Friday, March 31, 2017

Gerald Solomons pauses

People have stories. More often than not, they have reasons for what they do, a higher destiny that propels them to stray into the fields of human enterprise they always wanted to work on. Then there are those who live for the moment, or at least give the impression of so doing, trusting that same higher destiny to do what others have consciously compelled themselves into.

Gerald Solomons, owner (in more ways than one) of the top end hair salon Chagall, probably has more reasons than one for the career he’s set for himself. He is (and certainly gives the impression of being) enterprising, though he’s decorated his life with those unpredictable, quirky details (such as his choice of name for his salon, after an arty, avant-garde painter) which help explain a happy-go-lucky existence.

ESTEEM sat with Gerald some time back. We had questions to ask. He had a story to tell.

Could you describe your childhood, education, and experiences in life and work until now?

I began my life in this field of work as a trainee hairdresser and progressed as a senior stylist.

After my family and I migrated to Australia, I opened Chagall in Sydney and later in Auckland. I had the opportunity with that to widen my horizons by attending to the hair care of many celebrities.

I also have attended many workshops and given demonstrations in hair styling and cutting techniques. My experiences took me to the fashion capitals of the world: London, Milan, Paris, and of course Australia.

In a nutshell, how did you get into this industry?

As a child, I was always fascinated by hair and makeup as my mother went for her hair care to Salon Moira, owned by the formidable Moira Muthukrishna. That more or less tilted me towards the profession, from an early age. From then on I worked at Moira and became a senior hair stylist. I suspect that I never shall regret this decision as I have come to realise that it’s become my lifeblood.

Could you describe a normal day at Chagall?

That’s a tricky one to answer. Well, a normal day can be described as hectic, challenging, exciting and vibrant, well worth every bit of the day, depending on how you see it.

Our clients, to whom we are always grateful for their patronage, help us assess ourselves in ways which in turn help them to get better services from our staff. It’s basically a two-way street: they assess us, we assess ourselves.

What was and is it about Chagall that differentiates it from other top-end salons?

Chagall is always unique. It has atmosphere, vibrancy, colour, attitude, skills. It is staffed by people who are serious about what they do. This was what it was and it is what it is, and to go even further, it is what it always will be.

How do you manage to balance your career and your life?

Simple. My life is my career and my career is my life. Everything revolves around this concept. There are those who claim lives outside their careers, and they may consider that a blessing, but I for one can never go beyond the borders of my profession. It’s become almost an obsession, a garden to water and tend to almost, and it always shall be.

Time for some out of the blue questions. Who do you consider as your three most profound influences?

Firstly, our customers. Without them there is no life or career. So, I say thanks to all of them past present and future.

Secondly, my staff, both here in Sri Lanka and overseas. Without them there is no life or career.

Thirdly, to all those who have helped me shape my life and career, starting with Moira Muthukrishna, and also my parents for understanding why a boy wanted to be a hairdresser.

How much have you learnt from your interactions with your customers and staff?

Our customers gave us the challenges, the opportunity to create and be innovative to get us to where we are now. They still do challenge us, and we are grateful.

As for my staff, that they contribute in creative ways through their own experiences, their ability to learn and interact with customers in a very positive way, and much, much more. They have taught me as much as I have taught them.

Here's a wacky question. What would your hypothetical three biggest wishes for the future be?

Wacky, is it?

Well, my first wish would be for Chagall to be on top despite the many challenges and threats (both friendly and unfriendly) that continue to beset us.

My second wish would be to be content with what has been achieved and improve on quality.

My third wish would be to be in good health for me to carry on the Chagall Flag for many, many years to come.

All three wishes are to do with the present, and more pertinently the future. They are as valid as they were when I first formed them in the back of my mind a long time ago.

What are your current plans and your (not so distant) future plans?

Currently, to enhance our skills and experiences as those are what make actual and prospective customers appreciate. How can we achieve that? By transforming ourselves to a truly top-end professional personal care service.

With regard to the not so distant future, our plan would be to progressively educate people about the fact that this is a noble profession and that’s why there are top end salons that cater to their demands here and there.

We would like also to encourage our children to take a second look at this profession, to not belittle it and consider it as beneath their dignity. That has everything to do with sweeping aside prejudice and preconceived mindsets and I believe we can do it, if we set our hearts and minds to it.

Any words of wisdom or points to ponder, looking back?

Always be yourself, right within the image you have created for yourself, and never forget those who have been in your life and career. I have stuck to that credo. It’s worked wonders, I can tell you that much.

Written for: ESTEEM Magazine, November edition

Thursday, March 30, 2017

'The Threshold': Patching up our privileged defeats

Review of “The Threshold” by Sasanka Nanayakkara, published by Vijitha Yapa in 2016

The protagonist in Sasanka Nanayakkara’s novel The Threshold leaves Sri Lankan because of an unrequited love and returns 25 years later because of it. He is what one could call a parajithaya, the kind of character who subsisted, thrived, and was nurtured to perfection by our writers, filmmakers, and playwrights in the sixties and seventies. That of course doesn’t mar their relevance or deny them a place today, but it does help us to revisit and reflect on the past. As an untrained, uncultured reader however, I can only try to do justice to Sasanka’s book in this respect. So here goes.

Piyal Senanayake, the protagonist, is not exactly your rags-to-riches Horatia Alger hero. He is able to leave Sri Lanka for the United States so comfortably because he comes from a rather privileged social background: the bilingual, urbanised middle-class. He rises to even more affluence in Silicon Valley, where (back when the sky was the limit there) he cashes in on more profit to retire early to a five-acre residence belonging to the son of a Spanish noble in California. As far as broken-hearted lovers go, this one seems to have no reason for complaint.

Part of Sasanka’s achievement in his depiction of the protagonist is that the story is never that simple. Piyal has achieved, yes, but has he achieved enough to forget? “Haunting” is a frequently used word throughout the book, so my guess is that he has not: material wealth can instil only that much amnesia in you, after all. So he leaves the States, returns to his motherland, calls up on a friend from school, and then calls up on his long lost love Saumya. The problem is that Saumya is married and is a mother, and what’s more, has become as Anglicised (metaphorically) as Piyal (her daughter’s name, for instance, is Natasha).

The first quarter of The Threshold meanders along, keeping us away from a possible reconciliation between these two former lovers. I have been told by Sasanka himself that he is an avid lover of the cinema and music, and that he too has travelled afar. That shows. Amply. From the first sentence therefore, he gives the impression that he has first scripted his story, and then transformed it into a written narrative.

The conversations between Piyal and his friend from school, a lanky, now obese, lawyer called Sajeewa are laced liberally with politically partisan statements (Piyal, probably reflecting Sasanka, takes a more explicitly moderate stance on the ethnic issue, while Sajeewa is the urbanised, sophisticated nationalist who dreams of Utopias). Again, scripted so well that I could see them arguing before my eyes.

However, after a point (which came to me rather quickly) I sensed that the political conversations, taking place in a comfortable setting in Colombo, were as desultory as the exchanges between Scout and Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman: you feel that they are sincerely felt and articulated, but at the same time you realise that the words and the feelings put out are at one level oblivious to the political reality, in other words that there is a disjuncture between the social conditioning of the debate and the reality to which it is alluding. Perhaps Sasanka realises this (though it takes him more than 30 pages to so do), but the end-result is that he reinforces a key theme and motif in his novel: people usually change with ideas.

Which brings me to the author’s depiction of the interlude between Piyal and Saumya. Like I mentioned before, not unlike Dhammi and Sugath and the kind of separated lovers depicted by our artistes in the sixties and seventies, both our former lovers in Sasanka’s book are from a particular, privileged social milieu, in this case the Southern bourgeoisie. The degree to which this background has conditioned him to forget and forgive, the way I see it, shapes the last quarter of the book, where Piyal gets to meet not just Saumya but her husband, the redoubtable Rohan Wijesuriya. Identity is a vital concern for Sasanka, which explains why, despite his own hybridised and elitist existence in Colombo, Rohan says of Piyal, “He has become out and out an American.”

Because he drags identity and the dichotomy between being culturally uprooted and culturally castrated (the former a result of being domiciled abroad, the latter of being socially cut off from one’s roots), I think Sasanka inadvertently ponders on the thin line between memory and forgetting that is a luxury for the social class he depicts. The ultimate litmus test for The Threshold, then, is not how much the author leaves the door open for a sequel (because the final passage in the novel does, in fact, invite such a possibility), but rather how far the interlude between these two believable, everyday characters transcends their privileged, urbanised livelihoods, dominated by a comparatively bourgeois ethic.

Being an uncultured reader and critic, I believe it would be grossly unbecoming on my part to deliver a verdict in this respect on Sasanka’s book. I leave that for a better, more experienced writer. For the time being though, what I can do is attempt to gauge the extent to which the author has succeeded in his (inadvertent) aim with his own text.

