Sunday, January 31, 2016

The intersection of history and anecdote

Review of Kamalika Pieris’ “Kularatne of Ananda: The Life and Work of P. de S. Kularatne”, published in 2015

Biography and reportage don’t go hand in hand. There are facts to be inflated, comments to be forced in, and anecdotes to be recounted, and because of this a person’s life becomes subject to poetic licence at the hands of the biographer. Those who resist the urge to fictionalise, to point at a particular anecdote and use it as a summing up of one man’s life and career, are rare. Those who don’t are not. For this reason and others therefore, the biographer who practises restraint and resists is to be lauded. Always.

“Kularatne of Ananda” isn’t presened a comment on a personality. It’s instead written as an account (and a faithful one) of a life and career, sustained for more than 75 years and preserved for posterity upon death. Kamalika Pieris, who wrote it, has stated quite clearly that her attempt wasn’t to recreate, but to recount. We can regard her among those rare biographers, hence. True, there’ll be those who’ll consider this book a compilation, which would appeal more to the historian and sociologist than the common reader. But they are wrong. This book has a great deal in store for the common reader. I doubt I can do justice to it in one review.

What comes out through Kamalika’s prose, teeming with facts and coloured only slightly with anecdote, is the account of a man who became larger-than-life with those usual attendant obstacles that visit and revisit such figures. Indeed, had she opted for another way of recounting her story, she would have failed. That is why, when in her preface she explains and slightly apologises for her suppression of the subject of caste that featured in Kularatne’s career, we are ready to forgive, forget, and move on.

This doesn’t make her selective, of course, at least not of the myopic, mischievous kind. What “Kularatne of Ananda” sustains from beginning to end is the thesis that the man was a revolutionist and ideologue, whose entire life was devoted to one primary end: providing an adequate and dignified education for Buddhists, and that (as per Kamalika) in a way which “delivered elite ‘English education’ in a Buddhist atmosphere.” That he succeeded, and that there are those who thank him for this even today, isn’t in doubt.

What’s in doubt (as is typical of such personalities) is his political career, and more importantly the image of him as an inconsistent ideologue. This is where Kamalika throws questions at the reader and waits, patiently, for the subject of her book to offer response. So it is when, in the run up to the government’s decision to take over both assisted and fee-levying schools, Kularatne first affirmed the spirit of that decision and then backtracked on whether Catholic schools should be taken over as well.

There are those who labelled him an opportunist, who looked at him and blurted out “Tightrope-walker!” Typically and thankfully however, Kamalika indulges in neither absolution nor condemnation, and in the end, when we hear Kularatne justifying his decision (he wanted state support for Buddhist schools, and wished to leave the Catholic ones alone), we take his side, but not to the extent of empathising with his act of political tightrope-walking all the way. Like all readable biographies, therefore, there’s no attempt made at presenting the man as infallible.

The book implies that Kularatne and Ananda were one and the same, and (again) to her credit, Kamalika doesn’t take this as a license to insert bias or blow out of proportion. Yes, she devotes no less than six chapters on Ananda College, one of them aimed purely at its cultural, religious, and social contribution to the country. And yet, even in these pages, we see Kamalika shying away from colouring reminiscence and memory with needless frill. Instead we see her describing what happened, with precision, well sourced and footnote-backed. That stands as her biggest strength in her book, because when (especially in these chapters) she swerves off and does make comment, she retains honesty, which lends credence to what she’s saying.

Moreover, with this approach Kamalika not only injects conviction but also gives us a broad canvas in which we can place her subject. She rarely delves into controversy, and where she does (as with the pages she devotes to the conflicts between Kularatne and the Buddhist Theosophical Society), she doesn’t blow it out of proportion, but instead leaves us with enough information for reflection and conjecture. It isn’t the author who engages in guesswork, but the reader. So it is with her depiction of his stints at politics, and so it is with his contribution to our education system.

Which brings me to another point: to whom should we bequeath this book? The sociologist? The historian? The educationist? Kamalika doesn’t question the social content of the movement that Kularatne headed, and she is almost effortless in her attempts at portraying him as apolitical, opposed to ideology but not to the point where he didn’t indulge in it. But there’s so much here that both the sociologist and historian can examine, quote, and add to. That this remains her broader motive can be gleaned from her own words: “I have included every iota of information which I thought would be useful for a researcher later on.”

Some will object to this, arguing that her approach should have been different, more subjective and more in line with the sociological treatise they try to read it as. But for an endeavour such as this (“Kularatne of Ananda” is the first real biography of the man), that approach would have jarred. True, there’s so much in the revivalist movement that Colonel Olcott unleashed, which bequeathed its legacy to the likes of Kularatne, that historians have endlessly pored over.

The debate between theosophy and Buddhism, the emancipation of the Sinhala-speaking rural and urban bourgeoisie in and after 1956, its later transformation to a hybridised elite that teetered between cosmopolitanism and racialism, and the differentiation of the English-speaking, rightwing Buddhist elite (the resurgence of whom Kamalika inadvertently attributes to Ananda throughout the book), who favoured a division between the laity and the clergy, between the secular and the spiritual (“Lay Organisations and the Buddhist Revival: 1890 – 1940”, The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka, George D. Bond), are just some of the themes that her book implicitly touches on, best answered elsewhere. Of course Kularatne doesn’t figure in them all, but what Kamalika presents is enough for us to draw our own conclusions.

In short, “Kularatne of Ananda” contributes much in terms of research, scholarship, and light reading, for both student and academic. It’s a virtual treatise, though mercifully free of value-judgment (for the most at least). And in the end, when Kamalika wishes her subject a speedy journey through samsara, we realise that her book is a good reason to consider biography, not as a subjective, value-imbibed genre, but as a genre that has potential for scholarship and history-reportage. Commendable, to say the least.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Chandrika Kumaratunga's point

Politicians are wont to speak frankly on issues that ail them, particularly with regard to issues they feel should be prioritised in the interests of the country. Sure, there’s no such thing as a clean motive when it comes to them, but it is true that once in a while, they tend to slip up the truth, though conveniently hiding part of it under ideology-garb. Can’t help. With politicians, here and elsewhere, this is as timeless a truism as it’s going to get.

Former president (and present head of a government-mandated office to promote inter-ethnic reconciliation) Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was noticeably irked when she delivered a speech recently. She commented on the trend of some schools in the country to restrict admissions to students of a particular race or religion, and had earned the ire of these schools on social media. She made some points and tried to clarify.

