Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Lester James Peries: Conversations with an Icon

There are people who merit introductions and people who don’t. I’m not sure which of these two categories I should put this week’s star under. Lester James Peries, after all, is a book that has been written, revised, edited, and even frilled, by those who claim to present a faithful account of the man and his career.

Let me put it this way then: his is a story which has seen countless days, nights, months, years, and decades. To do justice to them all, therefore, is most certainly beyond my task. There comes a time when so much ink is wasted on inessential details, that to get to the essence of any man becomes difficult. Peries is our foremost filmmaker. He is a “father” to many, young and old. Maybe that’s the best way I can introduce him for you.

Lester was (as everyone knows) born on April 5, 1919. His father, James Peries, had been a doctor and a madcap over cricket. His mother, Grace Jayasuriya, had been the first in her school to pass the Cambridge Senior Examination. While Doctor Peries had been educated at Royal College, he sent his son to St. Peter’s College, nearer to their ancestral home in Dehiwela.

He had been the eldest son in his family, with two younger brothers and one elder sister. But while his father had instinctively taken to medicine, both Lester and his brother Ivan had taken to art. I ask him whether this was reinforced while at school, and he tells me that while St. Peter’s did encourage a robust art culture, he didn’t really get to express his artistic temperament in it. He did, however, win several prizes at essay competitions.

Lester remembers many things. His memory is phenomenal, which may account for his philosophical attitude. He reflects on his school days with quiet nostalgia. Nearly everyone who has read up on him would, of course, remember an argument he once had with Father Peter Pillai, the legendary priest who had also taught at St. Joseph’s. Apparently Father Pillai had wanted him to follow his path. “He tried to make me take to the priesthood,” Lester chuckles, “I said I wanted to be a writer or journalist. He pooh-poohed the idea.”

I ask him whether the Catholic ethos instilled by his school influenced him in any way as he went on with his career. He says he doesn’t think so. “I wasn’t rooted in my culture,” he tells me a little ruefully, “Even today, I can’t speak Sinhala properly. We were actively forbidden to look into or be interested in other cultures. Going to a Buddhist funeral was out of the question. You had to pay penance if you did such a thing.

“The other problem was that we were anglicised. The Church, having distanced us from our roots, inadvertently sped up a process of westernisation. Some of us became snobs. Others, like Ivan and me, began looking at ways to reclaim our lost roots.” Having a language deficiency wouldn’t have helped them here, which is probably why they fell back on a purely visual medium.

Lester’s first ambition, as I mentioned above, was to become a writer or journalist. He met Lionel Wendt while writing for his Matriculation exam, and at once came under his influence. “Wendt was publishing a fortnightly paper called Kesari. He encouraged me to write for it, which I did. This intensified my resolve to become a writer on my own.”

I ask him what authors he took to, and with a chuckle he says there were so many of them. “Ernest Hemingway was my idol,” he tells me, “I admire him for the way he wrote: his austere, to the point style. That was what I aimed at.” He also remembers Proust: “I bought every volume of his ‘Remembrance of Things Past’. My God, what a bunch they were!”

In the meantime, he got a job writing for the Times of Ceylon as well, being hired in 1939. Two years later, Orson Welles would release Citizen Kane. I ask him whether this film had any impact on him, and he at once agrees. “Orson Welles was my hero,” he remembers, “I was simply awed by Kane. The techniques it innovated, especially deep focus cinematography, have stayed with us ever since. Sometime later, when I had become a director, I toyed with the idea of making a Citizen Kane based on our own press baron, D. R. Wijewardena.”

Needless to say, it became an unrealised project. I wonder, however, whether such a venture would have merely been an “adaptation” of a foreign film. The story of Charles Foster Kane, after all, bears some affinity to that of Wijewardena.

This isn’t the only way one can compare Lester with Welles, of course. There is another comparison that can be made. It surfaces clearly in the sequences in their films which feature heated arguments. The final encounter between mother and son in Delovak Athara; the exchanges between the religiously-inclined daughter and her conservative-urban parents in Ran Salu; and the feud between the protagonist and his sister in Nidhanaya – in these instances, the camera become a dexterous participant in the argument, emphasizing the characters’ own insecurities. There is that same sense of dexterousness in many of Welles’ own argument scenes as well, notably in The Magnificent Ambersons, which briefly touch on comedy and then suddenly culminate on a touching, unresolved note. Welles’ influence on Lester, therefore, is not that easy to miss.

Lester then left to England in the war years, acting as the Times London correspondent. He saw quite a number of plays and films during this time, especially the more continental ones. There was one incident which he remembers in particular, however. “It was almost a call to home,” he says quietly, suppressing emotion, “That was a concert with Herbert Rajapaksa. He sang a song which stayed and has stayed with me ever since.”

This was Sunil Shantha’s “Olu Pipeela”. It had strung Lester’s heart, and soon enough, he was on his way home. “I heeded the call to home. I knew that I would be earning much less than what I was in London. But back then, being the idealist I was, I didn’t give a tinker’s damn!”

Back in Sri Lanka, he joined the Government Film Unit, where he met two of his most frequent collaborators in the years to come, Titus Thotawatte and Willie Blake. Together, they made some acclaim-worthy documentaries and short films. But the stability of a government job wasn’t enough for these three, and soon they got an offer they just couldn’t refuse. “My cousin, Christopher Peries, wanted to make a feature film with us. I knew I couldn’t pass up on this, because part of my wanting to come back to Sri Lanka was to strike my own path as a filmmaker. Both Willie and Titus encouraged me to take the offer, which I did.” His parents and his superior at the Government Film Unit firmly opposed the idea, but in the end, both parties relented.

Perhaps it was a legacy of his tryst with literature, but Lester admits that he was always more comfortable with fiction than with historical recreation. Maybe this is why some of the authenticity in his fictional films far surpasses his historical epics in terms of honesty of treatment, but the point is that he wanted a “story” in his first film. “Sarath Wijesinghe was to be our Chairman in the ‘Company’ we had set up to make films.” Wijesinghe was a firm supporter of the Bandaranaikes though, and soon after their debut he left the group, Chitra Lanka, and dissolved it to join politics. “That’s the thing with our film industry,” he informs me rather sadly, “You have producers coming up to you with offers, making films, and then leaving you.”

Lester has always been a maker of films about human beings. This has been the case from his debut, Rekava, onwards. I put it to him that this meant that when a “committed” cinema emerged here in the 1970s, he would have been pilloried by those who disliked his type of stories.

He chuckles at this, and admits that he was considered a “roadblock” by some of those directors. “They work with symbols,” he confesses, “I work with human beings.” This reminds me of a quote by Hillaire Belloc: “They work in stone”. The reference was to Greek epic poets. Perhaps a comparison can be struck between them and the “socially engaged” propagandists who emerged here in the 1970s. No doubt Lester has made the human condition part and parcel of his films, just as nearly every filmmaker he admires, from Robert Flaherty to Pedro Almodóvar, has.

I tell him here that while he considers himself “uprooted” owing to an anglicised childhood, his films have been incomparably faithful to Sri Lankan life. He replies to this by saying that he tried to be faithful to every nuance of Sri Lankan life. “This was especially true in Ran Salu. P. K. D. Seneviratne scripted the film. I told him just how much I trusted him over the way Buddhism was depicted. His was the only script which I didn’t change to my liking.”

Everybody has his favourite film by a director. When it comes to Lester James Peries, mine would have to be Delovak Athara. Perhaps this is owing to the compressed narrative structure in that film. “We consciously went for the New Wave when we made it,” he explains, “The entire story revolves around one incident and one character. This meant that the acting had to be top-notch.”

