Friday, February 27, 2015

Notes on a writer and national icon

Books are loved. They are read in more ways than one. Complexity of form, rhetorical device, allusion, syntax, and wordplay are made for study. But what matters is the story. That is why we are all narrators. Why we take to what captures heart more than "form" or "structure".

I was thinking about books I've read and treasured in my childhood. There were the authors: Sybil Wettasinghe, Richmal Crompton, Aesop. There were the titles: Just William, Tintin, Kuda Hora, Harry Potter. They came to memory at once, so much so that I felt something was missing. I had neglected something. It had been absented from memory. Didn't take much time to remember.

we had to study Amba Yahaluwo in Grade Seven. The story caught hard. We weren't as yet old enough to appreciate the deeper nuances of that classic. Back then, understandably enough, we examined it for what we thought it was: a first-rate story. Remembering it brought back memories. It also brought back memories of the man who wrote it. T. B. Ilangaratne.

He wasn't a novelist. He wasn't a writer. He was much more. In his stories, his characters, and his endings, there is a moment of triumph for its heroes. We all devoured that moment. Young and blissfully unaware of how books are read in different ways, we willingly let go of the deeper subtexts of his works. An unforgivable crime perhaps, but back then we were not taught to study a work of art as an undergraduate would.

Not that Ilangaratne deserves to be read like this, however. He isn't meant to in the first place. Why?

Because his stories all spoke to the heart. Nearly every story he wrote involved children. Children "reside" in every one of us. So when he wrote about them, their tribulations, joys, and sorrows, he was true to life. He had an uncanny ability to strike the right note, whatever chapter or sequence it was in his story. And this wasn't all.

We weren't ready to distill anything political from a work of art back then, given that we were small. It took time, understandably, to realise just how "political" and "committed" this remarkable writer could be in whatever he wrote. And what was beautiful in this was the way he used his political vision, so full of sympathy to the downtrodden, to spin stories revolving around children. In this, he was perhaps far ahead of his time. Remarkable, given how extraordinarily simple his writings were.

The 1960 Cabinet. Ilangaratne is seated
second from the left
Not that this means he included anything and everything political in his works. He didn't go overboard. He maintained a balance between narrative and social commentary, although it was hard to see where and when he would go beyond the narrator's role to act as commentator. And in Amba Yahaluwo, his masterpiece, he kept this balance so admirably that it was difficult to see anything political about it.

As we grew up and matured, however, it was equally difficult to not see how he had reflected Marx's dialectic view of history in his characters: with Sunil ("Sudu Appo", the son) for socialism, Maha Kumarihamy (his grandmother) for feudalism, and Nelum Bandara (his father and the head of his family) for the eventual transition from the one to the other. Bandara's downfall at the end of the story, Kumarihamy's fall from grace and arrogance, and Sunil's growing friendship with Nimal all reflect the gradual erosion of feudal values and the embrace of humanism. Back when I first read it this wouldn't have made sense to me, a point I realise only now.

Ilangaratne felt and lived what he wrote. Like some of the children in his books, he had risen through class hierarchies by effort and had come to appreciate the meaning of "equality". For him, Marxism wasn't something to parrot or gain political mileage from. Injustice wasn't a slogan. The humanist in him saw these words for what they really meant: symbols of a flawed society. To pick and choose, to pursue self-interest while advocating reform wasn't his aim. His aim was to inform, to educate, believing in an eventual transition. Children, he would have known, felt this the most. Which is why we remember not just his stories, but their characters too.

He had a political life, naturally. Contesting firstly as an independent candidate from Kandy, he went onto become one of our finest and indeed most honest Labour Ministers. He helped create the Provident Fund. The People's Bank was his brainchild. His association with Bala Tampoe and other notable trade unionists helped steer the economy, back when negotiating employment terms didn't mean kowtowing to the employer.

He lost his seat in 1977. Not surprising, considering that the SLFP had seen its biggest electoral loss that year. Nearly a decade later, when its fortunes seemed to flounder badly and he had grown frustrated, he made a choice. He joined a breakaway faction called the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP), led by Vijaya Kumaratunga and the Old Left.


What happened next was inevitable. Almost overnight, Ilangaratne lost his spark. Kumaratunga was killed. The SLMP lost the 1988 election, with its leader Ossie Abeygunasekara joining the UNP later. Kumaratunga's widow joined the SLFP, winning the 1994 election. The Old Left, predictably enough, stuck with her. And through this, Ilangaratne became an orphan. With his reputation besmirched by a campaign leveled against him (which alleged that he owned a hotel in Switzerland), he died, in S. L. Gunasekara's words, a "virtual pauper". Sadly.

Politicians rarely become writers. When they do, there's that political spark in their works that, for better or for worse, define them. Had he lived, Ilangaratne would have written more. Much more. His political zeal would have worn off. His stories would have been marked by an intensity of feeling, acknowledging that while his vision of childhood innocence and humanism was commendable, they entailed values which could not survive. Not for long. Inevitable, considering how the world changed. Even in his time.

I can only guess, though. I am no seer. In any case, Ilangaratne lived a life. He dissected childhood and opened it for us. We read him as children do. As we matured and came to understand political realities, we appreciated him. As we ambled along life and realised the limits of those realities, we appreciated him more. That's rare for a writer, I admit. Commendable too. Always.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The SLFP must unbuckle itself!

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka in his article "The Rising: Nugegoda Feb 18th" makes two points clear. Firstly, Mahinda Rajapaksa is wanted. Secondly, those who want him do not resent President Maithripala Sirisena: they just want the SLFP to get the UNP out. While the first point is debatable, I agree with the second.

President Sirisena's campaign was for good governance. Even his rivals support this. Vasudeva Nanayakkara is reported to have said that he would support it even if it takes more than 100 days. That's commendable. The problem is that while those who support Rajapaksa support Sirisena's program, the Sirisena faction is purposely leaving out Rajapaksa. Which is where its problems begin to crop up.

The SLFP can't possibly hope to win with the 6.2 million people who voted for Sirisena. Let's not forget that those 6.2 million included supporters (diehard or otherwise) of the UNP, JHU, SLMC, and TNA. It's difficult to imagine that they will vote for him again. Briefly put, the SLFP was split during the election. Even those who hated Rajapaksa voted for him, particularly since they were unsure whether Sirisena remained in his party. Those who voted for Sirisena thinking that he did remain were in the minority among that 6.2 million, clearly.

Things are different today. What we are seeing is a coalition of two parties balancing out each other. The UNP has the government, while the party with the numbers in parliament has been marginalised in the opposition. Going by the way it's handling this situation (including that pathetic attempt at a no-confidence motion), the SLFP needs to re-fire. Fast.

First of all, it must stick to its promises. Mahinda Rajapaksa clearly failed to deliver the goods when it came to democracy. But so did his predecessors. Sirisena is his successor. Who's to say he will keep what he promised? If he chooses to go back on his mandate he's cheating 6.2 million voters. If we are to apply this to those who voted for his rival (given that even they support his program) he will be cheating another 5.7 million. He can't afford to slip up. Not now.

