Monday, March 30, 2015

Reflections on Akira Kurosawa

I didn't watch many films as a child. Perhaps this was because I didn't like them. It was after much wrangling and arm-twisting (by my mother) that I saw them. That was a time when there were classics which were shown on TV every other week. My mother, who wasn't really a film connoisseur but had taste when it came to these things, recommended watching them. I didn't take it to heart of course, but eventually relented. Some of those films impressed me. Some inspired me. The rest didn't. Naturally.

There was one that moved me, though. Its story petrified me. Four witnesses to a (samurai's) murder are brought to court. Each of them has a story to tell. At the end of it all, while neither story gets us any closer to the truth of what happened, they are told in a way that makes whoever tells them the hero of the incident. So when the samurai's wife tells her version of what happened, she is a paragon of virtue. When the samurai himself (through a "medium") tells his version, however, she is a betrayer. No one gets it right here. Ever. Predictably, we are left with no answers.

That film is loved for quite a number of reasons today. It has since become one of my favourites. And it wasn't too hard to see why or how. There probably were a hundred different ways of telling its story. For me, though, there could not have been a better way that it could have captured heart, mind, and soul. At the end of the day, if a film does that to me, I admire it. Unconditionally.

Rashomon was directed by Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa directed other films. Other masterpieces. Having discovered my love for films, I dug into them all. At the end of my little journey, while I wasn't any closer to discovering him, I got to realise some essential truths about the cinema. I also got to know him. He wasn't just a director or a giant. He was a figurehead. And like all figureheads, he guided us.

He would have been 105 last Monday. He was 88 when he died. Tissa Abeysekara, in his essay "The Only One of His Kind", tried to judge the worth of the man. I can only quote what he wrote:

"No other director in the history of cinema has covered so much of life, observed so much, probed so deeply, and in such a variety of forms. From the sweeping tracking shots which open Rashomon... to the impressionistic visual rhetoric of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa has moved from one act to the other with the greatest of ease."

Rashomon
Some directors change. Some others, very rarely I should think, change so quickly that it's hard to keep track of them. Kurosawa was such a filmmaker. No single theme or subject-matter can sum up his career. At once fiery and reserved (he never talked about his films), he probed the depths of the human soul in so many ways. To list and examine them all here is beyond my task. For now, a few reflections would do.

Kurosawa was not at home in Japan. He took to Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky with the "greatest of ease", though he understood neither language. It was as if he were venerating a higher language here, one that wasn't spoken, read, or written. The language of the cinema.

And yet, he was never happy with what he filmed. You could see that with the way he progressed. Take his earlier works and compare them to his last few films to see the difference. As the years went by and the world grew darker, there was a pessimism in them that couldn't be defined. Unlike that other giant of the cinema in Asia, Satyajit Ray, Kurosawa couldn't maintain grace under pressure. True, his films were austere and free of frill. But as time passed, he couldn't handle that simplicity. He electrified us. And sometimes, as in Kagemusha, we were electrified so deeply that we just couldn't handle his world: cruel, savage, with no room for goodness.

Sometimes, gently and happily, he swerved. In Ikiru, his most moving story, there was that same goodness which seemed to elude his stories. Kanji Watanabe, the lonely hero in that remarkable film, is unloved. To him, there is no meaning in life. In his quest to find it, and to help others, he sacrifices and ends up ridiculing himself, to the point where everyone realises his worth only after death. His act of sacrifice serves as a lesson to his colleagues, until, towards the end, we realise that no matter how triumphant in death he was, Watanabe's moral is taken to heart by just one person.

Kurosawa didn't have room for stories like that, sadly. In his universe, there were very few Watanabes and too many samurais. There was evil, intrigue, war, and bloodshed. Out of them, in one or two sequences perhaps, there was also comedy. But in the end, this comedy deteriorated into pathos, leaving behind a shell-shocked world where good pitted against evil and evil won. Not that this absolved the "good", for even Kurosawa's heroes had their faults. Even Watanabe.

I think he realised this. Being the stubborn man he was, however, he persisted with his vision. While there were no set themes that defined the man, he always went for historical epics that ran well over budgets and frustrated his producers. After Red Beard and Dodes'ka-den, there was a period of exile. His return to the cinema, with the quiet, reflective Dersu Uzala (in 1975) was symbolic, hence: it began his last phase, one that would be marked by financial woes and creative lags. Inevitable, considering how stubborn he could be.

In Madadayo, his last and most personal testament, he tried to reconcile himself to the world outside. The attempt succeeded, well beyond what was expected. The story of a lonely professor, spanning over 80 years, was unusually calm, even comical. It reflected him in a way: formidable, stubborn, yet essentially well-meaning. In a world as far from Rashomon or Kagemusha as it could be.

Madadayo ends plaintively, almost innocently. The professor lies dying in hospital. He remembers one day when, as a boy, he played hide-and-seek with a group of friends. After hiding in a haystack, he exclaims "I am ready". No one answers. After a long time, where we see or hear nothing in particular, the boy crawls out. He sees a purple sky, as though from a fairy-tale. His friends are there, moving against the sky, looking for him. And the credits roll. Nothing is said about the professor. Maybe he's dead. Maybe he's not. In any case, through this memory, there is something of an apotheosis.

I'd like to think that this was Kurosawa's apotheosis. I'm sure it was. In any case, Madadayo was a fitting tribute to a master. A master who rebelled against the changing face of the cinema, at a time when several younger directors, George Lucas included, were borrowing and adapting his stories to fit their canvas. While these stories did bear some affinity to Kurosawa's world, they seemed too fast and nimble. Even for him.

But he didn't bother. He just went on. As he always had. Tissa Abeysekara put this best: "The ecology of film was changing, and he was the last of the dinosaurs".

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, March 29 2015

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Memories of two giants

Like every other work of art, movies tend to come and go. They are advertised and in other ways promoted. They are targeted at certain audiences. We have family films and those made for children, even though some are clearly aimed at adults. Other genres crop up too, but at the end of the day these distinctions are forgotten and their stories remembered. Through this, their directors are celebrated too.

