Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Thank you, belatedly

How does one compose epitaphs for the dead? What is there in one obituary that is not there in another, particularly when it comes to those who won us while they were alive? Penning down words is easy, trying to attain some sense of meaning, order, and sincerity is not. So it is with those who gave something back to our so-called cultural industries, including the cinema. As always therefore, there are no tributes, only attempts at them. This is one such attempt.

The past two years swept upon us like a curse. One by one, almost all suddenly, some of our brightest and of course irreplaceable icons left us. Right down from Mercy Edirisinghe in 2014 to W. D. Amaradeva about three weeks back, we lost them all.

True, in this sansaric, interminable universe of ours not even icons are spared the indignity of death, but it is not those who fawn on them that I pity: rather, on those who belittle, ignore, or in other ways undervalue their work and their careers. There are children who have not heard of Amaradeva, for instance. These are not children sent to institutions teaching foreign curricula: these are children from local government schools. Speaks a lot about our education system.

Last week we lost Wimal Kumar da Costa. Did we, as a nation and a people who cherish the arts, know him? I am not so sure that is easy to answer. How can one answer such a bold, assertive question, after all? More to the point, what is there in the man that merits an affirmative reply to it? Let me say this, hence. I didn’t know Wimal personally and I am sure there are hundreds if not thousands who are yearning to write tributes to the man with their personal encounters. The man deserves as much, not because such encounters ought to be written on, but because in all of them (I am willing to bet) he comes across as a lovable, peaceable, yet self-indulgent man.

Wimal came to us through Dharmasena Pathiraja. He was featured in the latter’s first film, Sathuro, in 1969. He immediately joined the likes of Daya Tennakoon and Amarasiri Kalansuriya (both of whom are, thankfully, still with us) as part of Pathiraja’s repertoire of actors, and the films kept on coming: from Ahas Gawwa right down to cameo appearances in that remarkable masterpiece, Para Dige. In all these, Wimal came across as a talker who likes to indulge in rhetoric and is therefore flawed, but who like all such flawed individuals did not begrudge another’s friendship.

The exception to that, I think, was Pathiraja’s own Eya Dan Loku Lamayek, where as the hopelessly infatuated village boy he showed us that he’d go to any lengths to achieve what he wanted (even beating up the man with whom the girl of his dreams had fallen in love). That was, some would like to call it, an aberration in his career, one which saw role after role after role with him as the talkative sidekick. He was born for that role, and like Philinte from Moliere’s The Misanthrope his part was that of a consoler, a soother of sorrow, and a joker. No wonder he won us.

He could also be an idealist. In Bambaru Avith he showers his two friends (Kalansuriya and Vijaya Kumaratunga) with Marxist rhetoric and is continually the object of ridicule everywhere. He speaks of equality, the oppression of class hierarchies, despite the painfully obvious fact that no one is there to listen to him. No, not even when his predictions turn out to be correct, his friends’ interference in the fishing village in which the film is set invites chaos and anarchy, and, in probably the most iconic moment in the plot, he gets up by a bus stand and rants and raves on the virtues of pre-capitalist societies. As with all such ideologues, there is (again) no one to listen to him: as he looks down after he finishes his little speech, his audience is gone. What does one do in such a situation? I wouldn’t know, but Wimal did. He laughed.

But it wasn’t just Pathiraja who made use of him: in fact from the seventies I’d might as well say that his best performance came out in Vasantha Obeyesekere’s lovable (but atypical) Diyamanthi, where he is a pickpocket who befriends an unemployed Arts graduate (Vijaya) and a man just released from prison (Somasiri Dehipitiya) and goes on a rampage everywhere. That was a kinder, gentler world we lived in back then, and so, when we saw him frolic everywhere with the other two, when we saw the three of them stumble into a mystery that was resolved in a way which would have compelled a second glance from Hitchcock, we never forget his face: unkempt, rough, yet always smiling.

Yes, smiling. Peruse whatever photo you can of him (not from a film though), and you will see that his face was ever ready to break into a smile. That smile adorned wherever he was and made up the essence of his character: he didn’t meet a lot of people but he was not unapproachable, and he was (from what I have heard) almost self-demeaning when he did meet people. He was neither indifferent to nor enamouring of the public gaze, hardly a trait one comes across a man who took part in as many films as he did (more than a hundred, a respectable amount for someone who emerged from our cinema rather late in its history).

People talk. I’ve heard some of those who worked with him talk on him. “Wimal ta thibba gathiyak, e gathiya nisa mulu Lankawama eyata priya kara” was one such comment. “Eyata kochchara adareda kiwwoth kohe giyath minissu eyata adagahala sangraha karanawa” was another.

Yes, these are raw and unpeeled, hardly the sort that must get into a formal tribute. But then, should tributes be formal? Isn’t it precisely these comments, from those who knew the dead, which should describe the person being lamented? I believe so, and I believe that what I heard from Wimal’s closest confidantes can only lead to one conclusion: he was not popular in the cosmetic sense of that term, only in the sincerest, plebeian, and unrefined sense.

And for that, I think we must be grateful, though not complacent. There may be children who never heard of the man, and that is tragic. Should we lament? Yes. Should we brood? No. It is the duty of those who are alive, to bring him back to life. It is the duty of the writer to aid that miracle.

Wimal Kumar da Costa died last week and I never met him when he was alive. I saw him, though, ever since I began seeing the movies. He made me smile. He made me laugh. He made me think. He will now be missed.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, November 30 2016

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

On myths, facts, and the blogosphere

I know a friend who despises opinion pieces. He is a cynic when it comes to commentaries and as such, measure commentators (political or otherwise) on the basis of their fidelity to facts. Now facts, as the saying goes, are sacred, and comment free, but for all he cares this friend tends to disparage certain writers based on their lack of regard for the truth: journalism, for him at least, must be stripped of frill. The truth and nothing but the truth is what he aspires for in whatever he reads (barring the occasional novel or comic book, of course). I can’t say I agree with him entirely, but I will say this: I am no fan of opinion columnists, and going by that logic, at least when it comes to such columns, I am no fan of writing them either.

At one level I suppose it has to do with the blogosphere. There are so many writers out there on the net that it’s difficult to set some sense of uniformity. It’s difficult to standardise, in other words. Those who rant and rave, for the lack of a better way of putting it, rant and rave to their hearts’ content, never mind whether or not the extrapolations and the analyses they make come close to the truth.

The best columnists, to my mind at least, don’t indulge in such rants: they are careful to support what they write with what they know. There’s a reason, after all, why Keats, despite his saturated paens and tributes to love, is definitely not the superior of the likes of Pushkin: the former was young, too young, to talk of what he talked about with any concreteness.

All this came to me during the days that followed the American Election. I observed in this column two weeks ago that we shouldn’t care about the results because whoever wins and whoever loses, it’s still the same show when it comes to US foreign policy. There the matter would have ended, if not for the almost ceaseless barrage of comments and opinion pieces that Sri Lankans kept on writing. It would be interesting, I hence thought, to delve into some of these comments and glean from them a sense of the political that their writers exhibit, and how, at the end of the day, they congeal to their awareness (or the lack thereof) of the political in their country.

First and foremost, as Nalaka Gunawardene pointed out in a column last week, Donald Trump is everything the alt-right (or alternative right) could have dreamt of: a global warming sceptic, a panderer to hardcore evangelists and fundamentalists (while being an atheist), and a pragmatist in the world of business. “We can only hope that Trump’s business pragmatism would prevail over climate action” is a parting shot Gunawardene takes at the American president. We agree. In yet another article written before this, he went on to argue that what we saw was a “largely fact-free election choosing a (mostly) fact-resistant winner.” What of that?

To the extent that Trump’s perception as a fact-resistant candidate is based on his crass handling and distortion of facts, I agree. Malinda Seneviratne, on the other hand, who is less prone to dichotomies that characterise the American political scene, argued that it cut both ways: Clinton’s bid for the presidency was defeated because of facts (her past record, her husband’s devious stances on foreign policy, and her economic views), while Trump worked on the fears of outside invasion which can, as I observed two weeks ago, congeal into a whole electorate unless they are addressed in time. The former was based on realities, the latter on myths.

Who won what? As Paul Krugman puts it, “Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more than two million, and she would probably be president-elect if the director of the FBI hadn’t laid such a heavy thumb on the scales, just days before the election.” That heavy thumb, to put things in perspective, got a whole lot heavier when Trump supporters whipped up a campaign of irrational frenzy against her.

In a context where political preferences are framed by the obsessive need to pick a champion, how is it possible to (de)select candidates based on the (as important) need to choose the lesser of the two evils? It is here, I think, that most commentators are batting for a six and failing miserably, starting with one pertinent point: dichotomising candidates based on the perceived lesser evil tends to distort the truth.

