Tuesday, October 28, 2014
The Jathika Hela Urumaya have stated that they won't support Mahinda Rajapaksa unless he does away completely with the Executive Presidency. They have convened meetings, talked with the President, and stood by this decision. "That's politics", some may quip. A crass generalisation though that is, it's quite obvious that the JHU aren't doing this suddenly. It's an acknowledged fact that they, more than any other part of the government-led coalition, expressed their dissatisfaction with the Executive Presidency a long time back, and warned rightly that if their calls weren't heeded to, they'd take action. Even against the President. That's what they have done now, but the fact is that extrapolating this by way of claiming that the JHU are moving away from the government is at best conjecture and nothing else.
The 18th Amendment is flawed. Badly. It injects incumbency-edge into the voting public and aggravates the "known devil" factor that Mahinda Rajapaksa is enjoying currently. He's clearly going to stay for quite some time, though not indefinitely. There have been cases in other countries where long periods of rule have deteriorated into bloody revolution. Part of this deterioration, of course, has been owing to government-toppling and regime-change tactics by foreign agency, but the truth is that the longer a dictator (or would-be dictator, as Rajapaksa is perceived to be) stays in power, the bloodier that toppling of him is going to be. Regime-fatigue, after all, doesn't get better as the years go by. It gets worse. That's obvious enough.
This is why the JHU need to be commended for what they're doing. There are some commentators who claim that they have become anti-regime. That's as ridiculous a claim as the anti-Ranil sentiments the state-run media are attributing to them. The JHU are for neither the one nor the other, this much everyone should know. It's after all a fact conceded grudgingly by those opposed to them that they (in particular Champika Ranawaka) are the cleanest and "corruption-free" part of the government. They have in no uncertain terms come out in their condemnation of Mervyn Silva, of the Casino Bill, and have made it clear that they stick to the government's development and postwar moves so long as they conduct themselves "cleanly".
Frank Capra's film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is about a naive senator (played by James Stewart) who tries to go against his own patron (Claude Rains) when he discovers the latter's corrupt practices. Almost immediately, Rains and his band begin a smear campaign against Stewart, a situation worsened by the fact of his being a highly respected senator and Stewart's record in the Senate being minimal and erasable. I have come to regard Capra as being more of a didactic political/social commentator than a filmmaker, and in Mr. Smith he makes clear his optimism with regard to American democracy. After an intensive, all but completely hopeless campaign conducted by his supporters outside the Senate, Stewart finally wins. The victory, however, is at the cost of Stewart's disillusionment with the lesser defects of democracy.
The point in this story is this: incumbents want to stay. There may be talk of "all-inclusive" cabinets and parliaments, but the truth is that political pluralism is a limited concept and also presupposes deference on everybody's part to the man at the top. This is what's happening in Sri Lanka, unfortunately, and I don't think it'll take much time for the government to begin its own smear campaign against the JHU.
Come to think of it, I think this campaign began just the other day. Patali Champika Ranawaka, praised by nearly everybody in the government as the cleanest politician they or anyone else could boast of, was "attacked" by Pavithra Wanniarachchi.
Briefly put, Wanniarachchi, answering a question put forward by UNP MP Harsha de Silva, said that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was looking into allegations of sabotage and corruption committed at the Ministry of Power and Energy. No two points for guessing that a) it was during her predecessor's time and b) the predecessor was Ranawaka. The latter lashed back some time later, saying in effect that those acts of fraud had been committed without the knowledge of his ministry.
There are some points to be gained here. Pavithra Wanniarachchi clearly forgot that, being at a parliamentary session, she had a collective ministerial responsibility not to reveal an investigation concerning a minister in her own government. She had no reason to implicate Ranawaka. Moreover the timing of this move on her part, i.e. when the JHU led by Ranawaka and Udaya Gammanpila are making clear their stance on the Executive Presidency, is dubious: it indicates Wanniarachchi's political antipathies and also points at the "rift" between the UPFA and the JHU. Why didn't she reveal this before? Why now? These are questions that don't help an already tense situation. The move spells "anti-corruption" but reeks of "expediency".
The second and more relevant point is where the President himself figures in all this. He hasn't, naturally enough, agreed to the JHU's proposals. He has expressed his displeasure to the architect of this anti-Executive Presidency campaign, Athureliya Rathana Thero. He has refused to listen to them. The JHU, meanwhile, have remained undeterred, commendably. Closing parliamentary doors would be the last option the President will consider to shut them out, but in the (unlikely) event that he does, that will be the beginning of the end as far as the EP and the current regime go. The point is that, though no one has publicly stated this, the opinion of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s main electorate base (i.e. the Sinhala-Buddhist voter) is decided on and "made" (not "manufactured") by the JHU.
Few, for instance, can deny that it was the JHU and not the Left that actively emphasised the need for a military solution to the war. Athuraliye Rathana Thero and Omalpe Sobitha Thero shaped key policy shifts, as evidenced by the former's statements at the Sri Lanka Development Forum in Kandy (which turned out to a gathering of like-minded spokespersons for capital, as events later transpired) and the latter's denunciation of the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) which, again as events transpired, turned out to be pro-LTTE. It was the JHU (jointly with the Old and New Left parties) which put Rajapaksa to power. The JHU supported the man throughout the war and postwar campaign he spearheaded, and although due credit hasn't really being given to them it remains obvious as to who really was aiding the man in power during those difficult years.
Democracy can get naive at times. It's all too easy to assume that governments are reflective of those who elect them. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are those in power and there are those who help them keep that power, legitimately of course. "2005" didn't just happen. There were facts that counted in the equation somewhere. The war effort as such wasn't a government "act" alone. There were mentalities that needed to be changed, opinions that needed to be shifted.
Both the JHU and the "Jathika Chinthanaya" school, spearheaded by Nalin de Silva, managed to suppress and overwhelm the massive anti-war propaganda shoved down our throats by various foreign agencies (and their local proxies). Despite the "ඕන ගොනෙකුට යුද්දේ කරන්න පුළුවන්" ("any donkey can conduct a war") rhetoric of the opposition, both groups managed to get their message across to ensure government victory.
This is why it would be inadvisable for the government to ignore calls made by Athuraliye Rathana Thero to abolish the Executive Presidency. One can validly dismiss his claim on the grounds that the 18th Amendment was in itself a mere continuation of the democracy-deficit that was the legacy of J. R.'s notorious 1978 constitution, but for the sake of argument let's lay aside the cause-and-effect side to the story. Even despite this, Rathana Thero's argument is valid. Some say that he has become "fed up" with the President. This isn't a personal issue. Rathana Thero doesn't hold any vendetta against Rajapaksa, and you don't need to keep a tab on the state media to realise this.
The 18th Amendment will keep Rajapaksa in power for some time. My only worry, and this is genuine by the way, is about what will happen if a) he loses power, and b) someone who clearly doesn't have EP-abolishment in his priority-list is elected. The 1978 constitution as Malinda Seneviratne has correctly written is "made to make dictators". Going by this, Mahinda Rajapaksa is a dictator. But this is extrapolating too much.