Sri Lanka can't really boast of a cinema culture. Our cinema began in 1947 and ambled along. At certain points it did rise up. But there were slumps, and very often these continued for too long. We saw directors rise and fall, but we also saw visionaries come and stay. The cinema, after all, is the youngest of all art-forms, and everyone from Sergei Eisenstein to Christopher Nolan has ensured that it's also the most powerful. It's only natural that icons from this field don't crop up that frequently, therefore. Not even here.

But we still have Lester James Peries. We still have Sumitra Peries. Together, these two have forged ahead. They have marked themselves well and earned a place in our cultural firmament. True, eight or 20 films over 50 years isn't much. But we're not talking about quantity. We're talking about other things. Like depth. Honesty. Breadth. The thing with both Lester and Sumitra is that they have all these. And more. Much more.

Two years ago, I attended an event at the BMICH. It was the second Lester James Peries Oration, organised by the Lester James Peries and Sumitra Peries Foundation. There were guests who came and spoke. Professor Sunil Ariyaratne, who has a knack for improvising and speaking straight from the heart, gave the first speech. I listened.

He pointed out some facts. He pointed out Lester's childhood and how insulated it was from his country. He explained how different Lester's and Sumitra's ancestries were. Characteristically, he commented on their traditional political preferences and how different even they were. The audience laughed. He laughed. Having won his listeners, he got serious.

Ariyaratne explained how close the two of them were. He also said, quite correctly, that this bond brought out masterpieces. I'm sure he implied that they could not have been made alone. They needed both giants. Together. That's where he made an interesting observation. He claimed that in no other country had a filmmaking couple lived and worked for long. He brought up James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, but then he rightly mentioned that they were divorced. He added that this has not been the case with Lester and Sumitra. Aptly.

I can't think of another couple who can compare with these two. Certainly not Cameron and Bigelow. Not that we haven't seen couples making films together. Robert Flaherty, who shook the world with his Nanook of the North, needed his wife Frances. The two went together and this showed in whatever he made. As Roger Manvell put it in his tribute to the man, Frances understood what he did and shared his near-nomadic life, so isolated from the civilised world. She stood by him. To the last.

Unlike the Flahertys, however, Lester and Sumitra are directors in their own right. Both of them have gone after individual careers. Both have made a mark for themselves, here and elsewhere. Both have set out trademarks that make their work distinct. That's where they become giants. All the way.

Personally, I believe that their films define my country. They have all caught my people. They have understood that we rarely break down into emotion. A smile here, a wink there, can express what tears and rages never can. That is why the characters they depict never resort to histrionics. Sometimes they do, as seen in both Awaragira and Loku Duwa. These are exceptions, though. They depict people who are frustrated with life and near to bursting with anger. Naturally enough, they break apart. But not always. Lester and Sumitra know this.

All this is peripheral. Beyond the point.

Sumitra Peries turned 80 last week. Lester James Peries turns 96 next week. Together the two of them have given much. They have contributed to our culture. They have defined us well. True, not everything they have made is perfect. But then again, which director has ever been perfect? Which film has ever been praised without that proverbial pinch of salt?

I have met these two icons over the last two years. I haven't come to know them that well. The best I can come up with is a personal tribute. Nothing more. But as a Sri Lankan and human being, I have always appreciated what they've done. They made up my childhood and taught me about my country. What Martin Wickramasinghe did through the pen and Sarachchandra did through the stage, they did through celluloid.

They say that history is best perused by the art and culture of any given period. I agree. Both Sumitra and Lester occupy a place in our culture. Their films speak from the heart and not the head. They depict a world we know and live in. Which is why they appeal to us. At once. Maybe that's the biggest tribute (personal or otherwise) I can pay them. Knowing them has been a privilege. It will be so for many years to come, I suspect.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, March 29 2015

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Celebrating Sumitra Peries

I was 10 when I first saw Sagara Jalaya. The story struck me. So did the actors. Swarna Mallawarachchi gave her finest performance there. She is a farmer's widow who loses everything. She loses her husband and has to look after her son. Friends and relatives verbally abuse her, while she takes their blows as they come. The son pities her. He wants to help. He writes a letter to his uncle asking for a job. A paying job.

That's where the story ends. We aren't told whether he gets that job. We don't know whether he gets to help his mother. Predictably, the ending left me cold. Now when a film does that to me, I generally wonder why. A film must resolve. It must conclude. This one didn't. Naturally enough, I was unhappy. Something was missing. Somewhere.

It took some time for me to understand that while I wanted a film to conclude well, what I'd really wanted was a happy ending. At that age, films were meant to be seen and not studied. Sagara Jalaya was different, hence. There was something in it that appealed to me. I couldn't describe it then and I can't describe it now. But seeing the way Mallawarachchi played her part, I felt sure of one thing: the director had understood and probed into her. Deeply. Given that I wasn't a fan of Sinhala films then, that caught me. At once.

Sagara Jalaya was directed by Sumitra Peries. Peries turns 80 today. She has directed eight films. While not all of them are masterpieces, they are truly "ours". Rarely has a director looked into our women so sharply. Rarely has a director empathised with them so well. More than any other director here, she has filmed their joys and sorrows. If that's not enough to earn her a place, I don't know what will be.

She wasn't just a filmmaker, of course. Right after they married, she edited several films by Lester James Peries. Look at them today to see how much they depend on her expertise. The mirror sequence in Ran Salu, the beach sequence in Golu Hadawatha, and the flashes of memory in Ahasin Polawata: they are all shot meticulously, to the dot. We remember Golu Hadawatha today, for instance, not only for its music, but also for how the right note caught the right mood. Editing figured in there. That's why we treasure it.

Perhaps she carried this with her when she took to directing. From Gehenu Lamai to Yahaluwo, she has a knack for storytelling. She edits sequences in line with a classical structure. It is this structure that guides her. Which is why she never obfuscates. Why she never uses quick cuts and other plot devices to confuse us. They are told the way they're meant to, from beginning to end.

