Friday, January 30, 2015

Desegregating our schools - a must!

No school is free from religious bent. No school is free from ethnic bent. The truth is that we have institutionalised racial and religious divisions in our schools so much that to do away with them won't be easy. That is why they will continue. Always. That is also why desegregating them isn't the answer. There are other ways. Other means. But one thing remains clear: there must be reform. Period.

Sri Lanka follows the Oxbridge model, in spirit at least. This means that our schools, whether national or not, are geared towards producing students who can cope with Oxbridge-styled universities (here or abroad). Leaving aside international schools (which run parallel with the UK system) national, semi-private, and private schools are focused on an outdated form of the British model, which, to put it simply, has moved on.

In other words, our schools have deepened ethno-religious divisions based on an outdated system. Naturally enough, this cries out for reform. Changing the system, then, goes hand in hand with changing the ethno-religious divide. Or to put it more simply, changing the one obviously implies changing the other. They go together. They are not mutually exclusive. Simple as that.

But how to reform and where to begin? That's the real question. I have argued that abolishing any form of religious (or ethnic) consciousness in a school isn't the answer. I still stand by this. In Sri Lanka, home to four major religions, it anyway will be an unpopular move, opposed not just by education "czars" but pretty much by every stakeholder involved in a child's education (including, I must add, the child himself).

The answer lies elsewhere, hence. Not too hard to find.

A quick recap of history is in order here. When the British created a primary and secondary education system modeled on their curricula, they made religion a prime factor. Inevitably, this alienated other religions, other communities, until alternative schools and curricula were found.

Take the Sinhala Buddhist community, for example. Until the Panadura Debate, which heralded the Buddhist revival and the establishment of schools by the Theosophical Movement, they had to convert in order to gain admission to missionary schools. That's something which continues today. Something that no-one has really noted or observed.

It's surprising to know that Theosophical schools (referred to as BTS schools) did not exclude children from other communities initially. They were not "Buddhist only". As Professor Sudarshan Seneviratne has observed, they took in every ethnic community that had been excluded from Christian missionary schools. They were more multicultural than schools today, more tolerant and hence near-perfect models. Times have changed, though.

My point here is the ethno-religious divide in our schools began with the onset of Christian missionary education. This continues even today, albeit more subtly. Those who decry one form of "segregation" in (predominantly) Buddhist schools, however, fail to take note of this. They also fail to take note of the fact that discrimination against other faiths need not always be present when a child is being admitted, that more subtle (and easy to miss) forms of discrimination can be and are also present.

For the sake of argument, though, let's start with admissions. Very many faith-based schools have set percentage quotas to exclude children who practise certain faiths, in particular Buddhism. The argument is that since these schools "belong" to a certain religion, it is necessary to favour it. That's rubbish. Even a cursory look at their demographics makes it clear that students practising other religions proportionally exceed those practising the excluded faith. The move pleads "equality" but smacks of "anti-Buddhism".

That's just one point. There are other schools, however. Schools that deliberately exclude other faiths, that don't even admit a single child practising another religion. And one can't really blame them, given how communally schools that exclude their community think and act. Not that this absolves them, of course.

But I'm digressing here a little.

My point is clear. Until and unless every national and (semi-private) school is regulated, we can't hope for reform. The ideal to reach is multiculturalism (and not secularism). It won't be easy, I admit. We are talking about more than 100 years (if not more) of ethno-religious consciousness, institutionalised so much that we can't merely remove it. We are after all talking about removing it from every aspect to a child's education. That's tough, and hardly attainable in a matter of years.

Yes, it's difficult. But it must be tried. There must be something wrong, after all, with an education system that hinders a child from gaining what his school offers because of his identity. Reform is needed in a system that discriminates against different faiths, that creates rifts and layers within the same school to privilege one identity and rubbish every other.

A child's education shouldn't reflect identity. It should reflect capability. And talent. Our education system doesn't recognise this. That is its biggest defect. Sadly.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Do we really need junior secondary schools?

There has been much debate about the role that University students and lecturers played in Mahinda Rajapaksa's defeat. It's true that the Federation of University Teachers' Association (FUTA) launched a no-frills, disciplined campaign against Rajapaksa's regime and in particular the two Ministers of Education. While Sirisena's campaign didn't make education as top a priority as, say, the proposed National Drugs Policy, it's not far-fetched to say that education factored in Rajapaksa's defeat. Tremendously.

So now it's reform-time. Everyone, from civil society activists to diaspora singers who know zilch about what they're talking about, wants to butt in. "Reform" is the magic word, obviously, notwithstanding the pitfalls associated with trying to achieve everything at once. Sirisena's manifesto, however, is different. It's simple. To the point. Concise. Everything a good reform program must be.

Its take on education worries me, though. While making Free Education a top priority, it hasn't talked about an Education Act. That's bad. The Education Act has been in the backroom since the Kannangara reforms. Not even two insurrections pushed it. Halfhearted as they were, reforms lagged behind, eventually being abolished the minute the government changed hands.

Reform must begin at the beginning. In education, the beginning is to be found in schools - Grade One admissions, to be specific. Sirisena's manifesto has pledged to get rid of this issue with the following proposal:

"Since there is a great demand in the country for 55 principal schools while some rural schools are being closed down, a more extensive system of primary schools, another system of junior secondary schools feeding on the former, and a system of main schools catering to Advanced Level students and feeding upon the latter junior secondary system will be set up. After completely providing all primary and junior schools with necessary facilities, primary and junior sections will be gradually removed from main schools." (Page 40)

Sirisena's solution is to build more junior secondary schools. I wonder whether that is really needed. It's heartening to see that such a system will prevent rural schools from being shut down. But what's at stake here isn't only that. It's also about a whole lot of other factors. And this is where the "solution" isn't as practical as it's cut out to be.

Firstly, Sirisena isn't the first President to propose a system of junior secondary schools. A policy dialogue conducted in 1999 debated whether such schools were needed. Eric J. de Silva argued against the idea. His argument was simple. Sri Lanka has a transition rate of 102%. That's the proportion of students enrolled in Grade Six against those enrolled in Grade Five. Silva observed that this was a high figure for a developing country.

He also observed that the school dropout rate increases as the student progresses in secondary school. In other words, it is at the junior secondary level (i.e. from Grade Six) that students begin to drop out. Silva then made a classic observation: "What happens beyond Grade Six cannot, surely, be corrected by establishing junior schools!" (Politics of Education Reform and Other Essays, p 80)

He was correct. The focus should be on school attendance and exams, because while we can boast of a high literacy rate, about one out of every three students who sit for the O/Levels fails it. That's not cause for pride. That's cause for shame.

Maithripala Sirisena hasn't promised everything, I've noted. He doesn't promise an Education Act, naturally given that these are still early days. He pledges to ease the burden of the more popular schools by "connecting" them to primary and secondary schools. In other words, the focus of this proposal is on easing the Grade One admission fiasco. That's laudable, some will say.

Laudable, but hardly enough. Education reforms in Sri Lanka shouldn't just aim at Grade One admissions. Yes, reforms must begin at the beginning. But doing so while ignoring other factors, such as the dropout rate, misses the point. In another article I hope to explain why segregating schools based on the primary/secondary/upper divide misses the point in every possible way. For now, however, a few thoughts would do.

When Chandrika Kumaratunge's government debated on building more schools, the argument against it was that infrastructure alone wasn't enough. That's true. What the proposals missed, quite obviously, was that inasmuch as new schools were needed, they couldn't dent the dropout rate in existing schools.