Firstly, she named names. She pointed at Buddhist schools. “Students in them don’t even get to hobnob with Tamils and Muslims. Is it any wonder that this country breeds wars, when we have a set of educational institutions that breed racialism?” She recounted an anecdote from her term in office, when she’d visited one of these schools and found out that not a single student was outside the Sinhala Buddhist community. She admitted a Muslim student, but that act was opposed when the student had to face harassment at the hands of his “friends” (not surprisingly, he had to leave).

And so she offered her bomb: “We need to enforce a minimum quota of minorities in these schools.” She didn’t drop it. She didn’t need to. That was enough. From that point on, therefore, she became a target on social media.

One can question (validly) why she picked on Buddhist schools in particular, but to her credit she argued that the situation was just as despicable in Muslim and Tamil schools. The reaction she got was predictable and respectful of historical realities: “These schools have existed for over 100 years, they were founded at a time when non-Christians were rubbished, and they served a function which continues even today.” Put briefly, the argument is that this country has enough and more space for schools dedicated to “missionary activity”, but very few dedicated to the faith followed by the majority.

There’s nothing wrong in identity-assertion. Human beings are not, and will never be, lotus-eaters who fell from the sky. Even those who brand themselves as identity-less, who renounce faith and embrace a nebulous cosmopolitanism, are marked out well by their cultural, hereditary roots. To demarcate an entire educational institute as “racist” is to miss the point, and to miss some pertinent historical facts.

The point is that these schools were not started with the intention of preserving race and racialism. They were there purely because the Buddhists of this country couldn’t find a proper set of schools that suited their religious requirements. Neither the Catholic Church nor the Church of England could resist sidelining them, and in the end what happened was the creation of a Sinhala Buddhist consciousness that matured and was stunted in later decades. In other words, this consciousness wasn’t birthed by a need to exclude, but by a need to assert. Which is why, from their inception, such schools welcomed and embraced students of other communities.

This doesn’t marginalise what the former president said. But it does raise a problem. A pertinent one. If we’re so insistent on increasing the minority quota, as she suggested, why do we choose to go quiet over other educational institutions that privilege some and discriminate others? No, I am not talking about Muslim and Tamil schools. I’m talking about schools that are assisted only partially by the state, which are handled and managed by religious denominations. If Kumaratunga thinks that only Buddhist schools indulge in such crass selectivity with respect to admissions, she is wrong. And selectively so.

And to be fair, the claim that Buddhist schools make – that very few leading schools exist which cater (exclusively and specifically) to the needs of the Sinhala Buddhist community – is correct. Compare the number of (leading) schools which cater to the Christians, contrast with the number that exists for the Buddhists, the Muslims, and the Hindus, take into account ethno-religious “proportions”, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Isn’t it an injustice, then, to claim that such schools should not exist, that they should be branded as racist by those who themselves sanctioned, by omission or commission, selectivity back in their day?

Of course, the former president hasn’t, to the best of my knowledge, argued for completely doing away with privileging an identity. She has asked for increasing the minority quota (to about five or 10 percent). She has also demanded (implicitly) for other schools to follow, though she specifically didn’t mention the Christian ones. She should.

So what’s the solution? Promoting an amorphous identity-less identity in our curriculum? Hardly. As I’ve written elsewhere, in our education discourse what’s privileged is secularism, not multiculturalism. Utterly crass. To remove religion and culture from our syllabus on the pretext that both subjects inject and promote majoritarianism and minoritarianism is to call for a reality that doesn’t exist. Not because it’s untenable, but because it’s useless: identities aren’t just created by school, they’re created outside it. Racists aren’t birthed by the syllabus, but by their social conditioning. Change and reform that, and you’ll see peace and harmony eventually.

I think Kumaratunga’s proposal was misinterpreted on social media. “Increase the quota,” she said. “She’s asking us to change our history!” howled commentators. To be fair by them, Kumaratunga wasn’t (and isn’t) exactly perceived as a supporter of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. But that’s beside the point. She made a suggestion. Like all suggestions, it was open to debate. Doesn’t mean we should go on a tangent and trash her. And doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be wary of how that suggestion can be interpreted and abused in favour of those who continue, for worse I should think, to grind an axe with the Sinhala Buddhists of this country.

The education discourse in this country, as I’ve implied before, is shaped by identity. To do away with it isn’t the answer. But to accommodate the “other”, to get rid of this conception that views minorities as the “other”, and to affirm an identity that’s neither amorphous nor hostile, is the solution. I’m not sure whether increasing the quota is a panacea, because de-segregation without the attendant and necessary changes in mindsets among our people would be useless.

Put simply, the lady has a point. But that paints just half the picture. Going on a tangent and losing temper isn’t the answer. The answer is to confront the issue, examine history, and be fair to all. Picking on Buddhist schools while sidelining others will NOT help reconciliation. Purely and simply.

We need to work fast, hence. We need to change ourselves. By ourselves.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at

Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Brief Tribute to Irangani Serasinghe

It is difficult to devote one book, let alone one essay, to someone of Irangani Serasinghe’s calibre. This isn’t a clichéd statement. She truly cannot be summarised. For one thing, one is forced to wonder whether she was typecast for the better part of her career. If this is indeed the case, a second question is provoked: would she have fared better if she were selected for other more versatile roles?

This is of course a controversial question, and it is not the aim of this article to delve into controversy. To stay on the safe side, therefore, I will say this by way of introducing you to her: she’s had her share of other roles, and even a cursory, random look at her so-called typecast performances will make you appreciate the diversity she has embraced them with. I got to realise this strikingly when I sat down with her for an interview, several years back.

Irangani’s career was first and foremost in the stage, not cinema. Her “debut” as such had happened while at Girls’ High School, Kandy, where she took part in a production of Shaw’s Pygmalion. I asked her whether that first encounter with the stage left her with the inevitable stage-fright, and she confirmed it, adding as an afterthought that she still has it. She went to the University of Ceylon in Peradeniya, which at the time boasted of the well recognised “Dramsoc”.

She was then chosen for the leading female role in Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. A production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone followed in 1950. This version, adapted by Lyn Ludowyk, was praised by the critic Regi Siriwardena for keeping more in line with the message and theme of the original than with the first English translation of it, done in 1942 by Lewis Galantiere. Siriwardena had this to write about Irangani’s performance: “Except, I felt, for occasional moments in the first Act, she showed remarkable flexibility, control, and sensitiveness. It was the most moving performance I have yet seen on the Ceylon stage.”

