking no gain but that which would reverberate within our very own cultural sphere, was soon condemned to be that lone figure in the distant fold he is now. I cannot appreciate it. None of us can, in fact. With a man who could have single-handedly wielded a more welcome path for our culture, who can do otherwise?

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, August 10 2014

The forgetting game

I am not a person who attacks things because that act of “attacking” happens to be “the thing to do.” This is why, I think, I’ve been called a person who never moves with the crowd. Yes, I am. Maybe that’s why vigils, petitions, foundations, movements and “social media activism” rarely move me. Not because most of them are all talk and no walk (which, mind you, they are), but because, as we all know, “feel good” ceremonies are easier to take part in than affirmative action. Perhaps that’s why visionaries like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and D. S. Senanayake will always get my admiration. There is a world of difference between word and act, and the secret these men discovered was that one need not always be to the other’s exclusion. Pitifully, though, few among us realize this today. That’s why so many self-labelled “champions” of freedoms, rights and unlimited licence (to do whatever their own crass religious/political/creed colour will allow them to) will never “win” the sort of support those men did. And I’m not surprised. Precept, after all, is way easier than practice.

There was a time when "protest" did not presuppose "vigilantism," not because back then a sense of decency prevailed, but because anyone who dared go out into the streets when they weren’t supposed to ended up beaten, battered, gouged and killed. Back then, therefore, it was easier to sift away the hypocritical from the genuine, because the line that divided one from the other was, plain and simple, a very bloody one. Which is why we were not surprised when Nanda Malini, together with Sunil Ariyaratne, became a turncoat revolutionary during the ’80s, which added a spot on her reputation un-erasable by anything she has since sung or said. Of course there were other hypocrites. But those came from among us. For we too figured in with them. None of us had clean hands, except a very few, whom I will continue to admire no matter what.

Perhaps that is why some of these “බොරු විප්ලවවාදියෝ,” unveiled and undressed during their time, remain tight-lipped today. That is why, even in the face of gross abuse of power, they remain silent. For they know that the slightest whimper will set alight the “hypocrisy-hunters” whose job it is to expose and vilify. I am, of course, not just thinking of Victor Ivan here. Judging by some of these hypocrites’ pasts, however, I feel that Ivan and his bandwagon are not wholly unjustified in what they reveal and write. They do have a point. Those in glass houses shouldn’t scream. And we have the biggest screamers here protesting today.

What should we feel about this? On the one hand, I am glad. Not because those abusing power are getting a sort of “impunity” because of the hypocrisy of those protesting against them, nor because I believe in the proverbial baby and the bathwater (or for that matter the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea), but because those hypocrites, considering their past, will very probably commit the same atrocities and abuses – perhaps a hundred times over – if they attain power. Which, thankfully, they won’t. Perhaps that is why I relish it whenever the J.V.P. or U.N.P. come out lambasting every Tom, Dick and Harry in power, because I know the things they’re denouncing figure somewhere in their own past.

People forget. Easily. But not long enough to conveniently throw away memories of charred bodies, maimed lives, and of course abductions. Especially if this act of “forgetting” is to be done in favour of those who charred, maimed, and abducted. So, at least until those who “lived” through the war and the “බීශනය” are dead and gone, we won’t see those born-again protesters come to power. And even when that generation passes off, I’m sure their children and very probably grand-children will not elect them, if that generation had impressed on them the terror they once lived through. This will remain so particularly when the man who leads the protest camp happens to be the same one who once sold the country, and not just to the terrorists.

But on the other hand, I am depressed. Current abuse of power warrants backlash. It is this backlash we are not seeing properly today. I am, of course, encouraged when seeing certain troupes from the Opposition marching out to Sapugaskanda to investigate the refinery and riding on trains to do the same with the railway system, P.R. exercises though they can be at times. That adds a sort of ballast to an otherwise anchorless Opposition. There is action in what is being done, far exceeding anything that the launch of a Facebook page (as Ranil did recently) can bring in. I am no political analyst, but, malleable though the notion of “democracy” is, I believe that a country having a spineless Opposition is as good as an Opposition-less one. That’s saying something.

I know things change. That’s why history is forgotten, for better or for worse. In Sri Lanka though, at least since independence, this process of forgetting has been for the worse. Always. We have forgotten ’56, ’58, ’62, ’71, ’77 and ’83. I don’t doubt that we’ve forgotten ’48 and ’72 too, but that’s not too important. Judging by all this, we’ll forget other years. We will forget ’78, when J.R. “created” a democracy that exists more in paper than in practice. We will forget ’82, when J.R. “added” to that democracy by rigging a referendum. We will forget ’87 and ’89, the years of terror and counter-terror.

