Thursday, April 30, 2015

A right to know is a right for all

The 19th Amendment was passed yesterday. It remains this government's first real reform "victory", ironic given that it was approved after the 100-day program ended. During these past few months we've seen promises made and unkept. That's natural, given the state our politicians usually are in whenever they try to win the people's mandate. For the moment though, one important aspect of their program has been covered. The government is to be applauded for this.

But the 19th Amendment is not the be-all and end-all of President Maithripala Sirisena's mandate. In fact if one looks back at the main thrust of his election campaign the abolition of the Executive Presidency remains a top priority. This Amendment is only a starting point. Things do not end here.

It's only natural therefore that the next big reform is looked at reflectively. We're talking about the Right to Information Act. The RTI Bill is yet to be tabled in parliament, and going by the assurances given by the Media Ministry we can be sure that it will be tabled eventually. The problem is with time. It was originally meant to be enacted on February 20. Didn't happen. The Secretary to the Media Ministry Karunaratne Paranavithana promised that it would get enacted within the much talked about 100 days. That didn't happen either. We have been assured that it will get enacted and will become a fundamental right. In the meantime, we'll have to wait.

The RTI Bill is important and for reasons that are all too obvious. In a (political) culture which withholds information it's vital that access to it be made a statutory right. On this basis the Bill's provisions need to be looked at. Karu Jayasuriya came up with a Private Member's Bill in 2010. This we know. It was shelved when the then Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena promised that his government would present its own Bill within six months. Which didn't happen, of course.

We're living at a time when "access" is literally a click away. But not everything is open to everyone. It's natural that this document seeks to abolish the information-deficits successive governments have had a vested interest in preserving. These deficits go hand-in-hand with democracy-deficits, as even the United States has learnt in the past few years.

In this regard it's vital that the RTI Bill be amended to include all relevant institutions and not just the government. NGOs for instance are known to be secretive and to withhold information. Some of them have serious transparency and accountability issues. These must be addressed. Makes sense to have them covered by this document.

This move will be opposed. At a time when the line between "public" and "private" is fast blurring it's natural that information-deficits are defended not just by government bodies but by private bodies as well. Denying the citizen access, especially when it comes to financial accountability, would be manifestly unjust however. Covering the state alone won't do. The citizen deserves more. Especially so because he is governed by people who have promised good governance.

No Bill or for that matter law is perfect. There are several issues in the Draft RTI Act that need to be addressed. The trick isn't to get it passed with its deficiencies intact but to enact it without them the first time around. Karu Jayasuriya's proposals can't be rejected. They stand to reason. There is a balance between legitimate disclosure and justifications for denying such disclosure in the document. Any Act of this sort must address that to remain relevant.

The main deficiency is basically what I've pointed out before: a failure to acknowledge the blurring line between "public" and "private". Section 40 of the Bill defines "public authority", which to its credit does include private institutions that are connected with the government. Nonetheless the section excludes NGOs and other purported representatives of civil society. Furthermore the RTI Acts of both India and Bangladesh make such institutions accountable to the public. It would make sense to echo that here.

One can of course offer an argument for this: the state denies access too much. Correct, but that doesn't license access-denial in the non-state sector. Shady financial dealings in NGOs don't seem to come under this Bill. That's hardly desirable. The argument that the state deserves more scrutiny than the non-state sector sounds hollow if we are to assume that the latter is squeaky clean, at least relatively. It's not.

On this note calls made to include NGOs sound reasonable. Immunising them from public scrutiny, as Malinda Seneviratne has pointed out, would be cheating the citizen. The RTI Bill will have to be enacted without any of its faults. Getting it perfect the first time around would be next to impossible. But getting it passed without any of its major deficiencies would be a feat. Indeed, all things considered, it might well be this government's second victory.

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

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Looming Above Them All

Some giants are elusive. You can't write about them. Not that easily. I suspect the reason for this has more to do with the way we see them. Perhaps we don't see them. Perhaps we don't want to. It isn't that we can't assess them. It's just that we can't measure them enough. That's sad I agree, but inevitable. In a way. Maybe that's why, even with countless biographies and essays that get written about them, we aren't any closer to finding what these giants stood for. And stood on.

23 years ago, we lost Satyajit Ray. We lost a giant. An unparalleled one. This giant is remembered for 30 films and seven documentaries. He is remembered for those books he wrote. He was an artist, so his paintings and comic sketches are remembered too. Everything he filmed, wrote, or drew won acclaim. So much so that today, he is celebrated in India. He has also become an icon, celebrated the world over by every film-lover.

As for me, I remember him for his films. I was very little when I saw them. Apur Sansar, a world away from the India of the Kapoors or Bachchans or Khans, stunned me. And it didn't end there. There were other films, other stories. All of them held onto me. The reason wasn't difficult to see. They unearthed a part of the world I lived close to. Some of them, as I saw for myself, even unearthed a world I actually lived in.

Ray was born to the aristocracy. As his biographer Andrew Robinson puts it, he had all the privileges of an upper-class family in Bengal. His fascination with the arts, in a way, grew out of his childhood. That moved his critics to label his films as being too out of touch with reality. He hadn't lived through them, they argued, to portray them honestly. True enough.

But his films are treasured today. They are celebrated. Why?

No one could dissect India the way he did, for one thing. From Pather Panchali (his first) to Agantuk (his last), there was something he aimed at, which defined what he filmed. He revealed some uncomfortable truths about his world. They uncloaked a side to India that neither politician nor filmmaker delved into. For this reason, he was more honest than any other director I "read".

It wasn't just poverty of course. Whatever issue or theme he took – religious superstition, caste hierarchies, political uprisings, terrorism – he explored. To the dot. Why? Because Ray directed so forcefully that his signature became evident in whatever he made. He exerted control over nearly every aspect to film-making – cinematography, editing, scripting, even music – that he became virtually indistinguishable from what he filmed.

Not that his films were perfect. They had their flaws. Critics who were politically slanted saw them as indifferent. They berated him for not being committed enough, for not asking the viewer harsh questions. For them, he seemed to be content with revealing the truth. He didn't offer solutions. He just stated that they were needed. That was all.

In Ray's universe, people accept poverty. They also try to escape it. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Through this, he revealed their way of life, and their joys, sorrows, and emotions, clinically, without any nostalgia. This in turn attracted criticism from critic and audience. Unwittingly, he seemed to reflect what Engels once wrote: that the artist's role was not to resolve issues on a silver platter.

He was happy in revealing, not resolving. Not many liked that, especially as time went by and the world became darker. They liked it even less when he decided to script his own films: compare Jalsaghar, for instance, with Kanchenjunga and Nayak to see how limited and constrained the latter two are. They were both written by him. They kept to his vision. They revealed how limited (and insular) that vision could be.

He realised this better than anyone else. By the time he began to understand it, however, he had aged. The world had moved on. Akira Kurosawa, once a firebrand, was lagging behind. Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, unacknowledged saints of the cinema, were soon to retire. None of them made a "committed" film in their last few years. They shirked away, stubbornly clinging to what they believed in.

