Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Remembering (the other) Mercy Edirisinghe

Berty Gunathilake turned 92 last week. Berty, those who listened to Radio Ceylon and those fortunate enough to watch television when it first came to Sri Lanka, was one of three humorists who made us laugh without contorting or inverting our sense of humour, the other two being Samuel Rodrigo and Annesley Dias. They helped us imagine what they talked about and what they joked about so much that when they exited the wireless and entered television, they made that transition as smooth as possible. They didn’t lose their touch, as lesser comedians are wont to. That was true also for those other humorists who joined the trio in their sketches.

No, this is not an article on Berty, Annesley, or Samuel. This is an article on one of other humorists who joined them. Mercy Edirisinghe.

Mercy also could make us laugh. For most of her career, that’s what she did. She ended up portraying stereotypes and funny ones at that. She helped us conjure an image of that stereotype and in the end, it remained virtually hers. Moreover, that image she helped create entranced others so much that they tried to imitate her, with little to no success. Just as well, I suppose, because there were times when she made us believe that she was born to play her signature role: the caustic and posh lady figure, who more often than not meant well but who, owing to certain prejudices and snobberies on her part, could rarely transcend her narrow attitude to the outside world.

But this wasn’t all. Mercy wasn’t just a thespian. She didn’t just dub. She had a career of her own in the cinema, miles away from her signature role perhaps, but considerable nevertheless. They showed up a different actor, one who was capable of dramatic roles so much that no less a figure than Sugathapala de Silva once observed, “ඇය කළ රංගනයන් ගායනයන් වර්තමානයේ අයට ඉගෙන ගන්නට හොඳ තක්ෂලාවක් බඳුය” (loose translation: “Her acting and singing are good lessons for aspiring actors today.”) Silva, from what I’ve heard, wasn’t wont to giving blank cheques. He would have meant what he said.

Mercy Edirisinghe was born in Ambepussa on December 18, 1946. She was the third in a family of nine (by her own admission, the most stubborn). Her father, Don Lorenzo Elvin, worked at the Department of Examinations. Her mother was a housewife and a God-fearing Christian, whose devotion to Christ was almost an obsession. Her husband, Lalith Kotelawala, a Buddhist hailing from Kalutara, predeceased her. They had no children.

She officially entered her career in 1964, when she won a contest organised by Radio Ceylon. Two years later she made her debut, in Walikala Rathna’s Ugurata Hora Beheth. The almost farcical name of that play was a prophecy of sorts: although her subsequent roles were all dramatic, they hinged on humour, predicting as they did her later metamorphosis into a humorist. To this end, in her earliest plays – Ran Kanda, Seelavathi, Vishwa Sundari – she managed to develop what would become her biggest asset: her voice, which hovered between naiveté and sophistication.

M. V. Balan gave Mercy her debut in the cinema with his Hitha Honda Minihek in 1975. By then of course, the cinema had changed and, given our socio-political context, comedy had veered off in favour of directors who took up sharper, more politically sensitive themes. Among these directors was Vasantha Obeyesekere, who noticed Mercy and picked her for supporting roles. Soon enough, she was there in Walmath Uwo (alongside Tony Ranasinghe, Somasiri Dehipitiya, and Namel Weeramuni) and in Diyamanthi (where she is the wife to Dehipitiya’s character, a petty criminal just released from prison who discovers that she’s given up on marriage life with him).

I believe Obeyesekere recognised her dramatic potential. With a pair of eyes that tried hard to hide emotion and feeling and with a face that betrayed probably a fraction of the twists and turns of emotion it held back, she was the ideal actor to play out women who were sexually frustrated and unhinged. It was this which came out almost shockingly in Palagetiyo, arguably Obeyesekere’s most naturalistic film (in terms of its depiction of class conflict). To date, I’m willing to bet, it remains her best role. That is why it compels more than a footnote here.

Palagetiyo is about the conflict between idealism and reality, between sentimental romance and class hierachies. The story of Kusum (Dammi Fonseka), the daughter of a rich mudalali (Henry Jayasena) and Sarath (Dharmasiri Bandaranayake), a village peasant's (educated) son who works for the mudalali, is told through a series of letters the one sends to the other in the first half of the film, with Mercy Edirisinghe (portraying Kusum’s cousin) as the intermediary. The cousin eventually reads those letters, begins to envy their clandestine affair, and dreams of her own escapades with Sarath. Kusum, however, is taken as the prettier and more delicate woman, and the cousin’s attempts at winning him are futile. She hence precipitates their tragedy: by telling them on Kusum’s father, who immediately fires Sarath.

There’s a sequence in Palagetiyo which haunts me whenever I see it. At a time when trysts and sexual affairs were all but completely tabooed in our films, Obeyesekere shows us an encounter between the two. Being the razor-sharp editor he always was, he uses the encounter to illustrate the tension between them and the cousin, and that by constantly cutting it to the feelings of jealousy and spite evident on the latter’s face as she lays awake and as she imagines Sarath and Kusum making love to each other. To watch Mercy’s face is to remember that despite her later forays into comedy, she could and did prove her mettle as an actor of considerable dramatic potential during this time. True, she is a secondary character, but that still doesn’t marginalise the range of emotion she was capable of whenever she was onscreen.

But Obeyesekere the naturalist was soon to retire. In the eighties he went for grittier stories, moving away from the individual and away from the black/white dichotomy which made up most films that depicted class stratifications. His world became harsher, the individual protagonist became submerged in a world that exploited them wherever they were, and Mercy, despite her forays in dramatic roles, found her signature role elsewhere. She hence left drama. And embraced comedy.

This was the Mercy my generation grew up loving. She was paired with Berty, Annesley, and Samuel in "Vinodha Samaya". She was the same woman in every episode that featured her: caustic, posh, elegant, and clearly aiming for something over and above her position in life. She meant well, she could be sympathetic, but there were times when her less than disguisable flaws proved her undoing. Even with the characters she dubbed later on – as Bianca Castafiore in the Rupavahini version of "The Adventures of Tintin", for instance – she brought this out very well. Small wonder then, that when we remember these characters, fictional as they were and are, we remember her name.

Do we remember her all the more for it? Of course. Do we forget her earlier career because of it? Perhaps. Not many will remember her as the jealous cousin from Palagetiyo, but even those who haven’t seen Lucien Bulathsinhala’s Tharavo Igilethi would remember "Made Lagina Tharavan" and the sequence in which Mercy, posing with an umbrella that “inflates” her considerably, declares her sense of worth and import to her audience. That was something lesser humorists could never quite match: observe, for instance, her change of pitch and tone and even facial expression as she sings that song, in tune with her self-contradictory character an at once steely and sarcastic (in keeping with the social position she aspires for) but also fragile (as she realises her actual place in life).

It was this curious synthesis – teetering between two extremes, never remaining in one – which made us fall in love with her. You didn’t need to force yourself to laugh at her. You just needed to watch (or listen to) her, as she came up onscreen or onstage and as she wrought her magic. Sure, there was another side to her, one that could have continued in the cinema after her first few trysts with it. But then we wouldn’t have seen the Mercy we knew. Or smiled at.