At the same time, he must maintain an edge over the UNP. It's not difficult to do this. In spite of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge's claim that she won 75% of the war, no one in the SLFP has discounted Rajapaksa's war victory. Just as the SLFP can claim that it won the war, it can also claim to have changed the Constitution. Two achievements in one go. Enviable.

Currently, however, the party doesn't know which leader to support. Sirisena is its head in name, true, but even those who support him defend Rajapaksa. The SLFP can't really be schizoid at this point. Unfortunately, we have one section of the UPFA which campaigns for the president and another section (even within the SLFP) which opposes him.

I have written earlier that the likes of Rajitha Senaratne will not be enough to salvage the SLFP. I still stand by this. As Dr Jayatilleka argues in his article, the Nugegoda rally was not a threat but a message. It showed just how strong the former president still is. And as Malinda Seneviratne notes, he has almost completely recovered his 2009 "face". He's positioned in a way that the SLFP can be united. For good. That's an opportunity no one can really refuse.

Given this, the SLFP can't afford a rift. Those who marginalise the former president thinking that the party can "win" the 5.7 million votes he got are politically schizoid. Vilifying those who organised the Nugegoda rally won't help, hence. Disregarding their message will do enough and more damage to the SLFP. At this stage, no one wants that. At all.

Lakshman Kiriella got it right when he said that a divided SLFP would ensure a UNP rule for the next 15 years. That's being politically shrewd. And frank.

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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Iconising Richard de Zoysa

Yuganthaya
25 years ago, a man was killed. He was among 60,000 people who were slaughtered in the bloodiest two years of our post-independence history, 1989 and 1990. His murder came at the tail-end of what became known as the bheeshanaya.

In the bitter political divide that marked much of that decade, this man took sides. Unconditionally. He condemned. Protested. Criticised. And lampooned. He was killed for it, of course. But that's peripheral. What's important is that the man killed 25 years ago is celebrated. But by whom?

Richard de Zoysa didn't live long enough. He didn't attain the "icon" status most others in his profession did. Apart from a few films and plays, his artistic career was minimal and was overshadowed by his political career. This doesn't mean that he isn't missed, of course. We all are a poorer tribe for his loss.

I first saw him in Yuganthaya. I couldn't have thought of a better person to portray Malin Kabilana. Ironic, because I couldn't have thought of a better person to portray Simon Kabilana (Malin's conservative father) than Gamini Fonseka. Years later, when I read up on their biographies, I realised how true to their political roots both were. They were both educated at the same school. But they came from different worlds. Gamini, then in the last phase of his career, was threatened by a new acting order and a new political order. Richard represented both.

There was something to Richard de Zoysa, I figured.

But his wasn't the only name among the dead. There were 59,999 others. They died more or less the same way he had. They were tortured, taunted, maimed, blinded, and in the end, shot. That's how Zoysa met his end. When they found him on a beach in Moratuwa, his jaw was broken and his head shot. Very much like the others. But we remember him. And forget the rest. Why?

Was it because of his talent? If he were to live, I suppose he would have reached heights. His artistic life might have even overshadowed his politics. I don't know. The truth is that we remember him. But not really for his career. We remember him not because he was another Victor Jara or Pablo Neruda. We remember him not because he was a hero or a nationalist. We remember him because he was Richard de Zoysa. That's it.

Was he exceptional? I wish I knew. I am not in a position to judge. Based on what I have seen and read, I can only say this much. Richard came from a bilingual world that tilted, as the years went by, towards English. At St Thomas', he had studied both English and Sinhala theatre. It didn't take long to realise that his preferences, unabashedly and unconditionally, were for the former. I haven't seen his renditions of Shakespeare, but have been told by a friend that a greater Shakespearean actor would be hard to find here. Maybe.

In Sri Lanka, however, that isn't enough. There is a reason, after all, why other Shakespearean actors (like Bandula Vithanage) are commemorated everyday and he isn't. He talked, performed, and played in English. All the way. Whether this was enough to win heart and not just from the English-speaking, Lionel Wendt crowd is another matter. But I'm sure of this: had he lived longer, and had he moved on to the Sinhala stage, he would have been celebrated. More than he is now.

This doesn't erase what he did. As Rajiva Wijesinha has pointed out, it was Richard's death that led to the end of the bheeshanaya, when it ended the era of immunity for government-sponsored death squads. There were other people who were killed, of course. In the end, the powers that had sanctioned these murders succumbed to what they had unleashed. And they died. Meanwhile, one name, one lifeless body, tried to speak for them all. He succeeded, but to an extent.

The thing is, names are remembered. But this doesn't necessarily make them the icons some cut them out to be today. Richard de Zoysa lived a life. He left it in his prime. Yes, we are all a poorer tribe for his loss. But there are other names. They died too. They lived closer to home, they didn't and couldn't hobnob with the crowd at Lionel Wendt, and they couldn't create a name for themselves that survived death. Richard's murder, which came towards the end of the JVP insurrection, signaled an end. He is celebrated today for this reason.

But we commemorate him. And while I can't agree that he was a cultural icon on par with, say, Dayananda Gunawardena or Ediriweera Sarachchandra, I must admit that he had talent. Enough and more. That is why he is missed today.

He breathed fresh life to Shakespeare. He tried to reinvent the Bard. I don't know how far Sri Lanka is from Stratford-upon-Avon. I know one thing though. De Zoysa was comfortable at Avon. He could have brought it to Sri Lanka. Whether we wanted that is another story. But had that happened, things could have been different.

25 years ago, we lost an icon. He could have carved an alternate path for our theatre. But we also won. His murder signaled an end. At a time when rivers overflowed with blood and streets overflowed with charred bodies, that's what we wanted. That's what he gave. To us. We remember him today. And with him, we also remember those other people who were killed. The rest of the 60,000.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, February 18 2015

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Colonel Olcott: Under Eastern Eyes

About 10 years ago, two writers debated over a series of articles. They were debating over what the first writer had claimed about Buddhism. He had claimed that what is known today as Buddhism here was begun in the late 19th century. In other words, it was not what Mahinda Thero preached to King Devanampiyatissa. He also claimed that the Buddhism brought to Sri Lanka in the 19th century was universalist. Which meant that it was rootless. Without an identity. Culturally displaced.

The writer, Professor Nalin de Silva, had drawn a distinction between what he termed as "Sinhala Buddhists" and "Olcott Buddhists". He had then made the following observation: "The Olcott Buddhists have separated religion from culture."

The second writer, Tissa Devendra, countered. He argued that Olcott Buddhism came at a time when Buddhism as a religion was in danger in the country. Believing that the professor had also criticised "Olcott schools", he also made a claim:  

These BTS schools were established to equip Sinhala Buddhist students with modern education in English  which was otherwise available only in Christian missionary schools. And this education was imparted in a genuine Buddhist atmosphere.

Gunadasa Amarasekara joined the debate. He made a claim too, one which was more reason-driven than the other two:

"Olcott Buddhist" is a very exhaustive concept which explains the behaviour of our Buddhist elite over the past years as well as the nature of the institutions created by them. Olcott Buddhism  the Buddhism that grew under the aegis of Olcott and other Theosophists  was a Buddhism that had no anchorage in the culture of the Sinhala people. It was a rootless universalist Buddhism. It is quite natural that this Buddhism should have appealed to the urban Buddhist elite who was by then a rootless anglophile class desperately seeking to become equals of the westernised anglophile class.