The junior/secondary/upper classification divided schools into three categories: Type One (Grades 1 to 13 and 6 to 13), Type Two (Grades 1 to 11 and 6 to 11), and Type Three (Grades 1 to 5 and 1 to 9). As the then Chairman of the National Education Commission (NEC) Professor Lakshman Jayatilleke admitted, there were moves to encourage student dropouts from Grade Nine (which fell under the proposed junior school system). No two points for guessing why such dropouts were encouraged or whose (vested) interests these reforms were kowtowing to.

Needless to say, they were not implemented. Thankfully.

And now, 16 years later, they are being proposed. Again. They ideally will get rid of anomalies with Grade One admissions. Unfortunately, ideals aren't that easy to reach. Consequences can't be predicted, especially when unintended. What may be applause-worthy can be used to subvert what it aims at. It can also be used by certain interests whose end-target certainly won't be the child's welfare or education.

In other words, reform needs to be scrutinised. The junior secondary system will dent one problem. But denting one problem isn't to be cheered if another crops up. Let's face it: when schools are divided this way, it won't take much time for the dropout rate to increase, which will probably play into the hands of those who want to exploit (dirty) cheap labour. That's extrapolating a little too much I agree. But think again. It (almost) happened once. And history, as we all know, can repeat itself.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

An uncalled for need of the hour

One of the lesser defects of Mahinda Rajapaksa's presidency was the lack of a proper education policy. The antics of both the Education Ministers (Bandula Gunawardena and S. B. Dissanayake) were paraded in the media, to the extent where they didn't do themselves or the government any favours when they claimed impunity for their actions.

In the meantime, our education system sagged. Crises unfolded and went. Protests were unheeded. It won't be far-fetched to say that while it wasn't mentioned prominently in the Maithripala Sirisena campaign, education was a prime factor in Mahinda Rajapaksa's defeat.

There were lessons to be learnt. We learnt, for example, that inasmuch as S. B. Dissanayake's initiatives in bringing private institutes to Sri Lanka were a must (of sorts), they weren't enough. Quantity mustn't replace quality, after all. Dissanayake's program was flawed not because it was a complete waste, but because outlay did not equal quality. Lack of quality and a proper regulatory framework was the main defect, coupled with the former Minister's lack of regard for what people were demanding.

We also learnt that while Mahinda Rajapaksa's regime (I am talking about post-2005 here) promised us that much needed Education Act, no initiative was taken in this regard. That's bad. An Education Act is needed and for reasons that are obvious to anyone.

Firstly, it must be noted that there were two main education reform drives, both instigated by the JVP insurrections. But these reforms were halfhearted. Civil society was not consulted, and neither was a White Paper issued. The focus of both reform programs was on gaining votes. In other words, education was looked upon as a vote-grabber, a means to an (unnecessary) end rather than a virtue in itself.

Secondly, education figured prominently in Maithripala Sirisena's manifesto. As with his other promises, his stance on education was (and is) largely based on ideals. Promises of protecting free education, strengthening rural schools, and supervising international schools are all fine and well. Sticking to them, however, is a different matter. We are after all talking about promises that were made by nearly every regime that preceded this one. Who's to say that things will be different this time?

Thirdly, it's no secret that education policies lag behind for the same reason that Sirisena's much scuttled anti-tobacco policy failed: vested interests. There is a private sector "presence" in the government, as influential as the tobacco and alcohol lobbies. We are talking about lobbies that amount to big bucks. We are talking about lucrative deals made to push back reforms. While I can't agree that the private sector lobby is as bad as the tobacco lobby, I must concede that we are all the worse off for its presence in our education discourse.

Fourthly, the focus has all too often been on higher education rather than primary or secondary education. The private sector doesn't only handle universities and institutes. The lack of a proper regulatory framework was the reason why international schools flourished and abuses of authority continued in schools. Until and unless we look into our schools and into how we can reform them meaningfully, we can't really hope to turn Sirisena's promises into realities.

Fifthly, reform is meaningless without necessary mindsets. It is true that much of the discourse on education is handled by those who "bow down" before certain habitual prejudices. Sri Lanka has much to gain in its education sector. What keeps it back from attaining end-target isn't the lack of institutional patronage, but the lack of a proper mindset needed to institutionalise reform.

As Rajiva Wijesinha has rightly pointed out, equity through quality education is key. Unfortunately, what keeps this laudable goal from being reached is the lack of a proper, top-to-bottom impetus to get rid of the one thing that hampers primary and secondary education: the popular-outstation syndrome. I've written about this before.

We look forward to change. We look forward to promises. If the past is anything to go by, however, promises have rarely equaled realities. That's sad. I continue to view Sirisena's presidency with an open (and cynical) mind, knowing quite well how politicians act and how they eventually begin to sag. In the meantime, however, I also continue to hope that education, a cornerstone in our national policy, will be given its due place.

Education reform is key. But we need a whole lot of other things. We need mindset-changes. We need radical change, top-to-bottom. And most of all, we need to ensure that reform itself isn't subject to change as governments pass hands.

It is for this reason that we need a proper Education Act. Without it, any hope for reform will dissolve the moment the regime changes. That will be antithetical to the spirit of education itself, I admit. Problem is, Sirisena's manifesto hasn't mentioned this. Hardly something to get consoled about, I should think.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

H. D. Premaratne: Remembering an Icon

H. D. Premaratne directed films. Masterpieces. All of them captured heart. Mine and yours. But this is not an assessment of his career. This is something of a personal tribute.

For the connoisseur in us, brought up to believe in an (unbridgeable) gap between arty and commercial films, he was a rebel. An unforgivable one. He was born 71 years ago. With his death, we became a poorer tribe. That’s unbridgeable too. The gap he left behind continues. It cannot be filled by anyone, this I’m sure of.

What was it about him that caught us? I don’t know. His films were all unique. They caught an entire generation that grew up in the post-1956 context of our cinema. This was long after Lester James Peries helped revolutionise the grammar and syntax of our film industry.

Premaratne was expected sooner or later at this time. The cinema needed him. At a time when our films were veering off to either of two extremes, at a time when we had films that failed at the box-office and films that failed to win our attention, we needed someone who could stick to a middle path. Premaratne did that. He compromised. Readily. That’s what won heart.

It all began with his debut. Unlike other directors who established their signature long after their first film, Premaratne showed his from the start. Sikuruliya, which slightly borrowed from the Ummagga Jatakaya, summed up everything he stood for. There were songs, there was brilliant camerawork, and most of all, there was a balance. He also showed us his sympathy for women in it, a trait that would occupy every film of his thereafter.

I remember talking with Suvineetha Weerasinghe about the film once. She told me that although she played one role in it, in reality Premaratne impressed so much upon her that she managed to play three. Seeing the film today, from an entirely different generation, I could not have agreed more. Premaratne showed himself as a woman’s director in Sikuruliya. He never really absolved Suvineetha’s character, flawed and imperfect as she was, but at the same time never condemned her.

Perhaps that was what made the man stand apart, defiantly almost, from the rest of the crowd. He came at a time when the cinema was changing. Trying to unshackle itself of a romantic era, filmmakers became more defiant in how they viewed society and its ills. This was when a generation of filmmakers, who hailed from the theatre, came up. Dharmasena Pathiraja and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake were two of them.

Premaratne was different. He occupied a twilight world. If I were to sum up his career, I would have this to say: he came after Lester James Peries and before Dharmasena Pathiraja. He was at once socially engaged and a mild romantic. He realised that for all the hype over “kalathmaka” (arty) films in the country, the cinema could never be saved unless some concessions were made to the box-office. And in the end, he won.

