Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Of political signatures that stay and (don’t) go away

Politics has as much to do with the past as with the present. That’s a given. Natural. Nothing out of the blue there. It also has to do, however, with forgotten pasts and forgotten enmities, with people who come together for the flimsiest and the most expedient reasons and with people who go their own separate ways because of the ideals they espouse. Again, nothing out of the blue there.

We do not remember those who live, we remember those who died. That is why politicians who have long gone are remembered more fondly than those who are among us.

That is also why, when dead politicos and stars are cherished by those who purport to stand what they stood for, there is always some healthy scepticism which greets it. This week’s column is not about those dead politicos only, rather about their proverbial descendants who believe (sincerely or otherwise, we cannot tell) they are continuing what they stood for.

As a follower of Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, if I were asked to name the two most important political shifts which transpired after 1948, I would mention S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s swabasha revolution and the entry of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) into our political landscape. Between 1956 and 1971 and between 1971 and 1988, there were a great many years, years in which loyalties changed, friendships soured, and the constituent parties of an entire regime backtracked on the National Question. When Bandaranaike proposed the Banda-Chelva Pact, for instance, the Old Left were in arms against it, if not loudly then covertly, and when Dudley Senanayake proposed a similar agreement, the SLFP and (again) the Old Left opposed it.

The JVP was born out of this confusing political hodgepodge. As Gamini Samaranayake points out in his book "Sri Lankave Viplaveeya Vyaparaya” (published in 2002), the 1971 insurrection proved for the first time that State coercion could be used, brutally and violently, to set down a potential revolution. It also proved that Sri Lanka’s political landscape was not adequate, that a new party questioning the Leftist credentials of an increasingly armchair socialist government was needed. While this column is not about whether the JVP was successful in pulling off its coup in this respect, it is about another, more covert revolution that its traditional ideological foe, the Old Left, indulged in, which I would consider as the third most significant post-1948 political shift.

When the 1971 insurrection unfolded the bloodier, more violent side to revolutionary politics, the constituent Left parties in Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government were busy badmouthing the JVP. No less a figure than Colvin R. de Silva implied that behind the party stood the CIA, fresh from its imperialist projects in South-East Asia (most prominently, Indonesia) and only too willing to unseat a democratically elected government to placate the West’s anti-Communist sympathies.

Echoed in that indictment was a feeling of hurt, a feeling that in doing what it did the JVP had gone beyond the Old Left in its commitment to the Marxist principles of justice, welfare, equality, and equity. How do we know this? The fact that it was AFTER, and not BEFORE, the insurrection that Mrs Bandaranaike’s regime spearheaded its most ambitious “leftist” programs (the Land Reforms Act being one of them). In other words, the JVP had questioned the credibility of the Old Left, and the Old Left (which was aging too fast) needed leverage to retain that credibility. When they passed the Land Reforms Act, of course, they would not know that five years later they would leave the government and leave ground for J. R. Jayewardene and the United National Party (UNP) to attack Mrs Bandaranaike and her cronyism.

What happened to the Old Left after 1977, I have tried to chart in an earlier column (“Whither the withering State?”). With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was forced to resort to the same donor agencies it had earlier shirked. Profesor Susantha Goonatilake in his book “Recolonisation: Foreign Funded NGOs in Sri Lanka” singles out the Communist Party (CP), the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP), and the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP) for distorting the Left-Right dichotomy by letting go of their allegiance to the Left. While I am not interested in Professor Goonatilake’s well researched allegations against these parties, I am interested in the political shift they brought about when they let go of their leftist avatar.

It is pointless to write about the Old Left without bringing up the SLFP. It was the SLFP that brought the LSSP and the CP to the mainstream political process, in 1956 and in 1964. The rifts that would later tear these parties apart were, if at all, minimal and not that discernible back then. Nevertheless, they were there, insidiously if not subtly, and the main rift was between the govi-sangha sympathies of the Philip Gunawardena faction and the kamkaru-lawkika sympathies of the N. M.-Colvin faction. The latter was more cosmopolitan, more secular, and less rooted, while the former was so culturally sensitive that Professor A. V. D. S. Indraratne, speaking at the Philip Gunawardena Oration in 2015, argued that the man brought Marxism to the peasants, an unparalleled feat here.

This rift was accentuated with the entry of the NGO sector. It explains, to a considerable extent, why those who followed these factions went their own, separate ways: why Philip Gunawardena’s son formed a nationalist movement (the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna) that did more for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resurgence in 2004 than some of the constituent parties which deserted him later on. Gunawardena was an old warhorse, whose eventual shift away from Leftist politics signified a shift in the LSSP to parliamentary politics (under N. M. Perera).

His legacy, in other words, was not to continue after 1977, at least in terms of its ability to shape and nurture the SLFP. That was a task largely left to those who followed Colvin’s cosmopolitanism, who emerged from the University system and other institutions as intellectuals and political activists. They were responsible for the usurpation of the Left movement in this country. Such usurpations call for protestors and successors, those who seek to separate the turncoats from the movement. These were to be found with Rohana Wijeweera and the JVP.

Meanwhile the Old Left floundered. They were treading on manifestly unfamiliar territory, branded and hated by both sides of the political divide: by Tamil extremists because they were not pushing hard enough for a federalised Sri Lanka, and by Sinhala extremists because they were perceived (not unfairly, one can add) of pandering to extreme variants of Tamil separatism. That is why they needed a figurehead to affirm their legitimacy, because as Professor Liyanage Amarakeerthi rather austerely pointed out in his critique of nationalist literature (“Unlearning what Gunadasa Amarasekara taught us with a sense of gratitude”), the NGO sector could never (hope to) reach the “monolingual masses.”

In the end, they got that figurehead. They got Vijaya Kumaratunga.

Vijaya was not a politician. He was a star and a very good one at that. He felt the pulse of the people because he WAS the people. Most importantly, he was not reviled by the Sinhala nationalists because he pandered to the myths and ideals they evoked whenever they saw him onscreen. Unlike that other giant of the cinema who crossed over to politics, Gamini Fonseka, Vijaya didn’t mind being a populist. In the end, Fonseka became the Deputy Speaker of the parliament, staying away from the stains that politics besmirches those who take to it. A similar fate could or could not have met Vijaya. We do not know. We do know, however, that he was the man the Old Left wanted.

He was not the nationalist those who praise him cut him out to be. He was opposed to the war and to the racialism it was kowtowing to. He was for a united Sri Lanka at a time when “united” was synonymous with “unitary” and not “diversity” (that is, in political parlance). He was opposed more than anything else to Sinhala chauvinism and was thus allied with MIRJE, the ICES, the Marga Institute, and all those other outfits which were preaching the gospel of devolution. Speaking in a television interview, I believe right after he visited Jaffna (the only politician from the South who did so until then), he made his stance clear: what was being fought was a “jathivadi yuddaya”, which could end only if power was devolved to the periphery.

Now economically this made sense in the eighties, but whether or not it makes sense today (with the mess our economy has got into), we know that Vijaya, by saying this, was transforming the party founded by his father-in-law from a nationalist outfit to a federalist outfit, transforming 1956 to 1988 (the year he was killed and his death legitimised the federal-speak the Old Left had solidified). As a moderate nationalist, I neither subscribe to nor oppose federalism, but I am aware that what Vijaya did, which the political historian has been afraid to touch, was bring about the third most potent political shift this country saw after 1948. I cannot emphasise on this enough.

Fortunately or unfortunately (I can’t tell which), the same Left that had floundered before Vijaya’s arrival floundered after his death. The United Socialist Alliance (USA), which had him as its articulator and figurehead, included the LSSP, CP, NSSP, PLOTE, EPRLF, and SLMP. Of these, the PLOTE and EPRLF would be bloodily eliminated by the LTTE, while the NSSP and LSSP would separate and the CP would pass away into a void. These were constituent parties, and they did their part, but without Vijaya they were nothing. In other words, Vijaya was all of them, but they were not Vijaya. The moment he died, he empowered the outfits that had sponsored his party and the ideology they propagated. As had been the case before, those other parties merely became the instruments of these outfits.

The late eighties was a terrible time, so terrible that those who did not live through it have no authority to speak of the carnage it unveiled. The dichotomies that had cut out one political movement from the other dissolved, to the extent that the Old Left, the traditional foe of the UNP, covertly affirmed the Indo-Lanka Accord: the same Accord that J. R. Jayewardene was bullied into signing. Jayewardene was, whether or not you agree with his economic policies, a mild nationalist, quite differently to the breed of culturally castrated ideologues in the LSSP and CP. Not surprisingly, when the government of the day used brutal force against those who protested the Accord (the JVP included), the Old Left stayed quiet. I am not alone in saying this: a perusal of Professor Susantha’s book (referred to above) would confirm my indictment.