For better or worse then, she left behind a prodigious career in films. And we are all the better for it, both as consumers of the arts and as citizens of a country where, inevitably perhaps, the line between honesty and artifice in comedy has blurred.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, August 31 2016

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Affirming and integrating identities

Last week I wrote on reconciliation and how, if we are to come up with proper mechanisms to insure against ethnic discord, we must separate myth from fact and exercise reason. Reconciliation however isn’t a one-way process: it’s multilateral, engaged with and rooted in multiple identities. As such those who affirm it can and must affirm different identities. After all, the reality is that we don’t have mono-ethnic countries anymore, only multicultural societies. Those who contend otherwise are in the minority: a strong, virulent minority perhaps, but a minority nevertheless, as myopic and ignorant of realities as always.

So given that others have more or less come to terms with the need to balance the interests of different ethnicities, the next issue to resolve would be this: in a context where calls are being made to prevent the State from privileging one collective over another, what would be the better option, secularism or multiculturalism? This week’s column is about the debate between these two deceptively related concepts, the lessons that the West has learnt from that debate, and how we can take a leaf out of their book when scripting our own mechanisms to ensure racial amity.

The case for secularism

There are those who contend that the way forward for a country unshackling itself of the postcolonial and post-war moment is by equalising the different ethnicities contained in its society. The only way to equalise identities, of course, is by denying patronage to any one of them.

As various commentators have argued, this was the model opted for by the Ceylon National Congress, which unfortunately splintered into communalist ideologies later on under the pretext that it was (politically) impossible for some of its constituent forces to work together. The then dominant political parties, upon independence and despite this splintering, strived for an all-encompassing identity essential to any postcolonial society. The government’s neutral stance on religion, one can hence surmise, enabled it to concentrate on building the economy, which explains why (borrowing an oft-quoted phrase) we’ve never had it so good as we did in those budget surplus and socially equitable years following independence.

On the other hand, as I pointed out in last week’s column, this laudable objective was tainted by the inability of the Establishment to recognise the aspirations of the majority, aspirations denied so much that upon their affirmation by successive governments after 1956, they prevailed to an extent where the minority became a group to be targeted and victimised. Going by this, one could legitimately ask: would separating Church from State (the foundation of a secular society) make sense in a context where it’s been shown to be futile?

There’s a word tossed around frequently by those for secularism: hegemony. More often than not, it’s associated with the dominant ethnicity and/or ideology in a country: Zionism in Israel, pan-Arabism and Islamism in the Middle-East, and of course Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Broadly speaking, there are two objections to a State favouring one collective: one, that it deprives rights for the others, and two, that far from developing the dominant collective, it in fact hinders its growth. Europe’s attempts at keeping Church and State together, the deterioration and splintering of the former into various sects, and the latter’s embracement of secularism with the onset of the 18th and 19th centuries, are cited as evidence of this.

At one level this argument makes sense. The West, for all intents and purposes, appears secular. This however hasn’t prevented fracture in ethnic relations on a scale unseen in Sri Lanka. After all, if secularism was the be-all and end-all for any country which has embraced multiple identities, if affirming an undefined and all-pervasive identity was the solution, and if separating the Church (or, in this case, Temple) and State was part of that solution, then why has the West, which indulged and continues to indulge in all these, crumbled when it comes to race relations? To answer that is to answer whether the Western experiment was meant to work in the first place.

The errors of the West

The philosophers of post-Renaissance Europe made two errors when they promoted secularism. One, they separated the Church and State without really separating them. The thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries based their conception of secularism on a jurisprudence rooted in the theism of the preceding eras. Two, they attempted to rationalise religion in terms of individual and property rights, while their descendants played around with what they originally wrote, to a point which rendered the original division between religion and government at best redundant.

Take the United States. One can trace the writings of John Locke in the American Constitution, in particular its reference to natural law and the right to property. One can also trace Locke in the Declaration of Independence, which preceded the Constitution and which contains the following words: “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Those unalienable rights were Locke’s rights, rooted in private property and the autonomy of the individual, concepts which go back to Thomas Aquinas and pre-Renaissance Europe. It is this which spilt over to the 20th century and its embracement of secularism.

The irony here, if one can spot it out, is that secularism (couched in terms of individual and property rights) in the West was born of, and not despite, religion.

The schizophrenia which resulted from all this, not surprisingly, played havoc with the attempts (futile as they were) by governments to keep the Church away from the State, even as the latter celebrates the former in terms of iconography, symbolism, and constitutional provisions. I believe this schizophrenia is most evident in Article 2 of the Norwegian Constitution: while Section One laudably declares that “All inhabitants of the Realm shall have the right to free exercise of their religion”, Section Two qualifies that right: “The Evangelical-Lutheran religion shall remain the official religion of the State.” Given the content of Section One and the point that the existence of a State religion nullifies any rights guaranteed to other communities, why insert Section Two at all?

These are, without a doubt, controversial questions. They should be asked. And answered. They should also be used to draw comparisons with Sri Lanka, because of the following: while Western democracies have qualified the right to exercise a religion by privileging the faith of the majority, here it’s the other way around: Article Nine of our Constitution explicitly recognises the State’s obligation to Buddhism, but Articles 10 and 14 explicitly recognise the freedom to follow any faith. The former is qualified and made conditional by the latter. Arguably the better deal, one might say.

True, Article Nine is entrenched (immune from amendment) while Article 14 is not. That, however, doesn’t take away the fact that in Sri Lanka, the supremacy of the majority (as affirmed by the State) is qualified by the rights of the minority, and not (as in Norway and the West in general) the other way around.

The case against secularism

It’s not hard to see why the West embraced what it did in the name of secularism. In an article written to the New York Review of Books (“How the French Face Terror”), Mark Lilla argues that prior to the immigration of Asians and Muslims to the continent, Europe rationalised the divide between the Church and State in terms of individual rights. That is, a person arrested for indulging in his religion to the detriment of another wasn’t penalised for following that religion, but for having infringed on the civil rights of the other.

The problem with this approach was it was applicable to social groups that could be treated as individuals. It was virtually impossible with immigrants who were conceived as communities first and individuals second. As Lilla observes with respect to the politics of the late Stéphane Charbonnier (editor of the French magazine “Charlie Hebdo”, who was killed by extremists peeved at its less than flattering depiction of their religion), “One cannot help fellow Muslim citizens – or anyone, for that matter – if one does not accept them as they see themselves.”

And so we have the West’s dilemma: that of integrating minorities to the broader citizenry of the country without factoring in their communal requirements. Such an approach is impossible if not futile if the final objective is to equalise them with other communities: as Aristotle put it, equality is about comparing like with like, not with unlike. Europe and pretty much the rest of the Western world attempt to equalise a community that has indulged in a form (however illusory) of secularism with one that has not, a mistake from which we can learn a lesson or two when it comes to framing our own mechanisms for reconciliation and multiethnic dialogue.

Simply put, such mechanisms cannot and will not work if we are fixated on construing an identity that transcends ethnicity, and if it does work in the short term, it will falter soon enough if we don’t factor in the specific beliefs, demands, and worldview of various ethnicities. Assimilation (in the sense of integrating one group to another) is not the solution. Not by a long shot.