It doesn't take a pro-regimist, for one thing, to realise that for all the allegations of media censorship, white-vanning, and forced disappearances, the acts of omission and commission made by this government haven't yet dwarfed what Rajapaksa's predecessors, from Jayawardena to Premadasa to Kumaratunge, committed. Strangely enough, those who vouch the "absolute dictator" label for Rajapaksa don't seem to be bothered about what those who represented (and represent) their party colours did when they were in power. That's politics, sadly.
This is why I think Rathana Thero's (and the JHU's) calls should be heeded to. The JHU are not interested in switching party loyalties. Anyone who thinks otherwise has some reading to do. They have stood up for what they felt to have been the country's best interests, reflected usually though not always so by the party they allied themselves with. They will not ally themselves with the UNP. This much is clear, at least until that party rids itself of the anti-Sinhala, anti-Buddhist tags its critics have identified it with.
Let's put things into perspective here. Rathana Thero does not want Rajapaksa out. He wants to abolish the Executive Presidency. This isn't because of the man in power, but because of a) the abuses committed by those who head top posts in his government, and b) the possibility of the 18th Amendment electing an absolute dictator in power in the forseeable future. This is why Pavithra Wanniarachchi's moves should be seen with disfavour. She clearly has her motives, though they're not there for everyone to see.
There's a song demonstrators love to sing and go to whenever war is being protested: Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind". It has some powerful lyrics, quite meaningful in whatever context whether in wars or elsewhere. If it's about the 18th Amendment and the Executive Presidency, there can be no better words than these:
Yes, and how many years can a mountain exist,
Before it's washed to the sea?
The metaphor is clear. The JHU clearly aren't concerned about what the mountain is. They're more rightly concerned about when this mountain will wash off to the sea, and whether in this act of washing away we'll get swept off into a bloodbath as well. That's a valid argument, one which I think the government might do well to concede to.
Monday, October 27, 2014
There are some critics who claim that the Sinhala film is "dying". They point at the (low) number of films made every year, the category to which each of them belong, and the type of audience most of them are directed at. They aren't wrong entirely, I know, but I think they're extrapolating a little too much. Not that I don't agree with them. They have a point. But to claim that Sinhala cinema is dying would be forgetting and laying aside the vast reserves of talent we have (and haven't tapped into, by the way). If recent events are anything to go by, the Colombo Film Festival was indeed quite an eye-opener for any naysayer, notwithstanding the fact that glitz and style don't guarantee industry stability. But that's another story.
There are also some who say that Sinhala cinema is going on a downward, populist spiral. If that's vague for you, think of it this way: our films have become overly nationalistic. I've always believed that the line which separates nationalism (of the populist form, mind you) from propaganda is a very thin one. One is forced to conclude that there's no line per se at all sometimes. These critics point at the recent spate of "Sinhala-Buddhist" epics, despairingly I should add, and lament the state to which our films have gone. Again, point taken and conceded. I don't blame these critics, because I agree with them. This doesn't mean, however, that the alternatives they pose are the magic formula with which our cinema can be "saved".
I was compelled to revisit this problem yesterday on radio. The channel was Lakhanda, I think, and the time was around 12 noon. There was a debate of sorts between a well-known director of these epics and a film critic. The critic was upset. He emphatically said that cinema couldn't be saved by making the kind of films the director had become famous for. I don't remember the exact words he used, but I do remember that he said something to the effect that spirituality (and hence religion) shouldn't intrude on cinema. He didn't substantiate his claim, but I found myself fully agreeing with what he said. He made his position clear.
The director also made a point. He claimed, perhaps not wrongly, that the number of Sri Lankans who go to watch a film is roughly equivalent to the number who don't go in India. He implied that, since India had a stable industry buttressed by a large film-going public, what the critic was complaining about would be valid in that context. Sri Lanka, however, was a different kettle of fish. He conceded that our industry was saggy, and added that this validated the films he was making, because it was only through big-screen epics that a proper, sustainable commercial framework for Sri Lankan cinema could be built.
He missed something, though. This director quite obviously believed that a good, arty cinema culture needed a stable, commercial film setup to ensure its stability. I agree. But the critic wasn't contending that. He stated in no uncertain terms that Sri Lankan cinema was suffering from an overdose of religious-nationalistic fervour. He wasn't attacking nationalism per se, but he was deploring the way certain films in the country were projecting the loose, emotion-ridden nationalism-mania of their directors. I think Sugathapala Senerath Yapa, whom I interviewed earlier this year, put things more succinctly: "It is what these directors have conceived of these historical figures that we see in their films". He too had a point, a big one.
"National film industries cannot be saved by kowtowing to populism" is what I wrote towards the end of my essay on Yapa. Films aren't propaganda pieces. Tissa Abeysekera once wrote about the "lens of a personal vision" in an essay. He was referring to the camera and to how the director's personal vision went into the shooting of a film. That's a valid point. Big-screen epics or not, films are vehicles for a director's point of view. There are admittedly writers who claim that it is the scriptwriter and not director who imputes his or her way of looking at things into a film, but they are in the minority (a powerful minority, may I add, given the weight of such scriptwriters as Gore Vidal and William Faulkner).
What the directors of films like Mahindagamanaya and Eheliyapola Kumarihami are doing is quite simply the function of any aspiring filmmaker: conjoining personal vision with narrative. This isn't an opinion, this is a fact, and moreover a sine qua non of filmmaking. I'm no film expert myself, and this isn't an academic essay, but the point is that judging from this angle, the big-screen directors are justified in what they're doing. This is however looking at one angle only. There are other perspectives, which can be deconstructed into what Sugathapala Senerath Yapa told me (mentioned above). It's a particular viewpoint that goes into Mahindagamanaya; one could even call it a romanticised version of history, perfectly in keeping with its director Sanath Abeysekara's attitude to the Mahavamsa. The same can be said of Sunil Ariyaratne's Kusa Paba and Sugath Samarakoon's Vijaya Kuveni.
Let's talk about the other part to what that critic said on radio: the religion/nationalist factor. There's nothing wrong with claiming identity, provided this doesn't spill over against other identities and other communities. But that's not the point here. A film cannot be measured by anything other than an aesthetic or social perspective, at least by the way I see it. Neither an aesthetic cinema nor a politically engaged cinema, briefly put, can fully authenticate the type of big-budget epics we've been seeing these past 10 years. I know that's being a little too vague, so I'll try to specify a little here.
Let's go to a film: Jackson Anthony's Aba. I believe that film is among the top five highest grossing at the box-office here. It had its share of critics. The main fault they found with it, quite justifiably, was the level of history-revisions, blood-and-gore, and excessive melodrama it stooped to. Gunadasa Amarasekera, a critic one simply cannot undervalue with regard to his nationalist/political bent, had this to write about the film:
"It has failed to satisfy the basic requirement we expect of any artistic creation, namely to provide us with a solid human experience felt and lived through, which alone justifies its claim to be taken as art and which alone is capable of touching our hearts."