History does not paint a pretty picture of these parties, which is why Professor Susantha’s book merits more than a passing reference. He points out how sections of the Old Left were involved in paramilitary groups which were affiliated to the government and were involved in extra-judicial killings. We have it from Rohana Wijeweera himself that the NSSP was allegedly being trained by Tamil militants (The Sunday Times, November 13 1988). That is not the only allegation that Professor Susantha alludes to, but owing to spatial constraints I will not list the others out. Suffice it to say, then, that while the “Spent Left” (I am tired of calling it “Old”) was superficially opposed to the government, it was not opposed to the brutal force and propaganda which were deployed to implement the Indo-Lanka Accord.

What happened next? The personal rivalries and familial tensions that ran riot in the SLFP were echoed in Chandrika Kumaratunga’s decision to quit it and join her husband’s party, the SLMP. The SLMP was housed by the likes of Ossie Abeygunasekera, who’d later join the UNP. It was a party that was doomed to pass into the political wilderness unless Kumaratunga returned with her stalwarts to the SLFP. That is of course what happened, and what transformed the party that had earlier stood for the pancha maha balavegaya into a federalist outpost. It is this, and not just Vijaya Kumaratunga’s entry into our political landscape, that compels me to write that his entry left behind a political signature which has since remained as potent as it was when it first emerged.

To put what happened next pithily, the likes of Ossie Abeyagoonasekera, Felix Perera, and later Rajitha Senaratne and Dilan Perera became the ideological shapers of the SLFP, when after 1994 Kumaratunga turned it into the biggest champion of devolution and federalism, more so than the UNP (whether under J. R. Jayewardene or Ranil Wickremesinghe). Not for no reason was the Old Left referred to as a set of three-wheeler parties, and like all three-wheeler parties, when the Pied Pipers in the SLFP led the way, they followed even though the economic policies their government authored were against their Marxist principles. All they could do, in this context, was to keep shut, warn the people against voting for the UNP, and refuse to co-sign the SLFP’s "centrist" policies. Small wonder, then, that they have since become insignificant. And unpopular.

So has all this been for the better? I would say yes. If those who have not lived through the bheeshanaya have no right to comment on the brutality it unleashed, those who have not lived through 1983 have no moral right to trivialise the aspirations of the ethnic minority. The eighties was a different time altogether, certainly bloodier that today and indicative of how far a State could go to crush dissent. 1983 had what those who wanted a separate state wanted: a covertly organised attempt by the government to target their community. The scars it caused still haven’t been healed, which is why the entry of the SLMP was needed to placate the marginalised ones.

That does not, however, make up for the politics that the Old Left stood for. It was composed of what Dayan Jayatilleka once referred to as “mul sidagath aragalkarayo” (culturally uprooted revolutionaries). This in itself is not a bad thing, but it is a bad thing when considering what they indulged in later years.

They did not feel the pulse of the people or for that matter the people’s mandate. They were content in subverting the democratic process to achieve their aims. They were not just concerned about changing the mindsets of our politicians, but those politicians themselves. In other words, they were keen on dismantling the legitimacy of a government to promote their crass, minoritarian objectives. Fortunately for us, they did not succeed. They could not, both because the people knew who they were and because of the likes of Nalin de Silva, Gunadasa Amarasekara, S. L. Gunasekera, and (closer to the present) Gevindu Cumaratunga.

Vijaya Kumaratunga left us 29 years ago. He was killed by the JVP, which entered the democratic process and the parliament thanks to his widow. They cohabited for a brief time with the Old Left, then left knowing quite well that the government was kowtowing to mild separatism. Whether or not they knew Mahinda Rajapaksa the populist, they were correct in supporting the man in 2004, along with the descendants of the Old Left who were not culturally uprooted (I am talking about Dinesh Gunawardena here, though there were and are others).

So to wrap up: Vijaya was a humanist, a great man, and a refined populist, but it is my belief that those who used him failed abysmally to retain the popularity they enjoyed when he was alive. His death was a death knell for them. Predictably, they ended up being the parvenus they always were.

And you know what? I for one am not complaining.

Written for: Ceylon Today, February 28 2017

Monday, February 27, 2017

'Synchronight': Celebrating pure music

Modernity has a way of unearthing the chemistry between art-forms. That is why it is not easy to purge, why one art-form subsists on another, and why hybridity has become the norm in this crass, commercialised world of ours. Whether or not we should regret, that is a fact we must acknowledge.

What is gained from that hybridity is creativity and imagination, both of which we have in abundance. But what is gained is more often than not set off by what is lost. Things like attention to detail, precision, and subtlety. Once lost, these cannot be reclaimed, which is why artistes today seem to have lost ground by digging into what they feel to be the roots of their creativity.

Not that I’m complaining, far from it. But I believe that, beyond a certain point at least, art-forms tend to distinguish themselves from one another. I believe also that much of the criticism levelled against modernity has to do with how rashly and carelessly musicians have let go of their creative best and opted for medleys and gigs which (regardless of their intrinsic worth) subsist on an artificial link between music and dance. Concerts, in particular, are to blame for this.

I am not opposed to concerts nor am I opposed to the camaraderie they engender. I am, however, opposed to that contorted link between music and dance they pander to. Not everyone will agree with me, of course, which is why they deserve a different experience, one which will enlighten them about how a concert can step away from hybrid strains and make them concentrate on the purism at the heart of an art-form. This is a brief sketch of one such endeavour, set to open next month in the metropolis.

Mash-up music has become quite the rage these days. For some, it doesn’t warrant a second glance: all it does, after all, is entangle two different songs with each other and between two artistes. Amateurs have dabbled in it by the dozen online, which probably validates some of the criticism levelled against it. But mash-up, like baila, kaffiringa, and the ballad, seeks to experiment and liberate. Because of that perhaps, it has compelled concerts featuring both veterans and young artistes, respected in their field and willing to indulge in the genre.

On Friday, March 10 at the Viharamahadevi Open Air Theatre in Colombo, more than seven artistes will come and perform from 7 to 10 pm. Synchronight is a neat portmanteau and summing up of what will unfold that night, the first live mash-up concert in Sri Lanka. Organised by Flexus Productions, it aims to celebrate pure music. Whether or not it will come off the way its organisers want it being an issue for another article altogether, we can for now observe, assess, and infer.

I recently met up with two of its organisers, Nipun Liyanage and Dumidu Thabrew, to surmise for myself what the concert will entail. To start things off, I asked them as to why a mash-up concert hadn’t been in the offing before. Both were quick to respond.

“First and foremost, you must think of the logistics involved. Arranging music is tough and with a show that revolves around two items being performed at once, it’s even tougher. While we do know that Sri Lanka has got enough facilities for live mash-ups, we also know that there is a cost involved. It is a cost not many are willing to bear, let alone sponsor.” The music arrangement, owing to this, hasn’t been handed over to your ordinary amateur: Billy Fernando and his band 2Forty2 have agreed to take on the responsibility.

I put to Nipun and Dumidu that buttressing the logistics must be the novel concept enshrined in Synchronight. They agreed. “Audiences in this country still aren’t ready for the genre. For them, a concert is more about having fun than about listening to music. In other words, tastes differ. We are aiming at a sizeable crowd, and we are certain that we will get an audience, but whether or not they will be patient enough to concentrate on two songs being relayed at once, between two performers, is an issue we can’t be sure of until next month.”

In any case, their endeavour hasn’t been short on ambition. Among those who are to perform, Bathiya and Santhush, Chitral Somapala, Umaria, Sanuka Wickramasinghe, Lahiru Perera, Jayasri, and of course Billy Fernando have confirmed. More are (apparently) to follow, but whether they come or not, all of them have amply expressed their enthusiasm. “We believe these artistes will help us clinch an audience, because concerts are as dependent on names as they are on the items being performed,” Dumidu explained to me. Not being a concertgoer I wouldn’t really know, but I do know that with these performers, Synchronight may well gain the lease of life its organisers want.

In fact the whole idea behind an enterprise like this is to bring about a shift in the attitudes of those who are patronising it. I was not born for or with music, so I probably shouldn’t venture to make a guess about how the organisers can achieve this. I can say, though, that with Synchronight Flexus Productions is trying its level best to purify an art-form which was born with rhythm.

Because the body was built for rhythm and rhythm subsists on dance, however, would a concert like this work out? Or more to the point, should it? Yes, for two reasons.

