Monday, January 30, 2017

Somaweera Senanayake reflects on the script

I wrote crap as a child. I didn’t learn to write at school, I learnt to read. With the sole exception of my Grade Eight English teacher Ms Marini and my Literature teacher Ms Jamna (the former strict, the latter strict and hardy), my teachers just couldn’t get me to pen words on paper.

I remember trying to write a script while doing my O Levels, at home and away from the rigours of the classroom. I failed miserably, needless to say. Forget getting the characters of the story I’d come up with on to paper, the very act of thinking about the motive, the place, and the actions of those characters was difficult enough. The most I could do in those 12 years at school, I am sorry to say (or am I?), was a half-baked attempt at emulating Enid Blyton and her Five Find Outers, a novel so terrible that it tends to embarrass me even today.

The point is that I can’t write fiction. I tend to lose concentration. That is why, over the years, I have come to realise that those who belittle scriptwriters and writers in general (not to mention poets) would fail miserably if they’re asked to come up with half of what those they marginalise have. I have also come to believe that inasmuch as the literati in Sri Lanka may be impoverished with ideas, we are not so impoverished as to lose hope. In order to regain hope, one must go back to the past. And to go back to the past, one must talk with the veterans. Veterans like Somaweera Senanayake.

Somaweera Senanayake is a novelist I haven’t read (because I don’t read much). He came to us in other ways: through those teledramas, films, and episodes that he scripted. Given my penchant for the cinema and television, I was naturally entranced by how an inherently visual medium could cohabit with the written word. The man has taught us much in that regard.

Most of the other giants in his field – think of Regi Siriwardena, Philip Cooray, Tissa Abeysekara, and of course Tony Ranasinghe – weren’t really novelists. They were, at best, critics and commentators. So how did Senanayake, with more than 20 credits on TV and 10 credits in the cinema, balance his life as a novelist and his life as a scriptwriter? To find that out for myself, I went to meet him at his residence in Boralesgamuwa.

His website (somaweerasenanayake.com) contains a rough outline of his life: born in Udugampola, Gampaha in 1944; educated at the Junior Mixed School in Kudagama, Seethawaka Maha Vidyalaya in Avissawella, and Rajasingha Central College in Ruwanwella; educated later at the University of Sri Jayawardenepura (where he passed out as a Bachelor and Master of Arts, holding also a Diploma in Creative Writing); and pushed into a career as a writer when his debut Yashorawaya clinched the State Literature Award in 1978 and became the first novel to be adapted as a thesis (for his Master’s). All in all, a horde of impressive landmarks.

Not being a fan of the conventional biographical sketch, however, I immediately jump on his career and his views on his craft. I ask him first whether he took to the cinema at the outset. As expected, he says that he did not. “That was anyway inevitable,” he contends, “Because we didn’t really have a cinema of our own to study as children. We were more enthralled by literature. It wasn’t until much later, when I joined the Editorial Board at Lake House in 1968 and stayed there for the next 10 or so years, that I began examining films.” Apparently he had gone to watch quite a number of them at various festivals that came and went, so much in fact he can’t remember them today.

As for scriptwriting, given that there were no institutions teaching the subject at the time, the man had largely taught himself, through journals and books at the British Council.

His stint at Lake House got him into the Sarasaviya, back then the only Sinhala magazine dedicated to the cinema, because of which he got to associate with the Sinhala media’s foremost film critic, Jayawilal Wilegoda. While I have my reservations about much of the views that Wilegoda propagated (in particular, his disparagement of what he erroneously saw as a Westernisation of our directors in the sixties), I nevertheless agree with Somaweera when he tells me that his association with the man helped him discern the movies.

The best scriptwriters have something in common: they are good and competent storytellers. Given Somaweera’s stints at literature, it is probably no cause for wonderment that he graduated to films rather quickly. “One must have a penchant for narrating a story, a katha vasthuwa as we call it, before one can engage in a work of art,” he tells me rather seriously, “I learnt this for myself when I wrote my first film script, Pethi Gomara, that was an adaptation of a story I myself had penned and published as a serial in the Silumana, with Bandula Harischandra’s illustrations. From then on, I went to television when it was first introduced here and when veterans from the cinema and the theatre shifted gears to direct TV series.”

He draws a fine line between the script and the written word. “With a novel, the writer is in complete control. Not so with a script. The writer must acknowledge that his role is all-encompassing. For instance, without a script, the cameraman doesn’t know where to put what, and at what time. The actors wouldn’t know how to act. The visual medium is, yes, based on the image, but getting out an image requires an explication of what goes where. For better or worse, that is inextricably linked to the written word.”

Given his preoccupation with this, what does he have to say about the divide between a film script and a TV script? Somaweera contends that while films are made for huge screens, television is at the outset limited to what many refer to as the idiot box. “Because of this, there are subtle differences, among them the fact that the movies have less of a need for close-ups than do TV series. In other words, you can’t emulate the cinema as a TV director and emulate television as a moviemaker. You need to be aware of those differences, otherwise your attempts, however laudable they may be, will be to no avail.”

He adds moreover that we more or less saw an affirmation of this principle in the first decade of our television industry (during the eighties), starting with the choice of actors for TV serials. The most successful of them, he says, took in actors from the theatre, not cinema. As an example, he brings up two series he scripted: Palingu Manike (where Sriyantha Mendis, Menike Attanayake, and Jackson Anthony virtually graduated from the stage to the screen) and his adaptation of Punyakanthi Wijenaike’s Giraya (where Chandani Seneviratne, Grace Ariyawimal, Peter de Almeida, and Trilicia Gunawardena were strangers to the industry).

In stark contrast, Titus Thotawatte’s Ran Kahawanu, despite its celebrity cast (it boasted of almost every film star from that time, from Sanath Gunathilake to Sabeetha Perera to Kamal Addaraarachchi) failed to inculcate interest in the audience, a problem that according to Somaweera (who scripted it) had to do with the director’s inability to distinguish between the cinema and television. “Titus was an exemplary editor, and he did much during his stay at Rupavahini, but his maiden TV series failed to grab attention precisely because, among other things, he treated it as a film: there weren’t enough close-ups, the actors in it were already known to audiences, and the story was treated from the vantage point of the cinema.”

Since he mentions Giraya, and since I always wanted to meet the man who transcribed it to television, I ask him as to how he battled the two main challenges he would have faced: translating it and adapting it (the two, it must be noted, are clean different). He replies that while he had to start from scratch (Giraya would be translated much later by Cyril C. Perera), it was tougher to adapt.

And to a certain extent, I can understand why: there was much in Punyakanthi’s novel that had to either be weeded away or fleshed out, starting of course with the alleged homosexuality of Lal, who marries the protagonist Kamini.

And to a certain extent, I can understand why: there was much in Punyakanthi’s novel that had to either be weeded away or fleshed out, starting of course with the alleged homosexuality of Lal, who marries the protagonist Kamini.

I put to him that while he and the director, Lester James Peries, were careful enough to take away any suggestion of effeminacy on the character’s part, nevertheless they didn’t completely censor it. As those who’ve watched Giraya would know, Lal departs every morning from his mansion despite Kamini’s protestations. We aren’t told where he goes to, which naturally empowers the discerning viewer to draw inferences and jump to conclusions (which in turn lends credence to the view that the reader reads what the artiste creates). Somaweera argues that this was done so as to instil some subtlety, particularly with regard to audiences who’d already read the novel.

As for the formal structure of the text, he tells me that the biggest challenge there was transliterating a book written entirely from the protagonist’s perspective. “Simply put, the people who obtrude on Kamini’s consciousness needed to be externalised, which meant that new subplots had to be sketched out. For instance, Manel (Kamini’s sister-in-law) strikes up a relationship with the groundskeeper (Cyril Dharmawardena), while a worker rejects authority and invokes Marxist rhetoric, even going as far as to incite rebellion in his colleagues. These were not really present in the novel. They served to add drama and conflict to an already intense plot.”

I then move on to another contentious topic: the themes that engender much of his work. The eighties did for television what the forties and fifties did for our cinema: much of the stories opted for by directors, to a considerable extent, affirmed the family unit. Somaweera tells me here that while most of his scripts did thematise the family, in later years he opted for other topics: Uthuwankande Saradiel, for instance, can hardly be described as a family drama. “I began a trend of scripting family narratives. In fact not too long afterwards I was referred to as the ‘pavule katha karaya’.” That probably has to do with the most famous series he had a hand in shaping, Nalan Mendis’ Doo Daruwo.

