Sunday, November 22, 2015

'Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka': Descent Into Ideology

Prasanna Vithanage's latest film Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka was originally slated for release back in 2012. The government imposed a ban, while the government that followed it removed the ban. Same story as before: been there, seen that.

Vithanage however has discounted the likelihood of miracles from the new government, and in an interview with Wasantha Rupasinghe has called for the elimination of the Public Performance Board (PPB). He uses his film as leverage for his argument. In this I agree with him.

On the other hand I wonder what the government saw fit to ban in the film. In the interview Prasanna points out that censors were uncomfortable with his main character, Sarath, owning a pistol in his house despite being an ex-Army combatant. He laments that authorities felt it should be cut off. "Stupid!" is the word one can use when describing the censors in this respect.

Still, I wonder whether the film warranted such a backlash from "The Establishment". Aesthetic merit is rarely if at all considered when it decides what a work of art should contain, but I persist: if the government considered banning Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka, their assessment of the effects they thought it could spawn after its release was, to put it mildly, irrational.

The truth then is that Vithanage's latest work demands hard questions, particularly in the relationship between form and content, between technical interest and experience that it plays around with. These aren't accounted for by government censors, which means (and I say this honestly) that any aesthetic merit the film has should be separated from questions delving into whether it should have been banned at all. Not being a film critic myself, I wouldn't know how to assess this properly. I can try though.

Prasanna Vithanage is not "old school". He is credited by many (rightly) of fathering the independent film movement here. He occupies a twilight world, not surprisingly: between the austerity of his predecessors and the ideology-orientation of his successors. This is true for his work up-to now as well: they contain an ideology, but unlike many who followed him he has been careful not to let it transcend his films. Both Purahanda Kaluwara and Ira Madiyama, made at the height of the civil war and controversial for their time, illustrated this. Amply.

From the word go, it would seem that Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka follows this trend. The plot's based on a Dostoyevsky short story. This isn't the first time he's translated a Russian writer to a Sri Lankan setting, of course. But in Anantha Rathriya there was no political ideology, and what little there was never became larger-than-life or got to become a character on its own. I'll come to Anantha Rathriya later, but for the time being let me dwell on what caught my eye in this film.

First, the camerawork and editing. M. D. Mahindapala and A. Sreekar Prasad complement each other well. The combination works particularly in sequences where Vithanage pits reality against fantasy. On the morning after Sarath and his newly wed consummate their marriage, for instance, the husband caresses the wife by the window that's overlooking the Bogawanthalawa hills. Right at that moment, a popular song (Hindi? Tamil? Sinhala?) is heard in the background, and we are presented with what only the cinema could have conceived for us: the collision of popular fantasy with grim realism, the latter represented only too well by Sarath's "house" and his miserliness.

Second, the performances. Shyam Fernando and Anjali Patil give the best they can, and considering they aren't exactly newcomers things would have been disconcerting if otherwise. Patil plays out her a woman who's never too sure of motive, whose past is never known (not even, we suspect as the plot moves along, to her). She doesn't mince her words and lashes out at Sarath. The twists and turns of character she undergoes cannot be described, hence. They must be watched.

Lakshman Joseph de Saram's contribution is remarkable too. What music there is in the film is sparse and spare, and for good reason. It's used on two counts: to accentuate Sarath's feeling of unrequited love (in the end), and to highlight the outside world (with snatches of popular songs heard whenever Sarath and Selvi leave their house). I'm not musically inclined, but his score kept well in line with Vithanage's austere, no-frills vision.

So much for the pluses. Of the minuses I'll write shortly, but before doing so I'd like to point out that Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka thematises the war. That's it. We are never told why Sarath falls in love (if he ever does that is) with Selvi, nor are we given a satisfactory explanation as to why he treats her coldly until the last third of the film. What the film gets across to us within the first half-hour is that Selvi is impassive, proud, in keeping with her high caste upbringing. A commentator pointed out that this could be inaccurate: she's a Tamil Christian, a community that doesn't privilege caste. For the moment though, let's forget about that.

It might seem unfair on the face of it, but comparisons to both Anantha Rathriya and Purahanda Kaluwara are warranted here. In Anantha Rathriya, Suvisal (Ravindra Randeniya) is portrayed as a philanderer who impregnates a domestic servant. Sucharitha Gamlath found this to be typical of the landed aristocracy that the character emerges from, but contended against his (the character's) later displays of remorse. Being a Marxist critic, he would have missed out that the film had less to do with social relations than with guilt and redemption.

