Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Swarna Mallawarachchi: The woman I saw

A tribute to the first real woman I saw onscreen here.

In Yasapalitha Nanayakkara’s Anjana Swarna Mallawarachchi does something she never did in her other movies. Dance. Anjana erupts in a riot of colour (it still feels rather oversaturated today, like all those commercial films from the eighties) and practically subsists on sharply defined reds, greens, and blues: ideal for the lavish, visually lovely, but rather incongruous dance sequences it contained.

When we see Swarna in that glamorous red gown today, we are not taken aback, we are stumped. But then we belong to a different generation. In her time audiences would have followed her ascent, from Nanayakkara to Dharmasiri Bandaranayake and Vasantha Obeyesekere, gradually. In our time audiences would have flocked to see her in Dadayama and Kadapathaka Chaya and assumed that they were all she was in. We never bothered to look at her past, at all those supporting roles she had to tolerate before her big break.

Just as we secretly loathe our commercial comedies and melodramas and their cast members, we also secretly play along to the myths they make use of. The lone woman in the company of men is there to be caught and almost killed before the other men rescue her. The rich heiress elopes with her poor paramour to a life of ease and comfort. The idealist abandoned by her lover croons about her plight to the only people who will listen to her, the audience. These situations involve women, and not for no reason: our cinema has tapped into our patriarchal outlook of the world in ways no other art form has, ever. The myths they revolve around needed directors who could challenge if not upend them and, obviously, actors who could break them apart. Not until Swarna did we come across such a woman, such a performer.

Along with Anjana, there were four movies which signalled Swarna Mallawarachchi’s return to the cinema after her sojourn in England: Sankapali, Ridi Nimnaya, Biththi Hathara, and Yahalu Yeheli. She won an award jointly for the latter three from the OCIC in 1982, one year after she was snubbed off with a token Merit Prize at the Presidential Awards Ceremony for Hansa Vilak. The difference between her role in Hansa Vilak and those three performances couldn’t have been more apparent. The latter three reflected her debut roles in Sath Samudura, Hanthane Kathawa, and Thunman Handiya, because of how unlikeable she was in them: in Yahalu Yeheli, for instance, she sides with her father against her own sister (the protagonist), while in Sath Samudura and Thunman Handiya she was as unsympathetic a relative.

In Hansa Vilak Swarna, as Miranda Ranaweera, becomes an inexorable figure of vagueness and confusion. There’s really no character whom we empathise with in the first place: not Miranda, not her lover Nissanka, not her husband Douglas, and not Nissanka’s brother-in-law Dayananda. The only real figure of empathy is Nissanka’s wife, Samantha, but then she was played by Vasanthi Chathurani, a qualitatively different actress. (She was the girl next door, which Swarna never was.)

When Miranda confesses about her adultery to Nissanka (she wants to return to Douglas), and when Nissanka reacts by attacking her, she doesn’t weep or scream or even moan, she just laughs. “I’ve known all along that this was my fate. Why wait anymore then? Go ahead, kill me now!” she practically sneers. Nissanka’s feelings of betrayal are ours too, to be sure, but Swarna’s enigma intrigues us. What does she mean? Perhaps it’s her religious devotion, or the sense of guilt it compels in her.

Even Swarna was afraid of taking that role, she once informed me. “I read the script Dharmasiri had written, and given that back then our cinema divided women into either paragons of virtue or she-devils, I thought my character was dark. I called Dharmasiri and told him this, but he assuaged my doubts.”

She wasn’t completely wrong there, of course, because on the basis of the criterion we used to judge female characters back then, she was a conniver, a she-devil. The great achievement of Hansa Vilak was that it was the first Sinhala film that delved into the subjective consciousness of a single character. If audiences found fault with Miranda it was because of this lopsided perspective: we don’t see what Nissanka doesn’t, we only imagine it. He’s convinced that Miranda is a conniving double-crosser, and given that we are seeing the world through his eyes, we concur.

Fortunately for her, the films she got thereafter never played around with that kind of confused perspective we saw her through before. In Suddilage Kathawa, Dadayama, Maya, and Sagara Jalaya, not only is she suavely confident of her own infallibility, she is adamant that she is the only real human being in the story.

The first half of Suddilage Kathawa, for instance, until Romiel’s return from prison, is about Suddi’s sexual conquests, her only method of survival in her village. “Romiel: wasn’t he sent to prison for murdering somebody?” the mudalali, played by the lewdest womaniser to ever be depicted in our cinema, Somi Ratnayake, asks, to which Swarna casually replies, “The Arachchi will set him free soon; he’s looking after the lawyer who’ll be defending him.” We obviously don’t believe her, and neither does the mudalali. But her casual reply isn’t a mere reply, it’s an invitation: a few minutes later, she has got him hooked up with her, and he becomes her benefactor.

How she does it, and by doing it how she shows us her invincible, indomitable character, was Swarna’s real achievement. Dadayama is an enduring film even today not only because of Ravindra Randeniya’s Priyankara Jayanath, but also because Swarna stands for everything that a woman, at that point in time, was told to never be: a fighter, a rebel, a destroyer. She asserts her dignity in that last sequence knowing very well that she won’t survive, but she gets on with it to prove to herself, and to her tormentor, that she can be as animalistic and predatory as he is. You can’t imagine another actress in such a powerful sequence because no other actress could be as frighteningly bestial as she was. She’s no longer the prey or the hunted; she’s the hunter, hell-bent on tilting the scales against the man she once loved.

With other directors she was virtually in a different universe, but with Dharmasiri Bandaranayake and Vasantha Obeyesekere she almost always got to play that kind of woman: torn apart, wasted away, and always seeking a way of fighting back. In the end this meant that she would embody the qualities of the same people she was fighting against, which is what she underwent in Kadapathaka Chaya.

Laleen Jayamanne, in her book Towards Cinema and its Double, describes Swarna’s character in Kadapathaka Chaya, Nanda, as unappealing, ambivalent, fatal: not the woman who’s fated to destroy her man, but the woman who becomes an avenger through a complex array of familial, social, and power relationships. In Dadayama she dreams of a life with Priyankara. In Kadapathaka Chaya, that dream ends the moment she’s raped by her brother-in-law, which sets of a chain of events that end with her manipulating him for her ends and her act of throwing acid on his face. (As with Obeyesekere’s other films, this too was based on a real incident.)

In the seventies and eighties the Western cinema tended to represent women, not as heroines, but as heroes: as doers, not submissive receptacles. Swarna in effect trumped this way of representing women because she was both a doer and submissive receptacle even in her most landmark performances. She is at the receiving end of a patriarchal world, but ironically and until her own end she aspires to be a member of that same world. Her desire in Dadayama is to marry Priyankara, just as her desire in Kadapathaka Chaya is to live a life of peace and comfort with Piyatilake. In our films marriage has been the great consoler, so even when she’s beaten down and traumatised, it is to that consoler she wants to succumb, to run off.

Swarna Mallawarachchi’s forte – embodying our deepest affection for and fear and even mild hatred of the woman as a rebel – became its own standard, its own benchmark. That’s why it’s difficult to remake Suddilage Kathawa today (Dharmasiri Bandaranayake has been approached with offers to remake it, all of which he has refused): not only because there’s no contemporary equivalent for Swarna, but because we’ve gone past that eroticised, multifarious depiction of the female victim.

And as Asoka Handagama’s Let Her Cry shows, even she seems to have realised this. Swarna began her career as less than empathetic in-laws. She went on to depict victims we took to even though we knew they were doomed. With Let Her Cry, she has let go to turn into a morally confused matriarch. “No two performances of hers are the same,” Handagama has informed us. True. On that count, she has become the inverse of the tormented female she portrayed until another of his films (his debut), Channa Kinnari. Handagama brought her back to the cinema after 20 years. It remains to be seen what her return will portend. Until then, we can only speculate.

Written for: Daily Mirror, August 22 2017

Monday, August 21, 2017

A conversation with Lester James Peries


Biographical sketches bore me. Sure, sometimes they are the best way to disseminate the lives and careers of those who are being written on. But all too often, they are packed with so many inessential details recorded elsewhere that they become exercises in repetition and banality. Lester James Peries is no exception to this. With several books and essays written on the man, we still haven’t got to a cohesive, comprehensive text exploring not just his craft, but the names and the movies that shaped it. While my taste in the cinema is woefully inadequate to the task of delving into his career, I can try. So here goes.

Is there any overriding influence you can point out, right now?

Whenever people asked me “Which of the movies you've directed is your favourite?” I was inclined to say “My next film.” It’s roughly the same answer I give whenever I’m asked about my influences, because there are so many and to pinpoint one in particular would prejudice you and me against every other influence. I was shaped by everything I laid my eyes on, be they films, filmmakers, my brother, or my country. But if I were to dig deeper, I’d point at Italian neo-realism. Directors like Vittorio de Sica and Luchino Visconti had a big say in my career. I was entranced and at times overwhelmed by their fidelity to realism.