What of the present? Somaweera makes one point clear: there is talent, enough and more of it. What is lacking is a proper channel to vent them. “We are not impoverished. We still have promising scriptwriters. Unfortunately, in this commercialised industry, we churn out stories that aren’t very different to each other.” This, he points out, is the result of the intrusion of mega-series, and more specifically mega-series aired on a daily basis. “When such dramas are telecast endlessly, we tend to lose our interest for variety. Naturally, this has the unintended consequence of keeping good scriptwriters out and away.”

Not surprisingly, the man has not authored a script in years. “Will he ever?” is a question we can ask, to which, however, there may not be a proper answer. Whether we can compel an answer, is another question we can ask. The answer, I believe, lies in us. For if we can aspire for qualitatively better films, TV serials, and works of art, then that will suffice for the resurrection of veterans.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, January 29 2017

Sunday, January 29, 2017

'Pentathlon': Five rounds, one finale

Quizzing in Sri Lanka, the way I see it, is supplemented by two points: celebration of school-colour, and the inclusion of General Knowledge as a compulsory subject in the local curriculum. Individual victories are hence quickly subsumed by collective victories. That is why school Quizzes are popular and that is why, if you look carefully enough, you can predict an individual’s school’s rise, fall, and shifting fortunes in the years to come. As a Quizzer myself, I have seen how much the collective prevails over the individual. I have also seen how things get predictable and then swerve off towards the end of a Competition. That’s quizzing for you: predictable, but only to a point.

On Sunday, January 15 at Stein Studios, Ratmalana, Sirasa TV ended what can well be considered as one of the biggest Quiz Shows in our time and country. Pentathlon, a contest that spiralled into a tool of mobility for schools and Quiz Teams, bade farewell to its first season with a veritable display of talent, excitement, and wit. There were four schools, 20 contenders, and one winner. Like I mentioned before, the individual was quickly taken over by the collective. And so, as the evening drew to a close, with the victors being cheered on by a bunch of testosterone and adrenaline laden teenagers, I couldn’t help but think that Quiz Shows couldn’t get more marketable than this.

As the title suggests, Pentathlon is based on five contests: Thappareta Uththare, Ratavata Kathawak, Gola Thunayi Akuru Thunayi, Danumata Ravumak, and Karata Kara. As someone who’s seen the show from its inception, I can say this much about them: they’re structured in a way that no one team can scrape through with sustained victory. The fact that schools have scored in the first few rounds isn’t a guarantee that they’ll get through the last rounds. It’s not only about merit, in other words. It’s about luck too. Big time.

Factoring all this in, how did the show fare? First and foremost, I loved the setup. There was tension, expectation, and, yes, unpredictability. The four contending schools (Royal College Colombo, Musaeus College Colombo, Mahamaya Girls School Kandy, and Mahinda College Galle, in that order) all showed a penchant for fighting on, buttressed by their friends and classmates cheering them from the side-lines. The final result, which I will get to in a while, was merely the culmination to the ecstasy and the agony that prevailed throughout that evening.

None of this, however, would have amounted to much without a set of good questions. By “good”, I am commenting not on their content, but on their malleability and answerability. Before I get to the individual rounds, I therefore will say this: there was an impressive array of questions, some of which were laced with tentative visual clues and many of which, as I expected, relied on the contender’s ability to “filter out” obviously wrong answers.

I found this to be pertinent, for instance, with a question given (in the fourth round) on a painting: the contenders (from Royal College) were told that it was from the Modernist (“Nuthana”) era, after which three Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist painters were listed as possible answers. The fourth such answer, which was (obviously) correct, was Matisse.

I don’t know whether the Royal College team (which did select Matisse) resorted to a “filter out” strategy, but I could glean from this that the Pentathlon crew didn’t merely dish out random questions (visual or otherwise) which tested the contender’s ability to remember. Reality, after all, isn’t only about remembering: it’s also about intuition, about purging what you know to be wrong.

So what of the show itself? Kingsley Rathnayake and Chanu Dissanayake, the hosts, were witty enough. While I am wary of hosts of shows like this “playing around” with children as though they are either sophisticated adults or immature juveniles, I could only smile as they engaged with the contenders, spicing things up and retaining enough tension to prevent the competition from going overboard. Kingsley in particular, firing away quips and anecdotes I could have sworn were impromptu and out-of-the-blue, even managed to “connect” the contenders with the audience, to show them out as the eager, though not blue-eyed, teenagers they were.

Which brings me to the four teams. Royal College, which won, was bested in the first two rounds by Mahinda College, which came second. The Mahinda College team aced Thappareta Uththara, where they went on answering a series of questions in 30 seconds while tossing a ping-pong ball, thanks in part to Lasith Gaurav (who before this had become a sensation online on account of his deft ability to answer questions one after the other, in quick succession).

Ratavata Kathawak, which was less a quiz than an impromptu drama session, had the contenders act out a person’s life: Royal got Usain Bolt, Musaeus got Nelson Mandela, Mahamaya got Ernest Hemingway, and Mahinda got Alfred Nobel. Again, Mahinda topped the round.

Gola Thunayi Akuru Thunayi unearthed the contender’s flair for basketball: you shoot the ball through the basket to reveal the letters of a long word, or you guess the word itself (not the wiser option). The battle lines between Royal and Mahinda converged a little there. With Danumata Ravumak (involving a revolving dartboard), however, the scales tipped in favour of Royal, while in the final round, Karata Kara, the whole show almost went downhill, to the latter’s advantage.

What happened? Karata Kara was a buzzer round. The problem wasn’t that the buzzers didn’t work. The problem was that the buzzers were “buzzed” before the questions were even asked. What’s more, this was permitted, which in a convoluted sense meant that even if the contender couldn’t answer the question, s/he was allowed to press the buzzeras it was being read.

Predictably after a while, the entire round deteriorated, to a point where Mahinda and Royal seemed to engage in a veritable fisticuff, the one trying to press the buzzer before the other (of the other two teams, only Mahamaya managed to get even one question). Was it distracting? Yes. Was it unfair? Well, a couple of spectators behind me seemed to think so. One of them even offered a comment: “Almost a joke.”

Did this mean that it unduly favoured one team, though? I doubt it. The battle lines were, as mentioned before, between two contenders. By the end of the fourth round, again as mentioned before, the scales had tipped. My issue with the final round, therefore, has less to do with conspiracy theories than with the fact that it was jarring and unfairly hedged bets on who could press the buzzer first. On that count alone (and I can only suggest this, as a writer), I believe that Pentathlon should at least qualify the mechanism behind Karata Kara, when it enters its Second Season.

In any case, the final score (Royal 301, Mahinda 250, Mahamaya 195, and Musaeus 47) was quite evidently the result of a tight, terse competition. Royal College moreover walked away with one other trophy, for the best sportsman, dished out to Suveen Ellawala (who, by the way, went on pressing the buzzer to get his team through the final round, ironic considering his award). While there would have been a little bitterness on the part of those who envisioned a different outcome, it all ended with a careful blend of jubilance and sobriety. As it should.

And so, that Sunday evening drew to a close. Like countless other shows as memorable, if not more so, have. Did I like it, as a reluctant consumer of television and an ardent quizzer? Yes. Was there room for improvement? Yes. Was there something that compensated for that? Yes. What?

Simple: the fact that Pentathlon, more than anything else, managed to unearth talent and show it to the rest of the country, and in the process, bring to the forefront schools and Quiz Teams that would not, but for Sirasa, have arisen. Royal College won, yes. Mahinda College got second place, yes. But I am not talking about the final episode only. I am talking about the whole show, from back when it started last year right until its finale that Sunday evening. If at all, the journey, the trials, and the tribulations of every participant have been captured. And preserved.

As a Quizzer, therefore, I will end on this note: Pentathlon should continue. Season Two will, I know and I believe, be awaited. Eagerly. By all of us.

Written for: Ceylon Today HELLO, January 29 2017

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Givantha Arthasad story

In 1979, a man called Premaranjith Tilakaratne went to Anusha Theatre in Maharagama to watch a film. That feature film, the first by its director, was an animated and novel retelling of the story of Dutugemunu. Given that cartoons weren’t in the vogue then, a great many people had naturally shown interest in it, and had thronged halls and theatres by the dozen to watch it for themselves.

By the time Premaranjith had gone to Maharagama, however, Dutugemunu had been banned. Recalling this to me many, many decades later, he had only one comment to offer: “They (the authorities) banned it for stupid, misconceived, and unjustifiable reasons.” Before we come to what those reasons were, though, we should examine the story of the man behind the cartoon.

