Monday, October 27, 2014

Prescriptions for a thoran-less cinema

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-Abaare 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.