His son Ranga told me that he felt he owed a duty to the producers who financed his films. That may explain how he balanced the needs of both producer and audience in them. He reached an apotheosis in this, I think, with Deveni Gamana. Controversial for its time, the film managed to keep us engaged with it without going overboard. It appealed to us in a way few controversial films ever could. And of course, it was a hit. That was another thing. None of his films lost money. Ever.

This may have had something to do with his actors. He wasn’t just a woman’s director. He was an actor’s director. Directing a cast, any cast, isn’t easy. You need coordination and cooperation. The thing about Premaratne was that he got the best out of everyone and anyone he directed. There is a reason, after all, why even in his most “commercialised” films (like Adara Hasuna), the actors stood out in a way they never could in any other film.

There’s more, of course. At a time when it was the norm to go for established stars, he put relative unknowns and experimented. Bandula Galagedara was a nobody when Premaratne put him as the lead in Sikuruliya. He could and did get the best from everyone. That is why, even after all these years and decades, we remember Galagedara’s memorable performance as a dwarfish, brutal aristocrat (Podi Hamu) in that film.

Premaratne was also selective with his stories. He cared for the underdog. Always. This is why, as he progressed in his career, his outlook on the world became darker. Sikuruliya, for instance, was a world away from Parithyagaya, not just in terms of mood but in terms of how he depicted the woman in both. This didn’t mean he gave up being light-hearted. He could be (unforgivably) romantic. At the same time, however, and as he went along, he realised that the romantic in him was trying to reach a compromise with the world outside.

Directors are influenced and in turn influence those who follow them. It was difficult to apply this to Premaratne. Categorising his films, putting them all in one basket and claiming that such and such a filmmaker influenced them, is easy. Fatally easy. He was too original for that. But this did not mean that he refused to absorb what he saw and what he learnt.

Few can deny, for example, that he was an optimist. A romantic. Sometimes, as with Saptha Kanya, he consciously let go of any grip on the larger realities of the world he was portraying. This made his stories poetic, almost saccharine-coated. There are sequences in his films which feel pointless at first glance, but which were brilliantly shot and exemplified his romanticism. I am reminded of the sequence in Sikuruliya of Suvineetha Weerasinghe’s character coming across the dwarfish aristocrat for the first time. I am also reminded of that bizarre, extraordinary sequence of Alexander Fernando performing a M. S. Fernando song alongside a group of cross-dressers.

But they were not pointless or peripheral to his stories. These sequences resist definition. They cannot be categorised. They are all shot almost effortlessly, showing a deft grasp of the mechanics of cinematography. And it wasn’t just in Sikuruliya. Such sequences can be found even in his later films. Like John Ford, a filmmaker I don’t hesitate to compare with Premaratne, he displayed what Satyajit Ray once called the “mysterious, indefinable quality of poetry”. These sequences epitomised that quality. If at all for this reason, they cannot be analysed.

There are instances in his films where the romantic in him seemed to give away, not unlike another director I can compare with him, Frank Capra. In the latter part of his career, this is what happened.

It surfaced most starkly, I think, in his finale, Kinihiriya Mal. In this, more than any of his previous films, Premaratne tried not just to balance the box-office with serious cinema, but to connect the romantic and the realist in him together through compromise. Needless to say, the film flopped. He couldn’t compromise enough.

Kinihiriya Mal deserves more than a footnote here. The story of garment workers falling prey to prostitution was, as one critic put it, hackneyed. What Premaratne tried to do here was to put together everything he had stood for in his previous films. It backfired, if not at the box-office then with the critics. And the reason wasn't too hard to find.

Even with an all-star cast, with practically every character portrayed by an established actor, he couldn’t handle a story that teetered between the romantic and the brutally authentic. It was a conflict that needed more than one film to be resolved. It needed a whole new career. Premaratne didn’t live long enough.

A generation grew up with Sikuruliya and Saptha Kanya. They loved them all. And with that, they grew up doting on and loving the man behind them. His legacy continues. It is true that he can never be replaced. But if in every film that tries to be both commercial and serious we can spot him, I know we as a nation of film-lovers will remain grateful to him. H. D. Premaratne lives. We are a poorer tribe for his loss. But we are richer for what he did. And for what he left behind.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, January 27 2015

Monday, January 26, 2015

Ambitions come in different colours

This is the eighth in a series of articles dedicated to school-going kids, written for the GUYS AND GIRLS section in Ceylon Today.

I didn't stutter as a kid. Some of my friends did, though. They stuttered so hard that some of the others got annoyed. Some got used to them eventually, but the truth is that at that age, those who stuttered had to keep up with those who didn't. Inevitably, this meant practice, practice, practice.

This also meant spending hours and hours in the bathroom, shouting and reciting poetry. One of our teachers even advised them to go to the beach, one quiet evening, to try and shout over the crashing waves.

They did just that, and eventually, they lost their stutter. And when they did, they began pursuing what they liked. Finally. Yes, they are all happy for this.

Some of us like to speak. Others like to write. A few don't like either, but love to take to sports or any other extra activity. That's natural.

There are other preferences too. Some of us are good at reading (and speaking) in a particular language. Some of us may be exceptional enough to be fluent in several languages. Whatever the talent and whatever you are fluent in, you will win admiration. Once you take to a language, the flow comes naturally. That's when you begin to unravel the wonders of words, sentences, and writing and speaking. Even if you stutter.

I know someone who stuttered as a kid. His school recognised this defect early on, and while his teachers didn't really remove it, they gave him enough confidence to pursue his ambition: music. His grasp of both Sinhala and English, coupled with his outstanding knowledge of music in both languages, enabled him to win a scholarship abroad. When he returned, he began writing lyrics and even performing songs. Eventually, he won a place, and today, he is popular among those who dote on him.

Not all of us are blessed this way, unfortunately. Not all of us may be able to pursue what we want. That's life. Still, it's not all thorns and weeds. There is much to make of life and much to pursue. Ambitions come in different colours, and, as the saying goes, there are plenty of pebbles on the beach.

So we will all take to different streams. We may like reading or writing. We may like to play, idolising sports icons and trying to imitate them. But no matter what our ambitions and hobbies may be, we must realise one thing. We must never poke fun another for not liking what we do. After all, the world isn't flat, it goes around, and it contains much for us to indulge in and enjoy.

There was once a boy who couldn't write. He didn't like to study or read either. Try as he could, he found it difficult to do his homework. As time passed and as his teachers began scolding him, however, he began to teach himself. He learnt that while he couldn't read properly, he could pick out words and sentences easily. That enabled him to write too, and from 50-word essays he went to 200-word essays.

He also realised one thing. He understood what he was good at. Connecting wires, fixing radios and TVs, and assembling computers fascinated him. While he was only 10 years old, he began learning these things from his father, who was an expert in them. Soon enough, he learnt. Today, while he isn't exactly streets ahead of what he was a few months ago, he has balanced study and ambition like he never could. He is happy. As he should be.

That kid was just one among many, I admit. For some of us, the road is never easy. Fathers and mothers may scold us, rightly too, for not indulging in what they want us to indulge in. It takes time to convince them that what they think best fits us is not always what suits us.

But in the end, when you manage to make them realise how good you are at something, you will win them over. And when that happens, no matter what, you will realise that life isn't all about books and words, that there's a whole new world out there, and that the meaning of life isn't always to be learnt from what someone tells you.

Written for: Ceylon Today GUYS AND GIRLS, January 25 2015

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Dimpled Star

She has acted in over 40 films. Her signature is evident in them all, to the extent that we sense her presence even before she enters a scene or sequence. That's class. That's Sangeetha Weeraratne. Yes, she was part of my growing up, figuring in those movies and TV shows I saw.

But there is something in her I can't forget or fathom. Something to do with her style of acting, which is at once vibrant and reserved. That's a rare quality I agree, and in Sangeetha I see an actress capable of much more than what she does today.

