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