Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Death is the great leveller

I don’t know much about cameras. Still less about Moviolos, lenses, focal length, what-not. I do know people, though. People behind all these things, whose lives shape and shift them in more ways than one. They are giants, yes, but acknowledged only by a few. A pity, but perhaps that’s meant to be. Grief is selective, and so is memory, but not death. The poets called death the great leveller, which takes everyone. It took one person around a week back.

Not many would have heard of M. S. Anandan. Then again not many would not have heard of him. He was a figure that was both loved and controversial, someone who understood the cinema intimately. He came from a generation of entertainers, who spurned artiness and knew how much our people loved stories. In the end, they won an audience and alienated a few, and as the years went by, the few began calling the shots in the industry. When that happened, naturally enough, the storytellers were doomed.

Anandan was a storyteller. He splashed his stories with plots that made sense and subplots that didn’t but added colour. He knew how to spice things up and throughout his career made a series of films which are probably known more than anything else for their star, his daughter Shyama. I didn’t like Sinhala films as a kid. But I watched some of them. I remember Shyama and I remember how she battled injustice. I remember laughing and crying and I remember being grateful.

Critics wouldn’t have liked them, though. There’s little to nothing in Chandi Shyama or Mage Nama Shyama, after all, which they would have. Like the best storytellers, Anandan worked in black and white, not shades of grey. Shyama was the heroine, who battled nearly every wrong she encountered. There are sequences which betray crass scripting and editing, but for the most, they entertained. That’s what audiences went for, after all. Execution, style, form: all these were secondary to the one thing which vindicated their love for movies: entertainment. Critics don’t want that. They want seriousness, sometimes a little too much.

He could have been a better filmmaker and no doubt there are those who bemoan the kind of films he opted to direct. I’ve heard how, being the shrewd businessman he was, he would cut down on production costs: how, for instance, he’d use the back-lights of a car when shooting a scene or sequence without going for the usual, expensive equipment. No doubt critics saw in this a deterioration, and no doubt certain filmmakers and critics bemoaned what he did, but the truth of the matter is that he went on nevertheless. He never won awards and he didn’t need to. The Shyama films were more entertaining and fun than half of what those who criticised them could have come up with.

But then again he wasn’t just a director. He was a cameraman. He was by Lester James Peries when the latter directed three films for Ceylon Theatres. All three of them are marked out for their camerawork, each of them different to the other.

In Golu Hadawatha, one of Lester’s more technically challenging films, Sugath’s version of the story was shot using normal lenses ranging from 28 to 75 mm, while Dhammi’s version, which focused the tension, energy, and conflict entirely within her character, was shot using a 250 mm tele-lens with no depth. To watch sequences from Sugath’s and Dhammi’s perspective in the same location, with those less than discernible differences between the one and the other cropping up sharply at times, is to see how complex the film’s camerawork was and how Anandan, being the consummate professional he was, gave the best he could.

Akkara Paha and Nidhanaya weren't as challenging, but they revealed his craftsmanship nevertheless. In the latter film he went for chiaroscuro-like cinematography, where the entire film and the tension concentrated within it came out in black and white. For very good reasons there weren't any shades of grey, which made me believe, as I saw that remarkable masterpiece for the first time, that the story of Willie Abeynayake could have come from an Edgar Allan Poe mystery. Brooding, tempestuous, almost cruel, and certainly morbid, Nidhanaya dwelt on a world that never had room for shades of grey, where good and evil cohabited rather uneasily.

Anandan couldn’t replicate this when he turned to directing, some think. Even Lester and Sumitra Peries, the latter of whom took Anandan in for her first film, Gehenu Lamayi (which featured Shyama in arguably her most serious role) admitted as much when they observed that Anandan was underutilised and even undervalued by an industry that favoured a few and marginalised the rest. They are correct, I believe.

That doesn’t give room for discontent. He wasn’t forgotten by us, after all. We still love him. So much so that every time we see a film of his (for they are telecast, however irregularly), watch how the characters resident in them battled through good and bad and won or lost, and affirm the black-and-white world they lived in, we’ll remember this man. And we will be happy. Always.

“Goodbye, Mr Anandan,” we can hence whisper. And smile.

Photo by: Sheethan Gunawardena

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, July 6 2016