Most of us acquired a love for stories as children. Stories, however, of a different order, certainly superior to what they have become now. In the process we also acquired a love for animation, the moving image, and in our first few attempts at understanding the cinema, we grew up loving Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and everything else that Walt Disney and (for later generations) the likes of Don Bluth and Miyazaki conjured up for us. Sri Lanka, strange as it may seem, was no stranger to such visionaries. The only thing they lacked, however, was the necessary willpower to move ahead. In this respect, one name stands apart from the rest. Givantha Arthasad.

Givantha Arthasad came to us in the late sixties. He gave us a cartoon industry that, though in shambles today, we no doubt are thankful for. He projected an image of himself which, I believe fervently, survives his work to date. Sporting a long, sagacious beard that at once taps into his formidable and creative sensibilities, he appears (as he pretty much is) larger than life. Ever since he began his career, he has specialised in eight different aesthetic fields, an unparalleled achievement on its own count. Before I move on to all that, however, I will go through his story.

He was born to a religiously devout mother and father. From an early age, he was exposed to the arts, something he clearly seems to have inherited from his family. His father, who taught and became headmaster and later principal at Methodist College in Katunayake (which Givantha briefly attended), used to bring students to their house and teach them scouting. His mother, a teacher, did the same to teach them the arts, or more specifically handwork. “All this, of course, was before the tuition culture invaded our schools,” he remembers, “My mother taught village children how to make toys, how to sculpt, and how to decorate walls, for free.” That inevitably spilt over to him.

And it wasn’t just scouting and handwork: his father would get him to read newspapers at the age of four, going so far as to teach him to read them upside down at the age of five. Recalling this for me, he says with a chortle, “My father was always teaching unusual but useful things to his students. Naturally, he took the trouble of teaching them to me.” Apart from reading, his father got him to read aloud. “I learnt about dramatised reading, which is really nothing more than reading into the emotions and the nuances of a particular passage. To this end, he made me listen to the radio and in particular, to the news read by the likes of Cyril Rajapakse and Karunaratne Abeysekera.”

As I mentioned before, he attended Methodist College Katunayake, though only for one year. He then entered Second Grade at Wesley College in 1960, to be taught by none other than the formidable yet soft-spoken thespian-to-be, Cyril Wickramage. Like many of his teachers (and associates), Cyril figures significantly in Givantha’s memory. “I was 20 years younger than him. He used to comment on his students and their abilities. Now I was a stickler for drawing from an early age. By the time I got to Wesley, I could draw rather well for my age. One day, when Wickramage saw me drawing, he observed what I drew. He then commented rather cryptically, ‘You shouldn’t have been born here.’ I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but in later years, I did.”

After he entered Grade Three, he moved into the College hostel. His class teacher, Miss Ivy Marasinghe (Professor Walter Marasinghe’s aunt), was as receptive to young Givantha’s abilities as Cyril had been. “In addition to being receptive, she was also a good artiste herself. After lunch and after school, she conducted some art classes where we helped her draw and craft. We were given an opportunity to watch 16mm cartoon films during the weekend, standard fare like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.” Needless to say, the artiste in Givantha was aroused, if not enthralled, by these (cartoons were unheard of in Sri Lanka, except for one or two films which had animated opening credits). They compelled him to ask her about the art of cartoon films.

What happened next? “Miss Marasinghe did something very few teachers would do today. She told me to wait, referred up some books at the British Council, returned, and patiently explained to me about the nuts, bolts, and other niceties of cartoon films.” I ask him as to whether his interest in the subject developed from that point, and he agrees: “I was always moved by the moving image.” In fact, he adds, it would be safe to say that his aspirations for the media (which he excelled at, though that chapter of his life is yet to come here) were rooted then and there with Miss Marasinghe. Not surprisingly, he says he owes much of his interest in his field to her enthusiasm.

For someone who ended up retelling the Dutugemunu story through cartoon strips, Givantha surprisingly opted for Science at school. Unlike today (when subjects are cordoned off from each other and barriers have been erected to make students specialise), however, there was a clear, if not subtle, connection between science and his love for the arts. “As we moved up in school, we graduated from geometry to mechanical drawing to physics. We didn’t abandon our love for the arts. Still, I personally felt that I ought to have opted more for the latter.” This latter sentiment, coincidentally, was shared by the Principal at Wesley College. Givantha explains how.

“We used to submit our drawings to various exhibitions around the country. For that, we needed the signature of the Principal, certifying that what was submitted was by us and from Wesley College. I think I must have visited the man several times, as I submitted a great many such drawings, because during one such visit, he told me point-blank, ‘Givantha putha, meka hari yanne naha, oya art karoth eeta vada hondayi.’ He then directed a Prefect to bring to his office the teacher in charge of the Arts section, Jayantha Premachandra.”

Not long afterwards, he was shifted away from the Science section, with Premachandra winding up as his third important figure of destiny at school. “I used to bike to his house on weekends, to learn from him. More than his lessons, it was what he taught me about what he could teach me that stayed: he told me bluntly that he could only explain to me the techniques of drawing, painting, and what-not, not the art itself. I found that to be immensely useful in later years, as I taught myself to go beyond the foundation he laid for me and as I myself became a teacher for aspiring artistes.” After Premachandra, Givantha counts in another such figure of destiny from school: Felix Premawardhana, who taught literature.

By the time young Givantha completed his O Levels, his father, who had envisioned a life as a parson for him, abandoned the idea and let him continue with what he wanted, something he highlights for me in our conversation. “The problem for me, however, was that there was no real institute or University for me to go and study what I wanted. The closest that came to such a place was Heywood, which taught music, but I felt soon enough that it would limit me. So I decided to venture out on my own and teach myself.”

Given the tendency of most youngsters today to label themselves as professionals after a mere and brief perusal of their “professions” online, it’s a tad refreshing to hear how Givantha laboured on assiduously (in keeping with his Wesleyan, thrift-oriented religious upbringing) and taught himself, leaving no stone unturned. I suspect that there is more, much more, to follow even before we get to his flowering as a feature film director on his own right. As I listen and wade on with the conversation, my suspicions are confirmed.

His first encounter as such had been with Dissanayake Studios. Leenus Dissanayake, who headed it, had earlier produced Siri Gunasinghe’s Sath Samudura. Givantha managed to borrow a camera through him, after which (in 1971) he directed his first film, a hilarious and animated take on the story of Andare. “The Film Critics and Journalists Association nominated it for their annual Short Film Festival in Colombo. I remember contending against the likes of Sunil Ariyaratne (Sara Gee) and Dharmasena Pathiraja (Sathuro) and I remember meeting D. B. Nihalsinghe, who’d later wind up as the Chairman of the Film Corporation.”

Ever the inquisitive dabbler, this hadn’t prevented Givantha from pursuing other fields. His next interest had been in makeup. Through Freddie Silva, a personal friend and a veritable star at the time, he had gone to Ceylon Studios, where after being introduced to the formidable but kindly Derrick Fernando had met up with Titus Thotawatte. “He taught me a lot about films and filmmaking,” Givantha reflects, “and through him, I ended up learning about cinematography with his most frequently opted for cameraman, Andrew Jayamanne.” The end-result was that thanks to these encounters, he was able to clinch awards for his third cartoon film, made at the age of 20.

Given that I more or less know his film credits, I ask him as to how cartoon films were made at the time. “Not through digital means, of course!” he chortles, explaining that as a virtual one-man team he had to insert India ink on every frame he was provided with. Given that over a thousand such frames were used in his first two cartoons, the process would doubtless have been lengthy, time-consuming, arduous, and demanding of a high technical proficiency. Needless to say, Givantha was able to put up with all three. “I was told later that a man in Canada called Normal McLaren did a similar thing with his cartoons. You can imagine how surprised I was when I was also told that this process was considered an art there!”

In the meantime, the awards kept on rolling, including one in 1976 for Best Makeup given at a Catholic Festival held at the Palm Grove in Galle Face Hotel. This was of course three years before he released his first feature-length film, Dutugemunu, but before that there are two other personal landmarks Givantha recounts for me.

The first was his foray into screen-printing after making his own camera. The second was his making the first optical printer in Sri Lankan upon the request of Lester James Peries (the latter machine, incidentally, would be used by Titus Thotawatte for his Maruwa Samaga Wasaya). In addition to this, he began a separate career as a cartoonist in 1971, working at Aththa, as well as a stamp designer (I notice his work on display at his humble abode, among them a stamp released on eve of the opening of the Victoria Dam).