Ray dared to be different. In his last three films – Ganashatru, Shakha Proshakha, Agantuk – he tried to reconcile himself to the outside world. Ganashatru was about a doctor who tries to warn his community that the holy water in their temple is contaminated. Shakha Proshaka was about three sons who visit their ailing father. Agantuk was about a stranger who passes off as an uncle to a suspicious couple. All different from one another, yes, but held together by how Ray wanted to prove that he could be different. That he could achieve a communion. With the rest of the world.

Directors are influenced. They also influence others. The thing with Ray was that while he shaped almost every filmmaker who followed him, it was difficult to pinpoint someone who shaped him. Not that he didn't have influences. From Tagore to Chaplin, Bach to Kurosawa, he took in everything he fell under.

He was also broadminded enough to acknowledge that while East and West could never really meet, there was much to absorb from both. Which is why, when he compared John Ford to Beethoven and his own masterpiece Charulata to Mozart, there wasn't a hint of pretension. He wrote and filmed from the heart. Perhaps that is why we remember him. Why we pay tribute to him.

Towards the end of his career, he changed. In Agantuk, far away from Pather Panchali, he tried to reconcile himself. Like Kurosawa's Madadayo, Ray tried something of a confession, at attempt at self-reflection, with it. That he achieved it is another story altogether. Watching it today, however, I am moved.

Manomohan Mitra, the protagonist, is world-weary. He has traveled everywhere. Seen them all. Taken them in. He returns to India not because he hasn't been there in a long time, but because he has learnt to value simplicity, honesty, and friendship over everything else. He finds those values back home, but only after much soul-seeking. And through it all, he befriends the only person he can befriend: his grandnephew, still at school and not old enough to suspect his uncle the way his parents do.

Was Manomohan a thinly disguised Satyajit, I wonder. Perhaps he was. Perhaps that went beyond all those books and essays written about him in defining who he really was. I don't know.

The point is that Satyajit Ray still lives. He lives every time we pay homage to him. Every time we decide to uncloak harsh truths and reveal them to those who are blind. No, I can't really measure him. None of us can. The final say, therefore, should belong to a man who was closer to Ray than anyone else. Here is what he once observed: 

"Watching a film of his, you almost feel as if a camera was eavesdropping on life, catching these people unawares, capturing forever their most delicate and fleeting and subtle shifts of feeling."

Lester James Peries was Ray's closest friend "East of the Suez". He would have known him better than any of us. I find no reason to believe, therefore, that what Peries wrote about his friend is untrue. It isn't. Satyajit Ray's cinema occupies a world of its own, I should think. It eavesdrops, catches, and captures. It records life the way a camera never can. And never will. Maybe that's the best way I can end my little tribute. For now.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Tissa Abeysekara: An 'Asammatha' Icon

We lost a giant six years ago. This giant is remembered today as a filmmaker, writer, administrator, and political commentator. There were times when all these roles came together: a synthesis rarely to be seen in any other icon. Maybe that is why we treasure his name. Why we honour him.

Tissa Abeysekara was not born with a silver spoon. As he recounts in his Roots, Reflections, and Reminiscences, he was born to an aristocracy which was seeing its dying days. Deprived of privilege at a young age, he learnt on his own. What he learnt and how he learnt is peripheral today. But his story moves you. It reminds you of Gorky's chilhood. That's how self-reliant he was and continued to be.

He hardly had a formal education, for one thing. He wrote and thought on his own. Originality was something he never lacked. But while we remember him mainly for those films he made and scripts he wrote, he had his first love: literature. That marked the beginning of his remarkable journey, one that took him to other giants.

Icons have their shortcomings. They rarely admit that they do. Abeysekara did. In Roots, Reflections, and Reminiscences, he observes that he felt impeded in the way he wrote, "affected, overdressed, trying to impress". It was after a more naked, austere style, free of frill and rhetoric, that he went, as did every other writer. Whether he achieved what he wanted is another story altogether, but the point is that he admitted that he needed to. Very few would have done that.

We remember this giant primarily for those scripts he wrote, of course. When Lester James Peries and Regi Siriwardena were planning the script of Gamperaliya, they soon realised their language deficiency (both communicated almost exclusively in English). This endeared them to Abeysekara, who could read and write well in both languages. His abilities at Sinhala had been acknowledged a long time back, with a short-story collection penned to his name.

This was where his journey really began. A journey that detoured to the cinema. There was a sense of accomplishment, a sense of bravado, even here. From a dialogues writer in Gamperaliya and Delovak Athara (both by Peries), he became a screenwriter, perhaps the finest we had. And this is where he achieved a synthesis.

Akira Kurosawa once made the following observation: "Cinema is, in the final analysis, cinema". Films and literature are clean different. They can't be brought together. But while that may be true, the cinema does have many aspects to it borrowed from other art-forms. Kurosawa himself borrowed from Kabuki and Noh theatre in very many of his films. Bergman was a playwright before he took to directing, which explains those wordy monologues in his films.

Abeysekara felt and thought through the pen. Read one of his scripts today to see just how eclectically he handled them. There are sequences in them that seem to have a life of their own. He was broadminded in what he wrote, to the point where words, conversations, and monologues flowed effortlessly from his pen. That was reflected in pretty much every script he ever wrote.

I am reminded here of the sequence in Welikathara of Suvineetha Weerasinghe lashing at Gamini Fonseka, after the latter genuflects meekly before "Goring Mudalali" (Joe Abeywickrama). Camera angles and cuts blend in perfectly with their conversation, spiced up to reveal the growing tension between wife and husband. Only a true scriptwriter, who could appreciate both literary and visual aspects of the cinema, could have achieved such a synthesis.

Such sequences aren't rare in Sinhala cinema. What made Abeysekara stand apart from the rest, however, was the way he absorbed everything he came into contact with. He didn't just watch films or read books. He studied them.

Abeysekara is remembered for other things too. He had a political career. He was dedicated to whatever he stood for. As he echoes in his essay "Somewhere In Between", he was also eclectic and farsighted enough to acknowledge the ideological parameters of what he believed in. At a time when the political divide had become bitterer than ever, however, he stood by them.

This was interesting. If he was eclectic enough to know how limited his ideals were and still stand by them, he would have been a pragmatist. He was. This did not mean that he let go of his beliefs, however. It merely meant that he preferred to stand by and let larger realities shape them. Nor did this mean that he was satisfied with their being subjected to outside realities. For him, compromise did not mean giving up. It is this that he echoed, lucidly I should say, in a 30-page interview with him entitled "Asammathayo" ("The Unconventional").

But while his political work and literary output were phenomenal in terms of quality, his films lacked something. There was always a sense of ambition that tried to come through them. Perhaps this had to do with Abeysekara himself. Perhaps this had to do with that sense of accomplishment and daring in him, which always reached out and tried to experiment.

Abeysekara was less successful here, however. And it's not hard to see why (or how). Viragaya, arguably his masterpiece (considered virtually unfilmable) was a world away from Karumakkarayo and Mahagedara. In those two films, there was an effort at bringing together ambition and reality. To what extent he succeeded in this is of course a moot point, but seeing them today, I can only say that they fell short of expectation. Viragaya was the exception in this regard. Happily.