Yes, we will forget all these. We will also forget 2009, at least when those who lived through the war and its traumas pass off, and a younger generation that privilege action over laurel will take on the reins. I know this generation. They are not necessarily those who “grew up” after 2009. For them, either the war was not that traumatic (on account, I should think, of a privileged childhood) or the glory of winning it will never justify corruption or malpractice.

And I welcome them. Not because I hate the current regime, but because we need people who, even within the four walls of party and creed colour, will want a genuinely better day for you and me. My only worry, on this count, is whether this process of forgetting so essential to this generation will breed a repeated and tortured history. For us. Again. If it does, we can seek little comfort from all the turncoat Nanda Malinis and revolutionaries another “බීශනය” can bring. At least for those among us who don’t find forgetting a very easy thing to do. Like me.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Of the childhood we "left"

There was a time when a child could watch T.V. and enjoy that act of watching. A time when T.V. could engage the child without insulting his/her intelligence. Not that things are too different today. But kids these days, and I am sure of this, will never get to enjoy that same T.V. we lived through once upon a time. This may be a personal opinion, but I know it’s true. Not that I’m happy with it. I’m anything but. And I think I’m not alone in this. I know several friends, all of whom grew up in the same childhood I did, who feel the same way. Perhaps it’s inevitable. I agree. But that this should mean things should continue the way they have so far, I don’t.

Time was when all that we had to do was wake up, go to school, come back home, and spend the rest of the day living. No computers. No video games. And best of all, no tuition. To be young, as we were then, was certainly not heaven. But it was something to drink, to love, to savor, to breathe. Being an only child, and thereby open to the privileges bestowed on only children, I felt this a hundred times over. When I look back, there is somewhere within me a feeling of hurt. I bear no grudge, nor harbor bitterness. But it’s like watching an old film, seeing a more carefree time, daintier and freer life in it, and having nostalgia well up in you. That hurts.

Inevitable? Certainly. That’s what makes everything all the more depressing.

My childhood was spent in a twilight world: back when new was meeting old in practically every sphere, from drama to music to television to film. I was part of the generation that saw Amaradeva, hailed him, and then turned around to welcome Bathiya and Santhush. We saw Dosthara Hodhahitha, Tintin, Robinson Andare, and also saw how, in the inevitable rush to import every foreign T.V. show, the quality of dubbed programs went for a six. Almost literally. We watched Doo Daruwo, Yashorawaya and Charitha Thunak (for me still the best of them all) and watched how tele-series became replaced by mega-series. The changeover hurt. I was sad.

That’s why I worry. Not for myself, much less for those generations that never got to see this transition, but for the generations that are yet to come. I worry because three out of five 10-year olds don’t know who Amaradeva is. I worry because some 13-year olds think he’s dead. I worry because some younger children call him a “gorakaya” (I kid you not). I worry because this country is going down the garden path, not up. I worry because, despite all the hype over “development,” we are neglecting the very same children who have gone and are going down this path.

And I worry because I don’t know what to do. Being angry never helps. I’m not angry, not because there’s no room for anger, but because I cannot blame anyone in particular. Not the children, because I know their ignorance and “philistinism” aren’t their own doing. Not the parents, because in their humdrum existence, they can do precious little else than leave their children be. Not the education system, because despite its ills and shortcomings, we’re yet to come up with a viable alternative. And certainly not the schools or teachers, because they’re following that same system for which no policymaker has offered a viable alternative. It’s more or less a vicious circle. No-one to blame, at least not in particular.

But we are a nation of blame-shooters. If the man at the top is to blame, s/he lays it at the doorstep of the person beneath him. It’s the same story with pretty much everyone else. At the end, we are left with no-one to blame. So, in this game of blaming, I won’t join. I’ll just recount some observations I’ve made, tested, and found to be true.

I start with children. I have said their ignorance is not their own doing. That’s true. From day one, they’re forced to follow a curriculum that privileges blind faith over reason and submission over inquiry. Most of all, that curriculum inculcates in them a fierce “grab all or have none” competitive attitude which persists them till, I’m sorry to say, the day they leave school. Or is it till the day they die? I never can tell. But the story remains the same: in this vicious jungle, there’s really little else to do but follow the leaders.

