Sunday, June 7, 2015

From the far side of the lens

Donald Karunaratne is no Raoul Coutard. He needn't be. He hasn't shot a great many films, but genius they say comes from quality and not quantity. He has taken part in several landmarks in our cinema, and has added to them that inexpressible quality of "timelessness" which sets them apart. He is also a firm individualist.

Thinking back, he tells me he has much to talk about and very little time to explain them all. I caught him at a busy time one Wednesday afternoon. He tried to explain them all. Time flew. We didn't notice.

Like most of his contemporaries, Karunaratne hasn't compromised. As I've pointed out before, Sri Lanka hasn't exactly had its share of director-cameraman relationships like other countries, particularly in continental Europe. It takes an Ingmar Bergman to couple up with a Sven Nykvist, after all.

Not that we haven't had such relationships at all. A case in point is of course Lester James Peries and Willie Blake. The key to such longstanding professional friendships however has been a willingness to let off one's ego to devote oneself to the other's vision. This explains, in part at least, why Subrata Mitra left Satyajit Ray, and why Ray did his own camerawork and music after Teen Kanya and Charulata.

Karunaratne hasn't "let off". He tells me that he has always accommodated himself to every director he has worked with. Accommodation however does not indicate a coming together. In his perceived preference for the former over a wholesale "giving up" of personal vision, he has ensured that with every director he has worked with, he has gone through and learnt about his or her vision.

And in this I believe he is right. A confluence of director and cameraman does not always mean that both are needed everytime or everywhere. Orson Welles, for instance, was brilliancy personified as director of both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. As Satyajit Ray notes in Our Films, Their Films, however, there is little to distinguish between the two when it comes to camerawork, even though different cinematographers (Gregg Toland in Kane and Stanley Cortez in Ambersons) worked in them.

It is very usually a strength on the part of a cinematographer that s/he can adapt. One can note a particular difference between two periods of a director's career by reference to his or her choice of cameraman. This is what distinguishes the early period of Lester James Peries, rooted as it was in the camerawork of Willie Blake, and the middle period, which used Donald Karunaratne. As Karunaratne relates to me his experiences in Kaliyugaya and Yuganthaya, not surprisingly, I can feel the difference in key and tone between those two masterpieces and Gamperaliya. And not without reason.

In Gamperaliya, under Willie Blake's able camerawork, the film, though shot in black and white, achieves a poetic, almost indefinable grace. The sequences of Piyal walking down the beach and observing the setting sun with frustration, of Nanda being consoled by Anula while the former sees her husband Jinadasa leave their ancestral home, and of the unresolved finale of Piyal flaring up with jealousy: in all these, the camera moves very rarely, but minimal dialogue and subtlety of expression lend to them that same poetic, indefinable grace I mentioned above.

In Kaliyugaya and Yuganthaya, the serenity which marked out their predecessor is left out. Karunaratne in both films rarely if at all moves the camera. He has shot each according to a set theme. In Kaliyugaya, the family has begun to disintegrate under a monetised, divisive society; in Yuganthaya, a radical uprising to challenge it begins. Moving away from Willie Blake's reflective, vignette-like cinematography, Karunaratne shows in these two masterpieces, through the use of close-ups, freeze-frames, and flashbacks, a different kind of poetry, free of frill and more raw and intimidating than before.

The rift between letting go of one's vision and accommodating the director's ideological parameters has never been easy to cross, particularly for a cameraman. Notwithstanding Satyajit Ray's belief that the director is ultimate, and notwithstanding the auteur theory with its emphasis on the director as creator, the cameraman is indispensable to any film. Karunaratne has proved time and time again that he can change with different directors and yet refuse to give up allegiance to firm principles.

For one thing, as he tells me, he is not a fan of intercutting. He relates to me the first time he saw Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, which set the standard by which every avant-garde director since then, from Andy Warhol to Christopher Nolan, has measured his or her film. He admits he admired it. He still does. But when I prod him about the work he has done with directors known for their preferences for quick, showy editing, he respectfully admits his divergence from them.

He also dislikes Expressionism. I spoke with him about several films made here which were acclaimed but were in other ways marred by theatrical sequences. He readily admits their shortcomings. Karunaratne's high regard for the cinema in this sense makes one feel that he believes in an unbridgeable gap between film and theatre.