No, it’s not that levelling communities in the name of promoting a common identity is misconceived. It’s that the manner and form of attaining that common identity is meaningless if we don’t adjust for the autonomy of those same communities. Pierre Manent, in what can arguably be said to sum up this dilemma quite well, observes in his book Situation de la France that the principles of classical Republicanism, on which France operates today, should be adjusted to take into account the gap between secular laws and communal beliefs.

He observes moreover that the French Republic was premised on the distinction made by Montesquieu, the 18th century political philosopher, between a society’s explicit formal legal order (“les lois”) and the communal values and systems which bind it together (“les moeurs”). Referring to the latter, Mannent notes that a minority can’t be made to conform to a secular identity if this is to be achieved by equating their attitude to civil rights with that of the majority. Echoing Aristotle, that would be akin to comparing like with unlike for the sake of (an artificial) equality.

And so we can conclude: the case against secularism is based on the mistakes made by the West: mistakes which continue to be made, as with the recent ban on the burkini in France (a measure that was thankfully suspended by the courts of that country on the grounds that it was discriminatory). Given that the arguments against secularism are strong on that count, we should opt for the alternative: multiculturalism.

The battle in Sri Lanka and concluding remarks

I’m for asserting identity. I’m also for multiculturalism. The two, fortunately for me, aren’t mutually exclusive. They can and they do coexist. As such, movements fixated on materialising one common identity for the entire country can’t work without accounting for the specificities of ethnicity. I believe Malinda Seneviratne put it best: “Make no mistake, I am not against anyone wanting to be Sri Lankan and feeling that his/her overall national identity (Sri Lankan) overrides other identities (Sinhala, Tamil, Moor or Burgher, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Catholic etc); but I sense that if we are not Sinhala or Tamil in the first instance, our being Sri Lankan becomes less meaningful.” That last point should be taken to heart by all those who deny identity assertion as a means of promoting an all-pervasive national consciousness.

Let me rephrase that. The West, as shown above, seems to have confused assimilation for reconciliation. It has secularised its explicit formal legal system (borrowing from Montesquieu) and then QUALIFIED and CONTRADICTED that by privileging one faith over all others (the best example, to my mind, being Article Two of the Norwegian Constitution). Sri Lanka, on the other hand, has ample opportunity to seize the moment and move on, because the supremacy afforded to one faith (via Article Nine of our Constitution) has been qualified by provisions guaranteeing the right to practise others.

The question, therefore, seems easy to spot out, easier to answer. It isn’t about making a choice between secularism and multiculturalism. That choice has been or rather should be made, favouring the latter. On the contrary, it’s about the kind of multiculturalism that we should opt for. Now’s not the time to answer this question in its entirety (I leave that for a later column), but suffice it to say this: in a country as small as ours, affording rights to one community shouldn’t be at the cost of ignoring the hopes, aspirations, fears, and legitimate demands of the other. Even if that other community happens to be the numerical majority.

Written for; Ceylon Today, August 30 2016

Monday, August 29, 2016

Udayakantha Warnasuriya weaves magic

When the Lumière Brothers unveiled Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (considered to be the world's first film) in 1895, the world wasn't ready for the cinema. The first time it was screened, legend has it, people shouted and screamed. They thought that this simple film, which contained nothing more than a train moving towards the screen, would shatter and penetrate the screen and hence injure them.

History doesn't tell us whether that audience did in fact react to it this way, but history does tell us that the train, no matter how real it would have looked, never went through that screen.

It's a testament to the universal appeal of the cinema that no less a figure than Lenin hailed it as the "most important of the arts." He made that remark at a time when, throughout the West, movies were being relegated to the dustbin and were considered as anything but serious. It was Communist Russia, and not Capitalist America, which tapped into the potential of cinema, turning it almost overnight into a propaganda tool which continues to this date. But that wasn't all.

The pioneers of those early years weren't artists. Nor were they conscious of being artists. All they did was tell a story and entertain. To date, these storytellers have (for better or worse) made up the bulk of any film industry. Because of this perhaps, movies have become more than just works of art for a discriminating minority. This is as true for Sri Lanka as it is for the rest of the world.

Here though, quite possibly because we aren’t big enough as a country, the gap between these storytellers and serious filmmakers remains hard to bridge. On another level, that means the entertainers rule, and as a result we have the good, the bad, the amateurish, and the downright obscure among our directors. Very few have risen up to the ranks of the masters, and among them we can point at Udayakantha Warnasuriya.

No, this isn't a biographical sketch of the man. I've never met him. Haven't talked or shared a conversation with him. I've seen his films though, not all but most of them. Enough to draw conclusions. Yes, I admit there are more ways than one of assessing his films, prodigious as they are. But here's my take: they represent a director who has imagination, knows how to craft his stories, and has an eye for composition. Like his contemporaries his films have suffered in quality over the years, but they never lack imagination. He doesn't venerate art the way those who've clinched awards and accolades over the years do, but this shouldn't deter us. He entertains, this much we know. And as with all entertainers, he has kept his audiences alive.

He works like a magician at times. He takes risks, gets emboldened by them, and sometimes distracts his audiences. You come across sequences in his best work, like Ran Diya Dahara, which look carefully plan and then inexplicably give way to crassly edited scenes. But even in his less than brilliant comedies, he ensures that his story doesn't deteriorate. I remember what Chandran Rutnam, another entertainer who hasn't failed to win audiences, once told me about his criterion for a good movie. "Three words," he said, "A good story."

Udayakantha's films don't lack stories: the problem is that he fills them with subplots that jar and don't add. In other words, he doesn't really care about cohesion. Not that this mars our interest in them, of course.

At other times, though, he becomes more than just a magician: he dares the audience into believing, as his actors and characters do, that there's a world beyond reality. Maybe it’s to do with how raw that world is. Even in his weakest work – in Ran Kevita, Ran Kevita 2, Bahuboothayo, and Gindari – there’s always something scatological, which hints at the profane but grabs itself back in time.

The two boys (Isham Samzudeen and Harith Samarasinghe) in Ran Kevita, to give an example, touch a statue of the Buddha with a wand in the hope of bringing it to life. I don’t know how many comedies have been made of boys trying to materialise gods and statues like this. Probably not many. And yet, we never question how blasphemous they are. Udayakantha gets away with the crime, in other words, not because he's subtle but because he's candid. He almost becomes a child in these sequences, which is what made a friend of mine remark the other day that Ran Kevita was better than half of what are paraded as "family films" these days.

That doesn't mean that he sacrifices words to images. But even if he does it doesn't matter, because half the serious filmmakers in this country today have sacrificed images to words. There's imagination in Udayakantha's work. And not for no reason: before he became a director he worked at an advertising agency, and in later years he set up his own ad firm. Writers can be creative, but those who can visualise well are even more creative. That this remains the best reason for his dexterity, no one doubts.

Which brings me to my earlier point: the first filmmakers weren't aware of making art. All they wanted was to tell a story. That their work survives despite this, that there's an almost magical, rhythmic flow in them, is no cause for surprise. We can say the same of Udayakantha Warnasuriya's cinema: it survives despite certain glitches in quality, not (only) because he's a creative soul but because he gives the impression of being a magician.

And like all magicians, we can conclude, he refuses to show us how he does it. Small wonder then, that his films win audiences.

