Tuesday, May 24, 2016

‘Delovak Athara’: One film, 50 years

Gamperaliya was of course Lester James Peries’ first real masterpiece (on a higher level), but it is another film of his that evokes my interest here: Delovak Athara, Lester’s fourth film, which created another landmark, as the first serious Sinhala film to examine, not village life, but urban life. Delovak Athara, which was released in 1966, celebrates half a century this year. A brief analysis can hardly do justice to its merits, but I can try.

When it was first released in 1966, Delovak Athara was castigated here and proved to be less than a success abroad. In Lester’s own words, this was because of two factors: the film had no proper story which could make concessions to the box-office, and it was made at a time when serious directors here went for and depicted the village. The serious film, in other words, was already preconceived in the minds of both audiences and critics, and when Delovak Athara came out, that blinded them to its aesthetic achievement.

And what exactly was this achievement? The fact that it didn’t really have a story and the fact that it wasn’t set in the village, of course! By the time Lester got around directing it, he had communicated to his audience the standard he expected them to conform to, and was slowly creating the standard he would be judged on in his work. In it, unlike his earlier work, he almost achieves a distancing effect. Gone are the emotional histrionics which made up much of the Sinhala cinema at the time. Gone are the hero and the villain: we are left instead with flawed, everyday characters. To evoke sympathy for them without revealing their emotions, and to dissect their lives, motives, and thoughts clinically, was Lester’s goal. That he achieved it despite the film’s wafer-thin plot speaks volumes about the man’s ability at narrating stories.

Philip Cooray called it an “intellectual film”, no doubt owing to the emotionless framework of the story, but also perhaps because of the way it was edited. Delovak Athara marked the second time Lester got in Sumitra Gunawardena as his editor, and her prowess shows. In how she cut the film to the music (a feat, considering that we didn’t have film composers at the time), and how this in turn cut to the emotional intensity of a sequence, speaks volumes not just about her skill but that of everyone involved in it, including (without a doubt) the actors. Much of the cast, after all, had been stage-actors before, including Tony Ranasinghe, Irangani Serasinghe, and Jeewarani Kurukulasooriya. That they kept restraint despite their past fidelity to the theatre is remarkable.

Tony, in particular, was a category unto himself in it. There’s a sequence, towards the end, where he’s afforded a close-up onscreen. By that time, he’s at tenterhooks as to whether he should go to the police and confess his crime (the film centres on a car accident) or not. His character, Nissanka Wijesinghe, stares at the camera, lips parted slightly, confused. He cries. He stares down. End of sequence.

And yet, we sense a tremendous grace under pressure in Nissanka. He is crying, yes, but even when he is, the film doesn’t afford us to empathise with him completely. “The scene does not move us. The objectivity is all. We admire and appreciate, from afar,” is what Philip Cooray would write some years later, in his book on Lester, The Lonely Artist. To me, that sums up the clinical, distancing effect the film achieved, almost effortlessly.

That particularly sequence is all the more intense because it gives us a hint as to what Nissanka is thinking. The way the director (and cameraman, for the late Willie Blake’s work in this film deserves more than a footnote) caught Tony in that sequence was virtually insurmountable: the lack of proper emotion registered in his face, and the obvious feeling of anguish we know he is caught in, makes his close-up comparable to an Impressionist painting.

No wonder Cooray called it the “most Western” of his films, a title which stands true even today, if at all because in no other film of his did Lester become so unwilling to depict on the surface his characters’ inner feelings. To watch Tony’s character, even in his most poignant moment (in that sequence where he has a row with his mother, who insists that they frame their servant-boy for his crime), refuse to give up completely to emotion, is to marvel at an actor who would become the very embodiment of masculine fragility in our cinema for the following decade. Lester’s craftsmanship shows, not just in the narrative, but in his actors as well.

That was 50 years back. Since then we’ve seen filmmakers and films come and go here, some winning awards but (not once) winning hearts, and others winning dividends at the box-office without as much as moving a critic. We’ve divided our cinema. But to think of this as a contemporary problem is wrong.

For if we look at our past, take note of those masterpieces castigated by both audience and critic, we will appreciate that the truest filmmakers were those who refused to give in to the box-office, who stuck by their vision and vindicated it in the end. We had a rift between what was serious and what was popular even then, after all.

Lester was such a filmmaker. I mentioned this in my earlier article on Rekava and I will do so again. He loved his audiences and his audiences grew to love him over the years. He was a lonely artist, yes, but as I pointed out in an earlier article, that was true insofar as his people considered him an “outsider”. The extraordinary success of Golu Hadawatha, and the critical and commercial success of the two other films he made for Ceylon Theatres – Akkara Paha and Nidhanaya – proved, as with Delovak Athara and even Rekava, that he could weave stories which were both timeless and common (with the thinnest plot-lines). He remains the father of every film made here. As always, one might add.

And in the end, he wasn’t an outsider anymore. He was “one of us”. Has been ever since.