All this peripheral, however.

Sangeetha didn't take to movies as a child. She had apparently liked maths (and dancing) more. Her interest in the cinema began when her father, the famed cinematographer and director Timothy Weeraratne, entered the second phase of his career, in the late 1980s. Her family had been business-oriented, and she admits that she was more interested in the financial aspect of movie-making: "I had a flair for accounts."

Time passed. She took part in her first film, Roy de Silva's It's a Matter of Time, when she was just 16. It's an irony of fate perhaps, but she found herself paired with an actor she would meet over and over again throughout her career. "I acted opposite Kamal Addararachchi. In hindsight, this benefited me tremendously, because he taught me much about acting."

I ask her whether she found it difficult to get used to films and acting at this stage, and she admits that while acting wasn't a priority for her yet, cinema was in her blood. "Every time my father would get a new camera, for example, I would pose in front of him. I would be the camera's 'guinea pig'," she says, indicating just how much her interest in films had been widened during those early, tender years.

But if It's a Matter of Time was a mainstream debut for Sangeetha, the films that followed would test her potential completely. In a way, this had to do with how she understood the cinema as the years went by. She had initially been a fan of on-the-beaten-track, mainstream films; as time passed and she matured, she took to more serious cinema.

Gamini Fonseka's Nomiyena Minisun had Sangeetha in her very first serious role. Talking about Fonseka, she says that he knew actors so well that he could grind out whatever he wanted from them. "As you know, I was new to films at the time. One of my biggest challenges was continuity. How does one maintain the same face and emotion in a sequence that is shot in two different days?"

She remembers one sequence that illustrates this well. "I had to play out a pregnant woman who learns that her boyfriend is dead. That's tough. I was 17 then, in my teens. Let alone pregnancy, I didn't even know what it was like to have a boyfriend!" Nonetheless, she managed to perform convincingly at the first take. "To this day, I don't know how I managed to act that out."

This wasn't all. "As I told you, continuity was my biggest challenge then, especially when we had to continue this sequence two weeks later. I think Mr Fonseka knew this. Or maybe not. In any case, what happened was that while I was there on the set, wondering what I had to do, he came up-to me, opened my eyes, and burst a can of glycerin into them."

Just a little bit of that stuff, I have to admit, is enough to make you tear. Sangeetha would have been in hellish pain at the time: "It certainly was painful," she says, understating what she went through, "But at the end of the day, Mr Fonseka got what he wanted. I cried."

Both Kamal and Fonseka had been strong role models. I would have to agree. Both were highly individualistic, stubborn enough to realise that the way they acted and made films suited their styles, no matter how harsh the critics were. "Kamal was especially firm," Sangeetha tells me, "He knows how best he can act." I put it to her that some people see him as flamboyant and vivacious, and she agrees. "He has enough and more potential, a vast reserve of talent."

She remembers other names. Other directors. She remembers H. D. Premaratne with immense gratitude. "I got to act with Kamal in two of his films. Looking back, I must say that working with him was enjoyable in every way." Saptha Kanya, which showed Premaratne at the peak of his career, had Sangeetha as a pickpocket who befriends Kamal. Almost as in a fairy-tale, the two of them fall in love, and the story teeters and totters along with its share of subplots, climaxes, and melodrama. "It earned quite a lot for its time," she admits. Not surprising.

Maruthaya
There was also Vasantha Obeysekara, a director as far removed from Premaratne's style as anyone could be. "Premaratne was very reserved. He was quite friendly with us, but never betrayed emotion while on the director's chair. Vasantha, on the other hand, gets very emotionally involved with his films." This would have meant that he would have got involved with his actors too. Sangeetha agrees with me here. "He was almost a father-figure to us actually. And like a father-figure, he would berate us down or praise us to the skies as he saw us."

It's arguable whether Sangeetha's greatest talent has been seen in Obeysekara's films. We saw her firstly in Maruthaya, as the daughter of a deceased politician, whose downfall the director observes clinically but reflectively. We also saw her in Dorakada Marawa, undoubtedly her most powerful role, as the troubled fiancée of Sanath Gunathilake. There was also Salelu Warama and Sewwandi, the latter being the first film she financed and produced.

I put it to her that we remember these roles because they were all based on true stories, which gave them an authentic edge, and she agrees. "I concede that a film like Salelu Warama is quite different from Saptha Kanya. Both are love stories, and both have Kamal. But Vasantha's film is more nuanced, more engaged. It delves into class consciousness, into emotion, and asks a question from the audience: would you kill for love? Inevitably, I had to perform more authentically and convincingly there."

Her story doesn't end here. She is remembered for other roles. She was there in Premaratne's last film, Kinihiriya Mal. Given how negatively certain critics reviewed it, I ask her whether she found working in that film strange. "Not really," she replies, "The film had a fairy-tale edge to it, as do almost all of Premaratne's films."

This must have been so because the film showed him at his bitterest, at odds with the optimist that came out in his other films. We see this reflected at the end of the story too, where, after we imagine that everything will be alright for the heroine (a garment worker turned prostitute), a figure from her past comes back and kills her. Just like that. "There is a line between real-life and fiction in that story, but the reality explored in that film is not make-believe."

It's certainly beyond my task to go into a role-by-role analysis of Sangeetha's career. That will do for some other time. "We have so much potential that we can take from our actors," she says by way of wrapping up our discussion, "Personally, I would love it if our filmmakers delved into issues our women and children face. We don't see that happening. What we see are films that copy Bollywood and Hollywood, that leave nothing for us to digest. That's sad."

Perhaps it's a testament to her fortitude that Sangeetha has rarely deteriorated into histrionics or glamour in her serious roles. That's talent. But then again, I am talking with a rare actress. A rare human being, too. And at the end of the day, as her career moves along, she will be remembered for that. All the way. No mean feat, you must admit.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, January 25 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Houses that pass away

Nothing lasts forever. Everything rots. Wastes away. Returns to dust. Always. This world is subject to the vicissitudes of time and space, after all. Nothing new there. We are born. We live. We suffer. We die. That's it.

It's the same thing with the world and what's in it. Death is inevitable. It can't be erased. Ever. Inanimate things too are subject to this eternal verity. They are created by man and killed by carelessness or neglect. They have stories to tell. Years behind them.

It's not easy to hear them, though. We need to listen closer. They die a thousand deaths, after all. Not like people. They die every time we are careless. Take houses, for instance. Take the place you live. What if you stopped tending to it? Wouldn't it rot away? Wouldn't it die? Wouldn't it go down with dust and ash?

That's the way with houses. They are older than us. Older than the years they have been built. They age quickly. Die soon. And are also reborn. But that's rare. They are in a twilight world, between care and carelessness. In another sense, however, they don't pass off. Not that easily. They are just remembered. Your heart resides in them, after all. Even after they die.

So when houses rot away, and we look at them, thinking about those glorious days gone by, we are sad. But that's life. Things don't stay put. Ancestral homes, whenever they are abandoned, are condemned. Even with care and money, they cannot be saved. They are sick. Maimed. They cannot linger. The new must consume them. It can't be otherwise. That's the inevitable ata lo dahama (eight vicissitudes of life).

But places aren't abandoned that easily. We try to regain them. Whenever the old order is threatened, whenever the new order comes in, we try to hang on to what must leave. Houses therefore aren't just places where your heart resides. They are symbols. Symbols of the past gone by. Icons and museum pieces for the new order to come.