I asked her whether acting was considered a viable option or profession by her peers, and she said that “it was never a profession then, except maybe in the Sinhala theatre, although at that time the golden era of the Tower Hall plays was coming to an end. What happened then was that the English theatre became amateurish.” No doubt the lacuna created in this period, partly owing to the identity we as a nation were still seeking, was to be filled by the cinema. Irangani, meanwhile, left for England, where at the request of Professor Ludowyk she studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and where she befriended several key thespians, including the formidable Flora Robeson.

Irangani admitted to me that more than American stars at the time, she admired continental actors, both in the theatre and in the cinema. She offered a list for me: Simone Signoret, Vivien Leigh, Yves Montand, and Laurence Olivier (the former two, incidentally, were married to the latter two). She also admitted that the acting style which had by that time become the vogue across the Atlantic, “The Method”, didn’t quite catch on her: “I did read Stanislavski’s books, but wasn’t very much taken in by his theory.”

We moved on to the cinema then. It was Lester James Peries who got her hooked into film, with her brother, Ivan, having painted a portrait of her many years back. Her first encounter with Peries was in his short feature Be Safe or Be Sorry, where she played an errant driver to comical heights. This was in 1955.

Rekava was a different story. The enormous reserves of dedication, strength, and fortitude that marked out the production of that film, she told me, were reflected in the cast and crew as well.

“You must remember that we were living in a fantasyland back then, with the films we were making. Sri Lanka had so much natural beauty, so many nuances of gesture and feeling registered in our people. Our filmmakers, I felt, weren’t making use of them. That is why I looked very much forward to Rekava. That was different, as we all know. I can’t even imagine what went inside the minds of some directors when they decided to paint foliage in their sets. We definitely don’t lack flora or fauna in this country. And even the actors were to blame for this: overacting had become the order of the day. This was reflected in some of Rekava’s cast too.”

At this point, she told me that while Rekava did get her into the mother-figure she’s known and has become popular for today, it afforded no cause for dissatisfaction on her part. “If you look at my motherly performances now, to be honest, you’ll appreciate that I play each part different to the other.”

I remember these motherly performances very well even now: overbearing in Delovak Athara, urbane and conservative in Ran Salu, passive in The God King, adamant, hostile, and tradition-bound in Deveni Gamana, and long suffering in Awaragira. They all testify to what she told me next: “No two mothers are the same, not on cinema and not in real life.”

Every actor has his or her “other side”, which sometimes can be dark and largely atypical. Irangani Serasinghe has had her share of this type of roles, two of which in particular intrigue me even today. When I set about discussing them with her, she agreed that they were quite unbecoming of her usual niche.

The first was in Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Dadayama. That film was an atypical thriller, atypical because, throughout the story, there can be found traces of melodrama and romanticism which, towards the end (and in that violent encounter at Wilpattu in the final sequence) are completely done away with. The entire film’s experience, that is the interplay between naive melodrama and gritty, near-shock-value realism, was reflected in its cast as well. I put across to Irangani that her performance in Dadayama put us completely on tenterhooks as to where that film was leading to. As you will remember, she is a brothel owner in the film, but she comes to Swarna Mallawaarachchi, the protagonist (and victim), as her fiancée’s mother.

Irangani herself agreed with me when I observed that her image of the “idealised mother” was what immediately made us identify with her would-be portrayal of the antagonist’s mother. Later on, as we realise who she really is, our idealised notions of her are shattered, perfectly in keeping with the anti-romantic spirit of the narrative. She noted that the role earned her both praise and vitriol: “I remember getting some correspondences which lambasted me for my choice of role. I told them that my character and I are two completely different people. There is no conjunction between us, nothing mutual about us.”

H. D. Premaratne’s Kinihiriya Mal was an entirely different kettle of fish, however. In there too, she was a brothel-owner, albeit more caricatured and stark than in Dadayama. There is a reason for this, of course, but now’s not the time to delve into that. Suffice it to say that Irangani received quite a lot of criticism for her performance: “I think I got many correspondences enlightening me on why I should not have taken that role,” she wittily put it to me. Again, her attitude remains the same: acting is acting, and there is a divorce between actor and character.

To sum things up, I believe Irangani Serasinghe has approached cinema from a strictly fresh perspective. I am thinking mainly of her initial few roles here, of course, but one can just as validly think of her later performances. In them, one can find a deeply felt approach to the cinema, with no frills and unnecessary shows or displays of emotion.

Sometimes, as with Delovak Athara, Ran Salu, and Deveni Gamana, she asserts herself. Sometimes she doesn’t. And sometimes, in her less than typical performances in Bakmaha Deege and Sagarayak Meda, although we take time to adjust to her characters, we begin to realise that this mother of all cinematic mothers in the Sinhala film can just as validly move into other roles. That, in the final analysis, may be a testament to her continuing presence in our collective mind. She is to the mother-figure, in other words, what Chaplin is to his irrepressible Tramp.

We as a nation are thankful and happy, I am sure.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Anoja Weerasinghe: Privileging Instinct

Films and plays by nature portray good and bad as polar opposites, and for this reason the actors personifying them sometimes give the impression that the world is housed by paragons of virtue on the one hand and absolute villains on the other. Reality isn’t cast in black-and-white, true, but the temptation to give into the notion that it is ails our artists and actors. It is for this reason that stars who‘ve refused to lend credence to the good/bad dichotomy are to be lauded.

Going by this therefore, Anoja Weerasinghe, actress and social activist, is a living testament to what acting should entail.

Anoja was born in the village of Kailagoda, in Badulla. Although she never received any formal training in her field as a child, she admits straight off that the experiences she went through in her childhood taught her enough and more. Her family had been artistically inclined, moreover, while the bonds they had with village and temple shaped their innate sensibilities. All this must have helped a lot when Anoja began taking part in stage plays, no doubt.

Her childhood had oscillated between Badulla and Moneragala, with her attending schools in both regions and performing items in them. Remembering those days Anoja relates to me one such item, where she had to act as a Japanese princess and one she performed when she was about five or six. “That was my first experience onstage,” she smiles.

She took part in her first play nearly 10 years later, when she was 13. The play, “Anduren Eliyata”, had won the praise of the Chief Guest (a prominent local politician), but it was what he had to say about Anoja herself that moved her. “He basically said that he could see a great actress in me, and that he could see me acting in mainstream films. Now imagine a 13-year-old village girl hearing those words from a politician, and one who regularly visited and resided in Colombo. Naturally, this was BIG news to me!” she laughs.