Reason Number One is simple: people can think that Synchronight is an attempt to intellectualise a genre, to turn a veritable art-form into an exercise in slick aestheticism. This is wrong and patently so. Mash-ups aren’t only about retaining concentration, but also (as Trident puts it) liberating fun. There are more ways than one to enjoy a melody, after all, and while dancing is one of them it is not the only or even the main way. On that count, mash-ups will go a long way in nourishing the roots of an art-form that survives and is spoken, listened to, and enjoyed the world over.

Reason Number Two goes deeper. With the advent of mash-up concerts, a friend of mine put it, the past and the present have come together. What he meant there was that mash-ups have made it possible for the classical to coexist with the contemporary. This will, I am sure, be reflected in Synchronight, where many of those performing will crisscross different times and genres to let the audience enjoy melodies they may not have been able to indulge in other, more conventional concerts. That is why I am relieved to hear Nipun and Dumidu telling me that they hope to take Synchronight elsewhere, to Galle, Kandy, Jaffna, and every other corner in this small country.

March is the month of madness, some say. The month of parades and noise and matches and papare bands. Perhaps. Through everything that will adorn it, we’ll come across one concert and one genre. Whether we take to it or not, time will tell. Until we do take to it, we can listen. And we can enjoy. On March 10, we will be able to do both. Amply.

Written for: The Island YOUth, February 26 2017

Sunday, February 26, 2017

'Premaya Nam': In the name of love and sanity

Last year at the Colombo International Film Festival, I met a woman whose name I unfortunately don’t remember now. There’s usually time to lunch and chat during a break between two films (provided that both are shown at the same Hall), so the two of us sat down, lunched, and chatted.

Because I didn’t have much time to watch everything that would be screened then, I asked her about two Sinhala films which were being “premiered” at the Festival, Boodi Keerthisena’s Alone in a Valley and Vindana and Kalpana Ariyawansa’s Dirty, Yellow, Darkness.

According to this woman, Boodi’s film was “too confusing” while the other was “too unsightly.” I thought that the latter was more or less experimental too, going by the title, but I was wrong. Without spoiling the plot for me, she told me that it was about a man who’s afraid of his own urine. After a point, she added, it proved to be too much, so much in fact that she was glad when it was over. She was no film critic, but back then I was only a filmgoer, not a writer, so I withheld comment. In any case, I didn’t get to see it.

A year later I met Kularatne Ariyawansa and was surprised to learn that Vindana and Kalpana were his sons. I was confused by then by the discrepancy between their film’s English and Sinhala titles (while the former still made me believe it was an experimental indie, “Premaya Nam” made me believe it was another conventional love story). So before their father came for the interview, I quizzed the two of them over their debut, and was surprised to learn how prepared the two were in resolving my doubts. While I will not reveal everything they said, I will say that I was persuaded to watch it at its premiere last Friday, February 17, with my father. This is not a film review, rather a sketch of how I felt about it as just another filmgoer.

Vindana’s and Kalpana’s film reminds you of how simple filmmaking appears to be when in fact great effort must be taken to sustain that myth. A director needs to be endowed with a keen editorial eye, to spot out extraneous shots. He or she needs to sift them away without retaining them to obtain effect (or sensationalism). While I don’t doubt that mental illness isn’t as taboo a theme as, say, homosexuality, it is true that many of our directors take their eagerness to depict such themes as a license to sensationalise. For that reason alone, I liked Premaya Nam.

What I took to the most in it, therefore, was its pacing. From the word go, the Ariyawansa brothers have ensured that they don’t overdo it, that they don’t show us its protagonist’s problem in gushes and torrents. Because my attention span is accursedly small, I was hence enthralled by the first few sequences, when the protagonist Vishwa lets us know that he has an issue with his bathroom (what it is, we don’t know yet). When we realise that his wife Samadi moves out on him (which, by the way, is the first scene) and when her parents get to know about his illness, we give ourselves up to the plot, because we know that like all well edited films, this one will flow like poetry.

That is why I loved the way the directors had depicted their theme: again, not in gushes, but in a flow. I felt that they had parsed their plot to keep us asking for more, to keep us asking that forever lingering question “What next?” even towards the end.

Vishwa’s illness bewilders us (for the record, he’s afraid of his own urine because he suffers from OCD) not because we haven’t encountered people like him, but because such a person has now been depicted, not as the freak we think he may be but as another human being, who longs to retain his sanity and return to his wife.

For that reason, the way the other characters were depicted helped. Samadi, for instance, was not portrayed as the forever understanding woman she usually would be: while she tolerates Vishwa’s problem, she lets him know that she will return to him only if he resolves his issue. While it’s not only her departure that compels him to admit himself at the National Institute of Mental Health (or Angoda, as it’s popularly referred to), it does precipitate his desire to do so when he realises that his illness will only worsen. Samadi’s parents, similarly, are not portrayed as conservative prigs: they initially lambast Vishwa’s parents (“Who’d want to marry a madman?”) but in the very next shot are pacified by Vishwa’s psychiatrist, who makes them understand what he is suffering from.

And here I come to the Mental Hospital. Kalpana told me that the entire film was shot in 28 days, and that to instil realism they went to Angoda, though they ended up using (as per protocol) a “safe” Ward without filming actual patients. We realise, as do the film’s characters, that a mental hospital is not a circus and that while one may come across people considered abnormal, they are not wholly devoid of the wishes, hopes, and beliefs that we do hold dear. I rather liked the way the Ariyawansa brothers had treated their theme at the Hospital: while Vishwa is certainly not the madman many of those resident there are considered as, his visit there is vital for him (and us).

I hence warmed up to the way Vindana and Kalpana had approached their theme: when they probe into Vishwa’s problem, for instance, they resort to a series of shots which alternate from the one to the other in quick succession, to make us understand how jarring his illness is to him. 

When Vishwa writes about his fear of touching objects touched by others, moreover, we see those objects from Vishwa’s perspective: tainted with a yellow substance, which sizzles (like fire) when touched and which stick on you like goo and in turn stick on everything else you touch. Again, subtle.

So what of the actors? Shyam Fernando was Prasanna Vithanage’s discovery: I saw him in Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka and was entranced by his enigmatic personality. He has the potential to keep back, to retain guilt, to tell us everything there is to know about sorrow and sadness through his eyes. Vindana and Kalpana picked him out right after Prasanna was done with his film, which I personally think was correct: Shyam is not enamoured of that fame that ravishes other, more popular stars, so it’s only fit that we have an actor who can portray an ordinary man beset by extraordinary circumstances. In other words, it didn’t take much time for me to take to him. Shyam still has a wide terrain to cross. I sincerely hope that he will cross it.

Of the other actors, Samanalee Fonseka and Buddhadasa Vithanarachchi (as Samadi and Samadi’s father respectively) were effective: as I mentioned before, they were neither opposed to nor accommodating of Vishwa’s condition. It was Suranga Ranaweera, however, who really got to me, though she had less screen time. Suranga was Chandran Rutnam’s discovery, with his Alimankada, but here I daresay she was qualitatively better: as the empathetic nurse, she keeps us guessing as to whether the two of them will fall in love. But no: when he leaves the hospital, he leaves everything behind. Including her. His sojourn there, hence, is exactly that: a sojourn, from which a return to the outside world is possible.

My only problem, which has nothing to do with the film’s technical merits, was its ending. It was ambiguous, I felt: do the directors want us to gauge mental illness on the basis of how quickly those suffering from it return to conventional society, or do they want us to empathise with the patient even if he or she can’t return? In the final scene we see that Vishwa is ready for therapy and that Samadi has accepted him, but I couldn’t help but wonder: are we supposed to empathise with a conventional society that still stigmatises mental patients? Have the directors inadvertently caved in to the conventional wisdom that mental patients, while certainly not madmen, must do anything and everything in their power to embrace the same conventional society that repudiates them?

Not that it matters, of course. While the ending was ambiguous, perhaps it was because we identified so strongly with Vishwa that we didn’t want him to go out of his way to placate an intolerant society. Either way, I liked the film.

One final point. That woman I referred to earlier, I have lost contact with. I needed a fresh perspective to make me forget what she had to say. I found that perspective at the end of the screening with Chandran Rutnam. Here’s what Chandran, a man known for his outspoken views on the cinema, had to say: “What this makes us understand is that a film can enthral and entertain without the obligatory song-and-dance sequence. It takes itself up to examine an unconventional theme and it achieves its purpose. In the end, it both enthrals and entertains.”

Perhaps I should end my piece here. Chandran has summed what I wanted to say. I think it’s best that we heed what he said. And go watch Premaya Nam to ascertain its worth for ourselves.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, February 26 2017

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Anula Karunathilaka: The Dhammi of our sensibilities

The Sinhala cinema, before its maturing in the seventies, underwent a paradigm shift in the sixties. Unlike much of the West, we didn’t have the kind of infrastructure that was needed for the cinema to claim “film stars” as such: whatever screen face that emerged came from the theatre. Regardless of what the critics may have thought, our films therefore owe as much to the West as they do to our hybridised, stylised theatre.

