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