To be sure, “realism” is a fluid term, always changing, never static. In this case, I use the term to denote the director’s ability to depict instead of representing, to stand apart and instil some flesh and blood into the characters being depicted. De Sica achieved that vision with his Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves, both of which I saw and was moved by when they were first released. In Bicycle Thieves there’s no attempt at glamour, at visual beauty or loveliness. What visual loveliness there is derives from the Italian metropolis and the poverty of the protagonists, the father and the son in search of their stolen bicycle. Most people think that neo-realism died during the Cold War, when moviemakers thought they had to be more politically slanted in their work. All stuff and nonsense. Neo-realism is still alive. It always will be.

Given this fidelity to realism, how did you find yourself when other directors and writers began covertly attacking you as a bourgeois filmmaker?

Names and labels are just that: names and labels. I was never really a politically committed director, but it depends on what you mean by “politically committed.” The definition used by these writers entailed anyone and everyone who sacrificed authenticity for an overtly political outlook. But I don’t think you need to film political manifestos to be committed. You can be aloof, you can try not to get involved in explicit political movements, and still talk about poverty, the oppression of the lower class, the conflict between the haves and the have-nots.

In Sri Lanka this wave of politically committed directors came about in the seventies. I remember a booklet that was distributed at the premiere of a film made by someone who was being championed as their mentor. The booklet was titled Appochchige Cinamawa, “Appochchi” being me. It echoed what was happening in France, where directors who didn’t fit into the model of filmmaking envisioned by the Nouvelle Vague and Cahiers du Cinema commentators were referred to as papa, with their work referred to as cinema de papa. It was an exact, word to word translation.

You mentioned Rossellini and de Sica. Any directors from across the Atlantic?

Satyajit Ray’s passion for the movies started with Hollywood. Before he began studying the director and the scriptwriter, he was infatuated with the big stars: Deanna Durbin, Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, and Humphrey Bogart. We all were, to be honest, because you couldn’t just escape the American cinema. It was everywhere. In every nook or corner. And it soon became part of our common experience. My stints as a journalist in London in the forties were a blessing for me in that respect, because I got to watch many American and British films. I remember reviewing some of them, even the continental ones like Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.

But if there was one movie that moved me into the cinema at that time, it was Citizen Kane. We were young when it first came out, so what was innovative, groundbreaking, and unprecedented about it caught us immediately. You could say it knocked our socks off, since we were so taken aback by this debut feature made by a 26 year old prodigy called Orson Welles. Most people would argue that it’s dated today, but I vehemently disagree. What was so dated to them is precisely what’s so timeless about it for me. Unlike Hitchcock’s thrillers and even a classic like Vertigo, which topped Kane in Sight and Sound’s list of the 10 greatest films of all time in 2012, it wasn’t seasonal. It transcended the time in which it was made.

There were other movies, other directors you couldn’t escape from. Like John Ford. He transformed the cowboy film into a folk art. He shaped the founding myths of America even though he wasn’t an American. The best part about it was that he never considered himself an artist: he would have glared at you if you were to describe him as one. When you see his Westerns now, which influenced all other Westerns made after his time, you don’t “discern” art. You discern a true professional at work, the sort who regarded his career only as a means of earning a living.

Any directors you didn’t take to?

I was never a fan of Cecil B. DeMille. Critics today acclaim the special effects and sense of grandeur in an epic like Samson and Delilah or The Ten Commandments, but for me they were add-ons. He was a showman, though his influence has pervaded every film industry. Every country has its share of DeMilles. They want to glamorise history, to instil some larger-than-life epicness into our myths, our legends. What they forget is that our people are the real bedrock of our cinema. They are far more virile and possess a greater range of experience than all the kings and queens in the world. Sadly however, they are neglected, and our directors choose to make another Ten Commandments, with their own Moseses and Samsons.

What can you say about the French New Wave?

It was not unlike Hitchcock’s films, largely seasonal, limited to the place and time in which it was fermented. Of the New Wave directors only one survived, and he’s the only one who’s still with us. I am talking about Jean-Luc Godard. Satyajit Ray once subtly compared his work to a collage. You can’t take to those films spontaneously. You have to gather the bits and pieces that make them up, carefully. That’s not to say they are intellectualised or cut off from the people, but they require a different conception of the medium to the one I operated on. Just as much as I diverged from the kind of epics that DeMille was making, I also diverged from what the New Wave followed.

But of course, their influence was very much pervasive here. I think it had to do with our defeatist attitude towards the world. In the seventies, when my work was lambasted as elitist, the typical young director took the East Europeans as his or her influence. The East Europeans were different to the Americans, because they were defeatist. The seventies was a brutal decade for our country. Naturally, that spilled over to our writers and our directors. Most people would use that as a criterion to argue that my films and my plots didn’t delve enough into the issues that ailed my characters, like poverty and landlessness. But like I said before, it all really comes down to what you mean by terms like realism and commitment.

Final question. 15 years ago in an interview, you compared the director to a conductor of an orchestra. Do you still stand by this observation?

I was never a big fan of the auteur theory, which stated that a film was what its director wanted it to be. Conflating the one with the other means missing out on the cast and crew that fleshes out the director’s vision. Speaking for myself, I have been fortunate enough to work with some of the best scriptwriters this country and my time could conjure, from Regi Siriwardena to Somaweera Senanayake.

Does that mean I wasn’t aware of my role in the filmmaking process? Of course not. One can be an individualist and a collaborationist. I think that’s quite valid for an art form, any art form, but it’s especially valid for the cinema, where by default you have to work with so many people. Accepting that you aren’t the only cast and crew member is a first step to a good film. A necessary first step.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, August 21 2017

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Hashen Hettigoda rows on ahead

The first few weeks, months, and years of trying out a new sport are never easy. You get injured, poked at, ridiculed, sometimes put down, and always intimidated. It’s probably that fear of being intimidated, or the anxiety of being in front of a large cheering crowd, that kept me from trying out anything at school, period. That’s a given. Some like to go ahead, others stay back. Those who stay back are blessed with the privilege of knowing they won’t be subject to the vicissitudes of victory and defeat those who go ahead are. Again, a given.

But what’s so difficult about those first few years is also what’s so manageable about them. There’s always a team to back you up, for one thing. It doesn’t matter how tough the competition from the other side can get, or how futile victory is to achieve. Once you’re in that team, you’re in. All honorifics disappear, name-calling becomes a no-no, and the individual gets subsumed by the group. Nowhere is truer than activities that force their team players to literally be at each other’s side.

I’m thinking here of rowing. Sri Lanka is of course no stranger to that sport, but with the recent spate of setbacks certain other activities and their national squads have undergone abroad, the country’s interest in it has improved. Rather considerably.

Those setbacks, incidentally, have compelled me to value one quality in those who take to a sport, any sport. Consistency. That’s what sets those I’ve interviewed for this column, for this paper, apart from their opponents. And that’s what sets the person I’ve interviewed this week apart from his competition. Hashen Hettigoda, who’s been rowing for more than six years, and has won practically every top rank a player his age (and above it) can, has come quite close to substantiating my preference for consistency over one hit victories. He clearly doesn’t belong to the latter category.

Hashen’s stints at rowing go back to 2009. They actually go even further back, considering that the first sport he’d indulged in was rugby and considering that he’d shifted gears after fracturing his leg twice during practices. That accident had got his mother worried, which, coupled with the one-and-a-half months he had to wait recuperating from his injuries, meant that he was open to other paths. It didn’t take long for him to find his own path.

“I was in Grade Six at the time. During those one-and-a-half months, I went to a friend’s grandfather’s funeral. There I met the rowing coach at my school, who happened to be another friend’s uncle. One thing led to another, and he ended up inviting me to a practice session. Normally I wouldn’t have gone, except for one issue: I was rather fat back then. I was dieting and badly wanted to get leaner. So I agreed with him then and there. And so soon enough I was going for those practices.”

That was in 2010. After around a year of those training sessions, Hashen entered his first tournament, a two kilometre open race at the Bolgoda Lake. He clinched a gold medal there, which had naturally encouraged him. “I won in the Under 13 category. I believe that first victory pushed me to try and triumph at tournaments which were beyond my age. Fortunately for me, that’s exactly what happened.”

A cursory list can’t really sum up all his subsequent achievements, but I’ll try at one all the same. Hashen has emerged as the Under 13, Under 14, Under 18, and Under 20 top national rower. In 2014, having contended at school and national level regattas, he was part of the contingent that left for Taiwan for the Asian Junior Rowing Championship. He was ranked as the eighth Under 18 Asian oarsman there. “Taiwan opened my eyes. We are improving as a nation, but we are nowhere near the East Asians. I was actually lucky to be in the team that went there, lucky because I was selected after I beat my opponent to become the top sculler in the country.”

And that list doesn’t stop there. He clinched gold medals for the Under 18 Scull and the Under 19 Quad Scull at the Head of Bay Regatta in Hong Kong this year. He came second at the Scull and first at the Double Scull at the recently held ARAE Regatta in India. Last year he was in the Rutherglen Regatta in Melbourne, Australia, where he won second place in the Open Eight and third place in the Open Four. Around that time, he also clinched the 13th Under 18 rank at the Asian Junior Rowing Championship in Pattaya, Thailand. The Asian Junior Rowing Development Camp, organised by the International Rowing Federation and the Asian Rowing Federation and held in Taiwan, as well as the Madras-Colombo Regatta, held in Sri Lanka (both in 2014), are two other tournaments where he got to represent his country.