It is this relationship between two otherwise diametrically opposed art-forms, then, that defined our film industry for quite some time, and it is this which also (coincidentally) introduced a breed of instinct-driven stars who managed to distinguish between the theatricality of the stage and the subtlety of the screen. Anula Karunathilaka, who hasn’t acted for quite some time, would obviously fall into this category.

She is known more than anything else for depicting a lover who, regardless of the decades and generations that have since passed, epitomised our most heartfelt youthful interludes. At times she has been (unfairly, I believe) gauged on the merits of this one performance, and at times her other credits have been marginalised and understated.

But then Anula remains hard to define, harder to analyse, if at all because she was always an instinct-driven actress. When I first met her many, many years ago, she told me her story and how large a part coincidence played in her encounters, trials, tribulations, victories, and defeats.

Passing over the infinitely easier task of sketching out her biography, I asked her to start at the point her career began. That had been in 1962, the year her sister suggested that she send a photograph of hers to the Dawasa newspaper for a beauty queen contest. They had not however been published, which prompted the two of them and their father to visit the office and collect them. 

What happened next? “A new photo of me was taken,” she recalled, “and it was published a little while later. I remember that I was in the top six when the votes were counted and I remember being taken in for the final contest.”

That contest proved to be a turning point for her, because of two people attending it: Sumitra Peries (then Gunawardena) and Tissa Abeysekara, both of whom were to be involved in the first landmark film made here, Gamperaliya. A week later, Sugathapala de Silva and G. W. Surendra had come to ask her father as to whether she could be auditioned for a role in the film.

Did her father consent? “Not immediately,” she smiled, “Because you must remember, young girls were not supposed to act back then. The one point in my favour was the identity of the director. Even before Gamperaliya, Lester James Peries was reputed as an unconventional exponent of the cinema, who didn’t go for the kind of commercial flicks girls like me were notoriously associated with. After much persuasion and because of this one point, my father relented. Soon enough, he and my sister were with me as we went to Dr Peries’ residence.”

At his house, however, the man had seen Anula and had commented rather ruefully, “My dear, you are too small.” The role she had been asked to audition for had been that of Nanda, which would of course be filled in another girl who had already been featured in the cinema, Punya Heendeniya. For the moment Anula had been asked to audition with Gamini Fonseka, but eventually she had been given the role of Laisa, the servant-girl whose part was butchered in subsequent versions of Lester’s seminal film. She tells me here, rather bitterly I infer, that out of the hundred or so copies that were made after its release only one remains which hasn’t cut down on her screen time.

She was 16 when Gamperaliya was released. This was (still) in 1962. Her debut role in the cinema would soon be followed by a veritable series of stage plays, when in the following year Sugathapala de Silva took her in for his troupe “Ape Kattiya” and their first production, Dharmasiri Wickremaratne’s Ran Thodu (where she was paired with G. W. Surendra and Tony Ranasinghe). Ran Thodu had been a controversial masterpiece, a watershed in the history of our theatre at a time when stylisation held sway everywhere, and Tony and her wound up as Best Actor and Actress at that year’s State Drama Festival.

Her next foray into the cinema had been through Titus Thotawatte, who featured her as Sumana, the female protagonist, in his Chandiya, opposite Gamini Fonseka. The latter himself would feature her opposite him again in Parasathumal, where she connived rather menacingly and bitterly to undo the love triangle between Bonnie Mahaththaya (Fonseka), Tony Ranasinghe, and the woman at the centre of the story’s conflict, Punya Heendeniya. Parasathumal moreover was released in 1967, the year she turned 21 on the day she signed a contract for her next big venture, Golu Hadawatha. It was with that seminal production that she got her career-defining role, as Dhammi Kariyawasam.

I believe it was Regi Siriwardena who commented that Karunasena Jayalath was responsible for the shift in our literature from Martin Wickramasinghe to pulp fiction. This was beyond a doubt facilitated by the man’s own experiences, for his debut novel Golu Hadawatha (published in the same year Anula began her career, 1962) was rooted in his schoolboy days at Taxila Vidyalaya, Horana. I believe Anula summed up his attitude best: “It was a different world back then, with a different way of responding to emotions. Today you come across unrequited lovers resorting to the knife and the gun in a bid to reclaim their love, but back then people transformed those sorrows and defeats into laments, dirges, and poetry.”

Because of this perhaps, those who read Karunasena’s book grew to hate Dhammi, who in his novel had even less empathy that her onscreen avatar. “People hated her character, but they never failed to tell me that they loved my performance as her,” Anula told me. With vague and faint echoes of that other timeless tribute to unrequited love, Devdas, Golu Hadawatha proved to be a sensation, which meant that audiences were guaranteed for anyone who churned out a good, veritable, and reckonable film adaptation. This was exactly what Lester James Peries came up with in 1968, with the first of three films he made for Ceylon Theatres.

In Dhammi I come across a different Anula, the Anula who hid her emotions so well that in the final sequence relating her version of events, she let us know that she was not lacking in empathy. The first hour of Golu Hadawatha lets us in on Sugath’s perspective, which is probably why, to intensify our sympathy for him, Lester went for Wickrema Bogoda. But the real star in the film without a doubt was Anula, who swayed between “kelilol” playfulness and bittersweet seriousness throughout the story in a way that added meaning to an already intense conflict.

When we see her in that fateful beach sequence, for instance, telling Sugath that she never really loved him, we are confounded because, right until then, we had shared Sugath’s feelings for her. It would take a tremendous effort to transform our hatred for her to empathy, which is what she achieved with that remarkable sustained sequence of her version of the story.

Golu Hadawatha wasn’t her only film of course, and almost all her subsequent portrayals unearthed her versatility: in Ran Salu, for instance, she was both a freewheeling, materialistic woman and, towards the end, a serious and contemplative nun-to-be. Whether or not she would have continued this way, however and alas, is a question no one can answer, because owing to her marriage to the photographer Daya Wimalaweera she had to let go of her career in the cinema.

“I have no regrets on that score,” she told a very bewildered me, adding that she and Daya were always together until his demise many years ago. Incidentally, it was Wimalaweera who had taken the photograph of her at the Dawasa office. Small world, I thought to myself as I moved on.

Based on her responses to my other questions, I can say this about her later career. As Sunil’s mother in Amba Yahaluwo and as the mother to Kamal Addararachchi in Ran Diya Dahara, we come across a different Anula. She has by this point let go of her earlier avatar. Unlike most actresses her age who continued on with the cinema at this time (among them, Malini Fonseka and Geetha Kumarasinghe) she has refused to epitomise the youthfulness which virtually gushed from her in Parasathumal, Ran Salu, Golu Hadawatha, and Bakmaha Deege. She has become a matriarchal figure, prone to slight outbursts of temper, always suspicious, and never overfriendly.

There is one point that links both those aforementioned performances, however: the fact that even as a matriarch, she has to rely on a more powerful figure to assert herself: Maha Kumarihamy (Ruby de Mel) in Amba Yahaluwo, and the father to Kamal (Henry Jayasena) in Ran Diya Dahara. She of course continued to play the mother in several advertisements, but whether or not we could have continued with her film career this away, however and alas again, no one can answer.

I came across Anula for the first time as Sunil’s mother. Amba Yahaluwo was a prescribed text at my school, so watching it was vital for me to understand what I was reading. Regardless of how much screen time she was given and based on what I observed, therefore, I can say this much: the Anula Karunathilaka of the eighties had undergone a subtle but discernible shift. It is sad that she could not continue. We would have wanted her to. And we would have profited greatly.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, February 22 2017

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The state of our polity: A state in disarray

Pier Paolo Pasolini, the most controversial filmmaker to emerge from post-war Italy, had an interesting comment to make about protestors. Apparently he’d observed the May 1968 protests in France and the tussles which University students and the police had waded through against each other. Now Pasolini was not wont to political correctness and he spoke his mind whether or not those he criticised were his ideological comrades. That is why he was controversial and that is why his analyses of public affairs were unconventional.

Upon seeing the protestors and the protests, he had therefore disparaged the students. He had also sided with the police. Given that the former were fighting against the (capitalist) System and the latter were instruments of that same System, this had jolted some. When asked to elaborate on his stance, he had been blunt: the students came from privileged families, who had the luxury of comfort they could resort to after the protests were done. The police, on the other hand, were underpaid and overworked, the true proletarians. They did not understand why they were asked to teargas and baton charge. That was what paid their rent. What sustained their meagre lives.