The innovativeness in that film, however, isn’t just to do with its narrative structure. I tell him that what appealed to me was how admirably the film eschewed emotion, which led Philip Cooray to call it an “intellectual film” in his review. “Cooray called it the closest the Sinhala cinema got to the Nouvelle Vague,” he says, “He even compared Willie Blake, who shot it, to Raul Coutard, who was the legendary Jean-Luc Godard’s cameraman.”

I come here to the subject of film movements and styles, and mindful of Sidney Lumet’s witty dictum of style being the “most misused word since ‘love’”, ask him whether he subscribed to any one set of theories when making films. He admits that it’s difficult for him to think of any one film movement, but does say that the Italian neo-realists moved him. “They were painters, actually,” he observes, “See how beautifully they depicted poverty. That’s what neorealism did. There are some commentators who say that it ‘died’ in continental Europe at the time Satyajit Ray and I took to it in Asia, and after Vittorio de Sica made Umberto D. All stuff and nonsense. Neo-realism never died. It never will die. Even the most ‘committed’ filmmaker is influenced by it.”

Lester reveres the neo-realists and holds them in esteem. No doubt this is to be seen in several sequences in Rekava, particularly those of village life playing out in real life. Still, this shouldn’t mean that he has reduced his entire outlook on the cinema to the Italians.

“What moved me in the works of de Sica and Rosselini was their fidelity to life. Look at a film like Bicycle Thieves. It’s timeless, no matter what one may say of it. In contrast, take a film like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Despite the ‘fire and brimstone’ allure in it, it merely encapsulated only one period of history. That’s why out of that entire film, we mainly remember the Odessa steps sequence.” He dislikes on-the-surface allure in films, and it would be unbecoming of me if I don’t say that he has to the best of his ability stuck by this principle in his career.

Apart from the neo-realists and the New Wave, what else has shaped Lester’s craft? I’m most certainly not a film critic, and an academic thesis is not what I’m aiming at here. Perhaps it is that spiritual quality which is to be found in pretty much every film of his. I ask him from where he got this quality, and he replies “from my country”.

I mention Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, and Carl Theodore Dreyer, three of the most austere, Christian, and spiritual filmmakers, and he agrees that they did move him. “Bresson is another idol of mine,” he states, “He made fewer films than I did over the same time period. But he had the support of the critical establishment of the day.” I ask him here why he didn’t make a Catholic film here, and not a little ruefully he says that he never got a good idea for a story with such a setting in the first place.

Lester is also a voracious reader, particularly of books on the cinema. I ask him whether he started out with books and theories, as some filmmakers are wont to do today, or whether he opted for experience as his biggest teacher. “Both,” he admits, “You must remember that I lived at a time when ‘criticism’ meant explaining an experience felt and lived through, unlike today, when what goes for criticism is academic hotchpotch.” He tells me that with the advent of postmodernism, film criticism became a pursuit for those who wrote from ivory towers. “As a result, serious cinema has become an intellectual pursuit.” There is a tinge of bitterness here, so I press him on.

“We were more open to experience back then. Today, experience is ‘written’ in the books you read. So you tend to think that you don’t need to get hands down to make films. I’m not saying that you need to grind your nose when pursuing artistic ambitions, but it’s also true that there is spontaneity and creativity in making films. This is inhibited when textbooks prescribe what ‘good filmmaking’ is and what it isn’t.”

Film criticism standards, he implies, are coterminous with film standards, and when the one begins to retire into an ivory tower, so does the other. I couldn’t possibly have agreed more with him. As a final point, he adds the following: “People like D. W. Griffith and Orson Welles learnt it the hard way. We are indebted to them because they made life easier for us. The only way we can repay that debt is by contributing to what they innovated on.”

It is here that we come to Satyajit Ray, who once called him his “closest friend East of the Suez”. I tell Lester that while many would like to compare him to Ray, there still must be those points of differences which separated them somewhere. He agrees with this. “Ray was a giant. His depiction of poverty was unpalatable to critics from both the East and West. He was the first Eastern neorealist. But he was also optimistic. Take any of his films, and you will understand just how he affirms human goodness. He never has villains in his stories. Humans are frail in his world, but in the end, they are vindicated no matter how imperfect they are. Sometimes, this makes his endings a little too optimistic to be real.”

I ask him whether he distanced himself from Ray’s attitude on this count, and he agrees. “Some of my stories have even been called ‘nihilistic’.” I ask him to elaborate on this.

“Take Delovak Athara. There’s no doubt at all that the ending is slightly pessimistic. But a happy ending was precisely what we WEREN’T aiming at. We wanted a dejected ending, one that would reconcile the protagonist Nissanka to his conscience. It was a way out for him, but it didn’t leave many viewers happy. There was one acquaintance of mine who pointed this out to me very frankly.

“According to this fan of mine, Delovak Athara had a promising start, built up to a promising climax, and then was corrupted by a very unsatisfactory ending. So in short what viewers wanted were happy endings. This is precisely the kind of mentality we were trying to do away.” He adds that even Sandeshaya upset a few viewers with its ending, where the entire village of the Sinhalese rebels is burnt down by the Portuguese without as much as a house or hut left intact.

Lester is not too unhappy with how our film industry is operating today. He cautions however that filmmakers should not go overboard with academia. “We have so many promising directors from the new generation,” he tells me, “They have realised that a film industry cannot subsist on state support alone. This is how an avant-garde culture of sorts has developed. It’s true that some of the films made by these directors can get amateurish, but in terms of honesty of treatment, they are spot on.”

I mention here about our collective dissatisfaction with the kind of populist, religious epics churned every year by directors who can hardly be called filmmakers, and he gently reproves me: “It’s true that they may not be professional filmmakers. But that doesn’t de-validate their films. It’s a personal vision which goes into their works. So raising a hue and cry against them isn’t very productive.” I tell him that most of these works bear a close (and unholy) resemblance to those of DeMille, and he agrees: “Every film industry has a DeMille.”

There’s more I can rattle on about, but perhaps Lester himself wraps it up best: “What we need is a robust film culture. Art cannot exist for its own sake. Form and content are best when together, not when apart. Unfortunately, I feel that some of our filmmakers, in their quest to be more controversial than others, ignore this. Whether this will continue or not will be a question on which the future on our cinema rests.”

Lester James Peries, as I mentioned above, is a book that has been authored by various people at various times. And yet, there is so much in him that has escaped the critical eye. He is undoubtedly a giant in this part of the world, precisely because he shares with both Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa that one trait which proved crucial for the advancement of Asian cinema: the synthesis of East and West. Lester is no prig beset with conservative notions about filmmaking. The true worth of the man, I feel, is yet to be done full justice to. Until then, my countrymen and I can only wait. With baited breath.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, December 23 and 30 2015

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Kumar de Silva's art of life

Pen-portraits are not easy to draw. What they sum up hardly goes by way of encapsulating a person's life and character in their entirety, and all too often the writer loses in substance what he tries to sketch as summary. The true worth or essence of a man, therefore, can only be caught through the eyes of the biographer.

Ethel Mannin, in her collection "Confessions and Impressions", says it best: "Greater than all art, more important than all the talking of art and life, this welter of sterile intellectuality which is the dry-rot of civilisation, is the art of life." It is life, and not the talking of it, that encapsulates a man. Biographers, in their rush to sum up and insert frill, never seem to notice this.