What she gained during all these years, she puts to me quite clearly, was compounded by her interest in the cinema. Back then, when going to the cinema hall was considered a ritual, Anoja would watch films and walk back about four miles (“because there weren’t any buses after 6.30 in the evening”). She is correct in implying that it was a ritual, of course, and I wonder: do actors receive their baptism of fire at the theatre, and not (as is supposed) in school? The way Anoja describes how she trudged with her friends to the nearest hall for the latest shows in town affirms that, I suppose, even though she herself doesn’t admit it explicitly.

I’m sure people have that one film they watch and are awed for the rest of their lives by, and I’m also sure Anoja is no exception. With no hesitation, she comes out with it: “I remember watching Welikathara quite vividly even today. That was the first Sinhala film shot in Cinemascope, as you know, and at the time we had very few halls, scattered for the most in and around Colombo, which could screen it properly. Not surprisingly, when I saw it, the frame was distorted and the images were projected on the wall.”

She admits that during these years, she remained fixated on the cinema. “I watched as many Sinhala films as I could, for the most because of the actors but also because of their storylines. This was when Malini Fonseka had become a star. After watching her in some films, I became a fan.” She adds that whenever she got to see Malini’s performances, she would imitate her for days on end.

But of course, she was by now a stage actress, not a film star, and because of this she found it difficult to get rid of an overriding penchant to overemphasise. “I still hadn’t grasped the essence of film-acting, which was CLEAN DIFFERENT to the cinema in terms of acting. Not surprisingly, I used to highlight every nuance and shade of emotion I’d have to play out, even when I was initiated into the cinema.”

That initiation came about in 1979, when she acted opposite Malini Fonseka in Monarathenna (“My first real performance was actually in Tak Tik Tuk some time back, which lasted for about 30 seconds”), which had marked the first (“and last,” she emphasises with a smile) time she made the mistake of blurring the distinction between cinema and theatre.

“Basically, I overacted. My co-stars could have got angry at me for this, when it was clear that I committing the mistake again and again, but they didn’t. Malini akka and Daisy akka (Rukmani Devi) instead comforted and corrected me. They tutored me on the mechanics of acting in front of a camera. I found that very helpful, and to this date I am grateful. They never made me feel like an outsider or a newcomer.”

Anoja has had her fair share of both commercial and non-commercial films, but it’d be wrong of me not to say that we remember and admire her greatly for those performances where she acted free of frill and seriously. She rattles off a list here, but because of spatial constraints I can’t include them all here. Suffice it to say that they all show her at her best, depicting the sort of female protagonist the Sinhala cinema epitomised in the 1980s.

As I pointed out at the beginning, the good/bad distinction depicted in the characters of our films has been overused beyond repair. With Anoja’s characters, however, we enter a different terrain, which reduces that opposition to nothing more than a convenient fiction. I admit I’m not a film critic, but when I see her in Siri Medura (for instance) this is what I discern quite clearly.

It is a testament to how strong she has stuck by this vision that she’s instilled into most of her characters that ambiguity which shields them from the good/bad distinction. They all are flawed, they all have their darker shades, but this never for once dims our sympathy for them, particularly when they’re hard done by a (largely) patriarchal world.

When talking about her in this regard, however, there’s no way I can evade talking about D. B. Nihalsinghe. “How on earth could I have known that about a decade after watching Welikathara, I’d end up acting under him?” she smiles. “He was the cameraman for Professor Sunil Ariyaratne’s film Muhudu Lihini, in which I acted, and he saw my performance.”

Apparently when her name was suggested as the female lead in Nihalsinghe’s adaptation of Arawwala Nandimithra’s Maldeniye Simion, both author and producer had been sceptical. “They were worried about how well I could fit in a serious setting when all they’d seen of me, by that time, was a crooning lover running from one bush to another in commercial films. But Nihalsinghe was adamant. He wanted me for that role, and if he couldn’t have me, he wouldn’t make the film.”

They relented in the end, thankfully, and she took part in what would be later regarded as one of her finest performances. I haven’t seen Maldeniye Simion, nor have I seen Keli Madala (also directed by Nihalsinghe and also featuring Anoja), unfortunately, so I can’t comment beyond this. But Anoja’s fond reminiscences about the director merit mention, and I quote in full:

“I was like a ball of clay under D. B. Nihalsinghe’s direction, to be honest. He moulded me excellently. To this day I still can’t understand how I played for him in those two films. He’s so soft-spoken that when he instructs me on how to act in a particular sequence, the actor beside me can’t hear him. In a very subtle manner, he drew the characters I played for him into my soul. And in the end, I acted with the likes of Joe Abeywickrama, Swarna Mallawarachchi, and Ravindra Randeniya thanks to him. He was my guru.”

Maldeniye Simion won for Anoja an award at the New Delhi International Film Festival, the first for a Sri Lankan. “People think that the competition was centred on South Asia, but this isn’t true. There were actors and actresses not only from Asia, but from the rest of the world as well.” In any case, her winning the award led to the next chapter in her career, when Lever Brothers, together with some friends of hers, financed a studentship at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA).

I personally suspect that her experiences at LAMDA are enough to fill several chapters. Anoja herself offers a summary of them all: “What I learnt at LAMDA was that acting was an art, but more importantly a multifaceted art. I never knew, for instance, that there was a need to train one’s voice, but we had to take voice-training exercises there. We even went for fencing classes! Of course, all that helped, and in fact if you compare my performances before I went to LAMDA with those I gave afterwards, you’ll notice subtle differences.”

I put to her here that despite these subtle differences, there’s that basic, unyielding, and raw diction in her acting that not even LAMDA could refine, and for this reason we still treasure her performances. She answers this by telling me that although we still draw a boundary between actors who’re formally trained and those who’re not, that boundary is actually a fiction.

“Look at Gamini Fonseka and Joe Abeywickrama. They didn’t ‘study ‘acting as such. But they learnt their trade, whether at school or in their village. To me, hence, this distinction people talk about is meaningless, because even though we were never actors professionally at the outset, we knew our trade by instinct.” When I tell her that this may well be seen in actors today, she disagrees. “Back then we knew how to respect our elders, and how to look at and up-to them and learn a thing or two. I don’t see that with actors in today’s generation."