Gehenu Lamai
Not that her films are flawless. For one thing, they tend to depict women sympathetically. But to win this sympathy, she depicts them as victims, not rebels. Vasanthi Chathurani in both Gehenu Lamai and Ganga Addara doesn't flout convention. She submits herself to it and loses everything. Sumitra doesn't criticise this. She just tells the story. Clinically.

All too often, this doesn't satisfy us. It didn't satisfy me. I think she herself understood this. In Yahalu Yeheli, Nadeeka Gunasekara rebels against her father (Tony Ranasinghe), who is a feudal overlord. When he plots against a poor cousin of hers, the entire village opposes him. After they confront and leave him, she follows them. He is left confused. Symbolically, the film ends with a freeze-frame.

Sumitra didn't direct more films like that, however. Thankfully, I should think. She has a vision and reflects it in her films. True, she depicts a patriarchal world. Other directors don't. But then again, other directors haven't come close to her. I can think of only two who could compare with her: Carl Theodor Dreyer and Kenji Mizoguchi. Both are dead. Both examined women reflectively, without sentiment or melodrama. Just like she does.

But she's different. She examines women and their problems so intimately that her films become personal testaments. They aren't always masterpieces, true, but some of them strike through. This might have something to do with how political they are: Yahalu Yeheli, for instance, depicts the transition from feudalism to communalism succinctly. She herself is related to the Gunawardena clan, which has claimed a place as one of our strongest Leftist families. This is reflected in her works. That differentiates them. To the last.

Directors change. Some of them don't. Sumitra has neither changed nor stayed put. Her stories have become increasingly (even excessively) allegorical in recent years. But they all stay true to her emotional centre: the anguish of women. Since I can't comment on this, the final word should belong to someone who can. I quote:

"Although she deals with the loves and lives of women, she is unable, in many of her films, to break out of the patriarchally sanctioned framework that has been privileged and has held sway in Sri Lankan cinema. Consequently, despite her best intentions, she ends up reinforcing the traditionalist views of society and the roles ascribed to women."

All Greek to me, but that goes a long way in establishing her strength and weakness. She has delved into our mothers and daughters and portrayed them frankly. While other directors have challenged our patriarchal society, they ended up contriving their stories. Women always triumph there, yes, but those triumphs are never true to life.

That is why Sumitra Peries is so different. She depicts a savage world. Women suffer and they bear what they suffer. Her films almost never end on a happy note. But then again, given how patriarchal our society has become, they can't end happily. Having realised this, she has gone beyond other directors in criticising our values. She is not a feminist. She doesn't need to be. She's honest. At the end of the day, when we are to judge her worth, that'll be enough.

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

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fusing Drum and Dance

Chandana Wickramasinghe is certainly no stranger when it comes to dancing here. He knows tradition and respects it to the extent where he understands that without revision and redefinition there can be no progress. Perhaps it is because dance is the least easy to preserve art, indeed because it can't be preserved at all, that it must be passed from one generation to the next. But it can't be passed on its own. Something must animate the dancer. Something must give life to rhythm and make its absence as conspicuous as its presence. There must be a coming-to-life that makes this handover memorable.

On the 27th of this month, Chandana will present an event that will oversee such a transfer and handover. "Drums and Dance - NAADRO & Chandana Live In Concert" will premiere at Bishop's College Auditorium to those who will appreciate what they see and remember what it leaves behind. I spoke with Chandana and founder of NAADRO, Rakitha Wickramarathne. They had much to say.

Concerts usually last for more than two hours and very often tend to totter along. Rakitha claims that their show won't go beyond the one hour mark and for a good reason. It's timed to be precise, to the dot, and free of frill. The event is supposed to evoke and awaken, and for this reason Chandana and NAADRO want to keep it short. Fitting 12 individual and two combined items within 60 minutes isn't easy. Still.

NAADRO is about percussion. It's about fusion and keeping up with the times. There are six senior members: Rakitha, Gayan Manokumara, Nalinda Dilupama, Ranga Nuwantha, Uthpala Iroshan, and Nupathi Nilambara. All of them are determined. They have purpose. It is purpose that has brought them together with Chandana. "We challenge ourselves," Chandana tells me by way of explaining how respectful they are towards each other despite the age-gap.

Chandana Wickramasinghe and his guild have performed in more than 60 countries. NAADRO has performed in nearly every continent. They've seen much, taken it all in, and adapted. What differentiates them from the rest, however, is that they are willing to stick to roots. Others aren't. While they don't believe that art can be free of accretion, they do believe that our traditional dance culture is being prostituted. That's true.

No art form can survive without assistance from another. This is reflected in the show's title. "Drums and Dance" isn't just a fusion of culture, it's a fusion of form as well. It's more about conjugation than about fusion, moreover. More about dancers complementing drummers and vice versa. With no excess. Perhaps that explains the absence of more-than-needed rhythm or twist in the event. Chandana highlights this when he says that they aim at a synthesis of "shabda" and "chalana". Movement gives rhythm. Sound animates rhythm. The two go together.

Chandana and Rakitha further tell me that no initiative has been taken so far to hand over our dance tradition to the next generation. What began with Chitrasena and went through Channa Wijewardena may well stop, Chandana explains, unless this step is taken. Without any hesitation, he claims that "Drums and Dance" will take it.

He also argues that while our dance tradition has been "reserved" (and "preserved") in its highest form for Colombo 7 society and in particular Lionel Wendt, he wants to see it reach nearly every area in the country. The show will be featured in other parts of the country as time goes by. So far, while no plans have been made for an around-the-country tour, he says that they have targeted other areas, including Jaffna.

Rakitha explains here that dancing groups and percussion bands don't usually get together. If that is so this makes the NAADRO-Chandana combine unique and in-your-face. What adds a personal touch to this is the lack of any major financial sponsor. It's financed by those who are organising it. As risky and unsustainable as that may be (a point conceded by Chandana), it shows just how involved both groups are. Doesn't mean there won't be any sponsor, but going by how far they've gone together, it's safe to say that their show will have a personal feel and flavour. Commendably.