The point is that Kumar de Silva is a book that's been planned out, sketched, revised, and abridged. There are countless writers who've written on the events he has organised, the books he has authored, and of course his life-long association with France. Very few however would try to understand the man behind the show, free of frill and any predilection or bias the author has towards him. Mannin, I suspect, would have known this better than anyone else, were she alive today.

People dictate terms on their lives. They live as philosophers and intellectualise whatever experience they face. Kumar is a (mild) exception to that rule, I believe. True, he has until now demonstrated an abiding interest in orderliness, charting every nicety of his life to the last jot. As we conversed on a Sunday evening however, I felt at ease with a man who has come to symbolise a passionate and yet reflective attitude to achievement, indeed someone who has endorsed the notion that philosophising on life will get you only that far. He has, to my mind, several chapters that have not been looked into, by both critic and writer.

He is known for "Bonsoir". Many, even those who haven't watched it, will tell you that the show and the presenter went together. Kumar of course is far too modest to attribute it to himself, and anyone who buys and reads a copy of his Bonsoir Diaries will come away realising the collective effort that went into all those years. I suspect there's something more to him, though, something that defines what he has become. Getting to the essence of any man is not easy, after all, so I try to infer what it may be.

First and foremost, Kumar has always shown that he's a man who refrains from frill and show, who to the best of his ability remains both minimalistic and utilitarian. "I never opt for decor," he says, and by way of illustration he shows me his "garden", nested comfortably atop where he lives in Kohuwela. There's hardly any decor there. Everything he has grown and is tending to there, pithily put, has some utility and purpose, whether as food or medicine. "I judge almost everything on the basis of their use," he confesses.

Minimalism is notoriously hard to define, but seeing the way he has organised his life, I can say this much: there's nothing he takes in that he does not want later. "That explains why I'm not a passionate book collector," he explains to me. I am surprised, so he hastily elaborates: "That doesn't mean I'm not a reader. But if there's a book I haven't touched in five years, I give it away." Kumar privileges space. In a world that is getting fuller and fuller, that is rare.

This hasn't kept him back from pursuing different tastes, and it's to his credit that his eclecticism has dominated the better part of his career. He is a follower of the cinema ("Truffaut is among my favourites") and classical music, and he admits that while his "knowledge" in both may not be at its peak, he is still ardent enough not to be swayed by superficial allure. "I am at peace with nature and Art, and be it a van Gough painting that moved me when I had my first heart attack some years back or Truffaut's Antoine Doinel trilogy that refreshed my outlook on French life, I've tried to wed both in my life."

"Cultured" is another undefinable term. Again, it's to Kumar's credit that he has, time and time again, demonstrated what it should embody. In this respect, both Sri Lanka and France has left a deep impression on him. He has kept his feet in both countries ("My roots are in Ambalangoda, and I am an unabashed Francophile," he confesses) and he has to the best of his ability refrained from tilting to either side. Not everyone can bridge the gulf between van Gogh and Sarlis, but Kumar can.

And to me, that's what best sums the man. He presents a curious "contradiction", oscillating between the land of his birth and his "surrogate motherland" (I mean no insult of course, and I use that term candidly). On closer scrutiny however, this "contradiction" is not really a contradiction: he simply has varied interests, and he has wedded those with his life.

Not everyone can move with such ease and sureness as Kumar, and I guess that is what and everyone who has had the occasion to meet and be associated with him has been most taken in by the man. As if this wasn't enough, he himself offers comment: "Truth be told, it is my wish to be cremated here, and it is my wish to be scattered there." It's left to biographers to distill a man in his own words, but Kumar himself has done the job. Just like that.

There haven't been many interviews done of him, to be honest. Perhaps that's what has shrouded him in enigma. He has always given the impression that there's much more to him than meets the eye. He is correct. Interviewers indulge in sketches. Not in portraits. To me, everything that needs to be said about Kumar can be done so, not through clinical reflections, but through deep involvement with him. He at once betrays friendliness in its most simplified form, a quality almost never to be met with in others of his calibre.

Perhaps it's to do with his upbringing (Kumar's late mother, who taught me, testifies to this thesis: he himself credits his mother and father for allowing the unorthodox in him spring out, when he became the only student to offer French, German, and English for his A/Levels at Wesley). Perhaps it's to do with the career he managed to sustain for three decades: fulfilling and never in want of anything. Or perhaps it's to do with the kind of people he has hobnobbed with. We may never know.

Time doesn't permit these observations to end, unfortunately. Our most fervent wish, therefore, is that Kumar will stay on, enriching our cultural firmament (he has authored books on many leading artistes here, and we are grateful), whether from the sidelines or at the epicentre, and thereby adding to what we can look forward to, both as a community and as a nation. Rooted in one land and connected by spirit to another, he is a virtual cultural ambassador. The truth worth of the man, therefore, needs to be looked into. Until then, we shall have to wait.

That wait won't be long, we hope.

Written for: Sunday Island LIFESTYLE, December 27 2015

Sunday, December 20, 2015

'Ho Gaana Pokuna': A Breath of Fresh Air

Not too long ago, I asked a prominent director to comment on our children's film industry. I told him that what are marketed as kids’ films are filled with elements that render such a categorisation crass and cheap. He gave his take on the subject: "That's because those aren't children's films. Those are films with children in them."

To me that summed it up pretty well, but I told him that this hardly offered consolation. He cautioned me against taking such a stand: "There'll come a day when we'll see films that capture children at their best. Until then, we can only hope."

That was two years back. I didn't know Indika Ferdinando then. I didn't know that he had made a film that would make the rounds with critics the world over. When he previewed it to sections of the media and film industry some weeks ago, there was at the end of it unqualified praise, unqualified not because Indika was an "established" director but because this realised the hopes and aspirations of Sri Lankan film-goers. Ho Gaana Pokuna, released to audiences here more than a week back, was a breath of fresh air. "There is room for hope", I thought to myself. And smiled.

Critiquing or praising a film made for children with the same criterion used for one made for adults is of course an injustice to both the work of art and its creator. Children’s films inhabit a universe of their own. That universe is (almost) always painted in black and white. Good triumphs, evil is thwarted. The ending usually resolves whatever dilemma the children in them may have been facing. Reality isn't rosy, but in this world it is. On these and other counts therefore, I admit it straight away: Ferdinando's debut does justice to the genre he's chosen to work in.

Notwithstanding all that however, a work of art is best judged by how well it brings together form and content without doing away with a live, human experience. Indika has fused his film together well in this regard. The spontaneity of his players (adult and child), the flow of the narrative, the themes it embodies, and the wider context to which all these relate can’t really be summed up in an article.

I saw his play "The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno" recently, and I saw comedy throughout. Distilled and raw. He echoes this in Ho Gaana Pokuna. From the first shot – a sustained, uninterrupted sequence of Miss Uma (our heroine, played by Anasuya Subasinghe) by the beach and telling her lover that she's been posted as a teacher to an outstation school – we see comedy lurking in the background, always entertaining us but never transcending the flow of the narrative. This is the trap directors of family films are ensnared into: to subordinate the entire plot to displays of comedy, thinking that children don’t see anything else. Indika, thankfully, steps away from this.

What of the plot then? A detailed recounting would be superfluous and beside the point, but it basically begins with Miss Uma (fresh from University but not quite “out” of its political activity) opting to teach at an elementary school in Dombagamuwa. The school is housed by a set of children (almost straight from Neverland, it seems) and a formidable principal (Lucien Bulathsinhala), who all seem to have made it a world away from home. The principal, who also happens to be the school's only teacher, keeps his pupils in fear (to no avail: when at one point he imitates a dragon to keep them away from a piano sent by the World Bank, one of them chips in: "Nice performance, sir!").

