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 fiancĂ©e’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