To wrap things up, I end this little piece by her reminiscences aboard another film she looks back at fondly: Parakrama Niriella’s Siri Medura, which she acted in before her stint at LAMDA.

“When I was acting there, I didn’t know what film-acting entailed, a problem that bothered me particularly in the final sequence, when I had to give in to hysterics after shooting and killing the main character with a gun. This involved a lot of footage, which necessitated a series of rehearsals and a perfect final take. When Parakrama aiya asked me to do a rehearsal, however, I was lost. How could I act out when there was nothing in my mind? I told Parakrama aiya to go for the take, hoping that something would ‘come out’. What happened next? The camera started rolling, and I began asserting my natural self. This led in turn to a barrage of hysterics which continued until the very last shot. That first take was taken in. Just like that.”

It is to Anoja’s credit that very few actors, even veteran ones, can act and come out unscathed this way. Of course, she offers a qualifier here: “If I were asked to do this sequence today, I don’t think I can comply!” The confession of a truly instinct-driven actor, I believe, and one because of whom our cultural firmament has become richer and richer by the decade.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, January 20 2016

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Chandran Rutnam on life with the movies

For a man who has sought to redefine our film industry, Chandran Rutnam may well regard all he has done until now as “stepping stones to higher things”. After all, no other serious filmmaker here has tried so hard to connect Art and Commerce as he has. For such an enterprise a film education of a very high order is needed. Needless to say, he has got it.

Connecting art and commerce is, I suspect, harder than doing with one to the exclusion of the other. This is something that has already been done in the other arts. The introduction of the sonata form in music and the freeing from perspective in painting are the two best examples for this. There art and commerce mixed successfully.

But is it possible in the cinema? To answer that, we need to look at the place where such a thing has been achieved, and where Chandran Rutnam has not gone away from without an active schooling. If Hollywood were a textbook, I suspect he would have been one of its most assiduous readers.

This is where we go back in time. Rutnam’s reminiscences begin in 1956, when he became the prop-master, to his delight, for the production of The Bridge on the River Kwai. Working ardently in return for a weekly pay of 100 rupees, not only did he excel in his work, but he also won the admiration and friendship of two personalities who would leave an impression on him for the rest of his life. One was David Lean, who directed the film. The other was William Holden, who played the American lead role in it.

Two things happened there. The production manager of the film asked Rutnam to “look me up” if ever he forayed into England. As Rutnam put it, “I went to England two weeks later, and I looked him up.” In England he met, of all people, Holden again, and he wound up as his personal assistant for the production of The Key, in which Holden co-starred with Sophia Loren. Then the second coincident happened. On the eve of his departure, Holden invited the up-and-coming artist to Hollywood, and, should he be there, to “look me up.” Again, in Rutnam’s own words, “I went to Hollywood, and I looked him up.”

If ever I were asked what the two most far-reaching things to happen to filmmakers in my country were, one would be Lester James Peries being tipped for the top prize at Cannes after the actress Maria Schell saw Rekava, by then a local flop despite its daring style, while in Colombo. The other, without any doubt, would be Chandran Rutnam’s foray into Hollywood through David Lean and William Holden.

For the next decade or so, he would work, with painstaking dedication, at Warner Bros., gaining innumerable experiences along the way. Disregarding his salary, he would deliberately pass up promotional steps along the career ladder for the sake of working in different departments, gaining hands-on-experience which no other director in our country ever would. Upon his return to Sri Lanka, however, his preoccupation was not to make films, but to build our country’s first ever film studio. That was over a quarter-century ago. We still haven’t got a film studio of our own. Rutnam is noticeably glum at this point. “My biggest disappointment,” he says of it.

Alston Koch and Jacqueline Fernandez in According to Matthew
So what exactly is it that binds his films together in common? Certainly not their stories – as he himself has told me, he has no predilection for any one theme in particular. To this end he differs very little from Lumet, a director who refused to thread his films with one common, trademark theme. Rutnam’s stories are all atonal. But one thing binds them: an inimitable blend of Hollywood and the indigenous that, I suspect, few filmmakers in his country can reckon with. If Janelaya (Witness to a Killing, 1990), his homage to Cornell Woolrich and the classical Hollywood thriller, seems more authentic, and genuine, than most other like-minded thrillers made here today, it is mainly because of those years of training he gained in the US without losing his footing in his home country.

Mere imitation of Hollywood is not what especially distinguishes Janelaya today. No “on the surface” glitz and style can ever be validated in his films – it is what lies beneath them, along with the influences imbibed by him, that accounts for their boldness. In Janelaya, arguably his most explicit homage to Hollywood filmmaking, a boy witnesses a murder outside his apartment window. Like the proverbial “boy who cried wolf”, however, no-one believes his story. The mute murderer (played in an award-winning performance by Ravindra Randeniya) and his accomplice (Anoja Weerasinghe) try to kidnap and silence him, with the result being a tense encounter atop a high-rise, uncompleted building.

The story could have been embellished in a hundred different ways. But Rutnam limits it to the most essential details, sparing all frills and, in the process, heightening the tense relationship between the boy, his skeptic parents (Tony Ranasinghe and Swineetha Weerasinghe), and the two murderous neighbours. He has told me it was a remake of a Hollywood thriller (not, incidentally, by Hitchcock) – on my first viewing, however, I felt no such thing. It is distinctly Sri Lankan to the core, the sort of Hollywood homage that could only be authenticated in our context by a director of Rutnam’s capability.

What lies behind all this are two of the most straight-forward assumptions of the cinema one can ever come across. For Rutnam, who can never be called an “auteur” in the conventional sense of that term, and who has never developed a predilection for any particular subject-matter, cinema is entertainment. Usually, this would be an object of ridicule in a country where “entertainment” has been mixed up with “frivolity”, but for Rutnam, the word is the highest justification for cinema’s existence. “What I want to achieve is a film that keeps you to your seat, no matter what urge you may have.” The solemn Hitchcock would have made the same statement. “You would have to design your films just as Shakespeare did – for an audience,” he once remarked. For Rutnam, this statement is nothing short of the truth.

This explains his fascination with American filmmakers, especially Spielberg and Hitchcock, whom he met. It seems to have reinforced in his mind two things – a flair for organisation, brought on by a near-decade spent working in Hollywood, and assuredness with a sense of readiness in shooting a film.