The eighties proved to be a tumultuous decade (it generally was, for reasons that warrant another article) for Givantha. Before delving into that, however, I must delve into Dutugemunu.

A novel take on a key chapter of our history, Dutugemunu was nevertheless not a strictly historical retelling. I think the man describes it best: “It had to do with a cat which takes its kittens to Anuradhapura after telling them that, in a past life, it was Dutugemunu’s purohithaya. The story itself was loosely based on The Magnificent Seven, charting the attempts of the king to find the yodayas for his Army. That was what appealed to children and that was what I opted for, more than just the history.” His two gurus from Wesley had been taken to provide their voices, furthermore: Cyril Wickramage as Dutugemunu and Felix Premawardhana as Nandimitra. In addition, Henry Jayasena had voiced Kavantissa while Givantha himself had voiced several other characters.

Given the huge success such an endeavour would have pulled off, why was it banned? “In 1977 the UNP came to power promising ethnic harmony and coexistence. Certain educationists thought that the story of Dutugemunu, with his ultimate triumph over Elara, was not amenable to that ethnic harmony. That is why the Education Ministry eventually put a ban on propagating the Dutugemunu legend in whatever form, and that is why I was forced to take out my film from theatres.” I was not of course born at the time, so I can’t comment on the wisdom of the ban, but I wonder: wouldn’t we have had an opportunity to view our history in caricature, enough for our children to enjoy it?

Not wont to anger or sadness in the face of such obstacles though, Givantha gradually waded on to the eighties. In 1980, two years before Rupavahini was begun, he was sent to Berlin to study television. Upon his return, he was initially put into the Animation Division of the SLRC but, upon a personal request by Anandatissa de Alwis and Sarath Amunugama, was engaged in three other Divisions as well. In 1982 he was selected as one of 10 top outstanding personalities in the film industry, while five years later the OCIC bestowed him and 18 other people with awards in recognition for their technical contributions to the cinema.

Between those two years, however, tragedy had struck the man. In 1985 he’d organised an exhibition titled “Tricks and Effects” where, long before the advent of computers, he manipulated and (for the lack of a better word) “photoshopped” everyday images. While being engaged in the exhibition, he had begun seeing black patches with whatever he was looking at. Diagnosing it as having to do with his retina, he admitted himself to the Eye Hospital and, after convincing his doctors and nurses that something was wrong, discovered that he was slowly but surely going blind.

Givantha explains what happened next. “I was immediately sent to meet Dr Upali Mendis, the then Head of the Eye Hospital. He performed a surgery on my left eye and told me that I would quite possibly not see properly for some time. Praying to God, I let him take off the bandages for me to see for myself whether the treatment had worked. When the bandages were finally taken away, I opened my eyes. What did I see? The same black patches I’d seen before.”

Needless to say, the operation had not been a success, which compelled an ominous but sad comment from Dr Mendis: “He basically told me that they had done everything they could for me, using what was available in the country. Because it had not worked, he said, I would have to live with God for the rest of my life.” What he meant there, of course, was that he would have to let his life be governed by God and, if push came to shove, accept being blind.

How did he take to the news? “I immediately tendered my resignation from Rupavahini. M. J. Perera asked me why and told me to stay. I explained what had happened. That is when he accepted my resignation. Before going away though, I helped Henry Jayasena with a TV adaptation of Hermann Hesse’s book on Siddhartha Gautama.” A quirk of destiny perhaps, because with it he received an award that, in later months, compelled him to do something about the state of photo journalists and cartoon journalists.

“While I felt that my time for reckoning with God had come, I also felt that I had to start an awards ceremony for these maligned, understated illustrators. So I began the Jathika Janamadya Madyarupa Sammana (or the National Media Graphics Awards), which I funded for about five years before letting it go.” And his health? Given his state today, I can surmise that Dr Mendis had not been entirely correct about how he’d turn out eventually. Thankfully for us, the diagnosis had been wrong. “I still see those black patches, and my eyesight is still not 100% well. I don’t complain.”

Today, Givantha Arthasad teaches. He lectures Media at Sri Jayewardenepura University and teaches the same subject thrice a week at St Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa. While he is not entirely happy about the way children are being brought up to appreciate his subject (“We have sacrificed quality for commercialism, reflected in the kind of TV shows they watch”), he has much room for optimism (“We still have a bunch of dedicated youngsters clamouring for more”). While I am not a doomsday predictor to say that things are all going downhill, I do agree with his view that children are being forced to study subjects which are artificially cordoned off from each other.

I mentioned at the beginning that the man has specialised in eight aesthetic fields. I assume that, having read my piece on him, you’d know what they are. For purposes of clarification though, I will conclude by listing them out: graphic designing, painting, photography, drama, cinema, television, broadcasting, and journalism. In a context where lesser people inflate themselves as self-taught professionals, it’s refreshing to see that this almost otherworldly, kindly man (the Mahadanamuththa of the animated feature he directed in 2002, the fist digital film in Sri Lanka by the way) claims no credentials higher than what he’s achieved thus far. His journey ahead, I believe fervently, should receive our collective blessings.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, January 18 and 25 2017

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Shielding reconciliation from the nationalist

A reply to Malinda Seneviratne and C. A. Chandraprema

The Final Report of the Consultation Task Force (CTF) on Reconciliation Mechanisms has been derided by both sides of the political divide. The nationalists, predictably, argue that it attacks, vilifies, and in general tries to do away with Buddhism (as enshrined in Article 9 of the Constitution). The anti-nationalists (if you can call them that) argue that it doesn’t do enough to crack down on majoritarianism. Both sides have their point, but for the moment I am interested in the thinking of the former group. 

Two articles, penned by columnists who can be described as nationalists, caught my attention last week. C. A. Chandraprema in his article “The 58 preconditions to obtain GSP+” conjectures that in return for the GSP+ facility, the government has been forced to, inter alia, review or repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, expedite and conclude all cases relating to all remaining LTTE detainees, and set up a transitional justice mechanism in line with the Human Rights Council. The latter precondition, implies Chandraprema, privileges outside intervention so much that “it obviates the need for an elected government in Sri Lanka.”

Malinda Seneviratne in his article “So you want to take out ‘Buddhism’?” criticises the CTF and argues that the authors of the Task Force envisage the kind of secular state for Sri Lanka that doesn’t exist and has never existed in the West (the Global North, this clearly assumes, is behind the Task Force’s recommendations). ” The CTF hasn’t gone into these important areas of secularism simply because it wants non-Buddhists to have religious privileges,” he concludes. Like Chandraprema, he observes that we are being suckered into congratulating our government over something they didn’t achieve without those proverbial strings attached.

Chandraprema is more concerned about sovereignty. Malinda is more concerned about identity. Both are acutely aware of the tendency of outside interventionists to play pandu (wreck havoc) with the democratic process here and both are (to a considerable extent) correct. My contention with their (in particular, Malinda’s) arguments is hence not their sincerity or their premises, but the extrapolations they lead themselves to (even as they warn their ideological opponents against other such extrapolations). Before I get to what these are, though, I will try to sort out the dichotomy between identity and nationhood the likes of these columnists have for better or worse unearthed.

When I wrote on reconciliation and the rift between secularism and multiculturalism some months back, I was acutely conscious of two points: one, that conceding ground to the minority isn’t coterminous with taking away from the majority, and two, that secularism wouldn’t and won’t work with collectives that think of themselves as collectives before individuals. This led me to a third, as salient point: that reconciliation must begin with equality and end with equity. While I trust myself to have been correct with the latter argument, I realise now that I used the wrong comparison to validate myself: the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. No, not because it was a failure, but because I thought that equity superseded equality there, when it has not.

Malinda has been in the United States. He knows the institutionalised racism that exists there and he has written about it. That is why it bothers me when he implies in column after column that Sinhala Buddhists have been vilified unreasonably, even though they clearly have got the better deal (regardless of attempts by successive governments to ignore them) owing to their local (not global) numerical strength. I believe he is aware of identity politics and the nexus between it and the legal process of a country. I also believe that he is aware of how even the most stringent anti-racism laws, whether or not paved with good intentions, have not stopped the majority from stabbing, raping, maiming, and in other ways injuring the minority, in America or in Sri Lanka.

Let me explain. The Civil Rights Movement in America did not do away with the White American hegemony engendered in the laws of that great country. What it did was equalise everyone in the face of that law without doing away with the racist base in which that equality was rooted. In other words, the Civil Rights Movement didn’t end with equity, only a formal equality that birthed and propped up Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and (more recently) Black Lives Matter. That is why Critical Legal Studies turned to Critical Race Theory and that is why legal scholars contended (quite correctly) that the law was not the last resort for the achievement of racial equality. That is also why those same legal scholars proposed that to resolve the race issue, the equality discourse as such should be stripped of the White America hegemony and its buttress, classical liberalism.