The debate didn't end there, of course. It went on. And ended nowhere.

Colonel Henry Steel Olcott is a controversial figure today. Like all controversial figures, he has his champions and his critics. There are those who think he did a service to Buddhism. There are those who think that by doing this service, he contorted what Buddhism stood for. I'm no historian, and given that not even historians have been able to resolve this issue, I won't take sides here. This isn't the time to go into every nook and corner and judge the man. This is a tribute. To him. Colonel Olcott died 108 years ago.

It is true that Olcott wasn't a Buddhist. It is also true that he was the founder of a movement that brought together practically every religion in the East. The Theosophical Society, begun in 1875, sought nothing less than a complete brotherhood of man, devoid of any race, religion, or culture. That the Theosophists and the Colonel should have resorted to the East for this meant just one thing. It meant that the Theosophists, like the New Ageists after them, were searching for a "final answer" in our part of the world.

Whether they found it is another story. What is important here is what Colonel Olcott did. Here.

Olcott came to Sri Lanka in 1880. He came here for a reason. The Panadura Debate, arguably the starting point of the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, had happened. The Buddhist faction, led by Migettuwatte Gunananda Thero, had won. Newspaper reports covering the event had reached Olcott. That's when he had decided to come here. His visit to Sri Lanka was greeted. Joyously.

He aimed at two things here. One was to promote the welfare of Buddhists. This was done through the establishment of the Young Men's Buddhist Society (the YMBA). The other was to counter Christian missionary activities. This was done through the establishment of Buddhist schools.

Students at Ananda College (courtesy: "Twentieth
Century Impressions of Ceylon")
There is a reason why Anagarika Dharmapala, a key figure in the Buddhist revival, distanced himself from Olcott. Briefly put, Dharmapala's vision of the Sinhala identity remained "primarily a Buddhist one" ("Stone Statues and Hollow Statues" by Harshana Rambukwella, p 2). This was at odds with Olcott's universalism. In other words, through his movement, Dharmapala was trying to incorporate a Buddhist identity into a Sinhala identity.

This wasn't all. The renowned anthropologist Gananath Obeysekere once called Dharmapala's Sinhala Buddhist revival "Protestant Buddhism". It was Protestant for two reasons: because it rebelled against Christianity, and because it borrowed some elements from Protestantism while doing so. By trying to make Buddhism free from mysticism or ritualism, Dharmapala was trying to free religion from the shackles of superstition and caste. In other words, he taught the lay devotee to find salvation through his own efforts rather than through monks and deities.

What Olcott did was to aggravate this trend beyond what could be sustained. Unwittingly, he brought about a change in Buddhism which couldn't be continued for long. He initiated a movement that, as the decades went on, spilled over to what Professor Obeysekere calls "Post Protestant Buddhism". It is this form of Buddhism, Obeysekere argues, that we practise today. A form of Buddhism tainted by mysticism. The sort of Buddhism Dharmapala shied away from.

There's more, by the way.

When Colonel Olcott wrote up a Buddhist Catechism (based on the Catholic Catechism), and established schools which followed Christian missionary curricula, he had to fall back on the same institutions he criticised. This meant that the Buddhism he "founded" was not the sort of Buddhism which Gunananda Thero began a journey to find. Devoid of any original roots, it languished, continued by everyone who fell under the spell of Olcott's movement.

Not that he didn't achieve. He established schools. He began with Ananda College in 1886. By 1907, the year he died, there were 183 Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) schools. That number multiplied as the decades went on. True to his "universalist" outlook, they sought to incorporate the best of East and West. Following a British curriculum while assimilating "localised" subjects like Pali and Sanskrit, they managed to bridge both worlds. In a way.

In the meantime, Dharmapala's movement gained weight. It found its peak in 1956. From then on, it tried to do what the Olcott project had failed. It tried to search for roots. For Buddhists. That's a project that continues. Even today. In a world far removed from that of Olcott's Theosophy.

For all his emotion-ridden rhetoric, I admit that Nalin de Silva's argument stands valid. If Dharmapala began a Protestant form of Buddhism, devoid of myth and ritual but rooted in one community, then what was begun by Olcott stunted it. What it did was to limit the Buddhist's involvement with his/her religion to sil and bana. What it did was to secularise something that could not be secularised without losing half its essence to dust. What it did was to rationalise Buddhism without really removing the myths and rituals associated with it.

108 years later, where do we stand? It is true that rationalism and Buddhism have come together. Firmly. But it is also true that in this era of what Obeysekere terms "Post Protestant Buddhism", we have given way to superstition. The reason isn't to hard to miss. We revived Buddhism under Western eyes. That's sad.

Olcott's real legacy, I believe, can be judged only on the merits of the movement he founded. It is debatable whether that movement stayed true to what he wanted. What is important, however, is that it was needed. Whether that need manifested itself the way we wanted is peripheral. For now, and on this day, may we be grateful for Colonel Olcott's vision.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, February 17 2015

Monday, February 16, 2015

Options for the SLFP

Mahinda Rajapaksa contested under the SLFP. He got 5.7 million votes. Maithripala Sirisena contested under the New Democratic Front, which brought together not only the UNP, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, and Sarath Fonseka's Democratic Party, but also a section of the SLFP itself. He got 6.2 million votes. That's a difference of nearly 500,000 votes. What's significant is that this is minimal for a candidate who had the backing of both the opposition and a section of the incumbent's own party.

He won't admit this, of course, and nor will any of his supporters. They are in a state of denial, which is natural given that Rajapaksa was their opponent. Still, considering that they have taken over the SLFP (and hence the UPFA) and have removed him, things will have to change. Soon. Delay isn't an option. The problem however is that no one seems to be taking note of it. Sadly. And it's not hard to see why.

I have written before that it's difficult to imagine a comeback for Rajapaksa. That's true. The likes of Dinesh Gunawardena and Vasudeva Nanayakkara will not be enough to counter the incumbent's edge, particularly because he enjoys the support of both major parties. Which is not to say that his rival is as "on his own" as Sarath Muttetuwegama was during the 1980s. Still.

Maithripala Sirisena understands how much of an edge his former superior has when it comes to the SLFP, however. He also knows that inasmuch as those who support Rajapaksa are not in the majority, their claim that they were cheated the minute his opponent took over his party stands to reason. Admirably. On the other hand, if Rajapaksa wishes to strengthen the party without dividing it any further, he must join hands with its present leader.

Things don't look easy, however. The SLFP today is antagonistic towards him and for all the wrong reasons. The likes of M. K. D. S. Gunawardena were probably talking about themselves when they hinted that they would keep political nobodies out, but it would be hilarious if we were to apply this to him. The truth is that he is basking in post-election glory unsurpassed by any of his predecessors. He is and always will remain people-friendly, even if those who prefer Westernised "intellectuals" in power take issue with that.

