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