Written for: The Island LEISURE, August 28 2016

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Lanerolle goes 'Fifty-Fifty'

On the 9th, 10th, and 11th of September at the Bishops College Auditorium, a group of Shakespeare aficionados (read “veterans”) will present H. C. N. de Lanerolle’s “Fifty-Fifty”. This is not the first time the play has been staged. Nor will it be the last. And so, as with every other instance in which it has been unveiled to the general public, it will take a fresh lease of life this time around. In particular, for two reasons.

The first. “Fifty-Fifty” will be presented by Sri Lankan Cares, the community development branch of Sri Lankan Airlines. As such there’s a social aspect to the entire enterprise, with proceeds from the show going to the Sri Lankan Village Heartbeat Project, to uplift the underprivileged in Oddusuddan, Mullaitivu.

The second. This isn’t an ordinary play. “Tainted” as it is by a kind of farce and satire not easy to reckon with, it remains archaic and at the same time timeless. It also, one can add, characterises everyone involved in it well. For that reason perhaps, and given the socio-political context today, it should be watched. The playwright has as much to do with why you should, as those directing it this year.

Howard Camden Nanciers de Lanerolle was an intriguing playwright in that he had a way of dissecting the political using farce. He was not merciless (or dense) like Shaw. He could be, but his best plays or more to the point, the best sequences from his plays, leave room for hope. Now satire and hope don’t really coexist (because the objective of the former is to demolish the latter, one can snidely add) but in Lanerolle’s case, living as he did in the last few hours of colonial Ceylon, he grouped the two in a way which made us aware of those hours and how, in the postcolonial “moment”, we would grapple with a problem we still haven’t sorted out: that of identity.

He is arguably remembered more than anything else for his Ralahamy plays. Some say they made us laugh into independence. Others say they were crass, unseemly attempts at caricaturing the bumpkin and ranking him below the pukka sahib. I don’t wish to take sides here, but I will say this: in what I’ve seen so far, I’ve come across deliberate shows of humour which, while crude at one level, do more than caricature the bumpkin. As I argued with a friend of mine sometime back, what they did was make us laugh at ourselves without us noticing, until the final dénouement (at which point we did notice, and notice in such a way that we felt ashamed). In short, he made us demean ourselves and then made us realise how inferior we thought we were. Just like that.

“Fifty-Fifty” is not another Ralahamy play. That doesn’t mean it’s qualitatively inferior to them. Indeed, given the tendency of Lanerolle’s other stories to veer off to variations of the same plot, this one might well be a different kettle of fish altogether.

The story is complicated enough. Dionysius Sumanasekara is a wealthy gentleman coaxed by his friends Thambypillai and Hadjiar Abdul Hameed to contest a seat in the State Council by-election. “Fifty-Fifty” follows his political exploits, spiced by his wife Charlotte, his daughter Nanda, a black market racketeer called Abraham Muttiah, and Dionysius’ campaign manager Chelvam Devarajan, who is in love with Nanda. Whether, where, and how it’ll all end are questions best answered by the audience. Not the critic.

In the meantime though, one can comment. “Fifty-Fifty” was staged at a time when Soulbury had come and gone, when his proposals for constitutional reform had been tabled and affirmed by pretty much the majority of the State Council. Those reforms would, in later years, be deemed inadequate by the people of the country. Lanerolle doubtless saw them as liberal, a point which is not without its critics but which is debatable nevertheless.

The fact is that the Soulbury reforms were considered as a way out for colonial Ceylon. It was also considered as a way for the country to affirm an all-encompassing identity, unhindered by ethnicity or any other “arbitrary” demarcations. Unfortunately, politicos saw in this an opportunity to make a quick buck. And so the predictable happened: they contorted it and in the process splintered communities that had been at peace with each other for centuries. The reference of the title, not surprisingly, is to one such contortion, contended for in terms of “balanced representation” for the minority community (an argument which, in one sense at least, led to the inevitable backlash: superiority for the numerical majority) by the inimitable G. G. Ponnambalam.

All this is of course “history”. History, however, is open, and for the artiste the fact that it is open should compel him to interpret. That’s arguably what Lanerolle (whether or not you agree with his take on the political) did, and more than six decades after independence, the fact that we’re still searching for a proper, cohesive identity to bind us together probably means that we need more artistes, playwrights, and satirists than politicos to guide us.

I can go on about this, but now’s not the time.

“Fifty-Fifty” will be presented by Sri Lankan Cares in collaboration with Amphitheatre, a production company based in Kynsey Road. The cast include some veterans and Shakespeare aficionados, as I mentioned before: Yasal Ruhunage as Dionysius Sumanasekara, Kavinda Gunasekara as Mr Thambypillai, Shenilka Perera as Charlotte Sumanasekara, Leyanvi Mirando as Nanda Sumanasekara, Anaz Badurdeen as Chelvam Devarajan, Sahan Wijewardene as Hadjiar Abdul Hameed, and Jaliya Wijewardene as Abraham Muttiah. Jaliya, incidentally, will be directing it.

They will all unveil themselves. Next month. The best way to take their message in, I believe, is by seeing them. For yourself.

You can purchase tickets through or at the Bishops College Auditorium. For more details, you can call 0773248393 and 0766975422

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, August 28 2016

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Mahika Chandrasena reflects

We all have our passions. They define us. We live with them so closely that despite those mundane choices life throws at us, they determine what we do and what we commit ourselves to. True, along the way we have to make decisions which don’t always conform to what we like, but those passions of ours survive even through them. Mahika Chandrasena, Director of Marketing Communications at Galle Face Hotel, clearly has understood the importance of all this. She talked to ESTEEM. She reflected. We listened.

To start things off, how would you describe a typical day at work?

Sure. First of all, I follow a critical path embracing and integrating a wide range of activities. I plan, schedule, and document. Given the nature of this industry we are in, however, there can be one-off ad hoc requests which crop up. We have to deal with them as and when we encounter them. So yes, all in all a typical day is routine for me. It’s also fun.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for someone in your line of work?

To be honest, there are five big challenges and it’s hard to list them in any order. They are
  1. The global financial crisis, which basically hits our customers in a way that makes over the top expenditure a waste sometimes,
  2. Competition, which compels us to slash our rates to attract customers sustaining a minimum base,
  3. Differentiating this hotel from the rest by creating new product offerings,
  4. Widening the range of activities our customers can look out for, and 
  5. Keeping a tab on social media to ensure that our image isn’t affected and to update ourselves on the latest trends in the industry.

How do you engage with all these?

By being resilient. By facing the drastic changes this world is facing. By focusing on technology and innovation. And by finding the right talent to fit the right role.

In this industry you have to meet a lot of people and meet a lot of deadlines. How do you manage all that?

Simple. I consider everything I’ve encountered in my career so far as a choice, a decision, or an opportunity. On the other hand I always choose in favour of my passions. How does that work out? Well, when I do that, my interests become an integral part of the choices and decisions I make and the opportunities I see in everything. Not that I have the same interests all the time, but while interests may change passions don’t. That is how I look at life and how I look at others, so much so that I delegate work to my team members knowing what each of their passions are.

How did you get into this industry?