We infer from the penultimate chapter that Rohan is either oblivious to the interlude between Saumya and our protagonist or is aware, but has forgotten and is hoping for the best. Like Nikhilesh from Tagore’s Ghare Baire, he may be testing his wife’s fidelity by allowing her to converse liberally with Piyal. We can’t guess, so we can’t tell. In any case, in the subsequent final chapter, we realise that Rohan has not only taken to Piyal, he has also allowed both his wife and daughter to “accompany you to wherever you told him you were going.” Before I get to the point I am trying to make, let me say that those words intrigue me because of their deliberately oblique, ambivalent nature: “wherever YOU told HIM you were going.” What is Sasanka telling us here?

Now to my point. I quote here the final sentence in Sasanka’s book: “Till we meet again in that anonymous Dutchman’s cosy little bungalow supposedly located amidst a lush coconut grove hugging the remote coast of distant Tangalle – my mother’s hometown.” Forget the stream of consciousness here. What interests me is Tangalle.

The reference to his mother’s hometown and to a bungalow where Piyal and Saumya shared an intimate interlude seems to unearth a contradiction in our hero: he has declared his intention to leave the country forever, to Australia perhaps to meet his sister, but in his moment of departure, when he is given a rare and (I daresay) unprecedented opportunity by his own former lover’s husband, he remembers his past and roots, affirms both, and (as the late Professor Ashley Halpe comments in his  foreword to the book) leaves possibility for a sequel.

I am not sure whether he has achieved that test I alluded to before (that the interlude between our two former lovers will transcend their commitments, conditioned by and rooted in their respective careers and social backgrounds), but I am sure that the seasoned critic may find his or her answer to that question if he or she wades through the last few pages. On account of my inexperience in these matters, however, all I can say is that Sasanka’s book is worth a read, despite its sometimes overblown prose and the occasional meandering to political dialectics.

So how can I conclude? By saying that Sasanka’s novel makes us wish that he continues to write. As I pointed out before, he has depicted the conventional, tragic, and pathos-ridden parajithaya. Owing to his social conditioning, this parajithaya has the luxury of catharsis that his counterparts from less privileged backgrounds do not. It is hence an interesting exploration into the bourgeois ethic, dominated as it is by a sustained repression of emotion in the face of cold, calculating reason. For that reason alone, The Threshold delivers not as your clichéd, love-never-dies narrative, but as a work of fiction which does what all good fiction should: make us want more.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, March 30 2010

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Sriyani Amarasena: The fragile female

The evolution of the Sinhala cinema can at one level be traced from Rukmani Devi to Pooja Umashankar in terms of the shift in gender relations the industry has brought about. No longer is the female denied agency, in other words. She possesses enough and more of it to think, act, and if necessary rebel on her own.

To be sure, there’s little that distinguishes the intensely patriarchal world inhabited by Rukmani from the subtly patriarchal world inhabited by Pooja, but the point of this article (the subject of which is the star of my column this week) is that the female figure was seen in terms of the image that the individual actor (or actress) projected. She could be weak, she could be strong. She could be bewitching, she could be innocent. Either way, she sustained a particular image, which defined her career.

Such a self-evident and self-explanatory point about our acting industry, however, becomes difficult to sustain when considering those other actors who resist easy categorisation. Where does one place the early Swarna Mallawarachchi (from Hanthane Kathawa, Thunman Handiya, and Matharaachchi) and where does one place the early Veena Jayakody (from Sarungale, Keli Madala, and Dorakada Marawa), devoid as all these roles are of the empathy both gained in their later roles? A question not many would want to answer, which is why this week’s star, Sriyani Amarasena, compels my interest.

Unlike the early Swarna and Veena and the later Irangani Serasinghe, there’s little (if at all) which distinguishes the first few phases of Sriyani’s career from her subsequent ones. I can’t come up with a proper description of the characters that she played, but I believe Lester James Peries came closest to it: most of her characters reflect her doll-like, fragile, empathetic figure and voice. This is not an assessment as such of Sriyani’s career or life, rather a cursory sketch of what she represented and how she figured in an era where the female in our cinema gained more representation and agency.

She was born Sriyani Weerakoon Kumarihamy in Meethotamulla to a fairly middle-class family. In her own words (I talked with her two years ago) she had a very secure and privileged childhood, largely protected by the income her father received from his job at the Colombo Municipal Council. Added to this was the fact that she was an only child, which meant that her education was received in comparatively good schools: firstly at Meethotamulla Vidyalaya, then at Museaus College and later at Gothami Balika Vidyalaya, the latter two in Colombo. She completed her studies until her SSC, during which time she also indulged in singing, acting, dancing, and drawing.

When I put to her that most girls her age, at that time, would have been discourage from pursuing the arts by their parents, Sriyani begged to differ and replied, “Not my parents. From Day One, they knew what I was good at. Far from discouraging me, they actually took me to Siri Perera in the SLBC and put me in his Lama Mandapaya program.” She was, she told me, about seven or eight at the time, young enough to nurture her talent at singing and acting so that in her teenage and adult years, she was aspiring for real performances. She got those through her first real figure of destiny, Dayananda Gunawardena.

Apparently her mother had answered a paper advertisement calling for a teenage girl for a stage drama called Thammanna. The role had been that of Kuveni. Because she was only 15 at the time, the director had turned down her application. Around the same time, however, Dayananda had seen her and had taken her in for his Nari Bana. She was the Gama Duwa, the girl who enraptures a wolf which kidnaps her to be its consort. While I have not seen Sriyani in Nari Bana I have seen subsequent versions of Dayananda’s play, enough for me to surmise that Sriyani symbolised the pliable woman she’d end up playing in the cinema.

In the late sixties, after her marriage to journalist and writer Arthur Amarasena, she was called in to act in Lester James Peries’ Delovak Athara by Tissa Abeysekara. Because she was pregnant at the time, though, she (and the other actress tipped to play the female protagonist in it, Anula Karunatilake), were not taken in. Anula would be featured in Lester’s next film, Ran Salu, while Sriyani got to play the sister-in-law to Wickrema Bogoda in his very next film, Golu Hadawatha.

As Champa, the almost motherly figure to Sugath (Bogoda), Sriyani occupied no more than 10 or 15 minutes in the story. She comes across as a perfect yet subtle counterpoint to Sugath’s lover, Dhammi. If Dhammi represents a talkative, freewheeling spirit, Champa represents stability, motherliness, protectiveness, and tradition. Her character is manipulated to appear rather too accommodating of Sugath’s shifts of temper and anger, but in the second half of the story, Sugath is made aware of how similar to such an accommodative character even Dhammi is, so much so that she compels him gently to return to his brother (Wijeratne Warakagoda) and Champa.

The roles that Sriyani got to play after Golu Hadawatha (especially as protagonists) were static and refreshingly so, to say the least. Despite the differences in time and place, there’s nothing much that separates Sundari in Desa Nisa from Vineetha in Ahasin Polawata (both of which were directed by Lester James Peries). The only difference is that in the former, we come across the Sriyani who compels men to take to her because of her compassion, only to be disconcerted once that veneer of empathy withers away. This is of particular interest to me, so I will explain it further.

In the final sequence in Desa Nisa (which was for some reason rather crassly cut), when Sundari is cured by the insidious hermit (Ravindra Randeniya), she finally comes across Nirudaka and understands why he was so unwilling to get her cured (because he is “ugly”). For a moment, both Nirudaka and his mother (Denawaka Hamine) are happy but on tenterhooks, expecting her reaction to his “ugliness”. When she does finally react, with a laugh that is at once sharp and ambiguous (does she laugh because she scoffs Nirudaka’s worries or because she dislikes his face?), Nirudaka retires to the forest, defeated. That laugh, and that ambiguous reaction, brings up my point that because Sriyani was so driven by empathy, the moment she let her instincts take over her essential character, she jolted every man and woman beside her.

That is why she induces our unconditional compassion as Vineetha in Ahasin Polawata. That is also why, paired as she was with the tempestuous Tony Ranasinghe (who by then had entered his second career phase, depicting cruel and morally ambiguous men), she was completely herself there, a point Lester implied in a conversation I had with him some years ago. As Regi Siriwardena noted in his review of the film (which he did not like), however, there is absolutely nothing that rationalises Tony’s dislike of his wife, save his irrational impulses, which in a way weakens the plot and which can’t be salvaged even by an able supporting cast (Vijaya Kumaratunga, Ajith Jinadasa, Vasanthi Chathurani, D. R. Nanayakkara, and Shanthi Lekha). In the end, Ahasin Polawata deteriorates into the same kind of maudlin sentimentality its director (Lester) had wanted to avoid.