Virginia Woolf's novel, To the Lighthouse, describes the process of death and decay in a house. At night, after everyone goes to sleep, invisible forces come in to try and whisk it away. But not everything. "Whatever else may perish and disappear, what stays lies here is steadfast," Woolf says, writing about those who sleep within. Those who reside, she writes, give life to what they reside in. After they leave. after what they leave is abandoned, nothing stays steadfast. Everything is doomed. Everything.

Martin Wickramasinghe's seminal novel Gamperaliya describes the same thing, but more intimately, closer to home. The Kaisaruvatte walauwwa symbolises the aristocracy. It breaks apart. Those who live in it refuse to rebuild it. They refuse the help of Piyal, who has risen up into the new order. Money can't save it. It can't be given artificial life. It must die. On its own. Naturally.

I don't know where my mahagedara is. It's somewhere in the South, like the Kaisaruvatte walauwwa. The years may have consumed it. I'm not sure. But I have seen another house. Another mahagedara. Everything around it is decaying. The trees are overgrown. They creep around you. Shriek at you. Horrify you. They entangle the house, turning it into a sick, maimed mess overnight.

I am reminded of another book here. Also close to home. Leonard Woolf's Village in the Jungle. Looking at this house, and how nature has overpowered it, I reflect on this passage: "The jungle was bursting through the walls, overwhelming the house from above. The jungle moved within the walls: at last they crumbled; the tiled roof fell in."

The tiled roof has indeed fallen in. I see sunlight streaming through what remains of it. I also see grimed walls. Muddy floors. It's almost as though the house has fallen from grace. This must be some divine fate, I think to myself. For I am overwhelmed. If a few months of abandon have done what I have seen, what would another year or two do?

We can't predict everything. Ever. We can't see the future. All we know is that everything in this world, living or not, is subject to growth and decay. The ata lo dahama. The eternal verities. We can't best them. They take us. And our homes. Can we ever preserve them? Maybe. I don't know. Technology can do only that much after all. Beyond a certain point, we must give up, and let ourselves be subject to the world around.

Same thing with houses. The old die a painful death. The new emerge. Always. It takes time for new to become old, of course, but in this world of trends, we can't be sure that what is built today will linger tomorrow.

So beware. There are forces larger than you. And like the forest of Beddagama in Leonard Woolf's novel, they may overpower you. And with you, they may even take over your home.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, January 23 2015

Friday, January 23, 2015

The backers of the 11th hour

It is easy to back a winner. It is not so easy to back a dead (or half-dead) horse. It is also not easy to take the vicissitudes of life with humility. Winning elections, for example, isn't a real victory if you don't have the humility to bow down before those who made victory possible. That's what Maithripala Sirisena did. We are grateful to him. We hope he will continue likewise. The 100-day program, you must admit, is supported by all, regardless of party colour and preference.

But there are other heroes too. Those who backed the dead horse, for instance. Cheerleaders are easy to find and easy to pay for. When defeated, however, they can't be found. That is why I have always felt (and believed) that inasmuch as there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, those who stay behind and refuse to champion the victor (and thereby stick to their principles) are to be lauded. All the way.

This is why, whatever said and done, I will raise a cheer for some people. They stayed behind. They continued to stand by ideal. They didn't apologise. Yes, they championed the dead horse. Yes, they are to be admired.

I am no fan of politics. Indeed, I pity those who take to it. I also pity those who lose, and feel gracious enough to congratulate the loser (and winner) if they take defeat (and victory) with humility. Some say the loser at this year's election wasn't humble enough. They say he tried to cling to power. It didn't work, of course, and in the end he had to concede defeat. Not easy, you must admit. After all, we had a former president who tried to cling to power by claiming that she had one more year. Didn't work.

There were those who didn't refuse to back this year's loser. They brought Mahinda Rajapaksa and tried to hand him the SLFP's chairmanship. At the time I am writing this, Rajapaksa has conceded defeat on that count too, and has handed the post to Maithripala Sirisena. It's too early to tell, in this quiet game of chess, which of the two will emerge at the end. But that's not important right now.

It's time I mentioned some names. There was Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, who was one of the more gentlemanly stalwarts from the preceding regime. There was also Susil Premajayantha, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Wimal Weerawansa, Dullas Alahapperuma, and Dinesh Gunawardena.

Those were the chief names. There were others too: Dilan Perera, Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Kumara Welgama. A cheer for them all.

I don't back Mahinda. I don't back Maithripala either, at least not until he proves himself with the 100-day program, but that's another story. For now, what's important is this: it's not easy to back the loser. There is much up for grabs from the winner's side. Perhaps that's what those who defected that day to Maithripala Sirisena, who decided that he should be the party's chairman, thought. After all, it's conceded by everyone that among those who defected, there were "unclean" names too: names the new government must not associate with if it is to remain "clean".

I have little sympathy for politicians. Winners or losers. But there was much vilification that day. Those who defected, I must say, didn't do themselves any favours when they crossed over without as much as a by-your-leave. We are talking about people who vociferously badmouthed Maithripala Sirisena's campaign here. People who salaamed Mahinda Rajapaksa unabashedly, who were part of what the late S. L. Gunasekara called the "Maharajaneni Club".

Those people left one "Maharajaneni". They are with another. That's sad. Which is why I will say this: they should not be tolerated.

I mentioned S. L. Gunasekara above. I remember what he wrote five years ago, at the time of the 2010 election. It was obvious at the time that he championed Mahinda Rajapaksa, not because he was a lily-white angel, but because of his political convictions. I also remember an interview with him, which went on TV right after the election.

He spoke frankly there. Those who crossed over, he claimed, did so for personal gain. When the interviewer quizzed him on this, he raised an interesting point. Those who crossed over claimed that they did so to support the war. They broke away from their parties and lent support to Mahinda for this reason. But, Gunasekara asked, if they really did support the war, why didn't they do so without crossing over, while staying in the opposition? Apt.

Five years later, the tide has turned. Those who once salaamed now detract. We have that synthetic doctorate-holding goon, for example, claiming that he was unfairly treated by the outgoing regime. We also have those who badmouthed Maithripala Sirisena speaking of how useless it is to grieve over a "dead body" (the reference to the loser was clear there). Scoundrels, all of them. They aren't to be trusted. Maithripala Sirisena, I must say, should be wary of them.

Still.

Those who backed the (half-)dead horse were in the few that day. But they backed the loser, at least until the loser himself conceded defeat. That's class. Those who defected that day would have overseen the eventual, peaceful transition of power had they stayed behind a little longer. They didn't. That's not class. That's opportunism. Spinelessness.

For their dedication, the backers of the 11th hour are to be admired. Permanent friends can't be found in politics. But they proved otherwise. I don't want to take sides here, but looking at it all, I suppose that when the SLFP's history is recorded someday, their names will go down as those who stuck by principles and spoke for the loser. No mean feat, that. But they did it. And for that, I will admire them. Always.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

On getting lost in Fort

Michelangelo Antonioni's film L'Avventura has no real story. Two women meet in Rome. They go on a yacht to an island in Sicily with some friends. Nothing much happens. There's tension of course, and all that gets caught by the camera pretty quickly.

Soon enough, the tension reaches boiling point, and one of the two women (Anna) disappears. Just like that. Everyone looks for her, but even in the end, when two of her friends go to Sicily to find her and end up falling in love, we don't know where she is. She is lost. Forever.

The island looks forbidding, by the way. It's covered with rocks. And with no body found there, everyone is baffled. She may have committed suicide. She may have eloped. The island may have consumed her. Some places are like that, after all. Easy to get lost in. Without a trace. So easy that every time you go there, you look back to see whether those you've come with are there.