Amarasekera isn't a film critic by profession, but caught in those lines is an essential function of art: it must impart to us a solid human experience, "felt and lived through". This doesn't mean we should extrapolate excessively, that we should claim that a film's validity lies in the director's own experience in its subject-matter. Films about prostitutes, after all, aren't made by prostitutes themselves; there is a threshold by which personal experience (whether felt, borrowed, or lived through) can be imputed in. Ranbanda Seneviratne's "Landune", to me, is just about the most heartfelt song about prostitutes a Sinhala lyricist could have written. The final few lines of it sum up his sympathy to and understanding of such women:
රහසේ පව් කරන දනා
එලියෙ රවන ළඳුනේ
ලැම පමණක් ලොවට පෙනෙන
ළය නොපෙනෙන ළඳුනේ
කුහුඹුවකුට වරදක් නැති වැරදිකාර ළඳුනේ
Sinning in secret
Staring in public
With only her breasts for the world to see
But never her heart
Who wouldn't even hurt a fly
And is a sinner to everyone
Films are no different. But there's an exception. Owing to its mass appeal and high production cost, film is by nature a capitalist medium, in fact the most capitalistic and commercial of all art-forms. This burdens both director and producer, which compels the latter to force concessions to box-office on the director. Quite obviously, such concessions can only mean a compromise on the director's part. Those who stayed away from these compromises, and hence lost mass appeal, are many in number; those who continued despite opposition from the film-going public are rarer. We have our own examples of those who stuck till the very end without grovelling before the box-office. Robert Bresson, for instance.
There's a larger aspect to this part of the story, one I feel I'm not qualified enough to comment on.
Liyanage Amarakeerthi once wrote that the "Jataka Potha" wasn't enough to develop a nation. He claimed, a little rightly I suppose, that those who clung onto emotion-ridden nationalism were hiding their inability to understand Western philosophy, in particular the writings of postmodern thinkers like Foucault and Derrida. He critiqued the "Jathika Chinthanaya" school of Gunadasa Amarasekera relentlessly, stating that a whole generation of Sinhala-speaking, non-English speaking youth embraced it to veil their inability to "grasp" Western philosophy. True, but only to a point. The same can be said of the cinema, with the added qualification that what is not being grasped in this case (on the director's part) are the subtle technicalities of alternative forms of narrative structure, camera angles, plot devices etc.
Let's be more specific here. Those who make "Sinhala-Buddhist films" are not would-be Steven Spielbergs or George Lucases. Those who cut them out as being Sinhalised versions of Cecil B. DeMille and William Wyler are missing the point. Western cinema doesn't have the same Judeo-Christian "සලකුණ" (mark) that Western philosophy (and religion) has. Hollywood didn't grow out of the Bible, at least not completely, and neither for that matter did European cinema. There is a limit to adaptations of religious texts when it comes to the Western film, and this is because the postwar film industry got itself together with directors who openly defied certain religious (predominantly Christian) boundaries in their works. I am not just thinking about the Nouvelle Vague here.
What's the bottom line to all this? Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism isn't reflected in those big-budget films, at least not properly. Gunadasa Amarasekera's review of Aba testifies to this. Nationalism isn't about wearing pirith-nool, protest, iconography, or flag-waving. It's much more than that. That critic on the Lakhanda show had one point of view, obviously. He was all for the elimination of emotion-ridden nationalism and religious fervour from our films. The director who contended with what he said had his point too, which was that a solid commercial framework was needed to maintain a film culture.
But this wasn't all. He also added, as an afterthought perhaps, that the type of films made in a country reflected the inner feelings of the audience. He implied, and I'm sure of this, that his own romanticised version of Sinhala-Buddhism was what those who thronged to see his films wanted. I disagree. I don't think our people are "coarse" enough to mistake "emotion" for "reason" and muddle up nationalism.
I also don't think that they are unaware of the mistake these films (and their directors) are making. If personal experience is anything to go by, a friend of mine who gets terribly bored with "arty" films and can't stand it if the first 15 minutes of a film doesn't have a song-and-dance and/or action sequence talked with me about a "Sinhala-Buddhist" epic he saw recently. He told me that he laughed from beginning to end at the deliberate acts of history-revision, the unintended humour certain terribly done sequences provoked, and the Bollywood-styled finale that was wholly incongruous with any proper reading of our history. "Horribly inappropriate" was his assessment of how the "Sinhala-Buddhist" element was handled in it. I couldn't have agreed more.
All this amounts to one simple thing. We've been mistaking "nationalism" for "emotion" long enough. Some of us have gone overboard with nostalgia for the past. I'm not thinking about "Jathika Chinthanaya" here. Liyanage Amarakeerthi nonetheless has a point, erroneous though it is in its lack of consideration for cultural imperialism and the finer points of how Western philosophy has "intruded" into our culture. Films reflect a collective unconscious, and going by this the spate of ethno-religious films we've had these past few years (post-Aba) are well and truly made for those who conflate nationalism with slogan-shouting emotion.
Dharmasena Pathiraja had a very apt word for these films: "තොරන්" (pandals). That was what he said in my interview with him. Some of those who read it claimed that he overstated things too much. I don't disagree completely, but Pathiraja made his stance clear that day. If nationalism is all about infesting oneself with emotion and subscribing to romantic notions about the past (à la films like DeMille's The King of Kings and The Ten Commandments), then we'd be all the better by having more Abas in our cinema industry.
As it is, however, life isn't black or white. Nationalism isn't synonymous with slogan-parroting. That's what Marxists do, that's what propagandists do, and that's definitely not what a film culture (Sinhala-Buddhist or Judeo-Christian or otherwise) should do. Both the debaters in that Lakhanda show missed some points, hence. There's a bigger picture to all this, and I don't claim to have all the answers. After all, according to my own religion, Buddhism, nothing is permanent. Labels and slogans are as prone to change (and counter-change) as wax under heat and cold.
Sunday, October 26, 2014
There comes a time when we must assess ourselves. This is a time for quiet reflection and not nostalgia. This is a time when we must measure our faults against our greater instincts. When we must try to find out where we’ve gone wrong and try to remedy them. We are human, or dare I say we have been identified with the “human” label. Whether a person acquires an identity through tags is of course another debate altogether, but the point is this: unless we decide to get rid of our baser instincts and try to embrace the true, unfettered meaning of that word “human”, we cannot hope to go forward.
Sometimes, though, there are one or two incidents which, if we look at their bigger picture, may well drive every human being to shame. No, I’m not talking about wars here. I’m talking about an old woman. She lives in Piliyandala. “Lives” of course presupposes many things to do with life and amenities needed to maintain it, but for the sake of argument let’s be content with that. Her name is Nandani. Don’t ask me what school she went to, what kind of childhood she had, or anything else related to her personal life. She’s a human being, like you and me. If we prick her, she will bleed, as will most of us.
I’m here to talk about something else. Nandani, like most of us I suppose, lives in a house. Correction: a shelter, as in a shelter for dogs. All 20 of them. There are also some cats. They outnumber the dogs. Now cats and dogs have to live as well. They need to eat, to drink; they need space to stretch themselves. That’s what they do. Problem is, Nandani has to fend for them, all by herself. She can’t. At the rate she’s going, I doubt whether she can sustain what she’s doing any longer.