Growing up, I encountered some icons. Some of them are forgotten. Others are not. I remember Martin Wickramasinghe, who in 80 books and over 2,000 essays defined us. I remember Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Lester James Peries, who on stage and on celluloid gave us back our roots. There was a process of reawakening in them all, hampered by self-imposed deficiencies. They bloomed in the end. All of them.

I also remember Tissa Abeysekara, but for different reasons. I remember him as a filmmaker, writer, and commentator. I remember him as one of the most ambitious chairmen our Film Corporation had. I remember him leaving that post right after the United National Party came to power in 2001: a sign of his political commitment. And through them all, I remember him for how he defined us. There's a reason for that. He resided in a twilight, bilingual world. That he spoke in Sinhala did not stop him from writing in English. As he once put it: "I am double-tongued".

We lost an icon six years ago. We lost an "asammathaya".

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, April 26 2015

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mahinda Rajapaksa's denial

In an interview with AFP last Wednesday, Mahinda Rajapaksa has denied any involvement with the Bodu Bala Sena. He has called the organisation a Western conspiracy that alienated Muslims. We can assume it wasn't just the Muslims it alienated, but let's leave that for later. For now, we can take this statement in either of two ways. We can think Rajapaksa is suffering from selective myopia, given that he didn't make any statement like this while in power.

We can also think he's gaining humility. Now in politics humility rarely counts. This we know. It's only natural that this statement will be greeted with disbelief, not just by his detractors but by his supporters as well. That's what makes it all the more tragic.

When the former president secured an unprecedented majority in Parliament in 2010, he had the best chance to democratise the country he delivered from terrorism. He didn't do that. Instead he passed through a constitutional amendment that he thought would ensure unlimited rule but which proved his undoing in the end. He alienated anyone and everyone who wasn't part of his family. He listened to those he shouldn't have listened to. And, perhaps most tragically, he let abuse off the hook, even with abusers who are now with the government and are lambasting him as though they’ve become lily-white angels.

I have always believed that if there's something wrong with the Sinhala Buddhists, it's that they fall prey to political agenda rather quickly. When the Aluthgama riots were in full swing, both the BBS and Jathika Hela Urumaya (the former more than the latter) didn't help. What they did was to inflame a situation that could have been corrected. Easily. They let emotion prevail and excluded reason. That didn't help, clearly.

Rajapaksa should have known better, on the other hand. But he listened to wrong advice. That too proved his undoing. And it's not hard to see how. When the Aluthgama riots boiled over, there was an opportunity open to him. He could have made a statement. He could have eased tension. He could have stopped the riots and rioters. But he didn't. Why?

In his interview with AFP, he points out a name. Patali Champika Ranawaka. He accuses the Minister for having defended the BBS. True. Ranawaka did himself no favours during the Aluthgama riots. It was Rajitha Senaratne, the Old Left, Dilan Perera, and Wimal Weerawansa (in that order) who named names and accused the organisation. The JHU didn't incite violence, but it didn't help sort out the mess either.

The former president says that it was Ranawaka's act that alienated minorities. That is only partly true. Ranawaka was not Rajapaksa’s right-hand man. If he was the statesman we wanted him to become he should have disregarded Ranawaka and resolved Aluthgama. He didn't. Playing the blame-game doesn't help, therefore.

It also doesn't help that his family were perceived to be colluding with the BBS. That's what makes his involvement-denial all the more self-contradictory. Still, his assertion that the organisation worked against his interests is spot on. Better late than never, after all. Yes, he should have acted against the BBS when he had time and they were against his interests. But then again, there were other things he should have done. He left them all undone. We now know where that lead him.

And if recent events are anything to go by, there appears to be very little substance in what he's saying now. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa was summoned to the Bribery Commission there were supporters waving a perverted National Flag. This points more at overzealous protesters than at those they were supporting, but the move clearly backfired. If the Bodu Bala Sena was involved with this that makes the AFP interview even more self-contradictory.

Mahinda Rajapaksa must substantiate assertion. If he wants to deny collusion with the BBS he must do so to the public. He must clarify and reveal what really happened during Aluthgama. He must name names. He has the support of the Sinhala Buddhist community but he must have the foresight to embrace all and alienate none. That is why the BBS needs to be out. It may be a short-term plus-factor but in the long run it won't help. This he must realise. At once.

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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Revisiting the Mahinda Factor

Mahinda Rajapaksa is the most famous former president this country has known. The numbers that go to Medamulana and attend his rallies prove this. It doesn't mean he's making a comeback or that he's ready to, of course. There were some 6.2 million who voted against him, and while 5.7 million supported him it's difficult to see whether that number has increased or decreased in light of what's happening now. For the moment, everything seems uncertain. That's democracy, some might say. I'd agree.

The UNP has not failed its mandate completely. But both it and the SLFP are missing the point which brought them to power. What we have today is an Opposition-less Parliament that sees both major parties enjoying ministerial posts. In this context it's only natural that a weak rubber stamp legislature would meet its rallying point in the Mahinda Factor. Outside Parliament. Democracy, you'd say. I'd agree again.

Rajapaksa is not without fault, clearly. He needs to be investigated. There is however one thing that stands in the way of his critics. Popularity. It is popularity after all that can provoke parliamentarians to sit through the night. It is popularity that can even provoke those who have sided with President Maithripala Sirisena to speak on his predecessor's behalf.

The move to bring him to the Bribery Commission is clearly UNP-made. It does not have the sanction of the SLFP barring a few stalwarts who are against him. If the UNP and in particular Ranil Wickremesinghe want to gain legitimacy however, this was clearly a bad choice. And it's not hard to see why. The main allegation leveled against the former president is that he bribed Tissa Attanayake through a ministerial post.

This is interesting. If Tissa Attanayake was indeed bribed through a ministerial portfolio then what about those who were appointed as ministers by President Sirisena even though they sided with his predecessor during the election? Are we to call those appointments bribes? Are we to call the appointment of a minority party leader as Prime Minister a bribe? Where does this lead us? Nowhere, clearly.

What is tragic here is that while the SLFP has the numbers, the UNP is not making use of the opportunity open to it. The UNP may be in the minority but it has brains. Ranil Wickremesinghe is intelligent enough to know that in a country where former presidents are bowed out the Mahinda Factor remains relevant. That is what he acknowledged on January 9 when he said that Rajapaksa would remain in our history books. There was humility in what he said. Even the President acknowledged it. We didn't hear Chandrika Kumaratunga echoing that. Shows the difference.

So what has the UNP got to do? Going by recent developments the road hasn't become any clearer for it. The Supreme Court determination on the proposed 19th Amendment was a blow, clearly. The Jathika Hela Urumaya, which has even less of a presence than the UNP, has asserted again and again that there can't be a role-reversal when it comes to who wields power at the top.

