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