Quite obviously, his motives at playing the game changed over the years. The fatty kid no more, Hashen got entranced by the sense of camaraderie which brought the rowing crew together at his school, Royal College. “In rugby, the team is spread across a field. In rowing, by contrast, you are tied to your partner. You need to be at one with him and to develop a brotherhood. That’s why we don’t have ‘aiyas’ and ‘mallis’ in our squad. Age isn’t what matters. What matters is how you blend in with the rest.”

Having blended into his team, Hashen hence didn’t take much time to get into the most looked forward to tournament in his school calendar, the Royal-Thomian Regatta. The past few years hadn’t fared well for the Royalists: a string of victories in 2010 and 2011 had been followed by a set of devastating defeats.

“Our morale was ebbing away, to be honest. We needed just the tiniest of victories to keep us going. In 2014, the year I left for Taiwan, we lost again. But my partner and I managed to win a Double Scull against the Thomians. It was a margin of victory amounting to a mere 23 milliseconds. I unfortunately lost another Scull due to a mistake which we refer to as ‘catching a crab’, when I was unable to remove my oar from the water on time. But that was a case of bad luck. The Double Scull victory lifted our spirits. My Scull defeat lifted mine even more.”

What supplemented this was the fact that much of the squad had aged over the years. The elders had left, while the younger rowers had encountered enough and more defeat on the Beira to push them. “The Royal-Thomian Regatta consists of eight point races and three exhibition races. In 2015, except for one B Pair Match which we lost, we emerged as the overall Champions with a score of 48-04. In 2016 we vowed not to concede even one inch to the Thomians. We realised how well the previous tournament made us strive for more when we clinched a much bigger score of 50-02, which was actually a record breaker. 2016 was special for another reason: we also clinched the highest number of trophies from a single Regatta.”

Presently the Captain of the Rowing Crew at Royal, he has discerned the point that victory isn’t bred overnight, and is the result of weeks, months, and years of training and practice. “We practise from 1.30 to 7.30 pm thrice a week, at the Beira or the Diyawanna. We are expected to give the best we’ve got. That’s what we deliver.”

Inasmuch as he is into rowing and devotes almost all his energy to it, Hashen leads other lives, within and outside school. He is a President’s Scout, is the Finance Director of the Interact Club, and is part of the Souvenir Committee (which collates the relevant material for the Souvenir of the annual Big Match between Royal and S. Thomas’). Despite a hectic rowing schedule that could overtax anyone, he is also sitting for his Advanced Level exams, not once but twice: he has offered Commerce for the Local A Levels (this month) and will be offering Maths for the London A Levels. His ambition, from what I’ve read elsewhere, is to be an engineer.

What of the “thereafter” that all these accomplishments, clinched within a few years, merit? Hashen has set his eyes on the Olympics, and as ambitious as it may seem, I believe he has what it takes to mould himself for that tournament.

That recent spate of setbacks which some of our national squads have faced and endured has made me realise that there’s enough form in our youngsters to keep us hoping for more. And for better. We seem to lack consistency because we are so full of complacency. Given Hashen’s past record, I’d say that he hasn’t been complacent. The Roy-Tho, those stints in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Thailand, as well as that time long, long ago when he tried to make it to the rugby field and instead fractured his ankle, have taught him well. We can only hope. We should then hope.

Photos courtesy of ThePapare.com and The Review

Written for: The Island YOUth, August 20 2017

Friday, August 18, 2017

How we got to where we are

The democratic process is premised on the idea that we don’t owe our representatives anything, except the “gratitude” that we must pay through taxes and other levies to maintain public services. It’s a two-way street: you pay to keep those services and they run the country through what we pay. Nothing that goes beyond this can be considered as gratitude. What goes beyond can hence only be considered as servility. Servility of the most nauseating, ridiculous sort. The kind that adorns politicians whose pasts have been tarnished thanks to allegations of abuse and misappropriation. I am not singling out the present regime here, incidentally.

I know this government has those leftover hurrah-boys who still think that what transpired on January 8, 2015 was a revolution, never mind that revolutions can’t be sustained if those who were part of the status quo that worked against the “revolutionaries” are hired by the latter as their lackeys (as this government has done). Expedience is sometimes considered the better part of imperative, sadly, which is why we have to sacrifice principles, but even adjusting for that the government has failed to deliver on our brief. Anyone who bats for it using revolutionary rhetoric, then, clearly needs to look up the word in the dictionary.

But these revolutionaries are just part of the crowd that keeps on batting for the government. Consider the other elements, i.e. those who applaud its representatives on the basis of their arbitrary conceptions of democracy, elitism, and meritocracy. It is these conceptions that demarcate the Old Boys Club in the government as well-intentioned technocrats, while the likes of Palitha Thewarapperuma and even Mahinda Rajapaksa are disparaged as backward. They will go to any lengths to defend even someone like Ravi Karunanayake on the premise that those they defend are worthy of eloquent praise. These claims wouldn’t stand the test of scrutiny, since the educated, as history has taught us, have not been better and indeed have been worse than the “uneducated” in resolving several compelling national issues.

We’ve messed up our notions of decency and education so much that we look for the wrong indicators thereof when assessing our politicians. We will consider Dayasiri Jayasekara’s momentary gaffe at pronouncing Latin phrases as something to laugh and poke at. We will disregard the horrendous mispronunciations in Sinhala (yes, the mother tongue) being made every day in parliament. Some would say this is a symptom of our colonial hangover, but for me the problem goes deeper. Fact is, we’ve screwed up the fine line between being uneducated and indecent so much that we pick and choose politicians based on the image they project of their status.

A recent Facebook comment compelled my interest in this: “Why we're in this rut as a country is because your generation was preoccupied with correcting 'e's and 'a's instead of doing anything constructive.” The comment was aimed at those who were more interested in grammar and pronunciation than in the spirit in which something was written or spoken. Reminds me of a certain Prime Minister who, in a heated argument in parliament with Robert Gunawardena, chastised him over a grammatical faux pas or slip of the tongue the latter made, with his own classic slip of the tongue: “Why don’t you speak a language you understand? Speak Sinhalese?” “His tones left no doubt that this [Sinhalese] was a language fit only for the lower orders,” Regi Siriwardena later wrote. That Prime Minister, incidentally, was not a rightwing elitist. He was S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. Telling, I should think.

Given our political culture it’s no surprise that there were people who sobbed at Ravi Karunanayake’s departure. Whether or not these people were “paid” to do what they did is beside the point. What’s important is that they were there, some of them even worshipping the man. What’s as important is that those who were hell bent on ridiculing Mahinda Rajapaksa over his habit of holding up babies and consoling emotional, if not hysterical, supporters (right after he was defeated) are speechless and selective when it comes to this display of emotion and hysterics. To be sure, the fact of his departure, more forced than willingly conceded to by the alleged wrongdoer, speaks volumes about our political culture now. But that political culture is still predicated on that timeless excuse for incompetency, relative merits.

Relative merits, ladies and gentlemen. The we’re-better-than-them argument, which has become too old and outpaced to be taken seriously. The problem with that argument, of course, is that it works both ways: the Mahinda Rajapaksa Cabal can use it just as effectively as this regime can. And in case you’re wondering, they are. The recent tirade against the Attorney General’s Department over what is alleged to be their partiality against members of the present government is symptomatic of a political culture that operates on such arguments. That’s not to say the Attorney General is to be absolved everywhere and with respect to every allegation, but then there’s a fine line to be drawn between constructive and baseless criticism.

What strengthens the relative merits argument is that the government is partly correct. They are better procedurally than the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. What weakens it, on the other hand, is the point that it depends on whether the government has been better than Rajapaksa’s regime at improving the democratic machine. There’s a difference between procedural and substantive democracy, after all. A careful perusal of every antidemocratic act taken by the government, any government, in the last three decades will prove that nearly all of them have been absolved by the argument that the state is the ultimate arbiter of political action, since it derives legitimacy from the fact of being elected by the people. The paradox of modern democracy is that it shields deplorable state action under a facade of procedural correctness.

But consider this. We haven’t seen a repeat of Rathupaswala, at least not yet. Protestors were beaten up and continue to be beaten up and/or tear-gassed, but that is not as coercive as being killed or shot. There’s been a definite improvement in the way political dissidents are being accommodated (Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe being a good example), though that’s less a sign of political correctness than one of political lethargy. Allegations of graft do abound, but they are less than what we saw during the previous regime. Putting all these together, is our present political culture better than what it used to be?

I would be tempted to say yes, with some reservations. Political sycophancy still continues. Those who raised hell over Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters now stay shut over how they themselves are covering up the alleged wrongdoings of this government. Had Rajapaksa stalled any election, presidential, general, or provincial, he would probably have raised flak not just from the UNP, but probably also from the American, British, French, and even Indian Embassies. Delaying an election, any election, no matter how much one justifies it, is a serious transgression of the democratic process. Those who came to power in 2015 did so with the intent of transforming a culture in which expedience flourished into one where imperative and necessity would reign. Neither of the latter two has. Not yet.