In any case, it says much about the man behind all this effort. Chandana Wickramasinghe is unique in that he believes that whatever benefit derived from culture-innovation must trickle down. "We work and we innovate. We innovate and we earn. Those involved with us have a right to what is earned. They must be appreciated. That is why we try to aid them wherever we are. How can we develop if we don't?" Aptly put, I should think.

Rhythm flows from the moment we are born. It flows in our blood and compels us to move according to form and style, sound and melody. That is why we are rhythm-bound. As Sri Lankans and human beings. Put music and dance together and you get a fusion, hence. An ultimate rhythm.

"Drums and Dance" isn't showy. It's not saturated. Nor is it desaturated and colour-stripped. Nothing is over-the-top or superfluous. Nothing is modern-only here. There's room for verve and for self-reflection. Besides, none of the items planned for the event is new. They are all there according to custom and ritual. Balance is hard, yes. But it's maintained.

I can probably write more. But that would be revealing too much. All I can say is that the show will be attention-grabbing but not ostentatious. There'll be pomp but not too much. There'll be a fusion as well, but not to the extent where every culture-base is cast aside. A fitting tribute to the past gone by and the future to come. A triumph also, I am sure.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, March 22 2015

Friday, March 20, 2015

Umberto D.

Umberto D is undoubtedly the saddest story ever filmed about a man and his little dog. It tells its story without the least trace of artifice whatsoever. Granted the story is sad: at times it evokes nothing but the most heartfelt tears from our eyes. But it is not the sort of emotion aroused by manufactured melodrama. We see Umberto, a retired Professor, as he grapples with poverty, an overbearing landlady, and indifferent colleagues, with no friend in the world except for, yes, his little dog. There’s a young maid who is always on his side as well, but, like the dog, she can do precious little to help him.

Umberto D was directed by Vittorio de Sica in 1952. By this time, Italy, in which this film is based, was emerging from the War. Filmmakers like de Sica wanted to portray life as it was: bittersweet and temptingly ironic. He made Shoeshine in 1946 and Bicycle Thieves in 1948. Both films won Honorary Oscars. Both appear in various best films of all time lists. And both portray their stories, and characters, as they should be portrayed: with a clinical, but nonetheless bitter, attitude.

This film is rightly considered his masterpiece – it was also his favourite. There is a special reason for it too. The formula – that of a man and his little dog – has been used over and over again, even to the point of overkill, by subsequent films. You can see traces of it in many modern “dog films” – from Shiloh to Marley and Me to Hachiko. To their credit, these are films that do justice to de Sica’s unsentimental vision. As a person who grew up watching Shiloh during almost every holiday season, I should know that.

But there is something in Umberto D that is different, unique. Perhaps this is owing to two key sequences from the movie. One is with the hero (played by a real-life Professor) frighteningly searching for Flike, his pup, in a dog pound, for fear that it has been “put to rest” after being rounded up. Flike isn’t dead, but the moment where the two reunite is a true tear-jerker. For Umberto, it’s as though the entire world has finally come back together again.

The second one is much sadder. Ground to his last, Umberto is forced to contemplate suicide. After hopelessly trying to lose it, he realizes that Flike will simply not leave him. So he decides to jump onto the train with it. I won’t reveal much – because to experience it fully you must see it for yourself – but if you don’t cry at what unfolds subsequently, then you’re no human being.

In any list of saddest animal films ever, Umberto D should reside at least in the top five. It has received more accolades than that, including a slot in Time Magazine’s 2005 list of the “All-Time 100 Movies”. As a compassionate person, however, I think its plot, which never ceases to move me, will be enough to convince you of this movie’s beauty. For that, however, you must watch it for yourself!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Writing to Reconcile

Two years ago, a man wanted to do something. He wanted to begin an initiative, one that wasn't monumental or in other ways huge but that would leave a distinguishable "signature" behind. He needed writers. Not of the award-winning calibre, but of the up-and-coming, young-and-honest type. So he went and found them.

They all had one thing in common. They had stories to tell. These stories were about a war that had scarred the country for over 30 years. A war that had consumed and left little behind. While some writers had seen it firsthand, others hadn't. Didn't matter. Everyone had a story to tell.

Shyam Selvadurai came up with a name for his initiative: "Write to Reconcile". It had as much to do with writing as it had with reconciliation, as much to do with fiction as it had with reality. The two went together. Period. And so, the first anthology with over 20 stories and writers was launched in September 2013. The idea caught on. At once.

Barely one year later, Shyam decided to do it again. Much had changed by then. There still were issues left unresolved and grievances left unaddressed. There was "development", yes, but this wasn't enough. The country needed another "Write to Reconcile". It was a need of the hour. Of sorts.

And so, more than 20 writers got together last year. Over eight days in Kandy and Batticaloa, they conducted a workshop for those who could and did write. It wasn't just about words and narrative. It was about trauma. Memory. Loss. It was also about cultural roots and the diversity that surrounds this country. Shyam was the Project Director. He listened to and read what the writers had to say. He collected them. A second anthology followed.

There were those who had lived through the war and those who had "seen" it through other eyes. And they weren't just Tamil or Sinhalese. Yogarajah Atchuthan and Kulanthai Jepakumar had suffered, yes, but so had Ranmini Gunawardena, who had lost her brother (an Air Force Pilot), and Sapna Supunsara, whose father had been involved in the last phase of the war. Race didn't matter. They had all suffered. That lent authenticity to what they said. And wrote.

Not all the writers had "lived through", understandably. Some had recounted and recorded. None of them fictionalised anything, and even those who saw through other eyes depicted what they did with honesty. There was fidelity to life. Authenticity too. Commendably.

Recounting isn't everything however and it doesn't always count for narrative. There were stories that spoke from heart, not based on actual encounters but fictionalised to gain and give effect. Like Lilani Anuruddhika's "Everyone's a Tiger Until Proven Otherwise", which charts a friendship between a Sinhalese man and a Tamil boy and then suddenly ends on an unresolved note.

