Sunday, May 1, 2016

For D. B. Nihalsinghe: A Tribute

Films are built on directors, writers, actors, and technicians. The French turned the director into an author, and claimed (somewhat erroneously) that if he were given a substantial part to play in the shaping of the film in question, that film would be his product as far as ownership went. This theory, popular back in its day, ignored filmmaking as a collaborative art. The late Gore Vidal, in one of his essays on the cinema ("Who Makes the Movies?", rejected it on the basis that scriptwriters, not directors, had a larger say in the making of a film. No wonder. Vidal was a scriptwriter himself.

The point is that the cinema is a dynamic art. The point is that if it could be reducible to one man’s vision, then that vision would “show” no matter what role that man took: as director, scriptwriter, or editor. This is true in the case of scriptwriters who took to directing, of directors who became scriptwriters, of editors who became directors, and of cameramen and cinematographers who became directors. Among the latter, D. B. Nihalsinghe figured in greatly. We lost him last week. In one sense, of course: people like him aren’t easy to lose forever.

Nihalsinghe broke into the cinema with Welikathara, and for most critics that probably is the film most associable with him. Not because it was the first film shot here in CinemaScope. Not because it introduced Tissa Abeysekara as our foremost scriptwriter. No, it was more so because of how the film kept “balance” between rhetoric, suspense, and thrills on the one hand and an intelligent storyline on the other. When we see Welikathara today, it’s not just the story which grabs attention. It’s the way it was crafted and relayed to us, effortlessly and efficiently. Like the best American thrillers, one can add.

To a large extent, this was because he was disciplined. That showed, not just in his first film or his subsequent films, but in those films he photographed. In both Sath Samudura and Dahasak Sithuvili, for instance, you can see his intense, almost zealous emphasis on capturing the characters’ faces, in relaying every shade and nuance of emotion that the story could obtain from them. The superficial technical gloss in Dahasak Sithuvili – the use of filtered camera lenses, a first in our cinema – is, to my mind, at best incidental to the real achievement of that film, where the camera captures the anguish of the protagonist (played by Henry Jayasena) in ways which add depth and meaning to the central conflict of the story.

I’ve heard stories from those who worked with the man. Anoja Weerasinghe, who acted in both Maldeniye Simion and Keli Madala and went on to win the first-ever international award (for a Sri Lankan actor) with the former film, had this to say: “When my name was suggested as the female lead for Maldeniye Simion, both the author and producer were sceptical. They were worried about how well I could fit in a serious setting, when until that time I’d been cast in commercial flicks. But Nihalsinghe was adamant. He wanted me for that role, and if he couldn’t have me, he wouldn’t make the film.” Nihalsinghe wasn’t an “actor’s director”, but he had a knack for identifying actors and even casting them against type. Joe’s performance as “Goring Mudalali” in Welikathara testifies to this. Amply.

There are sequences in his films which demand tremendous reserves of energy and dedication from their actors. You come across countless such sequences in Welikathara, which kept a feeling of tension and conflict with nearly every shot and frame in it. Nihalsinghe was an atonal director, which means that he can’t be judged by the basis of the themes he chose for his stories. One theme stands out, though: his sympathetic, though clinical, treatment of women. It comes out even in as slickly conceived a story as Welikathara, and more starkly in Ridi Nimnaya. Apart from that, his forte, which kept his work alive to generations who followed him, was photography and editing. That shows in pretty much all his work, from the time he received a Bolex camera from his father (the formidable D. B. Dhanapala) when he completed his SSC exams.

He was also a stern administrator. His stint at the National Film Corporation, founded at a time when our cinema needed it, speaks volumes about the man and his dedication. “In just seven years,” he wrote in an article published in “The Island” in 2008, “yearly admission climbed from 30 million to an astounding 74.4 million by 1979 – the best evidence that the audiences were denied the choice by the very cinema moguls who claimed to know that demand and how to cater to it.” In terms of promoting an indigenous cinema, the NFC had a function to play, and Nihalsinghe was there when it performed that function best. We are grateful, especially now, when what little we can claim as “our cinema” no doubt owes its existence to those policies, however restrictive they were, which he championed back in his day.

And in a way, the man remains un-definable. Like the best directors and artistes, he eludes easy capture. There’s little to nothing, after all, that connects his first film with his last (which is why, as I pointed above, he is atonal). He gave Joe Abeywickrama his career-defining role (which transformed him overnight to a serious actor). He gave Anoja Weerasinghe two landmark performances (she called him her “guru”, and not for nothing). He gave us our first tele-drama. And in a very large way, he helped us champion our cinema. He could have done much more, of this I'm certain.

He died last week. He could have stayed with us and we could have, in turned, asked him to revisit a career he left behind a long time ago. He didn’t. The best we can do now, hence, is to sustain his legacy. We can’t add to it, I know. But we can try.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, May 1 2016