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