To top all that, one would expect the party that has Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne to be more circumspect when it comes to assertion. Going by the chest-thumping, self-righteous speeches certain UNP parliamentarians have given recently however, I am losing hope. In a country where demagoguery unfortunately seems to count and policy is constantly pushed into the backroom even the likes of Wickremesinghe look as though they are content in playing Mark Antony. That's bad, and hardly what you'd expect of that party given its composition.

In this scenario marginalising Mahinda Rajapaksa would not be prudent. He is popular and will remain so. Given that in politics no one is a permanent friend or enemy one can even foresee him team up with President Sirisena. The latter hasn't said anything about recent events, moreover. That's telling. Some would call it expedience. I'd agree and disagree. President Sirisena will not risk an open confrontation with his predecessor, but neither will he go out of his way to grant largesse to a man he successfully took on during the election campaign. The UNP, sadly enough, has failed to acknowledge this. If it doesn't address this soon, that will be its undoing.

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

Monday, April 20, 2015

Dissecting a Lion

It went on for more than one hour. It needn't have but then again it didn't lag. Time didn't matter anyway. Everyone seemed to have come with a purpose. They had come to honour an icon. To remind themselves that his legacy continues. After all these years. The 43rd Commemoration of Philip Gunawardena was held at the Sri Sambuddhathwa Jayanthi Mandiraya (in Thunmulla) on March 28. It opened up to a crowd that waited, patiently, until everything was over. The weather wasn't amenable and the heat outside was unbearable. But we couldn't have cared less. And we didn't.

At the time of Philip Gunawardena's death, Ceylon was just a few months shy of "becoming" Sri Lanka. All those decades spent in agitating for complete independence were soon to culminate. The worst uprising in our country's post-independence history until then had come and gone. One can only guess what Philip (who was 72 when he passed away) would have said (or written) had he lived. Those who came to honour him weren't interested in that, however. They were interested in the man and his life. As they should be.

There were guests who came and spoke. Two guests. Professor A. V. D. S. Indraratne, the prominent economist, was first in line. He raised some important points in his speech. He noted, correctly I believe, that by the time Philip Gunawardena returned to Ceylon in 1932, Marxism here was more or less limited to the urban worker. It was Philip, he highlighted, who brought Marxism to the rural peasant. Professor Indraratne coined a term for this: "jathika samajavadaya". The meaning gets diluted when translated, because "national socialism" would hardly stand up to what the Professor meant for reasons that are all too obvious. Still, his thesis stood ground. Remarkably.

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka delivered the second speech. It was longer. Didn't matter. Dr Jayatilleka can speak lengthily without losing touch with his audience. That's what he did here. He began by reading out a pen portrait written by his father Mervyn de Silva. He delivered it in English and then went on to deliver his own speech, free of frill but still long.

Dr Jayatilleka argued that the man he was speaking about tried to bring together two ideologies. One was Marxism. The other was nationalism. In other words, he saw Gunawardena's entire project as having to do with the amalgamation of these two different streams. He quoted a term that fitted some of those who opposed him ideologically: "mul sidhagath aragala karayo" (rootless cosmopolitans).

Professor Indraratne
This is true. The Lanka Sama Samaja Party, since its inception in 1935, tried to fill a gap. Unlike in India, where the middle-class and even the upper-class intelligentsia actively opposed British rule, their counterparts here were content with transitional independence (Dominion status). In other words, the bourgeoisie here did not call for complete independence. Which was where the LSSP fitted in.

This was also where Gunawardena fitted in, because it was he who moved the LSSP to Trotskyism and revolutionary politics. The party as a whole was represented by him and N. M. Perera, yes. But while N. M. eventually oversaw the transition of his party to social democracy, his colleague and in some ways his rival persisted with his vision of Trotskyism blending in with nationalism.

At the time of Gunawardena's death (N. M. would die seven years after him), it was not difficult to see who had won and who held sway: the LSSP had embraced social democracy which, in the words of Regi Siriwardena, "irrevocably triumped over the residual Marxism of his (N. M. Perera's) colleagues."

What of Gunawardena, though? While N. M. Perera's beliefs were rooted largely in an urban, secular, and cosmopolitan backdrop, Gunawardena's beliefs were rooted in a rural, tradition-based, and by no means secular upbringing. It was this that both speakers echoed, I believe, when they mentioned how successfully he brought together nationalism and Marxism.

Reading the "Lion of Boralugoda" this way would be easy, however. Too easy. Which was why Dr Jayatilleka went beyond this simplification. He argued that Marxists here faced a dilemma in that they failed or didn't make the attempt to reach out to history. He pointed out that both Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh successfully reflected their country's independence struggle in their political projects.

Unlike Castro and Minh, however, Marxists here rubbished history, dismissing each and every historical struggle against colonialism as "bourgeois". According to Dr Jayatilleka, Marxism was the true successor to Veera Puran Appu's movement. That those who followed it failed to realise this eventually led to their downfall. That is why Philip Gunawardena is remembered, he implied: because he tried to follow what others hadn't wanted to.

Perhaps this explains everything. Perhaps not. The argument that Marxists here were estranged from history stands to reason elsewhere too. But reducing Philip Gunawardena's legacy to his divergence from this alone would be another simplification. It is not as simplistic as the blanket vilification of Marxism by nationalists, true, but the point is that he didn't just complement nationalism with socialism. To argue that this was all he did would be a poor reading of him.

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka
I think Dr Jayatilleka understood this. Which was why he raised another point. For him, Gunawardena wasn't just a nationalist. He had gone overseas. He had met and befriended Krishna Menon and Jomo Kenyatta in London. He had fought with the Republicans in Spain. He had lived a hard life. All this managed to free him from the insularity of nationalism. Dr Jayatilleka pointed this out by contrasting his "jathikavadaya" (nationalism based on a nation) with "jathivadaya" (nationalism based on race).

One can of course retort to all this: "But why did he compromise with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in his coalition with S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike?" A poor argument the way I see it, because by 1956 two factors stood out in favour of that same coalition.

One was the factional splits the LSSP and the Left movement as a whole were facing. The other was the wholesale populist opposition to the United National Party, which found its pivot in Bandaranaike's movement. He was swept to power on a platform of the pancha maha balavegaya. The farmer ("goviya") figured in there, as did the rural peasantry. Gunawardena represented both.

This is not the time to analyse anything and everything, however. The 43rd Commemoration of Philip Gunawardena turned out to be what its organisers had wanted: a celebration. It wasn't just a celebration of the man. It was a celebration of his legacy. A celebration of how relevant that legacy is today. I think Professor Indraratne summed this up nicely:

"Those who are in power and those who want to come to power will do well to look up to icons like Philip. I do not wish to talk any longer. But I wish to make this much clear. If we continue to take to heart people like him, if we move on to better our Parliament by his example, then we can all improve as a nation. We can all hope for good governance. Rhetoric-less good governance."

Aptly put, I should think.

Photos courtesy of Vinod Kumar Moonesinghe

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Insider

The Insider tells the story of a whistle-blower. Russell Crowe plays Jeffrey Wigand, the former Research and Development Head at Brown and Williamson, a former subsidiary of British Tobacco. He is in everything the helpless protagonist: from beginning to end we are treated to his deteriorating condition, his drunkenness, and his paranoia. Belying all this, of course, is his role in exposing what his company (which fires him) has been hiding all these years: that nicotine is not just harmful and addictive, but that tobacco companies have artificially manipulated its strength in cigarettes.