On this count, it was Sriyani’s character which substantiated those irrational impulses which Tony’s character reflects. Tony is jealous, spiteful, and envious: he is driven by reason, not emotion, so much so that he refuses to deliver his own child. By her genuinely felt reactions to his many flare-ups, she helps us the audience parse the plot (which was dependent on flashbacks, reawakening Tony’s guilt at her death). The final sequence does not, to my mind, come together well (Vineetha’s sister Pushpa, played by Vasanthi, extends a hand to Tony, symbolising reconciliation), but the sequence before it, of Sriyani reflecting optimistically on her marriage, serves as a more coherent finale.

I have written a lot on Ahasin Polawata because for me, Sriyani came out best in that remarkable though flawed film. The films she got thereafter – barring a few against type performances in Sarungale (where was a hardy, chatty, and gossipy shanty woman) and a few other commercial flicks – accentuated the image of her as a fragile but determined woman, which put her opposite the likes of Swarna Mallawarachchi, Nadeeka Gunasekara, and Anoja Weerasinghe.

In the final analysis, with all those subsequent films and serials she got to act in, produce, and even direct, she merely reminded us that with that slender, graceful figure and voice of hers, she could portray women who neither crooned at nor rebelled against their cruel destinies, but rather opted to move along with the flow, retaining optimism in a world that was increasingly being occupied by cruel husbands, fathers, and lovers. It is from this point that I can conclude by writing that inasmuch as the agency of the female could be portrayed by depicting them as fighters and independent thinkers, Sriyani proved that even as a slender, fragile, and deeply thoughtful woman, she could just as ably reinforce that same agency.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, March 29 2017

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The tragedy of the common class

Last week I sketched out the political content of the Professional Nationalist class (or “ProNats”). I can’t vouch for their sincerity, but I think I can vouch for the disjuncture between their aims and their social conditioning, a disjuncture that has historically felled other similar political cliques in the past, both here and abroad. This week’s column is a sweep (or rather an attempt at a sweep) of a more common class, also political in nature but more discernible in the context of our country, society, and time. To come up with a definitive name for this, unfortunately, is beyond my ability, so I will introduce it to you as the class that forms, pushes, and accentuates the ProNats.

Before I get to that, though, a brief perusal of our political history is in order. I remember reading an article by Colvin R. de Silva, where he faulted the bourgeoisie of the country for having felled various industries and sectors to accommodate their short-termism. Colvin wrote that article (the name of which I don’t remember, unfortunately) after J. R. Jayewardene began building the various Free Trade Zones and Economic Commissions which, at one level, were responsible for the backlash against the Left in the eighties. In essence, he was answering a curious question: was the then UNP’s fixation and prejudice against the Left (in economic terms) justified by the history of the bourgeoisie that formed that party in 1947? Colvin answered in the negative.

His reason, though debatable, has I believe been borne out by history. The colonial bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka were never engaged in productive employment. Even after independence, they preferred the primary (extracting) to the secondary (manufacturing) sector. Decades before the Land Reform Acts and the various redistribution policies implemented by Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government, the likes of N. M. Perera and Colvin wrote on how the colonialists had spawned a class which were (paradoxically speaking) more interested in spending years and years in elite schools and institutions, studying at Oxford and Cambridge, only to come back to Sri Lanka to serve as second fiddles to the Governor-General and his coterie.

When J. R. Jayewardene, as Finance Minister, remarked that if the entire national income were divided among the country it would make beggars of us all, he was sidelining the main issue the Left took with his government’s right-wing economic policies. The government instituted in 1948 was essentially housed by the landed elite gentry, no different to the landed gentry of Jane Austen’s novels and certainly a class that had been or was being outmoded in Western economies.

As time went by, the political Right began propagating the myth that the Left was trying to “Russify” or “Sinofy” the country (remember the propaganda disseminated in the run-up to the 1965 Elections, which culminated in the crossover of C. P. de Silva?), when in fact what the LSSP and Communist Party did was to resuscitate the manufacturing sector of the country, a sector neglected by an elite which was only bothered about perpetuating its progeny and monopolising and profiting from the primary sector. In itself, this was not an economic sin (after all most East Asian and Southeast Asian countries began with the agricultural sector), but the issue was that Sri Lanka was in danger of depending on the extraction of raw materials, since the bourgeoisie were not making use of the profits they got to graduate to the industrial sector.

Malinda Seneviratne, writing on the second Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime, argues that what Perera did damaged the Sinhalese businessman, initiating a process of destruction completed by J. R. Jayewardene and his Open Economy. This argument (echoed by other middle-class Sinhalese nationalists, myself included) interests me for reasons I will get to shortly, but for now, suffice it to say that such an indictment on the Left can’t be sustained on account of how negligent the Sinhalese businessman was in using his/her profits for the upliftment of the economy. In other words, the leftist economic policies authored by Bandaranaike’s government were crafted with the purpose of breathing life to a dormant sector. Without these policies, the Sinhalese entrepreneurial spirit was being sapped by the very people who were supposed to be channeling it for their survival.

Taking issue with my comment that the SLFP and the UNP were the same and unified in electoral terms in last week’s column, Vinod Moonesinghe contended that inasmuch as the Land Reform Act and the housing ceiling are considered today by economic pundits as leftist excesses, they were in fact liberal and enlightened compared to the policies which were being enforced in more capitalist societies in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, which imposed land ceilings up to one or two hectares in contrast to the 10 Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government instituted.

Vinod then pointed out the reason for the setting up of a ceiling in the first place: “It was necessary simply because Sri Lankans were investing in housing at the expense of productive investment. During the Second World War, the British gave concessions to Sri Lankans to start industries. Instead, they invested in housing. This is why a state industrial sector became crucial, simply because local bourgeois investors wouldn't put their money into manufacturing.”

In other words, the State was intervening in a neglected sector because the bourgeoisie were idle. This was a guiding principle even in Leninist and Stalinist Russia, though in Cuba and China nationalist concerns took over economic policy. At the end of the day, when the Global Left is assessed, historians will no doubt point at the transition it brought about in backward countries from a primitive, pseudo-feudal to an industrial, technocratic State. For its time, however, such a task was derided by the Right as being too interventionist, very much against orthodox economics. What the Right forgets here is that it was Karl Marx who helped make the transition from microeconomics (based on perfect markets and competition) to macroeconomics (based on inflation, employment, and sectoral growth). I am digressing here however.

What happened after the coming to power of Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the United Front in 1970, we know. To put it simply, despite its veneer of socialism and welfarism, the SLFP was housed at the top by the aristocracy, the same class the Left was fighting. By perpetuating that class in a political party rooted in socialism, the inevitable happened: the Right Wing of the SLFP was empowered to an extent whereby the Left Wing had to be jettisoned for it to continue to be in power.

The transition from N. M. Perera to Felix Dias Bandaranaike therefore wasn’t an ideological one, but an economic one: Perera was moulded on J. K. Galbraith, while Felix was moulded on an unenviable blend of leftwing authoritarianism and rightwing cronyism. It was that cronyism which delegitimized the Left and empowered J. R. Jayewardene. It was also that cronyism which continues to bedevil the SLFP in a way that has not been matched by the more progeny-oriented UNP (one of the ironies of Sri Lankan politics).

After the coming to power of the UNP, the many initiatives (however half-heartedly they were sketched out by the previous government) to resuscitate the manufacturing sector were done away with when the Pettah merchant (or the middle-class, monolingual capitalist), and not the long-term oriented industrialist, was made the driver of economic growth. The paradox here, which Vinod pointed out to me in a conversation elsewhere, is that even after the destruction of that long-term oriented businessman, the middle-class Sinhalese continue to blame Colvin and Perera, the architects of the same economic policies which were supposed to stop such a thing from happening in the first place. Which is where I get to the crux of this column.

The middle-class Sinhalese nationalist (as I pointed out last week) spawns the kind of self-contradiction which forms the epicentre of the movement headed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This self-contradiction subsists between the commercial interests and the nationalist concerns of that nationalist class, a contradiction which has not to this day been resolved and which has managed to entrench anti-working class politics. Being a commentator and not political player, it is beyond my task to insert any value-judgments on this phenomenon, except perhaps for one comment: that both historically and as of the present, the middle-class Sinhalese nationalist is not the ideal social subset to count on to further a cohesive nationalist strategy in the country.

Why do I say this and why do I sound so much the cynic? Mao Zedong once contended rather sardonically that the bourgeoisie was IN the Communist Party, which was why every leftwing revolution ended up perpetuating the interests of the ruling class. I don’t know how much Chairman Mao stuck to his own tenets, but I do know that the nationalist movement depends in Sri Lanka on the same class interests which are most antithetical to it.

