Monday, February 29, 2016

A relic ‘unearthed’

A “reading” of Namel Weeramuni’s production of H. C. N. de Lanerolle’s “The Dictator”, staged at the Lionel Wendt Theatre on February 7 

Namel Weeramuni’s production of H. C. N. de Lanerolle’s “The Dictator” transforms a theme that’s politically contextualised into one that’s timeless and universal. For the most. I liked the sets, the dialogues, the scripting, and the flow from scene to scene. There was rhythm, or rather the illusion of rhythm, so pivotal to the play for the simple reason that it detours rather deftly when the audience neared its end. Very few English plays, particularly those staged at Lionel Wendt, have grabbed me for their articulation and dialogues. This one did. And not just because of what I’ve pointed above.

What comes out (superficially) in “The Dictator” is its comedy. The opening scenes, set against the backdrop of a leisured, aristocratic sitting room, might as well have been taken from a Shavian play (particularly with regard to its rather mundane dialogues that gain a fresh lease of life as the story progresses). Like all good comedies which I have enjoyed however, the humour doesn’t exist for its own sake. Its role isn’t merely to entertain, but to present its world from the perspective of a kindly, misunderstood, and all too familiar figure: Ralahamy, played to perfection by Wijeratne Warakagoda.

I remember talking with a critic, poet, and commentator some time back. He made a comment to the effect that certain English plays made deliberate use of the inability of the “native” in this country to articulate English properly, thereby turning him into a buffoon-like figure. He went on to argue that this reinforces a colonialist mindset, if at all because it pits the refinement of the Anglophile “pukka sahib” against the rooted, betel-chewing “godaya”. He didn’t mention “The Dictator” specifically, but I’m sure some of those who heard his comment would have extrapolated at once and condemned Lanerolle’s play.

That’s one line of thinking, though. The other line came to me in a review of the play, back when it was first staged last year, by the inimitable Dilshan Boange. Boange has a knack for identifying subtleties within the framework of a work of art, and in his review he argued that what Lanerolle’s play does by making Ralahamy (full name: Nanayakkara Mudiyanselage Brumpy Gunadasa) a figure to ridicule and laugh at is to awaken the colonialist in us, lurking in the shadows for the right moment to come.

I agree with both arguments, but I’m not sure whether the first can really be extrapolated to include “The Dictator”. Boange’s contention has a ring of truth in it: I laughed at the deliberate mispronunciations that would have paled English professors and even teachers (when his wife asks whether he’s as important as he cuts himself out as, he hushes her rather strangely and says, “I am not impotent!”). And yet, when the curtain fell down and we saw Ralahamy’s fate – his dream where the British makes him the “Dictator of Ceylon” and where he tries to “nativise” the country is shattered when he’s killed off for practically no rhyme or reason – we tend to question ourselves.

Like all reflective works of art, therefore, this one can’t really be framed with reference to one interpretation or the other. There’s a multidimensionality here which transcends a narrow, crass reading, and which congeals into one salient question: are we (as a nation) any better or any more self-confident than we were during the time that Lanerolle’s play was staged?

I know a counterargument some may (or will) make against this: that the social content of the crowd that went and watched “The Dictator” two weeks back was and is different to the crowd that patronise Lionel Wendt today. I won’t argue, but I will say this: in the 1950s the English-speaking elite laughed at Ralahamy, and in 2016 the urbanised, cosmopolitan, rootless middle-class did the same. Whether the way he was laughed at is different to the way he is today isn’t that important. Lanerolle’s greatest strength is in how he deceives us and makes us laugh at what we think is his stupidity and naiveté (I admit even I was tickled by his outlandish and yet simple strategy for winning the war against the “Japs”), and then at once diverts the mood of his story to instil some sobriety into it.

In short, “The Dictator” didn’t offer resolution, if at all because it doesn’t need to. It offers us the opportunity to reassess ourselves and our colonialist attitude, opening our minds to the reality we are placed in. The message that I “read into” this remarkable comedy – that the “native” is condemned because we refuse to lend credence or view him with sympathy – was distilled excellently. I know that’s no cause for happiness, because more than 60 years after we got independence we continue to ridicule the “godaya” and praise the “pukka sahib”. This, I must add, will stay with us always, long after we die and long after we are taught by our teachers and peers that the West is best and everything made here will, of necessity, remain “inferior”.

Ralahamy’s death, in other words, was a classic treatise on "nationalism" for all of us. “The Dictator” may have been a “relic”, as I pointed out before. But it’s an "unearthed" relic, one which admirably purports to awaken the “kalu sudda” in us, by making us laugh at Wijeratne Warakagoda’s buffoonish but lovable protagonist and then turning humour into sympathy. It was a refreshing contrast to the kind of plays I’ve been seeing until now. A bouquet is called for Mr Weeramuni and Mr Lanerolle, no doubt.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, February 28 2016

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The poetry of John Keats

When I think of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge today, what springs to mind is how their politics reflected their poetry. Wordsworth was 19 and Coleridge 17 when the French Revolution broke out. It was in their youth, in other words, that France underwent the Fall of the Bastille and the execution of the monarch. The youthful idealism that greeted the former incident – so full of promise in its vision for the future, free of injustice – couldn’t survive the shock of the latter event, after which the Revolution congealed into a harsh political actuality that England and Europe had to combat.

What happened to Wordsworth and Coleridge during this time was inevitable: lost initially in their youthful ardour over the Revolution, they regressed to jingoism and conservatism in later years. This was to be seen most in Wordsworth: when in his early poems he could write of his sympathy for the downtrodden, in later years (particularly in the period in which he wrote “England”, “The Excursion” and the sonnets on the English Church) he reversed that sympathy. He was no longer contemplating on poverty and injustice as though they could only be “resolved” by overthrow of tyranny. He wrote of them as inevitable, as finding resolution only through an almost mystical tranquillity (“She sleeps in the calm earth, and peace is here”).

Contrast these two against Lord Byron and Percy Shelley (who were born after them), and you will realise how easy it is to categorise their poetry in the face of what happened in France. The latter two weren’t born during the Revolution. They were the “children of the Revolution”, so to speak, which meant that they didn’t take the usual route idealists took before recapitulating. They were born of the Revolution, and hence in their hands the personal was closely intertwined with the political. In the end, they became heretics and rebels (“And tyrants and slaves are like shadows of night / In the van of the morning light”).

It’s difficult to compare John Keats with either of these poets, particularly when we consider that he was a contemporary of Byron and Shelley. He was the youngest in their generation (Shelley was three years older than him). And yet, to my mind, Keat’s best poetry shares some affinity with Wordsworth, particularly in the latter’s idealisation of nature and beauty. The irony of course is that Keats was no Wordsworth when it came to the ideology he articulated through those poems of his, and in this regard he is more at home with Byron (more than Shelley, I should add, for Shelley could at times give into political rhetoric, which almost never happened with Byron).

For my O/Levels I had to learn the poetry of John Keats. We were prescribed some nine or 10 poems by him, all of which stayed with me for their intense, almost beatifying, view of nature and beauty. To this day I can remember lines from these poems – “Ode on Melancholy”, “To Autumn”, and of course, “Endymion” – and perhaps that was meant to be.

We never learnt to read and understand “Hyperion” or the poems he wrote as tribute to Leigh Hunt. Not that this meant I overrated Keats then: when I read the Hunt poems today and think back on Keats the lover of Nature, I don’t see that much of an incongruence.

I think Keats’ great achievement as a poet was his intensely poignant vision of the world. That vision, as far as I can understand, was never marred by political rhetoric or sympathy. There’s no doubt that what comes out in his two poems on Leigh Hunt, for instance, is anger against his jailers. But look closer: far from using Hunt’s imprisonment as a means of venting out frustration against the political order of his day, what Keats achieves is something else:

Minion of grandeur! think you he did wait?
  Think you he nought but prison walls did see,  
  Till, so unwilling, thou unturn’dst the key?        
Ah, no! far happier, nobler was his fate!  

Keats’ idealisation of Hunt here seems to me to undermine the reality of his imprisonment. A critic can argue that this was in line with Hunt’s strength of will even when punished – Jeremy Bentham found him playing battledore when visiting him in prison – but this is not really congruent with Keats’ elevation of that punishment as an apotheosis of his maturity as social critic (“In Spenser’s hall he strayed, and bowers fair”). I may be wrong in this, but that is how I continue to view his two Leigh Hunt poems.

