Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The birth of an Auteur

There’s something in film aesthetics called the Auteur Theory. The idea is simple: a painter paints, a musician composes, and a director directs. By that logic, the director is king, and a film’s merits are to be assessed from the notion that he or she is its author.

The concept was introduced in France and found its way to the United States somewhere in the 1950s. Given the American cinema’s reliance on the studio system, however, those who contended that a film by Director A belongs to (and was purely authored by) Director A were in the minority. Those who contended otherwise were not.

Not surprisingly, the theory got outdated, though it remains significant even today. It explores the relationship between the film and the director, and assumes, somewhat clumsily (one can say), that the greater the number of “intermediaries” between the two is – that is, in terms of technicians, scriptwriters, dialogues writers, and cameramen – the lesser the chances are of the director being able to impose his or her vision on the “final product.”

In Sri Lanka this theory wasn’t really popular, if at all because filmmaking here turned out to be a “collaborative art” most of the time. There were very few directors who were able to impose their vision so much on their films that we could point at them and recognise in them individual marks of the director in question.

The usual exceptions to this come to my mind as I write this – including, without any doubt, Lester James Peries. But the star of this week, who has been undervalued by his own countrymen, is probably the most fitting example we have for the idea that, at the end of the day, the director can and does have a final say in the shaping of his product.

Vasantha Obeyesekere, the subject of this article, remained, until his last film Aganthukaya, an ambitious director. There are sequences in his films which are edited in a deliberately jarring way, intended perhaps to provide shock-value legitimately. The best example which crops to one’s mind is that iconic final sequence in Dadayama, where Swarna Mallawarachchi attempts to shield herself from her assailant, who’s about to run his car over her, but the fact of the matter is that even in his lesser films, such sequences are easy to spot out, though hard to interpret.

Critics for the most imply that Obeyesekere was a “twilight director”, who tapped into both the commercial, mainstream potential and serious potential of the cinema. This is true. This was not very evident in his first few films, but it came out powerfully in two successive films – Diyamanthi, which was essentially a romantic thriller that has faint echoes of Alfred Hitchcock, and Palagetiyo, which brought out what would become his main preoccupation and motif for the rest of his career: the clash between fantasy and reality, often approximating to the conflict between the genders and the realities of class distinctions.

In his later films – Dadayama, Kadapathaka Chaya, and Maruthaya – he was unapologetic in how he handled his subject-matter, which explains the intense rawness of some of their sequences. Swarna Mallawarachchi’s performance as Rathmalie in Dadayama is powerful not merely because she is sexually exploited by Priyankara Jayanath (Ravindra Randeniya), but because she desperately hopes and resolves for a happy ending that never comes.

After being repeatedly abused, she turns into a cynic, and even when she’s “married” to him, her former idealism is gone: so much so that, when Jayanath sardonically reveals to her how she was deceived, she tears and claws at his face, blurting out that she isn’t in the least surprised. The Rathmalie of the first half of Dadayama is an incurable romantic, while the Rathmalie of the second half is as brutal and vengeful as her tormentor.

Dadayama is not the only film by Obeyesekere and it certainly isn’t his most mature: as the writers of “Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema” imply, that credit should go to Kadapathaka Chaya (which I can’t really comment on, since I haven’t watched it in a while). There too, the woman is the naive romantic who turns out to be cynical, but to her credit Swarna Mallawarachchi (who played the main character in there too) transforms her character into more than just a rebel.

There’s a sequence in Kadapathaka Chaya that I revisit again and again, and which proves this point. That sequence, of her killing her tormentor (played by Vijaya Kumaratunga), is a virtual master-class in editing, not just for how he aligns her act of throwing acid on his face with his desperate attempts at saving himself (to no avail, since he’s bedridden, can’t move, and is alone in his room with her) but also for how Obeyesekere meticulously orders his scenes in such a way that we see Mallawarachchi’s emotions and feelings as she prepares for her act of vengeance (underscored by drumbeats from a thovil ceremony, obviously to bring out the ritualistic nuances of the whole sequence). She is, at first, hesitant, but she looks at herself in the mirror (which shows a scarred face, symbolic again) and resolves to complete her act.

