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