The lesson here is that it all depends on how you look at things. A protest, a fast-unto-death, a nationalist campaign, and even a bheeshanaya are often birthed by idealists who lose track of their idealism with time. That is why there are turncoats and why there are fringe movements, the latter of which are currently in the vogue given our disenchantment with the Establishment. Were Pasolini alive today (he died a most ambiguous death, characteristically), he wouldn’t have let anyone off the hook: not the System which fermented revolution and not the revolution which subsisted on limousine turncoats.

This week’s column is not only about the anti-SAITM protests or the politics of those protesting against private (medical) education, but about how the state of disarray in this country, more pertinently the state of disarray in our polity, relates to all these fringe incidents. Which begs the question, naturally: what is the state of our polity in the first place?

The de-legitimising misers

Let’s get straight to the point. The government is doing a good job of de-legitimising itself. With a dormant section of the Opposition that does little to nothing other than mouth its concerns about just ONE collective (the North) and another section that is being disparaged by the same regime it supported during the 2015 elections (the JVP), the government is also repudiating itself in policy statement after policy statement. The 100-day campaign has turned into 650+ days, some of the policies it promised it would realise have become empty words, and it now appears to be more concerned about downplaying the accusations of the Joint Opposition than rectifying itself.

Even the most perfectly steered ship has cracks and this regime is no exception. The SLFP and the UNP, as commentators have pointed out, do not linger on with each other for long. They are held together only because of the mutual understanding of certain key representatives in both and they are breaking apart because of the diatribes that certain other party members are aiming at each other.

Susil Premajayantha, for instance, in an interview with this paper on January 29, made the position of these members in the SLFP quite clear: the UNP is not handling the economy well, the economic stances it stands for (capitalist, neoliberal) are opposed to the SLFP, and the statement of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, that there is no point in disparaging the debts he (allegedly) raked up if the government is not servicing them efficiently, is correct. Premajayantha may or may not know that his contention about economic stances is misconceived (the SLFP, after all, can be considered “socialist” only insofar as rhetoric is concerned), but he is correct about the way the economy is being handled, never mind what those who script our policy statements write and promise.

More on the SAITM mess

This is old news though. Since of late, the biggest thorns on the government’s side have been the protests against SAITM and the New Constitution. Of these, the former has become a mess: while the GMOA and the SLMC have not openly come out against private education with respect to SAITM, the convenor of the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) Lahiru Weerasekara has openly denied the legitimacy of such institutions. “We are not against SAITM because of its lack of standards, but because we are against private education!” is what he is saying, even as the Medical Faculty Students' Union contend that they are against the former, not the latter.

There is nothing more confusing for a government than ambiguity from the opposition, for the simple reason that with these contradictory statements by the anti-SAITM bandwagon, the government is having enough trouble sorting out the mess it never opted to get into. Let’s not forget, after all, that despite the opposition against the very idea of a private medical hospital and a private teaching hospital by the GMOA and Professor Carlo Fonseka (the president of the SLMC), it was the previous regime which permitted the establishment of both. Given this simple fact, isn’t it rather jarring to come across representatives of that same regime contending that should they get to power, they will get rid of the institute?

The protestors have had their day. They have made it to the headlines and they have articulated their concerns eloquently. Their arguments may be hollow, and some of them may be impractical, but in their commitment to a freer education system they have won both sides of the political divide. In other words, they have transformed a politically partisan issue into an issue that cuts across every political and economic divide. Among those protestors and those supporting the protests, we hence come across supporters of the government and supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

That is why it was encouraging to see the fiercely nationalist Yuthukam Sanwada Kawaya organise a seminar on the SAITM issue last Thursday (February 16) at the Colombo Public Library Auditorium. Why do I say this? While the nationalists affiliated to the YSK are not as opposed to private medical institutes as their counterparts in the radical Left, they are nevertheless concerned about the role the government has played in aggravating the problem. Put simply, they are put off by the Court of Appeal ruling not because they are against SAITM, but because (in their opinion) it unfairly clamps down on the SLMC, which unlike the GMOA and the IUSF is a regulatory body.

The nationalist aspect to the issue, in other words, stems from what they feel to be an overt but dangerous erosion of the SLMC (the “National Body”) facilitated by a judiciary that they believe has conceded ground to privatisation and de-nationalisation. That is what has unearthed the nationalist aspect to this whole, veritable hodgepodge, and not because of a (largely non-existent) link between the nationalist resurgence and leftist student politics.

At this crucial juncture, the nationalists have hence sided with the radical Left. Because of that (and also of the political benefits it will bring about) the Joint Opposition has voiced its concerns about private medical education. Of course, it comes to no surprise that certain members of this nationalist movement against SAITM themselves indulge in a privileged and by no means “leftist” lifestyle in other respects. Pasolini would have had a field day lambasting them, I am sure.

The New Consitution and Gevindu Cumaratunga’s points

The other issue is more pertinent. The SAITM fiasco has brought about an uneasy alliance between the JVP and the Joint Opposition, even though they don’t see eye to eye in Parliament. The fracas relating to the new Constitution, however, is another ball-game altogether.

To be sure, the proposed Constitution has been written and rewritten by both sides of the political divide so much that it’s difficult to ascertain whether the government will enact it in the first place. Rumours that the privileged status accorded to Buddhism and the Buddha Sasana would be done away with have been dispelled by a regime that has stated its commitment to these provisions. Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne, who continues to play a part in the Constitution-making process, has moreover denied all allegations made by the Joint Opposition with respect to the regime’s stance on Buddhism. Does that belittle the nationalist’s concern though?

I for one think not. Gevindu Cumaratunga in an essay titled “Can a contorted Parliament give birth to a wonderful Constitution?” contends that the government opted to preserve the privileges of the Buddhists BECAUSE OF and not DESPITE the protests made by the nationalist movement (of which he is a key constituent). Because Gevindu’s arguments merit more than a second glance, they should be assessed more closely. So here they are.

Two arguments, two causes for worry

His first argument is quite simple: why did the government bring about an entire Constitutional amendment to reduce the number of Cabinet Ministers? He rejects the contention that an Amendment was needed for two reasons: one, that an amendment was NOT needed to achieve what it purported to achieve, and two, that despite its passage, it was not enough (as of now, there are more than 45 Cabinet Ministers, well above the 30 we were promised).

He ends his argument with a pertinent observation: “The request made by the people to reduce the number of Cabinet Ministers was not made merely to prevent corruption, but to prevent the abuse of the people’s mandate that the vast swathes of perks, privileges, and emoluments made to those same Ministers facilitated.” This observation presages a more pressing worry for him: if as simple a request as this was transformed into a contorted, virtually useless amendment, what’s to say that the amendment for a NEW Constitution will be less disastrous and useless?

Which brings me to Argument Number Two. If one peruses history, implies Gevindu, one comes across instances where the majority community was bullied into pacts and agreements which were not demanded via the democratic process. He quotes S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s rejoinder to S. J. V. Chelvanayakam over the protests against the “Sri” license plates. “It is a problem which I can solve” was what the Prime Minister said then, to which he added (quite reasonably, some contend) that Tamil politicians and extremists were creating unnecessary problems in the North over a mere letter in the license plate. Gevindu essentially argues that this culture of overreaction has characterised Tamil politicians who have since followed Chelvanayakam.

Given this, it comes to no surprise that Tamil politicians today, in particular those spouting federal rhetoric, are ambiguous over their own stance on the matter. “Do they want the government to give back the land to the Tamil people or do they want the military to leave the North?” Gevindu asks, clearly implying an Either/Or dichotomy between these two. In other words, one can EITHER restore land to the Tamil people and leave the military as it is, OR leave the land as it is and ask the military to go. The one assumes the rejection of the other (and vice-versa).

Whether or not you agree with his premise, his argument seems to make sense. And why? Because the mainstream Tamil politician still panders to federalism. Whether you vouch for it on equitable grounds or not, there is no denying that handing more powers over to the political and ethnic periphery doesn’t make sense economically (especially in OUR economy, messed up as it is). Moreover, for the likes of Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara federalism is a mere byword for separatism, with a caveat: while the latter directly subverts the Constitution, the former does not (at least within the confines of 13A). “When federalists talk against the unitary state,” Gevindu therefore asks, “is it not reasonable for us to be worried?” An apt question, I believe.

Of war crimes and policy ambiguity

Added to that apt question are two other problems: the point that the nationalist movement in itself is housed by those same articulators of federalism and mild separatism, and the point that the government’s ambiguity with respect to the New Constitution is making matters worse. Of these the second is easier to comprehend, so I will sketch it out first.

