Monday, October 24, 2016

Premaranjith Tilakaratne’s encounters

I’ve come to believe that the performing arts are “blessed” with their share of knaves, pretenders, jokers, and idiots. It’s not a perfect industry. For every yuga purushaya you will come across a great many amateurs. For every pioneer you will come across a great many petty artistes. That is why history bestows posterity on a select few and that is why the bad and the mediocre surpass the good and the great by a considerable margin. Inevitable, some will say. True, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic.

I suppose that is why we need those who can undress and dissect. Such people are endowed with that rare gift called integrity, which makes them constitutionally incapable of compromising on their conception of art to please the Establishment.

Naturally, this tends to win them both friends and enemies, and if they linger long enough with that sense of integrity, they gain more of the latter and become, for the lack of a better term, loners. That is indeed cause for lament, but not forever: integrity becomes its own virtue, gets vindicated, and in the end, gets these artistes and commentators noticed, venerated, and respected once again.

I first heard of Premaranjith Tilakaratne through an article I’d written on the late Tissa Abeysekara. To make a long story short: I got contacted by a friend of his domiciled abroad (who’d read it), got him to email me some contacts of his, and eventually called them all to ask after Abeysekara. One of those contacts (who lived in Mattegoda) asked me to contact Premaranjith. Yes, I’d heard of the man before, though vaguely, and partly out of a desire to meet him I called him. I went down to meet him not long after. I was not disappointed.

But first: who is Premaranjith Tilakaratne? He was a playwright, scriptwriter, and lyricist. For me personally, he remains a raconteur, a commentator, and above all else a de-mystifier of myths pertaining to the performing arts. That last point, incidentally, won him enemies but also respect. I remember how difficult it was to meet the man (he lives in Malabe, and his house, my mother and I learnt, is not easy to reach) and how eager he was to meet us. That drove me to ask questions and delve into his biography. He didn’t keep anything back.

He was born in Ratnapura in 1937. His father had been a teacher (and a strict one at that), who’d instilled a sense of discipline in him. He was educated initially at Sri Palee College in Horana, which had been structured along the lines of Tagore’s Shanthiniketan and which had been an eye-opener for him. Apparently classes ran on Saturday and halted only on Sundays and Wednesdays. “That proved to be a formidable obstacle for us, because it was at that school that we fell in love with the movies,” he smiles.

Schools, one must concede, are remembered for certain memories and these include “playing hooky.” Given the schedule at Sri Palee, Premaranjith and his friends would resort to just that on Saturdays, when they’d skip classes and go to the theatre for the 10.30 show. Not that it had been that easy, of course: his father was not only a strict iskole mahaththaya, but was opposed to films on principle.

Predictably, the son rebelled against the father. Was it tough? “Not really,” he remembers, “True, I’d argue with him and I’d upset him considerably, but that didn’t stop me. I’d borrow money from him and I’d bike with my classmates to watch the latest shows in town.” They’d been caught more than once, he reflects, though that didn’t stop their love for what was then considered a puerile art. Most of the films they’d see during this time were flicks imported from Bollywood, which had captivated the adventurer in them and would no doubt awaken adolescence.

His father however, had not been opposed to the performing arts in general, taking his errant son to watch Nurti plays. Premaranjith, though, had not been receptive to his tastes: “He went for morality plays. The films I watched, by contrast, were all glamorous, epic, and Christian: Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments, and Ben Hur. Occasionally I went for Hindi classics too, like Do Bigha Zameen and Bharat Matha.” Not surprisingly, young Premaranjith would have been entranced by the larger-than-life decor in these flicks, which influenced and shaped his later career and life.