To watch these sequences today is to appreciate a director who was daring enough to depict such a scene (for the mainstream Sinhala cinema, with its mildly patriarchal outlook, couldn’t have conceived a woman reacting against a man this way) and an actress capable of expressing a wide range of emotion in them (which is partly why Obeyesekere’s two best films remain this and Dadayama).

Sometimes though, that meticulous, intense, unapologetic, and zealous handling of subject-matter (all these adjectives fit Obeyesekere’s attitude to the cinema, please note), as shown in these scenes, could overreach itself. It happened in Maruthaya, which gets its story – of the wife and two daughters of a once powerful politician, whose death precipitates their economic and social downfall – across so theatrically (as with the sequences of the three women alone in a darkly lit room, surrounded by former friends and fianc├ęs who symbolically look at and then abandon them) that by the end of it all, metaphor and ideology tend to collide so much and overstuff the entire film with symbols. The use of penetrating, raw dialogues, which figure in as a strength in Obeyesekere’s other films, is hardly enough to save this from its self-perpetuating, self-brooding vision.

All this goes to show that a director’s strength can, if overworked, be his weakness, but it doesn’t diminish Obeyesekere’s stature as our foremost film auteur. He scripted his own films and shaped the dialogues in them. He explored women’s issues in a characteristic way: there’s a thread that joins Dhammi Fonseka (Palagetiyo), Swarna Mallawarachchi, and Sangeetha Weeraratne, and that is how he evoked empathy for their characters in his scripts. This doesn’t mean that he depicted them as flawless: on the contrary, they are pleasure-seekers, and in their attempts at realising their romantic dreams of marriage life, they tragically fall back. To me this is best epitomised in Dorakada Marawa and Salelu Warama, both of which had Sangeetha Weeraratne and both of which were based on real incidents (particularly the latter, which was directly influenced by a real-life murder of a University undergraduate by her lover).

What I’ve written so far hardly goes by way of summing up the man and his conception of the cinema entirely. Suffice it to say, then, that Vasantha Obeyesekere (who was recognised with a Lifetime Achievement Award by Derana earlier this year) went beyond many of his contemporaries to prove that the cinema, while collaborative at the outset, could be used to assert a director’s personal vision.

This isn’t to say that his contemporaries failed in that respect. It’s just that Obeyesekere, with those 10 films he made, proved that once a filmmaker had a substantial role to play in the shaping of his stories, he could make his work accessible to his audience through those little, little details and motifs that make them up and figure in each and every plot-line he scripted and filmed.

And at the end of the day, Obeyesekere remains virtually unsurpassed on this count. He has and he had few peers in this respect. Small wonder, we can say.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, April 20 2016

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Is Virginia Woolf relevant anymore?

I remember a conversation I had with a lady friend of mine sometime back. She was better read than me and had the grace to accept that what she knew was but a drop in the ocean. Predictably, she didn’t speak much, and instead allowed me, the empty vessel (by comparison), to make observations about this artist and that filmmaker over lunch.

I inexplicably trailed off to literature and picked on a writer. In this case, it happened to be Virginia Woolf, whom I had used to venerate back in the day, but whose stature had diminished as far as I was concerned since. She was, I thought, irrelevant.

I opened my mind. I talked about what I thought to be her narrow mindset, her inability to move beyond the social class she was born to, and her at times impossibly stiff characterisations of British people. I quoted the inimitable Regi Siriwardena, who had made these same observations, and waited for this lady to accept what I assumed to be the truth. The lady, however, disagreed.

She had an interesting reply to give. “You condemn her for being narrow-minded, provincial, incapable of moving beyond her social class in her novels,” she told me, “But my dear, which writer isn’t guilty of that? Never mind what Regi Siriwardena wrote, you tell me what it is in ‘Mrs Dalloway’ or ‘To the Lighthouse’ that doesn’t merit praise? Sure, they all have characters and they all came from the same social circumstances, which is to say they were all from the English middle-class. But would Martin Wickramasinghe’s writings be the same if they were about the Colombo upper-class?”