The media plays a large part in all this: CBS' "60 Minutes", possibly the most watched talk-show program in American television history, becomes interested in him after its producer, Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) consults him over some documents relating to Phillip Morris. He is initially reluctant to come out: his agreement with B&W forbids him to 'talk', and, if he does so, CEO Thomas Sandefur (Michael Gambon) threatens that they will cut him off from the health benefits he desperately needs for his daughter, who is suffering from a severe medical condition.

The film, from beginning to end, presents us with a mismatch: between law and morality. Wigand breaches his agreement with B&W and talks to Mike Wallace (Christopher Plummer), the host of "60 Minutes". This leads to several standoffs, including an envelope with a bullet inside he receives from (we are never told) company agents. His relationship with his wife (Renee Olstead) deteriorates, and, in a moving sequence, she tearfully says that she cannot keep up with him anymore.

This mismatch is active even at CBS: Bergman is advised by legal advisors not to broadcast the uncensored interview. It is never actually told to us, but it is implied that this is because of a possibly lawsuit B&W may file against the company. We are introduced to a legal concept: 'tortuous interference', with which CBS can be sued for helping Wigand to breach his confidentiality agreement. Bergman's conflict with "60 Minutes" producer Mike Hewitt (Philip Baker Hall) dominates the second half of the film.

Meanwhile Wigand, who at this point has gone to Mississippi to testify against B&W, to help gain reimbursement for healthcare costs incurred on nicotine victims. This lawsuit will later amount to more than $240 billion. But for now, the law is against him here as well: his state, Kentucky, immediately files a restraining order against him, preventing him from testifying. He defies it, immediately placing him under the threat of imprisonment. He never does get imprisoned, of course: but that never wavers the fear we feel for him.

In short, The Insider never frills up its story. In reality Wigand won the day: he does so here as well. But the ending of the film is fabricated, and Bergman's departure from the news station has a tinge of pessimism. Pacino, who has played so many hardboiled, embittered roles before, including the one-man-against-all honest police officer in Serpico, flourishes his exit with cynicism. If the finale is fabricated, it is because the film's director, Michael Mann (Collateral, Ali), is refusing to offer us the traditional happy ending. And Wigand is never shown to us as the perfect hero: rather, at times he is presented to us as the reluctant hero, whose actions aren't entirely commendable.

The best of "based on a true story" films, however, follow this trend. Its hero is no cardboard cut-out, and if you watch Wigand's story in this film expecting something to that tune, you will be disappointed. But if you are a discerning film lover who expects no frills, you will genuinely like The Insider.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Beyond 99 Years

Some people are vilified. They are in the majority. Others have their lives commemorated every year. They are rare. It is because of this perhaps that we remember them. No one is perfect, of course, which means that no one can really claim an "icon" status without adjusting for his/her frailties. Occasionally, however, they manage to transcend those frailties and become legends. With politicians and statesmen, it must be added here hence, this is more the rule than the exception. Happily.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike would have turned 99 today. She would have turned 100 next year. She was not the most perfect leader we had. She was not the most imperfect leader we had either. Achievements come with a pinch of salt, and there usually are things every person is remembered for. That pinch of salt, nonetheless, ensures that whatever achievement we commemorate is "amply" compensated by a person's faults. Bandaranaike, like every other leader I suppose, is celebrated with this in mind.

A country's history goes beyond a century or two. Sometimes, however, time doesn't matter: statesmen come, go, and leave their mark within just two or three hundred years. Not so with Sri Lanka. We've had kings, pretenders, rebels (both real and would-be), and turncoats. We've also had statesmen, but going by geopolitical realities they've come only once in a while. Sadly.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike was not a stateswoman. But she was one of us. An "Iron Lady". Commendable, given that politics wasn't her preserve. Unlike the other two female leaders during her time - Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir - she had to take to it afresh. That she was born to an aristocratic Radala family and brushed with politics as time went by is peripheral. The truth is that at the time of the 1960 elections, just 10 months after her husband's assassination, she seemed unchallenged. She almost was. Which is where her journey really began.

It wasn't easy, of course. There were pitfalls. Undeterred by them, she continued her husband's movement. She took over our schools and removed the colonial "mark" that had, even after independence, remained in them. She nationalised key sectors in the country and challenged the privileged minority that had controlled them. Her first real pothole, which was the 1962 coup attempt, was inevitable owing to this.

On the political and ideological front too, there was much to achieve. For the first time, a Marxist coalition entered into an alliance with her party. That this move preceded her first attempt at nationalising Lake House is significant: she needed the Left, in particular those who were being rubbished by a virulently political Press that seemed to oppose her to the last drop. It was this first attempt, however, that led to her defeat, when in 1965 a series of defections from the SLFP ruined her credibility.

Were there other achievements? Yes. But there were lesser things too. Her second term, which began in 1970, was a roller-coaster ride from the start. Barely one year had passed when an insurrection, the biggest for its time here, unfolded. As commentators have pointed out, this act proved that the state could be challenged and that armed uprisings could happen.

The JVP (which had engineered the insurrection) challenged not just the state, however. It challenged the United Front coalition and its "socialist" tag. Taken away by the need to validate themselves, therefore, the government began a spate of reforms. And if there ever was one reform that spoke for the rest, it was the transition from Dominion to Republic that was essential for our country's true "independence", signified by our very first Republican Constitution in 1972.

That transition was short-lived, however. We now know why.

When the second Republican Constitution was drawn up in 1977, few had misgivings about it. Few predicted that it would be worse than the 1972 Constitution. Things turned out differently, and this document eventually began to confer dictatorial powers to whoever was in power.

Not even Bandaranaike was spared. Stripped of her civic rights for nearly a decade, she paled away almost overnight. By the time she returned to the Prime Minister's office courtesy 17 years later, hence, that flame and lustre that had characterised her before was lost. It was never regained. Sadly.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike was probably not the visionary leader her husband was. But she was a visionary on her own right. When the West alienated us during her time, she set up links with other countries (in particular the Non-Aligned bloc) which continue to this day.

Economically we were in dire straits back then, but this had to do more with a section of her coalition that pursued reforms with unlicensed zeal than with her. Those reforms, moreover, have stayed with us. Even today.

Her coalition was an uneasy one from the start, though. As it struggled to regain itself, and as the inevitable cracks appeared, the opposition took on her. With glee. They won in the end, and those sections in the United Front that had alienated her never really regained themselves.

The 1970s are remembered today for this perhaps. It was rough back then in the political arena. The Old Left's fortunes were beginning to decline. Their refusal to hang onto Bandaranaike's coalition proved their undoing, when in later years the New Left (the JVP) built up an effective challenge against them. Abandoned by both major parties, the Old Left couldn't strike on their own. They didn't.

