Monday, May 2, 2016

Some reflections on Dharmasena Pathiraja

I met Dharmasena Pathiraja for the first time about two years ago. Back then I was a huge fan of his films, which to me seemed to have come straight from a person who had lived through their experiences. Those experiences seemed so real that I thought they WERE real.

I asked him about his background and education, and when I realised he was not born to the kind of community he would go on portraying in his films (the urbanised), I was surprised. Pathiraja was born in Kandy. He was educated at Dharmaraja and later at the University of Peradeniya. Hardly the kind of person who’d wind up making Bambaru Avith at Kalpitiya years later.

Then I went on to meet two actors associated with the man, Cyril Wickramage and Amarasiri Kalansuriya. Both were delighted and ecstatic when they got to talk about him. Wickramage was more calm in his praise (“he was the only director in his time who got his locations and backdrops right to the dot”) while Kalansuriya, who too was educated at Dharmaraja, was more intense and nostalgic, so much so that while I was able to take down Wickramage’s life story, with Kalansuriya I managed (for the most) to take down his association with Pathiraja. Directors exert a profound influence over their actors, I’ve been told. These two no doubt testified to that.

Just the other day I happened to watch Bambaru Avith again. The story is essentially politicised, though Pathiraja (being the consummate director he is) refuses to turn the political subtext into a political film. Seeing it today, I am moved by its deft intensity, its ability to juggle between its characters in a way which endears us to the central conflict in the story, between Victor (played to perfection by Vijaya Kumaratunga) and Anton Aiya (Joe Abeywickrama in one of his more hateful roles).

On one level this conflict works politically, with Victor representing the rootless, capitalistic bourgeoisie and Anton representing the old, feudal order (he bullies the fishermen into virtual submission). A friend of mine cautioned me against seeing the film this way, though: she asked to me to watch it differently, from a non-political angle. I did, and still the political content of the plot came through.

And to me, that’s the beauty of Dharmasena Pathiraja’s cinema. Even in his other films – Ahas Gawwa, Eya Dan Loku Lamayek, Para Dige, and Soldadu Unnahe – he is able to explore such perennial themes as exploitation and love from a politically textured angle. Para Dige, for instance, at first follows a superficially simple plot: a man and woman (unmarried) conspire to raise money for an abortion.

But look closer, and you will see the “political subtext”, in how Chandare (Vijaya Kumaratunga) has to toil to raise the money, how his and her girlfriend’s friendship with a relatively affluent girl (Vasanthi Chathurani) goes nowhere when she disappears once the first half of the story is done (we are left untold where she is, surprisingly), and how, in that iconic ending, the couple decide to marry rather hurriedly and are left with the question “What next?” as they cross the road.

Like his other films, Para Dige didn’t win dividends at the box-office. But there’s a kind of freshness in it which I have not come across in the films of other directors. This freshness can’t be defined, it can only be seen and experienced. I suppose most directors are spontaneous in their plot-lines, but the truth is that with Pathiraja this spontaneity emerges effortlessly when one sequence shifts to the other.

This was evident even in his debut, Ahas Gawwa, which as Regi Siriwardena correctly noted contained some “technical roughnesses” characteristic of a first film. Notwithstanding those roughnesses, though, Ahas Gawwa virtually redefined the film-going audience in this country. As his later films would show, this was very much because of his fresh outlook on the film-making process.

He at once identified with the community he was portraying. He was also someone who could deftly chisel the politics of whatever he was filming. That explains why, at the end of the day, we can watch and re-watch Para Dige and Ahas Gawwa and still be enthralled by their story-lines, regardless of whether or not we understood the politics embedded in them cogently. With Pathiraja politics and life weren’t clean different. It is to his credit that, contrary to what most playwrights were doing in his time, he was able to mingle the two together in a way which won audiences everywhere, of whatever political denomination.

These are all reflections, of course. They don’t pretend to be anything else. Spatial constraints restrict me from delving into them further, but I will write this: in terms of a political cinema, we haven’t seen many directors tackle social issues effortlessly. All too often, it must be said, their shallowness shows, and because of that their films even betray a crass, one-dimensional reading of whatever that issue is.

With Dharmasena Pathiraja we saw a different director. He was not afraid of exploring. He was not afraid of chiseling politics with what he filmed. True to his outlook, that shows in his films. And true to his outlook, the fact that it shows doesn’t mean that he grafted his politics one-dimensionally, without regard for the common, intelligent viewer, who went to watch and rate a movie not on the basis of his affiliation with its politics but of how well it stood by its own ambition and communicated a live, real experience (with or without politics, of course) to him.

On that count Pathiraja has won. And on that count we still relish his work. Small wonder.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, May 1 2016