I chose travel and tourism because I felt that it ran in my veins. So from the beginning, I placed value on my education and learnt about hospitality, travel, and tourism as much as I could. In fact both my Bachelors and Masters Degrees are from these areas. I came into the hospitality sector later, after much soul-seeking.

How do you manage to balance your career and your life?

That’s tough. I admit I haven’t been able to strike out a perfect balance. I think we focus our energy on balance too much, besides. We should be more concerned about prioritising, on inculcating patience, on being perseverant, and on inculcating faith in what we do. It’s then that we realise that life is more than just being a workaholic. It’s about being passionate, about discovering self and exploring the many facets life opens to you. I sport a motto wherever I am: Love what you do and do what you love. I follow it to the best of my abilities. I haven’t failed.

Time for some out of the blue questions. Who are your top three role models?

Firstly, Erin Brockovich. I consider her to be a modern-day David who loves a good fight and has a good fight with today’s Goliaths. She thrives on being a voice for those who can’t yell. She is a rebel. A fighter. A mother. A woman. In short, me.

Secondly, Leigh Anne Tuohoy. She reminds me of my mother: she inspires you but then she can be a firecracker too. She had a career but focused her energies on finding Michael Oher a home. Strong-willed she was, wore different hats, and didn’t limit herself to being only a mother and nurturer but also a wife and housekeeper who went out there and worked. Her words of wisdom are: I’m not a big women’s liberation person, but I do think that women have to contribute to all aspects in society.

Thirdly, Chris Gardner, the Founder and CEO of Gardner Rich and Co. He represents to me a true rags-to-riches saga. A person who journeyed through sadness, tragedy, grief, and happiness, who obtained strength to continue what he did and went on to be the success he is today.

If you could go back in time, what period would you go to?

Not that far. I’d say 2013 and 2014, because I wish I were more spiritual and wiser then.

You have three wishes. What are they?

Firstly, that I had another child in 2005, since that would have changed my life today. Secondly, that I see my son through College so that he has a career he can be passionate about to look forward to and so that he can be a happy and spiritual father. And thirdly, that I become more spiritual and that I inculcate more patience.

What are your current plans and what are your (not so distant) future plans?

I plan to enjoy life to the fullest and do good deeds unto God and then see my son derive happiness from whatever he does.

Any words of wisdom or points to ponder, looking back?

Yes. Respect yourself enough to walk away from ANYTHING that no longer makes you joyful. Happiness isn’t a destination you reach at the end, but a way of life that colours the moment. Remember that.

Written for: ESTEEM Magazine, August issue

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

K. A. W. Perera and the dimensions of popularity

Critics don’t measure a work of art by its popularity. It would be correct to surmise that far from affirming popularity as a criterion they disparage it, to a point where prejudices, mindsets, and preconceived notions of whatever the medium the work belongs to dictate their attitude to it. And so pulp fiction was disparaged for over half a century before it joined the ranks of world literature. So also was the Western cowboy film disparaged, for roughly the same period of time, before critics began ranking it alongside the visionaries of the cinema. There probably are a great many others examples besides this of critics revising their notions of good and bad art (provided that art can be dichotomised this way), but now’s not the time.

Suffice it to say, then, that when it comes to our cinema we’ve blinded ourselves to some films for the sake of others. Critics aren’t to be blamed completely for this, but the fact of the matter is that despite the naked success of these films we have, all in all, refused to look beyond their surface-allure.

For even in the work of the masters, we can spot out flaws. By that same token, even in the work of lesser artistes, we can spot out flashes of brilliance. This week’s star was not perfect. Nor was he inferior. He directed more than 20 films and he worked in a several other fields besides. He was K. A. W. Perera.

Perera knew his audience. He knew them well enough to understand that despite their otherwise cold attitude to life, when it came to bioscope (as it was derogatorily referred to back then) they could be melodramatic and emotional. He therefore tapped into melodrama and emotion, wrought wildly divergent reactions from them, and made the rounds with the box-office with nearly every film he made. That none of them, except for the one or two he directed towards the end of his career, lost financially is a testament to the man’s genius, particularly in a context where “commercial” directors went for variations of the same plot and could be bland.

For truth be told, he wasn’t just a filmmaker. He was a storyteller. Peruse his stories in everything he directed and scripted and you will come across a man who was conscious of how long he could keep his audience spellbound and how long they could endure the same narrative. There’s nothing to suggest that Janaka saha Manju, for instance, was merely a love story between its protagonists: there’s a hoard of other sub-plots which almost get in the way but which, at the end of that remarkable film, coalesce into the main narrative.

There’s no real theory that explains the success of popular cinema. Popularity, let’s not forget, isn’t what counts as successful all the time, and barring the likes of those middle-of-the-road visionaries like H. D. Premaratne (who bridged the gap between what was arty and what was popular) the truth is that the one is miles away from the other.

One way to explain it would be to equate art with kitsch (a more polite term for “rubbish”), which as Pauline Kael (a critic who spoke her mind in whatever she wrote) observed was what really made won at the box-office. I am not too sure about equating K. A. W. Perera’s work with kitsch, but suffice it to say that in his films we come across the kind of kitsch Kael would have been thinking about: the kind which, at the end of the day, did what every work of art purported to do since the beginning of time: tell a story and keep the listener entertained. That this was Perera’s main achievement, no one should doubt.

His own life would have provided him with enough material to fill a dozen films. Koddul Arachchige Perera was born in 1925 in Colombo. His mother, Kavinihamy Ratnayake, privileged his education and admitted him to Ananda College. Ananda wasn’t far off, but nor was it nearby, so young Perera had to go by bus and spend about 25 cents for the ride. He was an ardent consumer of bioscope even at that age, however, and thus he struck a plan: he would go to school not by bus but by foot, far though it was, and would save the bus fees given by his mother to spend on film tickets. This did not impede on his studies, and in the end he passed the Junior School Certificate.

After leaving school he enrolled himself at a private institution to prepare himself for the University Entrance Exam, back then the litmus test for any student aspiring for his or her higher education. While studying at this institute he met up with a girl called Agnes. They became friends. Their friendship blossomed into a romance, which never received the blessings of his parents. Perhaps it was this which prompted him to explore the theme, hackneyed though it was, of unfulfilled love, thwarted by outside forces, later on. Agnes, in the meantime, wound up being his lover and eventually his devoted wife.

And this wasn’t all: he had to face a dwindling financial situation, which compelled him to look for a job. He registered himself at the Employment Exchange but for some reason, he was rejected. On his way back though, he was called by an official at the Exchange. This official, to Perera’s surprise, had been a teacher of his at Ananda, and he got him employed as a clerk at the Education Department.

While at Ananda, Perera had developed an interest in drama. At the Education Department, he indulged in this by writing scripts for Radio Ceylon. His radio plays soon became popular among listeners, one of whom was the Director of Education Perera was working under. Perusing Perera’s qualifications, the director appointed him as an Assistant English teacher at a school in Biyanwala.

Four years later he was in Radio Ceylon, as a full-time producer and copywriter. His penchant for writing dialogues which were (more than anything else) down to earth got the attention Lester James Peries, back then fresh out of the Government Film Unit and who, with Titus Thotawatte and Willie Blake, was directing what would become Sri Lanka’s first real film, Rekava.