The predictable unfolds: Uma is more liberal and understanding, gets closer to the children, and wins them and the entire village (including the principal) over. That comes in handy in the second half, when the children begin to clamour for the unthinkable: a trip to the beach. What happens thereafter, whether Uma and the principal get everyone to agree to their proposal, and whether they do to go on their trip, shouldn't be described in words. They must be watched.

What I noticed throughout was how Indika tantalisingly offered plot-lines that could have provided easy “opt-out” points for the narrative but withdrew them in time. It would have been easy (fatally so), for instance, to present an ideological clash between principal and teacher, but the script (mercifully) escapes such a contrivance. To their credit, both Lucien and Anasuya do what's expected of them, and in the end what we see in the former is an "old school" but by no means evil teacher. He is as pliable in the face of the plot as the rest of the village are.

Even in the sequence where Miss Uma convenes an Assembly in school, and debates with the principal over where it's headed (he is concerned whether "democratising" the school this way won’t “make farmers out of these children”), Indika doesn't dwell too much on the political: the debate ends then and there, and a few scenes later, the principal has been won over to his rival's side.

Because of this, not only the children (I'll come to them shortly) but the adult players also are convincing. Lucien Bulathsinhala gives his best, as expected, and so does the rest of the "veteran" cast, but it was Anasuya who caught me. 

As "Miss Uma", Anasuya depicts a woman who's tired of shouting against injustice, who yearns to act rather than parrot out slogans. She forms the epicentre of the film's ideology, which Dilshan Boange in an earlier review touched on (he calls it “centre-left” in a “broader context”, and to an extent I agree with him). Whether or not such a depiction is true to life and whether such idealists inhabit our world (at times she reminded me of Maria von Trapp and Mary Poppins in one go) are questions the serious critic must ponder on, but I admit it: she managed to sustain her portrayal of a teacher who gets over every obstacle, even when they lead to dead-ends (in which case other, less plausible coincidences set them right).

To their credit, the rest of the cast did well also. There was Jayalath Manorathna as Justin the bus-driver. When he enters into orbit with the kids, we see distilled, felt humour. Given that Manorathna has been featured in "children's films" before, it was refreshing to see him at his best: he sees no reason for lament when confessing that he drives without a license, but backs away like a confused, reluctant giant when Miss Uma, the principal, and all the children pester him into sitting for the driver's test. As for the others, Hyacinth Wijeratne, Dayadeva Edirisinghe, Jayani Senanayake, Wasantha Muhandiram, and Geetha Kanthi Jayakody don't disappoint. Not even once.

In short, the supporting characters are neither villains nor heroes. They are frail and impotent in the face of what dominates the script through and through: Miss Uma and her kids. To second-guess what this leads to in the end would defeat the purpose though. There's so much here that can be missed by the critic in his or her attempt at reducing the entire the plot to its final, predictable conclusion (and I am not connoting anything negative here, by the way: children's films by nature contain predictable finales, as they should).

What jarred a little was how Indika scripted his ending. Nothing in the script really prepared us for Uma crying out at the children playing in the beach. Nothing that unfolded before allowed room for the tears that she shed. What was even more jarring was how she brightened up at the sight of her lover, in a way which indicated that those tears were unnecessary. Thankfully though, that did not hinder the political, idealistic tone of her last few lines, and as the credits rolled I knew I was part of an audience who had been moved by her final speech.

None of this would have been possible without the child actors. To the film they contribute the kind of spontaneity and honesty only children are capable of. The witty dialogues, the dexterous and sudden shifts of moods (hovering between comedy and pathos) are made all the more nuanced by their performances. To say that they and they alone are responsible for the film's triumph would be stretching things too far, but I'll grant Indika this much: I didn't see artifice there. I saw honesty. With kids that's usually the case, but Indika (I feel) has scrounged something more out of them. Applause-worthy, no doubt.

Dinesh Subasinghe's contribution to the score merits special mention as well: it at once transports us to the children's world, and absorbs our attention to it, particularly in the final drive to the beach. That drive is set against a song-and-dance sequence that concentrates the entire story’s energy within itself, and submerges everything else in fantasy (especially when Miss Uma is stopped by a policeman, who lets her off when the kids plead with him: reality is not so rosy, I thought bitterly to myself).

And so I confess: I longed to go back to Indika’s world after it was over. Again and again. Not many films inspire such a feeling in me.

In Ho Gaana Pokuna therefore, we come across something we haven't in a long time. A (truly) children's film. I’m not suggesting that Indika's debut will salvage the industry. Far from it. But he has demonstrated such a sure grasp of the medium, with regard to camerawork, editing, scripting, and dialogues, that we can see an inherent love for cinema in it. On the level of intelligent storytelling, this works wonderfully well.

We are grateful.

Written for: Sunday Island LIFESTYLE, December 20 2015

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Chandran Rutnam story

I have come to believe that filmmakers are not "stars" in the conventional sense of that term. This "truism" is hard to sustain, though. If we are to judge them on the basis of how they explore the human condition, then yes, they cannot be classed under (popular) stardom. But filmmakers, like actors, are susceptible to the changing tides of fame. They can get serious. But not all the time. They are human, after all.

Put pithily, if we are to judge every filmmaker on the criterion by which we judge Satyajit Ray, Yasujiro Ozu, or Robert Bresson, movies would cease to entertain. I remember what a young director once told me in this respect: "The world needs its Wes Andersons. But without the Spielbergs and Lucases, it would be quite dull to live in." Chandran Rutnam, director, producer, and bon vivant cine-phile would no doubt agree.

Chandran was born to an "artistic family". His mother, Evelyn Wijeratne, had been the sister of Donald Wijeratne, the famous studio man. His father had been more tilted towards literary pursuits, an "English scholar" as Chandran describes him. He was educated at S. Thomas' College Guruthalawa, where he came under a set of influential teachers. He remembers four names in particular: Dr R. L. Hayman, Father A. J. Foster, Bradman Weerakoon, and Duleep Kumar. "They instilled a sound set of values in me. I am grateful."

Even at an early age, he had been an avid film-goer. "When the 1950s came my friends and I would watch as much as two or three movies a day." They had seen "the good, the bad, and the ugly", meaning whatever they could lay their eyes on. One day, while all this was going on, a man had approached his mother, asking whether she would permit him and his team to use one of her houses to shoot a film. She had flatly refused, but young Chandran, sensing opportunity, had coaxed her into giving permission.

"That man was the property master for The Bridge on the River Kwai," he tells me, "Soon enough, I talked him into giving me a job on the set. He obliged. I was hired for 100 rupees a week, a stipend even then but nothing compared to the experiences I got." In his own words, he "excelled at work", and when the man had to leave the country to be in charge of another film, he had readily given Chandran his job. "That's how I became friends with William Holden and David Lean, and with the rest of the cast and crew," he adds with a smile.

The friendships had survived the shooting of the film, and after production wrapped up the production manager had asked him to "look me up" should he ever come to England. "That's the cue I must have been waiting for. Two weeks later, I went to England. When I was in Dorset at the bus-stand, I heard my name being called. I turned around. It was William Holden. He had seen me, beckoned me to his car, and asked me to come with him to a film he was acting in."

Holden was paired with Sophia Loren in a film called The Key, directed by Carol Reed. He persuaded the production manager to take the young Chandran in as his personal assistant. "The manager relented straight away, seeing how friendly Holden was with me, and when shooting was complete, Holden came up-to me just like that and said, 'If ever you are in Hollywood, look me up'."