I mentioned earlier that what is turning the SAITM issue into a headache for the government is the ambiguity with which those opposed to the institution continue to articulate their stances. The IUSF is saying one thing while the Medical Faculty Students’ Union is saying another thing. With regard to the New Constitution, however, what’s aggravating an already confusing mess is the ambiguity of the government itself. To put it simply, certain representatives of this regime have come out, at different times and in different places, to voice their commitment to the unitary character of the State and (concurrently and paradoxically) its ability to cohabit with 13-plus. What is to be affirmed and who is to be believed, one wonders.

The President has argued for a domestic mechanism for trying out those accused of war crimes. The Prime Minister has not spoken a word about it but several members of his party have more or less contradicted the President’s stance in an effort to placate the international community. As Dayan Jayatilleka observed not too long ago, the Foreign Minister’s position on war crimes tribunals seems to have gone even beyond this: now it’s no longer “We insist because they (the international community) insist” but rather “We insist even if they don’t insist.”

The rift between calls for federalism and calls for (internationalised) war crimes tribunals, in other words, has ceased to be a rift: as Jayatilleka put it, “the government’s agenda is not ‘quasi-federalism OR Special Courts on war crimes’, but ‘quasi-federalism AND Special Courts’.” Whether or not you agree with the man, you have to concede ground to his observation. Coupled with the government’s Heckle-and-Jeckle attitude to the matter, and you can understand how worried the average nationalist is: not because the government is clear, but because it is NOT clear.

The first problem, on the other hand, is harder to resolve and hence more complex. While it is true that the government is housed by those who are championing federalism, it is also true that political differences have caused other, as articulate champions of federalism (those who support going beyond 13A) to flock to the nationalist resurgence. I probably shouldn’t mention names, so I won’t, but I do know that the members of the resurgence have voiced their concern about this. I noticed it, for instance, at the launch of Manohara de Silva’s book “The Methods of the Separatists” last month, in both the absence of certain people affiliated to the Joint Opposition and those who were lambasted openly as dangerous mavericks by key speakers.

While this is an anomaly we have seen in previous years (after all even Mrs Bandaranaike cohabited with the same Old Left that repudiated her position on the national question), it has become more discernible because the government, in its attempt to belittle the Joint Opposition, is making use of the stances on that same national question articulated by these “mavericks” earlier, which are diametrically against the stances articulated by the JO. That merely adds to Gevindu’s argument for a complete overhaul of the political system, a purge not just without but also within.

Concluding remarks

Two issues, two causes for worry: the SAITM mess and the New Constitution have become a headache for the government. I am not complaining, of course, because for all the rhetoric the regime spouted in their quest to eradicate corruption, they didn’t budge one bit with respect to the allegations against their own Ministers. If the original sin was to take in these Ministers in a bid to get rid of those aligned with Mahinda Rajapaksa who won in August 2015, it would seem that the Joint Opposition is having a field day letting the government de-legitimise itself over those two issues. So no, I am not complaining.

One more thing. I don’t cut any slack for either the incumbent or the Opposition, but I do know that if push comes to shove, and if the quality of the arguments and protests supported by the fringe Opposition increases, not because of the integrity of those resident in it but because of the increasingly confused moves made by the incumbent, I will pick on a side. Not only because of my sympathies with the belittled nationalist, but also because I value policy consistency above anything else, whether in this government or in the governments that follow it.

Written for: Ceylon Today, February 21 2017

Monday, February 20, 2017

Vasanthi Chathurani: The girl next door

Actors and actresses are often remembered for their first role and the age at which they broke through the screen. Consequently, they reflect that age in whatever role they play and for that reason, reflect on their debut performance no matter how old or how young they are later on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. Bette Davis, for instance, was a veritable hag and Jezebel even in her most mature portrayals, while Audrey Hepburn, at the opposite pole, epitomised youth and fragility even in her last few performances. What’s true for the West, one can hence surmise, is true for the rest of the world, Sri Lanka included.

Vasanthi Chathurani came to us as a little girl. She was cast in a film that tragically remains a little underrated, even today. Because she never really left behind her youth, I suppose she took her innocence with her even as the decades marched on and even as a different breed of actors emerged in our film and television industries. I met her, not too long ago, and talked with her, noting that this lady before me, who’s still at it in television, hasn’t really let go of the girl she was in her first performance. With respect to the image she’s projected to the world outside, I can say this much: she isn’t wont to that cosmetic, superficial refinement others in her field have wallowed in.

I begin by asking for a brief, biographical sketch. She readily complies. Vasanthi was born Doreen Peterson and was sent to Holy Cross Convent in Gampaha. Despite the opposition displayed by such institutions to the performing arts, young Vasanthi had delved into dancing, poetry recitation, and the theatre at school, on one occasion winning the Best Actress award for a stage play. I infer at once that she was enamoured of the cinema from an early age, and that there must have been some opposition by her family to this. I am correct on both counts: her grandmother, who’d looked after her following her mother’s death, was a gentle lady who nevertheless disliked films (or “bioscope” as they were disparagingly called then).

Her first foray into the cinema was with Sumitra Peries. Sumitra, on the lookout for a girl for her debut, had come to Gampaha because Colombo hadn’t yielded the figure she was looking for. “I must have been around 15 when Sumitra visited Holy Cross,” Vasanthi remembers, “Because some of our classmates were relatives of hers, she found it easy to breach into our Convent through our Mother Superior, Sister Helen, who surprisingly let her ask us about our lives and interests during the interval.” The girls, predictably, had all wanted to be in her film, and so had ranted and raved that they were better than the rest. Young Vasanthi, despite her love for the performing arts, was too shy to get through to Sumitra.

“That was when she noticed me and beckoned to me. I went up, rather shyly, and looked at her as she asked after me. When she inquired as to whether I would like to play the main role in her film, I tentatively said I would but that I had to ask from my family first. She agreed, took down my address, and let me go. About 10 minutes after I reached home following school, I was rather shocked to see Sumitra and her team come to our house.” She had reason to worry, incidentally: village girls just weren’t supposed to act in bioscope back then. Perhaps knowing that this was indeed the case, Sumitra talked with her relatives and grandmother, wrote down her address, and asked them to mail her their response as soon as possible.

Fortunately for young Vasanthi, her family wasn’t really hell-bent against the cinema. “There was a relative of ours who had watched Lester James Peries’ films. He told us that they were good, that they were different to the crass, commercial fare which we usually saw. That must have persuaded my dear grandmother to relent, and soon enough, I was on my way to Colombo to act for Mrs Peries.”

So how were the first few days, I ask. “Terrible!” she laughs, “I just couldn’t take to all those lights, the crew, and the camera. They overwhelmed me, obviously. Unfortunately on account of that, I refused to recite my lines and to act at all.”

Sumitra obviously had been upset and this had been amply reflected in her crew as well. Apparently some of them suggesting that another young actress be taken in, but the director had not listened to them. I ask Vasanthi why, and she replies that it was because by then, she had pictured her protagonist in her form. Not one to affirm defeat at once, Sumitra had then done what would today be considered as reckless: she had shifted the shooting schedule and, one week later, went ahead filming certain sequences at a school. “We had originally decided to start at a mati geya built in her property in Pita Kotte, with Trilicia Gunawardena and Jenita Samaraweera. We instead waited for one week and left to St John Bosco's College in Hanwella.”

What happened next surprised both Vasanthi and Sumitra’s crew (though not Sumitra herself). Once she was clad in a school uniform, she virtually did everything that a schoolgirl usually did at that age: talk, dance, even sing. “I took to my role at once,” she remembers, “I think the director realised then that I could act, because she distinctly told me that even if I could not act, I needn’t get worried, because what she wanted from me, she would get out of my eyes and face. At the time I didn’t get what she told me, but after the film was released, I did. Essentially, where words and dialogues failed, my eyes and face would do. They spoke for me, in other words.”

The film, incidentally and of course, was Gehenu Lamayi. In it, Sumitra did to Chathurani what Dreyer did with Renée Falconetti in his remarkable masterpiece, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc: depict the woman as a tragic figure, cringing and crying for help but hardly being noticed by a largely patriarchal society.

Vasanthi was only 16 when Gehenu Lamayi came out, a point which intensified the tragedy she’s part and parcel of in its plot in a way Sumitra’s other films couldn’t: that final sequence, for instance, of her crying after realising that she has failed her exams and is therefore part of the unemployed, is rather unbearable to sit through. While I do not doubt much of the credit must go to Sumitra, it was with Vasanthi that we were able to watch and appreciate a different woman: the sort who neither crooned at nor rebelled against tragedy, but opted to give themselves to their horrendously unfair circumstances and destinies.