I am in Galle right now. The Fort. It's not easy to get lost here. Not easy to be consumed by nothingness and disappear. But I've been called a paranoid recluse all my life. Maybe that's why things look different to me. Places have stories to tell. The Fort has around 500 years to claim before it. It's been associated with conquest, reconquest, and bloodshed. And I am afraid.

There are battlements. Walls. Shrines. Houses. A clock tower. There are human beings like you and me, walking around, taking snapshots, and relishing the post-click moment. There are people basking in the sun, looking up to the sky and towards the distant fold in the sea.

There is happiness here.

I am constantly on the lookout, though. Things feel different. For me. There are statues of soldiers painted in white and green, and they seem to come alive. There are age-old inscriptions and youthful love verses on walls. There is defacement, and with both old and new graffiti, there is a sense of horror.

It's the past we see here. The past is a long time back. Where are those who inscribed? Have they gone on? Do the verses of love and history unburden themselves of those who wrote them and live long after they die? I don't know. I wish I did.

There are other things. They say that those who conquered us started with the Fort. I'm not sure how true this is. But there's no denying it: the Fort offers security. It is impenetrable. It has withstood disaster, natural and man-made. To control it is to control an entire people. I know I'm exaggerating here, but looking at those ramparts and cannon turrets, I can't help but think just how much protection would be afforded to the traitor who takes control of it.

The tower shows me the time. It's getting late. I must end here. But how? How am I to take my eyes from all what I have seen? The answer comes to me at once. I must go and see everything. So instead of getting out through the way I came in, I take the longer path around.

Things look different now. I am consoled by what I see. There are houses, shops, ordinary people going about their daily lives. They are smiling. All the time.

There are also buildings. Old and grimed. There are churches, most prominently the All Saints' Church, which faces a Buddhist shrine on the other side. It had been built according to Victorian architecture. Its Gothic feel unnerves me, as though it is a quirk that disturbs everything "modern" surrounding it.

Yes, I see nostalgia along these roads. But old is meeting new, and everything is coming together. There are old men, probably older than their years. There are children, carrying the burden of their grandparents, ambling along, still unused to where they live. There are also diverse faiths, a melting pot, and I see worshipers along their way to the daily prayer.

And finally, seeing all this, I leave.

It's not all that frightening, I think to myself. Maybe it's to do with my vertigo. You see, I'm afraid of heights. That's why, whenever I climb up the peak in the Fort, I think back on Antonioni's film. Anna's disappearance isn't explained. It cannot be explained. There are stories that have potholes and places that remind you of those potholes. As I look down from the peak, into an unforgiving abyss down below, my mind swirls. I am reminded of Anna.

But looking back up-to the peak (from where I am now), I laugh. There are 500 years inscribed on those walls. They have been defaced by the "පෙම් කවි" (love poems) of foolish youth. It is easy to get entangled in those years. I haven't. There is no reason for fear. No reason to be afraid.

I am still reminded of that island in Sicily. Italy after all is not far away from Portugal, Holland, and Britain, all of which captured us and structured the Fort I am leaving behind. Perhaps this is what terrifies me. I don't know. What I do know is this: there is history and treachery transcribed on those walls. They are meant to be faced up-to. So every time I go there and am reminded of Anna's plight in Antonioni's film, I will be ready. For now, however, I am done.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, January 22 2015

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Sobering reflections on our education system

A few years ago, Vasudeva Nanayakkara mentioned something about the state of education in this country. He is reported to have said that the conflict between the government and the Federation of University Teachers' Association (FUTA) reminded him of the conflict between the biological and the foster mother in Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle. That was apt. Spot on. But hardly consoling.

Nanayakkara was a Minister at the time. He isn't any more. But what he said stands. Big time. What he said applies equally to every aspect of our education sector. Indeed, what he said applies no matter what the government in power is. It's perhaps a sign of our lethargy or the lethargy of the powers that be, but we have institutionalised the defects in our education system to such a level that removing them would be, if I am to be liberal here, most difficult.

Let's face it. Governments can do only that much. But this doesn't license lethargy. The problem is that it took two insurrections, both by the JVP, for reforms in education to be looked into. The problem also is that while these reforms began with zest, and while everyone, whether in power or in the opposition, promised change, they didn't deliver it the way we wanted. What we got, sadly enough, were a bunch of scuttled, halfhearted reforms. Not much, you must admit.

Mind you, there's much to change. Where do we start? The schools, of course. Our schools, to put it mildly here, have become all but completely divided. We have institutionalised what I like to call the "popular-outstation syndrome" to such a level that we can't really unshackle ourselves of it. We have managed to deter some of our brightest students from displaying talent with an admission system that favours political or religious patronage over anything else.

This isn't all. We have ensured that as much as a "national" school system ought to favour the "national" part to it and facilitate inter-ethnic reconciliation, what we have today is a system where privilege and elitism reign supreme. We live in a time, after all, when even our schooling subtly imparts a culture of patronising the local and privileging everything else. Yes, it's that bad. Statistics might not attest to this. But we're not talking about statistics here. We're not talking about census data. We're talking about mindsets. About mentalities.

If it's about reform, this is where we all need to begin.

When both Sirimavo Bandaranaike's and her daughter's governments began reforming education, no White Paper was issued. Civil society was not consulted. That's bad. A government is accountable to its people, not the other way around. To rush through reform or delay it for expediency is not the way forward. As Rajiva Wijesinha has noted, while we have every reason to be proud of our education system, disparities remain. Starkly. It is these that reforms must attack. And it is exactly these that they do not attack.

There are other things. Other issues. Like how deeply we've divided our schools based on race and religion. Or how we've politicised Year One admissions. Or how unholy the alliance between the so-called "tuition mafia" and the Examinations Department has become. Or how fragmented the "language divide" has become within the school itself.

Yes, we are in a sorry state. Is it too late to amend? I don't think so.

I am a writer. I can't offer solutions. I can only generalise. But let me try. Some commentators have championed secularising our schools. That's the magic formula, for them at least. Laudable, but hardly practical. The truth is that doing away with any religious background in our schools won't be easy. A compromise, therefore, must be struck. But where? And how?

The key word isn't secularism. The key word is multiculturalism. All too often, however, commentators have mistaken the one for the other. Where the focus should really have been on engaging different faiths together, we have tried to do away completely with any form or religious instruction. We have substituted faithlessness for multiculturalism. At a time when reconciliation is needed more than ever before, we need to accommodate. Not strip away. Throwing baby with bathwater, after all, is not the solution, and inasmuch as I am opposed to the sort of religious indoctrination which certain (faith-based) schools indulge in today, I must say that removing it completely isn't the answer.

There's more, by the way. There's that ever present issue of English education. As Professor Carlo Fonseka pointed out about three years ago, when our leaders decided to go ahead with "swabasha" and removed English, we managed to divide the haves (who could learn that language on their own) from the have-nots (who couldn't).

What happened (and Professor Fonseka puts it very honestly here) was that for the next few decades, these have-nots built up a (false) sense of superiority that managed to (erroneously) look down on English. This led them, in the end, to what the Professor refers to as an "equality of degradation", where they became hellbent on preventing English being implemented at all.

What's the solution? We don't really know. There are mentalities that need to be changed. There is that popular-outstation divide that needs to be got rid of. Perhaps these are our starting points. We can't be sure. Not yet. But if it's about reforming education, reforming the state of English would be top priority. The popular-outsation syndrome has anti-swabasha (on the one hand) and anti-English (on the other hand) lobbies that are equally to be frowned upon. We need to get both out. Not easy, you must admit, unless total commitment is given from every quarter.

But there's no real reason to fret. Or brood. We have achieved much. We have progressed with our education system. Now is not the time to think back and worry. Now is the time to look forward, to take stock of what has gone by, and achieve those halfhearted reforms we didn't give much thought to all these years and decades.