And follow them these kids do. They follow the syllabus that’s impossibly overstuffed with absolutely nothing. They follow teachers who prefer status quo to innovation in the classroom. They follow their noses to tuition class after tuition class, either because their school teachers are too lazy and take “paid” leave so frequently that the absent days outnumber the present ones, or because the syllabus is too overstuffed – or sometimes both. They follow the dross that some of those “tuition kades” churn out, and, in the inevitable conflict between the tuition-subject and class-subject, they become more and more apathetic.

Call it a rat-race after the cheese. Problem is, it’s not just the cheese the kids are following. There will most probably be a mouse-trap hidden underneath. For some at least.

It doesn’t end here, of course. There’s pressure and something needed to get that pressure off. So these children listen to “music.” They watch “T.V.” They read “books.” And they play “games.” I don’t think I need to explain those apostrophes. They are there for a reason. You know the story.

We live in a culture that has deified noise to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. So, inevitably, children follow that noise. I know I’m of a dying breed and generation, very possibly the last which grew up savoring both old and new. Today, though, everything’s changed. The child in you and me is dying. Fast. What’s deplorable is that there’s no-one in particular to blame. The blame-game can only start with someone. That someone is you. So start with yourself. Start making a change. Start living life. And, for the sake of decency and goodness, stop calling everyone old a “gorakaya.”

I know Amaradeva, and of the legacy he bestowed on this country. I know many other old people. Not personally, but well enough to know that they do not deserve indifference, ignorance or condescension. So start with yourselves. Live the old and the new. Live life. Taste it. The child in you is waiting. So let it out.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Celebrating the child in me

I have often wondered whether we are born good or bad. Not that I have lost faith in mankind. But this world, with all its conflict and degradation, does not sustain that faith either. There are good people. Bad people. And “people.” I believe this world consists mainly of this third category. But before I explain what this possibly could mean, let me come out with it – all human beings are born “good,” unhindered and unmoved by caste, colour, race or religious preference, much less political preference. I am no educationist or child psychologist. But nothing can overwhelm my faith in children. Nonetheless, there are times when I doubt this as well. I was a child once. I knew innocence. I knew smiles. I could distinguish between honesty and hypocrisy in a way no “mature” adult ever could or can. And I don’t think I left that childhood completely behind.

So when I am told by a certain “friend” of mine that I should have been born and raised in another religion, I can only laugh. Prejudice unmasked. Hidden beneath the well-intended advice, of course, was the sneer. No-one is perfect. But it doesn’t take much to realize we’ve come to a point where even the choice of religion exercised by your parents has become a sort of criterion to measure friendship. It’s that bad. I wouldn’t have been saddened by this alone, though. Indeed, I wasn’t surprised by it. I could have merely asked the “friend” to mind his/her own business, and that would have been the end of the matter.

But the problem doesn’t end there. I know for a fact that children are prone to ask these questions, once in a way. I suppose I must have come from a different generation. Back in my day, questions related to faith and belief were out of bounds. Forbidden territory. Now, though, comments are thrown back and forth with no care in the world, reflecting the prejudices and bigotries that often run through the child’s parent. There’s no other way of explaining it. But I know that the child is innocent in this. S/he is yet too immature to realize the gravity of the question being posed. This is what we call “conditioning.” What is being “conditioned” is the parent’s parochialism. With this, I can say with reason, the child is well on his/her way to bigotry and disharmony.

Just the other day, for instance, I was light-heartedly taken to task by a couple of kids for my religion. At the outset, let me say that being born to both Buddhism and Catholicism in my family did not cause me to love one and hate the other. It would be safer to say that, possibly like many others born to such circumstances, I grew up indifferent to both. My question to those taking issue with my parent’s choice of religion for me, then, is this: even if that choice were made differently, would my wishes be consulted at the birth registrar? Would my own personal opinion be accounted for? At that age? Of course, that’s what I always ask of adults. But what do you say to kids?

I was at a loss for words when they began asking me, a little hurt I thought, why I wasn’t in “their” religion. The youngest of them, who was also the most open, pressed me further. “Why didn’t you take communion like us?” The question was put, I felt, in a bit of an accusatory form. I didn’t know what to say or think. All I knew was that this boy, at some point before, had wanted to visit a temple; and that his father had blatantly forbidden him, even when he had cried out and pleaded with him. When I heard the story, naturally I was saddened. For the father had been thinking pretty much the way many of those following my religion do: that “conversion” occurs magically just as you enter another place of worship. Of course, a more ridiculous notion is hard to find. If we were to count those “converting” to another set of beliefs purely by the number of visits made to other sites, we would have to count in quite a lot.