Now this lady never usually argued with me, and that made her point quite clear almost immediately. Today however, academics love to trash the likes of Virginia Woolf for the simple reason that she was unable to move beyond her family background. She wrote about inter-bellum Britain and the Empire, which emerged and survived somewhat between 1918 and 1939. Siriwardena would later term this the “English nostalgia for the era between the two world wars”. He is correct, but I wonder whether Mrs Woolf (who committed suicide 75 years ago last month) deserves the criticism that academics keep piling on her because of this.

Woolf could, all things considered, write. She could write so exquisitely that to watch her sentences grow and the rhythm in them assert itself was in itself a pleasure. Of her last, undervalued masterpiece, “The Waves”, she said she was "writing to a rhythm and not to a plot". For Woolf, and the literary movement she is associated with, Modernism, the plot was secondary to the psychology of the characters, and that psychology was almost never linear. In none of the novels of hers that I have read so far – including “Mrs Dalloway”, “To the Lighthouse”, and “Night and Day” – do the characters fall prey to the plot. They exist independently of an external reality, and for this reason, we are never sure where the story is taking us.

Perhaps we were mistaken, however, in thinking that this is Mrs Woolf’s greatest achievement. There are subtle undertones hidden underneath her stories, psycho-sexual in nature, which threaten to disturb a superficial charm. She begins “To the Lighthouse” with Mrs Ramsay telling her son that they can go visit the lighthouse (“if it’s fine tomorrow”), which evokes an almost sexual response in the son’s mind:

“To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night's darkness and a day's sail, within touch.”

And then Mr Ramsay negates what she says: “It won’t be fine”, which evokes an entirely different response, again almost sexual:

“Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father's breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr Ramsay excited in his children's breasts by his mere presence; standing, as now, lean as a knife, narrow as the blade of one, grinning sarcastically, not only with the pleasure of disillusioning his son and casting ridicule upon his wife, who was ten thousand times better in every way than he was (James thought), but also with some secret conceit at his own accuracy of judgement.”

There’s Freudian psychoanalysis at work here, of course, particularly with regard to the son’s love for the mother, his constant need to be consoled by her, and his hatred towards the father-figure. To read these lines today is to remember that Mrs Woolf and her husband, Leonard, published Freud’s collected papers. Indeed, one of her other achievements that she was able to transmit to the British public the thinking of continental philosophers and writers. Whether she was able to embrace the cosmopolitanism and open-mindedness of these thinkers is another debate altogether, which raises questions about her class orientation.

For many alleged that she was class-oriented. This is true. “A Room of One’s Own”, considered back then a standard feminist text, nevertheless betrayed Mrs Woolf’s inability to think outside her social class. When she argues that a woman needs “500 pounds a year and a room of her own” to survive as a writer of fiction, and when in the next few pages she goes on criticising the likes of the Bronte sisters (who survived as governesses and unmarried women) for what she thought to be disproportionate rage against men, we saw that despite her feminist leanings, she couldn't resist implying that a woman who was poor and was against patriarchy could never hope to be a good writer.

But then, I wonder whether Virginia Woolf could have written as she did without these same class inhibitions. There are passages in “Night and Day” and “To the Lighthouse” which shed some light on her class consciousness, such as when (in the former novel) she is writing sympathetically on her protagonist, a clerk to a lawyer who silently hopes for the heart of a well established aristocratic lady. To claim that these inhibitions prevented her from writing well is to claim that Martin Wickramasinghe would have written better had he asserted a less rooted, more cosmopolitan approach to life.

The rift between the writer and his or her text is fictional no matter who contends otherwise. The writer usually projects his or her prejudices into what he or she writes, and in the end the work of art (novel, short story, novella etc) becomes an instrument of ideology. Going by this, “Mrs Dalloway” seems more boring than what many of her contemporaries were writing back in the day, but despite that these novels still afford us a glimpse into the way people like her thought and behaved (she compared the likes of D. B. Jayatilaka and E. W. Perera, who were friends of her husband, to brown-faced monkeys, which goes to show how racist even liberal writers could be in her day).

Essentially then, Virginia Woolf was an English writer. She projected her way of looking at life, so insular and inhibited by mental illness, into her stories, and hence failed to transcend the specificity of their outlook. When I read “Mrs Dalloway” today, I need time to understand half the things she’s writing, not because she writes so elegantly or poetically, but because they are beyond my comprehension in terms of how relevant they are to my time. With Dickens, Shakespeare, and even the Bible, this isn’t the case. With James Joyce too (a writer she snobbishly regarded as an illiterate man), this problem doesn’t exist.