The opposition will not be saved by Rajitha Senaratne or S. B. Nawinna. It will not be saved by Chandrika Kumaratunga or even by those who pledged support to Rajapaksa during the election. As Malinda Seneviratne noted sometime back, not even the UPFA could come up with a candidate who had the sort of appeal Rajapaksa enjoyed. Sirisena is the exception, but there is a severe HR gap in the SLFP, which the UNP does not have. Which is where those leading it must worry. Big time.

In the first place, it's not (only) a question of whether Rajapaksa will stay. It's a question of whether his own party will accept him. If Sirisena wants to remain where he is and kowtow to the UNP (limiting the party he himself chairs to the opposition) that's his problem. For now, however, SLFP'ers are being taken for a ride. Not too difficult to figure out how.

Take that no confidence motion, for instance. Anybody could figure out that it was a feeble show of strength by an equally feeble opposition. In the end, all it signified was an opposition that kowtowed to the ruling party without as much as a by-your-leave, a dramatic volte-face from Rajapaksa's time. Again, if Sirisena wishes to continue duping SLFP'ers, that's his problem. But he must realise that he can't continue it forever.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is popular. He is probably more popular than the entire Executive Committee of his party put together. He is definitely more popular than some of his own supporters, including those who wish to see his comeback. Intra-party rivalries are common, true. But if Maithripala Sirisena excludes him from the political equation altogether, that will be the biggest mistake he can make at this stage.

A Mahinda-less SLFP is not necessarily clean, in any case. Duminda Silva and ("Dr") Mervyn Silva are with Sirisena all but completely. Those having cases pending against them have vocally lent support to him. Not that a Duminda-less, Mervyn-less MR is clean either, but the point is that if neither faction is willing to accommodate the other, it will be the end as far as the SLFP and the UPFA are concerned. In the meantime, the UNP will have the last laugh. Period.

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

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Love stories that are evergreen

There is a story about love few have missed. It's the film adaptation of Eric Segal's tear-jerking novel. Called Love Story. A story about two star-crossed lovers. A story that ends where it begins. A story that doesn't leave much to ask, and at the same time doesn't satisfy our collective demand that it end on a happy note.

Love Story was released in 1970 and became a smash hit. It earned more than 100 million dollars in the US alone, a big figure for that time. It also earned seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, and won for its haunting, evocative music. But that's not important right now.

What's important is the story. Not just for today, but everyday. It's about two star-crossed lovers, I've mentioned. Both at Harvard. The boy's an heir. Born with a silver spoon. Oliver Barrett. The Fourth. He's rich, got millions to himself, but for some reason is never happy. Except when he's with the girl.

The girl's from a working class background. Jennifer Cavalleri. Sharp-tongued, honest, but all the kinder for these things. She also means well. When Oliver rebels against his father, and disowns him, she is upset. She doesn't want father and son to separate. Doesn't want them to part ways. On her account. Her love for him, unlike his lover for her, is conditional. Which is why the two bicker. Almost always.

I saw this when I was quite young. Too young, I admit, to appreciate the deeper subtext of the story. I took it for what it literally was: a love story. I understood the "story". The "love" part to it eluded me, though. It took some time. As time passed, the film (and the book) afforded much to think about. And reflect on.

Love is a four-letter word. It eludes definition and easy capture. When it's framed, defined, and hence pushed into what you make of it, it tries to escape, to be free. No, you can never limit it. The meaning's wider than you think. It's much more than what you think it means. So much so that everyone, from the man on the street to Bertrand Russell, has pronounced his or her own views on it. Not surprisingly, none of them has come up with a true, timeless definition of the word.

I read a story once. It was by Tagore. There had been a theft in a kingdom. The usual suspect had been a foreign merchant. He had been sentenced and imprisoned. The daughter of the king, the princess, had seen him, and had asked the guards to set him free. They elope on the second night, and together wade across the river. A day passes, and every time the curious stranger asks her how he was set free, the answer remains the same: "Hush, not now darling." She is in love with her. Terribly.

At the end of the day, though, she explains. A lovesick boy had been imprisoned. Pining for the princess' attention, he had taken the stranger's place. Willingly. "My greatest sin has been committed for the love of you, my best beloved," she whispers to him. She had used an unrequited love in the hope of gaining the attention of an un-requiting love.

But she doesn't gain it. The man grows angry. "That my life should be bought for the price of a sin!" he shouts. He leaves her, refusing her advances and even trying to kill her at one point. Eventually, after much parting and coming together, the man calls after her, thinking that she's dead. But no, she isn't. She comes out of the woods and tells him: "I have come, my beloved. Your dear hands failed to kill me. It is my doom to live."

He replies: "Go, go. Leave me." She does that, disappearing in the woods by the riverbank, leaving the man in the boat, listless, left wondering what to do.

There's love here too. Unlike Love Story, there's meaning. Deep meaning. I have often wondered just how far a lover would go to win attention. It's fool's love of course, or amour fou. The princess, I noticed, had used one lover to win another's love. The lovesick boy who had taken the prisoner's place, who hoped to win the princess: how far would he have gone? I wonder.

In his marvelous book The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell claims that of all forms of caution, caution in love is the most fatal. I'm not so sure. Love is fatal, true, but not when you barricade yourself against it. Writing half a century after Russell completed his book, Albert Camus argued in an influential essay ("Reflections on the Guillotine") that a spurned lover absolves himself of crime the moment he commits it to avenge his unrequited love. Yes, love is fatal. But only when you let yourself be overwhelmed by it. And when you are, there's no rationality involved in whatever you commit in the name of love.

There's a quote from Love Story that even those who haven't seen it will remember. It comes up in two sequences: one when the girl comes back to the boy after she leaves him, the other at the end, when the girl dies and the boy is reconciled to his father. I couldn't fathom its meaning back then, when I first saw the film. I still can't, but that's another story.

The quote is this: "Love means never having to say you're sorry". Again, I beg to differ. Love is about acknowledgment, reconciliation, and moving on. There must be a "sorry" ingrained somewhere there. If that's the case, would saying sorry amount to saying "sorry, no love?" I don't know.

Everyone has his or her meaning of that four-letter word, I've noticed. Those who are spurned respect it more than those who take it for granted. Does this mean that those who are single appreciate it, since they would have loved at some point, and have had that love unrequited? I wish I knew.

There are requited lovers and there are unrequited lovers. Face it. That's the world we have. Today. Then there are those who take it easy, who accept rejection calmly, as though it were a vicissitude of life. There are also those who don't, those who commit anything and everything in the name of whoever rejects them. Like that boy in Tagore's story, who is put in prison in place of someone the girl he loves wants, who in turn spurns her.

Yes, love is twisted. Deformed. But, in a world where we need it more than anything else, we can't do without it. It's evergreen. Survives time. Cannot be captured or framed. It's free. So take it. Or leave it. That's the law.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, February 14 2015

Friday, February 13, 2015

Balancing the Equation

Maithripala Sirisena is President. Ranil Wickremesinghe is Prime Minister. The SLFP has the Parliament. The UNP has the Cabinet. For now, everything looks smooth, indeed smoother than it was from 2001 to 2003. The centre doesn't always hold, true, and things can fall apart. But for the sake of stability and the 100-day program, everyone's toeing party line and maintaining status quo. What doesn't get mentioned, however, is that inasmuch as coalitions can be formed, they can also break apart. That this "breaking apart" gets scripted into MOUs, we know. That MOUs can be breached, we know. We can't predict everything, though.