I point this out because Marxist critics have been raving about Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka ever since it was released here. When Anantha Rathriya was screened their main preoccupation with it was class relations. With Vithanage's latest film it seems they've shifted their focus to ethnic relations. They thus praise the director with every possible epithet.

No attempt however has been made about the relationship between form and content, and content and ideology, in the film. For these critics the man is the antagonist, the woman the silent sufferer. That's it. Nothing else. Such a reading of any film is even cruder than Gamlath's take on Anantha Rathriya. And for a very good reason.

In that film, Suvisal doesn't exist in a void. There's a social context he's placed in (the setting is hinted to be around the time of the bheeshanaya) as is all its attendant politics. Suvisal's predicament is not torn off from that context, but neither does that obtrude and take on a larger-than-life character. That is how the humanist in Vithanage triumphs, a point driven home even more in Purahanda Kaluwara.

In Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka that relationship between ideology and content is not sustained. This isn't me saying it, by the way. Nearly every critic who's reviewed the film seems to have come out of the cinema hall with one basic comment: "brilliant take on the civil war." That amounts to crass simplification on two counts: by the standard which that reading sets for itself, and by the standard of aesthetic merit.

First, the standard it sets for itself. According to this, the minority (represented by Selvi) is the oppressed while the majority (Sarath) the oppressor. That's a black and white classification I agree, but even accounting for variations around it the film falls short on its own ambition. The woman's rants after Sarath's friend Gamini lets her know that he was in the Army are at first reasonable, especially when she reveals her own past to him. After a point though, her behaviour oscillates between submission and hatred.

Yes, there'll be those who'll say that the hatred is compounded by Sarath's association with the Army, but even accounting for this, the director and scriptwriter never really roots her hysteria. She lashes at Sarath one night, true, and she recounts her reasons for hating him (and his race). Her behaviour after that however is less certain, and indeed it seems as though she herself has forgotten that hatred. Going by this, the good/bad split (however nuanced it may be) between wife and husband loses in substance what it tries to gain through hysterics and irrationality.

And here's where another fault in the film crops in. There was politics in Anantha Rathriya and more so in Purahanda Kaluwara and Ira Madiyama. But politics, whether of race or class, never obtruded on the story. I am not of course suggesting that it shouldn't enter the film's canvas at all, but when it appears to be forced you can't blame audience members who claim (in their own way) that form has outmoded content, that ideology has castrated a living, human experience.

When the war (representing ideology) intrudes into the story here, it does so literally: through the agency of Gamini. What happens next? It tries to take over the narrative, to a point where it's concentrated purely and only between Sarath and Selvi.

The predictable unfolds: the hatred one feels for the other perpetuates itself, until all we're left with are two characters quivering in a void, while the world outside (including Gamini, one may add) has moved on. The message that Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka brings out is different to what you'd expect from a film about the war: Selvi has nothing of any substance in her ranting, and Sarath's last-minute fawning on her seems an odd quirk.

I could go on. But it's time for the ultimatum.

Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka will raise hairs among chauvinists and racists. It will provoke them into debate and discussion, and they'll try to ethnicise the film in a way which will lead them to accuse Prasanna Vithanage of portraying the Army unfairly. They are however in the wrong. In Purahanda Kaluwara and Ira Madiyama Vithanage balanced ideology and content, which won both peace-lovers and warmongers over. Nothing of the sort here. That plays into the chauvinists. One way or the other.

I can only quote Regi Siriwardena in relation to Vithanage's film, hence: "the technical interest seems to me to have outpaced the experience." It happens, of course. Nothing wrong there. The point therefore isn't that the film is a failure. The point is that, notwithstanding its demerits, it's a good film. That doesn't hide one salient fact, however: it could have been better. No consolation that, you must admit.