That is why I can’t understand why writers (here and elsewhere) consider gender as the predominant factor in the election. I believe the tussle between Trump and Clinton was more dependent on perceptions: on who was standing for the Establishment and who was against it. Democrats who are whining about the winner losing at the Electoral College (for Trump is the fifth president to lose the popular vote) should consider the man they ignored. Gender figured in, yes, but if Democrats are so worried about gender, one can ask, why did they conveniently throw out Bernie Sanders (through the flaws of the system) who stood for gender equality in a less ambivalent way than Clinton?

That’s just one fact. Here’s another. Unlike in 2000, when Ralph Nader campaigned as an independent candidate and effectively “robbed” key votes which would have ensured victory for Al Gore, neither Jill Stein nor Gary Johnson (the man who did not know what Aleppo was) courted enough popularity for one to conclude that they did for Clinton what Nader did for Gore.

Fact is, not enough young people voted for Clinton: they were either fed up with the System (because of which Sanders was kicked out) or worried about electing a warmonger for a president (for Clinton, despite what her supporters can and will say, was the lady who jubilantly said, “We came, we saw, he died!” of Muammar Gaddafi). They couldn’t vote for Trump because he was far, far away from their ideals, and because of their idealism they decided to stay at home. How close was the fight, then? “If just one in 100 voters changed their votes to Clinton, the electoral college votes would have been 307 Clinton, 231 Trump. Not much of a landslide, really” was what a lecturer in Political Science in Texas observed. True.

Forget all that. I still don’t get this gender argument. Trump, so the conventional wisdom goes, courted the mythmakers, the worst elements of a society touted as the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave: homophobes, sexists, and racists. Should we be worried? Of course. But to argue that gender (or for that matter ethnicity) was all that figured in the election would be (and I say this at the cost of irking those arguing otherwise) as reductionist as saying that Trump was an anti-Establishment candidate (which is, by the way, the most common observation made by those vouching for the man, even here).

Yes, he made some unseemly comments about women that the mainstream media in the US made use of, only to irk those who supported him even more. But does this make the other candidate progressive? “Progressivism is a disease!” is what Glenn Beck loved to shout out. Now Glenn holds the Founding Fathers in esteem and criticises if not trashes the likes of Clinton, but reading his rants against liberal politicos, I questioned myself, “Who is progressive in this world? Obama? Clinton? Ralph Nader?”

Besides and more importantly, what is progressivism? Is it being soft on foreign policy, in which case no candidate can be singled out and commended? Or is it being soft on domestic policies, in which case one can cut (only) some slack for the Democrats? The truth, as anyone with any sense of history will tell you, is that the American electoral system cannot and will not promote the likes of Howard Dean or Bernie Sanders, by which I am not criticising it (after all there have been electoral systems which have taken in and crowned Hitler and Ferdinand Marcos) but only commenting. And yes, that was a comment for all those who think that the United States is capable of electing a Pierre Trudeau.

Just the other day I came across an article that claimed to explain why so many Sri Lankans (here and there) supported Trump. This article attempted a miracle: to jump from misogyny in the American system to misogyny in Sri Lanka’s education system to the politicisation of Buddhism to the chauvinism inculcated in mono-ethnic schools here! Some points were valid, others were not, but all in all I couldn’t help but think back on that friend I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, and what he had to tell me at one point: shouldn’t such extrapolations be made with a pinch of salt?

Nationalism, some say, is over. I wouldn’t agree. Nationalism is here to stay. Whether you are from the States or from Sri Lanka, if you are a presidential candidate you cannot, will not, and shall not win or clinch the presidency if you belittle the fears of the majority. Obama was no saint (who is?) but when it came to the final reckoning, his perceived saintliness ticked off the fundamentalists whose fears were not being addressed. Can one blame them? I for one cannot, even though there is much in them that I oppose and will continue to oppose.

Going by that, I can with all sincerity say that the most common misconception made by writers of such opinion pieces as that quoted above is this: in their bid to champion the lesser of the two evils, they forget the tendency of the System to twist and contort the most idealistic candidate.

As Padraig Colman pointed out in a series of perceptive articles on Trump and Clinton (published by "Ceylon Today"), neither candidate was perfect. Well, the truth is that no one is perfect, not you and not me, but in this rush to commend the less imperfect person we are entranced by personalities so much that we forget that the mere lack of any DISCERNIBLE flaws cannot and will not salvage a person from his or her corruption at the hands of the Establishment. That explains the many U-turns made by leaders both in America and in this country, U-turns that seem to get no press and which depress the idealist into thinking that there’s no hope left in a polity.

A prominent political commentator once told me, quite candidly, that there was nothing black about Obama, only the colour of his skin: a contention I subscribe to (with some reservation). What Obama did (and his legacy, whether one likes it or not, is not palatable to the idealist) was basically conceal the deficiencies of a system that couldn’t be bottled for long.

To add fuel to the proverbial fire, he was offering as his successor a person who represented everything the American Right wanted in a more aggressive candidate: pushing for interventionism, arguing for external interference, and championing unilateral action in a context where R2P (Responsibility to Protect) is being pointed out as a justifiable alternative to the sovereignty of a country. In this regard, is it a wonder that Trump won? Not really. Blue-eyed idealists, however, will have a hard time swallowing that.

Fidel Castro died last Saturday. He was 90. He spent the better part of his life combating the many myths that the West bred and perpetuated about him. I will not spend time on Castro (I leave that for next week’s column), but I will say this: for a man beset with so many falsities by the mainstream media, he triumphed and trumped. He never lost. Not once. Says a lot about perception and reality, when it comes to politics that is. Commentators who continue to lament the defeat of "idealistic" candidates, I believe therefore, should spend more time reading the many op-eds, essays, and articles written on him, mostly by those who see in him the devil he (almost) never was.

George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He could have been writing of the voter: suckered into supporting a candidate who hides behind a veneer of sophistication and respectability, who upon victory embraces the same values that same voter opposed. In such a context, who should we blame? Naturally, ourselves.

Written for: Ceylon Today, November 29 2016

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Rehan Mudannayake reaches out

Filmmakers are a peculiar lot. The best of them privilege nothing and the lesser among them get entranced by the cosmetics that are, I suppose, part and parcel of an essentially commercial industry. That explains, to a considerable extent at least, how the good and the great are surpassed by the bad and the mediocre, and how the most unyielding artiste had to compromise, no matter how marginal that act of compromise may have been, to yield to the pressures of commercialisation. Only a select few, who thanks to social background or personal preference, strayed out of that accursed reality called “expedience” and showed us their conception of art with no frills.

I first met Rehan Mudannayake in 2014. I didn’t know who he was apart from the fact that he was an up-and-coming director who “deserved” a biographical sketch. Given that I was rather immature and naive in my understanding of how artistes work, I was (and I say this quite honestly) quite bewildered: how would I ever take to him the way I had with others like him?

There were two points against him, for me at least: one, he was a relative newcomer; and two, his film (which was supposed to absorb the bulk of the article) had delved into the (double) lives of the Colombo bourgeoisie. I am no Marxist, but I was quite young back then (which amounts to the same thing, really), so I was a little sceptic: how could the elite of Cinnamon Gardens figure in ANY serious flick?

Two years later that flick, Elephant, was selected for the International Film Competition Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia, where it managed to win a Silver Prize. I am no Marxist yet, and I have since grown older. My tastes, let it suffice for now, have changed.

Directors are neither demagogues nor ivory towers. The worst of them tend to take to the commercial sector, but that does not and will not absolve the few who take the deterioration that results from this as a license to shut themselves up in academia and throw out arty flicks that, while critically well received, alienate their audience. I am no fan of those who intellectualise the cinema. Rehan Mudannayake, fortunately for me, is no fan of them either. This is his story.

He was educated at Elizabeth Moir in Colombo and later at Worth Abbey School in England. In both schools, he had derived a love for art that would stay. Predictably, it stayed with him even when he entered the University of Kent, to study film for three years, and the University of Amsterdam, to study not just film but also literature, drama, and musicology. Apparently jazz was one of the subjects he had to study in the latter stream, which he remembers with some justifiable fondness.

I remember talking with Sanchitha Wickremesooriya not long ago, and I remember him telling me that despite an atmosphere that was more amenable to the arts, he was not enamoured of the West to the extent of living the rest of his life there. So he returned to the land of his birth. Rehan, I suspect, is not too far behind Sanchitha on this count, when in 2012 he left Europe and came back to Sri Lanka. When asked as to why he did so, he replies, "Purely and simply, the desire to make movies in my own country." He qualifies this: "Besides, I grew up on a diet of films here. So this is where I really began my career.”

I put to him that despite the cold, less than emotional attitude to life privileged by the British, they have inculcated a cinema that could reckon with the best in the world. He agrees, with a caveat: "England doesn't have a vibrant film culture anymore. There's hardly any continuity in the industry there, quite opposite to what's happening across the Atlantic."

What's missing, he explains, is state support. "I remember David Cameron once publicly stating that all directors in the UK must strive to make more films like Harry Potter. He was probably offering justification for his government's decision to abolish the UK Film Council. That's absurd though, quite harrowingly. Forget the fact that not everyone can make or afford to make a Harry Potter. Where's the youth going to be in the British film industry? I think not addressing this question, especially in the long term, will do more damage than anyone can imagine."