The law has not been enough to stop pogroms, xenophobia, paranoia, and race riots. The law has not been enough to contain majoritarianism. It has not been enough to lead America and Sri Lanka out of their hate-driven past. In this context I don’t think anyone can contend against the CTF's efforts to institutionalise secularism, given the pitfalls we (the Sinhala Buddhists) have let ourselves fall into. “The Sinhalese forget easily,” Prabhakaran is reported to have said. He could have added, and I would have agreed, that they also fight amongst themselves and pick on other collectives without righting their wrongs.

My question to the likes of Malinda Seneviratne (and even C. A. Chandraprema), therefore, is this: since the CTF is laying the foundation on what can possibly be a process aimed at racial equality in the face of the law (after which, of course, they will do their best to level on equity), and since the majority in this country have asserted enough and more power for the past 2,500 years, what is wrong with bringing up secularism as a mere proposal and recommendation?

Not that he is entirely in the wrong, of course. The law and the Constitution will not, I know (and he knows), end the racist curse. It will in some instances help the racist. Despite this though, the law will be a helpful first step. A necessary first step. Not the only step there is. Secularism may or may not figure in there, but there I disagree with Malinda’s argument because of something he can count on to oppose it: the nationalists of this country (including myself), opposed to it not necessarily on racist grounds but for pragmatic reasons (prime among them, the fact that secularism will not work for communities that think of themselves as communities first and only then individuals).

As an enlightened nationalist (I hope), I am aware of the need to do away with binaries and extreme positions. C. A. Chandraprema argues convincingly that outside intervention figures quite discernibly in the strings attached to the GSP Package. To the point that this leaves room for a subversion of our sovereignty, I am in agreement with him. While I can’t pretend that I am aware of the intricate details of the process behind War Crimes Tribunals and transitional justice, I do admit that the argument against hybrid courts (which are in line with the Human Rights Council) by those who say that our Judiciary is adequate to the task of trying our Armed Forces is flawed on one pertinent point: that our laws also are adequate to this task. They are not.

As long as we live in a country where the law was not enough to stave off anti-Tamil riots and not enough to bring to justice the many police-officers and members of the Armed Forces who maimed members of other communities, we have no moral right to champion our justice system. Nationalists are fond of claiming that ours is a virtuous country and society, far superior to America, Britain, and the rest of the West. I don’t know what country these nationalists reside in, but I do know that the claim we are the most virtuous society is far-fetched when we rank highly in lists of countries which Google sex and engage in child prostitution.

There’s more.

We don’t really know whether the judgment of the Nadarajah Raviraj case is correct (given that we don’t possess all the evidence). However, we do know that the minute the judgment was given, the extremist faction of the Tamil Diaspora (andeven some of our Tamil politicians) were up in arms shouting, “No to a local (Sri Lankan) reconciliation mechanism!” I agree with them, even though I don’t agree with their politics, not (only) because our justice system is tainted with bigotry but also because those who’ve been tasked to prepare recommendations on reconciliation have been handpicked from a socioeconomic class wholly blind to the aspirations of the common Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhalese. That is why I personally have second thoughts about the CTF, and not (as Malinda or Chandraprema might contend) because of the insincerity of its objectives.

Where does this lead us to, though?

From 1994 to 2005, the Sinhala Buddhists got a raw deal. Through and through. They were ignored, scripted out, and antagonised. The Task Force is being chaired by the lady who presided over us in those dark, terrible years. While this should not make us cynical about the entire reconciliation process, it should make us aware of the inimical prejudices of those who’ve been handpicked to script the Final Report. On the other hand, however, the rants and raves of the discordant nationalist, in his or her attempt to belittle any step towards reconciliation, secularism, and multiculturalism, will amount to nothing if the end-result is an even more fragmented society. Reconciliation should continue. Those selected to head it should not. I am sure Malinda would agree, given his stances against black/white binaries. The one, he would know, does not imply the other.

So, to conclude: the law isn’t a miracle worker, we are not the most virtuous nation in this world, nationalism without a pinch of salt would be disastrous, and advancing the rights of the minority shouldn’t be equated with cracking down on the rights of the majority. The Civil Rights Movement was, admittedly, a partly successful project, but then (as Malinda would know) institutionalised racism has to end with a cohesive campaign aimed at equality (the transition from which to equity the Americans are yet to achieve). The problem with the nationalist is that s/he is unwilling to even level on equality. Why, I wonder. Haven’t we had enough privileges already?

The answer, I sincerely hope, is there. Somewhere. I predict that sooner, rather than later, the nationalist will have to acknowledge it.

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

Written for: Ceylon Today, January 24 2017

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

That inconsistency problem

If facts exist, factoids shouldn’t. If facts stare you in the face, myths shouldn’t. Therefore and ideally, if policy is based on facts, that policy should survive regime-change, rhetoric, and of course factoids and myths. No government worth its salt can linger for long with the latter: lies can survive only so far, and as for factoids, the people can’t be fooled all the time. Factoring all this, and what do you get? A simple proposition: policy, if it is to remain impenetrable, must be consistent. The only reason why it is not, then, is that there is no policy. Only rudderless, aimless rhetoric.

The government has seen better days. The first week of the New Year did not contain better days. Everything that got muddled, twisted, and contorted, everything that was contradicted ably and efficiently by the Press, can be attributed to the policy trajectory, or the lack thereof, of this government. Ministers are not miracle workers, true. But policies aren’t crafted by miracle-workers. They are crafted by realists. Hard, uncompromising realists. The problem isn’t that we lack these realists among our representatives. The problem is that the realists in those representatives don’t come out as often as we wish them to.

Based on the stances that the government took in the past year, we can contend that it remains dangerously unmoored and unchartered. A government that gives even the perception of so being is, it must be said, prone to intrusion. Two years on after the “2015 Revolution” (as its champions are wont to term it, for reasons that warrant another article), we are forced to admit that old wine has survived in new bottles. Again, the main problem is the lack of a policy trajectory.

Let me explain. In a (liberal) democracy, policy consistency isn’t just a sign of integrity. It’s also a tool to safeguard those mechanisms that protect it from veering off into a dictatorship. When the government communicates with its people, it's expected to communicate something it does not capitulate on or revise later. When it gives an indication of an incident or a landmark being achieved, it's nominally expected to stick to such a claim without recanting. That is why there is a Cabinet Spokesman and that is why Ministers deliver speeches at functions and events. That is also why cognizant enough reporters take heed of what they say and note it all down.

Liberal democracies are founded on a curious dichotomy: between absolute democracy and mild authoritarianism. In a country like Sri Lanka, with a history of authoritarian governments and slipshod reforms, you either have cohesive, comprehensive policies to offer to the people, or you market those policies for votes and then, after elections, forget them. Lamentably, we see more of the latter. Even more lamentably, we’ve seen more of the latter with this regime. For a country that has dallied with both democracy and authoritarianism, this is not a good sign.

Take the Volkswagen fiasco. Consider the facts. According to Michael Dohmen, Deputy Head of the German Embassy, the parties to the contract were the Board of Investment and SENOK Trade Combine. That contract was entered into on August 13, 2015. That’s more than a year ago, during which time Volkswagen was suggested and then abandoned over its emissions scandals. To date, we don’t have information about what car brands will be manufactured in Kuliyapitiya, or whether the goal of 2,500 new jobs has been expressly provided for in the contract (it has not, we now know). Who's telling what to whom?

Forget that though. Think about the regime’s stance on accountability. Mahinda Rajapaksa was notoriously clear on his stance on the matter: no room for foreign mediation. He was not, however, unclear about it. The present regime’s claims about foreign mediation, intervention, and of course accountability are far from clear, in comparison. Not only is it unclear, it's also ambivalent. When the President says that there won’t be room for foreign judges, when the Cabinet Spokesman and the Foreign Minister in turn contradict and then confirm the President’s claim, and when the United Nations tweets against the claims of these three people, who are we to believe?

Because these issues don’t fall within the purview of legitimate expectations, the government can well contradict its own stances days after they were “made clear” and get away with it. But policies matter. Rhetoric does not. The government, in the New Year at least, is opening itself to the threat of self-annihilation. In military parlance, it is conceding ground to the enemy, an enemy that is (at least now) looking on lazily as the regime slips and contorts itself even more.