Political equations don't always hold. The SLFP and the UNP are now both sides of the same "coin", though they appear to be at each other's throats (metaphorically speaking) every now and then. The SLFP is chaired by a man who entered into a broad alliance with the UNP. Those who head it are with him. It doesn't take a political scientist to conclude that they are cornered in a fragile coalition. Both parties clearly are holding onto each other.

Which is why, all things considered, Mahinda Rajapaksa's reentry will be interesting to watch. The man himself has neither denied nor confirmed rumours. The "when" and "how" of his comeback will be unknown for some time. Until then, we can only guess. And extrapolate. But one thing's clear: while it's easy to dismiss him, it's not so easy to add him to the current political equation.

He theoretically has 5.7 million voters behind him. While I don't agree that these all translate into "MR votes" (I know quite a number of SLFP'ers, for instance, who'd rather stick with Sirisena than him), he still has backing. Whether this is enough for him to reenter politics and that through the SLFP is another story. He may get in. He may not. That's not important just now.

Let's get some facts straight. Rajapaksa is backed by four UPFA firebrands: Dinesh Gunawardena (the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna), Vasudeva Nanayakkara (the LSSP), Wimal Weerawansa (the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna), and Udaya Gammanpila (the Pivithura Hela Urumaya). There's a long shot between Gunawardena and Gammanpila, and not just in terms of age and experience. They obviously don't see eye to eye all the time (Weerawansa, for instance, would hardly bake bread with Nanayakkara over the 13th Amendment).

All these people, moreover, lead one-man parties. Being a firebrand and being a (strong) party-man are two different things. There's a world of difference. Just as much I do concede that they are "honest" and "clean" (except Weerawansa, who has a case pending against his wife), this still isn't enough to give Rajapaksa the edge. Inevitably, they'll start looking for that edge. But where?

The likes of Duminda Silva and ("Dr") Mervyn Silva are not with him. They are with Maithripala Sirisena. Duminda was interrogated yesterday. He still isn't in prison. As for Mervyn, not only has he been out in the streets, he also has vocally lent his support to the government come April. Hardly the sort of "yahapalanaya" we expected, you must admit. Sad.

A Duminda-less, Mervyn-less Mahinda Rajapaksa is not necessarily cleaner than the present government. Past records can be brought up and compared. If he intends to make a comeback regardless of this that's his problem. But if he wants to appear as "Mr Clean" and encourage those would-be stalwarts of the SLFP (yes, there still is a Mahinda faction there) to join him, he'll need to do more. Much more.

For starters, he needs to be honest. He needs to acknowledge misdeeds and address grievances. Though he can't be President (not yet and not ever), he can be Prime Minister or Member of Parliament (he's popular in Hambantota, let's not forget). There's a long road to cross, but the way I see it, not only can he cross it but it is absolutely essential that he must. Why?

I certainly don't absolve him. He has a past. We all do. He sanctioned abuse and misuse of power. His government (including certain key spokespersons for Sirisena's government) made a mockery of the judiciary. Under him, the Parliament became a mere rubber-stamp for the Executive, headed of course by him. Cronyism proliferated. The war (and victory thereof) became his trump card. All these are faults. Unforgivable and unforgettable.

But times have changed. Swiftly. What we have today is a SLFP that rubber-stamps anything and everything the UNP proposes. The no-confidence motion passed against John Amaratunga was merely an attempt by a feeble Opposition to acknowledge strength. It does have the numbers, yes. But numbers aren't enough if it acknowledges primacy of the Cabinet headed by the ruling party. It does. The political equation is out of balance, clearly.

To top all this, the same people who were hounded and vilified by Sirisena's camp are now with him. Hirunika Premachandra spoke for all those unhappy with this when she threatened to take to the streets if they were not arrested. She is right. If Tissa Attanayake and Sudarman Radaliyagoda could be taken in, why not Duminda and Mervyn? There's enough and more evidence to apprehend them. Why not do it now? Isn't that why we voted for "change"?

Mahinda Rajapaksa can claim that these are early days. If he's humble enough, he can also claim that the "bad guys" are in the government for the sake of expediency, and time will tell whether they'll be brought to justice. If he does that, he'll establish enough credibility to go far. On the other hand, if he starts with that arrogance he so uncharacteristically displayed during his campaign (it was all "Me, Myself, and I" then), there'll be everything to lose and nothing to gain.

If he wants victory, he needs to take note of this. I don't think he won't. He may be a Machiavellian politician but he's certainly no idiot. Politicians don't play it clean, after all. They play it smart. He still has that spark in him. Notwithstanding the black mark against him, he has enough and more power to make way for a resurrection.

Before doing so, however, it is vital that he acknowledges and addresses grievances. He must walk with the crowd. Apologies should be made. The real test of whether or not he will prevail, hence, will not rest with those who campaign for him. The likes of Dinesh Gunawardena and Udaya Gammanpila won't factor in no matter how honest they are. At the end of the day, it is he and he alone who must take the mantle. If he does it the way I hope he will, there will be that necessary reconfiguration of political realities. If not, it will be the end of the road for him. Meanwhile, political imbalances will continue. Sadly.

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

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Tribute to John Ford

He was born more than 120 years ago. Directing wasn't really his forte: he just took to it. That was a time when film-making was looked at as another job to earn bread with. A time when you worked at it like you would at any other job, when you'd do your share for the day and leave at night. Which is what he did.

He did win some awards and accolades, true, but in the end that was all peripheral. Indeed, his knowledge of film-making was limited to its technical side. Everything else he knew about his job amounted to one classic rule: photograph the actor's eyes. That was it.

And yet, we remember him today. Not because he did something he happened to take to. We remember him because of what he filmed and how he filmed them all.

But I'm digressing a little here.

Talk about filmmakers and there are names that come up: Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Nolan. Trace them back and you will find two names that crop up: David Lean and William Wyler. Trace them back and you will find yet another name. John Ford.

Who was he? I don't know. All I know is that when the history of cinema is collected in one volume, there will be one icon who'll come up in every chapter. Him.

What was so special about this man? Was it the fact that everyone admired him? If so, it wouldn't be surprising. Directors, critics, those who rate themselves as film conoisseurs all praised him. They saw in him someone who guided them in whatever they did and wrote. Very few filmmakers won praise this way. He did have his detractors, but the truth is that even those who criticised him found enough reason to absolve his lesser works. That's rare.

We remember him for those brilliant films he made, in particular the Westerns. Like the ballad, the cowboy film is probably the most indigenised art-form in America. Generations of schoolkids and would-be directors grew with them. Everyone who fell in love (there is no better way to put it) with them grew up emulating them. They couldn't equal Ford, of course, but they came very close at it. After all, what was Lawrence of Arabia other than a Western in the desert? What was Star Wars other than a Western in outer space?

There's more.

The Western has become larger-than-life today. Inevitably. It has become the most clichéd film genre out there. And the reason isn't too hard to find. Take the usual elements of a Western film: uncivilised town, a stranger riding in, wine spouting out of barrel holes, and (perhaps the most iconic of them all) sage-brush rolling along lonely stretches of land. All these we remember, so much so that you cannot improve on them.