For his part, Rehan has stuck to principle. He is also eclectic. That is how he can talk about his fascination with Eisenstein and the Russians, Godard and the French, and Spielberg and the Americans with equal vigour and fascination. "Point is, we can't really inflate ourselves and think that what we love as film-styles are the best. We need to learn as many of them as we can," he says, "Which brings me to my second point: if cinema is NOT to remain as a minority art, we need to go beyond a crowd mentality."

I suspect he would bring up Wes Anderson, and he did. Anderson (who gave us The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2014 and a torrent of other, as quirky features before) remains the unconventional parvenu he always was, more so than even the Coen Brothers. "I believe he has conformed the least among American directors today. You can't really talk about the American cinema without factoring in its studio system. Anderson has kept away from all that. That is why, when you see films like Moonrise Kingdom, you tend to think, 'Ah, this must have been done by some recluse!' In a way, that's true, because the man has really become an outsider to his country's studio-oriented movie culture. He is to be applauded for this, no doubt."

This however does not mean Rehan appreciates the less appreciated only. For him, the cinema can only attain perfection if it nurtures both the outsider and the mass producer, a point he drives home succinctly when he argues, “The cinema is never static. It's always trying to question and liberate itself. It's always on the go. To a large extent, this has to do with the fact that it's the youngest of the arts. So I guess it's natural that we haven't really unearthed half the potential that films are capable of reaching.” As a summing up, he lays out one point: "The world needs its Andersons. But without the Spielbergs and Lucases, it would be quite dull."

What of his work? One of his first attempts was a short called Insecxtual, made about three years back and nominated for the top prize at the Mosaic Film Festival in Toronto. Elephant (an adaptation of an Ashok Ferrey short story), was not really a follow-up in that it explored new themes, best left to be discerned by the filmgoer and not revealed by the critic.

The film was, if my memory is correct, screened twice here last year. I missed watching it on both occasions, the first owing to an unfortunate illness and the second owing to another unfortunate illness. From what I have heard, however, I can say this much: Rehan has tried to probe into the fears, anxieties, and aspirations of the Colombo bourgeoisie. I fear I don’t have enough authority to comment any further, so I will desist and turn instead to his latest endeavour, Ladies Night.

Ladies Night is relatively short. I believe the plot tells it all: “A regular Wednesday night out in Colombo amongst three friends – Fiona, Rajinda, and Sulaiman – takes a twisted turn when they are paid a visit by an unsavoury visitor. A dark, fast-paced short film, Ladies Night is the story of a disturbed man who obsessively stalks and harasses his ex-girlfriend.” I asked Rehan to elaborate on this without revealing spoilers, and in one go (well, almost) he summed it all up: “We live in a society that shuts out the most basic flaws that beset us.”

I sense that the same themes embedded in his previous work comes out here as well, and I am not wrong: in particular, our inability to recognise social ills when they confront us, and how, despite the contextualised plot of the film (as I mentioned, it delves into the lives of the Colombo elite), this trait of ours is relevant to the rest of our small country. I put this to Rehan, who agrees almost at once: “Yes, it’s rooted in a particular milieu. But then that doesn’t belittle its relevance to the many other individuals and communities resident elsewhere.”

Ladies Night will, he tells me, be screened at the Lionel Wendt Arts Centre on Thursday, December 8, starting at 6.30 pm. It has a veritable cast, all of whom are young: Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke, Kinita Shenoy, Lasantha David, Sakshin Haran, Savera Weerasinghe, Vindhya Fernando, and Savithri Rodrigo. Rehan has not only directed but also written it. “Will it deliver?” is a question on everyone’s mind. “How can we tell?” is my rejoinder. We can only watch, comment, and wait. Until then, we can only guess.

I suppose the subject of any article deserves the last word. Here’s what Rehan has to say, hence: “We need to stop the cinema from being institutionalised. For this, we must seek cooperation from critics who know what they're writing about and audiences who appreciate films for what they are. We need truly independent directors. But will we ever get them? That is my question for you."

“Will we ever?” one can ask. “Let us see!” I will retort. Rehan has answered half that question, for us. We only have to answer the other half.

Written for: The Island YOUth, November 27 2016

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Richard de Zoysa: The other side of paradise

The first thing that struck you about him was his voice. Polished, elegant, and not a little jarring, it helped explain his figure, which was at once filled with resolve and fear. It was these two qualities, perhaps, that explained how self-contradictory the man was: a scion of the elite, yet fighting against the same values that same elite fought so hard to solidify against everyone else. He paid a price for this act of rebellion and that price was his life, but upon his death he sealed his name for posterity. Life’s like that, I suppose: you remember the dead and you never forget the murdered.

Had he lived, Richard de Zoysa would have been 58. He was little more than 32 when he was killed, and brutally so, away from the solitude of his house and family. This is not a politically coloured tribute to the man, but a take on the fields of activity he took to: the theatre, the cinema, and literature.

I am no thespian and I suppose not being one makes it difficult for me to comment on the theatre. I was born long after Richard passed away and hence, it will take nothing short of a miracle for me to assess his worth as a playwright and actor (onstage, that is). His credits in the theatre were many and while not all of them could be regarded as monumental (they have long since been forgotten), it is certainly true that even with the lesser among them he came out remarkably as an actor. The only play which featured him, that I have read with any sort of interest, was Regi Siriwardena’s take on the Soviet dissident Nikolai Bukharin, The Long Day’s Task, in which Richard was not only the courageous dissident destined for the guillotine, but also a key shaper in the tone, the nuances, and the general direction of the plot.

Being a film buff, I was always more entranced by his credits in our cinema. Richard de Zoysa was there in two masterpieces that won praise in (almost) every quarter, Tissa Abeysekara’s Viragaya and Lester James Peries’ Yuganthaya. In the former, he is an idealist, a character who was not featured in Martin Wickramasinghe’s novel but who was scripted in to its adaptation by the director to provide a point of reference for the largely socialist tilt it manifested towards the end. In the latter, arguably the pinnacle of his career, he is the fervent revolutionary, the prodigal son of the merciless capitalist, who turns against his own family in his quest for social justice. His performance as Malin in that film, for obvious reasons, deserves scrutiny, but only after a brief perusal of his life.

Richard Manik de Zoysa was born in Colombo on March 18, 1958. He was the product of a mixed marriage: his father was Sinhalese and his mother, who later became a key voice for bereaved mothers, wives, and daughters, was Tamil. Young Richard was sent to S. Thomas’ College in Mount Lavinia, which had an active theatre culture and where, under the patronage of the then Head Master and Sinhala teacher D. S. Jayasekera, his penchant for the subject was encouraged. He was also a debater, while he won the Best Actor award at the Shakespeare Drama Competition in 1972.

He came from a particular social background and this, it must be admitted, explains the many contradictions his later career as an activist bred. As I pointed out, he was part of the elite, but being part of the elite he naturally saw the many ills and tumours which were being bred and perpetuated by them. He rebelled, naturally, and to this end sought refuge in progressive social movements. To date, he remains the only serious spokesperson for the New Left who emerged from the English-speaking intelligentsia, a feat no other person achieved. As a journalist too, he shone: during his last few years he was the head of the Colombo office of the prestigious Inter Press Service.

And in a large sense, those two film roles solidified the image of him as someone who detested compromise, who had a vision for the world and the society he was part of, and who wasn’t beset by the many fault-lines that encountered him as he set about reforming his community. In Yuganthaya, as the son of the ruthless Simon Kabilana, Malin (Richard) gave the impression of being a crusader at odds with his physique. At the beginning of that remarkable but overlooked film, we get it that he and his friend Aravinda (Douglas Ranasinghe) dabbled in Marxism in London, but we also get it that while Aravinda has shrugged off all that in his quest to rise socially, Malin hasn’t exactly let go of that (even as his own family jokes about it and as we are deceived into thinking that he will become as indifferent as every other child of the colonial bourgeoisie sent abroad to study).

Yuganthaya is considered by a great many critics as the weakest in Martin Wickramasinghe’s Koggala trilogy (it was written after Gamperaliya but before Kaliyugaya, even though the events in it take place after the latter), and it was left to Lester James Peries to salvage it from the political to bring it to realm of the personal. He did this by focusing the energy and the tension of the plot on the relationship between Simon and Malin. To this end, he went (whether unwittingly or not, we never can tell) for two actors who, by coincidence, represented the exact same political sympathies they exhibited in the film: Gamini Fonseka as Simon, and Richard as Malin.

Gamini was by then a recluse, a virtual loner who had bucks to spend and who had become to our cinema what the likes of Bogart, Wayne, and Burt Lancaster had been to Hollywood. Richard, on the other hand, was more fragile, sensitive, and refined. Gamini’s depiction of Simon was wholly aligned with the image of his character as a coarse, rough, by-his-own-bootstraps businessman, while the image of his son as a more detached, less vulgar gentleman added to the film’s inner turmoil, as he turned to the burgeoning trade union movement against his own family. This came out even in how these two spoke: Simon was the gruffer of the two, Malin the more soft-spoken.