So here’s my take on the matter: one can’t take this movement forward unless (and I am being very liberal here) it is free of the anti-working class and Cinnamon Gardens clique it tends to pander to. Such a clique can’t coexist with the movement because historically speaking, the interests of this bilingual, refined, hybridised, and “Olcottised” class are conjoined with those of the quasi-imperialist. How else did the various Sinhalese nationalist parties formed for the purpose of bringing together my collective degenerate to the sickening, half-here-half-there mess it’s got itself into today? How else do you account for the fact that sections of these movements are residing, even cohabiting, with the same politicos who not only opposed the war, but went to any lengths to perpetuate a federalist discourse over every other viewpoint?

The nationalist movement in Sri Lanka was never nourished by the bourgeoisie, middle-class or otherwise. The moment the bourgeoisie took over it, it was doomed to capitulate. The true owners of that movement continue to come from the village, the rural hinterlands that have never failed to produce, sustain, and push forward our Armed Forces.

The meritocracy formed in Colombo to defend these Forces from outside interference served only one purpose: buttress a nationalist strategy. When you let that meritocracy LEAD that strategy, two outcomes are possible: 1) the deterioration of that strategy because of political infighting; and 2) the diversion of that strategy to peripheral political channels (such as the many short-lived parties which took advantage of the nationalist resurgence after 2009). Suffice it to say that we saw both outcomes being (tragically but farcically) brought about, in particular towards the end of 2014. I am sad.

These assertions may be faulted for being too simplistic, too one-dimensional, but if you peruse the history of our country, you will come across instances where they were vindicated. 1956 ended with an Ape Anduwa, but not an Ape Samaja. That samajaya, we are yet to claim. We were promised we would get it by both the SLFP and the UNP, but the contradiction in the nationalist movement between the populism of its spokespersons and the deep-seated anti-nationalism of its later representatives has served to undo even the most sincerely sketched out National Project.

Which brings me to my final point. The only thing worse than the bourgeoisie, in terms of their lack of sincerity to a nationalist project, is the anti-nationalist tendencies indulged by their offspring. I hinted last week that the offspring of this bourgeoisie are even worse off when it comes to handling or rather sustaining the movement. They are educated in the same social environment which breeds those indifferent or opposed to patriotism. Why then, I wonder, are we looking at this class to nurture a comprehensive National Project? If the self-proclaimed heirs of this Project are at the outset conditioned by their anti-working class sentiments, then who’s to say that their sons and daughters will turn out to be any different? A simplistic conclusion, some will say. But a conclusion rooted in a historically verifiable premise, nevertheless.

Written for: Ceylon Today, March 28 2017

Monday, March 27, 2017

Lal Perera: The sentinel of St Peter's College

Those who studied at Ananda College from 1968 to 1991, and even those who had not, would know Bandula Galappaththi. He studied, taught, and became Vice Principal there. Those who studied at Lyceum International, Nugegoda from 1995 to 2015, and even those who had not, would know him too. He taught and became Deputy Principal there.

Galappaththi was, at both schools, feared. He was respected. Appreciated. Sometimes emulated. Never resented. He taught his students enough and more about maintaining decorum (even in the face of trouble) and didn’t mince words when punishing those who, for the lack of a better way of putting it, couldn’t toe the line.

I knew Galappaththi (or “Gala” as we fondly called him), but realised how much of the man I’d missed when I sat down about a year ago, during his last two weeks at Lyceum, for the purposes of a biographical sketch. He had stories to tell, deserving of more than a cursory glance and which, if told by anyone other than himself, would lose the anecdotal qualities he breathed into them. To keep on safer ground, hence, I opted to focus on his career. I fired away my questions, recorded his answers, and submitted what I thought was a decent sketch of the man. It was published the day after he officially vacated his post, and retired for life.

Since then I have thought back on all those encounters I had with him and have come to realise that for all their superficial calm, they too led lives that we, as students and even as adults, tended to miss. Gala was no stranger to tragedy, no stranger to those afflictions that visit such men, but despite all that he kept the peace like no other disciplinarian, or guardsman, could. After all, schools are like offices. People come and go. They bring their personal lives and make them part of whatever capacity they are in.

No, this is not a tribute to Bandula Galappaththi. This is a tribute to another such keeper of the peace, at another school.

Lal Perera flanks the guardroom at St Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya. He’s been doing that for the past 44 years. That’s a record. He’s gone on. Got on with it. That’s a record too, of a more qualitative nature. Sure, guardsmen aren’t necessarily looked up to at a school, any school, but Lal has acquired the kind of respect few men in his profession can. I know disciplinarians and I know security officers. I know enough of both to know that the two are clean different. Lal, however, managed to bring the two together in a way which has made him probably the most feared, respected, and quietly emulated man in the College premises.

Like all such men, he has a story to tell. He was born in Borella but had been forced to shift homes at an early age. So he and his family left for Panadura, where he attended Sri Sumangala Vidyalaya. It was probably owing to the disciplinarian in the man, but his first ambition had been to join the Army. During his O/Level years, that is what he ventured to do, leaving it three years later in 1972.

I put to him that while I certainly have not seen his reputable and provocative side (I hope I never do, but that’s another story), his stints at the Armed Forces would have opened him up to the tricks of the trade when it came to enforcing discipline. He agrees, with a smile. In the meantime, St Peter’s College was changing hands. Father Claver Perera, who would later become the Rector, met up with the man and hired him to flank the guardroom. He’s been there ever since.

Before I get to his methods (which really, come to think of it, deserve another article), I ask him as to how the school environment changed over the years. “Well, for starters the demographics were quite different back then. St Peter’s was called the ‘lansi iskole’ because we had so many foreign and Burgher students with us. Even Africans!”

With the school’s “change of face” to a more vernacular backdrop in the seventies and eighties, along with the inevitable change of attitude from one generation to the next, an adaptation, especially in terms of discipline, was in order. Still, things don’t change. Not that easily.

I am, of course, a virulent critic of corporal punishment, which is why I am relieved to know that Lal doesn’t resort to it anymore. “Times change and with them schools too. Children have become more restless, and with urbanisation and the tendency to get hooked on to the television, the computer, and the phone, they also have shorter attention spans. Still, we live in a different world now, where the cane isn’t as tolerated as it was.” Not that this makes him less uncompromising: “I do what I can to ensure that those within my purview toe the line.”

He tells me moreover that while Rectors shifted, he wasn’t asked even once to alter or abandon his “methods”. The thing is that he doesn’t only oversee discipline. There’s maintenance, security, ground arrangement, and a horde of other responsibilities which make him more than just a disciplinarian. This can get strenuous at times, he admits, but he’s been here for so long that he’s anyway used to the weight that comes with them all.

The man has been known to enforce discipline rigidly, almost to the point of obsession. I’m sure some resent him. This hasn’t been a problem for him, because, as he tells me, laughing, “Most kids here had their own fathers overseen by me during their time. They know me. So whenever I set their children right, and if ever they complain, their fathers tell me to continue with what I do.” Respect (always a hard to get commodity with a job like this) is hence something Lal has been blessed with.

Lal has also chastised quite a number of students. His reputation for this hasn’t gone unacknowledged. “People come up-to me and thank me for what I did,” he remembers, “I just tell them that all that was part of my job, and seeing them turn out to be reformed individuals was what I wanted. Now that I’ve done it, there’s really no need for thank me.” I’m sure he’d agree that he has flared up once in a while, and has very nearly lost his temper where it was reasonable of him to so do. Given my fear of crossing off such men, I am secretly glad that I am a visitor (I interviewed him at the College Library) and not student. Still, that doesn’t mean he’s gained notoriety: “I haven’t been reported for having lost my temper too much. Not once.”

I suspect that he’s been part of St Peter’s so much that he’s part of the family. Given that the school boasts of a history of 96 years, we’re talking about spending half that history overseeing, enforcing, and sustaining discipline. It’s really no cause for surprise, then, that he’s been honoured more than once and with more than one Rector. With Old Boys in particular (even those like my father, who he didn’t hesitate to slap or harshly chastise), he’s cut out a respectable figure. Small wonder.

Last year, the Old Boys Union of St Peter’s (at their Annual Honours Night) dished out a special award to him, as the oldest living serviceman at school. I am sure the man, whose sense of humility is evident for all to glean, refuses to see himself higher than he is even with these tokens, but we would be ungrateful if we do not acknowledge the full worth of what he's done. Being a member of the Peterite family, I am willing to bet, remains his biggest and most deserving honour. As it should be.

Lal Perera continues his work. The Peterites continue to watch him work. Just like my friends and I did with Bandula Galappaththi, once upon a happier time.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, March 26 2017

Sunday, March 26, 2017

'Voltage': A different kind of band and company


Concerts are the rage these days. So are reality shows. I am not a regular concertgoer, so I wouldn’t really know the kind of dedication that goes into them. I do know, however, that those who organise ensure that the event as such not only unveils well, but also reflects their efforts. This is particularly so if the organisers happen to be schoolchildren, not because they don’t have anything else to do but because their prime motive, if you can put it that way, is to enthral their audience.