Better than the rest, clearly, is an argument that endorses wrongdoing as long as it’s seen as better than what used to be. The problem with such an argument is that its parameters are arbitrarily set: just what is better, and just where is one to draw the line between them and us? Let’s not forget that we as a country are prone to political amnesia. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cohorts can be, and probably are, behind the recent spate of strikes and the AG Department’s sway against the current regime. But even if we concede that they are, the relative merits thesis loses water when considering that no government elected in a liberal democracy can sacrifice certain norms to get back at the opponent’s attempts to undermine them. And why? Because we don’t give a damn about that opponent.

This government’s slip is showing. Rather tellingly. It used to be said that political elitists were independent enough to not be swayed by the allure of power and wealth. Not true. If the recent past and the horde of allegations this regime has attracted are anything to go by, our political culture has improved only marginally, and that because of the demands for betterment that we, the people, and certain outfits we’ve organised for ourselves have made. The truth is that the same people who cried foul over Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cronies and supporters now write, say, or do anything and everything they can to justify what is being written, said, and done by their representatives. The trouble with that is that their representatives happen to be ours as well. The 5.8 million are, effectively, in the hands of the 6.2 million.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Vijaya Nandasiri: The comedian as professional

A tribute to Vijaya Nandasiri, who left us but not our consciousness a year ago.

Vijaya Nandasiri was greater than his successors in Sinhala comedy the same way that Joe Abeywickrema was greater than his predecessors. The latter was the apotheosis of Eddie Jayamanne. He was of course greater than Eddie could be, since Eddie’s roots were in the theatre, never really on film. Vijaya, on the other hand, was the grand culmination of everything that Joe stood for, with the caveat that the one was manifestly different to the other. He is the last comic we can claim as of today, since everyone else, as I pointed out in my last article, were and are at best mimetic.

Despite their differences, both began their careers as comic foils, whose function in the movies they were in was to console the protagonists. In the sixties Joe was almost always this foil, with Getawarayo (opposite Gamini Fonseka) and Dahasak Sithuvili (opposite Henry Jayasena). The seventies saw him emerge as his own player, good and redeemable except when he was the antihero or villain, in which case he was either doomed to suffer and die (Welikathara and Bambaru Avith) or to disappear from the story altogether (Suddilage Kathawa and Adara Hasuna). The only difference between them was this: while Joe belied a serious facade even in the most absurd dilemmas, Vijaya could at most only pretend to such a facade.

Vijaya’s inability to hide the absurdity of whatever situation he was in proved to be his strength just as his ability to so do proved to be Joe’s. Even in Kolamba Sanniya, the most enduring tribute to Sinhala comedy ever conceived on film (lavishly produced, it was a lavish hit at the box-office), you never distrust his ability to walk on a tightrope. As funny or inescapable some of the dilemmas he’s in are, he escapes them, trumping his own family’s expectations of him by contesting as a politician in his area. He’s a man of order, of method, even though he deceives us into thinking that he’s not. “Yuri Gagarin, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy: they are all my cousins!” he pompously remarks in Kolam Karayo. We disbelieve him, obviously, but not the sincerity and conviction with which he utters it.

The opposite was true for Vijaya Nandasiri’s characters. “I’m an honest man!” he parrots out as Rajamanthri. We believe neither the remark nor the confidence and conviction. Because both the man and his ideals are never what they seem, he was almost always a trickster, a conman, a deceiver no matter how good his intentions were. His characters were all vain, conceited, and self-centred, interested in what is out there only as long as it serves him. Loud but never too loud, brash but never too brash, his characters were almost always cowards when it came to grappling with reality.

He revelled in having no self-respect even when we ascribed to him some sense of honour and dignity. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune Premachandra flirts with the woman next door (Sanoja Bibile) though we never get why the latter returns his affections (is she tired of her husband, or is she truly infatuated with her idiotic neighbour?). As Senarath Dunusinghe in Yes Boss, the situation is reversed: he has to suffer another man playing around with his wife, the problem being that the man happens to be his employer who doesn’t know that they are married (couples can’t work at the same office). You wonder why he doesn’t seek shelter in another agency, but then there wouldn’t be a story in the first place, would there?

Vijaya represented our contempt for womanisers, cuckolds, and politicians by turning them into stereotypes to be laughed at. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune he was the womaniser, in Yes Boss he was the cuckold (though his wife only pretends to give in to their boss’s advances), and as Rajamanthri, easily the most recognisable comic figure in our cinema from the past 20 or so years, he was the politician. It was as Rajamanthri that he prospered, even in those movies where he wasn’t him (as with Sikuru Hathe, King Hunther, and Magodi Godayi). Joe could never quite transform our contempt for his characters because they weren’t contemptible in the first place: they were either lovable or hateful. His calm exterior never betrayed itself, as I pointed out before, whereas for Vijaya it always would.

Some years ago I watched a miniseries on Rupavahini about a politician and his driver. Vijaya Nandasiri was the politician, Vasantha Kumarasiri the driver. And yet I sensed something odd about them. Their voices were different. The dubbing team had synced one actor’s with the other, a feat that survived the first 10 or 15 minutes of the first episode, after which these two meet a horrible accident which (inexplicably) leaves both onlookers and relatives confused as to what body is whose.

Because both are so near dying, a quick surgery is followed by a quick plastic surgery, in which the wrong face is placed on the wrong body. The voices are back to the correct actor. In hindsight this was an unnecessary gimmick, but it was also a welcome gimmick, since for the rest of the story the driver becomes the conservative believer in authority and the politician the radical believer in Marx. Crude, and rather one-dimensional, but fun. And it wasn’t just a change of voice: it was also a change of spirit, of two contradictory personalities transplanted to each other. That was Vijaya’s charm. You could never anticipate anyone other than him, when he was there.

If Joe was redeemable because he was at the receiving end of some confusing dilemma (like the baby he has raise in Punchi Baba, or the lifestyle of Colombo he has to get used to in Kolamba Sanniya), Vijaya was unredeemable because he was at the other end, always provoking if not unleashing some havoc. It’s probably not a coincidence that in this respect, his characters were always middle class, consumerist, often in professions that called for security, stability, sometimes status: as a Junior Visualiser in an advertising agency in Yes Boss, the chief in a security firm in Sir Last Chance, and a sergeant in Magodi Godayi. Where he was his own man – the magul kapuwa in Sikuru Hathe or Rajamanthri in so many movies and TV series – he wasn’t a provocateur, but a lovable antihero. And like all antiheroes, he conceals goodness because he despises it, like in Sikuru Hathe, where all those deceptions he commits were for his daughter.

Where he was paired with another actor, he failed. He was his man, so when in Methuma he and Sriyantha Mendis are caught as two lunatics by a veda mahaththaya in some village, he didn’t really shine the way he had in Ethuma. Even in Magodi Godayi, opposite Gamini Susiriwardana, he was less than he usually was. Yes Boss and Nonawarune Mahathwarune had him among other actors, to be sure, but then he was on his own there. He could have been in his own world.

So once he was cast with another actor, he couldn’t give his best. He could give his best only if his co-star was alert and alive to his range, or if his character was a lesser breed than that co-star. That is what transpired in King Hunther, where he could be himself opposite Mahendra Perera for two reasons: because Mahendra was a versatile comic actor himself, and because Hunther was from a different time, so different and long ago that this present world (in which Mahendra is an escaped convict) is outlandish, overwhelming. It needed time to get used to, and that meant getting used to the first two people he befriends: Mahendra and Anarkali Akarsha.

Vijaya Nandasiri’s triumph then was his gift at getting us to feel for unfeeling antiheroes. Sometimes he could trump us, as Joe often did, like in King Hunther, when he hears that the politician who befriends him to further his own interests has decided to kill him off, and surreptitiously escapes. You never thought he was capable of such a feat, but that’s how the movie ends. In vindicating his faith in us, he was getting us to vindicate our faith in him, no matter how idiotic he was.

He couldn’t be like that as Rajamanthri because he was not reflecting our contempt for figures of authority, but downright embodying it. When, towards the end of Suhada Koka, he is killed off by an assassin acting on the orders of the second-in-command to the Prime Minister (W. Jayasiri), there’s a homily on the corrupting influence of power that’s supposed to represent every politician’s ultimate fate. And then, just as you come to terms with this end, he wakes up (because it was a nightmare).

You’d think he’d learn from his fears, but he doesn’t. Even after that harrowing fantasy, he’s back to being the pompous figure he always was and will be. But in that short sequence he told us everything that needed to be told about the way in which the corrupt could be taught the errors of their ways. Was it a cruel coincidence that the only time Rajamanthri was killed off like that marked the last time Vijaya played Rajamanthri? We don’t really know, but perhaps it was more than a coincidence. Perhaps it was the only fitting end to such a career that could be filmed.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The tragedy of our comedy


The end of tragedy in the West came about with the rise of reason and intellect. As Nietzsche points out in The Birth of Tragedy, Euripides and Socrates were the main culprits. Simply put, they rationalised what couldn’t be rationalised.