But masters know how to tweak cliché. That's what Ford did. Take his battle scenes, for instance. He shot them all in such a way that they were unique not only to his vision but to the films they were in. Witness the Indian attack in Stagecoach, for instance, to see just how different it is from the attack in The Searchers. Witness how Wyatt Earp fights Newman Clanton and his sons in My Darling Clementine - restrained, yet tense - and how Ethan Edwards massacres the Indians in The Searchers

Yes, there is a difference, tied together by one thing: the way Ford saw the West.

The Western has been associated, reasonably I should think, with bigotry. In its universe, the Indians were the villains and the White Man the hero. Always. The cowboy enforcing "civilisation" in a chaos-ridden land, trying to convert the "savages" to his faith: this was the thread that binds every Western in common. What made Ford stand apart from the rest, defiantly almost, was the way he portrayed this conflict between White Man and Indian, between order and chaos.

Unlike the gangster film, which it resembles, the Western film was shunned as the years went by. Commentators from both sides of the political divide critiqued it, not least because of how racially biased it was. There is no doubt, after all, that the characters in some of Ford's films were bigoted. Like Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, who remarks that his nephew is a "half-breed" because he's one-eighth Indian.

Directors change. All the time. Ford didn't. But as the years went by and his strength left him, he tried to. In Cheyenne Autumn, his most atypical and in my opinion most moving story, he tried to redeem himself. For the first time, a prominent director of Westerns portrayed the underside to the American frontier. He took the Indian's side. He tried to show that as much as they rebelled against the notion of civilisation introduced by the White Man, the natives were unjustly treated. Ford went as far as to call it an elegy, an apology for what the American government did to them.

But it failed. That was the last time he made a Western. Ever.

He didn't just direct Westerns, of course. He occupied other worlds. His fascination with American history (he was an Irishman) came out forcefully in Young Mr Lincoln. His commitment to social problems brought out The Grapes of Wrath. His Irish roots took him to his most "folksy" film, The Quiet Man.

Even his lesser works - They Were Expendable, The Informer, The Long Voyage Home - he managed to go beyond his limited vision and still fascinate us. He was a sentimentalist and a romantic, and knew well enough not to apologise for it. But he was justified. At the end. There's a reason for this, obviously. The man wasn't just a director. He was a poet. The first poet of the screen.

There are no real heroes in Ford's films. He didn't need them. As much as he painted his films in black-and-white, it's also true that he didn't stoop to the larger-than-life. Those who reside in his universe all have secrets, a dark past to escape from. The plots of his stories (he was a master storyteller) culminate on whether his characters come to terms with their pasts.

Sometimes, as with Young Mr Lincoln, they do. Sometimes they don't. It is perhaps this that compelled him to delve into a past he himself had refused to see: a past that had vilified the same people he had depicted as villains. The attempt backfired. We know why.

He could also be very self-assured, to the point where he appeared to be smug and arrogant. I remember an incident that illustrates this well. An interviewer asked him whether he had been interested in films as a child. Ford is reported to have said, "Not at all. Not interested in them even now. It's just a way of making a living."

Those who think that he was arrogant and insufferable, no doubt, would note these words down. But he wasn't. The truth is that he was a professional filmmaker. And as someone once told me, he was probably the most indifferent filmmaker out there. Only indifference would have moved the giant he was to say what he did to that interviewer, after all. Not arrogance.

I must end here.

There are those who measure giants. There are giants who live on no matter how they're measured. John Ford lives on. He lives in every film that pays homage to him. He lives every time we see Lawrence riding into battle in the Nefud, Darth Vader fighting Luke Skywalker, and Indiana Jones cracking his bullwhip.

Yes, he lives. More than a hundred years after he was born, we remember him. And we are grateful.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, February 15 2015

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Patali Champika's 'claim'

Some 5.7 million people voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa. Another 6.2 million elected Maithripala Sirisena to power. The gap is clear. Rajapaksa lost by 500,000 votes. He won in 10 electoral districts, with Sirisena winning 12.

That Sirisena won by a slim percentage-margin (and this with a coalition that had no less than four "major" parties, including the Jathika Hela Urumaya) is true. But that this means Rajapaksa faced a tougher battle than ever before isn't. And it's obvious why.

Anyway, what's done and dusted is done and dusted. Sirisena is President. No reason to complain. We are still seeing early days, so the inevitable power struggle between victor and loser will begin. For now, though, Sirisena has the edge. It's difficult to imagine Rajapaksa as a Prime Ministerial candidate, but the point is that in Sri Lanka's political arena anything and everything is possible.

All this is peripheral to what I'm writing about, of course.

Patali Champika Ranawaka is clearly adept at number-crunching. He knows arithmetic and applies it well. In contrast to the more fiery nationalists who spewed rhetoric in Mahinda Rajapaksa's camp, his was a voice of reason, which calmly yet determinedly revealed the previous regime's corruption-record. While some of his revelations were not verified (or verifiable), it's obvious that he was one of the key determinants in Rajapaksa's defeat.

Which is where I come to another issue: Mahinda Rajapaksa's comeback.

In the first place, the man himself has shrugged off rumours that he's making a comeback. Until the last moment, we don't know what will happen. For now, those campaigning for him - Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, and Dinesh Gunawardena - have focused on a magic number: 5.7. That's the 5.7 million people who voted for MR.

What they claim is interesting. If 5.7 million people voted for Rajapaksa, that means they voted for the SLFP. If a vote for him was a vote against his opponent, then it stands to reason that these SLFP'ers were cheated the minute that same opponent, upon his victory, took control of the party. So if 5.7 million SLFP supporters tried to get Sirisena out, those who want Rajapaksa back argue, then it would be a gross injustice to them if Sirisena continues as that party's chairman.

The argument is flawed for reasons that are all too obvious. But what caught my attention was how ruling parliamentarians reacted to it. There was M. K. D. S. Gunawardena (a political nobody as far as the SLFP is concerned), who talked self-righteously about keeping losers out of the party. There was Ravi Karunanayake, who eloquently said that the Old Left was leading itself to ruin by their latest campaign (which begs the question: when was the Old Left not in ruin?).

And then there was Ranawaka, who made just about the wildest observation yet. He claimed that while those campaigning for Rajapaksa talk about the 5.7 million voters marginalised by Sirisena's presidency, billions were spent by MR on his campaign. Which is true enough. But then he added an (unnecessary) observation: that Rajapaksa is spearheading a sympathy campaign among those who support him.

People still visit him at his Medamulana residence. They fall within that 5.7 million. Ranawaka hinted that they all were "bought over" (for money or toffees, he does not specify) to create sympathy for him. I don't deny that's possible. But Ranawaka, contrary to what he usually does, has not supported his thesis. He has not shown any irrefutable evidence of what he said. Which is where his argument begins to lose ground.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is President no more. Being a former President is not the same as being an incumbent. There's a world between the two. A President theoretically has the entire treasury at his disposal. A former President does not. So when Ranawaka says that Rajapaksa is "buying" all those people who continue to visit (and cry over) him, I tend to lose faith in his core argument. Which is strange, considering that Ranawaka is not the kind of politician who claims without facts. Yes, statistics are all fine and well. But adding frenzy to even more frenzy (and hysteria) by dabbling in these sorts of claims is not going to help either him or the government.

