Saturday, October 25, 2014

Sugathapala Senerath Yapa

“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 [1], “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 [2], 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.

Billy Wilder
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.

Bicycle Thieves
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.

[1] “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Camera-Stylo” – Alexandre Astruc, 1948
[2] “Who Makes the Movies?” – Gore Vidal, 1976