He remembers what happened next: "I went to Hollywood. I looked him up. And I ended up working at Warner Bros."

All these no doubt left an indelible mark on Chandran's mind. He had been an assiduous worker at Warner Bros, working in different departments without accepting any promotions and climbing up the career ladder. "I spent time there purely because of one thing: to build my own studio in Sri Lanka. That was my dream." No doubt his fertile mind would have seen and approved of the dedication and efficiency which Hollywood had come to be associated with. With his head full of ideas and ideals, he returned to his motherland.

That was several decades back. "I still don't have a studio," he tells me, "My dream hasn't come true." He is woeful. Noticeably.

So how did he turn to making films? Countless biographical sketches have gone through the same story: the friendships he struck with American directors, the story behind Asian Film Location Services, and the various films he produced and became famous for. There's something that they have missed, I suspect, so I ask Chandran to elaborate on the reason why he chose to become a director in his own right. He smiles and reflects on his career.

"I suppose that's to do with the kind of directors I worked with. I worked with David Lean, Carol Reed, John Boorman, George Lucas, and Spielberg. All of them were from the West, where the way films are conceived is totally different to the way they are here. That isn't to say I worked with 'showbiz' directors only, of course: I was involved in Régis Wargnier's Indochine, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1993. I must have been unconsciously imbibing their views on the cinema, which is where I can’t leave out one person whose films have struck me more than anyone else's: Sergio Leone." I ask him whether Leone exercised a big influence on him, and he affirms it: "You see Leone in many of my films, to be honest."

This is where I get down to discussing film craft with him, and he readily fires ideological salvos. "In Sri Lanka, the trend in my day was to go for East European film-making. I didn't follow that trend." I ask him to explain what he thinks a good movie should be, and he replies that as long as it keeps the audience in their seats throughout its entirety, "the director has achieved what he should aim at." The worst criticism a movie can get, according to Chandran, is that it's boring. "Don't ever call MY films boring. I say this for two reasons: One, no two movies should be the same. I can go on making variations on the same story, but I don't do that. I've made eight films, and with eight different plots. Two, I always believe a good narrative should boil down to a good story. If it keeps you waiting for more even if you want to go to the bathroom, that's enough for me."

Hollywood's impact on Chandran manifests itself in two ways, as I see it. One is his devotion to efficiency and his flair for organisation, values he no doubt received in America. The other is his (justifiable) distrust over what he calls "fancy names". When I bring up neo-realism, for instance, he pounces on me. "What do you mean by that term?" he asks me. I stammer - "depiction of poverty", "non-professional actors", "improvisation" - and he laughs. "I don't subscribe to those," he jokes, "I can't make movies on poverty. I make them for only one purpose: entertainment." For Chandran, entertainment is the highest justification for the cinema's existence, a point he drives home when he says that "fancy names, and critics who rant and rave over them, will neither save nor sustain this industry."

His biggest scorn, however, is reserved for "avant-gardism". Characteristically, he again asks me to offer definition. I mutter it out - "personal films”, “slipshod camera style”, “improvisation.” To these he supplies his own rejoinders – "What use is a film that elicits interest only from the director’s wife? Its appeal MUST be broad!"

I put it to him that even American filmmakers were adored by these avant-garde directors, most prominently from France, and he grins. "Alfred Hitchcock was an icon to some of these people. He didn't know what the hell they were talking about. Even about him!" I try to retort to this, but then it occurs to me: he is correct.

And he is spot on. Movies weren't first made to explore serious, overwrought themes, after all. They were made to entertain. Chandran's own career confirms this: with eight films to his name, he is probably the most atonal director in our country, with each of them following unique and yet crowd-pleasing plot-lines. And he is modest about his involvement in them: "I don't think the director is an 'auteur'. Filmmaking is a collaborative art. My tea-boy is as important as my editor. True, some are more important than others, but while on set everyone has a role to perform. I need them all."

These are opinions. Observations. They hold water. I guess I can safely say this about Chandran Rutnam, hence. With eight films directed (his latest, Me Wage Adarayak, was screened at Regal several months back), almost 20 produced, and almost 40 with which he has had some association, he is no dogmatist.

Perhaps what our cinema is in need of is a director who knows that being biased towards "fancy names" will get our directors nowhere. I may be speaking for the rest of my countrymen when I say that Chandran Rutnam is just that person. In a country where the cinema is increasingly becoming a source of aesthetic delight for a select, elite few, he may well be our answer. We should heed his call, then.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, December 16 2015

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Douglas Ranasinghe: Wielding dignity and fame

Theatre and cinema are clean different. Nuance and subtlety are to be met with in both, but it is true that it's more evident in the latter. Actors reflect this, logically enough. Whether they're exploring the human condition or a specific political issue in a work of art, the rift between overacting and underplaying tends to determine how dignified or nuanced an actor can be. In Sri Lanka as with most other countries in the region, what happens is that people confuse the one for the other. This isn't to say that dignity, and dignity of the quiet sort, isn't to be seen in our actors. But that is rare. Especially in the cinema, one may add.

That's what arguably has sustained the film industry all this while, differentiating the amateur from the professional on the one hand and, on the other, the professional from the truly rooted, deeply sensitive human being. Douglas Ranasinghe, who's no stranger to this distinction and has most often sided with the latter type, probably knows this quite well. As with others of his calibre though, history is yet to grant him a full, unqualified, and justifiable verdict. That verdict will not be long in coming, one hopes.

Ranasinghe was born in Kurunegala. As had been an unwritten custom in his family, he together with his siblings had been first sent to the village school, where he learnt his letters. Back then there wasn't anything called "Grade I". Instead he had gone through the "Hodiya Panthiya", loosely comparable (though not completely) to the kindergarten today.

From there he had been sent to St Anne's College. Douglas remembers his days there quite well, naturally: "St Anne's was a missionary school back then as it is today, but unlike now it took in quite a number of non-Christians. Wijeratne Warakagoda, who later went to Ananda, was there. We produced quite a number of people who carved out excellent careers in whatever they did." As a footnote he tells me that with the onslaught of nationalisation throughout the 1960s, the school began narrowing its criteria, admitting only Christians and thereby compromising on diversity and quality.

Young Ranasinghe had taken part in sports activities, which he says influenced his first love. “Almost every boy who took part in sports wanted to join the Army.” Added to this was the fact that he had been a prefect, which probably compounded his desire to join the police. He applied for the post of sub-inspector twice, but owing to his weight he was turned down on both occasions. Happily for him, however, he was called in the third time he posted an application, and was taken in for a training course at Kalutara.

In the meantime, he left school and decided to join Law College, a career as a lawyer being his second love. Recalling them now, he smiles a little. "They were my 'first choices' alright, but Fate had other ideas for me, I suppose. This isn't to say I didn't watching films or plays back then, but we lived at a time when acting wasn't really a career choice by default for us. It was either the government service or any of the professions looked up at during that time, including the law."

He had his experiences in the theatre first, under the inimitable Sathischandra Edirisinghe, whom he had met while waiting for the training course to start (it was delayed by three months). Apparently Edirisinghe had done him a favour at the time, and Ranasinghe had been asked a favour in return. "It was a simple request, actually," Ranasinghe remembers, "He had been selected to play the Corporal in Henry Jayasena's Hunuwataye Kathawa, but for some reason had to let go of the role. Sathis aiya wanted me to take it."

