Sunday, February 5, 2017

The indifferent ones: A mild critique of a big celebration

Sumitra Peries once told me a story about Rekava. Lester, her husband, along with Titus Thotawatte and Willie Blake, had gone to Cannes to screen it at the Festival. Because the version they had was too long and contained too many songs, they met Lindsay Anderson. The father of the Free Cinema Movement and the British New Wave, Anderson was as much the parvenu Lester was in his country. Cannes, however, was a different ball-game altogether, and so the two of them discussed as to what songs would stay and what songs would be out.

The Western cinema, when it matured after the coming of sound, deliberately avoided the song-and-dance sequences that ran riot in our films. Lester had hence readied himself to cut down on probably all the songs his debut contained. What happened next, however, surprised him.

Anderson watched the film, thought for a moment, then told the man that whatever song he chose to cut, he should leave "Olu Nelum Neriya Ragala" alone. Because he had spent so many years believing that his country’s cinema ought to escape the semi-operatic form it had wallowed in, Lester was naturally stumped when a leading British filmmaker and film theorist ended up asking him to preserve probably the most melodramatic, operatic song in his debut.

He then took Rekava to Cannes. He competed with the likes of Andrzej Wajda, Bergman, Bresson, and William Wyler, the latter of whom won the Jury Prize for his take on the Quakers, Friendly Persuasion. The jury’s verdict, however, was contested, while several writers and filmmakers walked out against what they felt to be the Festival’s bias towards the Americans. But that’s another story.

In the meantime, Lester did his country proud. He didn’t win of course, and Sumitra ended her story by telling me, rather lightly I suppose, that “God only knows what he would have got if Lindsay wasn’t so entranced by ‘Olu Nelum Neriya Ragala’.” I added then and there, “God works in mysterious ways.” Sumitra, a Buddhist from a politically nationalist family, smiled and agreed. Lester didn’t hear us, but if he did, he too would have smiled.

Last Sunday, January 29, the Tower Hall Foundation put together an event at the Regal Theatre to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Rekava. The Chief Guest, in keeping with the Tower Hall hierarchy, was Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, while the other guests included Akila Viraj Kariyawasam (whose Ministry has virtually absorbed the Foundation), Gayantha Karunathilaka, Ranga Kalansooriya, and Nimal Bopage.

The Prime Minister was late by half an hour (he’d come from Sithulpahuva), so the show, which began at 7 pm, ended at about 10.30 pm. I don’t know how many directors elsewhere have been able to watch their debuts 60 years after they were first screened, but I do know that they are few in number and that Lester happily lived to be one of them. He exuded a monkish calm, despite his age and despite how tiring the evening would have been, but towards the end, I couldn’t help but notice a veritable stream of emotion in his eyes. The man has earned this day, I thought to myself, with much of that having to do with the film he helped us claim an identity with.

Lester James Peries is the only reminder we have of 1956 and the cultural revolution that year wrought. He is more than a relic, but a relic nevertheless. Malinda Seneviratne, writing 15 years ago, correctly surmised that compared with the other “signatories” to that revolution (Sarachchandra, Wickramasinghe, and Chitrasena), he was more apolitical. That proved to be an asset in the beginning, but as the decades wore on and as a new generation of filmmakers and critics emerged, he earned the ire of those who saw in his work the signature of a yuppie, Colombo elitist. Two stories stand out in this regard.

The first. When Ahas Gawwa premiered in 1974, a pamphlet titled “Appochchige Cinemawa” was distributed to the audience. Appochchi, incidentally, was Lester. In becoming a father, he had become a virtual pariah. Not unlike what Renoir, Clouzot, and the “Establishment” American directors were to the French. With their campaign of intense vitriol, the new rebel directors here tried to emulate the Nouvelle Vague. They were successful, partly at least, but eventually and as was the case elsewhere, their work deteriorated. In the end, only one person stood out: the man they’d denigrated as their papa.

The second. When Yuganthaya premiered in 1983, a group of critics went to town over its (allegedly) immature handling of the political. I remember Bandula Nanayakkarawasam, talking with me about Lester and our cinema in general, pointing out that these critics focused on how Lester had depicted the clash between labour and capital. Bandula didn’t take sides, but a more prominent filmmaker from that era, known for his political stances and for films with a political edge, did. “Even in Yuganthaya, he couldn’t go beyond the family” was what he said.

The point I'm driving here is that despite the nostalgia that flowed that Sunday evening, the man being celebrated had to endure a rough ride. To make matters worse, that rough ride hasn’t ended even now. Just two weeks ago, for instance, he and Sumitra got news that their house, which they had continuously occupied for many, many years, had been sold off to a new tenant.

Whatever the legal technicalities behind the change of ownership may be, isn’t it rather telling that the man who fathered our cinema has to flirt with the threat of eviction? Isn’t it rather telling that people who appreciate him don’t appreciate his worth? Has Lester the man been so cut off from Lester the director that while we cosmetically shout praises for him, we neglect his work? These are questions that went unasked last Sunday. They should have been asked. Whether or not they can be answered.

The event, incidentally, involved a screening of Rekava, with a digital copy refurbished in India. Predictably, there were some preparatory speeches prior to it. Lionel Fernando, Director-General of the Tower Hall Foundation, weighed in on the arts, while Anura Fonseka (the main organiser) spoke rather feelingly on why icons should be celebrated while alive. The Prime Minister, speaking before him, remembered the first time he watched Rekava (“To see my aunt act in it!” he told us not long ago, referring of course to Irangani Serasinghe, who despite being ill made it that evening) and essentially contended that Lester’s worth has become self-evident.

All these observations are manifestly true and pertinent. Leaving the Regal that forlorn Sunday night, however, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Do we remember that they are?”

Thinking back on the miserly producers who botched his films (in particular, Awaragira, which could have become the Great Family Chronicle it wasn’t), the critics who attacked him arbitrarily, the 30 out of 50 years in his career that he spent idling, the ancestral property he and his wife had to auction off to sustain their lives, and the struggles they have to endure even today (far removed, it must be noted, from those of less well-off filmmakers, who died penniless and bitterly regretting the life they squandered for the sake of the movies), I could only conclude: we celebrate, yes, and we put in great effort to show that we care. But do we appreciate?

I for one think not. Call me a pessimist, but that evening ended rather bitterly. I liked the fact that the Tower Hall Foundation had opted for something other than the conventional anniversary and I appreciate their effort, both as a lover of the cinema and an admirer of the man at the centre of their event. This is not an indictment on the organisers. This is an indictment on those who never cared about Lester James Peries when he was active. An indictment on those of us who never bothered. In other words, an indictment on the indifferent ones.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, February 5 2017