Monday, May 23, 2016

‘Rekava’: One film, 60 years

Films are made. They age. They are as subject to decay as other art-forms. Explains why, at the end of the day, very few are remembered. Those few, I’m willing to bet, would have been cast aside, marginalised, looked over, and in other ways rubbished, because they were unconventional for their time. Makes sense. People thought Picasso was mad. His paintings don’t fetch for anything less than 100,000 dollars today.

Madness and unconventionality, we can conclude, are hallmarks of genius, in films and paintings and pretty much every other art-form man invented in this world of ours. This is a story of two such films, made here and considered unconventional for their time.

Some say our cinema was born in 1947 (with a “broken promise”, apparently). That’s true. History begins with a whimper, though. History is created, on the other hand, with a bang. That “bang” came up in the form of a group of escapees from the Government Film Unit, “fugitives” you could say, who got together and filmed a story which remains un-erasable from our cultural history. Rekava, the first real Sinhala film to be made on our soil, was released 60 years ago this year.

Rekava, one of those works of art in this country which need no introduction, was footnoted in its day. Time and time again, I have heard of how this simple film, with its unconventional, yet simple theme, was rubbished by both audiences and critics. It curried favour with European critics, however, won for Lester Sri Lanka’s first nomination for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and became a catalyst for the 20 other films he’d make over the next 50 years. And yet, when I see it today, I am neither surprised nor anguished at the fact that our people initially ignored it.

For Rekava was, in the truest sense of that word, unconventional. Not because it was courageous enough to tackle its theme the way it did, and certainly not because it was shot, for the first time, on location and in a natural setting, but because Lester and his crew (this being their debut) were “outsiders”. That shows, sometimes glaringly and sometimes almost imperceptibly.

Lester at Cannes, 1957
Regi Siriwardena, a critic who could write about films and literature with equal vigour, wrote about Rekava 25 years after it was released. He pointed out, correctly I believe, that it was realistic on account of its formal innovativeness, that is to say its natural settings and on-set dialogues (which were not dubbed later on). More relevantly, he pointed out that despite the inherent deficiencies of the plot – which included the nearly theatrical dialogues and the naive attitude of the filmmaker towards the village setting – what came out most powerfully was the relationship between the mother (Irangani Serasinghe) and the son (Sena, played by Somapala Dharmapriya).

That this remains the key strength and emotional circle of the film can be confirmed by a fresh viewing of it: despite the stories of the boy’s friendship with the girl (Myrtle Fernando), the superstitious myths the villagers believe, and that opening, extended sequence of the boy chasing some village thieves, what comes out is the acting of Irangani Serasinghe, who despite her thespian past remains one of the more genuine “facets” of the story. Everything else – the myths, the intrigue, the romance – are swept away, until mother and son are brought together in a scene that does away with almost every other plot-line in the story. What that final scene achieves is an emotional catharsis, but in achieving that it also shows that the other plot-lines were at best ancillary to it, and at worst superficially conceived.

All this led Siriwardena to claim (startlingly) that while Rekava (and Maname) did not reflect the larger socio-political landscape which unfolded that year (with the election of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike on a populist platform), they nevertheless followed the impulses of a country that opted for change that year. They were instrumental, in other words, in not just changing the social class of those who went and patronised the cinema and theatre, but also those who, in the next few decades, became the choosers of this country’s political destiny – a fact compounded by the nationalisation of our schools and the institutionalisation of free education which followed 1956.

Siriwardena didn’t write about the audience that went to watch Rekava, but he might have found in them a confirmation of what he wrote and implied. For the fact of the matter is, Rekava was aimed at the wrong audience, or rather audiences: it couldn’t find favour with the English-speaking, Colombo crowd because (and we have Lester’s own word for it) their “cultural configuration” blinded them to the inherent aesthetic merit of the film. “They laughed at the wrong places,” Lester would later recount to his first biographer, A. J. Gunawardana, which is to say that they laughed at the larger-than-life, stereotypical characters depicted by D. R. Nanayakkara and Romulus de Silva.

On the other hand, it couldn’t be aimed at the Sinhala-speaking audience either, because their tastes suited, not natural settings or dialogues, but stories spun out of studios. Lester and his crew had aimed, not at the discriminating minority, but the common denominator.

Unfortunately, Rekava, being his debut and having the deficiencies it contained, ended up being aimed at and lambasted by both audiences. The drama, the comedy, the songs, and that heart-wrenching finale where son is reconciled with mother: none of this could have quite compensated for what audiences from both sides of the divide felt to be its shortcomings.

The Colombo crowd had been conditioned to enjoy the Western cinema, and the Sinhala-speaking crowd had grown up professing loyalty to imitations of the Indian cinema. Lester’s debut failed with both, precisely because both were short-sighted in their aesthetic tastes. That the predominantly upper class and “bourgeois” intelligentsia of today enjoy Sinhala films, and crude ones at that (by which I mean crude comedy), is testimony to how far we have developed (and, sadly, regressed) in those same tastes: something not even Lester could have foreseen.

That’s the reason why, incidentally, it fared better in Europe: at a time when even established critics and filmmakers like Francois Truffaut were making snide remarks at Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Rekava was almost Europeanised in its outlook, which attempted to cater to local audiences but failed to do so on account of the crew’s inability to move with village life. In its depiction of the village, not surprisingly, the film was more continental than local. Lester’s fascination with the French cinema, as he himself once put it, was almost like a motif from a symphony: it returned to him, again and again, in almost every film he made. This shows most starkly in his portrayal of rural life.

More to the point, in Rekava, as with Dharmasena Pathiraga in Ahas Gawwa and Vasantha Obeyesekere in Walmath Uwo, Lester was a newcomer to his field and hadn’t created the standard by which he would be judged in the films he made. He would create that standard two films later, with Gamperaliya, though even then he never quite made it with the box-office. Rekava was a hit or miss, and for its director, it turned out to be neither. As with the masterpieces of the silent American cinema, then, its legacy is still assessed from the standpoint of its formal innovativeness. Whether we like it or not, one can add.

That was 60 years back. Since then we’ve seen filmmakers come and go here. Some wing awards but (not even once) hearts, and others win dividends at the box-office without as much as moving a single critic. We’ve divided our cinema and not for good reasons. 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. 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 Rekava, that he could weave stories which were both timeless and common.

Much of this has to do with the transformation of both village and city, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that our aesthetic tastes (a term which, forgive me, is too wide and open to interpretation) progressed under him. The fact that the bourgeois, English-speaking intelligentsia, hailing even from the cosmopolitan Ithaca of Reid Avenue and Cinnamon Gardens, can enjoy the crude and immediate humour of Udayakantha Warnasuriya, Tennyson Cooray, Bandu Samarasinghe, and Vijaya Nandasiri, certainly reveals that beneath the superficial gloss and elitism of this social class, there is nevertheless a “cultural configuration” which can at times appear both jarring and historically inevitable to the outsider.

That this was partly owing to Lester, who remains the father of every filmmaker here, is fairly true. He thus remains loved and venerated, not as an outsider or “lonely artist” but as one of us. As he always has been, of course.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be contacted at udakdev1@gmail.com His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com