The relationship between these two is depicted playfully, almost in keeping with the young man / ruffian boy trope one finds in countless stories and films. But no, Lilani doesn't let her story end that way. The boy warns the man and the man doesn't heed his warning. In the end, while we get to know what he thinks of his little friend, we are left with only a hint of that idealism that marked their friendship, now subsumed by chaos and, it seems, suspicion.

Unlike last time, this year's event was opened up to the Sri Lankan diaspora. Shyam tells me that they tried to get participants who could tell stories from the armed forces' point of view. They tried to get stories from those who had lived and endured the war in the East, given how preoccupied the first anthology had been with the North/South divide. They are also trying to get the LTTE's version of events within the next few years.

"Write to Reconcile" was sponsored by the Royal Norwegian Embassy and the American Center. There were people who came and spoke. Dr Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council (which figured in the launch of the first anthology as well) gave his address. He noted that even five years after the war, misgivings still exist and these must be addressed through what he called a "multi-track approach". Grete Løchen from the Norwegian Embassy and Nicole Chulick from the American Center highlighted the need for young writers to open up and transcend differences perceived and imagined.

The final word belongs to Shyam, though. I ask him whether they have any major plans for the future. He tells me that he has set a target with all what he's done so far, that he wants to see a grand finale someday. "The idea is to build a composite picture of the war. I want to include all points of view in it. My hope is to then do a final master anthology that includes stories from other anthologies, giving this final composite view."

Wars begin for reasons no matter how irrational those who lead them can get. They end for other reasons too, again despite how unreasonably bloody they can be. But wars don't end on the battlefield. Not all the time. They end when grievances are addressed and wrongdoing is acknowledged. They end with accountability and reconciliation. That is why differences must be bridged. Always.

Words aren't the be-all and end-all of reconciliation. But they have power. They begin where bullets end. They aren't monumental but then again they needn't be. "Write to Reconcile" certainly isn't. I don't think Shyam wants that, anyway. He wants something small and sharpened, something that is nuanced enough to acknowledge that while books can speak louder than bombs, they can't be an end but must be a means to that end. I am sure he'd agree if I say that this is what his project aims at. We should be grateful, I think. And we are.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, March 15 2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Promises in the Dark

Between darkness and light is twilight. It is in this twilight, I think, that most of us reside. We inhabit it because we are not ready for fame. Some, content with this world in-between, stay there for the rest of their lives. But there are others who, in a quest for popularity, try to get out. Still others, taking this quest too far, regress into the back-shadows. The person I wish to write on in this article, however, fits into none of these categories. She is neither hell-bent on becoming popular, nor content in where she is right now. Progress comes in small steps. Big steps indicate pride, and pride comes, as we all know, before a fall. Kate Shine has no need for big steps; no chance of a fall for her, then.

I am not a musically inclined person. My tribute to Kate Shine, however, has very little to do with her musical ability. For the benefit of those who don’t know, she is a cellist from Russia. That’s the shortest thing to a description I can come up with, but it hardly catches all what she stands on and stands for. In what she has done so far, has achieved, and is planning on, I see reason for hope. For this Russian cellist is well on her way up: not to crass superstardom, but to gradual, painstaking success. As I read her story, I can do nothing else but believe this to be true. But I’m letting myself get a little too ahead here.

Shine was born in Moscow to a very musical family. “Our parents were both musicians. We were surrounded by music right from the start,” she tells me. As is usual in such cases, Kate drew herself to music as time passed by. She was three when she joined her first music-school. At an age when most kids would normally be content with connecting two words together, she was learning to play the cello, an instrument that flanks her to this date. Doubtless, just as the aspiring writer finds joy in finding the “bon mot” (right word), so she would have been happy as a little child finding the right note to blend in with her rendition of a piece. Music had entranced her at a tender age. This was just the beginning.

At age five, she performed at a school function. “That was the first time I had to alight on a stage. It was funny because the cello, which was naturally taller than I was at that age, had to be carried by another person for me.” She is quite sure she looked ridiculously funny then, and is also sure that she felt so then and there. Instead of breaking apart under the usual strain of stage fright, however, the experience decided her: “That was when I decided to become a musician, come what may.”

Memory is pristine in Kate, so more reminiscences are to follow. Her education, at this stage, consisted only of classical music – a limited education. At age 12, however, things began to change. “I remember hearing the song ‘Barcelona’, performed by Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé,” she explains to me, “The experience was riveting, fabulous… I was enflamed. Rock music allied with classical strains – how amazing that idea sounded to me! And that was what I had heard on radio.” The experience decided her further: she felt the need to explore the world, and with it to dabble in new musical forms.

With this in mind and at heart, Kate left for Hamburg. The city, she remembers, brought for her a third career-defining turnaround. Having performed at several orchestras, she would get to feel “totally comfortable” with the hustle and bustle she had got herself into. That was when she discovered a new instrument – the electric cello. Kate’s ecstasy knew no bounds at this, as is evident from her own words: “I finally saw a way to develop my career as a soloist, and to mix up various musical styles together: the idea I had always longed for.”

That was the past. “All that has brought me here today,” she remarks.

Admittedly, fame hasn’t smiled at her as much as her talents would ordinarily demand. Coming from a deeply musical family, however, seems to have inculcated in her none of that crass sensationalism and thirst for popularity so typical of our time. Put in another way, she’s lying low, taking it easy. For the better, I should think. Not that it should deter her from finding her place in the sun. But a rather conservative and progressive climb up the ladder is her way of reaching what lies beyond. Perhaps this is the sort of approach our singers and musicians should take to heart today.

Kate Shine has visited Sri Lanka. That was a month back. She remembers our hospitality, our gentleness, and that goodwill so typical of our countrymen. She has nothing but praise for them. But most of all, she remembers how Sri Lanka inspired her. “You’re asking through which path an international audience best can get to know about me,” she replies to a question of mine, “One definite path should be through your country. I know that for sure.” Vaguely, but optimistically, she hints that her international career may begin here.

