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Not surprisingly, the theory got outdated, though it remains significant even today.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 fiancés 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