First of all, it seems difficult to imagine that Rajapaksa would woo all those who come by the dozen to meet him with his bank account. Ranawaka's argument collapses the moment you take this into account. It's not logically possible. No former President, it must also be noted, had this sort of reception when they returned to their hometowns. Mahinda Rajapaksa, clearly, is miles away from his predecessors. No, I am not supporting him, but it doesn't take a virulent anti-MR critic to figure out that two plus two equals four.

I don't think he has a chance. The present system does not favour a defeated candidate, even someone like him. To make things worse he is facing a tricky situation here: not only is he the defeated overall candidate, he is also the defeated SLFP candidate. In no other election here was the defeated candidate elbowed out of his own party. While I disagree with the way they kicked him out, I must admit that his time (for retirement) has come.

Still, I don't buy Ranawaka's claim. He's extrapolating here. Wildly. It's hard to believe that a former President would use his savings to bring sympathisers into his own house. After all, most of those who visit him are people from his own community: the Southerners.

Here's the ultimatum to all this, then: if Alexander the Great lost Macedonia in a hypothetical election and he returned to his birthplace Pella, people would still have rallied around him: not because he was loved by the country, but because he was loved by his people. His hometown. That's why Rajapaksa is still loved, and not for the reasons Ranawaka gives.

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

Monday, February 9, 2015

Inimitable Suvineetha

I first saw her about 10 years ago, Not in a film, though. It took some time, given that I wasn't really a fan of Sinhala cinema, for me to appreciate her properly. She seemed to understand the roles she played and directors she worked with. To the dot. That caught me. At once.

The truth is that some of her films are treasured while some are not. But wherever she is, whatever she has acted in, one thing stands out. She's willing to go to any lengths to ensure that she performs well enough to win acclaim.

I remember talking about her with a critic once. He told me that while she hasn't acted in a great many films, she is best remembered for having matured within a remarkably short time. That's true.

Suvineetha Weerasinghe has moved on. She has come to understand that while learning anything and everything about your career is impossible, what you grasp is what redeems you at the end of the day. Perhaps that's what she has echoed in her performances.

Suvineetha didn't come from a privileged background. She wasn't born with a silver spoon. Her father, an ex-gunman at the British Army, and her mother both had been from Dehiwela. That's where she was raised, educated at Buddhist Girls College in Mount Lavinia (until Fifth Standard) and later at Dehiwela Madya Maha Vidyalaya. I ask her whether she achieved anything by way of acting during these years, and she admits that she was passionate about the arts. "I liked singing and dancing in particular," she explains.

Young Suvineetha was also an avid athlete and a strong netball shooter. And these weren't her only achievements: she managed to complete all three stages of Kandyan dancing while at school. I ask her whether all these in any way reflected her career. "Not really," she admits, "because I never really was interested in acting. Certainly not as a career."

She instead took to an unusual field: medicine. She passed the entrance exam to study and become an indigenous doctor. While in her third year at the Indigenous Medical College (it was a four year course), she spotted an advertisement in a newspaper. It called out for budding actresses to take part in a new film. Suvineetha didn't exactly want to answer it, but the advertisement provoked her. Acting had never been in her mind. Until now. "It might have been lingering at the back of my mind," she reflects. This may have prompted her to apply.

Not everyone agreed with her on this, though. Her mother objected, while her father encouraged her. Happily though, she was selected for the film, which ended her stint at medicine.

There were two people who figured in Suvineetha's early career. They were crucial to her later career. The first was Robin Tampoe, who effectively "baptised" her career with three films (Sudu Sande Kalu Wala, Samajaye Api Okkoma Ekayi, and Sudo Sudu). "I was paired with Gamini Fonseka in the third," she says, "That was when I first associated with him. We would be paired frequently in later films." It was through Tampoe, moreover, that she would meet her second "figure of destiny".

Among those who came to watch Sudo Sudu was one unassuming figure. Not many had noticed him. He had come there for a purpose. He was looking for an actress, for his next film. The problem was that his next film wasn't "mainstream". It had no song-and-dance sequences, no village damsels, and no love stories. Echoing the new cinema that had sprung up in Europe, it was to be shot in a sophisticated and never-before-seen way, which meant that the director had to take care with the cast. Selecting an actress, hence, wasn't going to be easy.

And then he saw Suvineetha. He took to her. At once. "He came around and asked after me. We sat down, he told me what he wanted, and I agreed to take part in his film."

Delovak Athara took us by storm, particularly because of its off-the-beaten-track style. It was unconventional for its time, and hence a commercial failure. But the director, Lester James Peries, had done something for Suvineetha. He had opened a whole new career for her. "Until then, I had taken part in mainstream films. Delovak Athara was different. All the way. In terms of mood, plot, characterisation, it was unique. Yes, it failed at the box-office, but through it, I managed to learn much about serious acting."

Welikathara
From then on, she began to look forward to acting in more arty films. D. B. Nihalsinghe's Welikathara comes to mind at this point. The first film shot in CinemaScope here, Nihalsinghe's debut proved a turning point for almost everyone who took part in it, Suvineetha included.

I put it to Suvineetha that we remember the film mainly because of the cat-and-mouse game played by Gamini Fonseka (as an assistant superintendent of police) and Joe Abeywickrama (as the unforgettable Goring Mudalali), and that her role (as the ASP's wife) aggravated this conflict to the point where the entire story resembled a Hollywood thriller. She agrees.

"That film took me to the Film Festival at Tashkent. I met Simi Garewal, Sunil Dutt, Nargis, and Shabana Azmi there." From Tashkent to Poland (at the Krakow Film Festival), Germany, and Czechoslovakia, Suvineetha says just how awed she was at seeing Europe's finest film studios and industries.

There were other films, of course. Like H. D. Premaratne's Sikuruliya. That caught us unawares, because while other directors developed a "signature" after two or three films, Premaratne's style became apparent with his first. This was partly owing to how Suvineetha acted. "Although I played the role of one woman in that film, in reality I was playing three," she tells me.

This is true. As a village girl in love with an unemployed graduate, a "lady" married to an aristocrat, and a freewheeling girl who elopes with her husband's driver, she manages to win sympathy from us. Not that this absolves her completely, but flawed though her character is, we are with her every step of the way, so much so that the director manages to make her a heroine-like figure towards the end.

She lists her other films here: Hulavali (which took her to Tehran, where she met Satyajit Ray), Malata Noena BambaruYuganthaya, Janelaya, and Ira Handa Yata. There were also roles in television: Dharmasena Pathiraja's adaptation of Chekhov's "Lady with the Little Dog", H. D. Premaratne's Sandun Gira Gini Ganee, and Sakisanda Eliyas (which is where I first saw her).

For Suvineetha, acting is a hands down job. "We learnt about our careers on our own. That's because we didn't have acting schools then. We still don't. It was by reading up on the cinema and learning about actors that we educated ourselves. I had my icons in my younger days. I looked up-to them. This isn't to say that I imitated them, but they certainly influenced me." The list unfolds here: Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani, Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Chaplin.