We can never know for sure whether this will turn out the way she wants, however. All we can do is sit back and wait. “Every single step led me to where I am right now,” she tells me with perfect honesty. It is difficult at times to look back and think ahead. The past is another era, and one can never know how it can aid our future. I think Kate can, though. If the past is anything to go by, Kate’s has the promise of a lustrous future. In her, we may well see the matinee artist the world can validly demand of her talent.

Looking back at my conversation with her, I am reminded of what Susan Sarandon once told an interviewer: “(With) the world as it is today, there are no guarantees. So you might as well follow your heart.” Kate Shine may well know that this world holds no guarantees. And, being deeply engaged to her work and passion, I believe she is following her heart. Let us pray for that day when she will end her long trek upward. Let us pray it comes soon. Until then, however, my countrymen and I can only wait, watch, and applaud. Kate Shine is, as yet, full of promises in the dark.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Mahinda Factor is just a factor

Sri Lanka has almost never voted for people. Neither has it voted for parties. It has voted for people and parties. Strange, yes, but true. People-factors are taken into account, and so are party-factors. But voters rarely acknowledge one of them in isolation. People are elected on the basis of their parties and parties are elected on the basis of their members. That's the truth, that has been the truth, and I suspect that that will be the truth. For a long time.

We're seeing a "phenomenon" today. I don't think this phenomenon is enough to break into either of the two main parties in the country. To put it simply, Mahinda Rajapaksa has a base, yes. But you can't translate this into a "third force". It's not possible. No former president (or prime minister) could do that here. Rajapaksa won't be any different. He can’t cut into either major party. Period.

Still, his base shouldn't be forgotten. For one thing, he has a stronghold in the South. It is true he won it marginally this time, barring those electorates he won by a massive margin. The SLFP and UPFA, let's not forget, couldn't come up with a proper successor to the man. Part of the reason why they went against him was because he was (unduly) using his party to boost his family, a point highlighted by many grassroots SLFP'ers who (to put it colloquially) were "fed up" with him. Doesn't and shouldn't mean he should be cast out. Not yet.

The man should not be absolved. He committed and sanctioned abuse. Like all politicians, however, he knows charisma and political mileage. He knows how to distill action from words, but the problem with his last few years was that he relied more on words and less on act. Winning wars are alright, indeed commendable. But Winston Churchill did not create a quasi-dictatorship (or, as President Maithripala Sirisena put it on November 21 2014, a "benevolent dictatorship"). He was elected out. We remember postwar Britain not for Churchill's Old Conservatism but for Attlee's New Socialism. It's that simple.

And yet, the war remains Rajapaksa's biggest trump-card. Even now. It is heartening to see that he doesn't spew nationalist rhetoric based on that today, although I am deeply disturbed by how he and his cohort "remind" us that they won the election except for the North and East. Defeat must be conceded. Harping about how one part of the country made you lose isn't going to help. Next thing you know, his cohort will be claiming that the country must be divided to ensure his victory! Yes, it's that ironic. Ironic because Rajapaksa claims to be the one who unified this country and got rid of terrorism.

The biggest tragedy, however, is that the SLFP is looking at all this like a shell-shocked person. It doesn't know what to do and isn't sure where it's going. Maithripala Sirisena is President, yes, but he acts more like a figurehead with Ranil Wickremesinghe calling the shots. Not surprising there, but the man must assert himself. Going by Wickremesinghe’s recent remarks (including his "threat" to certain Sinhala language newspapers allegedly whipping up racism), it would be better for President Sirisena to make himself known, without talking so much about his predecessor's abuses and how his regime is far better in comparison. Let's not forget that even Rajapaksa was humble enough not to badmouth Chandrika Kumaratunga. I am, of course, talking about his first few years in power after he succeeded her: his and his party-faction’s take on the lady during this year's campaign was nothing but despicable.

Bottom line, hence: Rajapaksa wants to come back. My point is that he can't make a comeback. There are grievances he must address and apologise for. There are concerns he must take note of should he decide to stage a return. And most of all, there are problems with the electoral system and Constitution that he must acknowledge. Without doing any of this, I find it hard to believe that he will or he can return. The Mahinda Factor, therefore, will be just a factor, to be taken in or thrown out at the whims of those in power.

Rajapaksa was probably laughing behind the cameras after he said, "I did not engage in vindictive politics while in power". More statements like that and his opponents can most certainly win against him. But then again, his own party doesn't seem to know what to do with him. Sad and tragic, yes. Ironic, certainly.

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

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Whom to unite and how?

I often wonder why people can't unite. Is it because they are so consumed with hate? That they are blinded by it? I refuse to believe that. No man would hate so much that he cannot love. We are frail, after all, and inasmuch as none of us is perfect it is also true that no one is an absolute devil. Hate can't be the (only) reason. There has to be something else.

Is it the way we look at unity? Perhaps. But how do we see and define it? We do so by defining ourselves. And how do we define ourselves? We first define the Other. We do not know our Church, nor do we know what it stands for. Desperate and in need of finding our identity, we vilify other Churches and communities. As if this wasn't bad enough, we have no clue about those we vilify.

The late Lakshman Kadirgamar is reported to have told the Tamil people thus: "If you cannot live with the Sinhalese, you cannot live with anyone else." I would like to believe that. I would like to think that they are for unity, that they do not demand it based on self-centered ends, that they can live with other races. I was told that this was a Utopia I was dreaming about. I replied that believing in what's real and possible isn't the same as thinking about Utopias. Racial amity, I added, is real. And possible. Nothing fairy-tale-like about that.

The Sinhalese people think they are being preyed on. They believe, rightly I should think, that they have been harmed, cast aside, and in other ways made to feel as though they are a minority. They are and they are not. Clearly they make up 75% of this country, but elsewhere they are marginalised. A national majority and a global minority. It is this strange dichotomy, more than anything else, that is at the heart of our conflict.

