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