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