But Western tragedy, as Lionel Abel contends in his book Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form, was never the preserve of Western culture. The best playwrights, including not just Aeschylus and Shakespeare, but also Euripides and Racine, were unable to depict characters that lacked self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is what inflates Macbeth, Hamlet, even King Lear. Their awareness of a destiny, of a cruel higher fate ordaining their universe, is what was supposed to compel their tragedy. No, Abel points out: by dramatising these characters and attributing to them a false sense of order, their writers were actually foregoing on their tragic element.

Self-consciousness is also what epitomises comedy. The basic traits of the Western comic theatre – manipulation, deceit, contortion, and confusion – are to be found in tragedy as well. But what differentiate the one from the other are their respective relations with the cinema. The Western tragedy approximates to the Western dramatic film only if the character or protagonist is compelled to break the fourth wall. This is rare, if at all because the cinema, unlike the theatre, believes in distancing the viewer from the plight of its heroes and heroines when the latter are faced with calamity.

The worst of the American cinema – by which I include Tommy Wiseau’s hilariously unwatchable The Room – breaks this rule, in which case the tragic element is sacrificed, sometimes inadvertently, for the comic. Wiseau’s film is terrible because it tries to relate to us his protagonist’s tragedy (which, because this was a personal work of art, was also his tragedy) with pretensions to a dramatic form. He does not believe in distancing us. He is self-aware. Consequently, its mood deteriorates to a rather bizarre form of comedy. When one indulges in this playful wreckage of genres, one indulges in parody, the kind of parody that has pervaded comedians everywhere. It’s a crude, hopelessly prolonged form that leaves us in the dark, groping for more.

And it’s exactly that form of parody that has invaded our cinema, our directors, our scriptwriters, our actors. In the Western dramatic film the characters do not break the fourth wall to address us, unlike in a play. They keep us away from their dilemma. The same can’t be said of the comedy film. Of comedy and drama in the theatre Susan Sontag (reviewing Abel’s book) contended that they were “best defined in relation to each other.” But in the cinema they are pitted against each another. Drama and tragedy lose their theatrical sense of artifice and epicness when adapted to the screen. Comedy and parody do not. Consequently, they are the more unsubtle of the two, and as such don’t require a breaking of the fourth wall: they require the assumption that the fourth wall has already been broken even before they begin. And even in the movies.

The difference between their comedies and our comedies is that in the West, even with the likes of Wiseau and Uwe Boll (whose films transcend their genres in a terrible way), humour never condescends to artifice: it celebrates it (I’ll come back to this shortly). The characters are believable even in the most absurd situations. They are cheerfully dumb, which as Sontag points out “secures their invulnerability” (think of Harold Lloyd dangling dangerously from the hands of a clock high above a street in Safety Last). By contrast, here we neglect the believability of our protagonists.

The problem with our directors today is that they don’t make us laugh with original ideas. They merely recycle the past. And if they can’t recycle the past, they recycle the foreign, marketing it as an original. Maya was the inevitable continuation of all those films which had certain superstars as cross-dressers (including Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan). The film inspired a panel discussion after its release, which tried to drive home the point that it was more than what it actually was. Of course, Ranjan Ramanayake’s ascent (or descent) into a cross-dressing hero was worthy of any such point, but then at the end of the day, it was an exercise in recycled parody.

Wada Bari Tarzan spliced footage from George of the Jungle. This was only to be expected: the production cost would have soared if Tennyson Cooray were to be filmed fighting a digitalised lion. But its shallowness came about precisely because of these slow footed attempts at parody. And it wasn’t even a parody of what its title suggested, since the film is closer to the American cinema’s own parodies of Tarzan. This parody of a parody, or a parody within a parody, is what our moviemakers have marketed to us as entertainment, and like obedient children, we enjoy it.

The difference between comedy and parody is the same as the difference between originality and mimesis. It’s an extension of the idea of art as a replication of reality, the latter of which makes up the theory of aesthetics from Plato’s time. So if art is replication, the replication of art is further away from reality, even further away if it’s a replication of a replication (which is what recycled parody is). Any attempt at approximating to drama that ultimately proves to be unsuccessful is no different, as Wiseau’s The Room and Boll’s Alone in the Dark show. It’s not even art, rather subversion of art, and like all acts of subversion the subversive artist must be equipped with the tools to transcend the limits of what he or she is doing.

The most refreshing comedies from the last five years, including Giriraj Kaushalya’s Suhada Koka, don’t attempt at recycled parody despite their barely fleshed out plots. Suhada Koka has no original ideas that can distinguish it from those other comedies revolving around Rajamanthri. And yet, because of how well it offers variations on the same plotlines, the same narrative devices (case in point: Rajamanthri hiring his poor cousin as a household servant, in direct contrast to an episode of Ethuma where that same cousin and his mother are denied an audience at his office), it does more than reuse the past. There’s nothing being recycled here. Only refurbished.

Suhada Koka, like Sikuru Hathe, King Hunther, and Ko Mark No Mark, doesn’t belong to the category that most of Ranjan Ramanayake’s movies do. The Ranja series, and even a film like Sinhaya (which has him as the guardian of an orphanage), are self-referential. There’s nothing new, not because of a want for new ideas but because Ramanayake has superseded himself so much that he doesn’t need to be overtly self-conscious: we know the moment that blast of testosterone-laden music and that bald vigilante sporting sunglasses and an unsmiling face appear that it’s going to be the same deal. He is no subversive because, given his public image, why should he try to be? As with the Tennyson Cooray and Bandu Samarasinghe vehicles, his work is therefore a slapdash rehash of everything you’ve seen before.

What is tragic about our comedies, then, is that even the best of them are sometimes subject to the excesses of the worst. Those excesses aren’t celebrated, they are condescended to. (This is the real difference between parody and recycled parody.) One notices such a dichotomy even in America: starting from the eighties, the deterioration of comedy into a poor, shoddy mimesis culminated in Epic Hard, Superhero Movie, and the Scary Movie series, all of which force us to enjoy their ill-timed, indifferently lit, and clueless plotlines. One can’t be forced to laugh, of course, unless one is provided with cues to so do. Resorting to such cues is a sign of artistic bankruptcy, though it does bring in dollars and rupees.

Contrary to popular belief, tragedy never died in the West with Euripides. There was no tragedy in the first place, as Abel points out: all that was there was a form of theatre rooted in the self-consciousness of its characters. If what one takes as tragedy in this respect was similar to comedy, there was no dichotomy between the two onstage. But the cinema was a different art form, which meant that only comedy could subsist on self-consciousness: its greatest strength and weakness. In Sri Lanka, the comedy film has come to rely so much on this sense of self-consciousness that its deterioration to recycled parody could only spell out its death knell. At one level, it’s almost a national tragedy. But are we lamenting? I don’t think so.

In France there was a theatre form that celebrated violence and horror. They called it the Grand Guignol. I rather think that we have transcribed it to our comedies, with the caveat that we have substituted gluttony and excess for gore and erotica.

Written for: Daily Mirror, August 15 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017

The true dimensions of 'sanhindiyawa' in our schools


What is it about nationalism that irks academics? Why has scholarship for so long denigrated nationalist ideologies as repelling, alienating, negative? More specifically, why has Western scholarship treated nationalism as an ideology of the Other, thereby denying it any validity and monopolising its validity in the West? I believe it was Vaclav Havel who once complained that soon after the Iron Curtain collapsed, the same Western powers which had compelled its collapse began reserving the same freedoms it had promised the former Soviet bloc to itself. “Free trade, but only for the West,” he observed rather sardonically. The same can be said of nationalism: only for, by, and against anyone other than the West.

We have endured sloganeering for so long that it’s become a part of our political culture. Firstly we were promised a dharmishta samajayak. Then came neo-liberalism. Then came neo-liberalism with a human face (the biggest whopper of them all). Then came a chinthanaya that even those who had authored swerved away from. Most recently, we’ve had yahapalanaya. From these slogans emerged other, as dubiously picked on slogans. The best and most ambivalent of them has been one that has pitted itself against nationalism, and as such is vaguely defined. Sanhindiyawa.

I don’t have a problem with reconciliation. I do have a problem with the way it’s perceived, implemented, and in some instances perpetuated by people who pretend to know its true meaning. Pretty much like procedural democracy, it’s seems harmless and indeed positive on the surface, but when it comes to its implementation, serious questions tend to crop up. And none more problematic than that topic of importing reconciliation, and with it multiculturalism, secularism etc to our schools.

When Chandrika Kumaratunga (heading the Task Force on Reconciliation) contended last year that schools with mono-ethnic, mono-religious student populations must be diversified, and when she picked on certain schools (the Olcott ones) which she accused of harbouring racism, she was critiqued and insulted, even by those who couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be associated with the kind of racism those schools were and are. I noted at the time that while she had made a valid point, there was enough and more evidence to suggest that given her track record on ensuring rights for the Sinhalese and on Eelamism, one couldn’t be blamed for criticising her.

That didn’t mean I disagreed with her point: it was a case of disagreeing with the person making the point. And in disagreeing with her, I think we all conflated the one with the other and abandoned the opportunity for any constructive debate we could have had over the topic she touched on. My contention on the matter is this: just as much as Western scholarship has defined and de-validated nationalism to suit their interests (one only has to read Chomsky and Edward Said to ascertain how well this deception has been perpetuated), it also defines reconciliation in the developing world. Despite that, however, I personally believe that BOTH nationalism AND reconciliation can nurture a better future for a country, ANY country. In my book the two aren’t mutually incompatible. They are one and the same.