Nandani wasn’t always like this. Like most of us, she would have come from a modest background. As I talk with her about this, she points at some ramshackle pieces of furniture scattered in a cowshed-like garage. Her place, perhaps I should add here, smells. Badly. It’s a miracle she’s still carrying on. As she relates to me the rest of her sad, sorry story, there’s a question that props into my mind. I’ll come to that later.
I was right: she had come from a modest background. The problems for her as such began with four dogs. Problems tend to increase. People, having heard about this lady’s kindness towards animals, began dumping pups and kittens. They had thought she would give them all unconditional love and attention. That’s the way with people, after all. Drop your worries on another person’s yard. One dog in particular, she remembers, had given birth to 10 more pups.
But this alone wasn’t the (chief) problem. There were other issues. She had a husband. He had died nearly two years ago. Things had been better when he was around; his operation, which hadn’t been successful and had cost nearly two million rupees, worsened the situation. Financial woes hadn’t ended there. She had been forced to pawn and sell. What little had been saved in her bank was depleted, soon.
This isn’t all. Nandani had also been victimised by a scam. A young, seemingly decent chap from her husband’s office had wanted to borrow more than two million rupees from her husband. Without any misgivings, he had given him the entire amount. This chap had gone to Naples. He didn’t return the money. When Nandani went on badgering him for it, he relented to pay 7,000 rupees every month. Even that, she tells me, isn’t forthcoming. Naturally, she did what countless other women in her situation would have done. She gave up.
Debts don’t magically disappear. They continue no matter what the debt-holder’s situation is. Natural enough. So Nandani’s debts had mounted. She had resorted to pawn her jewellery a long time back. With the interest that accumulated, she reckons she would have to pay more than five lakhs on them alone. They had a car. Had been taken over, had been sold. She had borrowed more than 4,000 rupees from neighbours; they had given her without comment, but she has since refused to ask them for more, knowing they probably have suspected that she isn’t in a position to meet her debts.
I ask her whether she’s getting help from any other person. She clearly needs it. She can’t subsist on the pittance she’s living on. Her daughter sends her money dutifully, but that’s not enough. Indeed, she hasn’t had a proper breakfast for days. I can sense the fatigue and worry in her eyes. She doesn’t have proper chairs, beds, or any other furniture-item (all of them having been eaten and bitten away by the dogs).
Others hadn’t been so generous. There was a shop nearby that had agreed to give her some rice. Sorry, “sell” her some rice. I looked at a sample. “Rice crumbs” would have been a better word for the mass of flea-and-dirt-infested mess I saw. Not surprising, because that mess was actually the rice left over every day in the shop, swept away into a pile and unusable for any decent eating purposes.
And they had been giving her this for 30 rupees a kilo. When she had asked the shop-vendors whether they could reduce the price a little, they had curtly told her off by saying that those crumbs could actually sell in the market for 40 rupees!
Nandani doesn’t want charity. This much I can say. She needs help. Sustainable help. Temporary assistance won’t do. Doling out money won’t do. I have come to believe that charity is all talk and no walk; that word, after all, is among the most misused in our dictionaries today. Charity presupposes discretion, a choice made by the charity-giver. Nandani has had plenty of experience with people who’ve giving help and then quickly gone away. She needs animal-lovers. She herself tells me just how much she has grown to love her pups and kittens.
She doesn’t need charity, to put things pithily.
I mentioned about a question that propped into my head when I heard Nandani’s story earlier. It’s a question Michael Moore asks us in his documentary-film Sicko. It’s a question he asks when he explains to us how certain private hospitals in the USA treat their patients when they can’t pay their bills anymore: by dumping them in street-corners. It’s a question I’ve come to ask myself whenever I see charitable organisations spit out rhetoric-bile about doing good while conveniently ignoring the little, small-time stories of people who really, really need (and deserve) help. A small question.
“Who are we?”
Nandani needs help. Would Lions Club, Rotaract Club, any Interact Club, or any charity faith based or otherwise lend a helping hand? Or would those words they (and we) keep on harping about doing good and beginning charity at home amount to what they have sadly become: just words?
You can contact Nandani on 0112618969. Kindly souls, lend a hand. She’s in need of it. Badly.
Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, October 26 2014
Diary of a Country Priest is Robert Bresson’s fourth film. But it is also his first real film: one in which nearly every aspect has been catered to his stringent, ascetic view of life. Its story – that of a Christ-like but small-time country parish priest – could have easily become the stuff of melodrama (indeed at the time of its release that was what Hollywood had become famous for with films like these). Bresson, however, converts it instead to a plaintive, heart-searing story: the tragedy of a man who tries to rise up, to be recognised and thanked by all those he serves, but whose only end due to his own frailties, doubts and neglect can only be death.
Based on a novel by French writer Georges Bernanos, the plot, from beginning to end, records the descent of its main character, a nameless priest. Claude Laydu, who plays the priest of a village called Ambricourt, was hailed at the time as the first ever “actor-model”: a term often used to describe Bresson’s actors in general. Looking at him we are convinced that he is nothing but: he is the only man unshaken by emotion or rage, and everyone else around him, including a senior priest, criticizes him while they go on with their everyday sins and frailties. The excesses of all those around him are in stark contrast to his feeble, Christ-like faith.
Neglectful of his own health (it is only much later revealed what sickness he was ailed with), even his confined diet – dry bread and wine (symbols of the Eucharist) – are subject to relentless disapproval (indeed some even consider him a drunkard). What is needed now is one unlucky incident that will be misunderstood by all and drive him to his end: which comes in the form of a proud Countess who, before her death, is preached upon and “converted” by the priest. Everyone misinterprets him: even her husband criticises him (never mind he’s a priest, they seem to think), and at the end, all he can do while dying is sit by his friend – also a thin, frail man – who was once in the seminary where he had been, but now works at an apothecary.
To this story come various other characters – the Countess’ daughter, a wild girl called Seraphita who the priest pities, an atheist doctor who dies midway through, and the cousin to Louise. This last character figures in perhaps the most moving sequence in the entire film, where the priest, walking to the Station to visit the Doctor, is taken on a ride on his motorbike. For the first time in the film we see him smile: we hear his voice off-screen as the priest writes in his “diary” (the entire film, until the end when he loses his strength, consists of the priest’s entries in it being read out to us, revealing his thoughts and feelings), and we are moved by his almost nostalgic reverie as he reminisces on this moment as being his most youthful.
But deeper undercurrents are flowing: he also thinks of it as a premonition to his end – and in the city, the expression on his face changes immediately, when the doctor diagnoses what really is his sickness (“I thought it had been tuberculosis,” he later thinks: but in reality it is an incurable, more painful ailment). The final image – of a cross fading out while his friend “reads” his letter to the senior priest telling him of his death – is utterly symbolic: as though this Christ-like figure, in the form of a nameless priest, almost reached sainthood and resurrection, but who by the frailties and ravages of everyone around him was stopped, until failure outdid him in death.
What can move one the most is how the entire story is told from his angle: we are witness to his intentions and motives, and all those who misunderstand him or harbor him a grudge are always sidelined, always witnesses to what he’s doing from their angle (Louise, the countess’ daughter, spreads rumours that her mother’s death was hastened by his preaching after seeing them through a window – she never actually hears them). At one point the senior priest chastises him for his weakness – “they made men of the Church then,” he says sadly, “Now they send us choir-boys.”) Lost, with no set purpose, but still retaining his faith, he dies: disgracefully to others, but humbly to us. In the end we are left repeating an oft-quoted line from the film: “All is Grace.” And Robert Bresson, in his study of a simple country priest, concocts one of the most Christian, yet universal, films of all time.
Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, February 24 2014
Saturday, October 25, 2014
“Cinema is, in the final analysis, cinema”. Those words were written by Akira Kurosawa. How true they still sound today. Cinema, the most infantile of all the arts, is decidedly the most vibrant as well. Its 100-plus years of evolution have equaled the entire histories of literature and music. Does this mean that the other arts can never come into the realm of cinema? By no means. But it also cannot be denied that the film medium, in its most essential form, must be devoid of any other influence.
This was what the French New Wave championed as “pure cinema”. It is hard to imagine a film entirely free from other artistic influences, but the New Wave thought they had found it, in the works of contemporary American filmmakers. They disparaged the influence of literature in filmmaking, and their critical reappraisal of Billy Wilder and Henri-Georges Clouzot was shaped by their near-puritan insistence on the cinema manifesting only in its purest form. Any director who laid emphasis on the script, the plot, or the acting, at the expense of film-style itself, was sent to the gallows. And yet, 50 years after Godard, Truffaut and Resnais heralded the New Wave, we are still seeing literature and drama asserting themselves in cinema. Sinhala cinema has not escaped this.
Can men of letters be men of cinema? A question not many will dare answer, lest they answer wrong. If Descartes were alive today, wrote Alexandre Astruc in 1948 , “he would already have shut himself up in his bedroom with a 16mm camera and some film, and would be writing his philosophy on film.” “With all due respect to Astruc, the cinema has many charming possibilities but it cannot convey complex ideas through words," came the stern reply from Gore Vidal , then one of Hollywood’s foremost literary men.
It is difficult to resolve this debate properly – purveyors of “pure cinema”, admittedly, never really delve into the literary or dramatic aspects to their work, while a Billy Wilder or a Fred Zinnemann develops a close working relationship with his scriptwriters and actors. All too often, they were scriptwriters themselves before having forayed into a directorial career. In Sri Lanka, too, this relationship existed – as witness Lester James Peries’ ties with Tissa Abeysekera, Regi Siriwardena, and A. J. Gunawardena. Indeed, it is in Peries’ case that such a close, career-long relationship between the director and scriptwriter was first established in our film industry. Very rarely, however, does a man of letters enter the film industry here and establish a distinguishable personal style. There have been very few instances of this happening here, and Sugathapala Senerath Yapa is a case in point.
Yapa is known today primarily for his first film, Hanthane Kathawa (1969), and his short feature Minisa saha Kaputa (1969). Though not a literary man in the mould of Vidal or William Faulkner (in Hollywood), his cinema displays a subtle preoccupation with its literary and dramatic elements. This surfaces most eclectically in his first film. Regrettably, however, this was not to be for the rest of his career – one which lasted only two more commercial features and 28 documentaries.
By no means can Yapa be cast in the Billy Wilder-type “scriptwriter’s filmmaker” mould, but in his wide appreciation of both literature and the theatre, along with his eclectic approach to realism, he may be unsurpassed in our modern film industry – something that would have been reinforced had he been afforded the opportunity to make more features. I cannot appreciate our film industry’s blatant marginalising of him, and can only be forced to conclude that its treatment of him was not unlike Hollywood’s of Griffith, Stroheim, and Welles. Even a cursory look at Hanthane Kathawa will confirm this. It is his singular achievement alright, but in it can be found the immense vitality of an entire film career.
Yapa was born in Akuressa. His childhood, as he describes it good-humouredly to me, was largely “boisterous”. He had quite a mischievous and eventful time at his school, until one of his more daring antics got him expelled. “A classmate and I spread a rumour around school that the buns we got during interval-time were filled with worms.” The incident got him into Pelmadulla Central College later, under the auspices of the kind but strict A. V. Gunapala. Yapa was serious in his schoolwork thenceforth – he even completed his SSC Preparatory Examination – but by an ordinance of Fate he would never get to complete the SSC Exams to the full.
By this time both his mother and father were dead: his grandmother, a “kind-hearted, generous woman”, was looking after him. Around then, he considered joining St. Anthony’s College, near his hometown. But he was told he could join only after a year. “What could I do for a whole year until school began?” he told me with a wry smile: he quit his schooling then and there.
Listening to Yapa’s story, I was reminded somewhat of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso. As he recounted to me his first experiences with the cinema – through the mobile picture halls that would patronise his hometown – and how he managed to get its manager to grant him free admission to the shows, I remembered the face of Salvatore Cascio, that snub-nosed little tyke sitting in the projection booth of the cinema hall, gazing wide-eyed at Philippe Noiret running film reels through the projector. Yapa, I felt, though decidedly older at the time, may have been similarly awed at what he was seeing during these years. “We saw mostly films from India, with Tyrone Power as Zorro occasionally,” he recalls, “I knew what we were seeing were commercial in nature – it would not be until much later when I would view serious, artistic films.”
This was in the 1940s, a decade when the cinema was engaged in a radical transformation. The war had forced filmmakers to probe more, to gain more realism in what they were filming. Even in Hollywood, the days of big-budget musicals and epics, though bolstered by the evolution of the widescreen, would give way slightly to dark and gripping films. Film-noir reached its peak with 1944’s Double Indemnity, while William Wyler made The Best Years of Our Lives, an anti-romantic yet sentimental look at soldiers returning to domestic life after the war, winner of 1946’s Best Picture Oscar, dubbed “un-American” by right-wingers in Hollywood.
In continental Europe, the War caused two things. The first was a resurging interest in cinema as an art-form in France, which led to the Cahiers du Cinéma. The second, and arguably more far-reaching, event was the establishment of the world’s first-ever organised film movement, in Italy, under the name “neorealism”. 1946 saw De Sica’s Shoeshine, 1948 his more acclaimed Bicycle Thieves, which the critic Regi Siriwardena would call “a film of unique greatness”. In London that year, an erstwhile fan of the cinema by the name of Satyajit Ray saw and would be compelled into filmmaking by it. He would usher in a grim, but poetic, brand of realism in his country’s cinema a decade later.
Yapa saw it too, at the British Council, where films were being screened for erstwhile film lovers in Colombo. The effect on him was personal. “I saw how human beings kept their intentions from each other: how they veiled their motives even from those closest to them”. No-one who has seen Bicycle Thieves will deny that this aspect forms a vital part of it. Bicycle Thieves did not merely prove a film textbook for Yapa: it also gave him a lesson in human relationships that would prove vital in his first attempt in the cinema.
This was reinforced by another masterpiece he got to see. Kurosawa’s Rashomon opened the Japanese cinema to the world, and Yapa admitted to me the indelible impression it made on him. Here was a film that dwelt on one single incident – a murder in the forest – with four witnesses to it each giving his or her version of what really happened. If Bicycle Thieves’ classical, gentle format proved edible for film lovers, Rashomon’s electrifying, poetic style struck like a thunderbolt on all those who saw it. 15 years later, he would see Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, a tenser, more contemporary thriller, and in-between those years he would witness the Sinhala theatre’s resurgence with Sarachchandra’s Maname in 1956. All three inspired him in the making of Hanthane Kathawa, though the similarities are not easy to identify.