Does that make her a lesser writer? Maybe. That lady friend of mine had a point, I concede, but only insofar as it proves that even the most snobbish writer deserves to be read. That does not and will not give such writers the license to be held in esteem forever, for they deserve as much criticism as their contemporaries. Mrs Woolf, I must say, caught me at an early age, when I was tired of Jane Austen and Dickens and Shakespeare and Walter Scott. She seemed to be a pedant, someone with whom I could identify easily.

But that was then. Today even I doubt her relevance. She remains significant for me because she allows us in her writings to view an England that, for about 20 years, attempted to regain her lost glory, with an Empire that was seeing a sun that was slowly and surely setting. And when the sun finally did set, that significance of Mrs Woolf eroded away.

Note: In the version of this article published in THE ISLAND there were two errors. One, I wrote what the lady said as "You condemn her for NOT being narrow-minded..." when the word "not" negatives what she really said. Two, I wrote that Mrs Woolf wrote that a woman needed 50 pounds and a room of her own, when I missed a zero in the figure. It should be 500 pounds (of course). I apologise for both mistakes, minor and forgivable as they may be.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, April 10 2016

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

He made us laugh and taught us laughter

There are three sequences from D. B. Nihalsinghe’s film Welikathara which I revisit again and again. The first introduces the antagonist, Goring Mudalali, to the audience. The second introduces him properly to Gamini Fonseka’s character, Wickrema Randeniya (an ASP), in Randeniya’s office. The third, the most intense of them all, pits the one against the other in probably the most sustained, tense, and unbroken shot (involving dialogues) I have come across in a Sinhala film. All three are memorable because of one reason: Goring was played by Joe Abeywickrama.

Sometime back I revisited them again. I read Goring’s lines. I remembered the expressions on his face as he delivered them. I grasped one line in particular, which he recites as a reply to a question posed by Fonseka. Fonseka’s character asks, “Why don’t you get into the timber business and start making some beds?” Joe replies, “Of course. But the day I do that, I won’t be making beds. I’ll be making coffins.” Gamini shoots back: “And then you’ll be able to build yourself a coffin for cheap, right?”

Joe’s answer? “The way I die, you won’t be able to bury me in a coffin, sir.” He stares at Gamini. Gamini stares back. They get down to business.

The third sequence is more intense. It happens right before the film’s climax and happens sometime after Randeniya rounds up and arrests nearly everyone in Goring’s mafia ring. Goring intrudes into Randeniya’s house, stares at him, and delivers his threat like a homily. “I won’t use pistols like you do, sir. I won’t shout and scream. I have a better weapon with me. So be careful, hamuduruwane.”

Sequences like this are probably the reason why we still love Joe. Welikathara was a landmark not just because it was the first film shot in CinemaScope or the first film from which Tissa Abeysekara emerged as our foremost scriptwriter, but because it cast Joe against type. Today we have forgotten comedy and we have forgotten drama, and it is to Joe’s capability, both as actor and human being, that we owe our understanding of both in the cinema. He was the man, in short, who made us laugh. He was the man who taught us laughter. Even in the worst films, he shone. As much as he did in the best ones. In the end, that ability, rare as it was, won us all.

Joe was born in Ratnapura and attended Sivali Central College. Time and time again, I have heard testimonies from those who knew him personally, about how he would participate in various plays staged in his village. No doubt these instilled in him a love for theatre, which turned him, in the end, into an instinct-driven actor. He came to Colombo in the late 1940s and joined a studio owned by Sirisena Wimalaweera, who had apparently noted that Joe would make a good actor one day.

That day came with two films he acted in, Devasundari and Saradama, the latter of which had him as an eccentric police-officer. He was, from the word go, a comic actor, who could evoke laughter even in the least comic sequence in a movie. In the 1960s he was usually paired with other actors, and in these performances, I am reminded of Philinte from Moliere’s comedy, “The Misanthrope”. Like Philinte, Joe’s performances in these movies served one purpose – to provide a comic foil to the main character, who almost always was either morose or downbeat (or even both). In both Getawarayo (opposite Gamini Fonseka) and Dahasak Sithuvili (opposite Henry Jayasena), he was there to offer balm to the protagonists, whenever and wherever they were cast down and humiliated.