Note: I reviewed Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka sometime back. I called it a "near-apotheosis". I still stand by that. It is a near-apotheosis. It represents all that Vithanage has come to be associated with by those who've followed his films. Unfortunately, that (and whatever praise I made on its technical merits) is hardly enough to salvage it from its main weaknesses, which a review (written by a Marxist and full of unqualified praise for reasons not too explicable) provoked me to delve into and write about. I tried to step away from ideology with what I wrote before. A mistake on my part, I now realise. And regret.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Edna Sugathapala: Scripting humility into life

Photos by Sandra Mack

She is known for her acting, particularly during a time when film as is known here and today was at its peak. She has her associations, her acquaintances, those she met and befriended on and off the set. To limit her to cinema however would be doing her an injustice, something she implies early on in the interview. Yes, you saw her paired in film after film with some of the "top stars" of our cinema. Yes, they all won her praise and unruffled success.

But Edna Sugathapala is not just an actress. One doubts whether she wants to or can be pigeonholed into that profession alone. For that matter, one doubts whether she CAN be pigeonholed into ANY profession at all. She has done what she has done with utmost sincerity. No pigeonholing possible there.

She can play the piano and play it well, for one thing. She has mastered three other instruments as well. She has released a CD and DVD chronicling her love for the piano, and states unequivocally that she doesn't want to stop it at that. As she delves into her biography, full of interesting anecdotes but never obese on frill, she makes one thing clear: she hasn't stopped at anything at any point in her life.

Edna was born in 1946. She was educated at Good Shepherd Convent in her hometown Panadura, and later at Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya. She describes herself during all her school years as "studious and quite prone towards books", which set her apart from her friends and worked its charm on her mother. Music, it seems, had fascinated her a lot, and so at the age of six her mother had not only bought her a piano, but through it got her to take (and pass) the Higher Local Exam. "Back then it was foreigners who came and judged for that exam," she remembers, "I remember the comment they made on my recital: 'brilliant touch'."

The piano didn't stop intensifying her love for music, by the way. While at the church choir she learnt to master the organ, while elsewhere she got to handle the accordion and guitar. Nor did this stop her from pursuing her other interests: she loved dressmaking, for one thing, and in the end enrolled in the Kathleen School of Dressmaking in her hometown.

She had learnt to value time and efficiency. With more than one interest to pursue and being musically inclined, she never forgot to fine-tune her skills, often waking up at three in the morning to practise before heading to school. Her mother, whom she recalls fondly, was a strict woman, "and more pertinently a strict Catholic woman", who while never severe on young Edna had nonetheless had her way with her obedient, studious daughter.

Inadvertently however, she had got involved with a field of work the mother had learnt to scorn. This was astrology. The mother being a devout Catholic had despised the looking up of horoscopes, but through an uncle had been persuaded to look up her own via a prominent astrologer in Nugegoda. The astrologer, Daniel Gamariya gurunnanse, was known throughout the country then. Sceptically, she had paid him a visit with Edna.

The daughter explains what happened next. "My mother was quite the critic. She stopped the gurunnanse when he was reciting her horoscope. She told him that his interpretation was wrong. He did not stop. He asked as to when she was born and questioned whether the clock which recorded that time was pitch-perfect. 'Maybe not,' she confessed. The astrologer then changed her planet from Mercury to Venus, and began revising her horoscope. Lo and behold, he converted my mother and with her me that day by reading almost every portion of her life correctly and to the point. 'Now am I wrong, madam?' was his parting shot at her. 'No,' she stammered."

Along the way back to Panadura, young Edna had openly professed an interest in astrology. The mother, knowing how studious the daughter was ("I was always first in class," she recounts now, with justifiable pride) let her have her way for once, and took her to another astrologer, H. H. Premaratne gurunnanse.

The gurunnanse had initially been wary of teaching Edna, complaining that "girls from prim, proper Colombo schools cannot be taught the art of reading the future". Thanks to her mother's overtures however, in the end he relaxed his position and offered to impart to Edna the secrets of his trade. She was 13 at the time.

More than 50 years on, she still reads horoscopes, predicts the future, and publishes some of her "anavaki" in various newspapers. As she browses through old newspaper clippings, she herself comes across some of the more profound ones: to do with presidential elections and deaths of famous stars. She in fact predicted Gamini Fonseka's death two years before it happened, December 2002 to be specific. There are of course other predictions too numerous to mention here, but suffice it to say that they all have come true in one form or another.

