Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Dharmasiri Bandaranayake: From Stage to Screen

Courage is something is to be found in plenty among filmmakers. It’s manifested in different ways, of course, and one director may express his courage in a completely different way to another. The same thing can be said of the theatre and of playwrights. While it is true that many actors in Sri Lankan emerged from the stage, not many filmmakers have successfully made the transition from theatre to film. We remember the few that have for their daring and courageous stance on various political issues.

It is however a measure of their genius and diversity that they do not make films the same way they stage their plays. After all, films are an entirely different world, and to project one’s personal vision and/or political message in the cinema as one would onstage would defeat any purpose. From those who have not fallen into this pit, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake is one name you cannot forget.

He was born in 1949 and was educated at Vidyarathna College in Horana. At the time there had been a flourishing theatre culture in schools across Sri Lanka, and Bandaranayake had come under the influence of some of the finest teachers. He says that he started to act plays while at school, and Hemasiri Liyanage was one of the “figures of destiny” who fired off his imagination while taking part in them. This was during the 1960s, a time when a “political theatre” as such was beginning to flower, prophetically I should say, given the outburst of social and political angst in the following decade.
                                                                                                                 
Bandaranayake was a teenager when he first “encountered” the cinema. This was through Dayananda Gunawardena’s Bakmaha Deege. He had apparently met Gunawardena (a renowned playwright in his own right) through his stints at the theatre some time before. Bakmaha Deege had been an eye-opener to young Bandaranayake, who had until that point got involved purely with the theatre. “I was only 17 at that time,” he remembers, “Films didn’t appeal to me that much. It was a chance encounter with Gunawardena which actually got me into his film. Overnight, however, I became popular and well known.” As Premadasa, the servant in the Mudliyar’s house in the story, he had his turn at playing a comic part.

He remembers how curious he was at the time of shooting that film. While he admits, to my surprise I should say, that he wasn’t too enamoured of acting, he tells me that he struck up a relationship with the film’s cinematographer, Willie Blake, and got involved with the camera unit. He adds moreover that what really interested him was the technical part of the film.

He also admits to have been taken in by the “theatrical” side to its story. “Gunawardena kept an admirable balance between theatre and cinema in Bakmaha Deege,” he says, “There are over 15 songs in the story, all following a semi-operatic style. In fact the entire film was an adaptation of an Italian opera, The Marriage of Figaro, and Gunawardena shrewdly kept the theatrical side to the story intact when translating it.” I told him that Gunawardena’s adaptation came off so well that it was difficult to actually say it was an adaptation, and Bandaranayake agrees by claiming that he was peerless in his profession.

Unfortunately or fortunately (I never can tell what), his film career would be disturbed for quite some time after this. He would display his talent at the stage during the 1970s, an era of political rebellion and insurrection. As with the cinema, it would be through Gunawardena again that he would get involved with the theatre, starting with his Jasaya saha Lenchina and Denna Depole. The 1960s however had been the age of stylisation in the theatre, notwithstanding the attempts made by the likes of Sugathapala de Silva to change it. It was through playwrights of the calibre of Bandaranayake and Hemasiri Liyanage, however, that stylisation would be almost completely done away with.

Sri Lanka is no stranger to protest plays, but it is to Bandaranayake that my generation owes its understanding of the political theatre. I am most certainly not in a position to assess them all as a critic would. Let me just say here therefore that his plays are seen and “read” by both young and old, and they are timeless in that they touch on the most typical consequence of politics and power: corruption. Bandaranayake has thematised this in ways probably no other political playwright can match or hope to surpass.

This is probably true with those other parts he got to play, such as that of the slain Archbishop in Bandula Vithanage’s adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s Becket. The entire theatre culture in Sri Lanka, according to Bandaranayake, changed after 1971. “I had completed my A/Levels the previous year,” he tells me, “and my generation was witness to the insurrection. Almost overnight, nearly every notion of theatre changed.” No doubt this was what prompted him to move on with a spate of plays which established him as the foremost exponent of “political theatre”.

In the meantime, his interest in the cinema did not completely go away. The 1970s was also a time of social revolt in continental Europe, and a new cinema culture had formed there. Bandaranayake admits that while he wasn’t a huge follower of this trend, his ideas of filmmaking were formed by watching several New Wave films, in particular from Poland (Andrzej Munk’s Passenger is one film he remembers clearly).