If one thinks of the main storyline – a tense love triangle between three University students, played by Swarna Mallawarachchi, Tony Ranasinghe and (in his first role) Vijaya Kumaratunge – one can recall the knife-edged atmosphere of suspicion and amour-fou in Knife in the Water and the climatic finale in Maname. It is a sign of Yapa’s mastery and eclecticism that he compounded all three influences – including a theatrical one – without losing originality: a feat unmatched in the history of our film industry, for, I would dare say this too, this was the only instance of such a thing happening in a Sinhala film.
|Tony Ranasinghe and Amarasiri Kalansuriya|
from Hanthane Kathawa
Hanthane Kathawa, of course, is more than merely a love triangle – its depiction of campus life was extraordinary for its time. This is what makes any comparison with outside sources difficult. No other filmmaker till then had delved into the University as a film’s subject-matter with as much insight. One of Yapa’s crew members was one unassuming, determined campus student who helped with the script-writing.
This was Dharmasena Pathiraja, who, years later, would touch upon the anxieties of politicised, unemployed youth. Kumaratunge, Mallawarachchi, Amarasiri Kalansuriya, and Daya Tennekoon, all featured in the film, would form Pathiraja’s repertoire of actors in his films later on. If there ever were an instance elsewhere in our film history of such a thing happening, I am yet to hear of it. Hanthane Kathawa was not merely a finely crafted realist drama – it was also a precursor to the fierier, more politicised, and less romantic, decade to come: the decade of riots, joblessness, and revolt.
Sugathapala Senerath Yapa holds no set theories on filmmaking, but one major thread that seems to bind his thoughts is the importance he places not on the story, but on how it is conveyed. For Yapa, presentation is more important than, and indeed is to be preferred to, representation. Occasionally, Hanthane Kathawa itself violates this principle, particularly in certain jarring scenes where songs are relayed, but even with some sequences that still have them – as with those with the songs “Sara Sonduru” and “Diganthaye Ghana” – he lets gesture, feeling, and movement dictate character and plot development. The intensity and the anguish of the moment are conveyed through the sequence, an example of songs used alongside cinema at its purest in our country. As an addendum, some of the songs were penned by Yapa himself – the lyricist-cum-filmmaker, evidence of his own wider interests, exploring other art-forms without being restricted to one field.
Nothing short of actual experience, however, will validate films made this way. “Before applying the eye to the camera, it would do well for young, up-and-coming filmmakers to experience life itself,” he tells me earnestly. As Satyajit Ray, a director Yapa admires, once wrote – “The raw material of the cinema is life itself”. “Dreams, unfortunately, have become extensions of reality in certain modern films,” he sadly notes. At a time when Sinhala cinema seems to be following either an obscurantist path or populist reproductions of history, I could not have agreed more. Between these two trends a void is created: who caters to the audience in this? I suspect that this audience would comprise neither highbrow nor lowbrow members, but people, not too intellectually sound, who would look forward to a film that is rooted in its experience and subject-matter. I cannot name a single film made here within the last five years that would fit this definition. Perhaps this is what Yapa laments. I lament it too. I think we all do.
|Nikolai Cherkasov from |
Ivan the Terrible
And yet, I know he is right. National film industries cannot be saved by kowtowing to populism. In the few instances in film history where this did happen, and was validated – such as with Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible or Alexander Nevsky – any romanticisation in the portrayal of their heroic characters was tempered by a faithful adherence to history. If, for instance, Nikolai Cherkasov, the actor who portrayed Ivan in Eisenstein’s film, seems exaggerated today in his role by his grand, heroic gestures, this was primarily because of the film being slightly propagandist (it was made during the War years), but also partly because Eisenstein himself had to balance between the need for a valid sense of art and the demands made on him by Stalinist Russia. Eisenstein subscribed to the Russian Revolution, and his sympathies with it were quite evident in the films he made during this time, Ivan the Terrible included.
If filmmakers today, however, can afford to make similar revisions to history, especially in a country such as Sri Lanka, this is usually owing to what the filmmaker thinks the audience desire. Partly, however, this also has to do with what the authorities desire. I am not for one moment suggesting that Yapa has a bone to pick with all this: what he contends against, however, is the method these filmmakers use while revising history. “It is what these directors have conceived of these characters that we see in their films,” he informs me. How true that is! When was the last time we got to see a religious parable, a historical epic, in the mould of true drama? When was the last time we saw a film of this type relayed to us, entirely free from the black-and-white/good-and-bad dichotomy that placed its hero/heroine as an angel and the antagonists as absolute villains? When was the last time such a film actually depicted human beings instead of cardboard cut-outs? I am waiting for an answer.
It is a great pity that the cinema lured Yapa at a time when socio-political concerns were asserting themselves in the industry. Like the Cahiers du Cinéma tracts of the 1950s, Yapa felt his views on the cinema being invalidated, made passé, by “their theories of what constituted their notion of ‘authentic cinema’”. Both Yapa and Lester James Peries felt themselves isolated at a time when even the stage and music fields in the country echoed the strains of a politically intense era. The wave of critical tide that greeted Peries after Nidhanaya made itself felt for Yapa too: overnight, their notions of filmmaking came under attack. What was termed “bourgeois idealism” was being overturned by the so-called “bourgeois realism” that swept during the following decade, when the last vestiges of romanticism, lyricism, and poetry in the cinema, indeed when humanism itself, would be crudely swept aside.
Forced into obscurity, Yapa would survive as a filmmaker for only another two features, Pembara Madhu and Induta Mal Mitak, which were despairingly “commercial” in their outlook. 28 documentaries would fill the gap, especially his first, Minisa saha Kaputa, which would win the Silver Peacock at the International Film Festival in New Delhi that year. Compounding neorealism, the Sinhala stage, Polanski, and Kurosawa, he made a film which, on the eve of a volatile decade, created echoes that still resonate today. Being the chief, if not the only, instance of such eclecticism manifesting itself in our film history, it is dampening, in retrospect, to observe Yapa’s fading away later on.
Like the defiant Orson Welles, forced into exile in Europe, and Stroheim, one of the first real “auteurs” of the American cinema, whose relentless cynicism made the public shun him for the better part of his life, Sugathapala Senerath Yapa’s career is quite depressing for any film-lover to hear. Among the ruins of our film industry, we spot out one name which might have brought it onto a different path. It is not a very happy thing to note that this name was forced into obscurity ere long.
 “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Camera-Stylo” – Alexandre Astruc, 1948
 “Who Makes the Movies?” – Gore Vidal, 1976
Thursday, October 23, 2014
Robert Bresson has been described as the most Christian film director of all time. From his very first film – Diary of a Country Priest – to his last – L'argent – he stood firmly by an almost ascetic view of life. Pickpocket, his third film, may not have been his masterpiece: but it establishes his style perfectly.