Ranasinghe of course was more than happy to accept the request, and so he ended up on the stage then and there. Ironically, it had been the theatre that had baptised him for the cinema, when a film director, after seeing his performance in the play, had got around and asked after the budding actor from Jayasena. "Henry aiya knew what this man was up to, and had apparently asked him, 'You're taking all my good actors away, aren't you?'"

The director, incidentally, was Lester James Peries. Peries cast Ranasinghe in one of three films he directed for Ceylon Theatres, the quietly moving but often overlooked adaptation of Madawala Ratnayake's Akkara Paha. That had actually been his second role: G. D. L. Perera had directed him in Romeo Juliet Kathawak, which was released one year before.

Ranasinghe is understandably nostalgic as he relates his experiences aboard that film to me. Akkara Paha, in any case, had been an eye-opener for him. I remember Philip Cooray (in his book The Lonely Artist) writing on how Ranasinghe dominated the first half of the story as Samarasena, the hard-bitten friend to the main character Sena. This perhaps would have been due to how Milton Jayawardena underplayed his role as Sena, to the point where “Samare” appears to be dominating him and guiding his every act and move. “Even Dr. Peries once said that he had great difficulty in saving his protagonist from me!”

He is even more nostalgic remembering the great man himself, Lester, who had been his first guru in the cinema. Acting in films, he tells me, is more strenuous than it first may appear, and with Lester that had been slightly less intimidating on account of how much leeway he allowed his actors. "That of course doesn't mean you can while away the time. True, 'Maestro' isn't authoritarian. But he expects something substantive out of you. You have to do three rehearsals for him: one for him, one for the camera, and one for the lights. After all three, he asks you in for the final take."

According to Ranasinghe, that distinguishes Lester by a wide margin, especially on account of how much he expects of his players. "You can’t play the fool with him. You must not only perform well in those three rehearsals; you must also remember what you did in them, so that you can act well with the final take. He remembers nearly every detail of what you did very clearly. Nothing escapes his eye."

Human lives are as divided into chapters and scenes as works of art are. Ranasinghe's life is no exception to this. After taking part in a short film entitled "Bhavana", directed by the legendary Paul Zils and entered into the Berlin Film Festival of 1970/1971, he had approached the idea of learning more about filmmaking and acting. Leaving behind a potential career in law, he left to and studied at the London Film School for three years, spending another six years there and coming back well-versed in the mechanics of his soon-to-become profession. Asked whether he would have done the same should he get an opportunity to go back in time, he answers in the affirmative.

We remember this second chapter in Ranasinghe's life not just for the kind of films he took part in but the restraint that marked them out well. Actors, no matter how hard they try, find it irresistibly difficult to practise discipline. They thus lose in substance what they try to gain through histrionics. In Ranasinghe's case the opposite has been true: restraint has been, for the better part of his career, his guiding principle, and that has served to elevate his performances even when he's a supporting actor. It happened in Akkara Paha, and it showed him at his best in Yuganthaya (opposite Richard de Zoysa, Gamini Fonseka, and Somi Ratnayake), Viragaya (opposite Sanath Gunathilake), and Kula Geya (opposite Vasanthi Chathurani). He is stuck for words when asked whether he can pick a "best performance" from them, and to me this speaks about how clinically but at the same time nostalgically he regards his career today.

Douglas Ranasinghe is of a rare sort: having taken part in the theatre, cinema, television, and even radio broadcasting, he has doubtlessly understood that the one medium cannot and should not obtrude on the other and hence he must keep a respectful distance between them. When asked to comment on the state of these industries today, he is noticeably woeful. "Today, we see the cinema teetering between crass commercialism and anti-war ideologies. The latter type of films wins awards, the former wins hearts. I am of course not saying that we don't see a middle way between these two, but they are hard to come by. As a filmmaker myself, I prefer the lives, emotions, and sentiments of my people to what any outsider thinks they should be. Sadly enough, few directors today realise this."

And here he comments on how different the type of characters portrayed on screen were to today. "Back then we had a kind of character called the 'parajithaya'. They lost out on life. They lost out on love. But through defeat, they became heroic figures. I can think of two characters now: Sena in Akkara Paha and Sugath in Golu Hadawatha. But with the advent of time, they changed and went out of fashion. That's why we see polar opposites in the way characters are depicted in mainstream films now: they are either angels or villains. Such characters do not exist, and reality isn't so stark, but I suspect filmmakers and scriptwriters are playing into audience sentiments."

These are observations, and they are correct, depressing though to hear. They come from an actor who has sacrificed and obtained much. I have come to believe that actor and character are clean different, and that the way audiences interpret any character in a film may wildly diverge from time to time. In Ranasinghe's case, however, the truth is that the person and the performance are (almost) the same. He maintains a quite sort of dignity in real life, as much as he does onscreen. He has sustained an entire career through it. And he has not been unsuccessful.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Lionising the villain and the aesthetic

Review of Indika Ferdinando's "The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno", staged on October 10 and 11 at the Asoka Vidyalaya Gymnasium

Indika Ferdinando's "The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno" doesn't really have a beginning and ending. It doesn't follow conventional theatre for the simple reason that it's crafted as experiment. This however doesn't endear it to the academic and intellectual only, and as can be seen on the emotion registered on the audience's faces, it'd be safe to say that Ferdinando has struck a chord between the aesthetic and the academic. No mean feat that, you must admit.

I have come to believe that labels do scant justice to works of art, but with "Signno" they help. And this isn't my view, please note: Indika himself has made use of labels to help us identify what his story is all about. He's called it a "ritualistic parable", a term which (as per his experiment) succinctly captures both tradition and modernity in one go.

And this isn't all. "A parable to what?" is a question some would ask. "To everything," we can reply. Indika's play delves into the political, social, religious, and indulges satire with them all. He's to be commended for how he has stuck well by his vision ("Signno" basically is his thesis for Monash University) while at the same time keeping in mind that his audience's interest must for three hours (which was how long it lasted) be sustained. By this criterion, he did achieve what he wanted, but I wondered whether he could have achieved more.

Anyway. The "story" that Indika relates to us is a challenge in itself. There are certain points which the audience may grapple with. Does Signno ever repent? Does his triumph over Death augur well? Do Signno’s actions provide some message to be taken to heart by us? These are questions which spectators (or, as Indika prefers to call them, "experiencers") will no doubt ask and will no doubt get little to no replies to. A "given", since "Signno" isn’t supposed to answer or resolve, but to accentuate.

The "message" he brings out in his story isn't easy to tackle either. One can't reveal everything, but the plot basically recounts that timeless but always alluded to fight between Life and Death, or rather the hedonism of the former and the worldly wisdom of the latter. It threatens to delve into Faust, but (wisely) Indika strays from pouring a barrage of cliches on us. In the end what he achieves is what sustains audiences most: a bending (or revamping) of cliche, done in a way which escapes the eye at first but becomes more and more apparent as the play drives into its final, tortuous sequence.

This is where the cast aced. Big time. Saumya Liyanage as "Death" (Vasavarthi Mara) was towering, constantly peppering his role with humour and ferocity (whenever he announces himself, his “entourage” shriek and howl). Without losing his grip on a story that teetered between the larger-than-life and the down-to-earth, he made his final encounter with Signno all the more predictable and at the same time tortuous, which rid the ending of any unneeded "final victory" and instead injected a final, ironic twist into it.

Stefan Tirimanne as Signno was more dynamic, thanks to a script that transformed him not once but thrice. Lending conviction to his first transformation – from a suicidal nobody to a soon-to-be messiah – he then went haywire (as per the script) and craftily outsmarted Death. And here he went through his second transformation – to a power-hungry magician.