Notwithstanding that however, he was without a doubt a nonconformist. He had a fairly liberal education: Nicholas Roe, in “Everyman’s” anthology of his poetry, has written that Enfield School, which the young Keats attended, was important for “transmitting to Keats the dynamic intellectual life of English dissent”. Roe does his utmost to overturn the popular view of him as a romantic shrouded in enigma, a poet more concerned with beauty and nature than with social reality, and to his credit he does make a good point when highlighting the political allegory in “Hyperion: A Fragment”.

But what is it in “Hyperion” that merits such a comparison, really? To find out for myself I read it, and I came across these lines:

“Shut up your senses, stifle up your ears,
“My voice is not a bellows unto ire.
“Yet listen, ye who will, whilst I bring proof
“How ye, perforce, must be content to stoop:
“And in the proof much comfort will I give,
“If ye will take that comfort in its truth.
“We fall by course of Nature’s law, not force
“Of thunder, or of Jove.

The speaker of these lines (as the poet articulates them) is Oceanus, the God of the Sea. “Hyperion” (which Keats never completed) is about the overthrow of one order by another. The Titans are soothing their sorrow in the aftermath of their fall to the Olympians. Some of the Titans want to rebel, but Oceanus is the voice of reason here: not only must the old order pass to the new, but they must accept it as a historic eventuality. Roe must have seen in this an affirmation of revolution, especially at a time when portraying dethroned monarchs was “regarded in Britain as potentially an incitement to revolution”.

But I read these lines differently. “Nature’s law” presupposes a preconceived (and divinely ordained) history, a passage from the old to the new which maintains the same basic structure that sustained the old. Call it “parliamentary democracy”, call it a “coup”, to me the overthrow of the Titans was nothing more or less than a violent overthrow of one set of gods by another.

I am of course not suggesting that for Keats the most valid “overthrow of tyranny” was one which sustained the same political base (which by the way is what pretty much goes for democracy today!), but I do believe that Keats’ conception of history as an organic process of change followed by order is not in line with Roe’s reading of the poem. This is what imputes fresh nuances of meaning to Keats, and marks him out as probably the most idiosyncratic, atypical poet among the Romantics.

Not that he was an outsider to them. In his work we see that same Romantic idealisation of beauty and nature, because of which his poetry is often classed as “escapist”. That classification is crass, though. To consider Keats’ high regard for beauty (back when the chief quality of the Romantics was, yes, their high regard for beauty!) as “escapist” is to read his work wrongly. His masterpieces – which for me were his odes and tributes to such abstractions as Indolence, Beauty, Melancholy, and Art – are marked out well by the intermingling of substantive reality and aesthetic delight. It is here that his real genius is to be found, and not (as is claimed by critics who clamour to read the political in his poetry) in “Hyperion”.

Consider, for instance, these lines from “Ode to a Nightingale”

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
                                What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
         Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
         Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
                Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
                        And leaden-eyed despairs,
         Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
                Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Here’s the motif that defines the intensity of his poetry: his constant yearning for tranquillity and solace in the face of personal tragedy (his brother died of tuberculosis, and he himself would succumb to it at the age of 25). This is what critics class as “escapist” in terms of imagery – the juxtaposition of the “weariness” and “fever” of mortal man with the immortal song of the nightingale, as well as the mortality of Beauty in the face of human suffering – but in my opinion they can equally be classed as the anguish of a heart beset with personal tragedy, which is reflected in the tragedy of the world.

To consider this as his strength is to consider Keats’ defining marks – his use of pastoral imagery, metaphor, and personification – as leading to a never-ending search for tranquillity. Wordsworth never faced this problem, because in his later years he could (thanks to his reactionary political beliefs) afford to offer an easy way out: a contemplation of the mystical and the pastoral (which Regi Siriwardena rightly called “inertia”). That is what I’d consider as “escapist”, and not Keats’ sustained quest for solace.

He weakened a little, in my opinion, when he deviated from his meditations on pain and pleasure. To be more specific, when the experience he brought out was inadequate when compared with the form. I can think of one poem here specifically, the first of his I ever learnt: “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. What we relate to in that poem is the knight and his harrowing ordeal. But the quickness of that ordeal – which some critics may read as contributing to its shocking appeal – leads to disappointment. We know the woman isn’t who she is when we hear these lines:

And there she lulled me asleep,     
  And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!   
The latest dream I ever dream’d
  On the cold hill’s side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,   
  Pale warriors, death-pale were they all; 
They cried—“La Belle Dame sans Merci    
  Hath thee in thrall!”

We’re made to believe that it is this sudden experience that frightens and turns him to despair, when in the next verse we are told that

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,        
  With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,   
  On the cold hill’s side.

But the suddenness of that experience (“And I awoke and found me here”) and the economy with which Keats relates it deprive the poem of any subtlety or colour. Call me a cynic, but when I read these lines now, I can’t understand why the knight should be disappointed or saddened, whether at the woman’s transformation or at the fact that his love for her wasn’t returned. Keats’ use of imagery is sparse, almost austere, and that deprives it of vitality. I rate it personally among his weaker work.

I must conclude (and confess) that at the time I first read Keats I was an incurable romantic, and that is what endeared his (better known) poetry to me. 10 years later, I find that position unchanged: regardless of whatever political beliefs he may have held, Keats was and is the poet we all look to when beset with personal tragedy, not because contemplation affords escapism, but because in that contemplation we realise that suffering and mortality are eternal, and that the quest for eternal(ised) abstractions like beauty may never end.

I was thankful then. I am thankful now.

Kamal Addaraarachchi's moment

Actors slip into and out of their characters. That’s a given. There are good performances and bad performances, and all too often the line between the two blurs. Not because the actor knows how to trick the audience into thinking he’s dishing out a good performance, but because we begin to read his character in such a way that we think he’s giving the best he can. The best actors, however, don’t trick us this way. The best actors embody life, dividing opinion and winning both critic and audience along the way. Kamal Addaraarachchi, I’m willing to bet, falls into this category.

Kamal is good at embodying life, and in his best performances that is what he does, but when he teeters off to that “other side” actors are accustomed to moving into, he tends to unnerve and disturb. He has for most of his career resided in a twilight world, between two extremes. The biggest strength the man makes use of, the way I see it, is his ability to display an almost erratic flamboyance which, like Mozart’s more conspicuous, colourful pieces pulsates and emboldens as the film he’s in moves on. I doubt a simple biographical sketch can or will paint him well.

Kamal begins my interview with him right at the point when his career really began – in school. He attended Wesley College, where (during his childhood) he had absorbed much from some leading teachers on drama and the performing arts. By his own confession however, he never really gave into the theatre that much in school, instead preferring to take part in various concerts that would be held throughout the year. But of course, this didn’t deter him from participating in stage plays as they came along: “By the time I got to Fifth Grade, I began acting in dialogue-driven, serious dramas.”

The turning point was Grade Nine, when he met his first real figure of destiny, Gamini Samarakoon. “Samarakoon taught us drama. More importantly, he taught me miming, which marked my first real brush with serious theatre.” By this time he was taking to other interests and activities, going as far as to become the drummer in a five-piece band (by name “Cat’s Eye”). He left it when the theatre, at school that is, proved too much to resist.

Kamal’s brush with theatre at Wesley wasn’t limited to Samarakoon alone, of course, and it is a sign of his humility that he acknowledges and goes through every other name which figured in at school and afterward. Like Nimal Fernando, who taught him in Grade Five. Or Shelton Weerasinghe, the principal at Wesley, who did his share in encouraging young Kamal to take to the stage. Or Dr Salamon Fonseka, the first Sri Lankan to have a PhD in drama and theatre, who personally catered to him. Or his second real figure of destiny, Heig Karunaratne, who taught him music and drama and later asked him to apply for an acting course.