I firmly believe that human beings are endowed with a love for music. I believe also, however, that this is not enough for them to sustain, thrive on, and if possible add to our music industry. That is why schools have brass bands, music societies, and dancing circles. That is also why these societies engage with the public, showcasing the raw talent of their members. For that reason, there is a difference between concerts organised by professional bodies and those organised by societies affiliated to a school. The concert I am writing about here, however, falls into neither category.

Before we get to that concert though, we should talk about the organisers. They form a group, but on their own right they are veritable performers: among them, Vimod Edirisinghe, Dishad Weerasinghe, and Vinuja Ransika. They have performed and are performing at their respective schools. They know enough to distinguish a concert from a one-hit gig. That is why their latest show, Illuminate, deserves more than a cursory sketch. To get to Illuminate, however, one must first get to Voltage.


It all began last year when a group of schoolboys got together to start up an event planning company. That company would soon give way to a beat band, with eight members: Thilan Silva, Chamuditha Jayasanka, Akila Kushantha, Sahas Yoman, Anupa Kahanagamage, Nadun Methwadana, and of course Vimod and Dishad. Given that those involved were engaged with their studies (as they still are), however, such an enterprise proved to be difficult. What helped them overcome this difficulty, then, was their mutual love for flaunting their talent, which trumped everything that stood in their way. And so, confidently but cautiously, they went ahead and encountered their first live event, Sound Mash.

Sound Mash (which was held in August) was not your typical concert. Vimod puts it best: “We knew that schoolchildren love music. We knew they love bands and we knew they love to start a band of their own. That is why we gave them an opportunity to come up with their own little groups, showcase their talent, and tell their audience that they were ready.” This did not, however, give a free pass to everyone and anyone: there were auditions to ensure that the competitors knew what they were doing. In the end, five bands came up: Revolution, Inferno, Beta, Pickups, and Evolution. Of these, Inferno came first, Pickups second, and Revolution third.


What interests me here is what pushes Voltage (the company). Vimod tells me that they are less worried about concerts and reality shows than about promoting beat music in schools. In this, I believe they are filling a gap, since no event planner before them has attempted to cohesively extract talent from schoolchildren. After all music, as I pointed out in my article on Sarith and Surith Jayawardena, is birthed at childhood. I am sure that is what motivates Voltage and its members to do what they are doing.

Which brings me to Illuminate. Illuminate more or less continues from where Sound Mash left. It’s set to bring in Nadeeka Guruge, Sanuka Wickramasinghe, and Kavindya Adikari. What it will do, Vimod tells me, is empower school and social media bands to perform for about two or three minutes at the Nelum Pokuna Rooftop Amphitheatre in April 28, so as to get them the exposure they want. “You will be guaranteed unplugged music, the kind that no venture like this has brought about before, with our own arrangements,” Vimod tells me.

In fact both these shows are part of a series of projects that Voltage will be engaged in. The top brass of Voltage change every year, are designated schools to facilitate a good network, and maintain links with aspiring artistes for this reason. The members themselves (who, owing to spatial constraints, can’t be listed in full here) come from different schools, moreover: Vimod is from Ananda (where he is an Assistant Prefect) as are the other members of the band, while Vinuja is from Royal. Vimod is the Chairman this year, but he will be succeeded to ensure a steady flow of reckonable representatives.

Is there anything else to say? Yes, in what the boys at Voltage have envisioned for this show. Vimod tells me that with Illuminate, they hope to open a studio of their own. With this, he tells me, they hope to nurture even more talent from schools, so as to hone in on their main objective. I am sure money figures in there somewhere, but I am also sure that the boys involved here consider that as their last priority. Aptly.

So what should WE do? We should visit what they have organised. If possible, we should also join in. And we should enjoy. If we emerge from Nelum Pokuna that Friday night happily, on account not of the music and vibes but rather of the broader purpose of that endeavour, I believe what Voltage is trying to bring about will be achieved. The better for them, I should think, since that will empower them to move from project to project, school to school, discovering talent and refining it.

That is why I referred earlier to Illuminate as a different concert, which falls somewhere between musical shows organised by professional bodies (like Synchronight) and those organised by societies affiliated to schools (like Transcendence). Whether it will be qualitatively better, of course, we cannot tell. But we can predict. We can infer. And along the way, we can hope.

Written for: The Island YOUth, March 26 2017

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Shesha Palihakkara: The father and the son

Between Lester James Peries and Dharmasena Pathiraja, between Rekava and Ahas Gawwa, there was a crevice in our cinema. That crevice could only be filled by a set of energetic, conscientious professionals, who worked not for profit but for the love of what they were doing. Their task was to transform the film industry from a business to an art-form. Whether they wrought such a transformation successfully, not even historians and film theorists can tell us. We can, however, guess.

That crevice I alluded to earlier was sustained by a horde of technicians who were more concerned in telling a story than innovating on the medium they were working in. Profit came later, but whether they aimed for it or not, they got back what they invested in. They were the first proponents of parallel cinema, which made use of the tropes inherent in commercial films to moralise, pontificate, and if necessary preach. That this parallel cinema was critically appealed can be inferred by a perusal of the results of the Sarasaviya Film Awards, from its inception in 1964.

Among the pioneers who championed such a cinema here, we can point at Tissa Liyanasuriya, Shesha Palihakkara, Mike Wilson, and (among the actors) Joe Abeywickrama. Of these, only Tissa is still with us. This is not, however, a tribute to Tissa Liyanasuriya, whom I wrote on a year back. This is a tribute to the father of all these pioneers. Shesha Palihakkara.

Shesha was everything. Well, almost everything. He could sing, he could dance, he could act. He could also write. He knew the best of both worlds. Whatever he absorbed, he absorbed it well. He came under the influence of Chitrasena, travelled to India, came back, and experimented in both theatre and the cinema. He didn’t act as much as we wished him to, but that didn’t matter. For the truth is, if we are to locate Tissa Liyanasuriya in the dormant period between 1956 and 1974, we can’t leave Shesha out. He was there, helping Tissa unleash the wave that has, for some odd reason, been forgotten and belittled today.

Shesha Palihakkara was born in 1929 in the village of Ruppagoda in Kadawatha. He was educated at St Benedict’s College in Kotahena and St Joseph’s College in Maradana. In 1943, when he was 14, he happened to see a poster of Chitrasena’s ballet Vidura while on his way to Colombo from Ragama. He went to see it at the Vidyalankara Pirivena in Kelaniya. This was soon followed by encounters with the cinema, and soon enough he was there at the Regal, the Olympia, and pretty much every other theatre devouring everything and anything that the Americans and the Indians directed.

His first and foremost figure of destiny, however, was Chitrasena. After learning dance from him for six months, he forewent on his SSC Exams (to the consternation of his parents) and followed his guru to Shantiniketan. After studying there for more than two years, he got himself enrolled at the Kalashethraya in South India, where he befriended Mohan Khokar (later to be an authority on Indian dancing) and enthralled himself by the sights, sounds, and rhythms of the region. In 1948, when we were about to be given our independence, he returned to his country and took part in a ballet Chitrasena conceived to commemorate the handing over of freedom, Pageant of Lanka (where he was Lakshmana, brother to Rama).

After stints at teaching at the Chitrasena Kala Ayathanaya in Kollupitiya, Shesha met up with the indomitable Reggie Candappa, later to be a guru in the advertising industry, who introduced him to a cabaret producer and showman called Donavan Andree. Donavan hired Shesha at his club the Silver Fawn in Colombo, where he was paid handsomely and which eventually got him to go to London. In London, he met up with the Indian dancer Ram Gopal, and tried his hand at the theatre. Barely a year later, though, he felt homesick and returned to Sri Lanka to immerse himself in his craft.

The Sinhala cinema was born out of the opera, the Nadagama, and the Nurthi theatre. Shesha found himself working with Nayagam, one of our film producers who hailed from South India, directing a dance sequence in Ahankala Sthree in 1953. The director of that puerile film got him back to the cinema with his next film, Puduma Leli, after which an audition was held to take him as the leading actor for the landmark Mathalan (shot almost entirely in Madras). As those who have watched and cherished that historical epic would know, Shesha played two roles: the vengeful king and his remorseful son. This was in 1955.

In 1956 he was featured as the stilt-walker (the boru kakul karaya) by Lester James Peries in his debut, Rekava. That was a cameo appearance, which lasted for barely 15 minutes and which, for some bewildering reason, was butchered and cut down in subsequent versions of the film. While working in Rekava, he was called to assist David Lean's crew for his Bridge on the River Kwai, which paired him with Gamini Fonseka and Chandran Rutnam. He rejoined Ram Gopal in London thereafter, was afflicted with an illness, returned to Sri Lanka, and waded into the third and richest phase in his career: as a producer.