The rest, as they say, is history. A breakaway section of the SLFP allied itself with the Old Left and formed the United Socialist Alliance (USA). Vijaya Kumaratunga became its candidate. When Kumaratunga was killed, Bandaranaike led the opposition. She lost on her own and would have lost even if that breakaway faction, the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP), had allied with her. It didn't. By the time Vijaya's wife returned to the SLFP, hence, her mother had fought her last battle. Which is why, 20 years after the 1994 elections, we mainly remember her earlier political phase. The rest is absented, for reasons that are all too obvious.

But that's another story.

Like I wrote before, she was not a stateswoman. She stuck to self-imposed flaws which proved her undoing in the end. She remains an icon however, and while this will never marginalise those lesser things she will unfortunately be remembered for, her life will be celebrated. As a leader and a human being. That’s enough, I suppose.

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

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Sunil Shantha at 100

A legend was born 100 years ago. He did not pass away 34 years ago. He left behind an imprint which survived and continues to survive death. What that imprint is we can't really measure. Can't really define. It eludes easy capture and yet lives in every Sri Lankan. Rightly.

Not that this is all his legacy congeals into. Still.

His musical legacy has been assessed. His biography has been written. His contribution to film and music has been recorded. That contribution goes under so many names, one notes. It was a search for roots, an attempt to bridge language and melody, and a project to bring to his people a musical idiom which was free of frill and rhetoric. I am not a music critic. This is all I know.

But his melodies and lyrics can't be reduced to this alone, I should think. So what was it, then? What else explains those songs we sing and celebrate even today? What is there in them that can't be analysed or criticised, which goes beyond what has already been written about them?

Is it that they speak to the heart? Maybe, but that's clichéd. The more correct answer would be that they are ageless. However young or old you are, they come back to you. The come back whenever you remember their lyrics and go back to a different era. You sing them all and yet don't lose track of where you are. That's the secret to Sunil Shantha. It's not just that they speak from the heart. It's that they survive time. Like he does.

His life invites continuous assessment which isn't without critique. Those who saw something to write about his limited vocal range will harp on about it. They will judge his worth based on that (limited) criterion. They will continue to see him as a rebel whose crusade against North Indian ragas and classical music succeeded only at the cost of a lifeless musical idiom. I don't know. Like I said, I am no music critic.

It doesn't take a music critic to appreciate Sunil Shantha, however. So on this day, let us remember him and all those melodies he conjured up. Let us remember his life, which paled as the years went by and as he became isolated by his own people. Let us remember those songs that lent colour to all those films he took part in. And let us rejoice.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Beyond just a handover

"Drums and Dance" didn't begin with a whimper. It didn't end with a bang either, but it might as well have. In any case, Chandana Wickramasinghe wanted it to be a handover. That is why he ended the show the way it ended, but I'll get to that later. For now, let me come out with it: it tried to be what it was cut out to be. The show made the effort and the effort didn't show. Commendably. There must have been a lot of hinging and unhinging behind the curtain for all I know, but that wasn't displayed. I liked that.

Bishop's College Auditorium is not Nelum Pokuna. It needn't be. There's a bigger "embrace" between viewer and stage when it comes to the former. Perhaps that's why Chandana and NAADRO (his partner in this enterprise) selected it. I don't know. Another strong point. He could have alienated his audience. He didn't. I liked that too.

"Drums and Dance" had more than 10 items. Two of them were combined, the rest individual. I couldn’t really tell, however. If Chandana and NAADRO had aimed for a fusion, it showed even in those items which didn't explicitly have the two together. I don't know whether that's a strong point or not, but it showed throughout. For better or for worse, it made up the "motif" by which every other point and wart in the show could be judged. And interpreted.

For a concert that was made to build up to a "handover", it needed a balance of old and new. "Drums and Dance" didn't just emphasise that but (I would say) tilted a little bit towards the new. There were items which were tradition-bound, of course: one item in particular, with the Gara Yaka, moved and electrified me. But overall, when it came to music and form, there was a heavy tilt towards the new.

Part of the reason has to do with NAADRO, I think. There was a conjugation of style and tradition in whatever they did. There was an item with cajóns that simply startled me. Effortless, yes. But perfect? Debatable. They had innovated and had trained hard for all these sequences, no doubt. I suspect that's why the audience clapped so loudly. The audience clapped loudly for Chandana's items too, but for a very different reason. Chandana was the compensating factor. When NAADRO moved towards the new, he ensured a balance. His dancers fell before tradition, almost literally.

I did feel that both tried to compensate for this tilt a little bit too much, though. Barring one or two items, every tradition-bound sequence was filled with colour. Unnecessarily? I don't know. All I could guess was that this tried to make up for the overly "novel" items which NAADRO kept dishing out to the audience, one after the other. That didn't compromise on the show, however. Thankfully. There were one or two items which seemed like add-ons and which jarred a little bit. Apart from those, however, it seemed effortless.

Chandana promised me a lack of colour. "Colour" of course is subjective and everyone is entitled to his or her definition of it. To me, however, the show didn't lack colour. Neither did it go overboard with it (thankfully), but colour-lack wasn't something I saw there. The Gara Yaka sequence seemed the biggest example for this, but then again in sequences like that lack of colour wouldn't have added to effect. At all.

NAADRO's items were less about colour and more about sound, naturally, but even there I felt a glitzy style which jarred in an apparently desaturated show. "The Marching Drums" (I believe the audience clapped loudest for this item) had a play of light and shade which no one saw coming. I'm not saying this was a flaw. I'm suggesting that for a show that was supposed to lack colour it seemed a little saturated. To me at least.

So was this perfect? It was certainly effortless. I didn’t feel cheated. Neither did the audience. As for the performers, they looked happy. NAADRO's members in particular enjoyed what they were doing. Perhaps that added more colour to the evening. There may have one or two instances where a drum-stick fell. I couldn't tell. It didn't matter, anyway.

Besides colour-lack, Chandana promised me that "Drums and Dance" would be a handover. I couldn't have seen such a thing coming the way the show went, but it culminated with a combined item by the two organisers. There was a ceremonial get-together of all the participants, dancers, and drummers in the concert. That's when the "handover" happened. A group of old veterans, Ravibandu Vidyapathi included, came up to the stage.

They spoke. They shed tears. They praised what they had seen and blessed the performers. Ravibandu in particular spoke a great deal about NAADRO and how he had been moved by their talent. It was then that they revealed this was a third-generation shift. It wasn't just Ravibandu who was there. Ravibandu's teachers were there too. Mentors, all of them. The show for me was less a casual handover than a handover to a third generation. It was neither a bang nor a whimper, hence. Aptly.

"Drums and Dance" served purpose, in any case. It raised expectation, and while it didn't keep to what was expected all the way, it didn't detour from what it promised either. There was fusion alright, of form and content. Old and new met, although the show didn't balance the two as evenly as I thought it would. But it didn't go overboard. Yes, there were one or two sequences that did seem to. Yes, they were add-ons that jarred. They pale into insignificance, however, when considering how much effort both Chandana Wickramasinghe and NAADRO put in without showing that they did. That's something.

