Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Reflections on a cosmopolite

Douglas Ranasinghe once told me a story. He had indulged in the cinema, the theatre, radio, and television, and had wanted to direct a film. For that though, he needed a scriptwriter. Not just a good scriptwriter but someone who was sensitive to the nuances of language. Inevitably, having considered several names, he picked one. The man he wanted was reputed not just for his scripts but for a great many other things besides, ranging from literary criticism to poetry. Ranasinghe knew him well, so he approached him.

He smiled. He talked. There was conversation which effortlessly flowed. Soon enough, Ranasinghe broached his offer. I don't know whether he expected assent immediately, but I do know he was taken aback by the reply.

For the response the man gave was quick, to the point, and summed up everything he stood for: "I'm done writing scripts, Douglas. I'm pursuing other things now." He explained further: he was writing his own scripts, not for films but for his own plays. Ever the pliable, pleasant man, Ranasinghe accepted his refusal.

Relating this story to me several years later, he offered his two cents on the man. "He was, all things considered, a 'cosmopolite'. He knew what he did. He was no charlatan. Every interest and hobby he pursued turned into a passion. When he refused my request that day, he didn't offer the kind of excuse people his age normally would. He really meant what he said. He truly was done with the cinema. He really did want to go beyond."

That man had a name. Regi Siriwardena.

Siriwardena is known more than anything else for what he wrote. He wrote on everything: on politics, culture, the cinema, and the theatre. He was never ostentatious for the simple reason that he was so familiar with whatever topic or subject he chose to dissect. The true genius of the man, as someone who knew and associated with him closely over the years told me, was that he could compartmentalise and yet appreciate the link between art-forms. That is why, when he wrote on Maname and Rekava 25 years after they were staged and screened, you could see how he brought out the commonalities and social context which bound the one to the other.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here.

Regi Siriwardena was born on May 15, 1922 to a middle class family in Ratmalana. His father was a government clerk who spoke English and read Macaulay. His mother, on the other hand, spoke in Sinhala. It was from her that young Siriwardena learnt his mother tongue, although in later years he would admit his deficiencies in that language. His father had gathered some debts throughout his career and upon his death leave his family in dire financial straits. But young Regi had something which money couldn't ward off: an ability to wield English, something he improved on so much that in later years (he would admit) it compensated for the economic problems his family would face.

He was educated at S. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia and later Ananda, finding a place he could call his second home in the latter. In both he was the eclectic, the student who found solace in poetry and literature. He would later be awarded a scholarship to University College, the precursor to the University of Colombo and back then housed by the likes of E. F. C. Ludowyk and Doric de Souza. As he progressed intellectually, Ludowyk and Souza initiated young Siriwardena to the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), in which he was an active member during the Second World War before signing off.

He was later hired by Esmond Wickremesinghe, a former leftist who had (perhaps owing to Cold War realities and his upbringing) turned to the Right, to write for the Ceylon Daily News. I'm sure he found the art or politics (I can never tell which) of editorialising rather disillusioning. He would hence leave the Daily News in the early 1960s. Having authored several well written out if not sketchy articles on the cinema, the theatre, and painting by that time, he'd befriended several artistes involved in uplifting the local cultural scene. Among them, Lester James Peries.

He thus turned to writing scripts. He scripted Gamperaliya. In later years he scripted Delovak Athara and Golu Hadawatha, both landmarks for their time and both directed by Lester. I remember Sumitra Peries once telling me that the man was so prodigious and efficient that he ended up typing the entire script of Golu Hadawatha in one night. "Of course it wasn't that hard, since the dialogues were already there in the novel," she added, "But you must understand that script-writing isn't just about dialogues. Regi understood this better than anyone else in his day."

For better or worse, we are told to specialise in whatever field we're good in today. We can't specialise in everything, not because we're unable to but because in this globalised, cohesive world of ours it makes sense to do what you're best at and use that to obtain something you aren’t good at from someone else. True, we do come across eclectic people, those who superficially have engaged in one field but whose output extends to other interests and activities. But they are rare.

Regi Siriwardena didn't really "specialise". He pursued both the political and artistic to his dying day, going so far as to publish novels, anthologies, and even a couple or so plays to his name. I admit I haven't read them all, but what little I have - like his novel, "Among My Souvenirs" - have made me realise the immense worth of this unique man, who turned everything he tread on into a passion.

No, he wasn't really a star. But his involvement in the cinema deserves more than a footnote. He didn't just write scripts, after all, but went as far as to dissect our film industry for what it was, warts and all. Read his reviews of films which emerged in later years - like Dharmasiri Bandaranayake's Hansa Vilak or Vasantha Obeyesekere's Palagetiyo and Dadayama - and you will understand how clinical he could be as a critic. He called Hansa Vilak a “permanent landmark” and Dadayama a “great leap”, but in both he understood the limitations within which the director had to work. Unlike critics today, he accounted for them before giving his take on them.

The gap between the image and the word is pertinent especially for a country like ours, small as its film industry (still) is. When Lester James Peries filmed Rekava and transcended the narrow outlook embedded in that film with Gamperaliya, he went for an adaptation of an existing text. The challenge wasn't just to transform the written word into visuals, but to emancipate the adaptation from the confines of the novel. This Siriwardena did, and in the end what we got was a form of cinema which turned popular audiences (in part at least) away from melodrama to an art-form which centered more on characters and personal relations than on plot. Delovak Athara, which followed Gamperaliya, proved that this was true even of films based on original stories. In both instances, Regi was scriptwriter. That would have helped. Immensely.

Today, I'm willing to bet, we need a Regi Siriwardena more than ever. Not only because he could write well, but because he showed us all, for one moment at least, that you could wield the pen and contribute to the country's cultural discourse. I'm not sure why he felt he had gone beyond writing scripts, but all guesses are that he'd done enough and more in that field by the time Douglas Ranasinghe decided to pay him a visit.

And so I conclude: if this man who preferred simplicity to his last, who didn't come from an established background, could tower over our cultural firmament, why should we who are blessed with opportunity complain? To me this remains the greatest lesson Regi Siriwardena taught us, in his own special way. 12 years after his death, I feel, this lesson remains relevant, both for us and for generations that will follow.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, July 13 2016