Friday, December 19, 2014

A Common Man

The God King, made in 1975, was Sri Lanka’s first film made in English. It dealt with a historical theme, for the first time here, in a foreign language. Between 1975 and 2014, a lot has changed in our cinema, but one thing remains – the level of ambition and detail that go into shooting English-language films made here. 

Our film industry has not seen a lack of good dialogues-writers, but all too often, this has been limited, as a widely used format, to the stage. In English, of course.

Perhaps by this lack of a good, stable audience in the cinema, we have not seen English films in Sri Lanka stand up-to their counterparts in the theatre. The blame belongs not wholly to the audience, but to the directors’ lack of agility in remembering that, whether shot in English or otherwise, every other element of filmmaking – acting, camerawork, costume design, editing, and setting – remains the same as for a locally shot story. Adapt accordingly, and you will get a story that will be as entertaining as it is authentic.

It is from this point that I wish to approach A Common Man, the first Hollywood venture by local artists here. It seems difficult to imagine a more versatile director capable of bringing off such a venture as this than Chandran Rutnam, who made it. Both experience and ability he has. In plenty. Years of training in Hollywood, without losing his footing in his home country, have ensured his agile strength.

He is, as far as I can tell, the only filmmaker in our country who has successfully imbibed Hollywood filmmaking. He adulates it, but not to the point of making it stand next to God himself. And in no other film of his can this be more apparent than in A Common Man. The film is a thriller, but not necessarily a conventional thriller. It owes its story to a Hindi film – A Wednesday – but in all other respects, Rutnam has tapped into local fears – terrorism, paranoia, characters in conflict between duty and instinct.

Ben Kingsley stars in it as the nameless, grim main character, who rigs five bombs across Colombo and threatens to blow them all up, unless five terrorists are released immediately. One of them, a top-notch LTTE expert, is hidden away in a top-secret location unknown even to the Police. At the centre of all this, also, is Morris da Silva, played by Ben Cross, a no-nonsense, to-the-letter police chief who insists on doing something the "correct" way.

The real strength of the film, in terms of casting, is obviously Kingsley, but Cross figures in as well. I wondered whether his talent were ever being truly used back in his home country. Deeply trusting of his subordinates, however, he never actually bites anyone’s head off. Cross is unlikely as a man who can be easily exasperated, and he is the perfect foil to Kingsley, who, though he also doesn’t break up in fits of anger, does manage to spice his conversation with sharp invectives.

Unfortunately, however, these two constitute the movie’s only key strengths. The story is good, but, as stated before, it’s a remake. As for the rest of its cast, I cannot for the life of me imagine a worse set of natives who were made to speak in a foreign tongue in any other film. I have read somewhere that most dialogues were synced in during post-production. If so, the fault is not with the actors, but with its dubbing artistes, but even here the problem with most of the cast emerges.

I was frankly disheartened at seeing, of all people, Dushyanth Weeraman as a wise-cracking computer hacker, whose main job in the film seems to be uttering a hundred-and-one clichés which, by the way, lose their meaning in the bathetic way they’re being said in the first place.

The only good other role in the film was that of the hard-hitting IP Rangan Jayaweera, played by Frederick-James Koch, who symbolises for me the second theme of the story – the divide between instinct and law-and-order in a civilised society. He is all for eliminating terrorists with a butcher’s knife, without waiting for justice to take its slow, arduous journey, which pits him against his colleagues. But his colleagues too, in the last but one encounter, are with him, leaving only Cross to handle the situation with an encounter with Kingsley at the train station.

I don’t think much has been written about the ending, which for me was the only part of the film entirely free from artifice. The ending reminds one of what a great film A Common Man should have been, because it is done beautifully: with a whimper rather than a bang. As it is, however, A Common Man is piled with one set of clichés after the other from beginning to penultimate scene, so much so that, when I saw that woman (I don’t recall her name) playing a madcap, lusting-after-popularity reporter girl, I couldn’t stand it.

A Common Man leaves only its titular character and Ben Cross with an encounter with each other at the end – perhaps, because no other performer in the film appears in it, it was a good ending. I just wish the main theme of the story – which I won’t reveal here – could have been handled better, with more restraint.