He was not romantic the way the established stars were. He was not or rather could not be a swashbuckler who crooned for his lover. He was a character actor at his best, and as Irangani Serasinghe once told me with no hesitation, he was the best character actor that we had. Sometimes this could, as with Welikathara, make us forget the relevance of the protagonist of the film, and sometimes, as with Desa Nisa, his presence was so compelling that the director had to cast him as the main player. Desa Nisa was an imperfect film, yes, but even there Joe shone. I believe that the role he played there – as the marginalised, ugly, ridiculed lover – he took to heart 10 years later, when he played the lover to Vasanthi Chathurani, who goes blind afterwards, in the saddest Sinhala film I have seen, Sunil Ariyaratne’s Siribo Aiya.

He had his associations, of course. He was a close friend to Tissa Liyanasuriya, who cast him in all the films he had a hand in shaping – Ran Muthu Duwa, Getawarayo, Saravita (as the unforgettable Sara Aiya), and Narilatha.

By default, some say, sidekicks are loners. Their primary function is to offer balm to the protagonists. With Joe that wasn’t the case. As the years went on and as he aged, whenever he was in a scene of sequence, everyone else there seemed to be dragged to his inexorable charm. Even at his most gruff, rough self, which he brought out as Silindu in Baddegama, this persisted in some strange way, to a point where the entire film’s energy and tension seemed to be concentrated within him. He was not friendless, he was never the loner. As a character actor, hence, he was unparalleled.

But what about those atypical roles, the ones he took even though they were clearly against the kind of character he usually played? If as Goring Mudalali he proved his versatility, his subsequent dramatic roles proved it even more. As Anton Aiya in Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Bambaru Avith, he shook us all with his tantrums and violent fits of temper. As the Colonel in H. D. Premaratne’s Adara Hasuna, he bullied Vasanthi Chathurani with his threats, and in turn frightened us. And as the aged father in Lester James Peries’ undervalued Awaragira, he taught us all that was needed to be taught about the weariness of bringing up children without having taught them the values which, in that process of bringing them up, were inadvertently marginalised.

Notwithstanding all these performances, however, he could still play the defeated and confused. When he grieved over and doubted the death of his son (an army recruit) in Prasanna Vithanage’s Purahanda Kaluwara, and when he broke out in fits and sobs, as he recounted how he murdered three people with his (now dead) wife many, many years ago, in Bennett Rathnayake’s Aswesmua, we were shocked and deeply moved.

In Purahanda Kaluwara he barely speaks, but this man who could convey the slightest change of emotion with his face conveyed to us all his feelings and gestures without uttering a single word. So when, at the end of the film, he stares at some children bathing and frolicking in the river, and he smiles (for what exactly, we are left untold), we smiled with him, heaving a sigh of relief as the story (bleak as it was) drew to a close.

And in a very big way, that is what endeared and continues to endear him to us. He was not fixated on the hero-figure the way some of his contemporaries were. He was just as comfortable with the villain’s part, though he wasn’t fixated on that either. He was, in short and like the best actors, pliable, someone who knew how to blend in without feeling the need to (say) alter the script to his liking. He continues to exert a profound influence over our films and our actors, but at the end of the day (and how else can I conclude this piece?) he remains unsurpassed.

He always will be, I suspect.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, April 6 2016

Monday, April 4, 2016

He sang of joy, emotion, and grief

There’s a story about a playback singer I heard recently. This singer had been approached by arguably the most sought after composer in his day, Amaradeva, somewhere in the 1960s. Amaradeva requested this young man to sing a song for a film he was scoring. This young man, it must be said, was popular. Amaradeva hadn’t approached him before. Not knowing his methods and his way with other musicians perhaps, the man had simply replied: “Give me a day, I’ll come over, I’ll record once, and I’ll go.”

Amaradeva had got angry, apparently. I don’t know exactly what transpired between the two of them there, but from what I’ve heard he never spoke nor came across this young singer until about 10 years later. Again, there was a film he was scoring, and someone had suggested the man’s name. Giving him one more chance (we can assume), he had made his request again. The singer, predictably, gave the same reply. Amaradeva didn’t get angry this time.

