Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sumitra Peries defies male bastion

There aren't many directors who can compare with Sumitra Peries. She has not directed a great many films. She doesn’t have a huge resume to her name. But in her work, and especially in the best of her work, there is something which has eluded most directors here. It is this and not merely what critics usually attribute to her which has helped her overcome the limitations of a patriarchal society, especially in an industry where men are said to make the moves and women hardly move in at all. That certainly is achievement.

Peries has made barely 10 films. Hardly a notable filmography. Every director has his or her defining mark and for Sumitra Peries this has been the conflict between the landed gentry and the lower class. It is this more than anything else which defines the drama in most of her films. All too often, she has a tendency to infuse melodrama into this central conflict: in Gehenu Lamai and, more significantly, Yahalu Yeheli. The only notable exception to this is to be seen in Sagara Jalaya, where the conflict is more inward, more insular: situated in a village milieu, the clash there is between members of the village peasantry.

I will come to Sagara Jalaya later. For now, it is important to note that in addition to the central conflict (based on class differentials) which makes up most of the drama of her films, Peries infuses or rather supplements this with a conflict of another sort: one rooted in gender differentials. Arguably, this is what differentiates her films from those of any other director in Sri Lanka (and, with a few exceptions, in South Asia).

It is the combination of these two factors which accounts for the level of quality (or the unevenness of it) in her work. In Gehenu Lamayi, for instance, the central drama of the conflict – between the landed gentry represented by Ajith Jinadasa and the peasantry represented by Vasanthi Chathurani – is rarely if at all subsumed by the tension generated by the romance between the two. In Ganga Addara, on the other hand, the central conflict, which is represented by the class-gap between Chathurani and Sanath Gunathilake, is effectively made an instrument of melodrama. The evenness of the former and the unevenness of the latter film can be judged on this basis.

Ganga Addara was a commercial success. So was Gehenu Lamayi. So were all her other films. What accounts for this? The Sinhala cinema after all has never maintained a positive relationship between critical and commercial appeal. In Peries’ case one may argue that her choice of subject-matter has kept this relationship. Some of her films have been based on popular Sinhala literature, after all: both Gehenu Lamayi and Yahalu Yeheli were adaptations of novels written by Karunasena Jayalath.
There is another reason, however. This is probably Peries’ ability to infuse or rather amalgamate popular elements of the Sinhala cinema with serious plot-lines. This in turn is based on how well the two conflicts she bases her stories on – class differentials and the tension of romance – are balanced throughout the film. Ganga Addara, which was her most popular film, tilts this balance in favour of a tragic love story. Sagara Jalaya, which wasn’t a hit at the box-office, does away with any romance or melodrama whatsoever to present what I would say her most austere, pure story.

The film deserves more than a footnote. Until Sagara Jalaya, Peries limited the conflicts of her plot-lines to the families engaged in it. In other words, the conflict always presents problems for one individual, and it is in the deeply rooted poignancy of his or her suffering that we are moved to empathy. In Sagara Jalaya, on the other hand, the drama of the story is not limited to “Heen Kelle” (Swarna Mallawarachchi), but rather to her child, whose father, the envy of the village (played by H. A. Perera), dies early on in the story.

The central conflict in the story, unlike her other work, is rooted in how the child sees it. More significantly, the tension generated in the plot – between the stubborn resolve of Heen Kelle and the animosity of her family (with the exception her brother-in-law, played by Ravindra Randeniya in a way that makes us doubt his motives) – is intensified by how it spills over to the boy. His friendship with Randeniya’s daughter sours when Heen Kelle lashes at her: when he bemoans his loneliness, his mother affirms her resolve, almost irrationally. We feel sympathy for her, but not to the extent where we empathise with her every step of the way.

Peries’ greatest strength always was her way of depicting women in conflict. In Heen Kelle she creates the archetypal woman towards which every heroine in Sinhala cinema soars. This is not an exaggeration. This is an arguable fact. This is also owing in no small part to how Swarna Mallawarachchi plays her: resolved, but still irrationally averse to outside help. She spots out and calls a spade a spade, and whether imagined or not she accuses everyone of harbouring animosities against her.

This merely worsens her situation, predictably, and at the end, the boy, grown up and matured in a way that makes it easier for him to empathise with her, writes a letter to his uncle in town, asking for a job. That is all he can do, and it is when we realise this that the story’s harsh, gritty poignancy strikes at us. The absence of a proper musical score adds to this: like in Dadayama, here too, spare music adds to the harshness of the drama in the story. It is pertinent here to note that Swarna Mallawarachchi played the “heroine” and Premasiri Khemadasa composed the music in both films.

Directors change. Sumitra Peries has and hasn’t. Her later films display a willingness to explore other themes, but not at the cost of foregoing her main preoccupation: the plight of women in a patriarchal society. In Maya and Yahaluwo, separated by decades and themes, she explores a society that can almost be seen to be at odds with the themes she usually delves into.

In the latter film she thematises the impact of the civil war on interracial marriage and how children are affected by notions of race and racism. One can argue that her story is simplistic but then again it was meant to be, given the scope and canvas of the film. In the former film, she weaves her usual concern for maternity and feminity in a supernatural plot. The result is an unevenly paced film which teeters between melodrama and implausibility, fast-paced in one sequence and slowed down in the very next.

Sakman Maluwa is a different kettle of fish. In that film, praised by critics and audiences alike, Peries explores the theme of forbidden love. I remember mentioning to an eminent critic that the story in that film was allegorical, in that it contained certain elements – a woman, a man, a snake, and a garden – which lend to the story an almost mystical, unsettling atmosphere. This critic argued that such allegories were too explicitly revealed and exposed to remain as allegories, and in fact the entire purpose of the story was lost by the way these elements were revealed.

Correct, but this does not de-validate the film itself. True, the way the themes are laid out makes it impossible to identity it as an allegory, but on the level of serious cinema it works. It works not just because of the casting choices (with Kanchana Mendis giving one of her best performances onscreen), but also in how the theme of the story – that of tabooed love – is played out.

And in her upcoming film Vaishnavee, Peries promises us the next level to which she has taken her career: that of magic realism (as she puts it). It represents a turning point of sorts because while Maya delved into the supernatural it did so with a hint of mysticism. In Vaishnavee there is no mysticism. Only the fantastic and the magical. I shouldn’t reveal spoilers and probably shouldn’t reveal the plot at all, but the story involves a sculptor who, via a Pygmalionesque plot-device, wishes the sculpture of a woman he has made to come alive (which predictably is what happens).

Sumitra Peries’ greatest strength has been in the way she balances the two conflicts which feature in her stories - based on class and the tension of romance (in turn based on gender differentials). Perhaps it is on this count that the success of Vaishnavee can and will be judged. For now, however, we reserve judgment. And for now, this will do.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, June 20 2015