Perera was called in to write its dialogues, which he did. Despite its lukewarm reception in Sri Lanka and despite its less than earthy speeches and conversations (for Perera, on account of his liking for the theatre, couldn’t resist the urge to dramatise those conversations), it went down in history as the first genuinely local product our cinema conceived.

This, together with his dialogues for Lester’s next film, Sandeshaya, prompted offers to strike out his own path as a director. He scripted and co-directed (with T. Somasekaran) Pirimayek Nisa under the patronage of E. A. P. Edirisinghe, whose company produced his next directorial venture, Suhada Sohoyuro.

It was with Senasuma Kothanada, however, that he made his mark in the local cinema. Senasuma Kothanada, a love story which featured the likes of Gamini Fonseka and Jeevarani Kurukulasuriya and which introduced Premasiri Khemadasa to the world of film music, was an overnight sensation. Khemadasa would incidentally figure in as composer for Perera’s most successful work. The journey would, in a proverbial sense, never be the same for the two of them.

And so Perera went on: Kapatikama, Bicycle Hora, Penawa Neda, Kathuru Muwath, Seeye Nottuwa, Lokuma Hinawa, Ihatha Athmaya, Aparadaya saha Danduwama, and Lasanda. Lasanda was released in 1975. He gave his most phenomenally successful work thereafter: Duleeka, Wasana (Geetha Kumarasinghe’s debut), Nedeyo (where he introduced the late Vijaya Nandasiri to the cinema), and of course Janaka saha Manju. They don’t come like that anymore. Then again, they never could.

With some of the most telling names any director here could conjure for his work (who else, after all, could have gone for titles like Bangali Walalu or Wathura Karaththaya?), he congealed into the most plebeian filmmaker Sri Lanka could ever claim. That was part of his magic and charm. In the end that magic and charm, though despised by the critic, won everyone who patronised them, especially on account of the repertory of actors he went for: Upali Attanayake, Sonia Dissanayake, Joe Abeywickrama, and his own son Jayantha Das Perera.

I talked with Jayantha some time back and asked him to explain what it was which made up his father’s penchant for the box-office. “For one thing,” Jayantha replied, “He had a way with his actors, more particularly his leading actors. When I was in Janaka saha Manju he didn’t see me as his son, but as Janaka. I remember I had to ‘embrace’ Gothami Pathiraja, who played Manju. At that age I suppose I was a little wary of embracing women that way, because I distinctly remember my father, forgetting all propriety for one moment, shouting at me, ‘Don’t you know how to kiss a woman?’ No, he wasn’t angry there. He was being sardonic. And frank. I think that’s what came through his work. I think that’s what grabbed audiences.”

Grab is an understatement. I know (of) people who have cried at Janaka saha Manju and continue to weep whenever I mention it. For some time I couldn’t understand what it was in that film which demanded tears, but then it occurred to me: even those who wring their hands and sniff at it understand that the world they look at, the characters resident in it, and the storylines that colour it, are false and patently so.

And yet they cry, not because they are deceiving themselves, but because they know that beneath the fissures of Janaka saha Manju, there’s something that goes beyond the unreality of its experience. By making us forget that unreality, Perera transformed our disbelief into emotion. In his hands, we needed to be contorted to appreciate his world. His was a world we were afraid to tread beyond the projector. His was a world which, like in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, we went to observe and would swoon if ever it intruded on ours. In the end that became his magic touch, and he became a Midas: of the rough, unrefined sort perhaps, but a Midas nevertheless.

Today we don’t see directors like Perera. Inevitable in one sense, I suppose, given the tragic confusion between popularity and crudeness we’ve succumbed to. Not that this means it should continue forever, but the truth of the matter is that in Perera’s day popular wasn’t a byword for awful: it was a byword for entertainment. In nearly every film he directed, that is what he provided.

And so, when we are old enough to write epitaphs for the dead and gone, we will realise Perera’s genius. We will learn to look beyond the critic. And we will be content.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, August 24 2016

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

On reconciliation and 'reconciliation'

Reconciliation implies a two-way process, ideally aiming at equality for both sides to a conflict. Accountability can only be a part of it if it’s scripted in properly and not, as it’s wont to be today, pushed forward as part and parcel of a larger, insidious agenda. There are degrees of equality with each side to a conflict blaming the other. Once you factor in accountability, more often than not, what prevails is something that goes by the name of reconciliation but which does not coalesce into the genuine, cohesive movement it should be.

This week’s column is on reconciliation and its discontents. More specifically, it is an assessment of current realities, the myths associated with it, and various suggestions mooted by parties and outfits that are seen as pandering to ideologies (some positive, others not so). To start off however, two questions are compelled: what is reconciliation and, more to the point, what is the variant thereof that’s being championed in Sri Lanka today?

Why and whither reconciliation?

Reconciliation is rooted in ethics, equality, and in the longer term, equity. It is premised on acceptance, not denial: on forgiveness, not retribution. As opposed to criminal law its end isn’t punishment but an affirmation that the past happened and more significantly, happened in a way which no citizen can forget. Logically then, it ought to appraise what made the past and how, from the mistakes of that past, we can formulate a common blueprint for the future. There is mutuality here, which stops short of dishing out blame and is content with voluntary acceptance of responsibility for errors of commission and omission.

In the short term, reconciliation is about equality: hence the need for mutuality. In the longer term though, equality is meaningless without giving due weight to the discrepancy between each party’s contribution to the conflict. Task Forces and Commissions don’t hold water unless they account for such a discrepancy between the two parties in terms of errors committed, whether they are made consciously or through omission being largely irrelevant.

That is why, when equity supersedes equality (as was seen in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the sixties), we see those who contend for positive discrimination and privilege minority aspirations over the majority for the reason that, at any given point in time, the numerical (ethnic, religious, or social) minority is by default subject to the whims, fancies, and abuses of the numerical majority. Equity begins with equality, however, and I personally believe that the problem with Sri Lanka’s efforts at reconciliation is a basic misunderstanding of both these terms and their relevance by those who’ve authored the entire process.

That misunderstanding, by the way, can be traced to another: the fact that many if not most of those championing reconciliation today have focused on the long term. Not the short term. Equity and equality, let’s not forget, are mutually inclusive. Not exclusive.

The debate between the nationalists who wish to scuttle reconciliation (or some form of multiethnic dialogue) and the cosmopolitans who wish to go ahead with it, in a large sense at least therefore, can be reduced (at the cost of simplification) to the debate between those who want preferential treatment for the majority and those who want preferential treatment for the minority. In the end neither extreme can or should be allowed to win, if at all because both contort the spirit of what a multiethnic dialogue should entail.

Terrorism, ethnic fratricide, and conflict resolution

About seven years ago, at a public seminar on the ethnic conflict (which hadn’t ended by then), Shiral Lakthilaka and Victor Ivan debated on the (de)merits of the war. Victor was for continuing it, Shiral was not. The debate, attended to by the likes of Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe and scripted to appeal to both sides of the political divide, was relevant (for me at least) because of a point Victor made: that even if the Sri Lankan government didn’t give anything to the Tamils in the country, that still would be preferable to the LTTE holding sway in the North and East.