Benedict Anderson strived with his research to prove that nationalism inspired selflessness, the kind of selflessness that cosmopolitanism could not inspire. Nations were formed out of nations, and as such were composed of tightly knit, at times self-contradictory societies. They were as subject to the ebb of love and hate that individuals are. Out of this ebb and flow came some form of destiny, some higher calling, which while rooted in emotion was also rooted in historical realities. As I noted in this column weeks ago, the fact that we have foregone on those realities in our curriculum meant that an entire generation grew up apathetic to our heritage. Bringing in multiculturalism to that generation, without a concomitant shift in the way we teach them who we are, and what we did, would be disastrous and paradoxical.

There’s a difference between a multiculturalism that is rooted in identity and a multiculturalism that is blind to identity, just as much as there is a difference between a nationalism that is respectful of the Other and a nationalism that is rooted in hatred of the Other. The latter can’t be sustained, while the former can. I believe it was Dr Dayan Jayatilleka who drew a distinction between the multicultural liberals who swept across our political landscape decades ago and the rootless intelligentsia who are parading themselves as their successors today. That’s the kind of distinction I want to make here, a distinction that is at once fundamentalist and tragic, since the latter group have made strides in the reconciliation game. Blind to history, blind to the aspirations of the majority, they have succeeded in repressing the hardcore extremists so much that those extremists are bound to come out. Sooner than later.

The only thing worse than ignorance is indifference, particularly when it comes to history and heritage. And yet, we are indifferent, if not our generation then the generation that will follow us. We are open to modernity, but we haven’t really grasped it to take that necessary leap from imitativeness to ingenuity. We can only translate and use what we translate to rubbish who we are.

So why make the case for reconciliation in our schools at all? For the obvious reason that there’s never one nation as far as this country is concerned. A multicultural student population (and not just secular) is the great leveller. Not only does it teach you to be alive to others, to be curious about how another collective acts and thinks, it also is the least flawed mechanism for inculcating in our people respect for the Other. Extremism is never bred at adulthood; it’s there from childhood. Compelling students to mingle with one another isn’t merely good for reconciliation, it also prepares them for a world where collectives flourish by mingling with one another.

Long, long ago, before 1956 and even before 1948, economic status and racism were inversely related: the more affluent your clique was, the less room there was for interethnic hatred. The problem with liberalism and cosmopolitanism is that both those terms are predicated on a bourgeois lifestyle and ethic. I came across this troubling dichotomy in Ruwanthi de Chickera’s recent play, Dear Children Sincerely, where in the space of about 20 minutes an old lady reminiscences about life before the attempted 1962 coup: full of dinner parties, unfinished puddings, and indifference to those outside her circle.

I believe 1956 changed all that, but that aforementioned dichotomy never truly went away. Regi Siriwardena correctly noted that 1956 preserved class discrepancies in a more insidious way. The middle and lower classes were emancipated, yes, but the theoretical elite, i.e. those who have morphed into the rootless intelligentsia today, continued to call the shots in our political sphere. Not even Mahinda Rajapaksa was immune to this elite: the Chinthanaya he advertised was undone by the modernist discourse on development that he followed (even while substituting China for India and the USA).

It is this elite that continues to head and lead our reconciliation game. In itself, this isn’t a problem. The problem is that by being indifferent to history as they are, these liberals (I am rather troubled to use that term on them) clamour to rob that same class which was emancipated by 1956 by importing a form of reconciliation, into our schools, that is shorn of any cultural or historical imperatives. Not unlike the missionaries who came with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other, they are charging through the china shop, forgoing on a constructive, meaningful reconciliation process that can truly enrich our children. The greatest damage to this country wasn’t inflicted by the racists, I believe. It was inflicted by those who, being blissfully unaware of the racists, pushed and repressed them into doing what they did.

History tends to repeat itself. Naturally, I am worried. I think we all should be.

Written for: Daily Mirror, August 11 2017

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Moving into a milieu: 'Delovak Athara' and 'Ran Salu'

The third in a series of sketches of the movies of Lester James Peries.

After Rekava and Sandeshaya, Lester James Peries knew that no one was going to take a chance with him again. With Gamperaliya he found someone who would: Anton Wickramasinghe. Wickramasinghe, then separated from his wife, was living in the Orient Club, the haven of the Colombo elite. In the history of our cinema, he was probably the only producer who had a connoisseur’s taste for the movies. The fact that that he did not want to continue with Gamperaliya’s two sequels, even after it won abroad, attests to that. Lester’s fourth film needed to be different, therefore.

Delovak Athara remains my favourite movie by Lester, if at all because it moved into a milieu I can identify with at once. The great achievement of Gamperaliya was that, despite the social backgrounds of the cast and crew, it evoked rural life rather startlingly. That famous opening sequence wasn’t there in Martin Wickremasinghe’s novel, for instance: it was plotted by Regi Siriwardena, and it delayed the shooting of the film for a whole year until the Mahakappina Walawwa was discovered. The greatest art is sometimes born out of accident. The Sinhala cinema prospered because of those accidents, especially in Lester’s career.

It’s perhaps a testament to the man’s individuality, but he never displayed any overt enthusiasm for the New Wave in continental Europe. His signature was Renoirean: graceful, poetic, never slipshod, always calculated. Delovak Athara became the only movie of his which swerved from that trend. For a moment at least, it embraced the grey but freewheeling charm of Godard and Truffaut. “What is your ambition?” Patricia asks a celebrity in Godard’s Breathless. “To become immortal, and then die,” replies that celebrity. And yet, there’s nothing random about these conversations: underlying and puncturing them was the freewheeling zeitgeist of its time, which symbolised an entire generation. Delovak Athara was a little like that. No less a critic than Philip Cooray called it his most continental work, comparing his cameraman, Willie Blake, to the great Raoul Coutard, Godard’s cameraman.

With Delovak Athara the man rebelled against the conventional wisdom of the sixties: that the director was an auteur. No, he said to Malinda Seneviratne 15 years ago, “The film director is like a conductor. He has to interpret a script with a whole group of people.” Lester’s first interest had been literature – the awards he won at St Peter’s were all for essay competitions – and he once recalled, for me, the days when he’d cycle to the Public Library. He was respectful of the scriptwriter's role in the moviemaking process, which is why the quality of his work can be traced to his writers.

Delovak Athara doesn’t succeed at being the terse thriller it tries to be. There are sequences which, while incidental to the plot, take time to unravel even after we stop anticipating their final punch. The sequence of Shirani (Jeewarani Kurukulasuriya) swooning after her fiancée and our protagonist Nissanka (Tony Ranasinghe) tells her his terrible secret is like that. We await it, are thrilled by anticipating her reaction to his ill-timed confession, but by the time she does swoon after two items in a concert-pageant, we’ve lost our interest. Even that sequence of Nissanka contemplating his dilemma at night is melodramatic, and his paranoid imaginings (he “sees” the man he killed outside his window) add little to what we already know.

It’s a rather flawed film, but it was probably the best of its kind made here. But while it managed to replicate the zeitgeist of Godard’s films, it had none of the Gallic spontaneity of the New Wave. The mood was intellectualised, unemotional, and cold. Of the penultimate sequence Cooray had this to say: “Nissanka is standing by a tree, lost in his thoughts, the camera moves slowly around him, frames him between two tree trunks, and catches the slow trickle of a tear down his cheek. But the scene does not move us. The objectivity is all.” Lester had abandoned Renoir, yes, but he hadn’t abandoned the documentarian in him. That’s where the objectivity came from.

And it’s exactly that sharp, focused, unemotional objectivity which is missing in Ran Salu, the next film he directed. Anton Wickramasinghe, in a move characteristic of Lester’s career, stopped making films with him after Delovak Athara. Considered at this point as a prestige failure (the movie didn’t make a profit, and took time to break even), he was offered a most unlikely deal: a script by a man he once described as probably the only original scriptwriter in the Sinhala cinema, P. K. D. Seneviratne. Like Delovak Athara, it would be shot in the same milieu, with roughly the same cast (Tony Ranasinghe, Irangani Serasinghe, and J. B. L. Gunasekera) but with a different crew (particularly the cameraman, Sumitta Amarasinghe, who was closer to Seneviratne’s glamorised view of village life than Willie Blake could be).

You’ll notice that many writers and audiences describe Ran Salu as a Buddhist film today. But there are no “Buddhist” films, just as there are no “Marxist” films or “capitalist” films: these are convenient labels used to demarcate the ideology of the work of art, as opposed to what that work of art actually represents and contains. P. K. D. Seneviratne was less a scriptwriter of Buddhist movies than he was a moralist parading as a middle-of-the-road cineaste. Deeply influenced by the Colombo poets, he saw in the village the salvation of his country and his race.