In an ideal world, policies wouldn’t be subjected to the whims and fancies of individual governments. And yet, they are. This is nothing new to Sri Lanka, or to the world. We see it happening elsewhere. But even in a context where government policies diverge wildly, we need a foundation on which those very same changes and shifts of policy are based.

The biggest problem with the government (I neither subscribe to nor oppose it) is that it’s slipshod and notoriously opaque when it comes to policy. The Volkswagen fiasco and the ruckus over the War Crimes Tribunal are only two instances. There are others. There will be others. Even in a world where elections operate on fact-free premises and assumptions and leaders clinch power through sheer, unsubstantiated rhetoric, we should be worried. The fact that we are no strangers to these divergent policy shifts, the fact that since 1956 we have witnessed governments that have paid scant attention to the need to translate rhetoric to policy, indicates that we aren't headed for better times.

The defeat of the LTTE was a necessary first step to resolving the ethnic issues. The problem with the previous regime was that it never went beyond that first step. The defeat of the plutocracy that (is alleged to have) roosted itself here was a necessary first step to ushering in democracy. The problem with this regime is that it hasn’t gone beyond that. Should we be complacent? No. Should we be worried? No. Should we act? Decidedly. How?

I can’t claim to offer a proper solution, but I do know this: the sooner we differentiate calls for reforms from calls for a Rajapaksa Restoration, the better it’ll be for all of us. Currently the only voice being raised against the misshapen policies of this regime is that of the Joint Opposition. (The Official Opposition, barring the JVP, remains woefully inadequate.) Again, we shouldn’t be worried: after all the JO has its own share of refined and exceptional politicos. Sycophancy is the one thing we don’t see in these politicos, and because of that alone, we shouldn’t be worried about the JO’s attempts at axing most of the government’s ill-conceived policies. This, however, does not forbid criticism.

The JO lacks numbers. It lacks parliamentary power. It needs, in short, a bigger, better, and more pluralistic movement. True, the Parliament does not decide on the country’s destiny all the time, but in a context where the President seems to have devolved much of his power to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, and if we are to start with a cohesive, comprehensive Opposition free of the sycophants who were in power before 2014, we need to aim higher. We need, in short, to couple up with the more tolerant and national-minded sections of the JO, take it away from the crass majoritarianism it still seems to subscribe to, and form a more wholesome movement that is not fact-free. Not impossible, one can reasonably concede.

Written for: Ceylon Today, January 17 2017

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Manasa treats insanity with reason


About a decade or two ago, the entire area spanning from Boralesgamuwa to Piliyandala was a virtual wasteland. It looked, all in all, more a village situated on the outskirts of Colombo than the historically and culturally significant region it was. Then the roads opened up, people moved in, and the inevitable drives at urbanisation followed. The road from Boralesgamuwa to Piliyandala and beyond was connected to Panadura (hitherto accessible through either the paalam paruwa or a longer route via Moratuwa) and, probably because of that, the region elicited more and more interest from outsiders.

Boralesgamuwa is now developed, with nice, shiny walkways and jogging paths flowing by temples and shrines. Restaurants have opened up, as have reception halls, and a part of the country that had earlier been regarded as sleepy, inactive, and only historically significant has gained a new lease of life. That, however, hasn’t been at the cost of forgetting and rubbishing the past. There is still a history attached to the area extending from Rattanapitiya to Kesbewa. This is a story about a hospital that has acquired a considerable portion of that history.

Neelammahara is a little of-sorts hamlet located in Boralesgamuwa, about five kilometres from Colombo on one side and bordering on Piliyandala on the other. In Neelammahara, you come across a temple that dates back over 200 years and was founded by a family that traces its lineage to the 19th century. Dr Saman Hettige, who heads one of the first mental hospitals based entirely on Ayurveda, hails from this family. That hospital, aptly named Manasa, has a way of treating its patients, which makes it almost unparalleled by modern standards.

I spoke with Dr Saman some time back. He had a story to tell. He reflected. I listened.


Hettige’s ancestry, as I mentioned earlier, goes back to the 19th century. Rajadi Rajasingha’s royal physician, Shailindrisinghe Padithuma, had left Kandy after its annexation in 1815 and had arrived in Dickwella. There, one of his sons (Dickwella Sudakshi) had vowed to continue the family line, and soon enough left the South for a hitherto barren village in Neelammahara. In Neelammahara, Sudakshi had commissioned and built a temple (the Neelammahara Purana Viharaya, which stands to this day), and under its watchful gaze had taught generations of physicians and doctors, who all came up one by one thereafter: Werahera Sobitha, Arawwala Seelalankara, and Dehiwela Dhammaloka.

The latter of these had taught Ayurveda to D. S. Hettige, Dr Saman’s father. D. S. Hettige, in later years, had envisioned a mental hospital, one which would revolve around the village community. While the Hospital as such had been “established” in 1890, it was extended to include that community by the time of the Second World War.

Dr Saman explained it well: “We originally began handing our patients over to villagers, to be looked after under our orders. Back then there was a veritable sense of belonging and camaraderie, which explains how the idea caught on and how my father was able to treat his patients with the help of those around him.”

Times change and with changing times so do people. After the Second World War, the villagers began moving out. “They were looking for jobs in the city. With the onset of industrialisation and a changing economy, they had less time to look after our patients. Predictably, we had to rethink our strategy here, and reformed this place into a conventional Hospital where people would be admitted.” Needless to say, their project caught on with both villagers and outsiders, and soon enough it went down as one of the first deshiya establishments dedicated to mental patients, not just in Asia but in the world as well.


Despite this though, I’m wary of describing Manasa as a hospital. The term does not capture the essence of the place. Dr Saman agrees as much, with a caveat: “While this can be considered in theory as the world’s first deshiya mental hospital, I personally doubt it. I remember the late Dr Harischandra, for instance, mentioning that he’d come across African tribes treating those relegated as madmen and lunatics by their societies. But those are, for the most, exceptions.”

As for Manasa itself, suffice it to say that up to now the place has grown enough to warrant treatment and continuous service for 35 patients. What’s even more commendable than quantity, however, is the way these 35 will be treated. Unlike those much used and abused techniques of lobotomy, conformity, and straitjacketing you come across in horror stories from the West, Manasa operates from the premise that no one method fits everyone. In other words, each patient is taken on his or her own merits, which makes it an ideal spot for those derided as incurable elsewhere. And this folks, is done not through drugs and other methods aimed at prevention, but through a cohesive, gradual routine that ends in cure.

Dr Saman credited Buddhism with helping his father making all this discernible to the lay Sri Lankan. He argued that no less a figure than Siddhartha Gautama observed that everyone, at some point, suffers from a mental ailment. He says as much in his “Sabbe Pruthugjana Ummaththaka”, from the Moola Pariyaya Sutta of the Majjima Nikaya, which in a way is reflected in the way our ancestors viewed such ailments.


“The problem is, we can't pinpoint a specific reason for someone's insanity. We can't tabulate diseases. On the other hand, you find parallels between the way our people classified them and the way the West did. 'Pitta Unmada', for instance, is melancholia, while 'Kama Unmada' is nymphomania." All that goes to show that far from being the uneducated bumpkins they’re touted as by our own people, our ancestors actually understood the intricacies of the human mind well even before Western psychology, Freud, and Jung.

Speaking of the West, Manasa doesn’t treat locals only: throughout its long and enviable history it’s catered to foreigners as well. “We basically treat everyone and anyone,” Dr Saman told me, “Once we took in the daughter of the Maharaja of Mysore. She'd been to other countries, in the West and East. But we were the ones who treated her well. As a token of appreciation, we were invited to Mysore, where at the end of our 'trip' we were gifted with two elephants. One of them, Raja, carried the daathu karanduwa in the Kandy perahera for many, many years."

No institution can boast of a 100 percent success rate and Manasa is no exception. Dr Saman isn’t wont to inflate and blow out of proportion, so he told me quite candidly, “We've achieved a 60 to 70 percent success rate, even factoring the dropouts, who are in need of money and have dependents outside to support, in the remaining 30 percent.”

At the end of the day however, success can’t be measured by dropout or retention rates but by the methods used and indulged in. “What differentiates us,” he told me by way of explaining this, “"is that we rarely if at all isolate our patients. Sure, sometimes they get aggressive. But we group them together as frequently as possible. That helps above everything else when it comes to those who harbour suicidal tendencies.”