His vision of life – hermit-like, ascetic, unemotional – is expressed through the banal routine of a Parisian thief. The thief has no double life: his entire daily life revolves around an almost sexual routine of picking others' pockets and stashing away his "treasure" within a hole by his bed. He has a mother, who dies half-way through, and a friend, who becomes a hypocrite at the end. But beyond this, he has no other life.
Martin LaSalle plays the role of the thief, Michel, and the camera records his movements as we see his hands creep out from one pocket and into another.
At one point he teams with two other emotionless thieves: in a celebrated sequence that is almost ballet-like we see one hand grabbing from a pocket while another quickly takes the purse, empties it into his pocket, and drops it into a bin. Bresson achieves this with his stringent attitude to his characters: his characteristic trademark was his frequent takes of actors. After the penultimate take, the actor would usually play his role with no emotion, almost mechanically – like a robot.
Michel's eyes are our guide to his intentions. In them we see not fear, not hate, but a sensual desire to feel others' pockets. His motives are not vulgar, of course, but we also get a passing glance at his condition with his conversations with a Police Chief. He discusses with him about who he calls "supermen", who will be able to rob and steal for a higher purpose, without the law catching them. The Chief, who we are made to think suspects him, begs to differ: all thieves are equal, and deserve the same punishment.
The exchanges between the inferiority complex-ridden Michel and the Chief reflect those found in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, which also told the story of a Police Inspector entrapping a criminal through subtle hints, albeit there it revolved around a murder. Here we have a simple thief: in certain sequences, especially those with his friend Jacques, we get it that he may have become a more dignified, respectable man, but he just let the opportunity pass. And the second aspect to Pickpocket's story – his romance with a girl called Jeanne – will figure in his redemption at the end.
Bresson's films are hard to criticise: none of them, it has been said, has any form of artifice or pretension. Pickpocket very easily can become, in certain sequences, a showcasing of film form over content: especially in those scenes of thievery. But the director shoots them all with absolutely no frills running beneath. He followed this up with two more quiet masterpieces: Au Hasard Balthazar, which harmonised a donkey's and a village girl's plight in an almost musical way, and Mouchette, which relayed the story of an outcast village girl with quiet sympathy.
He called himself a "Christian atheist", but in no other director, some critics think, can we find a near-perfect conjunction of cinema and religion. Pickpocket, of course, has no religion attached to it: Michel finds his release at the end, paradoxically in prison, with him realizing his love for Jeanne ("Oh Jeanne," he says in a monologue, "to find you, what a strange path I had to take."), and not through a priest or confessional. But it achieves just as well the same end: to place the individual, small-time man as a reflection of universal redemption.
Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, January 30 2014
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Dharmasena Pathiraja. There are those who feel he was underrated. Maybe. There's just so much you can project with a mere nine films, after all. Perhaps that is why those who admire the man admire him even more so. This is an interview I had with him earlier this year.
Before we start to discuss your career and vision, could you tell us a little bit about your childhood and teenage years? Your education?
I was born in Peradeniya. In fact my entire family lives around there. I was a very village-prone person then. I first came to Colombo, as I remember, with my brother when I was 12. I think I developed a love for the city, and later on this would become vital when I would start to make films.
I received my primary education at Bilingual Government School, Peradeniya, situated near our house. I received my higher education at Dharmaraja College.
Looking at the environment we were in then, I must say that we were freer then, unlike the competitive exam-prone atmosphere we have today. We were pretty much free to dabble in our creativity: I was interested in cinema then, and I found the time to indulge in it. There was no tuition culture then, you must remember.
Looking at the environment we were in then, I must say that we were freer then, unlike the competitive exam-prone atmosphere we have today. We were pretty much free to dabble in our creativity: I was interested in cinema then, and I found the time to indulge in it. There was no tuition culture then, you must remember.
Of course the exams were more competitive then than now: the University placement test took only 300 students to Peradeniya. But this did not inhibit our freedom and creativity. This was true even when we were at the University. We were exposed to so many good films, both art-house and mainstream.
I graduated with a Honours Degree in Sinhala with Western Classical Culture in 1967. Much later on, I would get my MA in Drama from Peradeniya University (in 1992) and my PhD from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, for Cinema Studies (in 1999). My thesis for the latter degree was on the work of post-colonial Bengali filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen.
When did you initially want to get into filmmaking? Is there one particular film or film movement that influenced you at the time?
Like I said before, I was very much interested in cinema at the time. So I can’t really say which one film or movement moved me. During the 1950s we saw the death of neorealism. That was in continental Europe. Satyajit Ray and Lester James Peries would be influenced by neorealism at a time when it was wearing off in Europe. I won’t say it has completely died today, but its popularity has abated.
I was, however, more into the emerging trends of the time. The Nouvelle Vague in particular fascinated me. I watched the films of Godard, Resnais, and Truffaut with interest. Same went for the Spanish cinema. From Asian cinema I held Ritwik Ghatak of India in esteem. Then there were the Czech and Polish filmmakers. Directors like Wajda fascinated me. Their films sought to move away from a different trend: the socialist realism school of the Soviet Union. To get away from this trend these filmmakers sought inspiration in the films of directors like Bergman.
With this I saw how interconnected European cinema was at the time: because you must realize, cinema started in Europe, not America. Edison is credited with having revolutionised photography, true, but cinema would practically be nowhere if it wasn’t for the Lumière Brothers.
One thing I feel that cannot be undermined was the ideology and politics that I was active in, even during my College days. I was a leftist then, and left-wing politics had a great say in my films. Later on, I developed a style of my own, influenced by the emerging trends at that time and my leftist beliefs. I fitted these onto various compelling issues prevalent in our country, in terms of content.
Tell us about your first film, Ahas Gawwa. What was its impact on the cinema of our country then?
Well it certainly wasn’t a conventional success. Though not a downright failure – it recouped its cost – it wasn’t a hit at the box-office either. In fact an interesting phenomenon emerged with it. One of the films I watched after having made it was Bunuel’s Los Olvidados. It moved me in a way different to how a normal neorealist drama would: it did not merely portray reality, but went beyond that. Bunuel was known previously for his surrealist films, but this was different.
However, I was also struck by the thematic parallels between my film and his. Even the plots of the two stories bore a striking resemblance to each other. Mind you, this was after I had made Ahas Gawwa. I had no idea of Bunuel’s film at the time. So I suppose it was an example of intertextuality in our cinema at the time: how his text had pervaded mine.
In comparison to your first film, Ahas Gawwa, your second film, Eyadan Loku Lamayek, was a notable departure from what would become your style later on. Can you see this reflected in the structure of that film?
|Eyadan Loku Lamayek|
Eyadan Loku Lamayek was, unlike Ahas Gawwa, based on a novel. It was written by Karunaratne Saputhanthri, and the book was followed by a sequel called Manamali. I hadn’t originally decided on directing it. Malini Fonseka and Vijaya Kumaratunge were interested in filming it, and they asked me to do it. The story is quite rural, unlike the urban settings of my other films. But I had no problems whatsoever – like I said before, I am from the village, so I faced no issue with directing a film based on the village.
Lester James Peries’ cinema has often been described as the “cinema of contemplation”: the cinema of the individual and family. What made you decide to go beyond the family as your filmic base?