The latter is also a Hollywood trait, but Hitchcock seems to have figured in a lot there also. “When I asked the Master, sitting behind a desk in a room wallpapered from ear to ear with the storyboards for his next film, as to when he would finish it, he facetiously replied, ‘I have already finished it. All that’s left to do is shoot it.’ ”

It is difficult to imagine this Hitchcock elsewhere than in Hollywood, just as it is difficult to imagine Chandran Rutnam subscribing to any school of filmmaking other than Hollywood’s. His guiding principle in his art? “Three words: a good story.” The response, I feel, of only a strictly and truly professional filmmaker, perhaps the only example we can show from our country.

The second, and more radical, assumption he has made is not to subscribe to any film-school labelled with what he contemptuously refers to as “fancy names”. He holds equal derision for both neo-realism and avant-garde – miles apart in their respective goals, but still held together by the quirkiness of their names. Arguably, both neo-realism and the French New Wave can be counted among the most far-reaching influences exerted on our film industry ever since Lester James Peries made Rekava in 1957.

Rutnam’s suspicion over those “fancy names” is by no means invalid. For him, nothing exceptional in filmmaking was preached by either school. When I brought up the neorealist cinema’s championing of non-professional actors, he guffaws – “Is that unique to them? I’ve been using non-pros all my life, and you can hardly class me under their brand.” When told that neo-realism sought to portray poverty as it was onscreen, he guffaws again – “You can’t show the same thing again and again. That'd be quite dreary.”

His biggest skepticism, however, is reserved for the avant-garde movement. “What is the true meaning of that word?” he asks me. I mutter my own definitions: “personal films”, “slipshod camera style”, “improvisation”. To these he supplies his own rejoinder: “What use is a film that elicits interest only from the director’s wife? Its appeal must be broad.”

Indeed, a valid film, he seems to be saying, is not one that makes every concession imaginable to the box-office, but which extends its appeal to the lowest common denominator without insulting the intelligence of the audience. It can hardly be said, after all, that Shakespeare toned down the poetry of his dialogues just so to kowtow to his audience. A reasonable compromise between Art and Commerce – this is what, in Rutnam’s view, will validate films as the most universal art-form in the world.

I can safely say one thing about Chandran Rutnam. With eight films directed, 13 produced, and almost 40 with which he has had some association, he is no dogmatist in the local film industry. Perhaps what our cinema is in need of, more than any other thing, is a director who has no prejudice or predilection, and who is eclectic enough to appreciate that being steadfast over notions of “avant-gardism” will get filmmakers nowhere. Chandran Rutnam may just be that person. In a country where cinema is increasingly, and shockingly, becoming a source of aesthetic delight for a select, elite few, Rutnam may well be our answer.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, January 17 2016

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Tissa Liyanasuriya: Wedding the critic and the audience

With four films to his credit, and with all of them accepted unanimously by audiences, Tissa Liyanasuriya has come a long way. There are those among us for whom the cinema is a minority art. This is because we are of a different generation, a generation that spurns the populist tendency most films have taken to today.

But then, there are those who still cling to old-fashioned norms of the film medium, who think that only wide appeal can vindicate its existence. What is commendable about Liyanasuriya’s attempts is that they have never stuck to either dogma. Indeed, if ever a “middle cinema” ever sprung up in the context of Sinhala cinema, the credit must be largely his. For he, with just four films, has done what few others have dared not: to wed popularity with acclaim. Filmmakers of all walks of life know for a fact how difficult this is. Tissa Liyanasuriya has achieved a fugue, therefore.

He was educated at St. Joseph’s College in Maradana. While in school, he took part in various radio programs, most notably dramas produced by K. A. W. Perera. This was at Radio Ceylon. During this time, he was fed on a diet of popular films, from both the West and East, with the religious epics of Cecil B. De Mille and the melodramas of Bollywood appealing to him. “I remember watching the films of DeMille, William Wyler, and David Lean with deep enthusiasm,” he says. No doubt these early encounters with the cinema left in him a conviction of the medium’s commercial potential.

It was K. A. W. Perera who got him into filmmaking, just as he had got him into Radio Ceylon. In 1958, Lester James Peries and his crew, including Willie Blake, were looking for suitable assistant directors to accompany them in their latest film, an adventure epic set in the 17th century. Perera, who had been scriptwriter for Peries’ first feature Rekava, got Liyanasuriya involved in the production.

The film, Sandeshaya, was to be shot at Belihuloya. The revolutionary aspect of the film, more or less, was that it was to be shot outdoors, barring a few sequences to be filmed in a studio. “There were three assistant directors in it: Vijaya Abeydeva, Sumitra Gunawardena, and myself.”

The film had cost nearly 500,000 rupees, quite a lot for its time. Of course, it became one of the most successful box-office hits in the Sinhala cinema at the time, something of a feat considering how much effort had been put to shy away from the then tendency to shoot everything indoors: “We spent almost eight months on location, mind you.”

Sandeshaya was to mark Liyanasuriya’s baptism into the cinema, as he entertained his own notions of cinema, different to those of both Peries and mainstream commercial filmmakers. He had seen quite a number of films made by Bimal Roy, especially Do Bigha Zameen. What caught him while seeing them was the way they had incorporated semi-operatic songs and dance sequences without losing a realistic “edge” in the storyline. This stayed with him, as he set out to make his first film in 1964.

The film was Getawarayo. The story in it was essentially that of a village lad who treks off to the city, in search of better prospects. He succumbs to urban life, which results in the slightly contrived, fairy-tale-like climax towards the end (only temporary, however: after Fonseka’s character triumphs in a boat race that echoes the chariot race sequence in Ben Hur, he returns to his village to find that his lover has abandoned him).

Nonetheless, Liyanasuriya’s first attempt was commendable in the way it chartered the main character’s ups and downs, victories and defeats, with no effort put into making a melodrama out of them. The cast had Gamini Fonseka, Tony Ranasinghe and Joe Abeywickrema, the latter of whom would become a regular in Liyanasuriya’s films. Getawarayo also brought him into contact with Mike Wilson, the mildly eccentric bon vivant whose credits had included a Sinhalised version of James Bond (of all things!), and Shesha Palihakkara.

Of his other films, Saravita (1965) holds a special place in Liyanasuriya’s memory. Produced by Serendib Productions, which sought to finance films falling into the “middle cinema” category, it was Liyanasuriya’s first real experience at the director’s helm, considering that Getawarayo had been co-directed by Mike Wilson. It also brought him into close contact with Joe Abeywickrema, for whom he has the highest regard. “Joe could fit himself perfectly in any role: he was essentially a character player. That’s about the most difficult type of actor you can ever be.” Saravita had been scripted by K. A. W. Perera, partly by Liyanasuriya himself.