This proved to be his second turning point. The acting course was apparently being conducted by a leading theatre practitioner, Dr Nobert J. Mayar, and was organised by the International Theatre for Children and Youth (ITCY). It spanned three months and some workshops, which young Kamal ardently took part in. “I never regretted accepting the request. Not now, not ever. I think I learnt so much with Dr Mayar’s course, far more than anything which words can sum up. What he did was give me the theoretical backdrop to my career in later years, something compounded by the fact that I met many of my contemporaries and colleagues, like Sriyantha Mendis and Jayantha Chandrasiri, there.”

Kamal’s professional training came off remarkably well in his debut performance in a play called Ane Ablick, staged in 1978 in Colombo. The ramifications of that debut, however, surpass anything which an article, let alone an essay, can fully capture. It marked his third turning point, moreover, one which transformed Kamal the theatre-maverick to Kamal the star, though of course such a transformation could hardly be effected overnight.

He explains what happened: “A film producer saw my performance in Ane Ablick. He later told me that he’d been impressed by it, so much so that he was actually compelled to take me to meet the director of the next film he was financing. What mattered to me after I was taken, I must admit, was the identity of the director. He was Gamini Fonseka.” The film was Sagarayak Meda, Fonseka’s fourth film, one which had Kamal as the radical, leftist son to the protagonist-hero of the story.

He apparently hadn’t been that into the cinema back then, however, and he acknowledges to me that while he has always found the theatre more challenging, that in itself has provided reason for him to embrace it more than the world of celluloid. The thoughts of a true thespian, I note silently to myself as I listen to his anecdotes. I confess I haven’t seen Kamal onstage (I’ve been told that I should), but I have seen him on film, and he remains (for the lack of a better term) the very personification of exuberance.

“In the theatre you’re always in live communion with the audience,” he says by way of explaining his intrinsic love for the stage. Going by that logic however, Kamal’s film roles have won him, in effect, a live communion as well, if at all because popular audiences have always opted to judge his persona on the basis of his film credits. From Saptha Kanya to Kinihiriya Mal and beyond, he has taken part in his lion’s share of movies. It would be unbecoming of me not to say that we cherish them all, if at all because, even in the weakest of films, he comes out through remarkably.

But I’m letting myself get a little too ahead of myself here. Sagarayak Meda had been a baptism of fire, purely because Kamal’s parents had not been too willing to let him act. “I had to lie to play my character, and by the time I got caught red-handed, everything was done. It took three years for it to get released in cinemas island-wide, and it was acclaimed everywhere by both critic and audience. You must remember, this was when Fonseka was weaving story after story based on his notions of justice and fair play. These were aptly captured in Sagarayak Meda.”

Like I mentioned earlier, Kamal has had his lion’s share of movie credits, though I personally feel that 25-plus films over three decades is hardly enough for an actor of his calibre. True, the quality of his roles have not been uneven, because (for the most) they have teetered between variations of a) the innocent man bewildered by fortuitous circumstances (in Saptha Kanya, Salelu Warama, and Guerrilla Marketing), and b) the indifferent, rebellious, sometimes thoughtless youth (in Kaliyugaya and Loku Duwa). That he remains versatile even within the parameters of a short filmography speaks volumes about the man and his talent, I believe. I know others believe likewise too.

But if his talent is watched and appreciated in its entirety whenever he acts, his views on the same industries he’s worked in are sobering to say the least. I can’t possibly put them all here due to spatial constraints. Suffice it to say that when it comes to the theatre, Kamal views the English stage as having debased comedy by reducing it to a set of stock figures and cheap laughs in the political sphere (hence instilling a sense of complacency in the audience), while his critique of the Sinhala stage has to do with its excessive dependence on the same themes and subject-matter (when it comes to comedy, that is).

There’s room for hope, however, and I think Kamal’s return to the cinema offers a silver lining. I have unfortunately not yet watched Address Naha, where I’m told his performance (I will not reveal the character he plays) is suave and even somewhat mysterious. A return to form, I should think, the same form that demarcates him well as an actor who is just as showy and flamboyant as he is enigmatic. He has, for the most, been likeable even in his least empathetic roles – think of the younger brother to Geetha Kumarasinghe in Loku Duwa, who spits filth at her at one point despite the fact that she’s spent more than half her youth sacrificing her happiness for his sake – and this is a quality not to be met with in most actors here.

Kamal Addaraarachchi, in short, occupies the best of both worlds. One hopes fervently that a compiler and researcher will come and do justice to the true worth of his talent. I am only a newspaperman, after all. I doubt the likes of me can ever think of studying the man and his versatility, a versatility which has sustained him for over three decades. An achievement, certainly, and one which deserves more than a customary clap.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, February 28 2016

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Cyril Wickramage’s reflections on life and work

Some actors flaunt. Some are “stars”. Some (very few, I must say) get to be engraved for posterity upon death. The rest remain at most famous, who come and go and exhibit to their hearts’ content, but pass away. In this regard, those who are humble, down to earth, and free from that insufferable ailment called “arrogance” are the most able to claim posterity. They have years and decades behind them, awards and statuettes to give them enough reason to brag around. They choose not to, though. Ever ready to talk substance instead of frill, they have aged maturely, with experience as their biggest teacher. They remain in our hearts. Always.

I don’t remember watching many Sinhala films as a child, not on TV and not in the cinema hall. I wasn’t too enamoured of them because I felt they were (and I believe this somewhat even now) a little polarised: the good were great and the bad were terrible. In a way this was reflected in the actors I saw too: the same actors who shone in the great were clearly miscast in the terrible. There were exceptions, yes. Cyril Wickramage figured in among them, as far away from the world of popular “masala” cinema as Gregory Peck was from John Wayne and Daniel Day-Lewis is from Sylvester Stallone.

Cyril Wickramage was born in Kohilagedara in the Kurunegala District. He was born of the village and continued to move with it, a point he emphasises for me. He was 15 when the Jayamanne Brothers made Kadawunu Poronduwa. The Sinhala cinema was born with that film, although it’d take several years for it to mature properly.

Wickramage, in the meantime, grew up on a diet of Sokari, Nurti, and Nadagam, patronising them as they came along from Negombo to Kurunegala. “It was a treat for us to watch them. During Avurudhu we’d look forward to seeing Nurti plays in particular. We never wanted to act as a career, but my friends and I made these outings a pastime. We went and watched for the fun of it, and in the end that formed an integral part of our childhood.”

These plays, of course, were supplemented by the films Wickramage and his friends would watch at the Imperial Theatre in Kurunegala. “We didn’t see English movies, only Sinhala and Tamil ones. We doted on Jayalalitha, I remember. When Kadawunu Poronduwa came we saw it as well.” No doubt the symbiotic relationship these films had with the Nurti and Nadagam tradition would have appealed to him, buttressed by the fact that he didn’t get to experience the Western cinema.

Wickramage’s career began as a teacher, having qualified from the Peradeniya Training College after a two-year studentship. Thereafter he taught at various schools, including the Ratmalana Deaf School and Wesley College, Colombo. “I must have been at seven schools actually,” he admits. He was however not just drawn into teaching, but used his career as the base on which he began following other interests, including music (he learnt to master the violin) and dancing.

It was acting, however, which appealed most to him. At Wesley he had various flings at the stage. One of these flings got him into contact with Ananda Samarakoon, who had come to watch a play and later had beckoned Wickaramage to join the theatre. “That roused me, I confess,” he smiles as he recollects it today. More was to follow, not surprisingly.

Wickramage’s first film role was in Kingsley Rajapakshe’s Handapana in 1965, opposite Vijitha Mallika. It was admittedly a minor role, but it won him praise on account of its popularity. About a year later, moreover, he found himself playing a role which solidified his career: as Gunadasa, the love-struck and jilted fisherman in Siri Gunasinghe’s landmark film, Sath Samudura. I have seen Sath Samudura and I have always been genuinely moved by his performance, if at all because he lends such an earthy authenticity to it. Curiously, however, though the film bagged eight awards at the 1968 Sarasavi Awards, Wickramage wasn’t recognised.

I wrote before that Sath Samudura solidified his career. It also placed him in the kind of role he’d exemplify in the coming decade, signifying the restlessness and political polarisation of the youth of the country. In this respect he matured under the direction of two visionaries: Vasantha Obeyesekere and Dharmasena Pathiraja. Obeyesekere had him in Wes Gaththo (which I have not seen) and Walmath Uwo (which I have). I remember watching Wickramage perform a Nadagam song in the latter film, no doubt a tribute to the plays he had seen in his childhood.