That point was strong, even radical, but to me it made clear everything wrong with how those for reconciliation at all costs understood the war. Those who self-righteously distinguished between Tamils and terrorists, for some tragic reason, failed to distinguish between terrorism and ethnic conflicts. And as Dayan Jayatilleka observes in his book Long War, Cold Peace, it was meaningless to accord parity of status to the government and the LTTE without first considering the chasm between a liberation movement and a fanatical organisation. The LTTE was not a liberation movement, it was a fanatical organisation. Logically therefore, a war against it wasn’t only just, it was necessary.

The truth then is that there was a war. The truth is that there were casualties. No government can be faulted for inflicting casualties in a situation where the other side was using civilians as human shields. Let’s not forget, after all, that what transpired in 2009 wasn’t merely a triumph of an Army funded by a State in debt over an organisation receiving (as Shiral Lakthilaka noted in that aforementioned debate) as much as 600 million dollars through its outfits in Europe: it was, as this article will explicate later on, a vindication of the necessity of ending war to compel peace. Those who inflate figures, consequently, are as prejudiced towards insidious outcomes as those who downplay them.

This column is not concerned with the war and its ramifications, but at a time when the “international community” continues to play with numbers (ranging from the 7,021 quoted by the United Nations to the 30,000 quoted by the myopic and fact-challenged Darusman Report to the 147,000 quoted by Frances Harrison, who ironically narrated a documentary in 2002 showing to the world the fascist proclivities of the LTTE), it is necessary to separate myth from fact, because myths (prime among them, the traditional homelands claim of communalist Tamil politicians) help neither reconciliation nor communal development.

Facts, factoids, and citizenship anomalies

Malinda Seneviratne, in his submissions to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), argued that conceding ground to the traditional homelands thesis via the 13th Amendment and the devolution packages proposed by successive governments did little by way of easing another more pressing concern, citizenship anomalies. He contended that while devolution made little to no sense politically or economically, it served as a backdrop for the various myths and chauvinist politics of the North and what’s more, was erroneously associated with problems related to citizenry.

Seneviratne represents the moderately nationalist opinion, the extreme manifestation of which rebels against any attempt at multiethnic dialogue (ostensibly because it’s felt to encroach on the “majority”). The moderate segment is conscious of ethnic identity and is also cosmopolitan. Those who subscribe to it are wary of myths paraded as history but at the same time concede that this in itself shouldn’t marginalise the need for reconciliation. It makes sense, at one level at least, to privilege this segment, if at all because the assumptions made by either extreme of the spectrum tend to fudge the crux of the issue.

And what is that crux? Simply, that reconciliation must be based on reason and history, not myths propagated by chauvinists. All in all, the government of the country, which received the democratic mandate from the people, were readier to compromise in the face of negotiations with the LTTE. The LTTE, on the other hand, not only arrogantly refused to compromise but sought to enforce its own terms and conditions while REDRAFTING the negotiation, akin to having a cake and eating it.

That is why, at a time when the politics of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) seem to be dictated purely by its constituency and when it’s perceived as not being completely for an all-encompassing nationality imperative in a transition from “just war to just peace” (Dayan Jayatilleka, Long War, Cold Peace), we must proceed with caution. The problem however is that those who want to go ahead with reconciliation at all costs forget the antics of the Northern Provincial Council and Chief Minister Wigneswaran, but are quick to jump on the allegedly racist rhetoric of non-Tamil politicos, particularly from the (unofficial) Joint Opposition.

Addressing the majority in the room

I mentioned before that reconciliation doesn’t make sense if we address the long term before the short term. In other words, without addressing equality there’s nothing much to be achieved by opting for equity. There are reasons for this, obviously.

First and foremost, it’s pointless talking about constitutional reforms and affirming an all-encompassing identity if the views of the majority are considered secondary or at best, marginalised. Sri Lanka arguably had the best opportunity to embrace such an identity upon independence. The problem however was that politicians pandered to an elitist ideology which virtually blanketed and ignored the aspirations of the majority, aspirations denied so much that when they were affirmed by successive governments after 1956, they vented out frustration is unseemly, violent ways, mainly against the minority.

On that basis, would it make sense to opt for equality? It would. And for one reason: mechanisms which do not account for the concerns of the majority and rubbish them for the sake of privileging the minority can and will prove fruitless if, in the longer term, the majority feels threatened and intruded on. Addressing the majority in the room and taking into account their grievances (in particular, the manifest tendency of politicians to pander to federalism, devolution, and extrapolated versions of the 13th Amendment) aren’t feel-good cosmetics but rather prerequisites to meaningful reconciliation.

This isn’t all, however.

Negotiations can culminate successfully only if equality gives way to equity skewed in favour of historically marginalised communities. On that count, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa didn’t turn out to be the success it was cut out to be. As various commentators have noted, that it began with the laudable objective of remembering and forgiving the past didn’t prevent it from deteriorating to a point where crimes committed by the white community were swept aside, a classic case of substituting absolution for forgiveness. Those who seek to emulate the South African model must clearly do so factoring in these contextual differences.

Marginalising the majority and twiddling thumbs

There’s a saying that’s tossed around these days: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” The nationalists will, as always, oppose attempts at reconciliation if it is felt to encroach on the majority. Such opposition is at best based on illusion and self-defeating. What’s even worse is that those opposed to majoritarian dominance have become myopic in the face of minoritarian communalism, especially when that communalism asserts itself against other ethnicities.

The recent clash at Jaffna University and the silence it wrested from the government, not to mention the manifest silence from civil society and various Embassies affiliated to the West, indicates quite clearly that progress can’t be obtained through denial. Denial, after all, was what blinded the majority into believing that physical development was a substitute for human development, that the minority could be coerced or appeased into submission through infrastructural projects in the North and East. Blinding oneself to majority aspirations is as bad, if not worse: in a context where the majority feel their grievances are unheard, rubbishing or ignoring them will merely take away from any reconciliation mechanism.

So yes, reconciliation is broke. Consequently, fix it one must.

One final point. At the end of the day, it’s difficult to prescribe exactly how the minority (predominantly Tamil and Muslim) should behave in the face of reconciliation. The premise must obviously be that they suffered, that they have suffered, and that they will suffer unless meaningful reforms are carried out.

On the other hand, I’m not too sure how those reforms should be articulated. I can think of two ways, affirmed by two thinkers.

The first, W. E. B. du Bois, who co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), argued for equality through education. Complete freedom and nothing short of that was what he desired, buttressed by his contention that only education, in particular the liberal arts curriculum drawn up and studied by the Whites, could emancipate his race.

The second, Booker T. Washington, the darling of Republicans who spout rhetoric on race relations in the US, saw things differently. He argued that self-employment, was the way forward for the black community. He opposed what he thought was the hollowness in du Bois’ method, and went as far as to sanction the exploitation and disenfranchisement of his race in return for economic development.

In the great debate between these two, I believe du Bois won. Rightly. Now’s not the time to delve into perspectives on minority emancipation (I leave that for a later column), but suffice it to say this: in the roadmap for reconciliation in this country, we must start at acceptance, move on to forgiveness, and declare a blueprint in which minorities are free not just in some places but everywhere. For better or worse, the roadmap must begin with equality, for only then can we hope for equity.