Shooting Kaliyugaya
I've written before and I still think that he is no Coutard. He needn't be because this isn't France and Sri Lanka hasn't had its share of director-cameraman collaborations the way continental Europe has. Karunaratne was of course a longstanding collaborator with nearly every filmmaker he came into contact with. It is a sign of his professional competence, after all, that can make a film like Bambaru Avith stand apart from Ganga Addara, not just in depth but in terms of camerawork as well.

Here he talks about Dharmasena Pathiraja, arguably the filmmaker under whom Karunaratne really "bloomed". "When we were filming Ahas Gawwa, we were newcomers to the field. We knew each other as friends: Wimal Kumar da Costa was one of my classmates at Gurukula, while both Amarasiri Kalansuriya and Daya Tennakoon knew Pathiraja at Dharmaraja. There was a sense of camaraderie in whatever we did. Inevitably, the film was rooted in that camaraderie, and all our efforts were hence born out of sheer personal commitment."

"Sheer personal commitment". I did not ask him whether this differentiated Ahas Gawwa from Pathiraja's later films. Karunaratne after all didn't shoot all his films. He did not shoot Para Dige, for instance. But in what he filmed and shot, particularly Bambaru Avith, arguably Pathiraja's breakthrough, I feel that same "personal commitment" factored in, particularly given that the director almost always chose the same cast to feature in his films.

There is something which divides Ahas Gawwa from Bambaru Avith, however, and as Karunaratne himself admits he had to listen to Pathiraja's explication of the ideology of both films. "He was a firm realist and philosopher," he recalls further, "Listening to him was fruitful wherever we were." He says that while Ahas Gawwa was born largely out of a sense of togetherness and personal camaraderie, Bambaru Avith was more serious, on another plane altogether.

This is true. Like Rekava and Gamperaliya before it, Ahas Gawwa and Bambaru Avith redefined the film-going audience in this country. While both Rekava and Ahas Gawwa were marred by what Regi Siriwardena referred to as the "inevitable technical roughnesses of a first film", Gamperaliya and Bambaru Avith refined the vision of the original film and improved on it. Much of that refinement came through in the camerawork of both films.

Karunaratne's photography in the latter film stands out not just because of how "novel" and "expository" they are, but how with the sun-baked landscapes of Kalpitiya, he captures a mood perfectly resonant with the period in which they were shot. It is the same, I should add, as when Willie Blake's use of poetic imagery in Rekava, which at times superseded the substance of the film itself, was improved on to keep a near-perfect balance between form and content in Gamperaliya. Karunaratne then well and truly found himself in the second wave of our cinema.

Time doesn't permit me to get into anything and everything. I have tried to locate Donald Karunaratne at the forefront of our cinema. He has achieved a near-perfect balance between letting go of ego in the face of the director's vision while, quietly and reflectively, maintaining his views on the cinema and camerawork. He has read about films and about filmmakers. He professes admiration for many of his contemporaries, particularly M. S. Anandan ("I admired his work on Nidhanaya very much").

There is something more to Karunaratne than this, however. I have mentioned that in Sri Lanka we have not had firm director-cameraman collaborations. But nor for that matter have the roles of director, cameraman, and scriptwriter been shared by one. Vasantha Obeysekere, with whom Karunaratne has worked frequently, has directed and scripted all his films, which makes them truly personal. But that is an exception. In this country's cinema, the director hasn't always ruled supreme the way they do in continental Europe. The actors have, but that's another story.

The point is this: Karunaratne, in his agility in maintaining both his and the director's vision, has kept aloof from that director-cameraman conflict seen even in cases where the two have teamed up in film after film. I remember mentioning this in my essay on the late Andrew Jayamanne, especially these words:

"Collaboration presupposes a relationship, a common link between two minds. When the link becomes stronger, individuality creeps in, and both collaborators develop a style of their own. Few filmmakers have become auteurs in Sri Lanka, and fewer cameramen."

Karunaratne isn't an auteur. He shouldn't be. None of his films really contains anything personal (to him, that is). They are differentiated from the other based on the whims of the director, and in my view that remains his greatest strength. "To know the film, you must know the man who authors it" seems to be his credo. This doesn't duplicate unconditional obeisance to the director, however. It merely indicates that in a world where cameramen and director have got together and then later engaged in conflict, he likes to step aside. He develops from the far side of the lens.

We should be grateful, I think. Not because that has made every film he shot diverge from the other and hence vary our palate and enjoyment of them. No. We should be grateful because he has taught us a lesson: that maintaining your independence can and will go along with respect for another's vision. That's a lot, at any rate.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, May 7 2015