With Pathiraja, however, he was cast in a different mould. Not surprisingly, he remembers Pathiraja with delight. “No other director tried to weed out the false and romantic from his films as he did, I can tell you that much. He came from the village, like I did, but he was adept at depicting the urban youth. He was in fact fascinated by how the city was being invaded and assailed by the village and how the city in turn tried to assimilate the village to its values. To this end he was faithful in his depictions of both locales. Other directors went for their share of criticism when it came to their films’ settings and backdrops. Not Pathiraja.”

Wickramage played a secondary character in Pathiraja’s debut Ahas Gawwa, which really “cornered” Amarasiri Kalansuriya. But it was in Bambaru Avith that he came out as a leading player. As a hard-bitten, murderous fisherman, his role was miles away from the gentle Gunadasa in Sath Samudura. His characterisation of a fisherman intending to marry the (fatally) beautiful Helen (Malini Fonseka) was unstable and at times uneven. But the script demanded him to be portrayed that way, and it’d be unbecoming of me not to comment that he did justice to it.

Even though the plot doesn’t quite let us in on why he resents the main character, Victor (Vijaya Kumaratunga), it’s clear that he seethes with anger and jealousy when Helen falls in love with him. There’s a sexual subtext to all this, possibly: it may be that Wickramage’s character is unable to reciprocate Helen’s love the way Victor does. Or it may be a classic case of “amour fou” on his part, which blinds and in the end consumes him (we are not made to see whether he does indeed commit suicide, but that is what we are left to assume). His death is the catalyst for the climax: the murder of Victor’s “enemy”, Anton aiya (Joe Abeywickrama), which in turn precipitates and reveals the tragedy of the story.

There were other roles and other directors of course. He was there in many of the tele-series which came to us in the 1980s: Lā Hiru Dahasak (Sri Lanka’s second tele-series after Dimuthu Muthu), Paligu Manike, Sasara Sayuren (which won for him a Best Actor award, courtesy of Wijeya Newspapers), and Menik Nadiya Gala Basi.

For me however, his two most memorable roles on television would have to be the conniving father-in-law in Kande Gedara and Appuhamy in Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Ella Laga Walauwwa. There’s a wide gap between these two, and it is to Wickramage’s credit that he bridged that gap and depicted his characters well. He’s still at it on television, of course.

At this point, he begins to talk about the state and ecology of our TV industry today. “People don’t have that much of enthusiasm in acting, whether it is film or the silver screen. They just come, commit something which goes by the name of ‘acting’, get their salary, and leave. There’s little to no time for productive, constructive work. It’s sad, but we see this happening mainly on television. TV series are not what they were back in our day. Audiences used to relate to both the storyline and characters. Not anymore.”

Then he talks about the state of our cinema: “It seems as though a certain section of our young filmmakers indulge in controversy. I’m forced to conclude that they are doing it for the sake of the novelty of it. That’s bad practice. These people are not really resonant with the audiences they are trying to reach. In other words, they aren’t very being faithful to the same public who will, at the end of the day, vindicate them.”

I ask Wickramage whether he has followed any guiding principle in his career, and he affirms it. Looking back however, I must admit that despite this, he has on no count demonstrated that he dogmatically prefers one acting style to the other. To be fair, he does profess interest in and enthusiasm for Stanislavsky, the Russian guru who revolutionised acting as we know it today. “Method Acting”, for Wickramage, is to be revered validly. “Look at Marlon Brando’s performance in Julius Caesar,” he tells me by way of illustrating this, “You had Shakespearean actors playing other characters in that film, especially James Mason and John Gielgud. But with his power, his intensity, Brando stole the show. That’s something only you can build up within yourself.”

He closes up the interview with an anecdote which resonates even today. “Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, had publicly asked war conscripts to refuse to serve in Algeria. There was talk of arresting him for having made that declaration. When Charles de Gaulle was asked to comment on the situation, his reply was, ‘Sartre is France!’ I believe that actors and artistes don’t command that sort of respect now. We have gone away from de Gaulle’s time. Sadly.”

All these are reflections, admittedly. But they hold water. Even today. Cyril Wickramage has lived his career. I feel we are yet to fully appreciate the worth of the man and repay the debt which we, as a nation, owe to him. I am not alone in thinking this, of course.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, February 24 2016

Monday, February 22, 2016

Resurrecting Vijaya Kumaratunga

I am not a political writer. I doubt that the worth of a man, ANY man, can be reduced to his political merits. Legacies are framed by the larger than life, that is whatever injects a superhuman, supra-mundane quality into the lives being assessed. Politicians and individuals tend to come and go, but even among them you find names which remain cherished long after death, although the cause for that cherishment may not be (and I say this bluntly) because of their political signature.

Vijaya Kumaratunga would have been 70 today, were he alive. Like all magnetic personalities, he remains loved even by those who continue to question his political positions. That he was shot and killed didn’t mar his image. Not by a long shot. Why?

Vijaya was “one of us”, for one thing. He was not the kind of actor who “strayed”. He had his notions of acting and my guess is that not everyone favoured them. He had his highs and lows, moments when he perched up high and moments when the films he was in seemed to deteriorate badly. There’s a gap between “Thushara” and “Baddegama”, after all, both of which featured him. It’s to Vijaya’s credit, however, that he didn’t seem to care. He came, he acted, and he won crowds. Even when he was down, he courted audiences. Few actors can claim to such an achievement. Very few.

I admit I don’t know much about acting. Where’s the line to be drawn between artifice and honesty, between performances that pulsate with life and those which seem cut off from reality? It’s hard to measure, harder to conclude. With what I’ve seen, however, I can say this much about Vijaya: even in his worst performances, he was down to earth. And in his best performances – in “Hanthane Kathawa”, “Diyamanthi”, and of course the films of Dharmasena Pathiraja – he was hardy and formidable. To the hilt.

What else was there to this remarkable man? He didn’t pretend. He didn’t exaggerate, he didn’t flaunt (although he could), and he kept himself restrained enough for us to blend in with whatever character he played. Dharmasena Pathiraja used him well in this regard, not because he was a “star” who could refine his stories but because he could relate to the milieu Pathiraja went for: the urbanised and dispossessed, cut off from familial bonds and awaiting an uncertain future. It seemed that with Vijaya, every nuance and shade of emotion that the unemployed and dispossessed faced was captured. Excellently.

He failed, I think, when he tried to play characters set against a different milieu. He wasn’t convincing in Tissa Abeysekera’s “Karumakkarayo”, even less so as Babun in “Baddegama”. Vijaya was born in Ja-Ela, near the coastal belt. He could only have been at home with the community he grew up with, not surprisingly.

But wherever he was, he needed to be the hero. That was important. If he couldn’t save the day, if he couldn’t turn back and smile or frown at the closing chapter of every story he was in, we wouldn’t have relished that story.

Directors knew this. That’s why they featured him as the "saviour". Always.

There was another thing: his voice. He sang and sang well, and every time he performed, he broke out with a voice that exemplified suffering and patience. No wonder these songs captured our hearts so well, even when they were politically coloured.

Of his political career there’s little I can say. Whether he could have split the opposition vote in the 1988 election is a question not even prophets can answer, but that probably would have happened with or without Vijaya. He kept to his positions, he articulated them sleekly, and he courted enough and more fans who loved the man even if they didn’t vote for him. Whether this was enough, and more pertinently whether he would have injected into his presidency the same charisma and exuberance which epitomised his acting career, hence, are questions I’m not fit to answer.

On February 16, 1988, he was shot and killed outside his own residence. By that time he had taken part in a film which played him out as a villain, a rapist who seduces his own sister-in-law. I haven’t seen Vasantha Obeyesekere’s “Kadapathaka Chaya” in a long time, and I have been told that it took some time for audiences to adjust to this character, but I remember seeing a distasteful, yet suave and urbane, villain in him. He could have diversified his career and become more versatile, perhaps.

We’ll never know, of course. We can only guess.