Actors are by default flamboyant and the more flamboyant among them create an image which outlasts their life. So it was with Chaplin, so it was with some of our own actors and thespians. More often than not, this image subsisted on a dichotomy. In the case of Chaplin, that was a dichotomy between good and evil, with the latter represented as an externalised force which the man’s characters combated.

With Richard too, such a dichotomy existed, even in those few roles he played in the cinema: even as Malin, you never forgot that, try as he might, he was always bonded to a class background that was incongruent with his beliefs, so much so that this conflict could only be resolved if that background was externalised. He could do this in only one way: by openly spurning his father. And so, in that celebrated finale, Richard is carried away triumphantly by his cohorts in the Trade Union, while a despondent Simon looks on, with a close-up to his face which Sarath Amunugama would, in a speech delivered at the second Lester James Peries and Sumitra Peries Oration held four years ago, succinctly compare to the cold, harrowing, and tragic faces in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.

It jarred, not surprisingly, when he was cast as the wayward son in Parakrama Niriella’s Yashorawaya. No one can seriously contend that he was miscast in that series, but the point is that because we had got used to a set image of the man as a blue-eyed, yet flawed, idealist, it was not easy to get used to him as a prodigal outsider. Small wonder.

In Yashorawaya there is, barring the elder son (played to perfection by Lucky Dias), no perfect person: even the father (G. W. Surendra) is a pretender, and the other son (Gamini Hettiarachchi) is a drunken slob, but with Richard’s character you came across a closeted, not so open, but as indulgent a child, so closeted that upon his exit from the plot you neither knew nor cared about what happened to him.

He could have graced our cinema more. Could have, but could not. Like the Lepidoptera of the poem (of the same name) that he wrote, his broken wings and his crippled mind, which left us on February 19, 1990, could not be restored. In that poem he wrote of the ants of time, which carry away fragile specimens of humanity to be cast aside, forgotten, and belittled. Such a fate, however, was not to meet Richard: as I pointed out, his death only empowered his legacy, and his legacy, which extends not just to the monolingual elite of Cinnamon Gardens (who, for reasons still unfathomable to me, have appropriated him as a symbol of lost causes relevant to their milieu when he was not) but to the rest of this country as well.

Richard de Zoysa, actor, thespian, writer, and journalist continues to be appropriated and continues to be celebrated. Should we celebrate or should we not? Is there reason for lament or is there not? These are, arguably, trivial questions. More important than any of these is this: has he been forgotten? The simple answer, no.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, November 23 2016

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A question of the arts

Artistes are a self-contradictory lot. They make us happy and they move us to whatever emotion their work beckons us to. They lend meaning to this world of ours and they help us retain whatever sanity that is left in us. We enjoy what they do, almost as much as they enjoy seeing us appreciate their output. Some of them are prodigious, some are not, but overall they help define this world through their eyes. And yet, despite that and despite the many other reasons that justify their work, we are (for some odd reason) warned against traversing the paths they traversed in their quest to make us happy. That is why I consider the artiste as the most self-contradictory individual in this world and in this country.

Self-contradictory, and self-effacing. The best of them are modest, particularly so because their output speaks for itself. They would loathe being described as productive, because creativity isn’t predicated on productivity, but on genius. That is why we as a country are still prejudiced against our artistes, and more specifically our arts graduates: because we are yet to come to terms with the fact that while a lot of work went into a song, book, film, or even dance, that work can’t be rationalised in terms of efficiency. This week’s column is about the crisis facing our arts graduates, and more pertinently the ideological flaws underpinning that crisis.

But first: is there a crisis? It would be foolish to contend otherwise. As I pointed out in my column on higher education about two months ago, the statistics are overwhelming: in 2012, for instance, there were about 2.311 Science and 2.395 Commerce students for every Arts student from the Colombo district, while that same year both ratios were 0.583 from the Moneragala district. Couple this with the fact that Moneragala consistently ranks low in key socioeconomic indicators (in 2013, its Gini coefficient was 0.53, the highest in the country), and you will understand the rush to study the arts in a context where less privileged areas produce students who brush off hard subjects like Science and Maths. Economic disparities can’t be explained by the subjects that University graduates opt for, yes, but those subjects can explain the unemployability of those graduates.

Such disparities are not easy to resolve. They are a consequence of mismanagement of resources, particularly when it comes to good teachers and facilities for our schools. What is needed now, therefore, is a rational, intelligent assessment of what it is that ails our arts graduates and, at the end of the day, pushes many of them to the unemployed in this country. To begin with, one must examine the basis on which the Arts operates, why it remains shunned by a good many parents here, and how the prejudices against it explain why we ignore the brightest among us.

Someone once told me that the majority of our graduates are products of a liberal arts curriculum. When the University system expanded, this person went on, so did that curriculum, to an extent whereby the gap between a subject and its employability widened considerably. “Liberal arts”, of course, is a strong and archaic term, but in a narrow sense it refers to subjects such as Literature, Buddhism, Geography, Political Science, Sociology, and History. Economics is included as well, but due to its orientation towards Commerce subjects it is often regarded as a hard subject.

While technical courses in areas such as Engineering, Computing, and Law are aimed at acquiring particularised skills that have a direct impact on employability, soft subjects are aimed at inculcating what can only be referred to “humanist values” in students. These values, as Professor S. T. Hettige implied in a series of public lectures given on the topic many, many years ago (I can’t remember the exact date), are generalised, as opposed to the specific, particularised sweep of hard subjects, which is probably why those churned out by the Arts stream either spend the rest of their lives in an ivory tower or join the pool of the unemployed until they opt for more incisive, job-oriented courses.

It is therefore futile to equate Arts graduates with technocrats, because if they could be equated to technocrats there probably would be no crisis to talk about: they’d be easily absorbed into lucrative careers, since they are at the outset endowed with the qualities needed for administrators and professionals. Which brings me to my original point: given that artistes in general are looked up to, why are we as a nation so prejudiced against them? Are we so culturally impoverished that we can’t appreciate the artistes of tomorrow anymore?

I would be inclined to say yes and no. Yes, because no one can seriously deny that these accursed realities called globalisation and commercialisation has gripped our cultural firmament. Even terminologies have changed: we don’t talk about culture anymore, only cultural INDUSTRIES. No, because I am not one to give into nostalgia about the past, in turn because the past was no different. Sure, we owe the likes of Mahagama Sekara and Pandit Amaradeva a lot (and may their tribe increase!), but let’s be honest: were they as appreciated as they are now in the prime of their youth? I personally doubt it.

As I mentioned before, artistes are a peculiar lot. We appreciate their work long after they pass on. We ignore them when they are alive. They die impoverished, they are not practical enough to make a living out of their craft, and more often than not, while their audiences would have been willing to pay and listen, watch, or experience what they did, they prefer to pander to those audiences without thinking much about profits. It is from this that we derive our notions of filmmakers, painters, musicians, and poets as a bunch of ivory towers (who drink, smoke, and waste away) with cultivated sensibilities far removed from the realities of life. This, it must be said, is a myth, but when such myths are repeated endlessly, they take on the character of truth.

Added to this is another falsity: that the liberal arts are for the elite. I am always amused by those who take potshots at Arts graduates on the basis that these graduates (allegedly) are indulging in pastimes that are cut off from the rest of their society. Going by this argument, artistes are supposed to be prone to fantasies, detached from the world around them, and stuck in a social vacuum because of which they can’t find productive employment. Indeed. If that were the case, then how is it that these same critics of the liberal arts are so profoundly entranced by the output of a writer or a painter? How is it that even the most lavish, business-minded CEO or MD turn almost overnight into connoisseurs of the arts, if they are so contemptuous of the work of artistes?

Perhaps I’m barking up the wrong tree. Perhaps today’s artistes ARE learning quite a lot of things that are antithetical to a financially stable life. Perhaps we are still continuing with the kind of “elitist” curriculum that the British introduced to our schools. And perhaps what critics of mushrooming arts graduates have to say hold water, due to their contention that if we don’t ask these graduates to at least sit for one or two “productive” courses after they leave school, they will be condemned to stay at home or go on strikes against the government.

Perhaps, but that doesn’t marginalise one key point: this world needs its share of filmmakers, composers, and writers, as much as it needs its share of engineers, doctors, and lawyers. I believe it was Leon Trotsky who once argued for a society of technocrats, and I believe it was Regi Siriwardena, that eloquent critic, who argued otherwise: a society that contained only engineers and doctors would be quite dull, with no room for those other fields of human activity that continue to lend meaning to a world still shrouded in meaninglessness. In other words, a technocratic vision would lead us nowhere, not to progress, not to efficiency, and certainly not to the resolution of all those malignant ills that beset our communities.