The first step is that long overdue Education Act. That's radical I agree. But needed. Without it, any reform or change attempted can be thwarted the minute a government changes hands. That, in the final analysis, will be detrimental to the spirit of education itself. All the way.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The X-Files: Something of a Throwback

courtesy: www.fanpop.com
Sri Lankans love The X-Files. It made childhood and adolescence for many of us, I suppose. Rupavahini and Channel Eye both aired it back in the day. I remember the order: Season One on Monday, Season Three (or Four) on Tuesday, Season Six on Wednesday, and Season Eight (or Nine) on Thursday.

But whatever the season or episode was, however ridiculous, serious, or offhanded the stories were, I watched them all. Didn't miss. Not one episode.

It's been 21 years since the show began. As old as I am now. But I didn't get to see it from the beginning. I didn't start with Episode One. I began with Season Eight.

Season Eight begins when Fox Mulder, a major character, disappears. Someone else is brought in, and for the next two years, I saw or rather assumed that he was the chief player. He wasn't.

The main theme of the story, therefore, eluded me. I didn't know much about government conspiracies back then, except for the Kennedy assassination. I wasn't too much into UFOs, which was a little strange given that children my age were sci-fi fanatics. Perhaps that's why it took some time for The X-Files to get to me. And when it did, there were questions to be asked. Answers to be looked for.

I have been reading up on it since then. I've come to the conclusion that while the divide between art and real-life is thin, it was The X-Files that made me realise just how thin it could get. I didn't know this when I started watching it. The reason why I enjoyed unraveling conspiracies of government-alien collusion, UFO hideouts, and other less-than-obvious theories wasn't that they were partly true, but because they were easy to enjoy. And easy to remember.

It took some time, therefore, to realise that while The X-Files was partly true, the series didn't only undress myth and conspiracy. It did something else. It aimed elsewhere. But at what?

The X-Files was about lies. It was also about those who lied to hide still other lies. And about friends who turned into enemies overnight. Yes, it was a dubious world we were seeing here. "Trust No One," everyone whispered, even those who gained trust and betrayed. It wasn't exactly a black and white universe, but although even the two main players weren't perfect, they were the only characters we could relate to. And this is where we began to love the show.

While the series didn't exactly provide us with answers, it left us with many questions. That didn't worry us though. There's a reason for this. The entire thrust of the show amounted to one thing: the conflict between the real and the unreal. The real was symbolised by science and in turn by the scientist, Dana Scully. The unreal was symbolised by myth, by psychology, and in turn by the psychologist, Fox Mulder. Everyone else, including that agent who I once thought was Scully's one-and-only, John Doggett, paled in comparison.

The X-Files didn't resolve doubts. It didn't need to. A work of art needn't console the human soul always, after all. It can push us. Make us ask for more. As Friedrich Engels once wrote, it is not the function of the artist to resolve every conflict on a silver platter. Doubts remain. Conflicts remain. And in this particular show, there was plenty of both.

This wasn't limited to alien conspiracies, by the way. There were other stories. There were "monster of the week" episodes, which featured mutants, ghosts, devils and demons, and, in arguably the show's most violent episode, incest. The thin line between science and fiction blurred here, even more than it did with the story's traditional, alien conspiracy arc. And we loved them all the more for this.

One thing stood out though. The scientist in Scully prevailed, while the believer in Mulder lost. Science won, speculation and guesswork did not. But there was always that one final scene, where we (almost) got to see the key to the whole story, which could explain everything that remained unexplained. That left us dangling, hooked on, and we could hardly wait until the next episode. In the meantime, we aged by 10 years. And we never noticed.

So if it didn't aim at resolving doubt, what was The X-Files really about?

Maybe it had to do with what drove it all those 10 years. While other TV series depended on plot, this one remained character-driven. To the last. Everything else was peripheral. Secondary. This meant that even if conflict remained unresolved, we still had Mulder and Scully to fall back on, to console ourselves whenever the answers being sought eluded them (and us).

This is what made The X-Files popular. Mulder and Scully. Two names.

No episode undressed conspiracy. It left issues unresolved. Questions unanswered. There were characters who left and characters who came up. By the time we reached the final episode, however, we couldn't care less. And we didn't. We just looked at Mulder and Scully, as they embraced each other, and even as the credits rolled. We waited more than five years for them to come back. They did, but it wasn't the kind of return we wanted. The X-Files: I Want to Believe failed. Horribly.

That's why the series still lives on. It hasn't left us. Never will. Mulder and Scully remain. With us. Those questions they left behind are meant to be answered, yes. But not by them. By us. It's what Engels claimed, once upon a time. Conflicts aren't meant to be resolved on a silver platter. We need to search for the truth. And in The X-Files, the truth was always out there. Perhaps that's what that remarkable show taught us. In the end.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, January 20 2015

Monday, January 19, 2015

Dharmasiri Bandaranayake speaks

He is known for his courage. At a time when consciences are being sold for a song and two cents, that's a rare quality. Dharmasiri Bandaranayake has directed films, staged plays, and acted in them. His vision remains intact in them all. But while his signature is apparent in whatever he has directed, it is also true that he has tried to bridge the cinema and theatre more than any other filmmaker in the country. That's commendable.

But how exactly did he get to where he is today?

Dharmasiri Bandaranayake was born in 1949. He was educated at Vidyarathna College, Horana. Remembering those days, he tells me that back then, there was a flourishing arts and theatre culture in our schools, and this had definitely been the case at his own school. During this time, young Dharmasiri's imagination remained fertile. His interest in the theatre, he says, began here.

He was 17 when he first "encountered" the cinema. This was through Dayananda Gunawardena's Bakmaha Deege. The film had been an eye-opener for him: "Films didn’t appeal to me that much then. It was a chance encounter with Gunawardena which actually got me into his film. Overnight, however, I became popular." Indeed. As Premadasa, the manservant in the Mudliyar's house, Bandaranayake's role was perfectly aligned with that of Chérubin, the Count's page in Beaumarchais' comic play The Marriage of Figaro, on which Bakmaha Deege was based.

He tells me here that while he concentrated on acting, he befriended Willie Blake (the cameraman) and other technicians, learning about filmmaking along the way. Young Bandaranayake's interest in the cinema, however, would be interrupted in the years to come.

It was during this period that the 1971 insurrection happened. Bandaranayake found himself acting in several stylised plays, many of them written and directed by Dayananda Gunawardena. "Back then, the theatre was evolving pretty quickly. The stylised form introduced by Sarachchandra gave way to the dialogue-driven plays of Sugathapala de Silva and Dhamma Jagoda. These in turn gave way to more politically driven, socially engaged plays."

It didn't take long for Bandaranayake to turn playwright. We remember those masterpieces he produced during this time, prime among them Makarakshaya and of course Eka Adhipathi (in my view his masterpiece). I remember Regi Siriwardena once writing in an essay ("Sinhala Cinema, Class, and Personal Relations") that the political theatre by nature prefers abstractions over the "flesh-and-blood existence of real human beings". As Siriwardena himself notes, playwrights often fall back on allegory in order to avoid censorship.

Bandaranayake's plays are all political by definition. They make use of stock figures, abstractions, and allegory. What makes them interesting, however, is how imaginatively the playwright depicts that basic, timeless maxim: power corrupts. People, he tells us, are inherently good; it is only when they are given the reins of power that they begin to get corrupted. I am reminded of what Siriwardena once wrote of Stalin: "starting out with a vision of betterment, justified in rational terms, and then impelled to enforce it by coercion and irrationality". Unwittingly, that's what Bandaranayake's plays, so rooted in their naked, frank indictment on authority and power abuse, depict.