It was at this point that Vasantha Obeyesekere offered him his second film role in Palagetiyo. His performance in that film was a world away from that in Bakmaha Deege. As Sarath, he practically exemplified the plight of millions of rural youth who migrated to the city in search of jobs. Sarath isn’t ambitious, but has risen through the ranks and has become manager of a printing press, owned by a wealthy mudalali (Henry Jayasena), whose daughter (Dammi Fonseka) falls in love with him. It is the clash of personal feeling and class relations which makes up the theme of the story, which congeals into the conflict of desire and guilt in Sarath after he elopes with her to his village. “I was around 25 when I acted in that film,” he tells me, “I toyed with the idea of writing my own script owing to it.”

Any essay on Bandaranayake would be incomplete without a discussion of Hansa Vilak, which he made in 1980. Like Palagetiyo, Hansa Vilak depicts a clash of personal feeling with social realities. Unlike it, Bandaranayake’s debut deals, not with the realities of class hierarchies, but with the realities of a society that has embraced the institution of marriage.

His story, if one watches it closely, doesn’t really absolve any character, not even the “protagonist” Nissanka (played by Bandaranayake himself), whose affair with Miranda (played by probably the only actress who could have done justice to the role, Swarna Mallawarachchi) ends up ruining two families, hers and his. Nissanka’s moment of triumph at the court (where a case is filed against him) sours when he begins to understand just how institutionalised marriage has become. Soon enough, disillusionment settles in his affair with Miranda, and he tries to reconcile with his former wife (Vasanthi Chathurani), whose brother (G. W. Surendra, in one of his most memorable roles) is hell-bent against him.

As I wrote before, that Bandaranayake is the “Everyman” or protagonist of the story doesn’t really absolve him. If at all, we share his plight while accepting that he is flawed. He lets personal feeling ride over his duty to his family, which is almost an act of hubris that backfires on him in perhaps the most confusing (not confused) ending in a Sinhala film. I put to him that the final sequence in his film blurred the line between fantasy and reality, adding that the background music (by Premasiri Khemadasa) served to blur it even further.

He agrees with me on this. “I remember Henry Jayasena telling me that my film was very much like a Bergman film. But I got to know his films through Henry only after making Hansa Vilak.” It is true that Bandaranayake’s debut has a near-Expressionistic feel which makes it comparable to one of Bergman’s more obscurantist stories (like Persona). It is also true that the blurring between fantasy and reality also bears close affinities to that director’s vision. While comparing the one to the other in this case would be a little too crass, it is true that a line can be drawn from one to the other, at SOME point at least.

While Hansa Vilak won unqualified praise from local critics (Regi Siriwardena, for instance, called it a “permanent landmark”), it also won accolades abroad, including a Special Diploma at the Mannheim Film Festival. No mean feat, considering that Bandaranayake had to juggle three roles (director, actor, and scriptwriter) in that film. He also tells me that it was a success at the box-office owing to its low production cost. “We spent around two lakhs (200,000 rupees) on it. It earned about 21 lakhs.” He adds moreover that the nominal price of a ticket back then was about 1.10 or 3.50 rupees, which meant that the audience size was quite big.

This is obviously in stark contrast with the size of audiences who flock to cinemas today: while ticket prices have increased and guarantee profits for producers and directors, those who patronise film halls have reduced in number. That a film like Hansa Vilak was able to reach more audiences than a blockbuster would today speaks much of the director’s talent as well as the film culture which existed back then. “Everything changed after 1983,” he tells me, “Film halls closed down, and overnight the North was shut out from the rest of the country. We lost a vibrant film loving population because of this.” Television too would have affected this, but the point is that the collective love for films by our people was quashed by the riots of 1983.

Looking at his other films, it’s obvious that they are bound together by a strong commitment to lesser heard of but rampant social issues. Thunveni Yamaya, probably his most undervalued film (it didn’t earn a profit for him), revolves around a man’s inability to consummate his marriage due to a traumatic childhood, while in Suddilage Kathawa, which is my personal favourite, he represents the plight of its heroine (Swarna Mallawarachchi) in such a way that we feel nothing but sympathy for her, especially towards the end when the husband she had been longing and waiting for misunderstands and kills her.

