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.

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