Given all this, how would he compare the present with the past in terms of how we deal with mental illness? Dr Saman is not exactly chummy with optimism, but that doesn’t make him a cynic either. “It all depends on how we are conditioned from a young age to react to stress and pressure,” he argued, “Today we have inculcated an exam-centred culture in our children. We pressurise them in Grade Five for the scholarship exam and we pressurise them again and again for the Ordinary and Advanced Levels. We basically neglect their well-being.”

According to him, we are all temperamentally (dis)inclined to handle stress differently: “"Each of us handles pressure in our own special way. Unfortunately, the world around us isn't like that. Whether we keep up or whether we take time to adapt ourselves, it keeps on going. Factors like work, peer pressure, and exam pressure are frequently cited by those who can't handle it.” He believes moreover, as do I, that in his day there was a culture of affirming and celebrating life.

I asked him whether religion figured in this, and he agreed at once. “We have a rich literature that springs from Buddhism. Take our Jathaka stories. They didn’t just preach morals. They affirmed life. You didn’t come across heroes and villains, but human beings, flawed and multifaceted. It was this dualism that shaped our way of looking at the world and conditioned us to live with our environment. With today’s focus on achieving results at whatever cost, I fear that we have forgotten all that.” Words to ponder and reflect on, no doubt, though I personally doubt that today’s generation can or will take stock of them.

When we think of mental hospitals we think of lunatic asylums. The image of such asylums being run by rigid doctors and nurses is probably a legacy of that inimitable book and film, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

At Manasa however, you will not find Nurse Ratched, nor for that matter Randle McMurphy. You will find, nested away from the hustle and bustle of city life (which admittedly has invaded the region), a resort, a getaway spot, for those who prefer a less noisy, and more wholesome, treatment for insanity. In the final reckoning, I believe we owe Dr Saman Hettige and his ancestors more than a token of appreciation. They have earned eternal thanks. As they should.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, January 15 2017

Thursday, January 12, 2017

On Amarasiri Kalansuriya, or 'Kalan' to most

The seventies and eighties clearly were tumultuous decades for our cinema. Most commentators, in their rush to inject political relevance to our cultural history, tend to see in them the flowering of a political cinema. True. That does not, however, belittle the other precedents, landmarks, and revolutions which our directors, actors, and scriptwriters wrought. It was in the seventies, for instance, that H. D. Premaratne emerged, and it was in the eighties that, thanks in part to liberalised social and economic policies, an independent cinema here was given birth to. For me, the most significant result of all this was the rise and formation of a different breed of actors: those who not only appealed to the youth, but exemplified it.

Top among these actors, of course, was Vijaya Kumaratunga, whom I wrote on some months ago. Vijaya set a precedent. He was not Gamini Fonseka. He needn’t have been. He had an image and that image, at the end of the day, depended on how many conventional, formulaic films he took part in. Those who decry the man’s unwillingness to act in off-the-beaten-track ventures, therefore, fail to acknowledge the fact that for our cinema to throw up actors who took to our youth, the precedent-setter (if you will) had to participate in films which, though certainly lacking in critical appeal, reaped dividends at the box-office.

Vijaya came to us in Hanthane Kathawa. He acted opposite Tony Ranasinghe, by then an established star in the mould of Montgomery Clift and James Dean, and (I admit with no hesitation) bested him. But Vijaya was not alone there. He had a co-star. Someone who’d go on to symbolise youth in a different, less brash way. His name, Amarasiri Kalansuriya, or Kalan to most.

Before I (try to) examine Kalansuriya’s reputation in the context of our cinema, a brief biographical sketch is called for. He was born in Kandy in September 20, 1940 and was educated at Dharmaraja College. His mother died when he was 17, which compelled him to take care of his three younger brothers. He found menial work as a labourer after leaving school, eventually seeking employment at the Department of Agriculture at Mahiyanganaya, the Air Force (as a lance corporal), and Mallika Studios in his hometown. He left the latter after an argument with his superior, after which (he told me rather candidly when we met) he vowed never to work for anyone again.

This meant, logically enough, that he was his own man. He took to selling clothes. He was able to draw enough profits from these enterprises to set up his own tailor shop, thanks to which he managed to hobnob with several political and cultural figures in his day.

Long before he took to these jobs and before his mother died, though, Kalan had taken to the cinema. Sugathapala Senarath Yapa, on the lookout for aspiring, new actors for his debut, took in the man to act alongside Tony Ranasinghe. Hanthane Kathawa of course is a film that remains as fresh as it would have been back then, a point reinforced by its depiction of campus life. While Kalan had certainly not been to University (at the time he was still in school), he acted with so much sensitivity, wit, and candour that Lester James Peries, again on the lookout for new, aspiring actors, chose him to be Douglas Ranasinghe’s sidekick in Akkara Paha.

Given his mother’s passing away, however, he was forced to move away from films. Remembering this with me, he admitted that he found it difficult to leave behind a tentative career as an actor, but then agreed with me at once when I said that if it wasn’t for all those hard, harsh years, he wouldn’t have injected conviction into his later roles. That second phase in his career, incidentally, began with Dharmasena Pathiraja and Ahas Gawwa, where the director chose the relatively untried and untested Kalan for the role of the protagonist, opposite Wimal Kumar da Costa.

Pathiraja had his repertory of actors: Vijaya, Wimal, Malani Fonseka, Daya Tennakoon, Cyril Wickremage, and Kalan. Malani of course had been an established box-office star long before Ahas Gawwa, but it was with this politically and socially nuanced debut that all those other names really began their careers. The cinema of Dharmasena Pathiraja is noted for its exuberance, its unabashed lack of regard for uniformity (as opposed to say, the films of Lester James Peries). The narrative sometimes refuses to flow from A to B, it swerves and detours, and in the depiction of its characters, privileges spontaneity over reason. Kalansuriya couldn’t have asked for a better comeback.

In my article on Clarence Wijewardena I mentioned that the man couldn’t have made a career out of scoring films if it wasn’t for H. D. Premaratne. Premaratne was accustomed to taking risks and being emboldened by them. He went as far as to cast relative unknowns and in the process, jumpstart their careers (he did this for Bandula Galagedara, the dwarfish aristocrat in his debut Sikuruliya). To break ground and create a middle-path in our cinema, he resorted to actors as opposed to stars. He was not afraid of trying out new blood, which was how and why he invited Kalansuriya to act as the protagonist in his second feature, Apeksha.

If Sikuruliya gives the promise of an instinct-driven director, Apeksha confirms it. The plot’s conventional enough, if not simple: a rich girl falls in love with a man from a low social class, only to be engaged against her will to a man who has his sights on another woman. The predictable unfolds: the other man is exposed for who he is, and the girl’s father, aghast and shocked at his follies, lets the daughter have her way. That final encounter atop a hill, where Kalan (the hero) and his friend (Robin Fernando) fight the antagonist, could have been taken from a standard American flick, and the resolution of the plot’s conflict would have left audiences and critics happy in a way which drew both audiences and accolade. Much of this, no doubt, had to do with Kalansuriya’s acting.

While Sikuruliya and Apeksha conceded ground to the tropes of commercial cinema (with Kalan as the poor hero, Malani as the estranged heiress, and Ranjan Mendis as the rich antagonist), Premaratne’s next film was of a different mould. Parithyagaya, which examined the issue of poverty, class, and the dowry system, paired Kalan with Sriyani Amarasena and Vasanthi Chathurani. His earlier work had a refreshing pop quality to them (no doubt owing to Clarence Wijewardena’s music). Parithyagaya (which got Premaratne working with Premasiri Khemadasa) signifies a break from this trend, the beginning of a new middle cinema in the country. It boosted Kalansuriya’s image as an idealist beset with misfortune in his youth, which he retained throughout the eighties.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think that image ever left him. You see it crop up in every part he took. While the likes of Vijaya Kumaratunga matured, and I daresay hardened, Kalan remained the youthful idealist he would have been in real life. Parithyagaya, to give an example, opens with a sequence of the man riding his bicycle to the city: he rides it, stops it to check its wheels, clutches a moving truck, and daringly takes his hands away from the handlebars for a moment or two.

The opening sequence is crucial, though superficially extraneous, in establishing him as a strongman beset and cut down by social circumstances later on: when he steals money to get his sister the dowry she needs for her lover’s family to agree to her proposal, he is both daring and frail: a composite of opposites signifying the inner turmoil and self-contradictions his characters, in their quest to help others, bred and embodied. He doesn’t particularly do a good job of stealing the money, moreover: in that final scene, after his sister is finally married, when he imagines he’s marrying his fiancĂ©e (Chathurani) atop the poruwa and is disturbed by the intrusion of the police, he almost looks relieved in a defeatist kind of way: it’s as though he’s been expecting the police to come all along, as though it were a moment of reckoning for him.