Towards the end of the 1950s, when our directors began to feverishly adapt the novels of W. A. Silva, the trend was to capture the country’s lost innocence with certain stock figures borrowed from the early English theatre: the innocent virgin, the abusive, drunk, lascivious headman, and the devoted paramour. In Seneviratne’s hands, that virgin became Punya Heendeniya, that headman became D. R. Nanayakkara, and that paramour became Dayananda Gunawardena. The film was Kurulubedda, which got so conflated with Rekava later on that even the compilers of the Insight Guide on Sri Lanka wrote that they were directed by the same person, Lester.

Ran Salu was the inevitable continuation of Kurulubedda and Sikuru Tharuwa, and had the same cast, including Punya, Nanayakkara, and Dayananda. By shifting to the same milieu that had characterised Delovak Athara (Kurulubedda had been stimulated by the visual loveliness of Rekava, and as with that film, Seneviratne was inspired by Lester here too), he continued with the change of setting, a point reinforced by having Irangani Serasinghe and J. B. L. Gunasekera as the mother and the father.

It’s a different kind of Buddhist ethos which sweeps across in the movie, consumerist, cosmetic, and lavish. Seneviratne depicted the contradiction at the heart of that milieu rather well. While Delovak Athara (like Rekava) didn’t contain a hint of the temple or Buddhism, here the clash between the social aspirations of Sujatha’s family and their commitment to their faith accentuates the plot. So much so, in fact, that anyone repudiating that faith in favour of those aspirations had to be a villain.

That villain was Tony Ranasinghe. In one sequence he flares up, frustrated at his fiancée’s reserved attitude to their affair: “I won’t come to this house if that dasa sil gani does.” To which he gets a typical Seneviratne-ist response from Sujatha (Punya): “Don’t ever speak of that nun like that again to me, Cyril. I don’t like it.”

In the American Western the saviour is always a man of the people, but he’s more refined than the people he’s with. In Seneviratne’s movies, the heroes are rooted in their surroundings, but they are more sophisticated than their people, who are depicted as simpletons not unlike the forever grinning villagers (who exist to entertain) in John Ford’s films. Kurulubedda had a whole bunch of these simpletons, socially less well off than the two heroes. Even in Ran Salu, that discrepancy comes off: both Sujatha and Senaka are affluent, though from different milieus, while the servants are chatty, gossipy innocents. (This even pervades the score: for the servants, especially Nanayakkara, Amaradeva reserved the only upbeat musical motif in the movie.)

At a little more than two hours, Ran Salu was as long or short (depending on how you prefer to see it) as Delovak Athara. But while Delovak Athara was an intellectualised picture – it revolved around a single incident, after all – Ran Salu was, as Cooray called it, a “plotted” film. Emotionally it overwhelms, which is why it lacks the objectivity of its predecessor, but then it wasn’t really Lester.

In Ran Salu Lester hence achieved his conception of the director as a conductor. “I did nothing but transform the script,” he once told me when I talked with him. True. Together with its fidelity to realism that was lacking in Seneviratne’s previous work, Ran Salu was, at the end of the day, a scriptwriter’s dream come true. Lester wouldn’t return to the theme of faith as a leveller for 40 years. And after those 40 years were done, he returned to it for one final time, as Ammawarune would be his last film.

Written for: Daily Mirror, August 10 2017

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The 'today' and 'tomorrow' of Sinhala


The Cumaratunga Munidasa Sisuvarama, organised by the Cumaratunga Munidasa Foundation, was held for the sixth consecutive time on Tuesday, July 25 at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Centre in Colombo.

Poetry strikes us in roughly the same way that the movies strike the Americans. In both instances, we are so overwhelmed by the first time we heard or saw them: which American can’t think of their archetypal saviour, the cowboy, without remembering the films of John Ford (The Searchers), and which Sri Lankan can’t think of the rabbit, probably the most cartoonish animal out there, without thinking of Cumaratunga Munidasa’s “Ha Ha Hari Hawa” and the many renditions of it?

The great achievement of a movie, I think, is the great achievement of a poem: both take us back to those triumphs, defeats, broken hearts, and so much more besides that we had undergone when we first encountered them. A film is like a language, after all: it’s built, sustained, sometimes even improved on through nostalgia. But nostalgia alone isn’t enough. What is needed, now more than ever before, is a set of discerning people to transform that nostalgia into a living, breathing entity. The Sinhala language is a case in point. It nourishes us, and then appeals to us to perpetuate it.

I know, have talked with, and have conceded to those doomsday prophets (whose numbers are increasing, disturbingly) who predict the end of the Sinhala language as we know it. Underlying their prediction are certain irrefutable facts, prime among them being the virtual erasure of its spoken/written dichotomy by popular culture. It’s one of the greatest ironies of our time, but when mass media (journalism, advertising, television) discovered our mother tongue, it wasn’t liberated. It was stunted. Rather badly. Probably that’s why it’s hard to come across young poets writing in Sinhala, not because they don’t have the ideas but because they don’t read. It’s a contemporary dilemma, since by refusing to read, they refuse to take forward what underpins all those poems which nourished their childhoods.

For that reason, a scholarship program aimed at recognising academic achievement in Sinhala has to take note of certain realities. Firstly, not every student who achieves distinctions in that subject actually continues to “study” it. More often than not, these students are compelled to take to another subject once they reach their A Levels (with science and commerce being the preferred options). Secondly, the scholarship as such, while monetary at the outset, must aim for more than the usual incentives such schemes are built on, not least because a language can’t be limited to academia and is probably the only subject that lives and breathes on its own outside academia.

In 2012 the Cumaratunga Munidasa Foundation began one such program. That year was special: it marked the 125th birth anniversary of the Foundation’s figurehead. Together with the National Savings Bank and Ada Derana, each winner was given a monthly bursary of 1,000 rupees, a 100,000 rupee bank deposit, and a laptop. Named Sisuvarama, the program was unique for one reason. It targeted the Ordinary Level exams, knowing that not all high achievers at that stage in their education follow it up as the years pass by. The organisers of Sisuvarama were spot on there, since almost all the scholarship winners have subsequently moved into other harder subjects.

That was five years back. Five years later, more specifically two weeks ago (July 25) at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Centre in Colombo, the Foundation held its scholarship ceremony for the sixth time, in commemoration of Cumaratunga Munidasa’s 130th birth anniversary. It was an ill-chosen day: the petrol strike was on. Such a mundane issue, however, couldn’t overwhelm what I took from this Sisuvarama.

The stories behind this year’s winners merit mention here. Of the seven, three come from Galle, two from Panadura, one from Minuwangoda, and one from Colombo. The three winners from Galle (Sandamini Paranavithana, Thiwanka Ruvishani, and Yasamini Anuththara) all attended Sanghamitta Balika, and all three come from backgrounds which, while certainly not cosmetic or extravagant, nurtured their love to read and to write. Roshani Dhanushika (from President’s College, Minuwangoda) took an interest in the subject after she began to be taught by capable teachers from Grade Eight. Pasindu Buwaneka de Silva (from Isipathana College), had to write his paper while recovering from dengue at the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Angoda. Vimukthi Abhishek (from Nalanda College) started entering essay competitions from Grade Three, while Thisari Walawage entered her present school (Visakha Vidyalaya) from the Grade Five scholarship and studied in the English medium thereafter.

Of the people who spoke that day, Professor Wimal Dissanayake struck me the most. In the space of half an hour, Professor Dissanayake dwelt on an otherwise hackneyed topic: the place for modernity in tradition. Mercifully, he wasn’t concerned about bringing modernity to tradition, rather the other way around and that by delving into how the man at the centre of the event ensured that we did not forget who we were while engaging with the rest of the world. “Aluth aluth da nothanana jaathin lova nonagi,” Victor Ratnayake quoted Cumaratunga Munidasa for me as he lamented how today’s composers have forgotten the past. What’s true for our composers is true also for those who will wield our mother tongue tomorrow.

The problem with the contemporary world is that it separates the academic from the social. We are goaded into categorising the likes of Cumaratunga as writers, poets, or the more derogatory deshiya buddhimathun, forgetting that they were less the intellectuals they are cut out to be than the national revivalists they actually were. “Reading ‘Kumara Gee’, I cannot help but conclude that Cumaratunga Munidasa, much as he loved the language of the Sinhalese, loved it less than he loved his nation and his people,” Malinda Seneviratne wrote. To me and my countrymen, his legacy can’t be rationalised by linguistics or semantics. He was more, much more, than anything those terms can ever convey.

When Nanda Malini resurrected not just Cumaratunga but also Tibet S. Mahinda and Wimalaratne Gamage in her collection Handahami, she gave out some of the most memorable lyrics we had heard as children. I could feel a thin film of tears across my eyes as she sang “Ha Ha Hari Hawa”, that romantic tribute to the rabbit which Titus Thotawatte took as the title song of his version of Bugs Bunny. The film opened up when I realised that Titus had been an ardent follower of Cumaratunga: as a member of the Hela Havula, he was the first in our cinema who tried to do away with those Sanskrit impurities his guru had strived to erase. It opened up even more when I remembered that my childhood had been adorned by a popular culture (including Dosthara Honda Hitha) which stood for what my country spoke, in one voice. That voice went back to one person, one name. The connection was hard not to make.