I think the main problem, which is more or less a product of all the other problems highlighted above, is that we take artistes for granted. We enjoy a film, song, or even painting, but that enjoyment lasts while your senses dwell on it. Professionalism, on the other hand, is not momentary like this: it is more focused on the long term, more rational and calculating.

I suppose that would explain such responses as “We enjoy a song, but that doesn’t mean we’d want our children to become songwriters.” Again, as I argued before, this essentially is the self-contradictory state our artistes have been relegated to. Faced with such a dilemma, the more enterprising among them scramble for the quickest exit: make a quick buck by contorting what would have been a wholesome, and therefore more meaningful, objet d’art.

So what’s the solution? One of the commonest reasons for graduates remaining unemployed is that they are “cut off” thanks to their less than proficient ability in English. Briefly put: English is a lingua franca. The arts have a language of their own, but their articulation and communication to the world outside requires a firm grasp of a language spoken, written, and wielded by a vast majority.

Bilingualism is an asset, but a hard won asset not many possess, which explains the nearly interminable gulf between the aesthetes of Cinnamon Gardens and the mask-makers of Ambalangoda: the former hopeless in the vernacular, the latter hopeless in English. Now’s not the time to delve into this gulf, but suffice it to say that the crisis facing our “cultural industries” has much to do with the disparities between the arty cosmopolitans of Colombo and their more rooted counterparts outside. The latter are decidedly superior in terms of cultural upbringing, but due to the naked, stark fact that they are not bilingual, they are for the most condemned to the streets of Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha, where they eke out a living by selling their work.

Another as common reason is the decision of the previous regime, which could be championed or critiqued depending on how you look at it, of doing away with the requirement for Ordinary Level students (who choose the arts for their Advanced Levels) to obtain satisfactory grades at Mathematics. No less a person than Professor Carlo Fonseka, who is no stranger to those who appreciate culture in this country, argued cogently for that policy decision, which in the words of Dr Gitendra Uswatte-Aratchi would empower all the Mozarts and Beethovens in the world to stop learning Mathematics.

I am no fan of those who claim that some subjects are more practical than others (after all, what have those who've mastered Economics and Management done to this country, when they've spent the better part of their lives making profits at the cost of those already impoverished?), but I admit Dr Uswatte-Aratchi’s argument makes sense at one level: if we abandon the requirement for those who take to the performing arts to have at least a simple pass in Mathematics, we are merely giving them a license to ignore the gritty realities of a society that privileges hard subjects. To change that attitude of favouring such subjects over softer options like music, we need to go beyond administrative reform and change our perceptions of what constitutes (or rather what SHOULD constitute) employability in a degree. Until then, we must be content with what we have.

Some will suggest, at this point, that we need more institutes to confer more degrees in music, dancing, filmmaking, and what-not, to those who take after such areas. To that my response would be this: we don’t need more degrees. We don’t need more institutes. Academic qualifications are hardly enough by way of assessing the worth of artistes, or to borrow a jargon of our time, “productive” artistes.

And by the latter I don’t include those who transform their craft into profit-making enterprises: rather, I include those who take to aesthetic fields without losing touch of the world outside, and without cultivating a conception of art that subsists on itself without bringing much profit to the performer. Yes, among our youth today we are seeing a resurgence of such practical artistes, and while they are in the minority, as writers, critics, and residents of this country we have a duty to promote them for what they are worth. The media has a responsibility on this count too: instead of promoting those who sell their creativity for quick bucks, it is time it gave a spotlight to those who work from, and not without, a sense of craft.

So, to sum up: the arts are not for the elite, those who take to them come for the most from impoverished backgrounds in regions which aren't endowed with good facilities, and the subjects they take to are driven more by instinct than by reason. What we need is not a culture of deploring their choice, but of ensuring they do not remain cut off from a society that continues (in probably the most ironic way possible) to appreciate their work and condemn their lives. For better or for worse, most of these liberal arts elitists hail from families who (unlike their more privileged counterparts in the city) don’t consciously plan out their children’s education in terms of the jobs they will seek later. That is why we have a responsibility, not to vilify but to promote them.

Those who subscribe to an instrumentalist viewpoint in our education discourse, no doubt, will disagree. They will continue to judge a degree on the basis of its use, not of its wider sociological and civilisational context. They are correct, but only half and hypocritically so: while they continue to bemoan the mushrooming numbers of Arts graduates, they will also continue to aspire for a better pool of artistes here without moving an inch to help those same graduates. Point is, we need to support those who want to become vocalists and filmmakers, and no degree can or will waiver one pertinent fact: they need to be transformed into “productive” artistes.

The passing away of Amaradeva (along with other veterans, who will be sorely missed) helped open our eyes. Fact is, we are missing out on good artistes. We continue to champion the wrong performers and vilify those who attempt to hit it big. We have got our priorities wrong, and with that we have inflated an already institutionalised crisis. We therefore have two options: either we continue to weep copious tears over the impracticality of those taking to music, the cinema, and dancing, or we help them become the productive citizens they should be by moulding our tastes to suit their temperament. That, at the end of the day, has less to do with reforms at the top than with reforms aimed at ourselves.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Written for: Ceylon Today, November 22 2016

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Nita Fernando and the intersection of fame and life

Film stars have a habit of venturing into other, relatively uncharted terrains, especially if these provide them with opportunities to dabble in issues and campaigns that appeal to their conscience. Remuneration and publicity usually figure in less here, and for the most these stars graduate as social agitators, campaigners, and what-not eventually. We probably remember them less for that than for the countless films and other appearances they make elsewhere, but despite this, they persist and they endure in doing what they love.

Because of this perhaps, their performances and their lives become polar opposites, and they admittedly don’t find it easy to reconcile these two. To make the latter reflect the former and vice-versa isn’t always what counts for popularity, after all. Perhaps that is why stars don’t tread into other, less traversed paths, and are content in retaining their stardom. Those who have been fortunate enough to live their lives in the intersection of stardom and reality, however, are known for their other lives. They are rare. And among them, we can count Nita Fernando.

Nita is many things: stage actress, film actress, producer, and activist. She is not an out-there campaigner the way some of her contemporaries are, but that doesn’t diminish her stature. I personally doubt she herself can point at any one field that can define her profession. No, that doesn’t make one of those typical Jacks (and Jills) of all trades: she inculcates nothing short of the most genuine enthusiasm in whatever she does. And you don’t have to look far to confirm this: just a short conversation over a cup of tea with her will prove how zealous she’s been in her life so far.

She was born in Katuneriya in Chilaw. From an early age, she loved and took to acting. She developed an impulsive desire to act onstage while at Holy Family Convent, Wennapuwa, and tells me by way of explaining this, “I wanted to go out there, to perform, to show my face to the world outside.” Chilaw at that time had a veritable performing arts society (a “Kala Ayathanaya”), and this she joined after leaving school.

Like most actresses from her time, Nita didn’t aspire for films. It wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that the theatre fascinated her as much for its artistry as it did for its potential to lure audiences. Her first few performances were in serious plays, two in particular by Gunasena Galappaththi (Sanda Kinduri, staged at Navarangahala, and Thaaththa), which won her acclaim in the late sixties.

Naturally therefore and by her own admission, her entry to films was accidental. She had been taken to the cinema hall as a child, and this had left her with a love for the medium, though not enough for her to wish for a career there. She had also been selected to appear alongside Gamini Fonseka in Parasathumal, but her parents had disapproved of it. One thing led to another, however, and soon enough she joined RT Studios. The Studio would baptise her into the cinema, when in 1966 she was cast alongside a veritable torrent of established stars, from Joe Abeywickrama to Dommie Jayawardena to Ruby de Mel, in Landaka Mahima (directed by the legendary W. M. S. Tampoe).

Actors often take a considerable period of time to move into serious productions and Nita was no exception to this. Soon enough, she was being signed into lucrative films, all of which guaranteed box-office dividends for the director and popularity for her. We remember them even now, in particular those directed by K. A. W. Perera (Wasana and Lasanda) as well as Sathischandra Edirisinghe’s beloved Rajagedara Paraviyo. By the end of the first 10 years of her career, she had taken part in more than 40 films. Enough, one could have surmised then and there, for her to be cast in a more nuanced, sensitive production.

This was Vijaya Dharma Sri’s Duhulu Malak, in which she was Nirupa Suraweera, the much vilified, misunderstood, lonely, and neglected wife who develops an affair with another man. The story was vaguely reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, with the caveat that while Lawrence used the theme of adultery to comment rather savagely on male sexuality, Dharma Sri used it to privilege and pontificate on the importance of family ties over personal feelings. Despite this however, the director dared and went beyond his contemporaries in depicting, for the first time, adultery onscreen in our cinema (Tissa Liyanasuriya had depicted it about 10 years before in Narilatha, but only partially).

So where did Nita figure in all this? “Duhulu Malak was a landmark for its time and for me personally,” she observes, “This was so since I was a relative newcomer. Back then to even imagine acting in such a film would have been impossible, but fortunately for me, everyone, including my late husband, Elian Perera, and Tony Ranasinghe, who is married to me in the story, was supportive.”

