Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The (flawed) magic of H. D. Premaratne

Not too long ago, a friend of mine, Yohan Cooray, accused me of trying to objectify taste in movies. We were (as I remember) arguing about the gulf between kitsch and art in our cinema, and not surprisingly I was “with” the purists (whom I end up with somehow). My contention was that inasmuch as money-makers are needed to salvage this industry, what they churn out in the name of earning profits and pleasing audiences are so bad that they do not warrant the “film” tag attached to them.

His argument, which wasn’t easy to counter, was simple: stop trashing the money-makers, leave them be, and go on enjoying the movies I’d grown up loving.

I suppose the problem in our debate was one of aesthetics: what is art and what is not, we constantly ask ourselves. In the context of our cinema this remains as true as it’s going to get, not merely because audiences are going to sustain this distinction for time to come, but because directors, in their efforts at either making profits or winning ego-boosters by the name of awards and accolades, refused or rather couldn’t wed the two. They couldn’t aim at a fusion of the arty and the commercial, in other words.

Not that there weren’t exceptions. Of course there were. But they were few, far in between, and too indiscernible to offer reason for hope. Which is why, at the end of the day, when we look back nostalgically to the past, we talk of reruns of classics and retrospectives of directors who’re either dead or aged. Prime among them are directors who kept audiences alive to the movies they made, of course, and to me, there remains no better name to bring up as the exception to what I pointed out a short while back than H. D. Premaratne.

Premaratne was, to put it pithily, a genius. Only a genius, after all, could have made Sikuruliya, Apeksha, Parithyagaya, and Deveni Gamana, just like that and in that order. These movies captured him at his best, exemplifying his attitude to the cinema (critics would have a term for this: “middle cinema”) in ways virtually no other director in his time could match. Which is why, when we refer to our past and attempt at locating the moorings of popular culture in our cinema, his name remains un-erasable.

Premaratne’s films worked their magic on us long before we began realising it. How?

He was earthy. Down to earth. His storylines, if one looks at them carefully enough, were all rooted in our people, though that does little by way of differentiating them from the stories his contemporaries went for. What distinguished his work, hence, wasn’t just the fact that he went for the ordinary: it was the fact that he could, in film after film, transform whatever ordinary plotline it was into a tool of social and political comment. Premaratne wasn’t an activist the way, for instance, that Dharmasena Pathiraja or Dharmasiri Bandaranayake was. But at the end of the day, he was as allied to the same concern for the dispossessed and marginalised as they were.

What proved to be his strength could, nonetheless, be his weakness. From Sikuruliya to Saptha Kanya there were 11 films, all of which were box-office hits. He was inconsistent in his work: sometimes, as with Deveni Gamana, he infused the political into the aesthetic, pairing the two in ways which did the social issue he was examining proper justice, and sometimes, as with Saptha Kanya, he let go of political realities so beautifully that, like the best American directors, he made us forget the unreality of his stories and made us fall in love with them.

So how did this become a weakness? There is a gulf between the social and the personal, though I don’t mean to say that they are irreconcilable. In Premaratne’s better films, he could bring the two together wonderfully – witness his take on feminist issues in Sikuruliya, the issue of dowry and marriage in Parithyagaya, and of course the theme of virginity and its sacrosanct place in our society in Deveni Gamana. But even in his more commercially successful work, his inability at doing away with this gulf showed. That didn’t mar his image. But it was a weakness.

I am thinking here of Visidela, a film which, like much of Premaratne’s other work, caught hold of an actual political experience and used it as background material for the fictionalised world that he created. The story of Visidela takes place around the time of the bheeshanaya, with its main characters all figuring in the tragedy that leads to probably the most downbeat ending that Premaratne contrived in his films. What we see, understand, and empathise with, is the plight of the characters played by Anosha Sonali and Jackson Anthony, siblings who get carried away by the idealism of youth despite the harsh realities that exist outside (and sometimes even within) their village.

I know what certain critics would have thought of this: that in making the bheeshanaya “background material”, Premaratne privileged the plight of these two siblings, which essentially made the political aspect of the story a mere instrument at the hands of the personal. What this assumes is that this makes the personal “lower” in terms of relevance than the political, an erroneous misconception in film aesthetics. I’d say that the director’s weakness comes up in another form: not when he privileges the personal over the social, but when he dabbles in the two at the same time rather confusingly.

The authors of “Profiling Sri Lanka” write that Premaratne’s films display an uneven quality, which to a certain extent is true. That unevenness comes up strongly in Visidela, and I can pinpoint the exact time when it does come up: when, after Sonali and her lover (Razi Anwer) flirt with each other over Samitha Mudunkotuwa’s rendition of “Gumu Gumuwa Wadule”, we see Sonali’s uncle (played to perfection by W. Jayasiri) making covert sexual advances on her (the theme of incest, I must note here, wasn’t that convincingly portrayed, especially when contrasted against how he treated socially relevant themes in his other work).

I remember talking with a friend of mine about the disjuncture between these two sequences, and I remember pointing at the (random) references made by certain characters to the bheeshanaya in the film. These references (Gnananda Gunawardena for instance, as a buffoonish police officer, summarises what the police are doing in areas of rebellion with a cliché: “We are establishing peace!”) become distracting as the movie goes on, and by the end of the story, when Anthony’s character comes up swearing revenge on Jayasiri, thereby rendering the image of the peaceful, virtuous village a myth, we fail to reconcile the political with the personal.

Contrary to what critics would have thought, hence, what fails in Visidela isn’t its refusal to privilege the political but its inability to conflate its socio-political context with the fictionalised story of Anthony, Sonali, Anwer, and Jayasiri.

Premaratne didn’t direct only Visidela, of course. There were other films, other masterpieces, each as loved as the other. Throughout the 1980s he became more politically committed, and this meant that (out of necessity) he had to do away at least partly with the slickness and romantic idealisations that were part and parcel of his initial work. This culminated in Saptha Kanya, a film which despite its romantic moorings displayed an almost indifferent attitude to its social context.

It was almost as if he were trying to deliberately weed politics and social themes out of stories which played around with romantic fiction, as if he were trying to drive home the point that political activism in the cinema couldn’t cohabit with entertainment-frill. When he tried to do away with this distinction with his last film, Kinihiriya Mal, consequently, we didn’t quite feel the full thrust of his magic. Like Visidela before it, hence, his last film remained ambitious and therefore larger-than-life.

These are reflections. They don’t pretend to be anything else. There’s so much to H. D. Premaratne that has escaped the critical eye, if at all because critics who refuse to see anything merit-worthy in directors who bridged the gap between the arty and the commercial are reluctant to do justice to him. “Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema”, admittedly, records his shortcomings, as few as they were. But this is not enough. Premaratne’s genius remains elusive. He gave us Saptha Kanya and at the same time Apeksha and could deftly examine society in ways his contemporaries could not. If we can't acknowledge that, we have failed in acknowledging the man.

What my friend Yohan pointed out above is true. What he implied is truer. If we stop trashing the money-makers and re-assess them, perhaps we’d see reason for hope. And hope, let’s admit it, is grossly missing in our cinema. We have the likes of H. D. Premaratne to thank for having enlivened our industry, no doubt.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, March 16 2016