Ran Muthu Duwa, unlike Getawarayo, Saravita, and the later films of Tissa Liyanasuriya, gives the impression of being made in a hurry, to take advantage of the many underwater sequences which would have enthralled foreign audiences. Mike Wilson, who directed it, was a flamboyant, almost otherworldly parvenu, shirked by more mainstream directors and producers because he aimed high with the box-office AND the budget. We do know that it cost about 500,000 rupees to make Ran Muthu Duwa (owing in part to his decision to shoot it in colour), and we do know that as a film, it remains a landmark chiefly for its technical merits and ambitious scope than for its narrative.

Despite its many failings as a work of art, however, there’s no denying that it set a precedent here. If our cinema had subsisted on the Indian cinema before Rekava, Ran Muthu Duwa proved that it could also subsist on the American cinema. The exoticism this evoked could be inferred from the very name of the production company that Wilson formed: Serendib Films. The target audience were those who preferred the tropical sights of Sri Lanka to a cohesive story. This was echoed even in Getawarayo, a qualitatively better film (which incidentally culminates in a boat race that echoes the chariot race from Ben-Hur), but not in Saravita, which was the brainchild of Liyanasuriya and the main actor, Joe Abeywickrama.

Shesha saw through all this. Between Mike Wilson’s fondness for the American cinema and Tissa Liyanasuriya’s fondness for Sri Lankan locales, he was the middle-man. He knew how to bargain and how to get the most out of a little, qualities not many were endowed with in the industry. That is why, when he left us for the first time after the sixties, then forever on July 12, 2009, he was mourned.

The vast territory he looked at and walked over, we cannot discount. He was a virtual one-man army: a dancer, a singer, an actor, a showman, and a storyteller. He was not afflicted with arrogance, which explains the many twists, turns, and trials and tribulations he endured to improve his craft. Whether he could have produced more, and whether critics would have cherished him if he continued with the kind of cinema he was comfortable with in the tumultuous seventies, we do not know. What we do know, however, is that he knew many things, and that in the end, he taught them all. To us.

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a dangerous man?

The problem with political nationalists is that they are qualitatively and temperamentally inferior to other nationalists. I neither subscribe to nor do I oppose elevating a nationalist campaign through the Parliament, but I am wary of career politicos who seem to use rhetoric to get power and then belittle those who helped them. That is why, as a citizen of Sri Lanka and an observer of its political shifts, I am also wary of those touted as the salvation for the problems afflicting this country. This of course brings me back to my first point. Political nationalists are exactly that: political. If we extrapolate from this premise, we can add that they are also amateurs.

When a set of professionals (lawyers, accountants, engineers etc) came together for an event at the Golden Rose in Boralesgamuwa, not many noticed. I did see newspaper articles touting it as being successful, but I did not bother to check out why. That is, until Dr Dayan Jayatilleka in an article summing up a speech he gave there caught my attention. The speech, I have not read. The summary, I have. This week’s column is about the political nationalist he singles out for praise, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. At the inception therefore, I insert a caveat: I neither oppose nor support the man.

In my column last week, I referred to the above class as professional nationalists, whom the Mahinda Rajapaksa cabal knows only well. This class is different to the rabble-rousing rural folk that is the base of that cabal. It was this class, not the rural folk, which stood behind S. L. Gunasekara and his attempts to form a Sinhala nationalist party. With that party, the Sihala Urumaya, Gunasekara and his cohorts (including the now dormant Malinga Gunaratne and the late A. V. D. S. Indraratne) tried to complete what S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike idealised but could not achieve: the coming together of BOTH Buddhist AND non-Buddhist Sinhalese politically.

To understand the professional nationalist class and the underside to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it would pay well to revisit history. The Sihala Urumaya was both birthed by and opposed to the nationalist tenets espoused by the Jathika Chinthanaya, which in turn was formulated by Professor Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara. Both Nalin and Gunadasa were political at the outset, and both (barring the latter’s early years in the South) were bred in the city. That it was disconcerting to come across their explicit repudiation of Western science and literature is another story altogether, but for now, what’s important is that the Sihala Urumaya was an offshoot of all this, though as Malinda Seneviratne points out, there were other attempts to come up with a similar political party.

I have come to believe that there’s no such thing as a pure follower of a religion, ANY religion. There are no pure Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and from that premise, Buddhists. Because I am a Buddhist, I am qualified (I hope) to suggest that there are only two kinds of Buddhists in this country: the Sinhala Buddhist and the Olcott Buddhist. The latter term was formulated, not by me, but by Nalin de Silva. It remains a cornerstone in his philosophy. What is pertinent to note, then, is that the Sihala Urumaya and its avatars depended on this "Olcottised" professional class. It is from here, and not the village, that the Mahinda Rajapaksa cabal has picked up a campaign to promote the most enigmatic of the Rajapaksa brothers, Gotabaya.

What does Gotabaya Rajapaksa bring with him? He has experience in the military. Some say that he preferred the backbench to the frontlines. Such accusations, however, can’t be verified. Temperamentally, he stands between Sarath Fonseka and Wasantha Karannagoda, the former prone to outbursts, the other not. He was hence a mediator in those difficult war years, when a cohesive strategy transcending personal vendettas was needed to defeat the LTTE. I believe that when history is written and the Rajapaksas are assessed 50 years from now, this will be Gotabaya’s biggest legacy. That is why I am grateful, as a Sri Lankan and a young patriot. My gratitude, however, does not forbid criticism.

The biggest black-mark against the man is his authoritarian streak. Taken by itself, this is not indefensible. That authoritarian streak got Colombo cleaned and gave the military a civilian function in maintaining our suburbs. Statistics tell us that this same military opposed him in the 2015 Election, though whether that was due to his authoritarianism we do not know. We do know, however, that time and time again, he has given the impression of harbouring a raging beast within him, which he has unleashed on those who refuse to toe the line. Because nothing is ever sacrosanct, except in the political field, it’s disheartening to come across instances where he resorted to force and filth to do away with his dissidents, even if it was done to end the war. The end never does justify the means, after all.

Owing to this, I agree with Dr Dayan when he compares Gotabaya to Mahathir Mohomad and Lee Kuan Yew. Both Mahathir and Lee are celebrated today by both the SLFP and the UNP, for transforming their economies to middle-class, consumerist societies. They can be forgiven for sweeping away the fact that for such a transformation to take place, the media had to be gagged and the opposition (which in Singapore’s case was never a problem, because there wasn't one) had to be eliminated. Gotabaya fits both these visionaries, hence, because he at least superficially harbours a combination of brutality and efficiency, which defines the kind of administrator that the professional nationalists adulate.

In fact, what Dr Dayan says in his article interests me because the people he alludes to bring up our collective, non-partisan, and politically neutral admiration for men of force. It is this mutual admiration for such men (not women, owing to how patriarchal politics still is in Asian societies) which tripped even intellectuals like Professor H. L. Seneviratne, who devoted three-quarters of his book The Work of Kings cautioning against the Left’s rationalisation of autocracy in Sri Lanka before praising Lee Kuan Yew and suggesting that Sri Lanka (or Ceylon) would have profited with a Singaporean political model. It comes to no surprise then, that die-hard UNPers I have met have told me that even they would vote for Gotabaya should he contest without bringing in ethnicity.

Which brings me to the second biggest black-mark against the man. Gotabaya is loathed by extremists in the Tamil community for having masterminded the defeat of their hero, Prabhakaran. That is understandable BUT NOT condonable. He is also loathed by the Muslim community for what they perceive to be his role in the formation of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). That is understandable AND condonable.

In other words, the hatred against him by the former is based on an irrational premise, while the hatred against him by the latter is based on a more empathetic premise. Regardless of their political affiliations, Muslims believe they have a reason to fear a Rajapaksa Resurgence in the form of a Gotabaya Presidency and Mahinda Premiership (the scenario that Dr Dayan envisages). That is why I have always considered him a dangerous man: not because he is the stuff that amateur, career politicos are made of, but because he projects an image of himself that is disturbingly incongruent with how he is perceived by the Ethnic Other.

Of all the Rajapaksa brothers, he is the most placid. Mahinda by contrast is more open. He has his sons. He has his family. He has ensured that even those who support him are wary of his offspring. Gotabaya, on the other hand, is not tainted this way. That is why I was not surprised when, at the launch of Kamal Gunaratne’s book Road to Nandikadal, everyone got up unanimously when he came in with the kind of hallowed silence that did not greet Mahinda (who had come earlier). This may or may not be rooted in his militaristic outlook on politics. Whatever the reason, we now know that Project Gotabaya (as my friend Hafeel Farisz, who countered Dr Dayan’s assertions in a separate article last week) has been helped by the fact that historically since independence, the Sri Lankan polity has always preferred order to chaos, and authoritarianism to anarchy.