He instead decided to try out this man’s claim (for in his experience, I am willing to bet, he hadn’t come across a vocalist who could record a song perfectly in one go). So he gave him a date and time for the recording.

What happened next surprised Amaradeva. True to his word this singer came over, recorded once, and left. The recording was perfect and moreover perfectly in tune with the sequence of the film. I don’t know what Amaradeva would have thought then but I am sure he reflected on his previous encounter with the singer with some humility. After all, I am willing to bet, he couldn’t have come across a vocalist like this before. In the meantime the song, “Kanden Kandata”, became popular, and so did the film, Tharanga. But that’s peripheral.

What's important is the name of the singer. H. R. Jothipala.

Jothipala could sing. He could articulate nearly every emotion known to us and in ways which render a crass reading of the man’s talent an injustice. He was “Jothi” to everyone who thronged around him, “Jothi” to those who continue to sing his songs wherever they are.

It wasn’t just the man’s popularity, of course. It was also his humility. Time and time again, from lyricists and from those who knew him personally, I have heard stories of his humanity, his zeal for giving to others. He did not forget those who loved him. Naturally, we loved him back.

I remember someone telling me that Jothi had a way with the actors who got to lip-sync his songs. For some reason or the other, he could blend in with the voice of that individual actor. More than 10 years ago, Gamini Fonseka, in an interview by Prasad Gunewardene published in “The Island” in 2011, confirmed this: Jothi’s voice, he contended, was “the only voice that really suited not only me but also Vijaya Kumaratunga and even Joe Abeywickrama.” Elaborating on that, Fonseka went on to argue that Jothipala’s voice could vary inflection, tone, and pace in a way which did justice to the lyric and the actor.

And what lyrics he could sing! He could sing of love in a hundred different ways and yet establish that poignant commonality that brought them all together. I am neither musician nor musicologist, but it doesn’t take an academic to figure out that Jothi’s greatest talent lay in how seamlessly he could sync in song, actor, and context. That’s a generalisation I agree, but a perusal of his songs (they weren’t really his, of course) will confirm this. “Chandra Me Rae Paya Awa” is vintage Jothipala the same way “Ninda Nena Rathriye” is, and yet the one was (in terms of emotion) worlds away from the other.

It wasn’t just love, of course. There were other themes. Even when he was “morose”, he could breathe life and vitality into them. The first few lines of “Pruthugeesi Karaya” (another standard Sri Lankan must-sing), for instance, give rise to anything but merriment. Who could sing about the invader light-heartedly, after all?

Jothi could. When he sang of the invader who ransacks the country in his quest for domination, we sang with him. We didn’t forget the invader, but we couldn’t resist “celebrating” their ruthlessness in the most comic way possible. Professor Sunil Ariyaratne would later call “Pruthugeesi Karaya” one of the first Sinhala songs which thematised irony. He is correct.

“Pruthugeesi Karaya” was written by Arisen Ahubudu. He was a Buddhist. It was composed by Sunil Shantha. He was a Catholic. So was Lester James Peries, who directed the film which had that song, Sandeshaya. Sunil Ariyaratne, talking at an event held at the BMICH some years ago, observed that when Lester called Father Marcelline Jayakody to write the lyrics to a film that portrayed the Portuguese negatively, he declined, afraid (so it goes) of whether the Catholic Church would interfere and prohibit. I don’t know whether Father Marcelline could have written “Pruthugeesi Karaya” even if he came in, but my guess is that with Jothipala even another song would have worked. Beautifully.

And in a big way, that’s why we know and love the man. He enters into conversations and forces us (I’d like to think) to sing. I’ve always believed that a song, in whatever form, belongs to the lyricist, but that would be doing a crass injustice by the vocalist. Jothipala grew with us and we grew with him, and my guess is that whenever we listen to his voice and are compelled to sing along with him, we are paying tribute to all those vocalists who proved that a song wasn’t just a series of lines etched by the lyricist, but a fusion of voice and intellect, of heart and mind.

We still love him, of course.

We always will.

Written for: The Sunday Island LIFESTYLE, April 3 2016