Monday, February 13, 2017

Jayantha Chandrasiri and the unveiling of the political

Even in his lesser work, Jayantha Chandrasiri remains a keen and unapologetic observer of the political. That is his trademark. His signature. His motif.

Throughout his career (as a playwright, TV director, and filmmaker), he courted controversy and was not afraid of calling a spade a spade, dismantling political structures, parodying real-life political figures and ideologies, and in the process, unearthing our collective need for an identity.

Guerrilla Marketing (which I consider his best), viewed this way, can be taken as either a searing indictment on the advertising industry or an equally searing indictment on the politics that ruled us in the seventies and eighties. Either way, he makes his point, with an almost braggart and theatrical instinct for turning the ordinary into the larger-than-life.

This is not a tribute to Chandrasiri, rather a sketch of his conception of the cinema. For he remains woefully understated, not because of the shortcomings of his films (which I will get to shortly) but the tendency of the critic to read into them with preconceived, inimical prejudices (I will get to this shortly too).

His teledramas, even the (superficially) conventional Weda Hamine, are underscored by traces of the supernatural. Dandubasnamanaya in that sense is a precursor to Akala Sandya and Sathara Denek Senpathiyo, the former more coherent, the latter more obscurantist. It is no surprise then, that for his debut Agnidahaya he opted for several actors he’d cast in Akala Sandya, and it is no surprise that he opted for the thin line (in medieval Sinhalese society) between irrationality and logic (the same theme that Akala Sandya revolved around) in it.

I remember Gamini Akmeemana, in a review of Agnidahaya published at the time of its release, targeting this and complaining that the plot tapped into the consciousness of the middle-class Sinhala Buddhist nationalist rather too overtly. He was correct, to a point at least. How so?

The late nineties was a period of reckoning for our cinema. The eighties had seen a dismantling of the regulatory framework that Sirimavo Bandaranaike institutionalised with the Film Corporation in the early seventies. Predictably, a horde of directors, ranging from the good, the bad, the mediocre, to the terrible, made the waves and splashed some colour to our film industry, which meant as the years went by that a reaction, of some sort, was in the offing.

The first wave of reaction, if you could put it that way, was made by the likes of Parakrama Niriella and Prasanna Vithanage. Niriella was a man of the theatre. He returned to it after just two films. Vithanage, on the other hand, remained in the cinema. It was from Vithanage that the likes of Ashoka Handagama emerged.

Handagama was sparse and unforgiving. Like Niriella, he belonged to the theatre. Unlike Niriella, he was content to stay in the cinema. He explored the puritanical strains of our people and in his first few films (which remain distinct from his later, lesser work) attacked the Buddhist order, extreme nationalists, and religious fanatics. He was correct in what he did, but this rather unfortunately sustained the belief that to be a landmark director, one must be anti-traditional.

How is that relevant to Jayantha Chandrasiri? Those who followed and even imitated Handagama began pandering to those who were against collective identities, in particular Sinhala Buddhism. In social and economic terms, those put off by this new trend were the middle-class, sophisticated, urban Sinhala Buddhists, who made it a habit to watch films in the theatre halls and behaved like the upper-class from elsewhere. They were also alienated, to a point where a new director, who could engage with the traditional without being fixated on its puritanism, was needed.

That director was Chandrasiri. His most discernible achievement is the new market he opened up in our cinema: what Akmeemana identified as the middle-class Sinhala Buddhist, who followed the attempts of S. L. Gunasekara, Champika Ranawaka, and Athuraliye Rathana Thera to start a new nationalist party. They were professionals (lawyers, doctors, engineers, and so on), yet enamoured of the founding myths and idealised destiny of their community. While I have serious reservations about the sincerity of this social class in their commitment to a nationalist project (which I leave for a separate article elsewhere), I do believe that Chandrasiri’s foray into the cinema was needed to take it away from the anti-traditional streak his contemporaries were (amateurishly) dabbling in.

Agnidahaya was (as I implied above) a veritable follow-up to his teledramas, in terms of both the time and place in which its story was set. Regardless of his attempts at weaving a love story out of a plot focused on the divide between magic and reality, and regardless of the awards, the accolades, and the praise it received, however, it wasn’t what one could call a standout film. For that, he had to wait a couple of years before making what I consider his best work to date, Guerrilla Marketing. It is from this remarkable film that Chandrasiri’s signature emerges.

Even in Guerrilla Marketing, he refuses to abandon his theatrical instincts. There are sequences in the film that inflate the ordinary into the larger than life and in the process, opt for dialogues and monologues that philosophise in a rather stagey manner. The sequence of Kamal Addaraarachchi “talking” with Jackson Anthony and Sriyantha Mendis (the latter two on television) in the lunatic asylum, and the subsequent imagined sequence of Mendis, Kamal, Kamal’s sister (Sangeetha Weeraratne), and the rest of the nurses, doctors, and patients in the asylum tagging along to Premasiri Khemadasa’s music (“Athun Gawayan Eladenun saha Rahan Bandi Un Mugatiyan”) are filled with artifice and dwell on the thin line between fantasy and reality: the trope that binds his best work together.

Belying this, of course, is that desire to unearth the political I referred to at the beginning. Chandrasiri is a nationalist, he makes no bones about that. He doesn’t apologise for picking on history or political figures (think of Jackson Anthony’s Gregory Muhandiram from Guerrilla Marketing and, yes, the real-life politician he mimics to perfection) because, like all artistes who emerged from the eighties, he turned his art into a tool of social and political protest.

Unlike his other colleagues from the eighties (such as Dharmasiri Bandaranayake), however, he doesn’t share their enthusiasm for revolting against identity: time and time again, he’s shown others that to repudiate the superstructure, one must of necessity be respectful of the base. That defines him and differentiates him from all those other artistes who, after our cinema was “reawakened” in the nineties, took their artistry as a license to make amateurish works of art that subsisted and survived only by virtue of one point: their ability to criticise culture (or “the base”).

Samanala Sandwaniya represents a departure for the man: instead of the political, he seems to have opted for what Sumitra Peries once told me was a “Catholic” (as in universal) story, the sort that shares more with the Impressionist cinema of Renoir than with the madness and deliberately provocative theatre of Beckett (the latter of which, I’ve been told, provided much of the energy in the plays he directed in the eighties). Did it work? Yes and no, no because despite his treatment of the romance at the heart of the plot (which works, owing in large part to the acting of Uddika Premaratne and Yashoda Wimaladharma), he manages to bring in some unnecessary subplots (including one with a couple of loafers who are so comical and unrealistic that they jar).

One final point. A playwright I met recently complained that Chandrasiri tends to make his cast members ugly. I don’t know what this playwright’s definition of ugly is, but I do see his point, though I see Chandrasiri’s point as well: be it Kamal Addaraarachchi from Guerrilla Marketing or some of the secondary players from Samanala Sandwaniya, he does this (I believe) to show us that beauty is coterminous with order, and order, whether or not you like it, is antithetical to chaos, which in turn is coterminous with ugliness (depending on what you define as ugly, of course).

The thin line between order and chaos, authoritarianism and anarchy, and reality and fantasy: this is what binds Jayantha Chandrasiri’s work together, what unearths his eye for the political in his best films. That is why I sincerely hope he returns to his signature and trademark. The sooner he does this, the more cherished his work (including his masterpiece, which I feel is yet to come) will be.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, February 12 2017