By disobeying moral sanction (he imprisons Death and presents himself as God), he invites invasion from angel and demon, and here he faces defeat. But no: through a THIRD transformation (best unrevealed here), he embodied the real twist of the play. The plot-line, after all, has him as Faust and Mara as Mephistopheles. But the ending, with its twists and convolutions and unresolved note, pitted the two against one another and (shockingly) turned the one INTO the other.

The rest of the cast were excellent, particularly two players: Saviour Kanishka as the narrator, who offers comment and appears more the engaged raconteur; and Jithendra Vidyapathi as an effete Salu Paliya, who repeatedly tries to push his "alternative narrative" into the audience, but forgets when he's allowed to do so (the interaction between these two provides much of the play's humour, which threatens to jar at some points but never does, a testament no doubt to how Indika has scripted his experiment). The rest of the cast did wonders, playing multiple roles while accounting for their differing personalities.

Salu Paliya does more than what I mentioned above, I suspect. He provides a point of reference on which we can interpret and make conclusions about the point Indika tries to drive home. There are no heroes in his world, just as much as there aren't any villains.

"Why must we lionise the villain?" Salu Paliya asks, in effect questioning the very flow of the play he's in. He's referring to Signno and Death in one go there, and for me the question says it all about the anti-heroic thrust of the story. Salu Paliya can't succeed in propounding his alternative narrative in the story: the show must go on, and the universe, whether we like it or not, must be housed not by heroes or villains but by life and death, each imperfect in its own special way.

That this is true not just for life and death but for every other character is shown in the sequence of the King and his daughter, and of course that of the old man and his family (when the latter gets to know that his wife is by his deathbed, he has just one thing to say: "Apo, she's here too?").

“More than anything, I want the audience to feel what they’re watching” was what Indika said of his goal in "Signno" in an earlier interview. Did it stand up-to this litmus test? Suffice it to say that for me personally, it did stand up, but not in the way he pulled us into the story by emitting fragrances throughout the hall and even serving refreshments to the audience at the same time that the cast eats in the play.

In the conversations between the narrator and Salu Paliya, the latter's insistence on reconfiguring the story for himself, and of course Signno's “apotheosis” and transformation in the end, there was an erasure of the audience/performance barrier which Indika sought after. It was with these and not with those peeled off, raw devices that the playwright achieved his goal. Laudably.

Yes, Indika won. So did Signno. And so did Death. "How confusing!" Salu Paliya can blurt out. Rightly.

Written for: Sunday Island, December 6 2015

Sunday, December 6, 2015

'Kumbi Kathawa': Play Without Words, Parable in Light Doses

Review of "Kumbi Kathawa", staged by the Chitrasena Dance Company from October 21 to 24 at the Bishops College Auditorium

“Kumbi Kathawa”, the latest production by the Chitrasena Dance Company, is both dance and parable. It offers a message, one which (we're promised) remains pertinent for our time. In the end, what is given to us transcends any spatio-temporal limitations while being "aware" that serious parables cannot be taken by children in heavy doses.

To distinguish between cast and plot on the one hand and setup and props on the other, however, would be doing a grave injustice to the play. The one blends well with the other, bringing them together notwithstanding the fact that there are no dialogues or words in the story. “Kumbi Kathawa” works not because of the story but because of how well it comes together with every other element in the production. A clichéd and vague way of putting it, admittedly. Still.

“Kumbi Kathawa” is aimed at children, but it goes beyond anything that children's theatre can conjure up. And not only because of its ending. The story (in a nutshell that is) is a meditation on the timelessness of goodness, sustained even when cast aside. The ants symbolise this aptly: chased away by a mosquito, they unite together, mingle freely with other insects, get ready for a tea-party, and end up surviving a flood and saving the mosquito from it.

For something that's aimed primarily at kids, the Company's latest production offers subtlety and that in a way which endears to them. The violent rainstorm and the saving of the mosquito represent faith in goodness, pitted against evil and greed. But Anjalika Melvani, who conceived the play and adapted it from Tatiana Makarova's “The Brave Ant”, has frequently noted that she edited the ending and opted for one where the ants save the mosquito.

Melvani does bring out the “parable” in “Kumbi Kathawa” here, but the subtlety she evokes is what infuses energy and verve into what she has done. The ants save the mosquito, yes. But Melvani ends the play at the moment of rescue, like a freeze-frame. There's no "afterward" there. With this, Melvani (whether or not she intended it is for another debate altogether) points out that inasmuch as forgiveness and compassion are virtues to be inculcated, they are virtues in themselves. How so?

By leaving the mosquito and ants on a tin, the producers portray compassion for what it should be, free of celebration-frill and sober to the last. To reinforce this, Melvani has kept away (mercifully, one might add) from inserting a sequence affirming amity between mosquito and ant in a celebratory feast (or a tea-party, for that matter), which would have injected feel-good joy and cheer into the audience but which would also have lost out on the sobriety the ending gained and showed us.

The story ends where it should be, hence: at the point of rescue. Everything else is frill, and compassion "wins", whether or not it wins in a way which erases differentials between insects for good and whether or not it warrants frill and celebration. To show all these would have been too easy. Fatally easy.

So much for the story. What of its cast and props? First and foremost, being a play without words, it relies on movement. But “Kumbi Kathawa” doesn't only contain movement: it also contains elaborate costumes which could have constricted movement.

To keep to a preconceived tempo as the story progresses was probably tough, but the cast does ample justice to what's demanded of them. The ants in particular would have demanded tremendous reserves of energy and exercise, but in the final cut the child-actors playing them ensure that whatever they sweated out doesn't get noticed by the audience. There's perfection here, but not of the laboured kind.

Forget this for one moment, though. Forget the fact that the children had to wear what they did and move according to a preconceived script. Forget that they would have undergone rehearsal after rehearsal while keeping a brutal schedule, oscillating between school and after-school and between after-school and theatre (something which Heshma Wignaraja, who was artistic director of the production, highlighted when she briefed sections of the media on it).

Even without considering all these, the play was a success. But factor in what was pointed out above, and you'll see how “Kumbi Kathawa”, even with decor and lighting and those naturalistic sets (I liked the first sequence in particular, with an elaborate set resembling life along grassland), nothing would have worked without the cast. When the curtain came down, not surprisingly, the cheers and claps were for real. They were also for the kids.

I've mentioned that one can't write about “Kumbi Kathawa” while distinguishing plot and performance from props and setup. Everything comes together in the end, leaving behind nothing in isolation. Viewed this way, the Chitrasena Dance Company's latest production (which has been staged twice before) won with subtlety: by making the audience (and especially the children) aware that while there may be a great many ants around us, it takes one mosquito to ruin their harmony.

But when disaster strikes and everyone gets together to avert it, it is the same mosquito who will get saved. Whether or not it redeems itself and moves on, of course, is not dwelt on in the play. Why? Because it shouldn't be dwelt on in the first place. Compassion and forgiveness are inculcated, as they should be, but at the end of the day we may never know how those whom we save will behave later on. For the sake of humanity though, save them we must. Why? Because that is what compassion should entail.

This was the message that “Kumbi Kathawa” left me with. Powerful enough? Certainly.

Photos by: Luxmanan Nadarajah

Written for: Sunday Island, December 6 2015

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Swineetha Weerasinghe opens her heart

Actors are often remembered for whatever image they conjure up for themselves in film after film. Sometimes this image is hackneyed and overused, to the point where they are venerated as sacred cows and where their real merits (if any) are brushed aside. What happens thereafter is both tragic and inevitable: others in the profession, despite their higher claims to talent and genius, are marginalised.

