Sunday, August 7, 2016

'Yal Devi' gets scripted into television

Television has a habit of engaging us with “the moment”. Beyond that, it passes away. Sure, there probably are a great many ideas which get scripted into the medium, but for the most we overlook them. That’s natural, particularly in a context where the few shows which stand out get subsumed by those that do not. Good ideas tend to be outnumbered by the bad and the mediocre, after all, something which can be said of every art form. Creative ventures aren’t hard to get, but they aren’t easy to get either. The same goes for those who choose to work in the medium.

Sameera Hasun entered the film industry in 2005. He began as an Assistant Art Director, absorbing everything and anything that came his way and in the process nurturing his sensibilities to near-perfection. He eventually rose up the ranks and ended where he is today: a director, a scriptwriter, and in more ways than one a connoisseur. He’s worked with several top names in the industry and what’s more, is willing to admit error and deficiency in whatever he does. His latest effort Yal Devi, by the looks of it, testifies to this. Amply.

Yal Devi is a teleseries, but not the kind you normally see today. On a basic level (I’m not wont to revealing spoilers, by the way), it delves into the ethnic conflict and the afterword it compels. Swarnavahini began airing it on June 27, and it has been going on every night at 8.30 ever since. Will it make it or will it not? Tough questions, but Sameera isn’t the sort to dodge them. So naturally, I ask them.

Before everything else though, I first ask him to elaborate on the series. He replies by saying that while the ethnic conflict does indeed figure in it, it’s not really a post-war narrative (at least not the kind that gets the limelight nowadays) but more so an assessment on the post-war “moment” and how we as a people are yet to embrace an identity that transcends identity and race. I dig deeper, but he cautions me: “There’s nothing deep here. It’s a theme that’s as simple as it’s going to get and a theme one can never overuse.”

The plot is simple enough. A Tamil family saves a wounded Sinhalese soldier (Saranga Disasekara) during the war. That family (the daughter is the heroine of the story) moves to Wellawatte four years later. The plot thickens, the daughter (Niranjani Shanmugaraja) “rediscovers” the soldier, they fall for each other, and everyone in turn falls under and revolves around their affair. I won’t reveal the ending or how these characters get there, because it is the role of the artiste, not the writer, to reveal. And yet, one can concede, this simple, superficial plot provokes comment. I will therefore comment.

One can allege that the romantic element to Yal Devi is hackneyed, but the beauty of it is that the plot narrows down to its larger canvas or rather larger themes. In other words (and I get this from Sameera himself) it is the theme, not the love triangle, which dictates the entire series. “The focus is on the present. Not the past. It’s about embracing differences and about celebrating togetherness.” One can point at the sequence of the war conveniently laid down at the beginning, where the soldier and the woman meet for the first time, and then retrace their later relationship to that. Fate and destiny, it would seem, pretty much plays a role in the entire series, which I suspect would lead many to label Yal Devi as another mega-drama.

Sameera disagrees with me there, though. “I don’t think you can label it like that. True, it goes on for more than a hundred episodes, but that’s just about it.” According to him Yal Devi would lose half its essence if audiences watch it with the same mindset they have while watching the conventional mega-drama, a point he firmly makes clear to me.

And in this I believe he is correct. Television shows, as I pointed out, live rarely if at all beyond the moment. The themes they engender are almost all the same: someone falls in love, fawns on the lover, gets repudiated by his or her family, and spends the rest of the plot trying to get him or her back. There’s no doubt that Yal Devi too will have such an angle, particularly in relation to the affair between the soldier and the woman, but beyond that I doubt anyone can really spot out a “mega element” as such.

At this point Sameera remembers some names for me, in particular Buddhika Kulasekara of Swarnavahini, “who made it possible for me to go ahead.” What of his own cast and crew? Sameera admits he can’t highlight any name in particular, and it is a sign of the man’s modesty that he brings down his own contribution. “Yal Devi is as much mine as it is everyone else’s. As far as ownership goes, it belongs to no one in particular.”

Given his manifest opposition to “mega-dramas” and attempts made at labelling his show under that category, what does he think about Yal Devi’s prospects? Firstly, he says that he shaped the entire project with TV audiences in mind, which means that there will be those recognisable and discernible points which only television can claim. Again, in this I believe he is correct. When it comes to any art form, compromise is the name of the game. I suspect Sameera knows this more than anyone else, so I ask him to elaborate. He obliges.

He contends that while Yal Devi will not be aimed at the lowest common denominator, it won’t overlook their tastes either. That’s all too inevitable in a medium where audience perceptions can change with just a remote button and where broadcasters and channels, in their rush to make a quick buck, convert ideas into populist storylines. I’m sure that Sameera, given his tryst with television and his understanding of its commercial thrust, has shaped his teledrama to suit the proverbial majority.

Secondly however, he concedes that he may fail in getting that majority to his side. Even for a modest man like him that is a wild claim, so I ask him why. “In this industry audiences are, as you know, chameleonic. They flip channels the moment boredom sets in and this applies to even long running shows. On the other hand Yal Devi wasn’t conceived to ward off boredom that way. It’s not crude. It’s not crass. You need time to reflect and time to adjust. The story isn’t exactly slow, but nor is it quick. True, these are still early days, but I have a feeling that audiences will need to adjust, particularly since my show runs through as many episodes as a conventional mega-drama and still can’t be put under that category. This may frustrate some. Can’t help.”

So what does he think about the cinema? “I personally prefer it to the TV. In fact I came to this industry through films. I was the Assistant Art Director for Giriraj Kaushalya’s Sikuru Hathe in 2005. I was taken in thanks to Newton Gunasekara, himself an Art Director and a veteran of sorts.” He rattles off a list of names he’s associated with: Bennet Ratnayake, Somadasa Maldeniya, Ananda Abeynayake, and Dharmasena Pathiraja (the latter of whom he worked with on his teledrama Kampitha Vil, which gave Sameera the courage to strike out his own path).

He then observes that his work as an Art Director taught him much about the visual aspect to films. I put to him that while most professionals in the industry prefer to dabble in editing, scripting, camerawork, or directing, the field he chose to work in would have encouraged him to tread paths less travelled in the medium. He agrees. “There’s a sense of inevitability in what I do,” he argues, “which is to say that we don’t or shouldn’t ‘rush’ when it comes to, say, framing a scene or sequence. If we do, we’ll end up ruining everything.”

Getting back to my question, he admits that there’s little to no potential in the television industry. “We have a very ‘chanchala’ (volatile) audience here. You end up cutting down on your own potential to please everyone, which helps neither you nor your audience. That’s why I hope to move into the cinema, to take what I have learnt with me and to turn as many ideas I have into reality.”

Yal Devi, going by all this, will impress. At one level it boasts of many things: its cast (ranging from younger names like Saranga and Dharshana Dharmaraj to veterans like Maurine Charuni, Rangana Premanath, and Meena Kumari), locations (Jaffna, Trincomalee, Chilaw, Udappuwa, Dehiwela, and Wellawatte), and logistics. Whether it will deliver the way Sameera (and more importantly, discerning audiences) would want to is another debate altogether.

At another level it embraces a number of themes we’re just beginning to affirm: the absence of identity, the universality of human emotion, and the prejudices and mindsets of a nation still trying to unshackle itself of the post-war moment. All laudable, no doubt.

Sure, it’s too quick to congratulate Sameera or idealise what he’s done. But then we can wish him luck. We can also hope. And we can smile.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, August 7 2016