To answer it shortly, I concede that the family can be used to represent problems. But as time goes by it becomes more and more evident that it is not the only way. To a level I detached myself from depicting familial plights in my works. In fact in certain instances it appears that my characters have no families whatsoever, especially in Paradige and Soldadu Unnahe. The community is more important to me than the family. But this does not mean that I refuse to portray the family. The story in Eyadan Loku Lamayek, for instance, has a family. So it’s not a complete rejection on my part.
Much concentration has been given, by the Cahiers du Cinema circle before and during the French New Wave, to the auteur theory. You yourself have been described as an auteur of the Sinhala cinema. Do you believe in the continuing significance of this concept today?
The auteur theory was introduced by the French New Wave theorists and filmmakers, Truffaut especially. But as time went by I think it lost its significance at least by a little. When you see Barthes talking about “readerly texts” and “writerly texts”, and when you read his “Death of the Author”, you realize this. There is a vast gap between writer and creator. Auteurism, in my view, has had its day, and is no more.
On the other hand, I believe in intertextuality: in other words, how one text can influence and affect another. For instance, the similarities between Los Olvidados and Ahas Gawwa, or, if we take another example, the similarities between Lester James Peries’ Delovak Athara and Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist. These are instances where one film indirectly makes itself felt in another. You can’t really separate one text from another. You can’t differentiate them. And you can’t blame one director as having plagiarised from another.
What are your views on the traditional narrative structure found in the then conventional Sinhala film, as opposed to the one you were incorporating into your films?
My thoughts on that are as follows. The entire structure of a film like Citizen Kane is based on one central character and incident. The narrative structure is built on a cause-and-effect base. The structure, in other words, is never loose, no matter how experimental it becomes as the plot goes on.
I did not want to follow this trend. When you portray realism, I agree that a smooth structure is called for. But this should not be the case when exploring certain pressing social issues. At the same time, it is also important not to let such films run away with mere political discourses. I was mindful of both these important points.
One must move away from chronological narratives as the cinema becomes more conscious of the realities it is trying to portray. If you let me give you an example, Yuganthaya was a film that was based on a novel which discussed complex social and political issues. But a problem emerged in transposing this aspect of the novel to the film, especially with its narrative. It was not fully dealt with: hence the film did not fully explore the various social issues at hand.
What are your thoughts on the recent demonstration, led by leading veteran artists including yourself, to press the government to move on with the digitisation of our cinema?
People talk about re-releasing yesteryear films. But this is useless without first digitizing our cinemas. The cinema halls in this country are glaringly outdated. Modern technology must take over if we are to compete with international cinema standards. Sumitra Peries has made Vaishnavee with the very first Red Epic Camera used in Sri Lanka. I made my most recent film, Swarupa, it as well. It’s inevitable, and the tragedy is that we are not moving away from outdated technologies.
Your films are described as films of “bourgeois realism”. What is the point of separation between the realism you incorporate in your films and that found in previous films?
At the time I decided to go onto filmmaking, we had various issues – especially issues relating to love and marriage – that were being portrayed in films. To this end the conventional Sinhala film took out of two main trends: Indian melodrama and classical Hollywood realism. In both cases the results were films that conformed to a formula. I went into the base of society to explore my issues without taking recourse to either.
Indeed I consider that, in my films, the main characters are not characters per se, but rather an array of social problems and issues. The characters in my films are based around this. I look for issues and realities to portray in my films, and am not overly interested in the kind of cinema that combines realism with psychoanalysis. I go for something broader than that.
I also believe in a measure of improvisation in making films. As an example I can point out the market-day sequence in Bambaru Awith. Our camera suddenly caught hold of a dead turtle being sliced by a villager, and we immediately started recording it. This created a furor later on: indeed the President even wanted it banned because of that scene. But it was not intentional: it was pure improvisation.
Can you describe to us the scriptwriting aspect of your films? What is your role with it?
I am very involved in the scriptwriting process of my films. I ensure that my vision, my interpretation, goes into it. Of course a film is different from a script or a novel. And by my insistence on my vision being part and parcel of the script, I do not in any way compromise on the independence of my scriptwriters.
Some of my films, like Ponmoni and Soldadu Unnahe, have been based on already written texts. Paradige was a notable exception because the story was written by Ajith Thilakasena, its scriptwriter, after the film had been released. In any case, I allow them to have their way in the process of realizing their ideas on paper. At the same time I ensure that it is my vision that is going into the story. So it’s actually a two-sided affair: mine and theirs.
What do you think is lacking in the cinema of our country today?
That is a very deep question, one which intrudes into so many issues. I think the fundamental problem of our cinema is the unnecessary and uncalled for intrusion of the so-called “Sinhala Buddhist” identity into it. We have seen “තොරන්” being made during this past half-decade: starting from Aba to upcoming lavish projects like Ajatasattu, Anagarika Dharmapala, and Dutugemunu.
The trend our cinema is following is very pathetic. It’s a very spectacle-bound, lavishly decorated one, but not in the epic genre. I mean, Aba is most certainly not, even at first glance, a film in the category of The Lord of the Rings. It’s more similar to Jodhaa Akbar. This of course signifies how our mainstream cinema is getting influenced by Indian cinema, because of our audiences. The most recent example of this is Siddhartha Gautama, the biopic I was once asked to direct.
When I was first approached with the script, I felt that filming this story would have to be different to how an epic director would shoot it. In fact I had a particular film in mind at the time. This was Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a film that moved me for how it depicted Christ’s character. And of course when making it I immediately sought to deny a completely Buddhist vision. I did not consider myself a Buddhist or a Christian or anyone in particular. I never did: I was born a Buddhist, but I consider myself a freethinker.
Indeed in literary texts you have so many critical examinations of religious figures. Even Martin Wickremasinghe wrote one on the Buddha himself, with his last novel Bhavataranaya. So did Nikos Kazantzakis with The Last Temptation of Christ. I wanted to emulate this on film. But eventually the making of the film was given over to different people.
The sad fact is that this has intruded into our children’s cinema as well. If you take a film like Siri Parakum, you will realize how much this Sinhala Buddhist ideology has taken hold of our mainstream films. And here you have another aspect to our cinema: the commercial possibilities of children in films. It’s very easy to see that this type of films succeeds with audiences a lot.
I once served aboard the children’s film jury at the Cairo International Children Film Festival back in 2005. In addition to us, 200 children were seated on a separate jury to judge what was being screened there, which included a popular Sinhala children’s film. The story of this film involved a family of street performers, one of whom was a limbless girl. It was rejected by both juries. But the nadir of the event was reached when a Canadian juror came up-to me and asked, “Do you really allow disabled children to beg on the streets like that?”
It’s ironic to see how films like this have escaped the Censor Board.
From contemporary directors, I would pick out Asoka Handagama, Prasanna Vithanage, Vimukthi Jayasundera, and Prasanna Jayakody as our future. But the Censors are standing in their way. Aksharaya was a completely commendable film. But it was totally banned in this country. So was Jayasundera’s Sulanga Enu Pinisa. I remember how difficult it was to keep Bambaru Awith from getting banned. It is indeed, sad.
Written for: Ceylon Today MOSAIC, February 2 2014