Photos courtesy of Yasas Wijerathna

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, April 12 2015

Monday, April 6, 2015

Saliya Pieris tells it all

People have stories. Landmarks too. Both are told and recorded. All too often, nevertheless, those landmarks get the spotlight while the other lesser stories are shrugged off. What gets missed are the untraveled roads, which are abandoned by a person in pursuit of his or her destiny. Those roads figure in a person's career, and at the end of the day when a summing up is in order, they will be brought up. Always. Saliya Pieris probably knows this.

He is a lawyer by profession, but that hardly does justice to his CV. He is an something of an expert on Fundamental Rights, though it would not be wrong to say that his expertise goes far beyond that area. He also is a political commentator and part of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL). There is much he knows and very little he doesn't, especially in what he has chosen to specialise in. He himself would be the first person to admit all these points, no doubt.

Saliya Pieris was born to a "political family". His mother's family had tilted to the Left, and one of her relatives had been the inimitable Cholomondeley Goonewardena (MP for Kalutara). His father on the other hand had worked under Esmond Wickremesinghe at Lake House, a repository of right-wing politics at the time. "We always had lively debates at home. Doesn't mean we stuck to one position, but each of us defended whatever we stood for the way we could."

He speaks about his father, Harold Pieris, at this point. "He was principled enough to criticise his political stances when it was right to do so. Although he was the Editor of the Sunday Observer, he criticised the removal of Sirimavo Bandaranaike's civic rights. He also opposed the 1982 referendum, which extended the parliament without a General Election. Both he and my mother believed that it was morally wrong."

Pieris was educated at St Joseph's College in Maradana. Father Stanley Abeysekera had been the rector then, a point he highlights for me. "My school didn't really shape me in a political sense. But Father Stanley influenced my thinking. He was quite informed about current affairs and would  engage us with his views frequently. That kept us in track with the world outside."

He apparently was an avid quizzer at school, having won second place in the Dulux "Do You Know Quiz" in 1984. He also was Head Prefect, which brought him into contact with another Josephian, Ranasinghe Premadasa. "I spoke on an occasion at school where he was the Chief Guest. He sent a message saying that he wanted to see me. I forgot about it, but a year later when my father met him, he inquired why I didn't reply. He asked me to meet him in parliament."

Meeting Premadasa had been a turning point, because by then Pieris had become interested in the law. Probably moved by how he had spoken that day, Premadasa told him to read Hansard parliamentary debates before 1956, though he didn't explain why. Things moved fast thereafter. Pieris completed his A/Levels in 1987, having opted for science. "I didn't want law as a career initially," he admits, "In fact I wanted to pursue biology. Since my results weren't good enough, however, I had no option." He entered Law College that same year, completing the course in 1992.

St Joseph's College, Colombo 10
Having joined the Attorney General's department one year later, he eventually became a State Counsel. He also managed to complete the LL.B. at Open University in 1998, with a Masters degree from the University of London seven years later. In the meantime, he worked as a Counsel for four years, specialising in Criminal Law, and later opening up his practice in Colombo. "Though my initial training was in Criminal Law, I eventually began handling Fundamental Rights cases."

Everyone's a red at 20, or so they say. I ask Pieris whether he echoed this in his time. He agrees, but not completely. "We saw a rift in the Left in our time. The New Left or the JVP took to violence to achieve their ends. The Old Left was in dire straits. We realised that both had their self-imposed limitations and were disenchanted. They didn't shape us. Progressivism did."

At Law College, he was a member of the "Pragath Pila", a student body which stood for progressive values. "We were a mishmash of Left and Right. We teetered to neither extreme but stuck to middle ground." He and his friends adulated liberal values, and Pieris admits how overwhelmed he was by them. Through that, they eventually got about pushing reforms in line with those values. Among their key concerns was language. He explains why.

"Union meetings were almost always conducted in English. We proposed that they should be held in Sinhala or Tamil. Not that we wanted to marginalise English, but we were concerned about students who weren't comfortable with it." In hindsight, Pieris admits that things have changed since then. "Maybe we shouldn't have shrugged off English. We could have engaged our students with it. Still, given how multicultural Law College was, we felt that prioritising the vernacular was best."

People change. Not so Pieris. He stuck by ideals at a difficult time. He was Counsel for Sarath Fonseka and Shirani Bandaranayake. When the 18th Amendment was being tabled, he did not mince words when criticising it. Claiming that he has never aligned himself with any ideology, he tells me that his notions of justice, equality, and fair play reflected the political status quo of his time. "In a way, I think my career has been dependent (though not completely) on my beliefs, which do change from time to time."

I ask him what belief he values the most. "For me, the judiciary is above everything else. Courts don't make laws. The parliament does. Courts don't administer the country. The Executive does. But what we saw in the past was a judiciary that let both parliament and Executive interfere. In such a case, we can't safeguard our independence."

He adds that this even affects Fundamental Rights cases. "The Attorney General's Department looks into FR cases, except those involving torture. Both torture victims and alleged torturers seek private counsel, which is where we come in." When courts are free and independent, they take up FR cases involving state authorities (including the police) without any fear. When they are not, we see a slump.

Harold Pieris
"From about 1990 to 1999, FR cases peaked. This was especially because G. P. S. de Silva, who was the Chief Justice at that point, ensured that the Courts remained independent. Even though the Premadasa regime was a period of terror, I would say that the judiciary was excellently protected during that time. So when judges like Mark Fernando and Ranjith Dheeraratne retired, FR cases slumped. The Courts' attitude to them changed, for the worse."

I agree. At a time when judges weren't politically appointed and they didn't get involved with the government, there wouldn't have been any conflict of interest. While I don't agree that this absolves a dictatorship (like the one we had from 1988 to 1993), legitimising the judiciary is one way through which a regime can be overthrown. When courts lose that legitimacy, revolution and regime-change are inevitable.

In a way, he argues that this is reflected through a country's Constitution. "Looking back, I feel that the 1978 Constitution failed to stick to the spirit of the law. That was its biggest weakness. But compared with today, the Executive respected the judiciary more readily then. Still, there was a setback when it came to sticking to laws. Which means that enacting them isn't enough."

I put it to him that we saw a transition from nationalism to chauvinism between 1956 and 1977, and that the laws enacted during this time reflected it. He says that while the 1956 revolution was necessary, subsequent political shifts began to acknowledge a more multicultural society. "The 1972 Constitution marginalised minorities, while its successor, through the 13th Amendment especially, tried to remedy this."

I ask him why he thinks 1956 was needed. "It was inevitable. Even the Schools Takeover Act, which the government enacted to control certain private schools, couldn’t be avoided. The reason is that we had Catholic schools outside Colombo where Catholics were in the minority. It clearly showed that the Church couldn't handle everything, which is where the government stepped in. So in a way, what happened in 1956 was needed. Same thing with 1972."

Pieris emphasises that governments, like schools, are never entirely free from religious bent. I point out that this would hardly go down with those who want to separate religion from state. He argues that the two are separated only to keep one from unduly intruding into another. I ask him whether this means keeping the clergy out of the government. "Not at all. Only if the clergy itself restricts its members can we keep them out. So long as they don't, there's no problem in allowing, say, monks to enter parliament. It's their democratic right. The law must not stand in their way. It can't reform that."