Why has that been the case,? Simply because nearly every political and personal difference between the two mainstream parties in this country has been erased by a common factor: the mainstream’s opposition to the Liberal Left. Gotabaya is to the Sinhala and Olcott Buddhists what Ranil Wickremesinghe is to the Cinnamon Gardens, Reid Avenue elite. Just as much as there is no real qualitative difference between the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States, there is no difference between the UNP and the SLFP, both of which are unified by their electorate’s admiration for men of force. Whether you agree with them or not, the professional nationalist class adores Gotabaya owing to this.

Again though, why has that been the case? The answer can be found in the role the Liberal Left played in perpetuating a federalist discourse in the SLFP. It was Vijaya Kumaratunga who (despite being the husband of S. W. R. D.’s own daughter) shifted that party from a populist-nationalist to a federalist-devolutionist outfit. I have explored this in an earlier column.

Not even the UNP, whether under J. R. Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa, or (at least until the turn of the millennium) Ranil Wickremesinghe subscribed to the ideology which defined this new SLFP. Because voters felt betrayed and disenchanted by a party that was fast rejecting the values they had stood for, they found their saviour in Mahinda. Since Mahinda was seen as cohabiting with the same Liberal Left (or Old Left) which had been responsible for this paradigm shift in the party, they then shifted their allegiance to Gotabaya, who staunchly opposes the 13th Amendment. That is why it is the Elder Brother, not the Former President, who covets more attention from the Professional Nationalists (or “ProNats” as I like to call them).

Which brings me to another issue. The ProNats are part and parcel of the same hybrid class which spawned the Olcott Buddhists. This hybrid class has unearthed the fatal self-contradiction at the heart of the urban nationalist movement, which I will explain now.

With respect to the urban nationalist movement here, I can only think of Gevindu Cumaratunga, Malinda Seneviratne, Gunadasa Amarasekara, Nalin de Silva, and the rest of the Jathika Chinthanaya group as ideologues that are not enamoured of the brand of Westernisation they repudiate in their writings. I am worried, however, about the next generation, because the same ideologues that reject Westernisation let their offspring wallow in it, often at the same elite schools they condemn as being culturally castrated. Let’s not forget that this is the same self-contradiction and disjuncture we saw and see between the Rajapaksa Elders and the Rajapaksa Progeny. Such a disjuncture, we have not yet seen with Gotabaya.

Someone once chided me recently by saying, “We should protect Buddhism from Sinhala Buddhists like you!” Agreed. That, however, does not shield the Olcott Buddhist or the ProNat. As I pointed out in the beginning, though, there are no pure Buddhists. Tainted as we are by political nationalists, we can hence only conjecture as to what Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with or without Dr Dayan’s prognostications, will do IF he wins the Presidency in 2020. Until then, I can only say what a Muslim friend of mine told me the other day: if the ProNats find themselves pitted against Gotabaya one day, the man will not hesitate to politically eliminate even them. That is why he can correctly be identified as a dangerous man. Not because he is a raving lunatic, but because of all the nationalist politicians we have now, he is the least amateurish.

Written for: Ceylon Today, March 21 2017

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The cinema (and betrayal) of Somaratne Dissanayake

When I first met Lester James Peries some years ago, I was requested by a teacher to ask him a question. The question had nothing to do with Lester. Or his work. Or for that matter his wife's. Instead, it had to do with the state of a film genre that was, in this teacher’s opinion, witnessing a comeback. I couldn’t really share his optimism, but went on nevertheless and asked the question from the master himself: “Do you, as an observer of contemporary Sri Lankan cinema, think that our children’s films do ample justice to children?” I predicted the answer and I was not wrong: “No.”

Now questions of this sort tend to beg more questions, so soon enough I quoted the one name that had, at least back then, been firmly associated with our children’s cinema: Somaratne Dissanayake. When I quoted his name, Lester became surprised. He answered by bluntly making a point I’d been oblivious to until then: “He doesn’t make children’s films. He makes films with children in them.” Back then I honestly thought he was criticising him, but later I realised that he was not: he was merely offering comment. He had the credentials to do that, after all.

I first watched Suriya Arana, I remember, because of its visuals. The mise en scène mattered, for obvious reasons. I was, after all, watching a film that paired a young Veddha with a young Buddhist monk, the kind of story no 15-year-old could resist. Everything else came second, and so during the first half I was left with only one feeling: that here was a film about children not ashamed of pandering to a child’s sensibilities, even in a world inhabited by cruel, disturbed adults.

Then it all went downhill.

Malinda Seneviratne, writing on Suriya Arana many, many years ago, recounted an experience he had with his daughter:“Barely 20 minutes into the film, my little daughter burst into tears and voiced her opinion on the film: ‘Eeeya, meka ketha kathavak, mata ba balanna.’ The opinion of a three-year-old critic would not in any way be the final word on a film. I could not help thinking that if the ketha was replaced by boru which means the same thing in assessing art outside of that which is supposed to evoke the ‘jugupsa rasa’, she would have been absolutely spot on.”

What Malinda’s daughter felt, I too felt as a child, and I can remember where exactly: the sequence in which the monk (played by Jayaratne Manoratne) gets his head axed (literally) by a paranoid village idiot (whose fear of the monk, I might add, is owing to the hatred towards him inculcated by the Veddha, played by Jackson Anthony). I also remember thinking that this was precisely the point which made me feel betrayed in Somaratne’s other films. But then, that has much to do with Somaratne Dissanayake as it does with his films.

Because I am not a film critic, I don’t possess enough credentials to comment on, let alone critique, the (de)merits of Somaratne’s work. I believe, however, that his conception of the (children’s) cinema deserves more than a cursory sketch. We’d be doing both him and his films a disservice otherwise.

The artiste’s fascination with children was and is rooted in their innocence and penchant to swerve into polar opposites: it is in a child’s universe, after all, that good and bad remain irreconcilable and starkly so. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky gets his protagonist Alyosha to refer to the children he befriends as “my little doves”. Given their tendency to veer off into those same polar opposites, I suppose one can equally well refer to them as doves or fiends, depending on the situation. This bifurcation of children into innocence and badness, therefore, defines how they have been represented by artistes, film directors (here and elsewhere) included.

Somaratne Dissanayake is at his best when extracting honest performances from his (child) actors. We feel in his films that adults are, at best, helpless and dispensable. The children, on the other hand, possess agency. Because of that, he tends to turn them into messengers and gets them to spout out whatever moral the story is preaching to us. Coupled with his tendency to preach the same issues again and again, this means that he views them through the lens of his ideology. Whether or not you agree with him here, that is what constitutes his signature.

Saroja, his debut, is his most perfectly conceived film on this count. He manages in it to depict a politically sensitive theme like a homily. He preaches, but reminds us that we are watching a work of fiction and nothing more. Punchi Suranganavi, in contrast, does away with that altogether and gives us more than a homily: he ends up manipulating reality and preaching to the choir. If Punchi Suranganavi portends what Somaratne Dissanayake became, then Saroja represents what he should have become. Owing to his inability to distinguish between moralising on and manipulating reality, his later films hence suffer in quality.

Forget that, though. Think about the man’s strength: extracting honest performances from children. Because he’s so deft at it, he transforms his child actors not into individuals, but into types, and still gets away with it.

The girls in Saroja could have represented the “Sinhala-ness” and “Tamil-ness” of the ethnic conflict, while Punchi Suranganavi delved into both class and ethnicity so obviously that it turned out to be an inversion of that conflict: the rich, spoilt, and refined Sinhala boy, virtually shell-shocked and insane, has to be resuscitated by a sane, poor, and tough Tamil girl. Peace-lovers here at the time couldn’t have asked for a better “piece” of art.

In later years, however, Somaratne was perceived as subscribing to the ideology of the shell-shocked Sinhalese, which is probably why he abandoned the ethnic conflict and resorted to his other big concern: class. In this he might have been echoing Regi Siriwardena’s quip: "Children, like dogs, develop their sense of class differences very early.” While I do believe that this departure helped him win a market for his films, I also believe that of his films that opted for this theme, only one can be singled out for praise. Siri Raja Siri.

With Siri Raja Siri, Somaratne proved that he could, if he tried hard enough, make a decent enough children’s film. As with Saroja and everything else that followed it, it portrayed its children as types. Unlike Saroja, though, those types didn’t symbolise the overtly political: they symbolised the dualities that children subscribe to, echoing our conception of them as good, bad, redeemable, or beyond redemption. There is a reason for this, of course: I remember reading somewhere that Siri Raja Siri reflected Somaratne’s own childhood, more than his other work. Whether or not this is true, the film certainly remains, after all this time, his most personal.