Unity isn't an option anymore. You must live with your neighbour. But what if you cannot? What if you feel that you are the preyed on race? These are questions I grappled with a long time back. I'm not sure whether I've found the correct answers, but here goes.

When S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike founded the Sinhala Maha Sabha in 1934, he aimed at two things. The Sinhalese, he said, must be united. He did not differentiate between Sinhala Buddhists and Sinhala Christians. He included both. Having unified themselves, they must then reach out to the rest of the country, to other communities. In other words, only by uniting your own kind could you unify yourself with other races.

It's a pity that Bandaranaike did not keep to his own vision. When he broke away from the United National Party (UNP) and created the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), he still had ideals. But they had changed. Where he spoke for unity, he now spoke for division. Given that he had a way with words and could distill action from ideology, he emphasised the need for a cultural resurgence. Driven by the urge to appear more popular, he let go of his idealism. He promised Sinhala. In 24 hours. Technically that is what we got. More than 50 years on, we are still paying for that mistake.

I have read Susantha Goonatilake's 16th Century Clash of Civilizations and have come to wonder why it is that the Sinhalese as a race can't reach out. Is it because they were once the victim, that they were forced by word and sword to give up what they believed? Maybe. Goonetilake aptly records the various crimes of ommission and commission committed by misguided fanatics. The reader is left with one question: if the Sinhala people were the victims, isn't it fair that they should stand up for themselves?

Yes, they were the victims. They were killed, raped, mutilated, and drowned. They were (and still are) marked as heathens. When they did not convert, they were stigmatised. When they did, privilege was showered. And when privilege was threatened, vested interests stood up and fought.

But I don't think this is a reason to become chauvinists. The South African government after all acted against the blacks. Nelson Mandela became President. He did not hate. He did not sanction hate. He went ahead and reconciled everyone, white, black, or otherwise. Today we have a South Africa that is unified. Unified by the same people who were segregated and divided for so long.

I have also read Malinga H. Gunaratne's Tortured Island. The book is an eye-opener. Literally. It made me realise just how naive we are about harmony. The Sinhalese have for so long been told that they are attacked and prone to attack. Understandably, they are on the defensive. Perhaps that's why they do not listen to reason, why even the slightest whimper is enough to fire them up. Not that they don't understand the meaning of reconciliation, but that those who profit from mongering fear set them against it.

Gunaratne's book also raises another point: that the Sinhalese have divided themselves. He raises some questions. Hard questions. They are a divided race, not (only) because some wish it that way, but because they refuse to see that which unites us. They believe those petty things which divide man from man. Like caste. And religion. If they can't go past these as a race, how can they hope to unite themselves? Or reach out to others?

They were, I think, forced to believe in myths. They defined themselves according to them. They resorted to irrationality where reason would have done. But the Sinhala people are fiercely individualistic. They are also submissive. They believe in karma, the moral law of causation. Submitting themselves to everything that comes their way, they recoil the moment that which they give way to tries to enslave them. They welcomed those who captured and colonialised them. Given this, is there any reason to denounce them? I think not.

The Sinhala race did not fight wars on their own. The civil war was not against the Tamils, nor was it for the Sinhalese. It was a Muslim man, for instance, who headed the intelligence operations of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP). When the LRRP's operations were discovered after the fiasco at Millennium City, Captain S. H. Mohamed Nilam became a hunted man. Who betrayed him? The Sinhalese, of course!

Why this hate, then? Why this anger? Why can't we be friends? The answer is simple. Politics.

I can think of only two people who reached out to other communities. Lakshman Kadirgamar was one. He was killed by fanatical members of his own race. There were Tamil politicians who celebrated his murder. Scoundrels, all of them. The other is Imthiaz Bakeer Markar. The sad fact is that while both gentlemen (from both major parties) won the admiration of the Sinhalese, not a single Sinhalese politician was intelligent enough to win over the Muslim and Tamil man. Is it any wonder, then, that Muslims and Tamils are inflamed by racist politicians, who want our country to be divided?

Bottom line, hence: the Sinhalese have only themselves to blame. For this mess and for the mess they continue. To date, the Sinhala race has not produced a single politician who is for reconciliation. I do not for one moment believe that those who negotiated with the LTTE, who talked about pragmatism and realpolitik while selling half the country to those scoundrels, were lovers of Tamil and Muslim people. They were opportunists. Where there was money and fame, they betrayed to their heart's content. I will also not comment on the Hela Urumaya, because that party is currently going through a metamorphosis I can't really understand. Not yet.

Dr E. W. Adikaram, in his brilliant essay "Isn’t the Nationalist a Mental Patient?", raised some valid points. I quote:

"Species of birds differ by birth from one another. Between the eagle and the dove, between the quail and the peacock there is a natural difference. Is there such a difference between the Sinhalese and the Tamil, between the Englishman and the German?"

I am not suggesting that we all are eagles or peacocks. There are characteristics that define us and differentiate one from the other. But to suggest that one race is superior to the other is madness. I do not believe it. That we must preserve identities is true. The Sinhalese, let's not forget, have been discriminated against (they still are) by those who find them gullible and easy to prey on.

Consumed by anger and revenge, the Sinhalese man wants to protect himself. Politicians, seeking privilege and perk, make use of this and talk about shielding him from the Other. They are elected. They go back on what they promised. Let down and deeply angered, he seeks another representative who is more racist and irrationally chauvinistic. So the vicious cycle goes.

Does it ever end?

If we can't stop this, if we can't stop those divisions that exist even among our race (like caste), we can't linger. In the meantime, the country will only suffer. Always.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

From Actor to Director

I first saw him on television. I didn't really know him at the time. That was a time when knowing a person meant appreciating everything and anything he stood for. Sanath Gunathilake, however, impressed me. He impressed me while depicting a character I thought no film could ever do justice to. Why?

It was Gunathilake, more than any other actor, who really taught me that while a character in one art medium can't be transposed to another, there is still a basic essence in him/her that can be represented whatever the work of art. Yes, the film was Viragaya, and the character Aravinda Jayasena.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself here.