Since his death we’ve been seeing stars take to politics. Almost all of them have succeeded, and some of them survive thanks to the films and TV series they’re in. None of them can claim to Vijaya Kumaratunga’s fame, though, of this I’m certain. Maybe it’s because Vijaya was the first real "political star" we had. Yes, we had Gamini Fonseka before him, but Fonseka was of a different mould, allied to a totally different political ideology. Besides, by the time Fonseka had become a statesman-like actor Vijaya had garnered fame. That fame was unparalleled.

I know of people who love him and hate his politics. I know of people who celebrate him, even though they are diametrically opposed to his ideology. That’s a given. The best stars, after all, aren’t marred by their personal predilections. The best stars survive despite them. In Vijaya we lost that kind of star, and since that day in 1988 I know the rest of the country, of my generation and generations that came before it, feel the same way. Telling, I should think.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, February 21 2016

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Reflections on the lyrics of Sunil Ariyaratne

About four months ago, I sat down for an interview with Bandula Nanayakkarawasam. We moved on to his life and the various anecdotes that coloured it, including his first trysts with music and poetry. A few minutes later however, we began talking about the true purpose of the lyric, in terms of artistry and social discourse.

I then asked him two questions: “What do you think about the gap between the political and the aesthetic in poetry? Does this gap belittle the political versifiers?”

He gave his answer slowly, but with conviction: “There is a gap, but this doesn’t belittle those who take to the political. If at all, this empowers them.” Inevitably, we began talking about that foremost writer of the political lyric, Professor Sunil Ariyaratne.

Nanayakkarawasam may not have been a political lyricist, but what he said about Ariyaratne and his verses that day offers an antidote to those who view his (Ariyaratne’s) political phase as having been regressive. Nanayakkarawasam drove his point home well: “I may not be able or willing to indulge in the political with what I write, but that doesn’t diminish my respect for him.” Apt.

Sunil Ariyaratne’s achievement, which he sustained right until the end of “Pavana”, was his ability at undermining the popular conception of reality by directly disclosing that reality. As with William Blake’s most mature poetry, his strength came out when he deftly played around with the opposition between what was real and what was popularly perceived, often to the point of irony (and even caricature).

This comes out remarkably well in “Sakura Mal Pipila”, which precedes his political phase. But it is in such apolitical songs like “Perahera Enawa” that he is at his best. I can listen to the opening lyrics to that even now and be moved by how deftly he undresses what’s perceived (as per tradition) to disclose what’s hidden beneath:

පෙරහැර එනවා කස පුපුරනවා
        හෙවිසි හඩ පතුරනවා
        කසකරුවන්ගේ දහඩිය මුගුරින්
        පාවඩ මග අතුරනවා...

The first two lines are pitted directly against the second two: the magnificence of the kasakaraya’s antics is directly at odds with the (silent) exploitation of him during the pageant. There’s irony here alright. But Ariyaratne isn’t content with bringing out his social concern at once: he moves on deftly, dwelling on the elephant and children paraded around the perahera and the nilame who snobbishly ignores the “podi minisun” (the little men) around him, before launching an acerbic attack:

අඹු දරුවන්නේ කුස් පුරවන්නයි
        වන්නම් තාළ වයන්නේ...
        වේල දෙවේලට අත සරුවෙන්නයි
        කොහොඹකලේ නටවන්නේ...

When I listen to “Perahera Enawa”, I am reminded of Blake’s “I Saw a Chapel” – it begins with “I saw a chapel all of gold” and ends with “And laid me down among the swine”, turning from the illusorily mystical to the bitterly real. This is probably what distinguishes Ariyaratne the Social Revolutionary from Ariyaratne the Political Revolutionary, something evident even in his most political verses from “Sathyaye Geethaya”.

I know people who think that these two rubbished tradition rather unforgivably, but to me this reflects a puritanical attitude to what’s traditional and what’s not. That Ariyaratne dwelt on the lesser known aspects of a pageant certainly reveals the fact that those who take part in it do sweat and toil for the sake of a nilame perched atop an elephant (isn’t that what all pageants amount to, anyway?). One can glean this from the introduction to the song that Malini reads out: “This is not a perahera that you and I have been accustomed to seeing.”

Ariyaratne has his champions from this period, but I’m not so sure whether one can say the same of “Pavana”. In “Pavana” he became a political revolutionary, and he turned from Blake’s subtle demystifications to attacking political structures more directly. He wasn’t as concerned about the opposition between reality and illusion as he used to be, hence: for him, what was “out there” and directly perceivable was what counted. This came out forcibly even in his most poignant lyrics, as with “Yadamin Banda Wilangu La”, which explains how he differentiated “Pavana” from his earlier work.

The songs of “Pavana” were dedicated to those affected and killed by the state during the bheeshanaya. The crimes perpetrated against them were “hidden away”, yes. But we didn’t need Sunil Ariyaratne or Nanda Malini to tell us that, because while those crimes may have been belittled by the state, that didn’t conceal the fact that everyone knew what it was committing in the name of erasing dissent.

What these two achieved in “Pavana”, therefore, was a twist on what they used to do in “Sathyaye Geethaya”: instead of pitting reality against illusion, they unearthed a reality that everyone knew about and transformed it into poetry. This was the period when Malini refused to sing of love and life, when she and Ariyaratne gave their fiercest, most politically direct work, to their listeners. Those listeners were the people. The oppressed.

The most common criticism made of these songs today isn’t that they were too political, but that they were framed in such a way that they fail to transcend their specificity. In other words, they were framed by the period before and during the bheeshanaya: their relevance, hence, is limited to this period. What this implies (condescendingly) is that they were crafted so directly that they can’t be classed as “timeless”. The most popular counterargument to this is to claim that “timelessness” is a “bourgeois” and elitist conception (as certain Marxist critics are wont to assert at times). But that would be giving into a fallacy and to contort what defines timelessness.

No work of art purports to transcend spatiotemporal constraints as and when it’s created. D. H. Lawrence’s dictum that poetry amounts to “the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment” can probably be said of ANY art-form: the creator/author of the work of art records “the moment” in a form accessible to others. This is as true for Nanda Malini’s “Dedunu Paya” as it is for “Mongoliyanuwane”, never mind that the former was about love and the latter about multiculturalism.

The best works of art aren’t framed with reference to the present, hence. Not all the time. The lyricist crafts his verses (wittingly or not) in a way that their specificity IN ITSELF resists narrow interpretation and becomes “timeless”. We still quote Blake’s “The Tyger” (“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night”), but that doesn’t stop us from considering his more socially conscious poems as relevant for OUR TIME. The way I see it, this is the best defence anyone can make of Sunil Ariyaratne’s political lyrics, the same lyrics which could talk of injustice with these lines:

පොලිසිය උන්ගේ කූඩුව අපෙ උන්ගේ...
        නීතිය උන්ගේ හිරබත අපෙ උන්ගේ...

(The police is theirs, the prison ours
The law is theirs, the prison food ours)

Yes, there’s specificity here, direct and to the point despite the metaphor. But to consider this a reason to rubbish these songs would be stretching things too far. I like Nanda Malini’s earlier phase (when she sang “Me Sinhala Apage Ratai”), but her later disavowal of that phase is reason for commendation, not critique: to have drawn herself away from singing about love was an act of courage. Much of this must be credited to Ariyaratne, of course, because inasmuch as Malini articulated his lyrics with conviction, those lyrics could have only been written by someone of Ariyaratne’s calibre.

What happened after “Pavana” was a little tragic but inevitable. Radicals tend to age and change, most often into reactionaries: Wordsworth deteriorated, for instance, with his poems celebrating the rural way of life and the sonnets on the English Church after becoming a turncoat, while Coleridge faded away a little while later pretty much along the same lines.

But Ariyaratne didn’t become reactionary. He became obscurantist. I know I’m being a little cruel here, but that’s what some of the songs he penned during this time force me to think.

Sometimes, as with “Seegiri Geeyak” (which was lambasted for its “frivolity”), he writes of love and life in nonconformist, provocative ways. Sometimes, as with “Rata Karawanta Nam”, he embraces the satirist who won us with “Sakura Mal Pipila”. And sometimes, as with “Gata Gata Awidin” and “Gumu Gumuwa Wadule”, he dwells on a silliness that borders on nonsense. He lost his grip with the latter kind of these songs. Not hard to see why.

There’s a silly undertone that runs throughout their lyrics, but Ariyaratne’s problem isn’t that. His problem is that he purposely refrains from justifying that silliness, instead letting it overwhelm us.

