Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The boy with the Bolex camera

Yesterday I was thinking about actors and directors. From here. I was thinking about those I’d met and talked with, those who had coloured their reminiscences with anecdote as they opened their careers. Their journeys were both personal and professional, and yet even the most illustrious of them weren’t showy. And why? Because they all would have felt that what they’d achieved and gone through was but a speck of dust in this vast, sansaric universe of life, death, and destiny.

And then, thinking about these giants still with us, I thought of those who had gone on. Those I’d never met and those I wish I met. Like D. B. Nihalsinghe. I wonder what they would have thought.

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, Nihalsinghe figured in greatly. We lost him last month. In one sense only, of course: people like him aren’t easy to lose forever.

Diongu Badaturuge Nihalsingha was born in 1939. (He would have turned 77 last Friday.) He wasn’t born to a film background, though. His father, D. B. Dhanapala, was a newspaper mogul, founder of “Lankadeepa” and a nationalist who would instill sound values in his son. Nihalsinghe was educated at Ananda College, where he was a Cadet Sergeant and Head Prefect and where he gained an interest in a career in the Army. Both mother and father, however, had been against the idea, and he was instead admitted to the University of Ceylon.

The 1950s was clearly a pivotal decade for our cinema, for the simple reason that our film halls were being invaded by a plethora of films (from the West) which encouraged amateurs and cinephiles to become directors or actors. Like in continental Europe and especially in France, where students would spend their hours in front of the screen, watching, studying, and breathing the cinema.

Nihalsinghe was one such cinephile, who himself abandoned the idea of a military career thanks to what he’d later call the “film bug”. That was compounded by what his father gifted him when he’d completed his SSC Exams: a 16mm Bolex camera. Predictably then, this boy, who had dreamt of a place in the sun in the Army, switched loyalties.

From Sath Samudura
He then got an offer from an associate of his father, who was working at the Australia Broadcasting Corporation as a cameraman on a scholarship. Young Nihalsinghe eagerly accepted that offer. He ended up sending 16mm news clips. Another offer, this one from Hearst Metrotone News, got him into Vietnam, where he covered the war through newsreels. The boy with the camera, at the end of the day, got more than he bargained for. Naturally therefore, when he returned to his country, he’d engage in a career which would centre on the camera (in a manner of speaking, of course). His first real “local job”, if you could call it that, was aboard Siri Gunasinghe’s Sath Samudura.

Like much of his later work, Sath Samudura was shot using a handheld camera. For obvious reasons, that showed and more relevantly evoked a naturalistic style which at once turned it into a landmark. When I think of that film, what comes to my mind is the sun-baked faces of the characters (particularly of Denawaka Hamine) and that final, daunting sequence of the protagonist (blemished by an unrequited love) wading out defiantly into the sea. True, much of the “mise-en-scène” in such sequences was intensified by the music, the acting, and the dialogues, but for me, the real technical achievement of them all was the camerawork: at once clinical and reflective, like with the Italian neo-realists.

His next job was for another landmark: G. D. L. Perera’s Dahasak Sithuvili. Here, however, the technical achievement (it marked the first time that filtered camera lenses were used, in the flashback sequences) was at best outmoded by the real achievement of the film, which was in how the camera was able to relay every shade and nuance of emotion registered in the protagonist, another unfulfilled lover played by Henry Jayasena.

The way the camera adds meaning to his central conflict – as in that extended sequence where he pores over photos of his lover with one of his colleagues from work, intercut with his jealous imaginings of them making out with each other at the beach – can’t really be done justice to with either words or superficial technicalities, and to my mind Dahasak Sithuvili brought up what would become a motif in Nihalsinghe's subsequent work: introspective characters whose moods, emotions, and anguish became the focal point of the camera.

In that sense, contrary to what Gore Vidal would have written, Welikathara was well and truly his. When asked as to what he considered outstanding in that feature-length debut of his, he pointed out that it could be evaluated in more ways than one. To consider them all – Joe Abeywickrama’s career-defining role as Goring Mudalali, which practically made us forget the relevance of its real protagonist (played by Gamini Fonseka); the music by Somadasa Elvitigala, which at once brought up comparisons with the American thriller of the 1950s; and of course those brutal, salty dialogues by Tissa Abeysekara – would be to say that the film’s achievement was collective, not individualised.