So in this context how did she take to films? Again, through her mother. She had been a film producer, and had financed Daskon, an expensive historical epic. She was about 12 at the time when she saw Daskon, "a financial failure" as she recalls now. It was her first encounter with the Sinhala cinema, as well as with two people she'd meet again and again in the career to come, Rukmani Devi and Fonseka himself.

For her entry into cinema though, she had to go through the theatre (metaphorically speaking). She was trained and tutored by the famous theatre producer Dick Dias. The year was 1966 when she got to act in her first play ("Gehenu Hatana"). 10 years earlier he had initiated Jeevarani Kurukulasuriya ("Maa Henae Riri Yaka") into acting, and 10 years before that he had done the same for Rukmani ("Janaki Haranaya"). When asked whether this was a prophetic sign, she laughs and lays out Dias' credentials.

"He was a kind man. Not just a theatre producer but one who knew his field well. He was originally an engineer, he began financing these plays, and in the end managed to introduce some of his more incisive actors and actresses into both the stage and cinema. In fact it was Dias who financed the first production of ‘Siri Sangabo’, which was a landmark by all accounts thanks to its final, memorable scene of the altruistic king beheading himself in front of the audience. So yes, I am indebted to him today."

Her initiation into cinema, however, was tougher. Not only had there been calls to get her off-screen, people visibly began commenting on how she was fat, was not photogenic enough, and even didn't augur well for films. Again, it had been an acquaintance of hers who had come to her rescue. "When Das Mohammad thought of auditioning me for Surayangeth Suraya, Gamini Fonseka advised him to take me if I read my lines properly. Remember, Daskon may have been a failure, but Fonseka was popular at the time and it was his first film after Daiwayogaya. He knew my mother had suffered a loss because of that film."

She was taken for Surayangeth Suraya, needless to say. In later years she hobnobbed and got to act with several "stars", so to speak. She rattles off a list here: Joe Abeywickrema, Tony Ranasinghe, Freddie Silva, Denawaka Hamine, Sandya Kumari.

She had other encounters, of course. She met and sang for Karunaratne Abeysekera, both for his famous "Handa Mama" radio program and elsewhere. She wrote a book contemplating life and death with "Sugatha Chintha", which in later years earned praise from Rosy Senanayake and in her time earned a letter as a reply to it from a monk in Denipitiya, Galle. She was a close friend of Lenin Moraes, who had directed her in some of her best known films, and in the end was by his deathbed during his last moments. There are other personalities she has met and befriended too, but spatial constraints restrict recounting them all here. All that one can say about them is that she has come and seen them all, but not to a point where she's wallowed in that fatal trap stars get into, fame. Not to say she hasn't enjoyed fame, but at the same time she's been careful and methodical enough not to let it blind her.

And in a way, this has allowed her to pursue what she considers to be her real interests, in music. Last year she released a CD collection of her piano recitals. She played them all on her instrument: baila, classical music, church music, a kaleidoscope offering virtually everything from Nanda Malini to Keerthi Pasqual. She's played them with a subtle touch, one notes, keeping well to the spirit of every song she's turned into an instrumental. "I enjoyed playing them very much, but was careful enough not to invite every proverbial Tom, Dick, and Harry when I launched them," she recalls, adding that among her guests was Professor Carlo Fonseka, well known for his views on artists and a music lover himself.

The ball didn't and doesn't stop there, of course. For someone of her calibre, being able to play not only one or two but four musical instruments, she should reach for more. And she does. Next year she hopes to release an album of her organ recitals, which she promises will be different to what she's done and released so far. "The organ, mind you, is not like the piano. I'd say the latter is harder to master, but that doesn't trivialise the fact that the organ has a preconceived tempo set into its system nowadays, and you need to keep up with it. So yes, in one way it's hard to master as well." She plays C. T. Fernando's "Bara Bage", remembered and relished by young and old then and now.

When asked why she's doing all this now, she sobers. Noticeably. "For one thing, I will be celebrating my 70th birthday. It is my wish that I do something for that, not with celebration and cheer but with some interest I've loved to follow from my childhood. I've done with the piano on this count, so I guess the organ's next in line for me. This is not a vanity project moreover, because I know fans love my recitals. I feel I should have done this many, many years ago. But I never got the chance to do it. Time hasn't been unkind to me always, and I've never failed to keep myself healthy and rosy. So perhaps it's best that I do it now."

