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