For someone who has acted in more than a hundred films, Sanath remains "young" in the truest sense of that word. If the recent past is anything to go by, I think it's safe to say that "retirement" remains an absolute last option for him. He has not only acted, but has also dabbled in direction and script-writing. Ever ready to explore new terrains without being limited to his core career, he readily opens his life story for me.

As usual, I begin at the beginning.

Sanath was born in Kandy. He tells me that as a kid, he was heavily interested in films. His father, who was a lawyer, had shared that interest, and once every fortnight the two of them would go to the cinema hall. His mother, on the other hand, did not share his craze for movies. By way of explaining this, he tells me that this wasn't because she despised the cinema, but because films were generally looked down upon at the time. "My mother was a schoolteacher. Schoolteachers think that films corrupt children; that's why she didn't take to them the way my father and I did."

The films he saw during this time influenced him heavily, it must be said. "I saw mostly commercial films, because my father was a huge fan of Gamini Fonseka and Vijaya Kumaratunge." His mother on the other hand preferred more arty films like Delovak Athara, Saravita, and Vesathuru Siritha. Sanath idolised Gamini Fonseka, watching such hits as Satha Panaha, Chandiya, and Sudo Sudu.

Sanath tells me here that while he was an avid film enthusiast, he didn't want to get into acting as a profession. At Kingswood College, where he was educated, he had taken part in one or two plays. Apparently he had got through his Ordinary Level exams well ("I got the best results at school that year"), but for some reason failed to repeat this feat with his Advanced Levels.

Sanath explains that while he got through the exams, he couldn't get into University because under the District Rank system (which was similar to the Z-score system today), he failed to pass the required mark in the area where he sat for the exam. "Those who got lower results than me managed to enter the University," he says.

Fate works in different ways. After his results came, Sanath applied for jobs at various agencies and companies, but never quite got through the interviews and entrance exams. In a way, he thinks this had to do with the way destiny worked for him. "There may have been people with lesser qualifications than me who got those jobs," he speculates.

Even at this time, however, he didn't let go of his fascination with the cinema. He got to watch such landmarks as Sath Samudura and Nidhanaya. From the 1960s to the 1970s, while the cinema culture in our country changed, Sanath found his outlook on films changing, as he matured and as he got to appreciate "parallel cinema". In other words, he began appreciating not just highbrow films, but films which paved the way for a middle cinema here.

Sanath went for various interviews, hoping that he would get a job at a company. In the midst of all this, he spotted an advertisement in a newspaper. The ad called out for would-be actors who were more than five feet and six inches. What appealed to him, however, was the fact that the ad specifically stated that the candidate's educational qualifications would be considered. "That was a point I took at once," he says, "It was for a film by Vijaya Dharma Sri. I had seen his Duhulu Malak before, and thought that the new film would be as good." Hoping that he would be selected for the job, he went for the interview. He was chosen.

The film was Situ Kumariyo. Sanath tells me here that while he was working in the film, he had hopes of being selected for another job. "I never wanted to be an actor. Getting a job at a company was always at the back of my mind. But I thought that working in a film would increase my chances of passing the job interview. Things didn't work out the way I thought, because the interviewer would say that since I was acting, I was under probation and hence was automatically disqualified from working at that company."

In a way, this was a blessing in disguise, because it enabled Sanath to learn more about the field he had entered. "Realising what I had got myself into, I decided to stay in the film industry," he tells me. From then on, he went on to act in more than a hundred films. Some of them are remembered, some forgotten, and some held and regarded as landmarks in Sinhala cinema.

This is where we begin to talk about his career. "I was always interested in the cinema. Because of that, I never gave up on acting. Whenever and wherever I could, I studied about my career. I read books. Talked with people. Learnt. I was also lucky enough to go to several film festivals just a few years after I began acting." He went to the Cairo International Film Festival in 1981, where H. D. Premaratne's Deveni Gamana was screened. While there, he met Omar Sharif: "I was probably the only Sri Lankan actor to have met him. A real honour for me."

This wasn't all. He also managed to participate at the Manila Film Festival, where he met up and talked with Ben Kingsley. "He had taken everyone by storm that year with his performance in Gandhi," Sanath remembers. In a way, this was to prove instrumental for Sanath personally, because one of the films he got to act in during this time was Tissa Abeysekara's Viragaya.

Considered unfilmable, Martin Wickramasinghe's seminal novel had perhaps the least easy to define character in the history of Sinhala fiction. As Sanath tells me here, it was after seeing Kingsley's performance that he found it easier to portray Aravinda Jayasena. "I listened attentively when Kingsley talked about how he acted out the Mahatma's character. Subconsciously perhaps, I digested what he said that day. I took it to heart when I was depicting Aravinda's character." As an afterthought, he adds wryly: "This is not to say that I'm as great as Sir Ben Kingsley, of course."

Like every ambitious actor, Sanath never limited himself. "I always did my homework, seeking advice and befriending technicians, art-directors, cameramen, and scriptwriters." One of his figures of destiny was Tissa Abeysekera, who used to tell him frequently about his experiences with scriptwriting and directing. "It was Abeysekara who inspired me into directing."

Sanath has directed two films so far. The first, Ekamath Eka Rateka, was released in 2009 and was based on an Émile Zola short story. I remember Professor Carlo Fonseka commenting in his review just how true to the human and biological condition the film was. The second, Sinahawa Atharin, I am yet to see. He doesn't reveal much about it, but hints that while everyone is thinking that it's heavily commercialised, it clearly is a different kind of film. "I encourage people to think that it's a mainstream film, because that way they'll realise just how radically different it is when they see it."

As a final note, Sanath admits that the film industry is lagging behind today. However, he doesn't regret anything. "I am happy and am open to new experiences readily. I enjoy it whenever I get to work with youngsters, because I want to encourage them to take over from us." His final message? "I can only hope for the best." Indeed. In a way, I suppose that's our final message too. Sanath Gunathilake, in the final analysis, is well and truly deserving of what he has done and what he hopes to do. All the way.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, March 1 2015