Perhaps I am being a tad too harsh here, but all too often, playwrights who bring with them this same black-and-white vision of politics to the cinema are doomed. It's a measure of Bandaranayake's diversity, however, that he has experimented in both theatre and film while realising that the two are and will always be clean different.

In any case, his debut, Hansa Vilak, took us by storm. He had acted in another masterpiece, Vasantha Obeysekara's Palagetiyo, a few years before he took to directing. His performance as Sarath, an up-and-coming educated peasant man who elopes with a rich mudalali's daughter, was hailed everywhere. Taking a cue from his role, he weaved perhaps the finest indictment on marriage and the way society consumes individuality through it in his first film.

Unlike Palagetiyo, which deals with the realities of class hierachies, however, Bandaranayake's first film deals with the clash between personal happiness and reality. It's a testament to how shrewdly he judges his characters that this clash doesn't absolve any of them in the end. Not even Nissanka, the protagonist of the story (played by Bandaranayake himself), is let off. Nissanka's moment of triumph at the court, where he wins a case filed against his extramarital affair with Miranda Ranaweera (Swarna Mallawarachchi) is short-lived: soon enough, the past catches up with him, disillusionment sets in, and like in Palagetiyo, the clash between reality and fantasy proves too much to handle for both of them.

Hansa Vilak
Hansa Vilak isn't his only film. To date, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake has directed four others (hardly a notable filmography, you might say). We have seen them all. Even with his most unconventional film, Thunveni Yamaya, he blends in fantasy and reality together so well that we realise what he's trying to tell us at once. I can't really think of any central "motif" that binds these five films together, but if I were to pick one, it would have to be this: the clash between personal idealism and social reality.

He tells me that in his time, while box-office receipts were not very high, audience numbers certainly were superior to what we have today. "Take Hansa Vilak. We spent around two lakhs (200,000 rupees) on it. It earned about 21 lakhs. That's a profit, true, but what's more important is that the price of a ticket back then was about 1.50 or 3.50 rupees. This means that the size of the audience that watched my film was bigger than the size of a regular film audience today."

Notwithstanding their artistic merits, however, Bandaranayake's films cannot be judged easily. This isn't because they elude us, but because our collective mentality is yet to adjust itself to the weight that comes with them all.

From here, he expounds his views on the film industry today. He begins by observing how up-and-coming directors take to their field. "Most young directors today don’t finance their films. More often than not, foreign agencies give their lion’s share to them. This impedes on the director at times, and makes him think that he doesn't have to reach his audience with what he is depicting." In a way, this causes the director to miss the very people his films should be focused on.

There are other problems too. I tell him that the vast majority of mainstream films here are religious epics that have no real merit. He replies to this by saying that even they are losing out on audiences today. This is hardly a consolation for the film lover in this country, given that both mainstream and arty films have neglected him. Still, it does point at the fact that big-screen doesn't always translate into box-office hit, and that audiences do get tired of having their intelligence insulted by such epic films.

I ask him why he didn't make more films, and he admits that unless and until he gets in the “mood” for translating a story into celluloid, he can’t direct. “I was recently asked by some people to remake Suddhilage Kathawa,” he says, “Even now, I can’t think of the film without imagining Swarna as Suddhi, Cyril Wickramage as Romanis, and Joe Abeywickrama as the headman. I told them to go look for another director to work with, because when you’ve made a film and you try to remake it, the original stays fresh in your memory. That’s always a problem.”

It's always a sign of a director's genius that he doesn't let his political preferences "stain" his films. This has certainly been the case with Bandaranayake. Throughout his career, in whatever he has directed, he has let in his political beliefs to a level where his stories are authenticated as works of art. He has never dabbled in propaganda, especially in his films. That's commendable. And rare. The reason isn't too hard to miss. Dharmasiri Bandaranayake is of a rare breed. Purely and simply.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, January 19 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Growing old and staying young

This is the seventh in a series of articles dedicated to school-going kids, written for the GUYS AND GIRLS section in Ceylon Today.

Growing old is not easy. There is much to think about and much to adjust for. You need to see things differently, for one thing. You need to be able to judge differently. You also need to convince everyone that age goes along with experience, to prove that you are all the wiser not just because you have aged, but because you have aged gracefully. Yes, there is a difference there. Not too hard to find.

I don't much know about Roman writers or literature. What little I know comes from what my teachers taught me. I do know about Cicero. And Virgil. They were great men. Great writers. And great thinkers.

Cicero wrote an essay titled "On Old Age". It was a brilliant essay, one which put forth his views on growing old. He had this to say about it: "No man is so old that he does not think himself able to live another year." That's it.

And yet, nothing I have read has rung half as true. When we think about growing old, we think negatively, don't we? We think that by growing old, we lose that spark which nourished our youth and gave us life, don't we? And we may not always be wrong in this. Some, who don't care much for physique, may think back, look ahead, and embrace the inevitable passing of time. But they are rare.

Ageing isn't just about losing physique, of course. As we lose our youth, we tend to think more. But beyond a certain point, time passes so quickly that we lose track of things. That's inevitable. This doesn't mean everything is bleak and dreary, by the way. This simply means that as the pressures of life come along and hit at us, and as we get used to them, we tend to treat them calmly.

It's all to do with how you look at the world. As we grow older, we disregard emotion and think with reason. I know an old man who was a fervent revolutionary. He was a member of a radical political organisation. He cut off all links he had with his religion and embraced atheism. He fell under the gospel of revolution. He worked underground for that political organisation, barely escaping with his life. This was at a time of civil war and political conflict. Not an easy career, you must admit.

Years passed. He gained and he lost much. As those years went by, he began to understand that nothing was permanent and inasmuch as he had tried to rebel against everything he opposed, those beliefs he had subscribed to were as bad as what he was trying to get rid of. By then, however, it was a little too late. He had cut links with his religion so badly that he could not return to it. He had isolated friends, relatives, and even some of his political aides. At the end, he had only his son.

Few people can face life with equanimity this way. This man did, though. While he could not reconcile himself to his faith, he did manage to make new friends. He walked. Read. Learnt. He entertained his grandsons with those adventures he'd had while working for that political organisation. They fell under his spell and began to consider him as a role model.

He died last year. Happily. As he should.

But experience isn't everything. You need to be wise enough to take to it. You need to be intelligent and well-read enough to identify what you should take to and what you should not. Remember what Cicero wrote in his essay? Well, that is the truth. The wise man thinks about tomorrow. He thinks about what that new day will bring in, what he can learn and think about in the days to come. He does not fret. In short, he remains as old as he thinks he is. He remains young every day.

We are taught to respect elders. That's not (only) because they are older than us. That's because they are considered wiser in every possible way. They think different from us. What we see as black or white, they see as grey. For them, problems can't be solved that easily. They don't take to shortcuts. Not that easily. For them, the longer but more trustworthy path is to be trod.

It's true that we are as old as we feel. Even us. I know some children, for instance, whose outlook on the world amazes me even more than what any writer with years of education behind him can come up with. I know certain school-goers who talk about things I've not even heard about. They talk about philosophy, questions related to life and death, even religion, in a way I can't quite understand. And yet, I know they are wise. Far wiser than me, the "elder" to them all.

We all grow old. Some of us grow older than others, at heart and in mind. Some of us stay young. Growing old and staying young isn't easy. But it can be done. If age gracefully and stay wise, that shows that we have not let the years consume us completely. For if we have the heart of that child we once were, we can always think back. We can also heed Cicero's timeless saying. We will all live another year. Even at heart.

Written for: Ceylon Today GUYS AND GIRLS, January 18 2015