From Welikathara
But if we take what Nihalsinghe himself would admit as his criterion for a good film – a blend of the commercial and the arty, targeted at the common audience without insulting their intelligence – we can see in Welikathara his personal signature. That it got a slot among the 10 best films made here in the past 50 years (in a poll conducted in 1997) is no cause for wonderment.

In fact, it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that when compared with the nine other titles featured in that list, Welikathara was a fish out of water, which bore affinities (in more ways than one) to the popular American cinema. That in itself was an achievement, which surpassed the fact of its being the first film shot in CinemaScope, particularly since (in later years) critics and filmmakers alike would deride the kind of cinema it emulated as “bourgeois” and “escapist”.

There’s a reason why, along with Vasantha Obeyesekere, Nihalsinghe remained an auteur in the most adamant sense of that word. True, unlike Obeyesekere Nihalsinghe didn’t always script his films. But like Obeyesekere, he exerted control over the shaping of his films to an extent where his individualist attitude to the cinema spilt was affirmed and reflected in almost every aspect to his work.

With other filmmakers from here, this wasn’t the case, because they sacrificed their individuality in favour of collaboration and compromise. Nihalsinghe, on the other hand, was an unyielding individualist. In the end this showed remarkably in the films he made, all atonal in terms of subject-matter but brought together by how meticulously they depicted their characters. His devotion to Hollywood also came up: there are sequences in Ridi Nimnaya, for instance, which would have done David Lean proud.

I don’t think his tenure at the National Film Corporation needs to be explicated on in full here, if at all because that would be superfluous. Suffice it to say that under his command, film audiences ballooned from 30 million to 74 million by 1979. He managed to break our film industry from the profiteers, he diverted funds to amateurs and students who ended up being filmmakers themselves (in an interview, for instance, he claimed credit for having birthed Dharmasena Pathiraja, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, and Sunil Ariyaratne), and he authorised the biggest overhaul of the local cinema in history, which remains unparalleled today (we’re, I suppose, reaping the fruits of his labour today, when much of what we can claim as ours in our films can be traced to those policies, however restrictive they might have been, which he authored).

From Maldeniye Simion
He was also instrumental in bringing the television drama to Sri Lanka, when he managed to set up what would become South Asia’s pioneer professional TV production company, Tele-Cine, in 1979. That this preceded both Rupavahini and ITN, and that it went on to make the first tele-series in our country, Dimuthu Muthu (directed by him and starring Amarasiri Kalansuriya), need no recounting. They’ve all been recorded by the compiler and historian. All we can do is acknowledge the man’s contribution. The fact that he was showered with accolade from here and abroad – he was made a Fellow by both the British Kinematograph Society and the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers of America – doesn't belie or undervalue simple acknowledgment.

Today we talk of icons and stars. We’re more concerned with praising them without examining what they truly achieved. I don’t think we can ever get at what D. B. Nihalsinghe achieved, not because his achievements were small but because they can’t really be summed up in words. To watch Sath Samudura is to appreciate the man’s intense, almost zealous, regard for faces, moods, and lives, not of extraordinary people but ordinary folk. That it was the ordinary folk he went for, even in Welikathara (his most sensational work), and that he used the camera as the index by which we measured their lives, emotions, and anguish, we know.

Yes, he has his critics, those who considered his policies at the Film Corporation too restrictive and those who may have found him unapproachable for reasons best known to themselves. Doesn’t matter. For this boy with the Bolex camera, who had been a Cadet Sergeant at Ananda and had wanted to go to the Army, ended up being one of our most unyielding and individualistic filmmakers. Of course he could be strict. He often was. Of course that showed in his films. All of them remain landmarks in their own special way. And of course he left us too soon. An inconsolable pity, no doubt.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, June 1 2016