Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Ernest Poruthota story

I am by nature an agnostic, though that doesn’t prevent me from indulging in nostalgia, the past, and the cultural histories of whatever work of art I delve into.

Once in a while, moreover, I love to meet priests and members of the clergy, whatever the denomination and in particular if they went beyond the pulpit and contributed to our cultural, social, and political firmament. Few, it must be said, did that, but while they are rare their contribution is so vast that words can’t sum it up.

Given the history of the Catholic Church in this country, it’s natural that it left behind a cultural legacy. Not many have recorded or archived that legacy, or for that matter added to it, but the few who have were censured by (for the lack of a better term) the Establishment. They spent the better part of their lives undergoing punishment for various petty intransigencies, which I assume is more or less a given if they privilege their individuality over the social and religious institutions they are supposed to declare fealty to.

I once called Father Ernest Poruthota a rebel in a cassock. I suspect I was not very far behind the truth there. No one who has studied the history and nature of religious institutions, after all, will deny that those who house them are compelled to privilege them first and only then look at other paths and vocations. Father Poruthota, on the other hand, always yearned to give something back to the land of his birth, in both the political and cultural spheres. I am no fan of the political, so I will pass by that. The cultural aspect to Poruthota’s life, on the other hand, should compel comment.

He was born Raymond Ernest Alexander Poruthota in the village of Marawila in the Puttalam district. His father had taught for some time at the Government Teachers’ College in Maggona before being transferred to Marawila. Young Ernest had studied at the Marawila Boys School, and later at St Xavier’s College. “I was not quite 12 when my parents, who came to believe that my vocation lay in the Church, decided to send me to the seminary in Borella,” he tells me. I ask whether he himself wanted to enter the priesthood, and with an emphatic “Yes!” he allays my doubts. “That doesn’t mean I cut myself from the secular world, of course,” he adds by way of inserting a caveat, “Especially since I was enthralled by the arts.”

It was around 1942 that he joined the seminary, where he spent the next few years witnessing the end of the war and the clamour for independence. Apparently he and his colleagues had been taken on compulsory walks every Thursday. In 1948, they had gone on one such walk to Torrington Square, where they had come across the unveiling of the National Flag at the independence ceremony. Poruthota had been awed by the whole event: “More than the historical significance of it all, what really appealed to me were the decorations, the colour, and the liveliness. I was so awed by them that when we returned, I set about replicating the decorations using crepe paper.” I ask him as to whether this was on account of the artiste in him. “Maybe,” he smiles.

Those who know the man and those who have heard of him would contend that he forayed intensely into the cinema. They are correct. On the other hand, I’ve always wondered how it was that a man of the cloth, with all the restrictions that religious institutions usually place on their members, was allowed to indulge in such a plebeian and secular art form. I asked this from the man himself, and he was ready to explain. “Films were, of course, forbidden at the seminary. By an irony of fate however, the Church did sanction us going into the theatres, provided that what we watched were Christian religious epics.”

I put to him that given the preponderance of such epics in the American cinema, he and his colleagues would have imbibed the work of Cecil B. DeMille, William Wyler, and a horde of other such filmmakers. He agrees. “We revelled in such films as The Song of Bernadette, Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments, and of course Ben Hur.” In later years, he would of course graduate to other directors, although his love for religious themes never evaded him. That probably explains his love for Bergman, Dreyer, and Bresson, three of the most spiritual artistes the cinema ever bred.

His contribution to our cinema in later years, one can hardly deny, was immense. He called for an indigenous cinema. He wrote. He critiqued. He had his champions and he had his critics. Some argued that a man of the Church should not engage with the secular world. In the end, however, he was vindicated. Not only was a book of his, Chitrapati Gana (translated as An Aesthetic Evaluation of the Cinema), published and read widely, his campaign for a national film awards ceremony overseen by the Catholic Church was affirmed when he was appointed as the first National Director of the OCIC (which later morphed into SIGNIS).

What of his other achievements? He was a founding member of the Film Critics and Journalists Association of Sri Lanka, formed in 1968. Before he became its National Director, he was also the founder of the Sri Lankan branch of the OCIC. There probably are a great many other such laurels he can claim, but I leave the task of explicating on them to the biographer.

I am more interested in his views on the arts. I ask him as to whether he agrees with the thesis (forwarded by critics like Harold Bloom and, closer to home, my friend Dhanuka Bandara) that a work of art should be judged purely in terms of its inherent aesthetic merit, and not content. He disagrees. “First and foremost, a play, a film, or even a book must spiritually elevate its ‘rasikaya’. In fact that is the main criterion we have at SIGNIS.” I put to him here that even secular works of art, authored by atheists and humanists, have merit which can hardly be attributed to spirituality. Being the mild-tempered man he is, he agrees, with a caveat: “If an artiste is not religiously inclined, his work must at least have a human element.”

From here I move on to a theme that has arguably engaged him the most over the years: censorship. Given his lifelong and austere stand on the matter, I am not surprised by his views, which even brought him into conflict with the Church. The man clearly practices what he preaches, as seen in how he went to watch films as a seminarian: “We were neither allowed nor forbidden to watch films. I went to see them unsure of whether they were allowed for a would-be priest. This was true especially in the 1960s, when we had many European directors revolutionising the cinema as we knew it then thanks to the so-called ‘New Wave.’ Morals and conventions of any sort were being defied and that became more or less the norm. Clearly, they were hardly congruent with what the Church deemed as ‘good films’. Nevertheless, I saw them.”

He has certainly defied authority over the years, thanks to his lifelong belief in freedom for the artiste, a point he succinctly brings up when he argues, “There should be no censorship. Not by the government, not by the Church.” An argument I can happily accord with, certainly, though that does not absolve the deterioration the arts have been subjected to by those who compromise on content for the sake of a castrated, contorted form and in turn for the sake of scooping up awards from every nook and corner with overused themes and controversy. I was not, sadly, able to put to him this latter point, though I am sure he would disagree with me vehemently.

Father Poruthota the archivist, compiler, writer, and appreciator, for me personally, is easier to sketch out than Father Poruthota the priest. An appreciator, however, deserves appreciation, which is what we as a nation are yet to pay him unconditionally. Sure, he has won tokens and has been coveted. But is it enough, we should ask ourselves. He has crisscrossed the entirety of this country, seen its people, absorbed from them, and given back tremendously. We are not ungrateful. We shouldn’t be.

Photo by Upul Devapriya

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, November 13 2016