This is what accounts for the jumbled up quirk that was “Nona”, a song which in all likelihood was an experiment based on how many variations of the “na” sound a singer can play around with: an experiment that (obviously) failed. A music critic once told me that in this period, form outpaced content, and Ariyaratne’s lyrics became little more than exercises in aestheticism. There were songs he wrote which still echo the “Sathyaye Geethaya” period, granted, which mercifully weren’t and aren’t a minority.

I doubt a single article can do justice to Sunil Ariyaratne. What he’ll churn out in the coming years won’t dent his reputation as probably the most unparalleled exponent of the political song in this country, to whom the non-English speaking section of this country owes a large debt. Together with Nanda Malini, he educated my parents’ generation with the truism that a song (or any other work of art, for that matter) needn’t always be preoccupied with the aesthetic, and that what’s illusory can be undermined deftly, not with swords and guns, but with verses and lines.

For that and for all those lyrics, hence, we are grateful. Always were, always will be.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, February 21 2015

Monday, February 15, 2016

H. U. Thibbotumunuwe’s ‘Adventures in Steam’

Review of H. U. Thibbotumunuwe’s ‘Adventures in Steam: British Era’, published in 2012

When H. U. Thibbotumunuwe writes about train journeys, he writes well. He’d do better to paint, one feels, not because his prose is uneven and disjointed but because he extracts from memory so precisely that he injects an almost painterly nostalgia in page after page. He wrote two books on his adventures, one in 2012 and another two years later. He wrote from the heart, he wrote from memory, and he won an audience. For those who love train rides and train history, and for those who love revisiting the past, these two books are (without a doubt) essential reading.

“Adventures in Steam: British Era” is the first of the two. It recounts almost everything he underwent as driver and inspector in the Ceylon Government Railway, from the day he joined in 1942 the day he retired many, many decades later. He clearly isn’t content in just recounting (notwithstanding the fact that he calls his book a “narration”), but for a book of this sort to be replete with history-anecdote and reportage, he must narrate. Not editorialise.

That’s not to say that he doesn’t offer comment. But where he does (and towards the end of the book he moves frequently into commentary), it helps us consider him not just as another history-transcriber but a transcriber who has lived through what he has written. As such he doesn’t remain fixated on either nostalgia or bitterness, though he’s had his lion’s share of both. There are chapters here which dwell on a harsh reality, exposing the exploitative nature of the colonialist-managed Railway days (right from the first chapter), and there are chapters which personify a happiness and sense of camaraderie that existed despite that harsh reality (he evokes this best, I feel, when he describes a get-together in Chapter 19).

Sometimes (and this is Thibbotumunuwe at his best) he mingles reality and bitterness, offering irony for the reader. So it is with Chapter 20 (“T. C de Silva Who Was Not a Garrat), where he narrates the account of a driver who refuses a double turn and justifies that refusal by saying that he isn’t a garret and that “even Garrats have to be refuelled for a return journey.” “Although Silva’s stand is a glaring fact, one must have the guts to act in that manner,” Thibbotumunuwe writes, and we agree. The author evokes humour here when he reports what de Silva offered as justification, humour of the bitter, acerbic sort.

I don’t know what it would’ve been like to work in the Railway then and I don’t know what it’s like now. It’s to Thibbotumunuwe’s credit that he takes time to explain and clarify, so much so that we know what he’s telling us. We aren’t confused, his prose elaborates, and it remains lean and austere (for the most). He is the best person who can achieve this, and the only person, given that he might well be the oldest living railway pensioner in the country. And so we read his take on the aforementioned “Garrat” trains, which spans no less than three chapters. There are technicalities here, and he throws the jargon of his trade to the reader. But this jargon isn’t flowery. It’s digestible. The author gets his reader to read on.

Towards the end however, he gets more sober and reflective. In “Death on the Pilgrim Special” he spares frill and reports the death of a colleague, which (one can argue) deprives it of any sense of horror and compassion. But that’s what Thibbotumunuwe indulges in and privileges: he doesn’t let emotion colour his narrative. Death was a cruel inevitability along the railway line, he seems to be telling us.

What we glean from these chapters is probably the most honest account of the railway which existed back then: gruelling, death-defying, and sometimes life-denying. But we never question the author’s judgment, for his judgment remains analytical and content despite whatever bias or prejudice we may be having. As with all innovations that history brought up, the railway in its infancy was both morbid and invigorating. Thibbotumunuwe doesn’t admit this straight away (he does so a little in his second book), but what he provides us is enough for us to make our own conclusions.

I enjoy train-rides and I enjoy reading about train-rides. There’s so much in our railway’s history that both the historian and storyteller can indulge in. Being well acquainted with his trade, Thibbotumunuwe no doubt has provided all that he can, penning it down for our generation to go through and reflect on. I don’t know what other readers will feel after reading it, but I’m sure that almost all of them would feel humbled by those death-defying days, when train-rides weren’t just a luxury but a luxury that drove on blood and sweat (almost literally).

In short, “Adventures in Steam: British Era” is something the common reader can flip through easily. It was prescribed and recommended as a school library book, wise considering how much in terms of history it contributes. I loved going through it, I’m sure others will too, and I’m sure they’ll all wish the author long life and wish that he will follow this (and the book that followed) with other accounts of the Railway Service, which subsisted once upon a harsher time.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, February 14 2016

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The 'poetess' who wrote on film

Some time back I watched Loku Duwa on TV. The film ran for more than two hours, but like all good films which run for that long, it didn’t sag. It tells the story of Punna (Geetha Kumarasinghe in one of her better roles), the eldest daughter in a middle-class family, who (as per tradition) sacrifices much for her siblings and gets little to nothing in return.

She’s then nearly married to a man she herself loves (played by Jackson Anthony), but he turns out to be a thief. Predictably, given that the marriage was announced everywhere, she loses her dignity, and in the end has to kowtow to a lascivious womaniser (played to perfection by Gamini Fonseka), who also happens to be the father of one of her school-friends.

I liked it. The story could have been turned into a melodrama, but mercifully it wasn’t. Geetha Kumarasinghe acted in probably her most powerful role, a point complemented by the fact that she produced it (watching it made me wish she acted in more films like that). But above all, I loved the way she was scripted: not as a woman who succumbs nor as a woman who rebels and wins everything in an obviously manufactured ending, but as a sufferer who endures and in the end (poignantly) resolves for a better tomorrow. Then again this was a film directed by Sumitra Peries, and Sumitra, as those who’ve relished her work more than me know, has a way of narrating her stories, a way of offering sympathy for her characters.

Last year I wrote on Sumitra, and I commented that she had filmed the joys and sorrows of our mothers, wives, and daughters more than any other director in this country. I still stand by this, notwithstanding the tirades levelled against her by critics who (not always unjustifiably, I must add) felt that she presented those mothers, wives, and daughters as stoics, who take in everything they are forced to undergo as torment. But, one can argue, if this remains the only legitimate way of representing our women, what’s the harm in depicting them that way?

I liked Loku Duwa as much as I liked Gehenu Lamayi. There too, the woman doesn’t win. She loses, but it is in how she accepts, affirms, and faces loss that moves us. I’m sure there were people who demarcated her as “bourgeois”, as with Lester her husband, thanks to this. But in terms of honesty of treatment and fidelity to life, I doubt that I've seen women (as victims, that is) represented more daringly than in her work. Speaks well of her prowess.

She was and is considered a "poetess", someone who felt for the cinema the same way a versifier would for his or her poetry. I’m sure that term captures quite a lot of what she has stood for, as filmmaker and human being, but I’m not so sure whether (in the hands of disparagers) it can be taken up and used to demote her. No, I’m not saying that the term views her work condescendingly, but a perusal of her work will convince anyone that to view her as a “poetess”, someone whose conception of women on film was “freakish” and “quirky”, would be incongruous and unjust. Would they criticise the novels of the Bronte sisters by the same token?

Like her husband, Sumitra didn’t make a great many films. But like all great artists, she’s remembered for each and every one of them. Right until she made Yahaluwo in 2007 and moved her canvas, she narrated her plot-lines fluently, with ease. This fluency can’t be written about or described. It can only be watched. There’s poetry in here, indescribable but beautifully austere, and in the end we give ourselves up to the rhythm and flow of her stories. Few directors can claim such a quality. Very few.