He has a high regard for the acting profession. “Personally, I never restrict an actor’s interpretation of his/her character to what the script dictates. I allow them to improvise, on set if necessary. I will, of course, correct it if it is not in line with my own interpretation of the character. And I do not approve of overacting. At all. I hence consider myself fortunate for having had actors who were restrained in their performances.”

Two films – Punchi Baba (1968) and Narilatha (1969) – later, Liyanasuriya decided to join the Government Film Unit, to enter the second part of his career. “Back then, our cinema was not in a very happy state. It wasn’t stable. That was inevitable, considering the rift which existed between the films mainstream directors had been to that point indulging in, and the films people like Dr. Peries were making. I decided to join the GFU hoping to learn about documentary work.”

However, his first few attempts at documentary work were “half-heartedly” done: “I could never leave behind narrative cinema. There was and continues to be a gap between documentary work and feature work. I agree. But for me, this gap was difficult to bridge.” Liyanasuriya may have realised that documentary work was clean different to feature films. There is, admittedly, a class of theorists who have pointed out that no essential difference exists between the two. But that is rare.

“My first documentary, if you could call it that, was a short feature titled Deepthi. It was about four University students: one Sinhala, one Tamil, one Burgher, and one Muslim. Its theme revolved around communal harmony and coexistence. I found it extremely difficult to get away from the feature films I had made, so the documentary followed a narrative structure.” Later, however, he was able to weed off traces of the narrative in his work at the Unit, especially when he was sent to the Pune Film and Television Institute. His teacher there was none other than the great Basil Wright, who had made Song of Ceylon. From then on, he found his work relatively easy.

Has Tissa Liyanasuriya followed a guiding principle in his career? Maybe not. The closest thing to such a principle has been this: that imitating another film industry or tradition will not get us anywhere.

“I did watch and enjoy films from both Hollywood and Bollywood. This does not mean that I sought to imitate either of them when making films on my own. We have our own social practices, way of life, religious morals. Why should we indulge in other traditions? Our films should reflect them so as to appeal to our people. For me, this is where the cinema can be vindicated. This is where I placed my films in. When it comes to a ‘national’ film industry therefore, the needs of Art and Commerce must be satisfied, without sacrificing one for the other.”

He did receive his share of criticism, though. “I remember certain critics saying that Punchi Baba had plagiarised Chaplin’s The Kid. The stories were not that similar, and besides, I did not get to see Chaplin’s film until these accusations arose. Similarly, these critics thought that Narilatha had borrowed from a Tamil film. Again, this wasn’t true.”

There are directors who have achieved a fusion between the critic and the audience, admittedly. But they are rare. In the final analysis, what makes Tissa Liyanasuriya’s attempts all the more worthy of accolade is that his films were few in number. What other director here, after all, has attempted to vindicate his views on the cinema through merely four films?

I know Liyanasuriya has. And I know he has been vindicated.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, January 13 2016

Monday, January 11, 2016

Revisiting the cinema of Vasantha Obeyesekere

Vasantha Obeyesekere was honoured at last year's Derana Film Awards ceremony. About time too, I think, although recognition-tokens are nothing if justice hasn't been done to the true worth of those to whom they've been dished out.

To my mind and until now however, Obeyesekere hasn't had a book written on his career, nor has there been any substantive essay written on his films (there are exceptions, but I have my reservations). As a cine-phile I am of course thankful to Derana, but I persist: to be fair by him, one must be fair by his work. Biographical sketches and superficial observations will get you only that far. I hence hope this essay, primitive though it is, will provoke others to follow.

Regi Siriwardena once wrote that popular cinema, far from yielding to myths and fantasies, could at times “subvert socially enforced discourses” [1]. As example he pointed at Dadayama. To class Dadayama under a category of films that dabbled in socio-political commentary while retaining elements of popular cinema is to say everything about Vasantha Obeyesekere in one go. That distils the man. Succinctly.

Popular cinema was always considered as an instrument of propaganda and unabashed myth-making. That is why, when a serious cinema emerged in Sri Lanka, directors tried not just to refrain from inserting any trace of commercial films but to do away with them to the extent where their films needed a new conception of the medium to be appreciated in their entirety.

What Vasantha Obeyesekere realised in his career was that the tropes rampant in mainstream cinema could be used to question both tradition and modernity. It is correct to consider his work unprecedented in this respect. Any discussion of his career must hence be centred on this: that is what distinguishes his films from those of other filmmakers.

But I am getting a little ahead of myself here.

Personal relations figure prominently in Obeyesekere’s work. They do not survive for long: the idealism that marks them out at first are shattered, as time goes by, by external forces. These forces aren’t always political, but they exist and persist. That doesn’t just differentiate his work from his contemporaries, it also distinguishes his earlier and middle phases from his later phase (I will explore this shortly).

This came out very forcefully in his middle phase. Kusum in Palagetiyo is in love with Sarath, despite their obvious social gap (Sarath works for her father, a mudalali at a printing press). When he elopes with her to his house, Kusum’s idealisation of marriage begins to crumble. Sarath’s family do not take kindly to her high-bred notions of marriage life. When she realises the painful reality of what she’s bought herself into, the film begins to take us into its tragic but inevitable finale.

Palagetiyo is not Obeyesekere’s greatest film – that credit should be jointly shared by Dadayama and Kadapathaka Chaya – but it was nonetheless a landmark for its time. There’s no better way of identifying both director and film than by contrasting him against both the "bourgeois idealists" and "bourgeois realists" [2] among his contemporaries. That not only justifies the point that he wasn’t overly concerned with the political. It also exemplifies him as an artist who never confused the personal with the political but knew how well the two could blend together.

Part of this must be attributed to Obeyesekere’s approach to filmmaking. He scripted his own films, which allowed him to exercise near-complete control. Listen to some of the speeches in his films, and you’ll come across sequences which temptingly indulge in melodrama, only to withdraw in time. They crop up again and again, one of the many motifs that bind his work together. These motifs could have only been birthed by the level of control he was able to impose on his films.