But those two kids, to be fair, were interested in my religion, more than I could ever be. The bigger one, admittedly, had outgrown that interest a little – his father (the mother was Buddhist) had instilled in him a dispassionate indifference to a religion which, I felt, he would have been interested in once upon a time. This wasn’t the case with the younger kid, at least not yet. He was asking about my religion, vigorously. Looking back, I feel a little relieved at this, though I dread knowing whether that younger kid will go through the same insular path the other had. But that question they asked me has remained in my mind. It has raised quite a lot of other questions in me – and a few hornets’ nests as well.

Children ask pointed questions. That’s natural. Not because they are by nature impolite, but because, at that age, they are unable to veil the “object” of the questions being asked. In this case, these two boys were confused why, having a Catholic father, I was not taken to their faith. They had come to believe that having a Catholic parent, whether mother or father, meant automatic baptism. They were curious, but not angry or condescending, unlike that friend of mine. I have asked that question of myself several times since then. I’ve come to some answers, but I’m not sure whether they’re right.

Goodness knows who I might have become if I were any different to what I am. To this day, I ask myself whether I would have been a better or worse man if I had become different. Perhaps I would have been open to the privileges which, in education and elsewhere, a change of this sort brings with it in this country. Perhaps I could have been made more devout in my beliefs than I am at present. Perhaps I could have developed a love for religion which I lack at present. Perhaps, in that case, I wouldn’t have been writing all this. I may never know. I am no clairvoyant.

Mind you, I am not proud of who I am. Neither am I proud of my religion, because that kind of pride brings with it hate: and hate, as we all know, is most opposed to the spirit of religion. That is why I abhor organized religion, because, being “organized,” it defines itself only in relation to the “Other.” I am sure those kids will grow up viewing their religion that way. I am also sure that along with Christians, there will also be Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims who will grow up scattering hate on the pretext of “following” their beliefs. Identity creates rift. Rift causes disunity.

But identity, at a time when it has become all too difficult to define, is important. I may not laud what I am. But I’m yet to meet someone else who isn’t proud of his/her background. The person who can define his/her religion without taking recourse to the “Other,” without feeling the need to proselytize, while finding the true spirit of that religion from within, is of a rare breed. I think that breed dies out when we reach the end of our childhood. It is when we are children that we can ask questions candidly, pointedly, without feeling prejudiced at all. That, mind you, is the line that separates those two boys from that “friend.”

For that friend was of the “third” kind of people I was talking about earlier. This third kind, the most typical in this world, is neither good nor bad. People falling into this category have one thing in common. They left their childhood, their innocence and their smiles a long time ago. Some of them became bigots. Some others became moderates. A few became liberals, but with the controversy that inevitably arises out of that, a great many became turncoats later on.

That is why I celebrate the child in me. All other things aside, that’s one thing I can be proud of. And I know I am.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Musings on a Post

A blog post, Facebook status, or newspaper op-ed courting controversy on the one hand always courts comment on the other. All too often, these comments shed light on the very controversy the article itself speaks of. Carried away by personal viewpoint, the “commentator” gets carried into debate. That’s inevitable. What’s not, though, is this – turning the debate into a series of harangues and personal gibes. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens. When opinianators try to spread their beliefs to others, dogmatism on their part strips them of any form of deference to another’s viewpoint. Sri Lanka is no stranger to this.

Aluthgama. Dambulla. Bodu Bala Sena. Each word entangles with the other. You cannot separate them. Just as well, because, truth be told, they are not meant to be separated. The media, civil society, NGOs, and of course politicians have ensured that. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.

Just the other day, I was surfing the web. Not for anything in particular. Now that the flames of Aluthgama have, for the time being at least, died down, it seemed all done and dusted in the internet, except for the occasional reference made by a Facebook status or blog post. I was looking for such a reference. And not in the usual places. Not on Facebook, Twitter, or newspaper sites.

And then, just like that, I came across a page. It wasn’t a blog. It was titled “Not in Our Name.” I read what was written in it: “Put your name down, resist violence, pass on the message.” Further down, the site called out for web surfers like me to add their names, in any of the three languages spoken and written in this country, to protest against what happened in Dambulla. That was when I realized the site was created two years ago, around the time BBS was as yet a mild, though by no means passive, force. Moving on, I quote further, the site spoke against “the shameful behaviour and expression employed by the Mahanayake of the Rangiri Dambulla Chapter.” I was satisfied; indeed, the site seemed to me quite worthy of signature and support. But I was more interested in the comments. So I scrolled further down.