I remember talking with her once, about two years ago, and the conversation inevitably trailed off to film tastes. Sumitra loved the humanists, just like Lester, and she told me about the film that moved her the most: Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Dreyer’s Joan (and I say this bluntly) represented Sumitra’s conception of womanhood, at once tormented and persistent. When I watched Punna crying at her mother (Irangani Serasinghe) in Loku Duwa, right after she realises that her dignity is lost thanks to her fiancée’s duplicity, I was reminded of Dreyer’s Joan. Aptly.

I’m not suggesting that Sumitra was another Dreyer, of course. She had her own stories to tell. She lived and worked at a time when filmmakers didn’t relegate the plot to the dust and held the script in high regard. There was no sloppiness or quick cutting back then. You moved with the films and stories you watched. There was no need for fast pacing, if at all because back then, even in the harshest circumstances, we lived in a more carefree world.

Not that she wasn’t conscious of a need to change. She tried her hand at depicting a different woman in Yahalu Yeheli. The film was convincing, but its ending evoked a sense of triumphalism that was nearly provocative and a little too idealised. When she made her next film three years later, hence, she returned to her usual niche. And when she did, she made just about the most beatifying and powerfully intense film I’ve seen in this country.

Sagara Jalaya was her apotheosis, the kind of film one comes across very rarely. I still can’t forget the ending to that masterpiece, when the boy writes a letter to his uncle in town for a job, his way of relieving his overworked and abused mother’s burden. There’s no music, but there needn’t have been. The scene was as powerful as it could have got.

I saw Sagara Jalaya more than 10 years ago. Back then I looked for resolution in a film. This didn’t have one, and I remember asking myself, “Why?”

And then I realised: because there needn’t be resolution. Because life doesn’t offer resolution all the time.

10 years later I watched Loku Duwa. When Punna gives up her job, leaves her philandering boss, and writes a letter to her sister, telling her that they’ll all go back to the simpler, happier life they used to live, and when the story ends there, I asked the same question: “Why?”

Sumitra Peries answered that question for me, a long time back. She answered it so well that I am grateful. And happy.

I’m sure others are too.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, February 14 2016

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Sugathapala Senerath Yapa: The Man and His Camera

There are quiet and unquiet giants. History invests certain men with enduring appeal, who rise up to become the monuments and statues they are today. But fame is fickle. There are those to whom obscurity is meted out, who didn’t deserve such treatment. To a large extent, I believe this holds true for many filmmakers, particularly from here. And to a very large extent, Sugathapala Senerath Yapa may well be the most well-known among them. As a director of three films and 28 documentaries, his true potential, I feel, has not been properly tested.

Sugathapala Senerath Yapa was born in 1935 in Akuressa. From an early age, he was (in his own words) “boisterous.” Both his parents had died when he was quite young. As a result, he was largely brought up by his grandmother, whom he remembers as a kind-hearted, generous woman. At his first school, Rakvana Maha Vidyalaya, his boisterousness reached (unforgivable) heights when he, together with a friend of his named Abeywickrema, spread a message around school to the effect that the buns served during interval-time were covered with worms.

“Promptly, there was an outcry against the administration of the school,” Yapa remembers, “and later, when the culprits were found, they were brought to Principal’s stern notice.” The misdemeanour got young Yapa expelled and into his second school, Pelmadulla Central College, which was overseen by the “Hela Havula”-famed A. V. Gunapala. “He was kind, but strict. I immediately got his message that none of the antics I had wrecked havoc with at my earlier school would work here. No two words about it, I had to be serious about my studies.” And so he did, getting through his SSC Preparatory Exams.

A quirk of fate, however, would prevent him from continuing his studies. Yapa explains what happened next:

“I briefly considered joining a school near our hometown: St. Anthony’s College. But Father Moses, who oversaw it, told us that I could join it only after one year. I couldn’t wait for that amount of time and anyway, being a boy, I would have frolicked around with other village children, getting beaten up by them at times. So I left school.

“During that time, we had no such thing called a Cinema Hall in the village. The Hall was strictly limited to the city. We instead had to do with Touring Cinemas, which like circuses would come and go to a village.” Considering the tastes of village-folk, at a time when the cinema was considered a frivolous gimmick, Yapa began watching mainly Indian films. “I also managed to see the entire Zorro series,” he remembers. He recollects his first real “job”: painting titles of the films which would be shown in the Touring Cinema. That led to his first tryst with destiny.

The man who was owner of the Touring Cinema at the time was Reggie Perera, Member of Parliament for Lunugala. One day, Perera had been walking along the road, seeing Yapa’s talent displayed. He had apparently enquired after Yapa from some friends of his, who, “given that he was an MP, a species of human beings us village youth were most terrified of,” had fled. Somehow or the other, Perera got to talk with him. Yapa was asked to pay him a visit at his place, which he later did.

“Perera said that he could get me admitted to a school in Balangoda. My grandmother, however, did not like the idea of my going away, so instead he ‘hired’ me as a sort of advertiser for the films his Touring Cinema screened in our village. Following this, he got me free admission to all the shows. I learnt about the cinema from these experiences. I became fascinated with various camera angles, lighting techniques, editing styles etc.”

His second encounter with destiny occurred through a cousin of his. L. M. Perera, a comedian in his time, enquired after him. One thing led to another. Sometime later Yapa was engaged to another Touring Cinema, this time at the ticket counter, as a counter clerk. Following this, he took a clerical exam, which eventually saw him through to a job at the Labour Department.

As was typical of many a youth working at government departments and newspapers, he got himself involved with the arts, beginning with radio dramas. This included an adaptation of Tagore’s Gora. It was through the radio that he managed to meet a future collaborator: Mahagama Sekera. Stints at the radio eventually got him a role in “Kala Pela”, the famous drama troupe which had been founded by another Perera, playwright-cum-filmmaker G. D. L. Perera. “My first raw encounter with the cinema was as an actor in Perera’s maiden film Sama, where I played the part of Sirisena.”

Having become Secretary and Treasurer to “Kala Pela”, Yapa eventually quit it, deciding instead to follow a film career in his own right. A sort of culmination was reached with his first film, in 1969. Hanthane Kathawa remains as fresh a directorial debut as it always was. That this was possible mainly on account of Yapa’s immense respect for the medium can be seen from the fact that he won the Silver Peacock at the New Delhi International Film Festival for his short feature Minisa saha Kaputa (a study of human greed) around that same year.

First-time viewers of Hanthane Kathawa have come out praising its almost completely glitch-free freshness. The “inevitable technical roughnesses of a first film”, as Regi Siriwardena once put it in a critical essay on Dharmasena Pathiraja, can be seen scantily, if at all, in Yapa’s debut. He tells me more by way of explaining this unique characteristic in it:

“I firstly value realism. To me, jitteriness or slipshodness in a work of art is unforgivable. You must value the locale and milieu which you are placing the film in. In the case of Hanthane Kathawa, the locale was a University (Peradeniya) and the milieu that of University students. With regard to not just acting or dialogue, but even to the choice of clothes and to the sense of being at a University through the polemics and arguments students engage in (think “University politics” here), I sought to authenticate my first film.”

Added to this, of course, was the fact of several actors who participated in the film – Daya Tennekoon, Amarasiri Kalansuriya, Swarna Mallawaarachchi – being in their youth. Tennekoon himself was a student at Peradeniya Campus, as was Dharmasena Pathiraja, who helped with the script.

There is no full-stop to talent. The only exception to this happens when forces bigger than an individual degrade it. Sadly, this is the only way by which I can explain what happened to Sugathapala Senerath Yapa, post-Hanthane Kathawa. Pembara Madhu and Induta Mal Mitak, both commercial-minded in a despairing way, never could capture Yapa in the moment of glory which had crowned him in 1969. By this, I am not critiquing Yapa himself. It is a known fact that the Sinhala cinema has never enjoyed the type of balance between commerce and art enjoyed in other countries. Yapa was a victim. Purely and simply.