There are more subtle ways of identifying his agility in this regard. Take his dialogues and a sequence from one of his films to illustrate this. When Peter Gunawardena from Dorakada Marawa meets Priyantha, the man who’s engaged to marry the woman Peter once loved, he states he has an important matter to discuss with him. “මොනව ගැනද?” (“What about?”) Priyantha asks, to which Peter replies: “About Subashini”. Both question and reply objectify Subashini, and from that point on that is how every other character views her: an object to ridicule and slander. That one line presages her crisis, but it’s so subtle that it can be missed. Easily. Obeyesekere’s genius was that he was adept at obtaining nuance of expression in his dialogues, and this comes through even in his weakest work.

When he ventured into the political while trying to illuminate personal relations though, Obeyesekere lost his touch. Here I’ll look at one of his most politically coloured films, Maruthaya.

I can't really agree that Maruthaya showed an "uncanny ability to recapture onscreen the density of social specification" [3]. That is how Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema puts it. By "density" what's probably being described is the way the film concentrates within itself the personal and socioeconomic crisis that its three protagonists face. There's "specification" here alright, enough and more.

But what I can't fathom or credit is how that crisis progresses from then on. Obeyesekere's penchant for eschewing narrative-chronology is apparent here as well, but that doesn't help untangle the ideological web it ensnares itself into. Neither the literally stagey scenes (where the three protagonists are illumined in a dark room, met by friends and acquaintances who abandon them then and there) nor the intensity of the dialogues and cutting helps, and in the end we're left with a void where metaphor and ideology collide so much that they almost become obtrusive. The formal "density" offers very little compensation for this.

To hold Maruthaya superior to Diyamanthi, his only commercially-oriented work, is to my mind erroneous, but that's essentially what the book concedes ground to. Diyamanthi was coloured by contrivances that were part of our mainstream cinema at the time, yes. But it was a film that was refreshingly aware of its shortcomings, which at one point (after Vijaya Kumaratunga's character throws his "useless" Bachelor of Arts degree to the dustbin) yielded unapologetically to romanticism. Between this and Maruthaya hence, I prefer the former, if at all because it never tried to overreach itself.

Diyamanthi also precipitated Obeyesekere's mature phase, while presenting the obverse of the kind of films he'd make from then on. If his later films presented a clash between reality and fantasy to signify political comment, this one did so as cover for a Hitchcockian romantic thriller.

After Palagetiyo we see two films that are his most perfectly conceived. I have unfortunately not seen Kadapathaka Chaya in a long time, so memory fails me. But I have gone to Dadayama again and again, and I am convinced that he intensified his outlook on personal relations in it. The actors he took in for both films must have helped of course, and to my mind no better actress than Swarna Mallawarachchi could have played the protagonists in them.

In both these masterpieces, we see fantasy and reality cohabiting, and not always in obvious ways. Perhaps this is an abstract statement, so let's examine a sequence from Dadayama, where the antagonist Priyankara Jayanath (Ravindra Randeniya) visits Rathmali (Mallawarachchi) with his "mother" (Irangani Serasinghe). When I interviewed Serasinghe, I put to her that this immediately reinforced in our minds the image of her as the ideal(ised) mother-figure.

Those who have seen the film will no doubt remember what happens next: the "mother" turns out to be a brothel owner, whose role in the film is to trick Rathmali into an embarrassing situation, so as to destroy her credibility should ever she file a case against Jayanath. I told Serasinghe that this in effect ruined her credibility as the ideal mother-figure, which went by way of emphasising the rift between romanticism and realism. She laughed and agreed.

The same can be said of Kadapathaka Chaya. Pairing Mallawarachchi with Vijaya Kumaratunga was ironic: Vijaya's first onscreen role was as her lover in Hanthane Kathawa. Pairing the two of them with Sanath Gunatilake also offered irony: Gunatilake and Kumaratunga had by that time been paired as comic heroes in a series of popular films, which as Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema aptly suggests were comparable to some Hindi movies that dwelt on comedy and love. It is in here, and not in Maruthaya, that we see real "density". Multi-layered and ironic. But never obtrusive.

Moreover, with no real intermediary between script and direction, Obeyesekere would've been in a position to realise his vision intensely, a point driven home by his almost overwhelming use of quick cutting. Watch (for instance) the sequence of Mercy Edirisinghe's contortions of face and body juxtaposed with Kusum's and Sarath's love-making in Palagetiyo, or the final confrontation between Mallawarachchi and Randeniya in Dadayama, or the sequence of Mallawarachchi killing Kumaratunga in Kadapathaka Chaya.

The first sequence shows the agonised emotions of a woman beset with jealousy, who creates trouble for the couple and provokes their tragedy. The second sequence pits male chauvinism against one woman's powerful attempt at asserting her dignity. The third sequence is the obverse of this: the woman is able to assert dignity and vengeance, and she does this at the exact moment when the man (who has raped her continuously and is her brother in law) is "impotent" (he is recovering from a leg injury at the hospital). In these, dexterous editing aligning image to sound and emotion bears out Obeyesekere's savage view of personal relations, at once overwhelming and inevitable in their resolution.

What do we glean from all this? That for him, "the final measure of truth is both moral and social" [4]? Yes, but I'd like to take out something more: that in the films of Vasantha Obeyesekere, if tradition is stifling, then the forced thwarting of it by modernity leads to total collapse and decay (“leaving only an empty shell behind” [5] ). One can argue that this reinforces traditionalist values, but it does not. To hold tradition inferior to modernity because of the retrogressive nature of the former is to ignore the acquisitive, ruthless character of the latter.

For me this dualism is best exemplified in Dadayama: it is tradition that condemns Rathmali when she is abandoned pregnant by Jayanath, but it is the same representatives of tradition that egg her on to fall for the surface-allure of his character. In Obeyesekere's universe the moral and the social are "two sides of the same coin" [6], and so (it would seem) are tradition and modernity, both resembling one another in terms of their predatory, male-oriented base. That goes a long way in establishing this extraordinary artist in our country as filmmaker and visionary.

[1] “Visual Media and Mass Media", 1984 - Regi Siriwardena
[2] "Conversation with Sri Lankan Director Dharmasena Pathiraja" - Kinema Journal
[3] Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema - Ashley Ratnabivushana and Wimal Dissanayake, page 49
[4] Ibid
[5] "Obeyesekere's Cinema: from 'Palagetiyo' to 'Dadayama'", 1983 - Regi Siriwardena
[6] Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema - Ashley Ratnabivushana and Wimal Dissanayake, page 49

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, January 10 2016