From then on, of course, she got one film after another, by the dozen: she was there, with some of the finest directors that era bred, among them Lester James Peries, Dharmasena Pathiraja, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, H. D. Premaratne, Sunil Ariyaratne, and Chandran Rutnam. I don’t ask her as to what portrayal she considers her favourite, because I already know the answer: it’s hard to pick, let alone choose. Speaking for myself, however, I would tentatively select her role in Adara Hasuna, where as the wronged and misunderstood wife of a powerful, authoritarian Colonel (Joe Abeywickrama), she intensified the story in a way that made it the closest the Sinhala cinema ever came to a Douglas Sirk tearjerker.

She led another life of course: as a television actress and, a little later, a producer of TV series. She began with Aga Pipi Mal, televised in 2003 and scripted by Sumitra Rahubadda (who wrote the source novel). Aga Pipi Mal was rather prophetic, an indication of the kind of stories she’d opt for as a producer. “All my teleseries centre on strong but maligned women,” she explains to me. Her landmark series in this regard has to be Gajaman Nona (directed by Wimalaratne Adikari for Rupavahini), and I tell her then and there that she virtually lived her role in that remarkable story of the most tragic female figure from that part of our history. She agrees, with a modest laugh. Glancing at her living room, I notice the many, many statuettes she’s won with practically all her productions.

Spatial constraints prevent me from delving into her work in its entirety, so I wrap up our interview by asking her as to how things have changed today.

“First and foremost, attitudes have changed. Directors don’t know how to handle actors anymore. In fact just the other day, I reprimanded a young director who had a habit of losing his temper with his cast. I told him frankly that if I, Vasanthi Chathurani, were harshly rebuked by my first few directors, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Secondly, they lack experience. They are so enamoured of the commercial aspect to their work that they opt for shooting one episode a day. Predictably, this cuts down on quality, not just because work is rushed but also because in that rush, they do away with multiple camera angles, shots, and smooth pacing. Thirdly, television stations sometimes give us about a fraction of the cost entailed in producing our series. This breeds two unfortunate consequences: one, good scriptwriters are kept away, and two, to cut down on costs, directors stretch their plots like elastic and go for the mega-series approach.”

Sobering reflections, I should think. To wrap up our interview, I therefore ask her as to whether she is still at it. She readily agrees. “We have talent, enough and more for me to continue. If we lose hope, we lose everything. Because I haven’t lost anything in my work, I hence continue to move ahead.” In the final analysis, perhaps that’s why she continues to do what she does, win awards, and win our hearts. Whether or not she’s there featured in her own series. That, I fervently believe, must have something to do with how much of the girl next door she’s become. Even today.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, February 19 2017

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sarith and Surith: The rhythms flowing from one heartbeat

Human beings are born for and because of rhythm. They are born with their mother’s heartbeat and they die with the death of their own heartbeat. Small wonder, then, that music is considered universal, a language that eschews ethnicity, gender, and age.

True, it takes some time to delve into the logic behind a melody, but despite that, as an art-form it finds its way to the most unlikely individual, group, or collective to a point where it never leaves them. Music, therefore, is birthed at childhood, and it is during childhood that it becomes firmly entrenched in us and defines how we look at the world.

Sarith and Surith Jayawardena came to us not too long ago, as aspiring youngsters and twins who continue to be avid followers of music. Their career began five years ago, but their penchant for the arts began long before that. They have since grown, and as is usually the case, they have changed. To what extent though? A question that can’t really be answered, and which compels another, as intriguing query: have what they sought to do, as performers, been achieved? To surmise this for myself, I went and met them on a cloudy Friday evening in Colombo.

It all began in 2012, but that’s not to say they don’t have a story before that. Sarith and Surith Jayawardena were born in Matara to a rather arts-conscious family and had been exposed to art and music from an early age. Their father Jagath, a teacher by profession, was (and is) a lyricist, while their mother Niluka worked in a bank and taught for some time before “retiring” as a housewife. Their sister continues to study music and art, with the piano as her preferred instrument.

The twins had professed an interest in drawing, which meant that an exhibition, to unveil their talent, was in the offing. While plans were underway for that exhibition, though, they had been entranced by music. This had been supplemented by their participation at Poddanta Puluwan, aired on Sirasa TV. Given that it was modelled after America’s Got Talent, their other competitors had displayed a whole bunch of abilities, which meant that the competition was tough. Tough, but not hard to get through. Sarith and Surith didn’t just get through, they won.

Victories are more often than not savoured and later forgotten. These two youngsters, however, did not forget. Nor did fate, which meant soon enough that they were called in for various shows and contests. Their first encounter as such had been a mere two days after Poddanta Puluwan ended, at a concert at the BMICH. About a year later, they had gone to Dubai, while in 2014 they had left to Vietnam to compete at the ABU Music Festival with 32 other participants and countries.

If Poddanta Puluwan confirmed their inclination for music, the ABU Festival confirmed it even more. I believe the two of them put it best: “The other competitors lip-synced. They didn’t perform live. We did, singing the first English song our father wrote for us, ‘Together Forever.’ The response was so enormous that we clinched a Gold Merit Award, not easy considering the competition we had to put up with.”

Meanwhile, their lives changed in other respects as well. They were in Seventh Grade at Rahula College in Matara when they won at Poddanta Puluwan. In April 2014, they were admitted to Ananda College, where their father teaches English. The shift from the one to the other hadn’t been overbearing for them, and soon enough they were moving into various Clubs at their new school. Because they had “gone small” before, Rahula hadn’t yielded much of a fandom, but at Ananda they found themselves reckoning with a huge fan base.

What of their other landmarks? After entering Ananda, they had gone to India for the Odyssey Philharmonic Festival, to which they had submitted (of all things) a rock version of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”).

Apparently their submission had enthralled the judges so much that the two of them clinched first place, for both Sri Lanka and their school. How refreshing had it been for them? So refreshing that they now hope to send a copy of it to London, “if possible with a video.” Meanwhile, their sojourn in India encouraged them to take the next step: form up a band. In 2015, that’s exactly what they did.

Lehan Budvin, Venuk Pesara, and Rashmika Chanith were virtual strangers to each another before they teamed up with the duo to form Sarith Surith and the News, the band which gave the duo a motive to collaborate with other, as talented musicians. Today Lehan handles the bass guitar, Venuk handles the rhythm guitar, and Rashmika handles the keyboard. Of these bright youngsters only Rashmika is from Ananda: Lehan studies at Asian Grammar School while Venuk is a Peterite.

So how did the band fare? “Pretty well!” the two of them chortle. Their first event had been at a festival at Bishop’s College called Future Voices. From then on, other events, concerts, and contests had come up in quick succession. Apart from outside concerts they have also performed at various College events, with Morning of Friendship (organised by the Interact Club at Ananda) and the Big Match being two of them. They had also performed at the finale of Trail, unveiled at their hometown in Matara.

All that is the past, of course. What of the impulses behind that past? To find out for myself, I ask Sarith and Surith as to what defines their love for music. As expected, they can’t think of a particular reason, so I ask them to list out their biggest influences. Not surprisingly, the singers and bands they list out were and are exponents of rock, reggae, and the guitar: Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, and Dire Straits figure in among them, while closer to home they name Rookantha Gunathilake, Chitral Sompala, and Bathiya and Santhush.

I then ask them as to what they look for in a song. Being performers, they could have easily mentioned the melody or rhythm, but to my surprise they do not: instead, they claim they value the lyrics and the lyricist highly. Their father Jagath (who is also their manager) has ensured that the verses adorning their songs lend some meaning to what they’re performing, which probably is why the two of them claim such a high place for the written word. “We always look out for a story or message in what we perform. In fact that is why we openly invite good writers to join us. We can help them and they can help us.”

I tentatively ask whether this reflects their dissatisfaction with the music industry in Sri Lanka and the philistinism it’s indulging in at the cost of the written word, but being the modest youngsters they are, they smile and reply that they aren’t mature enough to comment on that yet. Modesty is a hard to reach, harder to retain commodity in such talented performers, which they have been amply blessed with and which probably has to do with how they’ve reckoned with their fandom.

What of the present? Sarith and Surith finished their O Levels last December, before, during, and after which they were busy with their first single, “Ira Wenaswela.” While I should not reveal what the song (or the video accompanying it) revolves around, I can certainly say that there is a story and a message, and that great care has been taken while editing the video. The entire enterprise apparently took a whole year. That shows. Quite discernibly.

In the meantime they have not let go of their education. While they are following CIMA, they have also undergone a course in Audio Engineering by Ranga Dasanayake at the Hit Factory Audio Institute.

Together with Lehan, Venuk, and Rashmika, they have also gone through the Grade Three Trinity College music exams. To date, they continue to be defined by how willing they are to crisscross paths less traversed and by how fascinated they are with the mechanics behind music.

