Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A conversation with Dharmasena Pathiraja

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.

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.