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