Written for: Ceylon Today, August 23 2016

Monday, August 22, 2016

On Tintin and the merits of dubbing

It's not easy to translate, this I've learnt. Unless you are or at least become familiar with the languages involved, you end up butchering the one when transliterating it to the other. I believe the same goes for dubbing too, with the added caveat that one must keep track of not only language but lip-movement and emotional resonance as well.

Of course we've had landmarks in dubbing and lip-syncing as we have in translations, but for the most in both the bad, the mediocre, and the downright obscure tend to outrun the good and the great by a considerable margin. Inevitable, some will say. I won't disagree.

There probably are reasons for this. Like time. We have very little of it on our hands now and hardly any of it to appreciate the nuances and complexity of language. On the other hand I refuse to believe that we've shut ourselves to language so much that we don't care anymore. Critics, however, would tend to point out the past and argue that, despite the technical deficiencies and limitations they had to put up with, our dubbing artistes and "translators" were much better when television was first introduced to the country. Again, I won't disagree.

Just the other day I came across an online list of the seven best dubbed TV shows from here. The usual suspects were there: "Pissu Poosa", "Ha Ha Hari Hawa", and "Walas Mama" (the latter of which, I was pleasantly surprised to learn, was created by the same man who gave us Woody Woodpecker, Walter Lantz). There was one title missing though, and as the list moved up I began worrying and thinking to myself, "Have these infidels no taste?"

Well, Show Number Two ("Dosthara Hondahitha") came and went. Along came Show Number One. Tintin. I wasn't disappointed.

Tintin came from Belgium (the fact that he spoke French doesn't mean he came from France, a mistake people make of that other famous Belgian, Hercule Poirot) and so did Herge. True, the English comics did justice to Herge, but that has more to do with the symbiotic relationship between the two languages than anything else. Sinhala, however, is a different kettle of fish altogether. The challenge for those who went about "translating" Tintin was retaining fidelity to the tone and pace of the original while keeping what was dubbed as authentic and simple as possible for local audiences.

"The Adventures of Tintin" came to Rupavahini in the late '90s. It was originally a co-production between France and Canada. Telecast on HBO in 1991, it was a moderate success but for some reason caught on with TV audiences in Asia. And so it was dubbed into other languages: Persian, Japanese, Hindi, even Vietnamese. Sri Lanka had a sizable crowd that had grown up on Tintin. It made sense (as it still does) to bring the show to the country. Eventually, that's what happened.

When it came here Rupavahini was no longer flanked by Titus Thotawatte, the man who gave us "Dosthara Hondahitha" and "Ha Ha Hari Hawa". The dubbing unit was being handed over to another formidable man: Athula Ransirilal. No, I haven't met him, but I believe him to be someone who appreciates time, knows his audience, and has realised how necessary it is to steep oneself in both languages before dubbing something. In one word, perfect.

There were problems, naturally. By the late 90s Rupavahini's prospects may have improved, but that still didn't erase the fact that we were still technologically backward. For the perfect dub, two things were needed: a perfect cast and perfect translation.

The show won on both counts. Of course Tintin was spot on for a young but formidable actor (and Sangeeth Kalubowila, young and formidable at the time, has since become the veteran he was meant to be: you can read his interview with "Ada" here) who could "articulate" both naivete and resolve (two traits which helped him stand out from other comic book heroes, one can argue), but it was with the other characters that the cast aced. Big time.

Who could, for instance, not look at Bianca Castafiore and not think of Mercy Edirisinghe, that actress destined to voice and act eccentric but well-meaning ladies? Who could not read about the antics of the Thom(p)son twins and not think of Gemunu Wijesuriya? And lest I forget, who could not think of Captain Haddock's fits of fury (with all those oaths he uttered) and not think of Parakrama Perera?

It wasn't just them of course. There were other names. Like Wijeratne Warakagoda, for obvious reasons among the first featured in the opening credits. He voiced on and off and his characters were all ordinary, like the shop-owner in "The Calculus Affair" who looks up at both Haddock and Tintin as they run about wildly, looking for Cuthbert Calculus after coming across two spies out to kidnap him. Warakagoda voiced the Thom(p)son twins in the later Sirasa adaptation. With less success, though.

I wrote on Tintin to "Ceylon Today" three years ago. Here's what I observed: "And with him there were unforgettable side players, such as that old sea-dog Haddock, that forever deaf Calculus, and those two clumsy 'Siamese' Thompson twins. We can imagine them, all imperfect in their own little ways, alongside Tintin, as they try and bring down all the Rastopopulouses and Müsstlers and Müllers who ever walked this world." Rupavahini did justice not just to the heroes in his world but its villains too, and this by spicing their dialogues in a way which (I still believe) made the dubbed version superior in many ways to the original.

There are so many examples I can point out from the entire series, but to me there's one particular episode (and sequence) which illustrated it well. The story: Flight 714.

The sequence? Rastapopulous leaves Tintin and his friends inside a volcano (after inadvertently activating it with a detonator). Tintin of course escapes with the rest, but in an unlikely way: a UFO (the story was originally written at a time when the West was "haunted" by culture-shock and the American fascination with aliens had spilt over to Europe). The UFO comes across Rastapopulous and his troupe, on a small boat aimlessly moving along the sea, and awakens them. Rastopopulous looks up, asks the others as to what it is, and gets a reply from Alan.

The HBO version has him say, "Looks like a UFO." To which Rastapopulous replies: "I don't care what it is, shoot it!" Or something like that, I can't remember.

The Rupavahini version, on the other hand, has Alan say: "බොස් ඒක පියාබින පීරිසයක් වගේ." Rastapopulous' reply? "මට පියාබින කෝප්පයත් එකයි මිනිහෝ, වෙඩි තියපල්ලා!" That was neater, not least because of the word-play involved (there's no proper word for UFO, only the literal translation of "flying saucer") which the original didn't or couldn't make use of.

It's no surprise then, that after nearly 10 years I still can remember the dubbed more than the English version and this despite the fact that I still watch the latter on and off. And I'm not the only one, of course: ask anyone who was fortunate enough to watch Rupavahini back then and I'm sure you'll come across others who say they prefer that to the original.

I could write more, but words are scarcely enough. Our generation were more fortunate, I guess. We encountered cartoon series that not only were dubbed well but dubbed so excellently that we thought they were made here. Few shows, cartoon or otherwise, could match that today. No, I'm not bemoaning anything, not the quality-dip in television and certainly not the inevitability of changing times and changing tastes. Nostalgia is warranted, however. Nothing wrong with that.

Tintin was repeatedly telecast by Rupavahini. Sadly, not for the last 10 or 15 years. For reasons of copyright, I suppose (both "Dosthara Honda Hitha" and "Pissu Poosa", while popular here, were relatively nondescript in their countries), although that's not a good enough excuse. Yes, audiences are different now, but children (thankfully) are still alert to nuance and subtlety. They'd still love it.

I watched Tintin before I read him. I watched him as he fought Rastapopulous, Müller, and Müsstler with his friends. I caught on and imitated what they did. In the end (I like to believe) they shaped me, as they did with every other kid. Rupavahini helped, of this I'm certain.

And one of these days, I'd like to watch him again. In Sinhala. The child in me would love that, I know.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, August 21 2016