At an age when most actresses would probably contemplate life and bid farewell to pursuing their interests (whatever they may be), Edna Sugathapala is a shining example. For someone who could have grabbed at fame and probably gone beyond Sri Lanka, she has opted to stay away, practise restraint, and instead retire to a life of peace, music, and harmony. She doesn't reek of wealth though, and for this reason her expenses for her earlier album were stifling, overbearing almost. So it is with her next album too, unless someone who appreciates taste and the contribution she's made to our cultural firmament (not only the cinema, please note) comes forward.

Will he or she step forward? That remains to be seen. One small step, if it be taken at all, and certainly one giant leap for her.

Written for: Daily News, November 18 2015

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Death of a Cyclist

“Politically futile, socially false, intellectually worthless, aesthetically valueless, and industrially paralytic.” If all these words seem like contrived synonyms to you, then merely convey the intensity of the man speaking them. Juan Bardem is considered one of Spain’s most revered filmmakers: he was uncle to Javier Bardem, the half-crazed murderer who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for No Country for Old Men. The Bardems were also leftists: during Francisco Franco’s fascist regime they were looked down on. And Juan Bardem, the most determined Spanish filmmaker of his time, sought to change the decadent film industry of his country to a more realistic strain.

He did this with a remarkable film: Death of a Cyclist. It is a film that not only attacks the society of his time: it is also a work that rallies against the filmmaking style of his country. Here is a film whose main incident – an accident – is used to propel its entire story from beginning to end. The incident at Bardem’s hands becomes a means of projecting his own vision – of the upper class, the middle class clambering onto the social ladder for success, and of illicit romance brought about by class hierarchy. Here is a story where the ending – the lovers’ betrayal of one another – is told anti-climatically, with a suddenness that shakes you, but with icy emotion.

Death of a Cyclist begins with the accident straight away – no frilled beginnings, no slow set-ups. A humble cyclist – whose identity is kept from us – collides with a car driven by a University assistant lecturer with his girlfriend (who happens to be the wife of a powerful patron of that University). To keep their affair a secret they drive on, leaving the man to die. But their situation almost immediately deteriorates: at a party an insignificant art critic called Rafael mentions the word “blackmail” to the girl – so obliquely that she at once guesses the worst.

And she is right: in a tentative sequence at a deserted art exhibition, the two of them exchange spiteful remarks until the truth outs: he knows something about her and the lover, and – in return for what we are never fully made aware of – he will keep quiet. But he doesn’t: her husband is told something, and she herself does not hear what. Only much later, after two-thirds of the story is done, do we get it that the secret had nothing to do with the accident. By that time, the lover has had enough disillusionment to last a lifetime: after a visit to the cyclist’s neighbourhood and an encounter with University protestors, he resigns from his lectureship and decides to confess to the Police. The woman, however, who with Rafael’s failed attempt has grown complacent, refuses to accompany him, and, in a shocking anti-climax, betrays him.

What marks out Death of a Cyclist from the usual brand of political drama is, of course, Bardem’s vision: he does not explicitly condemn the lovers, and indeed, he seems to reserve his most stifling judgment on Rafael, the middle-class writer whose only obsession seems to be clinging on the social ladder (“It’s fun observing you. I see your sins, classify them, file them away, and wait... for the right moment to act,” he tells the girl at the exhibition, “All the ugly things you hide, I dig up and lay before you. It’s a means of purification”). Indeed this is what Bardem criticizes the most: a society where conventions and dictates are fanatically respected, where even the slightest deviation is condemned, exploited, and trodden on.

It is understandable thus that Bardem was heavily censured by authorities at the time of its release: he was forced to edit the original ending, where the girl escapes unpunished for her crime, to suit a more “retributive” ending. Ironically the final image of this ending – a humble cyclist who, having caused the girl’s death, heads to get help from a nearby farm – explicitly juxtaposes with the beginning, where the two lovers leave the old cyclist behind, mercilessly. The censure did not end there: while making his next film, Calle Mayor, Bardem would be imprisoned.

For its time, however, Death of a Cyclist was a landmark in Spanish cinema: it would go onto win the coveted FIPRESCI Award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. With it, as ever, he sought to move the Spanish cinema from the “politically futile” and “industrially paralytic” state it had been brought to after the Civil War.