"They were formidable actresses," she adds, "Take Glenda. She's a Member of Parliament. There was a quality in them and particularly in her that moved me. They were strong women, in films and in real life." Perhaps it is this quality that comes out in Suvineetha's more unusual, dark performances, to be seen in the sequences of her lashing at Fonseka in Welikathara and her taunting Joe Abeywickrama in Malata Noena Bambaru.

Now, however, Suvineetha has retired. I ask her why. "We lived in a different time and place," she replies, "Things have changed today, for the worse mostly." I ask her to specify what she means. "Take TV interviews, for example," she says, "Back in my time, we were asked about our careers. Not anymore. Interviewers ask the most ridiculous questions today. They are more interested in gossip and your personal life than in your career."

There's more. "It's true that we learnt on our own. But we also had people we could look up-to. We had time on our hands. Everything was different back then. You didn't perform only for the director (or producer), but for the camera as well. In fact you grew up to love the camera." She points out something else to me here: "Your generation will never enjoy what we did. Pity."

I can't help agreeing. She's right. Sadly.

We remember Suvineetha and all her films for this reason, perhaps. We remember Chitra from Delovak Athara, Geetha from Welikathara, and Subha from Hulavali. There are other roles, of course. Other films. We remember them all. Even today. There's a reason for that. They are timeless. Classical. At a time when everything comes and passes off quickly, they will remain that way. Always.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, February 8 2015

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Celebrating Charles Dickens

F. R. Leavis was clearly one of the most controversial literary critics who ever lived. His commentaries on English writers won praise and critique. Notwithstanding their merits, however, his writings became popular. In a way, this had to do with the man himself. Leavis, a Cantabrigian who had come from a modest, middle-class background, was frequently snubbed and cold-shouldered by his affluent friends.

The inevitable happened: he became a rebel, and like all rebels (as Regi Siriwardena argues in his essay "From Rebellion to Tyranny"), he ended up heading his own rigid ideology-camp, called "Leavisism".

Leavis displayed his rebellious streak in what he wrote. His magnum opus, The Great Tradition, which sold massively and was accepted by (nearly) everyone, reflected this. In it, he (for no real reason) traced the "tradition" of English literature from Jane Austen to D. H. Lawrence. That was criticised by those who saw nothing merit-worthy in those he had selected: Austen, for instance, has since been marked as a writer who was insular and even snobbish.

There was another problem with his selection. It absented those who should not have been absented. It marginalised names. Big names. Names of giants who should not have been marginalised. Like Charles Dickens.

Critics change. That's natural. So when Leavis aged, he revised. To his great tradition, therefore, he added those he had erased. He added Dickens. As Siriwardena argues in another essay ("F. R. Leavis and the Novel"), Leavis, perhaps to compensate for his original crime of omission, sang hosannas for him. He inflated his legacy by selectively praising his lesser books and leaving the rest untouched.

Perhaps this is something every critic commits at some point. But the point is that, having ignored arguably one of the giants of English literature, Leavis had to win back some pride. Maybe that's why he sang hosannas. Hosannas that were not due. And when Leavisism reached Sri Lanka, it held sway over our literature syllabus. Which explains why, for years if not decades, A/Level students were prescribed Hard Times, arguably one of Dickens' lesser books, championed by Leavis in The Great Tradition as his only great novel ("But there is only one Hard Times in the Dickensian oeuvre" was what he wrote).

What happened next, quite obviously, was that for well over a decade, our students failed to notice the greater depths which this extraordinary writer had reached. And the reason's not hard to see. Overblown though his prose was, there is no doubt that he was one of the most imaginative writers history could claim.

Charles Dickens was born 203 years ago. His meteoric rise from poverty (his father was jailed at a debtors' prison) has been recorded already, so I won't delve into it here. What is important, however, is the breadth of vision this man had. We remember his writings – novels, short stories, sketches, essays – and we remember them well. Why?

Was it to do with his imagination? Partly. As he himself noted, his characters came alive in his mind. He wrote from the heart. This gave life to everything he saw and observed. It lent energy to whatever he described. Yes, he wrote about a world where good prevailed and evil, though never completely eliminated, was stopped. Dickens' England was brutish, savage. His characters redeemed themselves, and with that, they redeemed their surroundings. Which is how we remember them even more.

His depictions of London were harsh but true. His characters came alive and seemed to speak with us. We remember them even now. We remember Mr Pickwick, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Philip Pirrip, and John Harmon. We also remember those "lesser" characters, the villains who seemed larger-than-life: Mr Bumble, Bill Sikes, Fagin, Uriah Heep. Why?

Was it because they all rang true? Yes. Again, it had to do with what he depicted. The England of his time, after all, was not the England that his contemporaries wrote about. Novelists and poets alike had abandoned it. They tried to embrace the village to escape from the horror that London was dissolving into. A culture of indifference had sprung up, and with nothing much to do, very few wrote about London as it was.

Dickens was not indifferent. There was a conscience in him that wanted to probe, to look into. Whether he achieved this completely is another story. But more than two centuries on, that's what we treasure him for.

Not that he was flawless. His prose was unendurable at times. There were double negatives, sentences that ran into paragraphs, and paragraphs that never seemed to end. There were tedious descriptions. There were flowery adjectives that served no purpose. And, perhaps the most unforgivable sin of all, there were characters who were larger-than-life. But we forget these. And forgive him.

Writing more than 70 years after Dickens' death, the celebrated Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein made an interesting observation. In his essay "Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today", he claimed that the cinema was born out of Victorian literature and in particular Dickens' novels. With their sprawling descriptions of 19th century London, they were the forerunners to what he categorised as "montage cinema", or a cinema of images and visuals juxtaposed to obtain effect.

Eisenstein further noted that Chapter 21 of Oliver Twist, which describes a typical morning in East London, resonated perfectly with montage, with its near-cinematic depiction of a city waking up at dawn. This caught the filmmaker's attention. It led him to conclude, perhaps a little rashly, that Dickens was the definitive father of the cinema, especially in how his books visualised their settings.

This is true. He was more a painter than a writer. Where he handled words, he handled an easel. His canvas was huge, and he drew nearly every shade and nuance of the human soul on it. That he went overboard sometimes, that the occasional flowery phrase was used, and that some of his sentences needed full concentration to digest, are all peripheral.

Dickens wrote about people. He wrote about the humiliations they were subject to. He spelt out injustice for what it really was. He described people who persevered through hard work, who regained that innocence they had lost in childhood. He echoed his life in some of them, and through that, we knew him less as an author and more as a character in one of his stories.

He lost his lustre as time went by, admittedly. That compromised his integrity. In Little Dorrit, nine novels after Oliver Twist and three after David Copperfield, he sentimentalised and exaggerated. A lot. That fiery spark in him had died down. It emerged again with his next novel (A Tale of Two Cities), but by then he had become so engaged with other commitments – speeches, social causes, charity – that his prose felt overburdened. To a fault.

And yet, we celebrate Charles Dickens. We celebrate his life and his prose. He can do without hosannas, therefore. He can do without a Leavis or any other turncoat critic. Rhetoric and praise are frill. He needs neither. This we all should know. And we do.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, February 7 2015