Whether or not they’ll rise higher, however, is a question only time can answer, which is why it’s best that I end my little piece with their own words.

“We didn’t do the hard yards alone. There were people who helped us and continue to help us. We are grateful to them, in particular our mallis and aiyas who form our biggest single audience at our school. With them, we’d like to thank our teachers, especially Ms Damithri, who taught us music at Ananda, Ms Geetha, who taught us at Rahula, and Lahiru Perera. As we mentioned before, we value meaningful lyrics. If anyone wants to contact, request, or join us, we are there on social media and pretty much elsewhere. We are not hard to reach, nor are we hard to accommodate.”

It’s not just about music, in other words. Not just about going big and gaining audiences. It’s about something else. Something more. Something we as music lovers would do well to note. And heed.

Written for: The Island YOUth, February 19 2017

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Kularatne Ariyawansa and the dewdrops of poetry

How and where do lyricists get their ideas? What is it that propels them to cross the thin line between the written word and the verse? What do they have, which we do not, that makes it easy for them to transform the most mundane, everyday experience into drops of poetry?

The best lyricists, the way I see it, ensure that what they write survive the ravages of time. Their songs, simply put, become timeless and remain as freshly scented as they were on the day they were authored. Because the Sinhala lyric as such has deteriorated today, we feel this most discernibly in the verses of the masters, the veterans of the pasts, for whom writing a song was more than just transforming a hackneyed theme into a series of even more hackneyed words.

Kularatne Ariyawansa belongs to a generation of lyricists that emerged during the seventies, when our music industry got away from the imitativeness it had been steeped in until then. The eighties, as I pointed out in my article on the late Ajantha Ranasinghe, was different in that with the dismantling of the regulatory structures instituted by the Bandaranaike government, artistes were empowered to experiment, though as time went by that deteriorated to the same imitativeness the industry saw before the seventies. Ariyawansa, who witnessed all this firsthand, has ample reason to regret, but does not: he prefers instead to reflect, to remember, and to recount. This is his story.

He was born in the Southern village of Benthara, although his family had been domiciled in Colombo. While he attended the game iskole until his O Levels, he entered Ananda College for his A Levels. Ananda was back then rife with aspiring artistes and poets, and this culture had appealed to young Kularatne. Among those he met and befriended, Premakeerthi de Alwis (who was his senior) and more pertinently A. D. Ranjith Kumara figure in. It would be through the latter that he was initiated into the music industry.

Kularatne had taken to poetry and music from an early age. While at his earlier school, during his O Levels, he had dabbled in poetry. When he shifted to Ananda, he shifted to songs. “Back then our music industry had been invaded by those stopped us from imitating Indian music. Among my influences, I can name Chandraratne Manawasinghe, Madawala Ratnayake, Karunaratne Abeysekera, and Mahagama Sekara. Through Sekara, I heard Amaradeva. Through Amaradeva, I realised how subtle the link between the word and the verse was. That was why, whenever I listened to a song, I made it a habit to write down its lyrics.”

Meanwhile, Ranjith Kumara (who can in one sense be considered his first figure of destiny) managed to hook up young Kularatne with a horde of artistes from that time, firstly through the magazine they edited at Ananda, “Sevana”, then through Arthur Amarasena’s arts tabloid “Visithuru.” Because of the latter especially, he got acquainted with some of the leading writers and poets in his time, which helped him even more when (again, through Kumara) he was invited to take part in several radio programs, including the "Sarasvathi Mandapaya" and "Yowun Samajaya".

Through all this, the man had managed to meet up with Abeywardena Balasooriya, back then a promising performer who, together with Sarath Dasanayake, teamed up with Kularatne for his first song, “Adarayen Ma Hadavatha.” His second song “Pinibara Malak” proved so popular for Victor Ratnayake that the latter continued to highlight it in his SA prasangaya. “I have written about 10 songs for Victor. Needless to say, all of them have become immensely successful,” he informs me, with a gleam in his eye.

We are as young or old as we work and Kularatne hasn’t been an exception to that rule. Because he, like his contemporaries (including Ajantha Ranasinghe), made love (requited or otherwise) his main subject and theme, that naturally attracted a horde of composers and singers who transformed our deepest impulses into veritable drops of poetry. His third song, which is my personal favourite, got him working with Amaradeva and Khemadasa to give out what I personally consider as the most discerning, heartfelt act of collaboration between the latter two: "Sanda Horen Horen", written for Amaradeva’s 50th birthday in 1978.

That year proved pivotal for him for another reason. The cassette trade, which had already made its mark in other music industries elsewhere, arrived. Kularatne, by then a mere government servant, would figure considerably in the revolution this wrought, when he first joined Tharanga as a lyricist and production coordinator at the invitation of his friend Vijaya Ramanayake and then, in 1980, left government service completely to join Singlanka at the invitation of another acquaintance, Ananda Ganegoda. While Tharanga continues to sell, Singlanka has languished thanks to the internet.

Kularatne tells me here that while cassette companies have all but completely caved into commercialism today, Singlanka was begun to help both veteran and aspiring artistes. As I browse through his lyrics, I realise that it also paired him with Rohana Weerasinghe, the man who would compose pretty much all his work during and after the eighties. I ask him as to how he’d write a song in the first place, and he replies, “Depends. Some of my songs already had their melodies worked out. I only needed to write. Most of them, however, were first sketched out by me before the composer worked on them.”

He has also worked on quite a number of films, about 20 to be exact. He began in 1978 with Anupama, directed by that other exponent of the Sinhala lyric, Sunil Ariyaratne. From Anupama, Ariyaratne opted for the man in his next two films, Vajira (where Kularatne got together with Nanda Malini for the first time with “Deno Dahak”), his landmark work Sarungale, and Jeevithayen Jeevithayak. When H. D. Premaratne let go of Clarence Wijewardena (who scored his first two films) and opted for Khemadasa in Parithyagaya, Kularatne was there (“La Hiru Payala”, which opens that remarkable film). He worked with Premaratne again for Mangala Thagga ("Thurulaka Hurathal") and Adara Hasuna (“Sudu Muthu Rala Pela”).

Because we live in a time where if you switch on the radio, you are guaranteed to hear songs revolving around the same, hackneyed theme of unrequited love, it’s a little difficult to appreciate the enormous range of sensitivity Kularatne brought off in his work. Suffice it to say, then, that of the 100+ lyrics he has sketched out, my personal favourites are the ones which delve into the hopes, wishes, triumphs, and pitfalls of aspiring lovers, simply but a little ornately, which probably makes him an equal to that other lyricist who went for that theme, Premakeerthi de Alwis. "Deno Dahak", for instance, begins on the following note:

දෙනෝ දාහක්
නුවන් අතරේ
කවුරුදෝ මා
තනි කළේ
තනි කළේ
පාසැල් බිමේ

While the lover in that song croons for the man who left her amidst a thousand other people (“නුවන් අතරේ“), alone, the final lines in “Sudu Muthu Rala Pela” bring out another lover: the sort who endures immeasurable shame before pairing up with the man who truly cherishes her:

පවනැල්ලක්සේ නොම හැර
ආවෙමි ඔබ හද සැදෙන තුරා

It’s not just about those overused lines “I love you girl, why don’t you love me?” that adorn pretty much every song on radio, in other words. I put to Kularatne that while times have certainly changed and while the Sinhala lyric has deteriorated on this count, nevertheless there must be some hope. He agrees, with a caveat: there are poets and reckonable anthologies published by talented youngsters. When it comes to lyricists also, there is talent. The problem, however, is with the TV channels that refuse to recognise this talent: “They have caved into a commercialist mindset so much that they refuse to even consider taking the work of these bright youngsters.” Depending on how you see it, this is reason for either hope or despair. In any case, it does not matter.

Last year the man brought out a collection of lyrics. Fittingly titled Pinibara Malak, the verses in it seem as freshly scented as they would have been when they were first sketched out. What of the man behind them? Soft-spoken and refined to a fault, Kularatne has no reason for complaint. Today he lives a rather comfortable life in Mirihana with his two sons, Vindana and Kalpana (whose film Premaya Nam premieres this Friday), and his wife Seetha. He was, characteristically I believe, not very enthusiastic about delving into his biography, which has a lot to do with his modesty and how he views himself.

We first heard of Kularatne Ariyawansa many, many years ago. He has since nourished our sensibilities in a way that does justice to the lover in us all. He has not resorted to hackneyed themes, and if he has, he has tried to steer clear of the newsreel format most lyricists go for today. We have much to be thankful for, I silently note as I go through Pinibara Malak. And because he admits at the end that he won’t stop writing, we will remain thankful. For a long, long time.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, February 15 2017