The story itself compels comment. Sirimal, the protagonist who wins a Grade Five scholarship to a popular school, has to adjust to life in the city. From the first sequence of him in his new classroom, the director makes the gulf between him and them obvious: the teacher asks each student to get up and perform an item, and while his classmates rap, sing, dance, and deliver skits, Sirimal chooses to remember his village, to their amusement. They can only laugh, and he can only be confused.

The villain is big, burly, and (worse) privileged (reflecting the fat, burly antagonist in the popular cinema). He bullies his chauffeur, speaks frankly with his teachers, and makes enemies with our hero. There are sequences when he appears redeemable, but no: just as our hero tries to make his peace with him, and just as he becomes forgivable, he reverts to his former, despicable character and becomes the overbearing busybody he is. When he appears in front of the Principal (Sanath Gunathilake) after a muddy tussle with Sirimal, for instance, he persistently offers to buy the other a new uniform. A few scenes later, though, he’s back to calling him a “gona” with no qualms.

In the meantime, one thing leads to another, Sirimal is selected to play the King in a school play, ends up having to act out the condemned servant (the bully steals his costume, out of spite), and in a twist as remarkable as it is predictable, plays him so well (since he continues to cry loudly at losing his original part) that he clinches the award for Best Actor.

The very next sequence, however, has him play the King in the village. It ends with Sirimal looking at his friends, neither smiling nor crying. Because Somaratne’s world consists of good and bad only barely reconcilable with each other, he doesn’t give us a happy ending, only an uncertain, unresolved one, with the village and the city remaining as unbridgeable as they always was.

Sadly enough, the Somaratne Dissanayake who emerged out of Siri Raja Siri wasn’t the director we wanted. Siri Parakum, for instance, plays around with history, nice visuals, and great acting, but playing around with history, nice visuals, and great acting can’t salvage an otherwise deficient film. After the first hour, Siri Parakum became a bore, dragging on endlessly with sequences of its hero “discovering” things in the village that could have been edited better.

And now, the man who gave us Saroja, Punchi Suranganavi, Suriya Arana, Samanala Thatu, Siri Raja Siri, the lacklustre Bindu, and the even more lacklustre Siri Parakum, has given us Sarigama.

In a televised interview, a prominent commentator tells us that it reminded him of the Von Trapp Family biography. Whether or not it reminded him of the musical, we do not know. He praises it, predictably, and implies that it is a film for all families. Now I can’t contend with a man like that, but I do believe that praising a deplorable story, even with the kind of authority he possesses, will not be enough to salvage it.

In a context where critics are unable to call a spade a spade and tend to balloon the more savoury aspects to a work of art while ignoring its deficiencies, it shouldn’t be surprising that people are praising Sarigama. Not that it’s completely imitative, of course: Rohana Weerasinghe’s music doesn’t come close to the Rodgers and Hammerstein melodies (not that it should), Pooja Umayashankar is thankfully not the Maria of Julie Andrews (nor does she try to be), and Ashan Dias does a pretty good job at depicting a complex, emotionally sensitive widower.

Beyond this, however, I felt that Sarigama wasn’t the sort of work that Somaratne should have churned out. The visuals were stunning and the dialogues not that bad, but I asked myself “Does it matter?” as I waded through the story. One source tells me that the film is running well and another tells me that it is not. We can never be sure, but then ticket-sales don’t constitute the aesthetic merit of a film. On that count, Sarigama gives the impression of being made by a languid artiste, someone who could have tried but could only come up with an almost frame-to-frame adaptation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Not a good omen.

So with all these reflections, where can I end?

Somaratne came to us in a less gentle time, when a war was being fought and childhood was being fragmented owing to its ethnic slant. He proved in Saroja that he could turn this to his advantage and preach to us. He proved in Punchi Suranganavi that he could achieve the same outcome by manipulating reality. He proved then in Siri Raja Siri that he could direct a near-perfect children’s film without cashing in on the overtly political. Siri Parakum was a disappointment, as were Bindu and (to an extent) Samanala Thatu before it, but with Sarigama, I feel that he’s done his best to outlast himself. Sad.

But then directors are a curious lot. They give us their best work for some years and then teeter off so much that what they give us later on can only be summed up as a betrayal. Has Somaratne Dissanayake betrayed us, going by this? I sincerely think not. I believe, however, that his work has deteriorated, languished, and suffered in quality. I don’t blame him personally, but I do blame him for his misconception of the genre he’s working in. Will he survive? Only time will tell.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, March 19 2017

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Milton Mallawarachchi: The voice of a thousand love letters

Victor Ratnayake’s signature, some contend, come out most potently in his love songs. I am unfortunately not a musicologist, only a listener, but to my untrained ear, those love songs of his stand out powerfully from the sixties to the eighties. And it’s not just his voice or his songs: even in his film scores, you sense at once how powerfully romantic his vision of the world is.

The opening passages in "Deno Dahak Atharin", "Neela Bingu Kala", and "Bambarindu Bambarindu" and the music in Rajagedara Parawiyo and Sarungale build up not in gushes, but with a flow, so much so that his melodies moves along gracefully. Unlike Amaradeva, he isn’t constrained by the raghadari tradition. Unlike Khemadasa, he doesn’t let the liberatory thrust of the Western melody take over.

Of his songs, I consider "Deno Dahak Atharin" and "Piyasalana Lihinayaku Se" as defining that romantic vision of the world the man imbibed. With these two songs, you can infer how intense that vision was: so intense, in fact, that he has to be subtle about it to reveal his feelings. "Deno Dahak Atharin" is played out in a sequence from Sunil Ariyaratne’s Vajira, with Nadeeka Gunasekara’s character crying for her lover. "Piyasalana Lihinayaku Se", on the other hand, is richer because it doesn’t accompany a set of images.

"Deno Dahak" got Victor working with Nanda Malini. "Piyasalana" got him working with Milton Mallawarachchi. With the former, he was working with an established voice. With the latter, he was working with an as yet unrecognised star. For Milton, shunned as he was for being unmusical, had to cross some hard yards to get to where he stands today. This week’s star being Milton, this is hence a tribute to the man, his voice, and his life.

He was born on April 7, 1944 and was educated at Ananda Shasthralaya in Kotte. While he hadn’t aspired much for the music industry as a child, after leaving school he wound up with two groups. The first, called the Sakyans, was short-lived, while the second, Les Ceylonians, not only got him to sing two hits (“Daha Duke Vidyahala” and “Mal Ravamal”) but got the attention of Patrick Corea. One thing led to another, Corea got him to sing under the Exvee record label, and in 1969, he recorded his first original hit, “Oruwaka Pawena”, in turn accompanied by three other singles: “Ran Kooduwak Oba Sadu”, “Sansare Sewanalle” and “Mangale Neth Mangale.”

When I met Victor last year, I put to him that given his unmusical voice, Milton would have found it difficult adjusting to the demands of his composers. Victor vehemently disagreed and pointed out that even Jothipala, with his pavement (“bajavu”) voice, was accommodative and could adjust. Victor had the credentials to say what he did there, because when Milton was up and coming, he took him, nurtured him, moulded him, and released him.

Like Kapuge and Jothipala, he probably would have ruffled some feathers with his voice today. But what he lacked in vocal range and texture, he made up for with his articulation. Put simply, he made you understand that he was sincere about what he sang. For the rest of his career, that is what sustained him.

What happened after the sixties? He got to work with Patrick Denipitiya (“Ma Nisa Oba”), Clarence Wijewardena (“Mata Men Ohutada”), Khemadasa (“Sakwala Rathwana”), and Melroy Dharmaratne (“Mal Gaha Yata”). He was a film playback singer as well, making his debut with Poojithayo in 1971 and winning a Sarasaviya Award with “Kandan Yannam” (from Athin Athata) in 1984. He got an entire live concert to himself courtesy of the Ceylon Tobacco Company and Mahajana Sampatha. The Super Golden Chimes featured him in their concerts, through an invitation extended by Clarence himself.

In the end, after all those hits, awards, accolades, and packed crowds, he passed away on March 10, 1998. He was 53. Had he lived, he would have 72.

What else can we say? That he continues to be sung everywhere: on bus rides, at Big Matches, at birthday parties, and at get-togethers. He had a voice which was made for the guitar, so for that reason both children and adults celebrate him. He spoke and articulated the wishes, hopes, and dreams of a thousand lovers. He had a life and a family, both of which no doubt shaped his dukbara, romantic view of the world. Added to all these, he had sincerity.

There’s no doubt, after all, that "Eda Rae" is reminiscent of the best poetry of Thomas Hardy, in how it features the fissure between love and rejection and between embracement and separation that makes up the best love songs. It needed Milton to reinforce that. He did just that.

And what he did for that song, we can hence conclude, he did for every other song. The way he wanted, the way we wanted. Simple as that.

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