Reform is of course a word that's spouted frequently these days. Pieris' stance on religion and nationality provokes me, however. I tell him that if we are to subscribe to a multicultural society, we might as well do away with Article Nine of the Constitution, which emphasises the state's obligation to Buddhism.

He disagrees, to my surprise. "Removing Article Nine would be impractical. We must base ideals on realities. You can argue that we have a multicultural society. On the other hand demographics must be taken into account too. Besides, there's no real harm in keeping that provision, because the law recognises equality for all religions. So I don't think we need to worry about this when it comes to reform."

Suddenly switching over to another topic, I ask him whether the Marxists have any force left today. "Not really," he answers frankly. He does agree that Marxism and in particular Trotskyism held sway over Sri Lanka. "The problem was that they compromised. During Dudley Senanayake's time, for instance, they used the slogan 'Dudleyge bade masala vadey' to oppose his pact with S. J. V. Chelvanayakam. This alienated Tamil leftists. As the years went by, Trotskyites began to skew their beliefs for the sake of power. When that happened, people lost faith in them.

"I am opposed to Marxism ideologically," he adds, "The state can't control the individual. He is best left alone. That is why, in very many Western countries which practise free enterprise, dissent is tolerated." He argues furthermore that we have been virtually blanketed by anti-Western propaganda, with key articulators of chauvinism holding sway over the last decade or so.

"We mustn't shield ourselves from that part of the world. Certain commentators seem to earn a living out of speaking against the West. They think that vilifying it is necessary to become a nationalist. To me, that's bankrupt. We must admit that dissent is tolerated over there. Only then can we hope to bridge our democracy deficit."

I tell him nevertheless that while people like Noam Chomsky and George Carlin may appear as dissidents, the likes of Professor Nalin de Silva argue that they are "planted" to convince the rest of the world that there is dissent. I point out that this is a reasonable presumption. He disagrees. "I have been there frequently. I was in Chicago, I have passed the White House, and I have seen how well protesters are treated there. It would be foolish to claim that all that's a façade. It's not."

Time doesn't permit me to go any further, however. In any case, I am done. Looking at Saliya Pieris' career, I am reminded of Martin Lee, that brilliant lawyer who spearheaded Hong Kong's democratic movement against China in the 1990's. I see the same monkish calm, which breaks down into humour once in a while. He still has a long way to go.

Note: By the time this article was published, Pieris had become the Deputy President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka. An added credit no doubt. With a whole lot more to come, one suspects. Rightly.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Celebrating Lester

He was born 96 years ago. He turns 96 today. There probably are a good many words one can use in describing him. Probably only one or two of them can describe him well. In any case, the worth of the man goes beyond words. Icons are like that. Words, sentences, even essays or books, can't do justice. There is an extra something which eludes easy capture, which can't be framed in an essay, much less an article. Still, if there's probably one characteristic which sets him apart from the rest, it has to be this: humility. That is probably the rarest quality a human being can have. He has it. In plenty.

He is known for his films, of course. He is known for other things too, but they are marginal. 20 films over five decades isn't much, but given the quality of his stories and fidelity to life they show, it's hard to think of a greater director here. Period. The truth is that Lester James Peries is a giant, and like all giants, he takes accolade with a pinch of salt. Laurels are unneeded in his case, hence. Praise too. He is a figurehead, someone we can all point at and be proud of. As Sri Lankans. And human beings. No mean feat, that.

I first got to know him through his works, obviously. Rarely has a director given so much to his country. Lester has. Between Rekava and Ammawarune, there is a subtle, almost hard to notice gap. But this gap is bridgeable. Inasmuch as his films are all different from one another, there is something that brings them together. It's certainly beyond my task to examine what it is. I can only try.

Tissa Abeysekara once wrote something about cultural icons. He claimed that some of them had to search for roots to validate their creativity, including Lester. But while this conflict between expression and the need for roots persisted in these artists, they never really made it a source of their creativity. Which is true, in a way. Perhaps we can apply it to Lester.

He did not really live through what he filmed. His childhood was insulated from his country. As the years went by, however, and like countless artists who clamoured after their beginnings, he persisted in making his works as authentic as it was possible. He succeeded.

The gap between author and creation is present no matter what the art-form is. Even in films, there is a world between the film and the director. True to form (and his humility), Lester acknowledged this when he stated that the filmmaker is comparable to an orchestra conductor. To him, cooperation is more important than the need to assert himself. Perhaps this distances him from every other "giant" in world cinema, Satyajit Ray included.

Golu Hadawatha
Is that what makes his films so unique? Yes, but not always. So what is it then? Why can't we come up with a love story half as delicate (and authentic) as Golu Hadawatha? A story that relied so much on a thin plot as did Delovak Athara? Or a story that was as macabre and yet "classical" (in terms of mood and plot) as Nidhanaya?

Perhaps he was trying to reflect himself in them all. Or perhaps he was trying to make a point, that (as he once put it) "one does not make films in Sinhala or Tamil, but in the language of cinema". I don't know. All I know is that he succeeded in this. His films were limited in some respects of course. But in his attempt to reach out, to reconcile himself to the people he so delicately portrayed, he was closer to home than anyone else.

Humility. Yes, I almost forgot. He has it. Humility, after all, can make a man laugh at himself. He does that. That may be what best defines the man, and brings him closer to home. Which is not to say that he underestimates himself. But he maintains a rare sort of equanimity that cannot be defined. Ever.

From Rekava to Ammawarune, he had his highs and lows. By his own admission, he was a "prestige failure", at a time when our cinema was trying to unshackle itself of any commercial, over-the-top tendencies. As a (silent) tribute to the cinema he was trying to escape perhaps, he nonetheless included certain unnecessary, frilled sequences in his films. They irritate the viewer, admittedly. But there's a reason why they are there in the first place.

Take the sequence of Sugath meeting Dammi's mother and sister in Golu Hadawatha. For the first time in the film, we feel an unnecessary weight, especially when Dammi's younger sister meets Sugath. There is comedy here, unneeded and frilled, which takes away an otherwise emotionally charged sequence. All his films have scenes like this. They take away and never add. But in the end, if we are to judge the director's worth, they must be watched and absorbed. Why?

Because they all ring true. Yes, they are melodramatic. Overweight too. But they are needed, and precisely because they speak volumes about the people being depicted. None of Lester's characters really break into hysterics or express their sorrows publicly. A wink here, a slight smile there, can express what a scream or plaintive cry never will. Through this, just like Satyajit Ray, he maintained a tremendous grace under pressure which differentiated his films to the last. The world venerates him. For this reason. But that's not so important right now.

What's important is that he's still with us. As the only living artist from "1956", whose works bridged the gap between an anglicised past and a country in search of roots, he is alive. He always will be, I suspect. So much so that every time we watch a film of his, live through the experience stamped on it, and realise that notwithstanding his self-imposed ideological parameters (he has never experimented in political cinema, thankfully) he has gone beyond anyone else in filming our sorrows and joys, we will remember that. And be grateful.