Enter the flurry of comments. The first commentator had written: “A truly dark day in Sri Lankan history.” I couldn’t have agreed more. I have always found, however, that one should never base a movement’s sincerity on the first comment it provokes. In the beginning is the Word. As time goes by, this Word gets cut down, mutilated, corrupted, defiled, and twisted to suit the perverted logic of any one viewpoint. Such is the case with blog post comments. And comments in petition sites. So I moved on.

“Our 2,500 year old Sinhala Buddhist heritage needs to be preserved for our children and grandchildren,” read the second comment. I doubt anyone would beg to differ. I doubt also, however, whether “preservation” presupposes “violence.” And I am not just thinking of Sinhala Buddhism only. The same can be said of other faiths and creeds. The same can be said of other races and religious groups where preservation in fact has, in the opinion of some of their members, presupposed violence. So, at that point, I strongly disagreed with the writer of this comment. I don’t think any rational person would do otherwise.

The third, fourth, and fifth comments were all directed at this comment, by the way. “You might preserve the structures in the name of preserving heritage, but you are going against the teaching of Lord Buddha,” read one. The key here was “structure”, by which the writer probably meant the temple and the monastic sects which make up Buddhism as an institution akin to the Catholic Church. By “going against the teachings of Lord Buddha”, s/he was drawing a line between practice and precept – between the goodness behind religion and the unholy flouting of it by those who preach it. Once again, something that can well and truly be understood by everyone. And something that can be applied to any other creed too.

But here, constructive debate ended. In came loose, thinly veiled gibes aimed at one another. I wasn’t surprised, though. This sort of thing happens in every post, be it on Facebook or in blog. So I looked on at another comment which attacked the person who wrote of our 2,500 year old civilization: “You and your fellow bigots are actually doing more to destroy your precious heritage.” Key word here: precious. A word that connotes both value and affectation. A word that in the context of this comment definitely insinuated the latter. Let me elaborate.

By including “your” right before “precious heritage”, what the writer insinuated was a gibe, and a poorly veiled one at that. S/he could have written “You have a heritage?” and it would have meant the same thing, with the sort of (un)conscious condescension Pablo Neruda experienced when, having arrived at a party in Sri Lanka after listening to drum music along the way, he was asked “Do the natives have music?” But I forgave the writer all the same, because s/he could not possibly have been truly in accord with the message the site was trying to put across: that condescension of another culture, and another way of life, is just as blunt whether done subtly or openly. Clearly, the writer was just as guilty in what he did not say as extremist monks were in what they did. I rest my case.

The rest of the comments, needless to say, spoke for themselves. Poorly. Looking at them, I am reminded of the Christian precept “Love thy neighbour.” You can preach all you want about loving your neighbour, but, as I said before, precept and action are miles apart. I am amused at the irony here. That writer clearly was disguising his/her contempt. I have no issue with his/her calling the wo/man who was concerned about “preserving” our “heritage” a “bigot”. I couldn’t have agreed more. But why include “your precious heritage” in it? Was s/he implying that the Sinhala Buddhist heritage this country is built on sanctions the sort of violence one or two extremists unleash? Was s/he that dim? Mistaking religion with the acts of a few radicals is not, I feel, very uncommon among other creeds as well. But that just makes the mistake all the more deplorable.

Do these people, I thought, really believe that they’re writing this sort of thing while being supportive of the message the site was putting across? The comments I saw underneath didn’t testify to that. There was one writer who wrote of “arrogant Buddhist monks.” Mind you, s/he wasn’t referring to extremist monks. The full comment read “Another example of the arrogance of Buddhist priests.” Indeed. Since when did the work of a few radicals clad in saffron robes illustrate that entire sect’s view of other creeds? Is one to decry Catholicism just because certain priests engaged (and engage) in molesting children? Is one to condemn Islam just because the Taliban bombed, raped, maimed, plundered, and goodness knows what else against other religions and their followers?

There is something fundamentally wrong with these people, I thought, and not without reason. Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly not for the sort of thing that unfolded at Dambulla two years back and Aluthgama two months back. I deplore the government’s response to both incidents. And I don’t think calling Gnanasara Thero a “terrorist” is going too far, if by “terrorist” one includes any person inciting violence without actually using guns or bombs. After all, even the most primitive savage can be a terrorist, even if all the “weapons” s/he has are a rock and stick (and mouth). The quicker the BBS is got rid of, the better it will be for everyone. But it’s high time we drew the line somewhere.