It has been nearly 35 years since Induta Mal Mitak was released. “Even if were afforded the opportunity today, I would make a film,” he eagerly tells me. He had several unrealised projects, among them Panas Ekvana Akkaraya (The 51st Acre), which apparently revolved around a man who, having already owned 50 acres, tries to acquire one more. It never saw the light of day.

Yapa holds no set theories on filmmaking, but one major thread that seems to bind his thoughts together is the importance he places not on the story, but on how it is conveyed. For Yapa, presentation is more important than, and indeed is to be preferred to, representation.

Occasionally, Hanthane Kathawa itself violates this principle, particularly in certain jarring scenes where songs are relayed, but even with some sequences that still have them – as with those with “Sara Sonduru” and “Diganthaye Ghana” – he lets gesture, feeling, and movement dictate character and plot development. The intensity and anguish of the moment are conveyed through the sequence, an example of songs used alongside cinema at its purest in our country. As an addendum, some of the songs were penned by Yapa himself (in collaboration with Mahagama Sekera) – the lyricist-cum-filmmaker, evidence of his own wider interests, exploring other art-forms without being restricted.

Yapa ends our conversation with a few prophetic utterances. “The way our cinema is going, I can safely say we’re on the verge of bankruptcy. On the one hand, you have religious epics which don’t come even close to the true meaning of ‘cinema.’ They are populists. Next there’s the problem of censorship. I faced it in my own way. Then there’s this band of amateurs who think that by commercialising history – our history – you can get away with any and every flaw committed in the name of winning audiences. Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way.

“This can only be the result of short-sightedness on the part of policymakers, which paved the way for every Tom, Dick and Harry to come forth and make films. The cinema is, to me, akin mostly to religion. You can preserve it or you can desecrate it. By paving the way for everyone, with or without qualification-requirements, you are definitely desecrating it. Dreams have become extensions of reality in the films of some directors today.

That’s as close to a prediction as any filmmaker can or ever will make in this country. Sugathapala Senerath Yapa, in the final analysis, has a point. A very big one. We’d do well to listen to it.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, February 10 2016

Monday, February 8, 2016

Dinesh Subasinghe in the USA

Dinesh Subasinghe is a man with a mission, of this I’m certain. He knows his stuff and has nurtured his innate sensibilities to near-perfection. Ordinarily this would leave room for complacency, but in Subasinghe’s case (thankfully) it’s merely provided reason to broaden horizon and quench thirst. He is eager as always, courteous, friendly, and down to earth. If he has much to talk about his career that’s because he’s sustained a career which no amount of words can do justice to.

I met him for the first time about three years back, with the first interview I conducted of an artiste. He was suave, he knew his stuff, and he seemed to appreciate all what he had done quietly, with assuredness. He laughed and smiled and coloured memory with anecdote, and recounted what he had gone through with intense passion. And last year, when I heard that he had gone to the United States to learn American folk music from a reputed violinist, fiddler, and teacher, I wasn’t the least bit amazed. Dinesh still has potential. He deserves opportunity, obviously. And he gets it, little by little.

To me, not surprisingly, this was news. I wanted coverage and I wanted to pursue the matter. We didn’t “meet”, but I asked him to tell me all about his visit to the USA. Over the phone. He obliged. He told me everything.

Dinesh had studied under A. R. Rahman in India. After that brief stint, he had savoured a thirst to visit the entire world, to absorb whatever music he could and take it back home. Along the way, he had nurtured relationships. Contacts. One thing led to the other, and in the end, he found himself in Turtle Bay, New York, learning about folk music and mastering the violin in a summer school under the tutelage of the famed violinist and proponent of folk music, Mark O’Connor. “He was and is a legend,” Dinesh describes him, adding that O’Connor had been a hero even during his childhood. “In 1998 I bought a cassette tape of his music. I researched on him well before I even dreamt of meeting him.”

There’s a thread that runs through Dinesh’s life. A motif. He’s had his heroes, those he admires from his field, and slowly, eventually, but surely, he has met up and learnt from them all. He admired Father Marcelline Jayakody, Premasiri Khemadasa, Stanley Peiris, L. Subramaniam, Latha Mangeshkar, and of course Rahman. Needless to say, he met them all. Same case with Mark O’Connor. But I’m getting a little too ahead of myself here.

O’Connor’s summer camps (which are conducted between May and August, across the country) had designated and reserved spots for talented students from several countries. Dinesh had been the only Sri Lankan to be selected at the time, though not the only Asian. Apparently about 80% of the camp had been inhabited by Americans (as is the case), but there had been Japanese students as well. Both Mark and his wife Maggie, along with the likes of Hillary Castle (violinist) and Joe Smart (guitarist), had taught them.

Not that the Camp’s all study and no play. Every evening, students have to deliver a series of recitals, something they can conjure up. Not surprisingly, Dinesh had opted for his favourite instrument, the “Ravanahatha”, alleged to have been played during (yes) King Ravana’s time. Of course there were assignments to do, lessons to catch up on, and aptitude tests to assess and measure performance. But these are incidental, as Dinesh implies, to what the Camp offered (and offers) as the “real deal”.

“Without assignments, you study at the Camp for about a week. I stayed there for 40 days, and planned to stay for much longer.” Dinesh regularly visits the USA. His schedule must be tiring, but he doesn’t show it. “The Summer Camp is over when you’ve got what they’re trying to impart to you, which is the O’Connor Method.” I ask him to elaborate on this, and he happily complies.

“Mark O’Connor has devised eight principles to master the violin: Listening, Practice, Progression, Exercise, Performance, Relevance, Creativity, and Expression. This method presupposes that music can be learnt and played according to the player’s interpretation, which to be honest is a novel approach to learning about the violin. In fact this has been prescribed in five books written by O’Connor. Once you read, understand, and imbibe what’s in them, you get a certificate as testimony to your skill.” He hopes (like us, I might add) that he will be able to complete this course by the next three years.

I am not musically inclined, and I believe Dinesh should be quoted in full to get the gist of what he’s saying in one go. Music is spontaneous, probably the most spontaneous of all art-forms, and from what I can gather, that’s what O’Connor is affirming in his method. Learning to master instrument and theory is all fine and well, but without creativity, music may well congeal into pedantry at the end. To be entertaining and not merely pedantic: THAT’S what Subasinghe has demonstrated, and what O’Connor has reminded him to demonstrate over and over again.

Dinesh talks about how he was received in the USA at this point, and (again) characteristically he dishes out gratitude with no reservation. He rattles off a list here: “The Sri Lankan community in Washington welcomed me with open arms. There were four musicians from here, who’re domiciled there, who were more than ready to help me out when I was giving a performance for our expats: Himaransi Ranasinghe, Ranjith Lokubalasooriya, Ajantha Peiris, and Kalpitha Palawatta.”

Apparently he had wound up collaborating with the Washington expat community over a music program at a Buddhist temple (he credits two names here, Maharagama Dhammasiri Thero and Saddhaloka Thero), and he had been helped financially in this regard as well. And of course, he remembers Athuraliye Rathana Thero, with quiet nostalgia. “He was there for me, he helped me out tremendously, and we keep in touch with each other. I am grateful.”

I mentioned at the beginning that Dinesh has an innate sensibility, a natural flair for observation and perception. He has a knack for grabbing the essence of any musical form and adapting it to suit his temperament. Like all creative artists, I must add. Which is why I’m not surprised when he tells me that he could play Scottish, Chinese, and American folk music almost effortlessly. “There’s music inside me,” he explains to me. I believe him.

As is usually the case with such men, he never hesitates to add to and elaborate on what he’s saying, always ready to source and provide reference points for whatever anecdote he recounts. From the looks of it, he has a long way to go. He has until now been credited for in over 60 tele-dramas and 10 films. His soundtrack for “Ho Gana Pokuna” was released at a modest but well attended ceremony last week, I’m told. His contribution to the Duwa Passion Play hasn’t gone unnoticed, and as for upcoming developments, Dinesh tells me that he’s collaborating with Mahesh Denipitiya, whom he regards with admiration.

What more can one ask, I wonder. “Plenty more!” he may reply. And he is correct. There’s more he’s trying to reach. I’m sure that he’ll achieve what he wants. And I’m sure that the entire country wishes that he will.

His journey hasn’t ended in Turtle Bay, hence. Not by a long shot.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, February 7 2016