Sunday, January 3, 2016

Thank you, Mr Premaratne

Recently I was perusing lists compiled by acquaintances of the best Sri Lankan films from the past 50 years. I noticed names which had been skewed. Sure, there were the usual titles. But overall, films which deserved slots in the lists were absented for inexplicable reasons. 

Perhaps there were biases against "indigenous" titles which hadn't had a presence outside Sri Lanka, but to me this was stupid. Cinema is cinema. Why should it matter whether a film won here or abroad? If critics and audiences took to it, the list should have a place for it. Purely and simply.

I know for a fact that people still speak warmly about H. D. Premaratne and his films. Who wouldn't? I also know for a fact that some of the titles which still make it into these lists are loved and "loved", which is to say they contain sentimental value. Now here's my question: why should we be fixated on award-clinchers? Why shouldn't we account for the audience, those who genuinely feel for and take to a work of art while being aware that concessions to the box-office can’t come at the cost of critical appeal?

I mentioned H. D. Premaratne. Last December it’d been 10 years since he passed away. There'll be tributes and assessments made of the man and his work. Directors are judged by their final product though, a bane but at the same time an inevitability in an industry where a hundred or so successes can be hampered by one failure. This is as true now as it was then, as true for Premaratne as it was (and is) for other directors. Followers of cinema here however will only have one thing to say about this remarkable man:

"Thank you, Mr Premaratne."

His films won awards, but that's not what they are chiefly remembered for. At the time he began making movies, the Sinhala cinema was split along commercial lines. Some films made money. They came and were forgotten in a few years. Others won awards. They bombed at the box-office.

Premaratne's greatest triumph, for which we are grateful, was proving that you could make profit and keep the critics happy. In this he was ahead of most contemporaries. He was, until his death, a first among equals.

I remember reading about Sucharitha Gamlath's take on Premaratne's Palama Yata. He wasn't fond of it, regardless of the fact that it had won praise from his contemporaries. For Gamlath, Palama Yata robbed the audience while pleasing their eyes. A crude simplification of a film at that, but that was Gamlath.

Gamlath may not have been thinking of all of Premaratne's films until that point, but my hunch is that there were critics who considered it fashionable to find in them everything that was wrong with conventional cinema: profit-oriented and very rarely (if at all) socially conscious. I am however yet to come up with a director who examined class, caste, gender, sexuality, and every other perennial theme stemming from the human condition as evocatively as he did.

I'm thinking of Deveni Gamana here, with its unconventional treatment of virginity in a way which endeared it to both critic and audience. I am also thinking of Visidela, Adara Hasuna, Palama Yata, even Sikuruliya. He inserted frill into them, yes. But that had less to do with shying away from encountering the themes they touched on than a duty he felt towards the producer. Premaratne's son Ranga once confirmed this to me: he made it a point to make money for whoever produced his films.

There are sequences in these films which escape the eye at first but which come back, again and again, in ways which make a crass reading of them an injustice. I'm thinking of the sequence of Swineetha Weerasinghe's character coming across the dwarfish aristocrat in Sikuruliya, by a small river and with him on a donkey. The encounter between heroine and antagonist (yes, those terms do indicate his films had good and bad guys) seems almost as though from a John Ford film, with its panoramic setting and that folksy, yet indefinable, ambiance.

I'm also thinking of the sequence of cross-dressers dancing to that M. S. Fernando classic, "Dili Dili Dilisena Eliyak", from the same film. Such scenes aren't hard to find, even in his other work. They are witness to how well crafted his films were, and bear testament to Premaratne’s craftsmanship, when camerawork, music, lighting, decor, and pretty much every other element comes up to demarcate "pure cinema". They could not have been conceived in any other way, not in any other medium, and certainly not in the commercial cinema. There had to be intelligence. Of a rare sort.

Premaratne had that intelligence. His work bears this out, of this I am certain.

His sympathy for his female characters was evident from the word go, moreover. My friend Chris Dilhan Nonis summed this up for me the other day: "He was spot on with his portrayal of and empathy for women, for the most from a certain social class." Even in Deveni Gamana, where the heroine is relatively affluent, that empathy was unqualified.

I remember Swineetha Weerasinghe pointing this to me with how she had to portray the protagonist in Sikuruliya: as a woman who changes from an innocent village girl to a hardy urban woman, a transformation which required her to portray not one but three different women bearing the same basic identity. To give effect to that transformation would have required skilful direction, which is what Premaratne gave us in his debut. What was more laudable was his attitude to Swineetha's character: he never absolves her, but with the trials and tribulations she has to undergo he never condemns her either.

That was Premaratne. At his best. Unparalleled.

Malinda Seneviratne wrote on his last film, Kinihiriya Mal. "A cast with exceptional skills, good selection of location, and reasonably good cameramanship does not necessarily coalesce into a good film" was his comment. True. Perhaps Premaratne tried to veer away from his usual canvas, to engage with contemporary themes and earn the "socially committed" tag.

But by attempting to do that while keeping to the simplifications which made up the bulk of his other work, he failed. Seneviratne summed this up best: "The urban-rural dichotomy depicted in the film is contrived and unconvincing for such clear demarcations are no longer tenable, not even in the imagination of the romantic ruralised." Kinihiriya Mal wasn't lambasted all the way, granted. But it wasn't the ambitious success Premaratne cut it out to become.

That's all done and dusted though. The man was likable because his films won heart and mind. Few directors today, with their ambitious attempts at besting one other in terms of critical appeal, can emulate what Premaratne left us with: works of art which aimed at the populist and the socially conscious in us. We can all take a leaf out of his book, I believe.

Here’s what we can say, hence.

Thank you, Mr Premaratne. For now and forever.

Photo courtesy of Ranga Premaratne

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, January 3 2016