There are those who thought this film is inferior to his other work. This is usually owing to how they feel the protagonist Suddhi is treated by him: as sexual object in her village. However, this merely serves to increase our sympathy for her. In a predominantly male society, women suffer, and as Bandaranayake points out in his film, they suffer even more when they rebel and try to cut into the predatory instincts of that same society. Perhaps this was what those who were critical of his film missed (writers after all cannot be expected to read into every little meaning a film offers). Still, I feel that in its glorification of the woman as a sexual object, Bandaranayake almost makes a melodrama out of Suddhi’s story.

In Bawa Duka and Bawa Karma, Bandaranayake presents to us a saga of the changing face of Sri Lankan society. Through the story of Peduru (Jackson Anthony) he encapsulates the entire colonial era and how it changed society, especially through the agency of missionaries. Any faithful follower of the cinema would value honesty of treatment and subject-matter in a film of this sort, which is where Bandaranayake really succeeds. Like Hansa Vilak, here too there is no completely innocent and blame-free character. Instead, the director traces the uprooting of culture to the inertia of those who became complacent with the regressive elements of tradition.

He makes us understand that missionary activity was just one way by which colonialists made use of those regressive elements to alter and disrupt our way of life, exemplified in that sequence where a Catholic missionary encourages the villagers to convert, by claiming that his religion is free from the sort of class and caste structures prevalent in Sinhala Buddhist villages then. The director’s message, then, is that the uprooting of tradition was partly our fault: we have only ourselves to blame for the “duka” and “karma” which persist us from one “bawaya” to another.

Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s films cannot be judged that easily. It is true that sexuality forms up the essence of them all, from Hansa Vilak onwards. Having directed just five films however (hardly a noticeable filmography, you would say), I feel that his vision hasn’t truly been felt by us.

I hence ask him why he hasn’t been making more films, and he admits that unless and until he gets in the “mood” for translating a story into celluloid, he can’t direct. “Recently I was asked by a bunch of people to remake Suddhilage Kathawa,” he tells me, “That’s ridiculous. I can’t think of the film without imagining Swarna as Suddhi, Cyril Wickramage as Romial, and Joe Abeywickrama as the headman. I told them to go look for another director to work with, because when you’ve made a film and you try to remake it, the original still stays fresh in your memory. That’s always a problem.”

He also tells me that the culture of films and filmmaking has changed, and not always for the better, today. “Most young directors today don’t finance their films. More often than not, foreign agencies give their lion’s share to them. This impedes on the director at times, and makes him think that he doesn’t have to reach his audience with what he is depicting. In other words he misses the audience he should be aiming at.” That’s true. While it is evident that most foreign (and even non-foreign) agencies try to shove their at times pernicious ideologies into films, it’s also evident that much of what goes for “good” and “parallel” cinema today eludes the local viewer.

I tell Bandaranayake that while these films are catered more to intellect than to emotion, the audience who misses them instead patronise the big-screen epics which can hardly be called “films”. He replies by cautioning that this is too crass a generalisation, because audiences are beginning to shun them too. “They aren’t very successful, not even in terms of box-office receipts,” he says. This is hardly a consolation for the film lover in this country, however, and while this trend continues, he will be neglected in a country which once boasted of a vibrant cinema culture. Still, it does point at the fact that big-screen doesn’t always translate to box-office hits, and that audiences do get tired of having their intelligence insulted by such films.

Dharmasiri Bandaranayake has experimented, in both theatre and films. And it’s not too difficult to find out where his real roots are to be found. There are some critics who have found traces of the theatre in some of his films, particularly Hansa Vilak and Thunveni Yamaya. It is of course dangerous to incorporate theatrical tendencies into films, but happily for Bandaranayake, they haven’t compromised on his reputation (not that much, anyway) as perhaps the most courageous filmmaker in our country. That’s saying a lot, considering the number of films he has made. Other filmmakers have made much, much more, after all, and none of them has really reached Bandaranayake’s standard. One can only hope that he comes back to the cinema soon, to give us a taste of how far he has progressed and matured.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, January 27 and February 3 2016