Speaking for myself, while I find traces of conventional morality reflected in our cinema of the time in the film, Duhulu Malak nevertheless didn’t compromise on complexity to reinforce the director’s affirmation of family ties. Nita’s character, for instance, is not a virago, while Tony Ranasinghe’s character is not a fuming, jealous husband (at least not until the very end). And as for the womaniser (played to perfection by Ravindra Randeniya), he isn’t depicted as the lascivious, overbearing man we usually take such characters for, but instead is shown to be childish, irresponsible, and rather persistent, who has no sense of what’s going on and for whom maturity dawns only at the end (when, in a fit of anger and regret, he throws his shoe to the sea and walks away, defeated).

Perhaps it’s the writer in me, but in all these performances I see in Nita the schoolgirl aspiring to be a star. I put to her that even in Duhulu Malak, we come across a woman beset with little to no problems, who isn’t but should be content with her station in life, and who, even in the most mundane pursuits, displays a naive and innocent attitude to the world around her. She agrees and replies with a witty comment: “When I was a girl, I wanted to be an actress because I wanted to show my face. I wanted to act in everything. And by everything, I mean EVERYTHING.” She is rather cryptic with that last sentence, so I ask her to lead me on to the next chapter in her career.

That next chapter would take a long time to come, however, because soon after shooting wrapped up, she and her husband Elian (a lawyer) left for Canada. “I didn’t even get to read the reviews of the films I’d taken part in,” she remembers. I am not so sure whether she considers this a curse though, given that she herself would experience the realities in other worlds, other continents in those 18 years she was away with her husband, years which would see her mature into the career to come. “Of course I complained. Of course I had regrets. But Elian was a very down to earth man. He took me everywhere and got me acquainted with the issues and the problems people in that part of the world face. You can say I learnt much outside Sri Lanka.”

There’s probably another reason why she’d consider this part of her life a blessing in disguise: it enlightened her enough to consider the cinema as a serious profession, and to consider it as a collaborative medium rather than the monopoly of a few popular artistes it’s often touted as today. No doubt she had all these in mind when she came back to the land of her birth.

It was Prasanna Vithanage who got her back into acting upon her return, in that beautiful but overlooked film Pawuru Walalu, where again her character (Violet) forms an affair with another man (this time played by Tony Ranasinghe, who wrote the script).

True, Violet is a widow, but then again the film was less an exploration into the personal conflict of a flirtatious woman than a drama revolving around her faith (Catholicism) and the guilt and sense of sin the affair compels in her. While the transgression of moral boundaries in Duhulu Malak was viewed as an innocent interlude, even by its characters, in Pawuru Walalu that transgression provokes a deep crisis of faith only barely resolved in a poignant, quiet ending. That Nita had made her comeback was confirmed at the 11th International Film Festival in Singapore, where she won the award for Best Actress.

Prasanna’s film was a precedent for Nita in another sense: it was the first film she produced. To a considerable extent, this opened her to the cinema in ways that her acting career had not. I think she puts it best: “The art of making movies is more difficult, yet more rewarding, than the art of acting in them. I am not belittling my earlier career, but the truth of the matter was that I was able to finance films which appealed to my conscience and my attitude.”

The themes these engender are proof enough for what she says, I believe: Nisala Gira delves into patriarchy, Bambara Wallalla delves into our collective, accursed penchant for violence, and her most recent, Swara, delves into the stigma attached to AIDS. The latter, incidentally, scooped up awards at the Jaipur International Film Festival, while last December it won for Nita a token of appreciation from UN AIDS Sri Lanka. It would be an overstatement to say that she has become a social crusader in these, though it would be uncharitable of me to belittle the attempts she has made in them to “market” the issues they explore to audiences here and elsewhere.

I sincerely believe Nita has done what she can to make us aware of certain things. She has a long way to go, and much of it she has already traversed. We’d be indifferent and rather inhumane not to acknowledge the performances she’s dished out to us, and more importantly, the films she’s financed out of a desire to propagate certain pressing issues. She herself affirms what she’s done with a reference to her faith: “I don't think God says, ‘Go to church and pray all day, and everything will be fine.’ For me, God says, ‘Go out and make a change, and I'll be there to help you.”

I am no critic. I can only comment. So I will say this: Nita, going by what she wanted as a child, has shown herself to her people and the world. She has trumped. She has triumphed. And now, she is going beyond merely clinching fame. We should be with her for that. And we should celebrate.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, November 20 2016

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

C. T. Fernando: The man and the song

I know very little about music, whatever the genre. I do know that it was made for the ear, for the imagination, and for imagining. I also know it was made for the eye in that one needs a firm grasp of the performer, melody maker, and lyricist to understand the depth of a song or composition. Not being a musicologist however, I wouldn’t know how to assess any of these things. When it comes to vocalists whose voices entranced us, hence, I can only say this much: they entranced us because they touched us, and when they touched us, what they sang became timeless.

The late Tissa Abeysekara tried valiantly to trace the cultural history of our music. He was fond of our jana gee and hela traditions, for he saw in them the roots which could nourish the artistes in us. That was why, in later years when we embraced the Raghadari tradition and birthed the likes of Amaradeva, he was cautious. For him, the Raghadari Revolution didn’t make sense if through that we let go of some of our finest, most idiosyncratic, and most localised musicians. Through a cruel irony of fate though, that is exactly what happened.

We lost Sunil Shantha. We lost Ananda Samarakoon. We lost Piyasiri Wijeratne. We lost a horde of other singers deemed too out of touch in the kind of music that critics, writers, and everyone who wanted to cast in stone his or her two cents on the subject idealised. Many of these singers were derided as Westernised (I’d like to quote Abyesekara’s comment on this: “Whatever that meant!”). Based on certain recommendations drafted by mandarins from elsewhere, Radio Ceylon came up with an arbitrary criterion on what constituted good, local singers. The guitar was out, the sitar was in. Everything derided as Western was condemned, vilified, and thrown out. Just like that.

C. T. Fernando was not exactly westernised. But he needed western instruments. As Abeysekara frequently noted, his voice could not open up without the heavy brasswork and strong chords. Limited and chucked away to a corner, he almost languished. And yet, despite the work of some of those pundits who considered the likes of him as too out of touch with the revolution they were bringing about, he nevertheless gave us songs that probably are more remembered than half of what they could have come up with. Singers are like that, I suppose. They survive despite the harshest circumstances. This is a tribute (of sorts) to C. T. Fernando.

What was it about the man? His voice? Perhaps. He opened up with honesty, with sincerity. When you listen to him, you get the feeling that he experienced whatever he sang on. He could have been singing of his own child in “Bilinda Nalawa”, or he could have sung of the anguish, the joy, the sorrow of a thousand and one fathers who see and cradle their children for the first time. He could have been a carter when he sang “Bara Bage”, and in fact, long before television and long before the invasion of music videos, he gave the impression of doing what the sang made us think he was doing.

Cyril Tudor Fernando was born on January 28, 1921 in Kadalana, Moratuwa. He was sent for his studies to St Mary’s College in Nawalapitiya. Having been born to a staunch Catholic family in an equally staunch Catholic stronghold, he acquired a love for hymns and sermons and became a choirboy at the parish Church, becoming first in a singing competition there. He followed this up with prizes for oratory, elocution, and drama at St Mary’s, where he honed in on his penchant to speak out and articulate loudly to near-perfection.

Because of this, he was able to move into his career fairly early on in life. He became choir master for the ARP Messenger Service from 1942 to 1965. During the war years, he entertained Allied troops when he joined the Colombo Grand Cabaret. A year after the war ended, Radio Ceylon, to which he more or less aspired (given that aspiring vocalists, composers, and lyricists saw in it their baptism of fire), hired the formidable Professor Ratnajunkar. It was the good professor who, according to Tissa Abeysekara, began privileging oriental musicians, but for the time being he was more sensitive to variety. He auditioned Fernando, he saw the man’s potential, and he hired him.

Fernando sang "Pinsindu Wanne" (which speaks of the hopes and ideals of two birds who beg some children to not tear their nest down) in the latter part of that same year. Six years later he did his first commercial record with the HMV Gramophone Record label (under Cargills Ceylon), through which he was able to get nine of his songs recorded, including those perennial classics "Bara Bage", "Ambili Mame", and "Lo Ada Ninde." During those first few years of independence, he also sang and put into verses the government’s vision for the country, in that forever alluded to but never properly read tribute to the land of his birth, "Hela Jathika Abimane."

It was these songs, I am willing to bet, which got him an audience. They are all plebeian in the strictest sense of that term, and for that reason, they appealed to everyone. The same characteristics that defined his work for the years to come – they were all orchestrated using heavy brassword and chords – continue to enthral us even now. Fernando moreover did not pretend in these songs. In Ambili Maame, he was more or less a child asking the titular character as to what he’s doing, and in "Bilinda Nalawa" (as I pointed out earlier) he was a father, older but by no means bereft of a childlike sense of wonderment. He was (if you’d like to put it that way) naive and full of innocence. He couldn’t be C. T. Fernando if he wasn’t.