That is why Sisuvarama is so important to me, to my country, to everyone interested in Sinhala. A language, by its definition, sweeps across demographics and social barriers. It survives despite them because it’s a living, breathing entity. But I am upset by how we tend to our own language less and less, particularly those of us who are entranced by modernity and the modernist discourse on nationality.

The fact is that we don’t read our own books, our own stories. The fact is that we market our “aptitude” for our language without nourishing ourselves in our literature. By forgetting grammar and syntax, artists dabbling in Sinhala today are doing a disservice to our language. They are little more than anchorless ships, a point which crops up when considering that they are hailed by some as “revolutionaries.” Well, so were James Joyce and Jean-Luc Godard, but unlike their counterparts today, they were aware of the work done before them, which prepared them for what they did.

All this is rooted in a rotten circle that goes around and around: those who grow up in Sinhala-speaking families lose their interest in it, enchanted as they are by pop culture, while those who grow up in a more westernised environment abandon it to devote themselves to English theatre and literary circles. (This strange dichotomy, between those who neglect Sinhala despite their vernacular backgrounds and those who take to English because of their non-vernacular backgrounds, baffles me.) But by that I don’t bemoan modernity. The truth is that modernity and nationalism can and do cohere, and as scholars like Benedict Anderson observed, the latter can be more unifying than the cosmopolitanism we teach our children today.

The Cumaratunga Munidasa Foundation has clearly taught us some lessons in that respect. Relevant for our time, relevant for all time. What they are, we know. All we need to do is take a leaf from them, and from those seven students who won this year, and try to define ourselves based on how much we understand what defines us. It won’t be easy, but my guess is that it won’t be difficult either.

Written for: Daily Mirror, August 8 2017

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Lithmal Jayawardhana: The profile of a performer


Old people fascinate me. So do young people, though for qualitatively different reasons. They fascinate me because they have stories to tell and these differ from age-category to age-category. For obvious reasons, old people have a lot to tell, far more than anything their younger counterparts can or ever will. This, however, is not a hard-and-fast rule. The truth is that although their stories are fewer in number, the lives some young people lead are a poor indicator of their age. Fortunately for me, as a writer, I’ve met quite a number of them. Including Lithmal Jayawardhana.

I first came across the name somewhere in 2013, when MTV organised the first reality TV show involving school debating here, The Debater. Two schools had reached the finals: mine (Lyceum International, Nugegoda) and his (Ananda College). For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out which would win. Our team was good, theirs was good and in many respects better equipped (after all we were young), but at the end of the day, watching Lithmal speak convinced me what the outcome would be. We lost.

I saw him again as an actor about a year later, after I began writing on the theatre and in particular the English theatre. I saw him dance, I saw him sing, and I saw him perform at dinner parties and just being himself. The truth is that, even with all these lives, Lithmal to me remains a curious paradox. He enchants you and then distances you. He concentrates on both the now and the thereafter. His eyes often give the impression that he’s looking into you while looking away. With other artists his age in general, there’s a rift between the performer and the person. I’m not entirely sure whether that applies to him, though.

His story goes back many, many years, long before he entered school and preschool. Actually, it begins the moment he started to dabble in the arts. “My first love was dancing and drawing. I was born into Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, Thriller, and Heal the World. I saw him dance on TV and, though I wouldn’t have taken in what he was saying, I was interested in how he conveyed his feelings through his body. Added to that was a veritable onslaught of Disney cartoons, which got me to draw.”

Having entered preschool in Kohuwala (“I was the first to be enrolled there”), he then took to music after the lady who ran the place (“Aunty Sue”) ensnared her children with the piano and the organ. We are the musical instruments we take to from an early age, which probably explains Lithmal’s affinity for the piano. “Those first impressions were vital to my later career,” he contends, “It was under Aunty Sue that I got rid of my stage fright. It was under her that I began singing. And talking.”

Ananda College was different. It had to be. There, he fell under the influence of his first real teacher in the arts, Vidyarathna Fernando, who taught dancing and was very much conversant with the pahatha rata tradition. “Vidyarathna sir knew almost all forms of dancing, because at the end of the day, whatever the culture it’s derived from, it’s about conveying what you feel through your body. I continued for two years, and would have been about nine or 10 at the time, in Grade Four.” This had been followed by Pipena Kakula, a little like, but actually more, much more, than a talent show.

Being a total stranger to this concept, I ask him to explain how it worked with him. “It all began with a teacher called Mrs Dulcie Fernando. I believe she later wound up as the headmistress of the primary section, though I’m not really sure. Pipena Kakula had no criteria to fulfil, no prior experience to list out if you wanted to enter. Back then teachers knew parents and parents knew what the teachers thought about their children. It so happened that Mrs Fernando asked my mother to enrol me. She willingly obliged. One thing led to another, and eventually I found myself among four students who were being trained to announce in front of a crowd.”

It wasn’t just announcing of course, since all four of them danced and sang as well. “We were out of pitch, since we hadn’t learnt to do either properly,” Lithmal grins, “At the time I thought Pipena Kakula was trying to get us to try out different activities. Looking back, however, I realise now that it was actually getting us to concentrate on what we excelled at. In my case, announcing.”

All that, however, would be repressed when he entered middle school and shifted gears to his studies rather seriously. “There is a blank chapter in my life from Grade Six to Grade Nine. Apart from picking up the guitar and violin, the latter less so, I let go of my love for the performing arts in favour of a stable routine: going to school, coming back home, studying, watching Scooby-Doo, just chilling out.”

Fate works in curious ways and in Lithmal’s case, it would take him away from that banal lifestyle. “What happened was that I got into debating. I wasn’t even in the Debating Society at the time, back in Grade 10. I was dragged to it, supposedly to fill in a quota for an upcoming series of tournaments. I was first asked to speak for three minutes on any topic I wanted. Then I was given a topic to speak on for two minutes. My first real encounter thereafter was with the Sri Lanka Schools Debating Championship, organised by the Faculty of Law at the University of Colombo. To say the least, it opened my eyes. Even more so when the same people who took me to debating dragged me to another activity I fell in love with: drama.”

The first play as such to feature him was the Ananda College Drama Circle submission to the Inter-School Shakespeare Drama Competition in 2010, Macbeth. He had acted as a messenger there. The following year, he took part in his Circle’s production of The Tempest, again submitted to the Competition. He had been Ariel there, a more significant role. “I found myself returning to those pursuits I had abandoned,” he remembers with a smile, “After my O Levels were done in 2012, I studied hip-hop dancing under Natasha Jayasuriya at the Deanna School of Dance, for about two years. In 2014 I studied ballroom and Latin dancing under Kevin Nugera for six months. Though I left both, we keep in touch.”

A detailed enumeration of each and every play he’s been taken in would, of course, be impractical. Suffice it to say that he has acted again and again and has made us feel his presence well beyond that esoteric circle which crowds around the Lionel Wendt these days. I remember those gifted twins Sarith and Surith Jayawardena highlighting rather firmly that for all the fame they have received, their single biggest audience continue to be the aiyas and mallis at school. The same can be said of Lithmal, which is why I’m not surprised when he tells me that he’s been heavily influenced by the people he’s met at Ananda. “It’s a totally different culture there. You tend to make friends with the son of a CEO and the son of a sweeper, often in the same classroom. It’s a social leveller actually, not just an institution.”

Drama and debating (and with regard to a certain radio company which hired him in October 2014 as a show host and news presenter, announcing): these are the pursuits which continue to define him. His debating record has been as colourful as his acting, needless to say. “Since 2011, I have been involved with tournaments here and abroad. That year, I went through my school to two of them: the Sri Lanka Schools Debating Championship and the World Schools Debating Championship, the latter in Dundee, Scotland. In 2012 I captained the College ‘A Team’ which went to Ipoh, Malaysia for the Asian Schools Debating Championship, the same competition I went to in 2013 in the Philippines and last year, as the Coach, in Kuala Lampur.”

By his own admission, Lithmal loves the spotlight, though not to the extent of hankering after it. “Except for professionally directing my own play, I have been involved with every aspect to the theatre, from backstage management to scripting to coaching to assisting. I can’t say whether I’ll get to direct anytime soon, but my main obsession, if you can put it that way, has been acting. Always. The people I met at Ananda, who sustain our English theatre today, like Nandun Dissanayake, Rajitha Hettiarachchi, and Nishantha de Silva, gave me the push I needed. The same can be said of my juniors, people like Lakshitha Edirisinghe, Thilina Udayaratne, and Vidura Manoratne. In fact if I admire the way they act, even better than I used to at their age, I freely admit it. To their faces.”

Malinda Seneviratne, writing on Vihanga Perera, probably the only poet and novelist his age who has become something of a celebrity here (minus the accretions which develop like calluses around writers like him), implied that youth and arrogance are related: “Reminds me of the man who said that if a list was made of all the humble people in the world he would be No 2, and added ‘If I don’t talk about myself, who would?’” I’m not sure how that applies to Lithmal, though. In any case, what he’s done is clearly enough for him to be on top of his list. Performers, after all and unlike us critics, are a different breed altogether: lively, brash, assertive, and sometimes cocky. Lithmal is all these. Perhaps that’s all I have to say. For now, at least.

Written for: The Island YOUth, August 6 2017