Monday, October 20, 2014

Ernest Poruthota: The Rebel in a Cassock

The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has had quite a rocky relationship with culture. One could say that on the whole this relationship has almost spelt out badly for the Church, in the eyes of the lay public, given its history of “handling” that same culture. Clergymen who came from abroad, however, gradually became more aware of our way of life, and instead of trying to demote it to second place they immersed themselves in our ethos. Father Vito Perniola comes into mind here.

Curiously enough, it took a longer time for local Catholic priests, especially those leading the hierarchy, to re-establish links with cultural and linguistic tradition. Father Marcelline Jayakody is of course the classic example. That in his time he was isolated, criticised, and even ridiculed is another matter. There were and still remain priests for whom a link between Church and culture became an overarching goal to pursue. From among this crowd, Ernest Poruthota is one name you can pick out. A very big name, you must admit.

It is sad to think that there are those among us who have not been duly vested with the recognition and accolade worthy of what they have done. To an extent, this is true of Father Ernest Poruthota. With an acclaimed book to his name, his involvement with the move to indigenise the cinema, and of course his views on the film medium, he is indeed a force to reckon with. I suspect Father Poruthota may have done more for our cinema than policymakers; by this, I am not by any means belittling them. But the truth remains that, as far as an “indigenous” cinema is concerned, his name cannot be erased. Simple as that.

Ernest Poruthota was born in Marawila, in the Puttalam district. His father had been a teacher at the Government Teachers’ College in Maggona, before, as a punishment, being transferred to Marawila. The young Poruthota had studied at Marawila Boys’ School, and later at St. Xavier’s College. At the age of 12, he had been sent to the Borella Boys Seminary. I ask him if he had always been determined to become a priest, and with a formidable “Yes!” he allays my doubts. It was here, he tells me, that an interest in the arts was cultivated.

Apparently, on Thursdays the seminary had organised compulsory walks. In 1948, he and his colleagues had to go to Torrington Square as part of these walks, to witness the independence ceremony. Poruthota had been awed by the whole affair: “The decorations were what really appealed to me. Back at the seminary, I tried to replicate them using crêpe paper.” Perhaps the artist in him had been a hereditary trait, derived from his father who had been a writer and painter.

By his own admission, his foray into the cinema was “an accident”, more to do with a divine ordinance than with his own will. For one thing, he explains, most films were forbidden during his time at the seminary. The only films Poruthota got to see during these years were in the religious genre, including The Song of Bernadette. Cecil B. DeMille’s epics, including The Ten Commandments, owing to their longstanding epic status, were even heavily publicised by the seminary. For the most part, though, these films happened to come from the United States. As his education in the cinema grew from these early encounters, it would be surprising if his interest in religious films did not continue. His tastes in world cinema took him to other spiritual filmmakers: Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson figure prominently among them.

Any attempt made at summarising Father Poruthota’s contribution to the national film scene would be futile. Words cannot and will not be up-to such a task. Suffice it then to say that his attempts at indigenising the cinema were not unheeded. He became the first National Director of the OCIC. His first book on the cinema, Chitrapai Găna (“An Aesthetic Evaluation of the Cinema”) was published in 1965. All impressive indeed. However, limiting these achievements to word or accolade will hardly do the man behind them justice.

Father Poruthota moves on to his personal views on the cinema at this point. For him, a good film must elevate man with a spiritual element. He tells me that when it comes to the OCIC, this is the main criterion used to measure a good movie. Not being a very big fan of religious undertones and spirituality in films, I put it to him that a good film must have a secular, non-religious aspect as well if it is to reach a wide audience. By way of agreeing to this, he states that “no film is good without a human element”, presumably even when there is no religious element involved. His views on censorship, however, happily coincide with mine: “There should be no censorship, not by the government, not by religion.”

Indeed, it is his view on censorship that goes a long way in establishing him as a rebel priest, as is his occasional defiance of hierarchy when it comes to films. “During our time, the Church neither allowed nor forbade the watching of films. I went to see movies unsure of whether they were allowable or not for a would-be priest. This was true especially in the 1960s, when we had many European countries revolutionising the cinema as we knew it then via the so-called ‘New Wave’. Morals and conventions of any sort were being defied by directors; clearly, they were hardly congruent with what the Church deemed as ‘good films’. I saw them nonetheless.”

At this point, I mention the Church’s attitude to Marcelline Jayakody, a figure celebrated today by the very same forces that tried to weed him out in his time. Father Poruthota is cautious when replying to this: “The Church remained indifferent to him. You can’t say that it held a vendetta against him.” “Indifferent” hardly comes close to describing the deliberate acts of footnoting and erasure committed against Father Jayakody, but perhaps Father Poruthota is right in using that word, for no other can go by way of pithily describing the ways used to discourage Father Jayakody’s attempts at linking native with religion.

In any case, Father Ernest Poruthota’s own life and career (I suspect the two are indistinguishable) have been in the pursuit of such a goal: one which commendably attempts to erase out anomalies present within a religion which, for the better part of its existence here, has been seen as a neo-colonialist project by some. That Father Poruthota (not to mention Father Jayakody) has, despite opposition from the top, prevailed is a testament to his fortitude. No word, in the final analysis, can do justice to that.