And when Radio Ceylon began a process of musical spring cleaning and firing those derided as outsiders, he didn’t find it hard to regain his voice. He signed on to the Lewis Brown Company where he recorded another bunch of lovable songs, like that immortal tribute to childhood, “Ma Bala Kale.” He collaborated with Tharanga, Silverline, and Sooriya in later years and through the latter, was able to get into its third popular concert, aptly titled “The CT Sooriya Show.” Through all of this, he made use of his definitive signature: the melody. At a time when people were yet to grow used to heavily orientalised melodies with even more heavily orientalised lyrics, the simple, pop, and by no means hard to grasp tunes that adorned Fernando’s songs won crowds and acclaim.

To a large extent, this had to do with the man’s ability to act out what he sang as well. Between 1947 and 1950 he was featured in a series of public concerts. Once at Anula Vidyalaya in Nugegoda, he sang as a beggar boy. At a show held at Town Hall he sang as a gram seller. At yet another show held at St Joseph’s College Maradana, he received a standing ovation and thunderous applause even before he sang “Bilinda Nalawa.”

But then he didn’t just act out his songs like this. He acted in certain plays as well: in Dick Dias’ production of John de Silva’s Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe and J. D. A. Perera’s production of de Silva’s Siri Sangabo. In the latter he was a villager who meditates on the evils of demons, a part that earned praise from the famous thespian Sir Cedric Hardwick’s wife Joan, who wrote thus to the Times: "A special word of praise goes to the villager who comes to tell of the evils of the demon.”

He led other lives, this man. He set a precedent by becoming the first local artiste to be featured in a terrain inhabited exclusively by Western musicians, when he was featured in the “Little Hut” at the Mount Lavinia Hotel from 1960 to 1966. After returning from a tour in Europe some years later, he was featured again at another such exclusive spot, at the “Coconut Grove” at the Galle Face Hotel. He became the first Ceylonese singer to perform at the Commonwealth Institute in London. He followed all these triumphs with a hugely successful EP record (titled “Sigiri Sukumaliye”) with Silverline in 1975. Two years later, on October 21, he died of a heart attack.

Musicologists consider the man as a quirk. Perhaps he was. He introduced Western music to the country, though it would take other pioneers to carry on with what he did and help further it. Abeysekara classed him alongside Sunil Shantha, Chitra and P. L. A. Somapala, and B. S. Perera. There’s of course a wide gulf between the hela tradition of the former and the jazzy, folksy tradition of the latter, but between the one and the other there was a similarity that surpassed all other such differences: their penchant for melody, for experimentation, and their love for music as a universal, yet by no means culturally castrated, language.

C. T. Fernando belonged to this crowd. Not only did he sing so lovingly. He also composed the melodies for practically every song he sang. So yes, he was not merely a performer, fiddler, or vocalist. He was all these things, and more. Much more.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, November 16 2016

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

After the Funeral


“Mr Trump was the cruellest candidate since George Wallace” – Garrison Keillor

Victories are savoured when expected, baffling when they are not. Predictions are fun when they turn out to be correct, not so when they do not. Elections, it must hence be said, are less about choosing winners than about making forecasts, tallying what was expected with what came about, and ensuring that the top dog makes it to (what else?) top. That is why critics of representative democracy, chortling at that term with no mean sense of humour, have baptised candidates who triumphed at the polls as selected, not elected. The guy who clinches the throne and crown twice, on that basis, is reselected. And when that guy loses, all hell tends to break lose.

I don’t count myself among the Sri Lankans who think that the US Election has implications for us. Fact is, there really aren’t any, and if there are, we can only predict and forecast as to what they are with limited success. Of course Donald Trump won, of course Hillary Clinton lost, and of course the hype over the latter’s predicted victory soured as and when the results of key swing states were announced, but let’s be honest here: comparing what transpired in the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave” with our “Dharmishta Samajaya” (yes, I am being sarcastic here) would be akin to comparing apples with oranges.

I do believe, however, that certain significant points emerged from the election. Points that may well explain where we are heading and where we will stop, as a nation. This week’s column is about what we can take from the results, the constituencies, and the ideological predilections each candidate pandered to. Starting with this: how did the winner win?

Let’s get one thing clear. From Day One, the candidates were already decided on. It was not the most radical nominee who emerged from the Democrats. Bernie Sanders, at every step of the way, was less hindered by his Republican counterparts than by his own party’s other candidate. He was rubbished, dubbed a mean old man, and portrayed as everything the party was supposed to stand for but did not: social democratic, reformist, dangerous. In the end, it was left to that most astute of satirists, Jon Stewart, to sum up the case against Sanders: “We’ve all become so accustomed to stage-managed, focus-group-driven candidates that authenticity comes across as lunacy.”

And that authenticity cost not just his candidature, but Hillary Clinton’s as well. I don’t wish to delve into statistics, but the fact of the matter is that Clinton won by slender margins and lost by not-so slender margins in key states. Given that Trump won the same proportion of white people that Mitt Romney did (against Barack Obama) in 2012, the only reasonable explanation of Clinton’s loss was this: she did not court as many minority votes (about 88%, according to the Pew Centre) as she should have to soar into the kind of victory Obama did eight years ago (with about 91%).

That, coupled with the fact that of the 11 most crucial swing states (Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin) seven went to Trump, probably renders the racism story (I’ll get to this later) about the man at best, a myth. Let’s not forget, after all, that Clinton suffered her biggest losses in places where Obama was strongest with white voters. As with 2008 hence, there was a transition, a pool of undecided millennials who were (as Sanders eloquently pointed out in a Facebook post a day after the election) sick of the Establishment, sick of rhetoric, sick of the media, and wanted action.

Ben Domenech, writing in The Federalist, poses an interesting question: who really deserves the credit for Trump’s victory? He answers it at once: Obama and the media. I’ll get to the media shortly, but as for Obama, suffice it to say that his over-optimistic message for continuity was as blind as it was going to get. It’s difficult to imagine how a person as universally loved could be so deprecated in his own country, but much of that has to do with the Big Government mentality that Republicans tried to reflect with his every word and deed. Put simply, he tried to save the privilege-deprived when he gave the impression of burdening others who were as deprived of privilege, yet ignored. It was that ignored crowd who voted against continuity.

Sanders and Trump were the only two authentic, no-frills candidates in the race. Sanders in particular, with the integrity typical of a man as old, veteran, and controversial as him, reaped so much appeal among young voters that it didn’t surprise anyone when those same young voters, instead of going for Clinton, either chose third party candidates or didn’t vote at all. As the Pew Centre analysis puts it succinctly, not many young people were out there voting for her.

And in the final analysis, this probably had to do with how the lady was perceived. She was branded, vilified, and insulted. She had a past. It was Gloria Steinem, that renowned and still-at-it feminist crusader, who once famously said of the median woman, “Either she’s a feminist or a masochist”, and went on to class female Republican Party supporters as the latter, but the truth was that given Clinton’s foreign policy record (particularly when it came to the Middle East), she was regarded as much a Republican as those touted as sexists and misogynists on the other side. She had imbibed Sanders’ vision for a more equal society, but had repudiated its core message.

Enough with this though. Donald Trump won. Will he make this world any better? I don’t think so. To be fair by him, I don’t think he’ll make it any worse either. People and individuals are so alluring that voters forget there are things other than personality which drive a government. Barack Obama was loved, yes, but despite that he had to implement some of his most controversial policies using Executive Orders (thanks to Republican opposition).

To be as simple as possible, a vote for Trump was a vote for change, a vote for concrete action over lofty ideals. It proved that liberals were stuck in complacency, were too ready to compromise in the face of disaster, and were raising too much hope. They were deciding for the undecided, which the undecided (predominantly white, male, and Christian) did not like.

So what have we as a country learnt? For one thing, the underdog can triumph. Ann Coulter, that rightwing political commentator, put it best when Trump won his candidature last May: “A guy just won the Republican nomination for president by spending no money, hiring no pollsters, running virtually no TV ads, and just saying what he truly believed no matter how many times people told him he couldn't say that.”

There were a great many institutions telling us that he could not win, from the so-called liberal media to the BBC. Even rightwing commentators like Glenn Beck were badmouthing him, caught in the unenviable dilemma of either liking the Obamas (whom he’d trashed for the last eight years) or voting for the Republican candidate who happened to be the same man he was now trashing. Trump was criticised as unrefined, uncouth, and appealing to what Harper Lee once called “white trash”: coarse, vulgar, White, otherwise known as bumpkins. Yes, like the baiyas of this country.