I think this was the Kalan we grew up loving and (to a point) emulating. You never really had much hope for his protagonists (the man was unable to play antagonists, I like to believe), but that didn’t stop you from offering sympathy for them. The earlier Kalan was a sidekick, someone who, at most, offered balm to his co-star (think of Douglas Ranasinghe from Akkara Paha or Tony Ranasinghe from Hanthane Kathawa). The Kalan of the eighties was a different player. Being an instinct-driven actor, he found his niche with instinct-driven directors. He didn’t take part in a great many films (a pity at one level, a blessing at another) but in the few he was in, he brought home the point he wanted to make with his characters.

I met Amarasiri Kalansuriya the other day and I saw someone I’d seen many, many, many years ago. He remains the young idealist he always was. More pertinently, he remains young. Hasn’t really aged. Brash, candid, and honest, he has combined his youthfulness with a sense of humility and humanity that has, I fervently believe, aided him over most of life’s rough terrains. He hasn’t still finished his rounds, I suspect.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, January 11 2017

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The nationalist resurgence: Three problems, three issues

Last Friday (December 6), a group of people calling themselves the National Joint Committee ("Jathika Ekabaddha Kamituwa") met at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute for the launch of Manohara de Silva’s book, Bedumwaadeenge Upaya Marga Ha Vivastha Sanshodana (“The Methods of the Separatists and Constitutional Amendments”). Manohara is a lawyer moulded in the tradition of S. L. Gunasekara, H. L. de Silva, and Gomin Dayasiri. Probably on account of the resurgence of nationalism in this country, the event saw packed crowds, people who had come to listen intently to those who offered comment.

There were three speakers: Venerable Medagama Dhammananda Thero, Gamini Marapana, and Gomin Dayasiri. All three spoke on the fatal coincidence of law and separatism: how, since the dawn of independence, those who promoted narrow, crass minoritarianism did so by resorting to the Constitution. Dhammananda Thero in particular, remembering the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike, argued quite correctly that more than the leader, it was those surrounding that leader who forced a great many Constitutional provisions which, at the end of the day, provided grist to the separatist’s mill. He offered his solution: lend an ear to the aspirations of the (numerical) majority.

I have not read Manohara de Silva’s book (yet), so I can’t comment on its (de)merits. I do know, however, that no one, at least from de Silva’s field, has attempted an enterprise of this sort. That probably explains why Dayasiri contended that every nationalist in the country must read and keep a copy of it in his or her household. The book focuses on those much vilified Constitutional amendments: the 13th (devolution), the 16th (language parity), the 17th (the Constitutional Council), and the 19th. Since spatial constraints prevent me from delving into each of these in-depth, I will instead comment on what I saw and could glean from that Friday evening.

First and foremost, I noticed a rupture. A rupture in the nationalist movement. This is not something Sri Lanka has endured for too long, but then again one comes across such ruptures elsewhere. Gomin Dayasiri in particular, speaking on how the likes of S. L. Gunasekara, H. L. de Silva, and himself combated the separatist myth, argued that a national movement of this sort can easily be hijacked, if not contorted, from within. He went on to observe that quite a number of those who have been promoted to lead new political movements have pandered (and continue to do so) to forces that are quite anti-nationalist. He called on citizens to take the movement away from politicians. In this, he is correct.

Movements like this don’t always subscribe to pure strains. That is why they tend to fail after a point: they house different and virulently conflicting ideological persuasions, so much so that compromise quickly degenerates into an ugly mess. The way I see it, however, this is not the only problem that the nationalist movement in Sri Lanka lacks. I can enumerate three main weaknesses, not only on the part of those leading it but also on the part of those who subscribe to it, which can prove the movement’s undoing.

The first. No movement can afford to substitute rhetoric for substance. The nationalist movement in Sri Lanka, however, has always preferred lofty ideals over cohesive action plans. What Manohara de Silva has tried to achieve in his book, at the outset that is, is bring the movement closer to the legal sphere. In itself, this is laudable, though hardly enough. As I have always said or rather implied in my column, what the nationalists in this country lack isn’t support, but substance. I believe Gomin Dayasiri put it best: we are content in being jubilant after victory, rather than assessing the ground situation and planning for the future. Without a healthy dose of sobriety, can any nationalist campaign survive? I think not.

The second. If nationalism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, then it goes without saying that it’s a refuge of the politician. Being fixated on such politicians will not salvage the movement. If we are to combat separatism, we must first resort to ourselves. Given that we are entering the second year of a government that can’t say one thing without contradicting it days later (I will get to this in next week’s column), I believe that soon enough, the discordant voice of the nationalist will erupt. Whether we can prevail on ourselves to take the movement from the fringe is a question only time can answer, but I know this: flirting with the political to win popularity cannot and will not result in a wholesome movement.

Which brings me to the third (and most pertinent) problem. Most of those associated with this movement are, as everyone knows, deeply distrustful if not resentful of Western political agendas. This is reflected in their distrust of Western science, literature, and way of life. Theoretically, there isn’t anything wrong in this, but given that globalisation has become a reality, and given that even many of those leading the movement can’t resist resorting to that same way of life they condemn, I suspect that they may be consumed by the self-contradiction that every ideological revolution houses: the tendency of the revolutionary to be subsumed by the very same forces he or she combats. Let me explain.

The likes of Gunadasa Amarasekara (who was there last Friday) and Nalin de Silva (who was not) have been vocal in their condemnation of Western political practices. That is understandable. Professor Nalin, however, has been just as vocal in his critiques of Western science, religion, and literature. His ideological encounters with that eloquent believer in Western science and philosophy, Professor Carlo Fonseka, should convince anyone that the man deeply believes what he says and writes. My question to those who believe (in) him, therefore, is this: since globalisation (or Westernisation) has become a reality we have to put up with, how are we going to reconcile the nationalist and the globalist resident in us?

Professor Nalin, let’s not forget, was the man who brought out the political side of the Jathika Chinthanaya, a potent (postmodern) nationalist movement if ever there was one. A careful perusal of his writings (particularly Mage Lokaya) will indicate that he is attacking the very base on which modernity rests. I am not questioning the sincerity of the man (of his intellectual honesty and that of Gunadasa Amarasekara, no one should doubt), but I am worried: we are not living in the time of Mahatma Gandhi and the Anagarika. These were people who could combat Westernisation because globalisation wasn’t in the offing then. Times have changed, though. So have people. How do we adapt to that reality?

While we’re at it, let us remember that this was precisely the point at which 1956 failed. The man they opted for to lead their campaign then was someone who did away with his predecessor’s practice of eating egg hoppers in the morning press conference in favour of kiribath, only to spoil the effect by eating that kiribath with a spoon. No, I don’t deny that people have their personal lives, that there is a dichotomy between their public and private face, but I persist: if the contradiction between the public anti-Western thrust and concomitant personal tilt towards Westernisation of this movement isn’t resolved, a Jathika Viyaparayak won’t result. An aberration will.

Three problems, three issues. How will our nationalists solve them? Hard to answer, but an answer to it we must find. If the recent past is anything to go by, the next few months will be tumultuous. No less a figure than Dayan Jayatilleka (who is no astrologer) has predicted that 2017 may well be the final year of a unitary Sri Lanka. Whether or not you agree with the man, it’s hard to shake off such a prediction.

I believe Manohara de Silva, given his credentials, has given us something to resort to, in order for us to connect rhetoric with political and legal practice. His choice of language deserves commendation too: at a time when lawyers are making their case for going beyond the 13th Amendment in lofty, abstract terms, only the vernacular can or will awaken the people to the threat we’ve placed ourselves in.

Where does all this lead us to, though? I mentioned something about a rupture before. A rupture in the nationalist movement. I argued also that there are no pure strains. I can hence conclude on this note.

The nationalist is a peculiar creature. He can be a political animal, he can subscribe to the same ideologies that are against his practice, and yet return to his base and argue from the standpoint of the country’s welfare. In a context where there remains an (hitherto unresolved) dichotomy between societal freedom and individual freedom, between nationality and citizenship, I suspect that what we saw last Friday was an adjunct, and a valuable one at that, to the nationalist discourse. Whether or not this movement (the Joint National Committee) will transcend petty political jealousies and differences is a question we are not fit to answer. We can only watch, wait, and hope.

Written for: Ceylon Today, January 10 2017