J. R. Jayewardene greets the cast and crew
of 'Sri Wickrema'
In the meantime, time flew by. Premaranjith was shifted from Sri Palee to Dharmapala Vidyalaya in Kottawa, in 1956. “That was of course a monumental year politically and socially. Bandaranaike had inaugurated swabasha. Universities felt this first when they had to change their curriculum and textbooks to suit what was then referred to as the ‘age of the common man.’ Dharmapala, however, managed to resist this yuga peraliya and remained an English medium school.” He remembers studying textbooks prescribed by the British, “in particular, G. C. Mendis’ history books and the tales of English kings and queens.” Dharmapala had also got him into contact with Tissa Abeysekara. That, however, is for another narrative.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Premaranjith Tilakaratne never became a full time professional artiste. His father had wanted him to enter the Civil Service. He had eventually entered the government sector, following it up with some stints at the theatre. “How I got into scripting and directing plays is interesting,” he confesses, “Wickrema Bogoda, whom I’d befriended at Dharmapala, went to watch a couple of rehearsals of Sugathapala de Silva’s Boarding Karayo with me. Now Bogoda would later join Sugathapala’s troupe 'Ape Kattiya', but before that, upon seeing the man stage the play, I was enchanted by the idea of striking my own path.”

Chandra Kaluarachchi and Wickrama Bogoda
in 'Wahalak Nethi Geyak'
Things moved fast thereafter. His first play, Vaguru Bima, was staged in 1963. They were followed by a veritable torrent: Wahalak Nethi Geyak (1964), Thoththa Baba (1965), Ammai Appai (1966), Kontare (1967), Julie (1977), and a novel take on a Nurti tragedy, Sri Wickrema (staged during J. R. Jayewardene’s presidency). Typical for giants in general, these had attracted censure even in his time: Thoththa Baba had been banned for its homosexual subtext, while his take on Sri Wickrema, given that the government of the day had patronised it on account of the fact that it was staged at Tower Hall, raised rumours that he was currying favour with the big shots in power at the time.

Such baseless slander, however, couldn’t stop critics from praising his work. By his own confession, he’d attracted quite a number of favourable reviews from the English press (while most of his contemporaries made use of the vernacular press). As I flip through the archives, I realise how correct he is: A. J. Gunawardena, Tissa Devendra, and Wimal Dissanayake have all rated his plays highly.

While I haven’t seen his work for myself (unlike what his contemporaries did, he did not stage them frequently), they nevertheless captivate me in terms of the themes they engender: in particular, Wahalak Nathi Geyak, which dwells on the conflict between the expedient, ambitious father and the principled son, perhaps a contortion of the tussles Premaranjith had experienced as a child. It bagged awards for its script and acting at that year’s State Drama Festival.

Perhaps it’s a result of all his encounters, wild and divergent as they are, but I sense a hard to infer, harder to solidify character in the man. He is a nationalist but he spurns tradition. When I talk with him about our jathaka stories, for instance, he is quick to exclaim, “What’s there in them that merits attention, as a literature?” When I dwell on our epics, he is quick to retort, “We don’t have epics here, only episodes.” He clearly is not the steadfast, ramrod nationalist others his age usually are, and he is ever ready to criticise culture with respect to what he feels to be our inability to absorb the best of the outside world.

I ask him to explain. “Well, to give you an example from my time, there was a culture of rubbishing Indian films on account of their artificiality. Thespians, poets, and writers were all championing a return to the local and the particular in a bid to restore what was ours. I don’t see anything wrong in such an exercise, but the moment you cut yourself from the rest of the world, you will not progress one inch. Speaking for myself, I was not part of the anti-Indian bandwagon, not because I didn’t love our history and way of life but because we, as artistes and performers, have so much to learn from them and from the West.” This in turn explains his distaste for those who grovel before critics: “It’s all fine and well to please the newspaperman, but what about your audiences?”

I put to him that the Western cinema has progressed precisely because it has captivated the audience, and he agrees. “When I adapted West Side Story in Kontare, which is by far my most colourful play, not many agreed with what I was doing. They thought I would imitate Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. I did not. Their story was rooted in the clash between immigrants and Americans. My story, on the other hand, was rooted in a clash between Colombo people and outside folk.” A lesson on adaptation perhaps, one which compels the man to open up another point: “We are not ivory towers. We are human beings. If we don’t realise that, we will continue to create cults, venerate symbols, and go nowhere.”

Since that day I have frequently kept in touch with the man. He remains indelible in the truest sense of that term: not prone to fame the way some of his contemporaries were, and yet as perceptive as (if not more so than) those who clinched awards and trophies by the dozen in his day. He is not classifiable. By all accounts, his story (which he chronicles in his autobiography Durgaya, published some months back) deserves continuous assessment. By us.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, October 23 2016