And in the end, those baiyas won. They were forgotten, as Trump constantly reminded them, and they weren’t necessarily aligned with the conventional Republicans. They morphed from the Tea Party Movement (in 2009) into a class of their own: distrustful of the Establishment (whether from the Left or the Right), concerned with developing their country from a neo-Mercantilist standpoint (which explains Trump’s promise to create more jobs without “importing” them for cheap). They were ignored by a media that perpetuated a culture of political correctness, which in itself wasn’t bad if it wasn’t taken as an excuse (as it covertly was here) to ignore the nationalists, who as I pointed out in a previous column win whether you want them or not.

What transpired last week was hence an outcry against liberal elitism: the kind that ignored nationalist rhetoric, fears of outside invasion, and a sense of losing one’s communal identity. These are genuinely felt fears and threats, and in the long run they can transform into a substantial chunk of the country’s electorate if they are not addressed. At the end of the day, such elitism can be taken as arrogance, which probably explains the anger the bumpkins displayed against an article written by Garrison Keillor in the Washington Post, where he point-blank dismissed them with the following (unnecessary) point: “The future is scary. Let the uneducated have their day.”

When elitism is repudiated by people who have been shut off for long, the consequences can be disastrous when those people win at the ballot. Majority aspirations are based on self-perpetuating myths which may or may not be ridiculous, but if they are rubbished, they will be transformed into political slogans for the underdog. That underdog emerged in Sri Lanka as well, in 1989 and in 2005, from both the main political parties here and without the support of their own colleagues. Donald Trump too, without a clear endorsement from the likes of Paul Ryan (who masterminded the Tea Party Movement) soared to victory. All bets are that he will cast aside those who harboured doubts about him from his own party and take in those he takes to, though all that’s conjecture for now.

It was probably telling that the populists in Sri Lanka were cheering the man. One of them posted on Facebook, “This election showed the true power of the silent, anonymous powerbase of people in the USA,” no doubt spurred on by their distrust of Democrats, especially Clinton (who, thanks to all those leaked emails from her private server, was considered as a supporter of the LTTE), but also by their inclination towards a man who spoke his mind, baited his voters with rabble rousing rhetoric, and swept aside the conventional wisdom in favour of the national interest.

So who won? Xenophobes, sexists, and homophobes. That is a problem. Who lost? The warmongers, the subsidisers of capital, and the Establishment. The former are hawks on domestic policy and (supposedly) doves on foreign policy, while the latter (the Clintons especially, given their past) were hawks on foreign policy and doves on domestic policy. It’s difficult to point out who will be regretted more. Personally speaking, the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea would have been easier for me. And personally speaking, I don't think we should care.

We should care, however, about the lessons we can learn. America brought out the biggest upset in its electoral history last week. The vilified man won, the championed woman did not. Some would exclaim: “Misogyny!” Perhaps. But the truth is, despite the caricature and the parody, despite the comic sketches, and despite the vilification, the alleged misogynist got through anyway. If he becomes dangerous (and I don’t cut any slack for him if he does), who are we to blame? Not the bumpkins, but those who ignored them for eight years.

Bottom line: nationalism wins. If you bottle it up, you’ll make things a whole lot worse. Just like that.

Written for: Ceylon Today, November 15 2016

Monday, November 14, 2016

On William and for William

I didn't read much as a boy. Most of what I read were prescribed by school. Occasionally though, I took in other writers. They were fun. Some were uninteresting. Some took to me till the end. Most didn't. Others sustained my interest throughout. They were rare.

There were two books that caught me in particular. I was in Grade Four then, desperate to go beyond what was recommended for us. 

The first one was Oscar Wilde's Happy Prince and Other Stories. That was prescribed. It was a collection. There were some seven or eight tales. All magical. All allegorical. Not everything stuck to memory, but the few that did fascinated me. I never knew what a soul was, for instance, until I read "The Fisherman and His Soul". The teacher had a hard time explaining, I remember.

The other, to me the better of the two, was Just William. The book had an author. Richmal Crompton. She was no Oscar Wilde in that her stories didn't need allegory or magic to move us. It was the first time that I was introduced to a genre of books I'd never read until then. I didn't know what it was called, but as I read Crompton more I coined a term: "boy-fiction".

There were other books about boys and their exploits, and among them Enid Blyton was more popular. But Crompton was better. Not many know this, though. I know for a fact that while Sri Lankan kids adore Anne, George, Dick, Julian, and Timmy they are yet to fully take to William, Jumble, Ginger, Henry, and Douglas. There's a reason for this, obviously. More on that a little later.

But what was it about William that took us in? Here was a boy, an ordinary boy at that, from a middle-class background. He has his adventures, yes, and nearly every one of them lands him in some form of trouble. He has his enemies. He both loathes and befriends girls. And above all, he loathes restriction.

I realised later on that it wasn't just William who took us in. It was what he represented. The essence of any boy that age.

Let me explain. What made Crompton's stories so popular was the way she made her characters universal. They lived, talked, and behaved as English boys. But in what they did, how they talked, and the way they behaved, they could not have been further from boys their age here. They were as adventurous as Tom Sawyer, if not more naive. They believe the most magical things in the world but at the end scorned magic itself. They were a bundle of self-contradictions. All of them.

Let's be honest. Aren't all boys like that?

If this made Crompton stand out, then why couldn't she achieve the same popularity Blyton could? Perhaps it was Crompton's biggest strength that became a weakness. William Brown was (as Malinda Seneviratne aptly put it) "created from the ancient dust that makes up the heart of the universal boy." That boy could have been you or me. He could have been anyone.

Blyton's stories didn't have children like that. They were all rooted in one setting, and wherever they went, this always was what provoked them to do what they did. There were no shifts or quirks of character. They remained sterile. That is why we both love and feel inclined to disbelieve most of her stories. Even her "Famous Five" series, for instance, are treated this way. We may not have admitted it, but for all their adventures and that wonderment, we never failed to wonder why or how the Five were allowed to go off alone by their parents. That enthralled us.

With William, on the other hand, this never happened. William's parents (and siblings) are clueless about him. They never come across him until it's too late. That is what provoked hilarity in episode after episode. At an age when incredulity was accepted and the laws of possibility were ignored however, Crompton's stories (unfortunately) could be appreciated for the most part by those who had outgrown Blyton.

This wasn't just a matter of taste. It also had to with the language used by both writers. Blyton's prose was more bland. Less colourful. It told the story as it was. Warts and all. With Crompton, on the other hand, there was wit and sarcasm everywhere. There was subtlety. It takes age to appreciate that.

Take the story "William, Prime Minister", where William and his friends assume political positions and vie for power. Hilarity ensues, yes, but consider the following exchange between Henry (who represents socialism) and his "audience":

"Ladies and gentleman," began Henry, encouraged by his reception, "I'm goin' to make a speech to you about Socialism. Socialism means takin' other people's money off 'em. Well, think how much richer we'd be if we'd got other people's money as well as our own."

"It's wrong to steal," said a small but earnest boy who had won the Sunday School Junior prize last quarter.

"Yes, but it's not stealin' when you do it by lor," said Henry, "We'd do it by lor."

"You'd get put in prison," said the Sunday School prodigy, "that's what happens to people who take other people's money. They get put in prison. And serve 'em jolly well right."

The conflict between Henry the Socialist and the boy from Sunday School can, on one level, be taken to indicate the rift between socialism and organised religion. Henry's assertion that it's not stealing "when you do it by lor" is a classic statement on moral relativism. And the boy's emphasis on the law as a means of boycotting all what Henry the Socialist represents indicates the congruence of religion and law in their mutual opposition to Marxism.

That's just one level though. At another level, it is what it is: Henry the junior socialist against one naive boy's interpretation of what he stands for. Believe me, this is the way most of us understood (and enjoyed) this sequence. But consider what unfolds a few lines below:

"Whose money are you goin' to take?" said another member of the audience, emboldened by the success of the hecklers so far.

"Everyone's money that isn't a Socialist."

"An' s'pose everyone turns Socialist so's to get other people's money, what're you going to do then?"

Henry isn't stumped by this:

"'Cause there's gotter be four sorts of people same as what we are. Well, there couldn't be four sorts of people if everyone was a Socialist, could there? Stands to reason. If you'd got any sense you'd see there couldn't."

Is it just "sense" though, or the way democracy works: through the diffusion of opposing ideologies among voters?

Blyton's world didn't operate this way. There were no allegories. It took a certain Britishness to appreciate her work. In a way, this was what made her books so popular. That explains why Crompton's success could never match hers. Not that this makes her the lesser writer, of course. I still believe that for all her use of simple and undulating language, Blyton's prose was ridden with an insufferably conservative attitude towards class. It not only reinforced class-rifts, but also could get xenophobic and even racist at times. This is not to mention its condescending attitude towards women.

That's another story, though. For another time.

I'm grateful to Crompton. I'm proud to have been a fan. I still am. Somewhere down the line, when I'm old enough to think I'm still a boy (yes, it's ironic), I'll go back to William. If the link's strong enough, I'll even become what he eternally got to be. And I will be happy.

Written for: The Island YOUth, November 13 2016