Fortunately, this has not been the case for the most in our country, though it is true that the conventional acting "discourse", if you will, has privileged stars and popularity over merit. Suwineetha Weerasinghe will no doubt agree.

Some actors are reluctant to offer a biographical sketch. Suwineetha, fortunately, is an exception to that rule. She's ever willing to delve into her past, talk about her present, and “predict” her future. Regarding the latter, she puts it to me at once: on many counts she has (justifiably) mixed feelings about her past, but that doesn't prevent her from looking forward to more films and roles.

Suwineetha wasn't born with a silver spoon. Both her father (an ex-gunman at the Army) and her mother had been from Dehiwela. That's where she was raised, educated at Buddhist Girls College in Mount Lavinia (until Fifth Standard) and later at Dehiwela Madya Maha Vidyalaya. I ask her whether she achieved anything by way of acting during these years, and she admits that she was passionate about the arts. "I liked singing and dancing in particular."

Young Suwineetha was also an avid athlete and a strong netball shooter. And these weren't her only achievements: she managed to complete all three stages of Kandyan dancing while at school. Did any of these things reflect her later career? "Not really," she admits, "because I never really was interested in acting. Certainly not as a profession."

She instead enrolled herself at the Indigenous Medical College for a four-year course. Medicine had been her first calling apparently, but even that hadn't been enough to subvert her fate. Even though she passed her entrance exam and went on to study the course, she had to drop out while in her third year after seeing an advertisement in a newspaper. "It called out for actresses to take part in a new film. Acting was never in my mind, but I decided to take a shot at it." She is adamant on her last point, moreover: she highlights that not even at that time did she entertain acting as a career. "It might have been at the back of my mind, of course," she says, eyes twinkling.

Her parents apparently had mixed feelings about her decision. "My mother was more conservative. She objected to the idea. My father however knew my talent at acting, especially at school. He gave his stamp of approval." In the end the father won the argument: she went for the interview, and was chosen. Naturally, she cut off a potential career in medicine.

For her entry to cinema however, she had to count on two figures of destiny. The first had been the inimitable Robin Tampoe, who cast her in three films: Sudu Sande Kalu Wala (1963, her first); Samajaye Api Okkoma Ekayi (1964); and Sudo Sudu (1965). These films were emblematic of the popular cinema here at the time: largely imitative of Indian films, they made ample use of her talent at singing and dancing.

The second figure of destiny had seen her in Sudo Sudu, and had actually met her after the screening to propose something. "He wanted me to take part in his next film," Suwineetha remembers, "and he told me straight away that this was to be different in outlook: there'd be no village damsels crooning for the lover, no good guy versus bad guy fights, and definitely no saturated melodrama. It was to be sophisticated and aimed more at the intellectual crowd, which means that it would steer away from the popular films I'd indulged myself in at that time. The serious actress in me, I realise in hindsight, wanted an opportunity like this. So I grabbed at it."

The figure of destiny had a name: Lester James Peries. The film was Delovak Athara. Looking back at it now, Suwineetha has this to say: "I haven't regretted taking part in it. Not now. Not ever."

Delovak Athara was a "first". It was unconventional for its time and was a commercial failure. But the director had done something for Suwineetha. He had opened a whole new career for her. "Until then, I had taken part in mainstream films. Delovak Athara was different. In terms of mood, plot, characterisation, it was unique. Yes, it failed at the box-office, but through it, I managed to learn much about serious acting."

This had been compounded by the films she had seen at that point in time. In fact what distinguishes her on this count is how willing she's been in learning about her craft. "I read books. I watched films. The actors I appreciated, like Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Chaplin, and Rita Tushingham, innovated on the kind of performances that actresses opted for back in the day. Needless to say, that spilled over to my career. I am grateful."

From Delovak Athara she moved onto other serious roles. She remembers D. B. Nihalsinghe's Welikathara and H. D. Premaratne's Sikuruliya. Regarding the former, I put it to Suwineetha that we remember it mainly because of the cat-and-mouse game played by Gamini Fonseka (as an ASP) and Joe Abeywickrama (as the unforgettable Goring Mudalali), and that her role (as the ASP's wife) aggravated this conflict to a point where the entire story resembled a Hollywood thriller. She agrees.

"Welikathara took me to Tashkent. I met Simi Garewal, Sunil Dutt, Nargis, and Shabana Azmi there." From Tashkent to Poland (at the Krakow Film Festival), Germany, and Czechoslovakia, Suwineetha says just how awed she was at seeing Europe's finest film studios and industries.

Sikuruliya was of course a different kettle of fish altogether. Suwineetha admits she had to play not one but three women, all tied to the same basic identity but still differentiated by how they adapt to their setting. "Initially I'm an innocent village damsel. Next I'm a wife of a brutal but dwarfish aristocrat. Then I'm a hardy urban woman. You see ‘me’ in them all, but that's not true. Premaratne wanted me to portray three females." I put to her that she succeeded, and that without it the message the director wanted to put across would have been lost on us. She smiles.

There were other films, of course. Hulavali paired her with Gamini Fonseka and Tony Ranasinghe. It took her to the 1976 Tehran Film Festival, where she met Rita Tushingham, the Shah of Iran, and (on his last day before departure) Satyajit Ray. There was also Yuganthaya, which saw her as Simon Kabilana's wife. And there was Malata Noena Bambaru, which saw her play out a frustrated wife to a homosexual aristocrat, played by Joe Abeywickrama.

Meanwhile, television came. She proceeded to take part in Dharmasena Pathiraja’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s "Lady with the Little Dog" and in H. D. Premaratne’s Sandun Gira Gini Ganee. She was there in television even after 2000. Her most recent film, Ira Handa Yata, was released in 2010.

Five years is not a long time for a comeback, and Suwineetha's still at it. Her latest film Bandanaya is slated for release next year. Directed by the often underrated but brilliant Udayakantha Warnasuriya, it promises to delve into the supernatural and horror in ways too difficult to do justice to in writing. Suwineetha herself prefers not to spill any beans about the production. She tells me some details about it, but I prefer to keep them to myself until you've seen the film.

Suffice it to say that it depicts a conflict over property between two sections of the same family, and that one family uses black magic to topple the other. "It's a first for our cinema, I think, and for Udayakantha himself." With a cast that includes Cyril Wickramage, Leonie Weerasinghe, Nethali Nanayakkara, Wilmon Sirimanne, Ravindra Yasas, Dulani Anuradha, and Hemal Ranasinghe, and with a cameraman like K. D. Dayananda, the film will hopefully be a success, especially with critics.

Time doesn't permit these reflections to take their intended course, so I'll have to finish them now. But how so? With a few points to ponder from Suwineetha herself, which are not all that optimistic.

"I worry because we have sacrificed everything to money. Our generation are not being given the respect they deserve. We are not being brought out and asked the right questions. Interviewers are more concerned with the personal than the aesthetic. To make matters worse, those they fawn on as sacred cows have devoted a fraction of their lives to the careers we devoted ourselves to completely. With a situation like this, how can we even think of venerating the past as a means of anchoring it for the future of our film and TV industry?"

Pertinent observations from a person who persists in a career she carved out for herself decades ago. Still. It would do well to take them in, I think. We as a nation and as a community that craves for art and the aesthetic will profit by them. For now and forever.

Photo by: Dushani Pushpika