A Catholic friend of mine recently pointed out an interesting thing to me. I berate myself for not having seen it earlier. At the height of the Aluthgama furor, everyone started changing their Facebook profile pictures. The new picture was the “Stand Against Racism” logo that you see in some Facebook accounts even today. It included a picture of a handprint, in the middle of which was the Sri Lankan map. Well, I thought it looked quite worthy of the message.

This Catholic friend of mine didn’t think so, though. She thought it provoked the very violence it was aiming against. “Those logos are all yellow,” she told me. She was right. Nothing wrong there. But everyone knows that yellow is the colour of Buddhism. I won’t comment much on this, but I will say this much – consciously or otherwise, those protesting against racism were getting themselves involved in the very same brand of racism they were hullabooing against. Malinda Seneviratne wrote an excellent piece on this, titled “What is the colour of racism?

It was Seneviratne who said that some people actively championing multiculturalism and the separation of temple and state here would call secularism a “God-given right.” He was right. Hypocrisy among charlatans is not uncommon, be it the BBS or fundamentalists of other faiths. I concur that the vast majority of those championing diversity and multiethnic identity are doing a wonderful job. They are directly carrying out the sort of work our Kings did too, once upon a time. King Senarath, to give one example, sheltered Muslims when they were being attacked by Portuguese soldiers hell-bent on converting the “heathen” to their religion. Of course, I can’t really compare what such Kings did with what the Government at present is doing. So I can only say this: individual civil society groups (by which I exclude NGOs, for reasons which are obviously apparent to all) are championing worthy causes. Some of my friends are members of these groups too. I can only watch from behind, support, and join.

But then there are others, thankfully a minority, who use what they are championing as a trump-card to hide their venomous prejudices. I know this sort of prejudice. I met it on Facebook and in real life. The likes of Seneviratne have openly written of “Buddha bashing”, perhaps the most popular way you can become a “liberal” hero in the eyes of multiculturalists today. I need not add to that. I will, nonetheless, say this much – there are quite a number of self-proclaimed secularists who would turn the other cheek if what was being attacked was Buddhism. I know however that, thanks to the genuine ones who are leading youth civil society today, they are a minority.

The ones who remain silent when Buddhism is attacked, however, are the exact ones who, in private or public, were part of the pro-LTTE lobby. I don’t mean they were conspirators. Nothing like that. But I know for a fact that nearly every one of these self-proclaimed “multiculturalists” believed that 1. The LTTE was justified in what they did and were doing; 2. Buddhism had become so entrenched in our culture that it could be even severely compromised with; and 3. Unethical conversion was a human right (never mind that plenty of “religion bashing” was and is involved in converting Buddhists and Hindus). They would turn around and look only when a “minority” community would be attacked. Not for the love of that community, but because it provided the perfect opportunity for them to lace protest with anti-Sinhala Buddhist ranting. From among them, I’m pretty sure you’ll meet the same crowd that shrugged off LTTE attacks on the Dalada Maligawa, the Kattankudy mosque, and the Sri Maha Bodhi as “necessary evils” to be tolerated in the name of peace.

This is not the time to go into all this. I’ll do that some other time. But I’ll say this much: those actively protesting bigotry and inequity would do well to look back to the past to see whether their own party were guilty of the very same thing. Those who actively opposed Free Education, to give an example from elsewhere, have no right to criticize its shortcomings today. Likewise, those guilty of the same mono-ethno, mono-religious bigotry, those still prone to spitting out venomous diatribes against other creeds and beliefs, have no right whatsoever to “Stand Against Racism”.

I’m saying all this as one who got battered by an “enlightened” friend for having “liked” Bodu Bala Sena’s Facebook page. There were Muslims and Tamils who had “liked” that page. I had done so for same reason they had: to get notifications. One does not “like” a page, after all, merely because one likes its content. Was that friend of mine thinking that, merely because I was a Sinhala Buddhist, I was submitting to the racist slurs and epithets the B.B.S. was hurtling day in and out? That I “liked” BBS because I liked its activities? Why not “batter” the Muslims who had “liked” the page too, for the same reason?

Like Malinda Seneviratne once said, these are champions of “God-given secularism.” I can’t add to or embellish that. I end my case.