Monday, March 6, 2017

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ranjith Rubasinghe

It is my contention that a film industry is heavily dependent on technicians. I believe it was Satyajit Ray who claimed that the cinema was not a cerebral craft, that there are hard yards to cross. That is why those technicians are needed and that is why no director worth his salt would move ahead without a veritable reserve of assistants and designers.

I first came across Ranjith Rubasinghe as an actor. I used to think that he was another performer, who came and splashed some colour and was at best trivial and insignificant. But then I realised that he performed for a reason: the roles he got to play came about because he had overseen the making of those same films and serials he was acting in. In other words, he was an assistant and a pretty good one at that. Unlike those who took to his field, however, he did not turn his job into a mere profession. He learnt his trade, yes, but along the way also learnt the most important facet to the cinema: the passion for relating stories.

He was born in Akuressa, Matara and was educated at three schools, ending up in Rahula College. While he had played several sports and indulged in arts-related activities (particularly drama and music) in them all, he credits his family for making him fall in love with acting.

His father, a peon, was a rabid follower of the theatre and had exerted a considerable influence. “He could sing, he could act, he could craft,” Ranjith remembers, “He used to stage dramas near our house. My friends and I would help him out in various ways. For instance, because we didn’t have a hall, we created a stage with a pol wata. Choreography and set designing were two others tasks we undertook. Since lighting was a problem, we used Petromax lamps and coloured paper to accentuate whatever mood a scene evoked. I still remember the cues I was given to turn the set green, red, or even yellow, depending on the situation the characters were in.”

What young Ranjith learnt from all these encounters was that the arts were quite dependent on physical labour, not unlike other professions. “We organised musical shows and we even built a thorana near the Maramba Wewa. That thorana has become a ritual for our village. The last time I checked, they were still unveiling it during Vesak.” In other words, he'd indulged in the performing and graphical arts in their most raw, unrefined form. It would be this that he would absorb as he left Rahula, left Matara, and went to Colombo.

His first job had been as a security officer at Sathosa, which he hadn’t taken to. “I was restless, fidgety, and sometimes blunt. I hated being cooped up in an institution and I wanted to carve my own path,” he explains, “Besides, the arts had got to me by then. You just can’t let that go. It enraptures you, it seduces you. That’s why I quit a short while later.” The man couldn’t have picked on a better time to do so: this was in the late seventies and early eighties, a time when the economy was being liberalised and when production houses would come up, one after the other.

Amidst the chaos these years engendered, Ranjith found himself working for Selacine, Telecine (under D. B. Nihalsinghe), Telestar (under Bandula Weerakkody), and Rupavahini (under Athula Ransirilal). In all these, he was a freelancer. Being a freelancer of sorts myself, I know the lack of security it entails, so I ask him as to whether money was a problem for him. He merely shrugs, smiles, and replies, “We never let it bother us. We didn’t ignore it, but we didn’t make it an overriding concern.”

I ask him then as to how he fared during these years. “We didn’t care how we led our lives outside work. One night, for instance, we would be at a director’s residence, the next night we would be at Sudarshi. It didn’t matter where we slept, at what time we went to sleep, or what we ate or drank. What mattered was how we did our job. That is the price for going freelance, but that is a price I was only too willing to pay.”

Not surprisingly, his efforts paid off eventually and rapidly, as he found himself working for, under, and with (among others) Lester James Peries, Sumitra Peries, Vasantha Obeyesekere, Dharmasena Pathiraja, and Nihalsinghe. Even a cursory glance at his credits would convince anyone that the man knows his craft and job quite well. Moreover, that feat has not been achieved at the cost of academic credentials: he has obtained diplomas and qualifications in journalism from the University of Colombo (under Edwin Ariyadasa), the Open University, and the Press Council.

Here I ask him as to what the most important lesson he’s learnt so far is, and he replies, “First and foremost, that filmmaking is not a nine-to-five job. You can have 20-hour shoots with only short breaks. If you are planning to enter this industry, you have to learn to work on time, overtime, and with a plan. You can’t afford to be shoddy, in other words.”

According to Ranjith, these are unfortunately the same values which are deteriorating in the industry, a problem he attributes to the race for popularity that actors and directors today get entranced by. “They are interested in what they can buy with the money they earn,” he opines, “Not in sustaining the industry that sustained them.” A problem, certainly, and one which opens up another can of worms: the issues that the man himself now faces as a television director in his own right.

His career as a director, incidentally, began in 2003 with his debut, Ruwan Sakmana, where he was helped by the late H. D. Premaratne. It was telecast on Swarnavahini. Four years later, he directed his second work, Mosam Rella, telecast on Rupavahini.

Since I have not seen either, I asked Sumitra Peries, a director whom (along with her husband, Lester) he worked quite closely with, as to what she thought about them. Her response? “Pretty good, not just because they are technically proficient, but also because they reveal his penchant for storytelling.” Because I have always valued a katha vasthuwa in a work of art, Ranjith can therefore count in one more fan with me.

That is why it bothers me that his latest serial has still not won a proper sponsor. Being his third production, the serial, Yathrakaya, promises much. While I won’t reveal its plot, I will say this much: it is a detective story revolving around a real-life murder, which spans several years and locations. Based on the first few scenes I saw (the story has been scripted by K. B. Herath, spanning some 30 episodes), I was entranced by the discernible fact that no expense has been spared to instil authenticity to the plot.

I put to Ranjith that he must have taken some effort to scout for locations. He agrees. “We went almost everywhere to be honest, from Anuradhapura to Dankotuwa to Negombo and then back to Gampaha and Nuwara Eliya. We even shot a character’s death from a train accident 'live', taking advantage of a slow moving train coming from the Awariwatta Station in Katunayake. The engine driver didn’t know what we were doing, we heard him hooting frantically at us, warning us to get out, but we waited until the last minute to do so. We shot all that, just as it was.”

Unfortunately for Ranjith, the final cut for his serial is yet to come. Having shot it years back (with a key actor, Tony Ranasinghe, passing away in 2015), he is frustrated with the way things are going. “Our directors like to opt for speedy, efficient, but qualitatively inferior serials,” he informs me, “That explains why most of the mega-series today seem as though they were shot within a radius of 10 to 15 kilometres. I agree that money isn’t a nonentity, that there is something called a profit and that we must recover the costs we incur, but have we become so artistically bankrupt that we can’t think of anything else?”

According to Ranjith, a person from one television station, having seen Yathrikaya, had remarked that it resembled a poya kathawa. I fervently believe that were this person shown Charitha Thunak, Yashorawaya, and Paligu Menike, he would have made the same despicable observation, a problem Ranjith attributes to how conditioned we have become to shenika katha. Reminds me of what Somaweera Senanayake once told me: “Today we watch TV series while preparing tea and doing other household chores. Given this, it’s no wonder that quality has come down drastically.” I am sure Ranjith would agree.

In the meantime, however, that does not solve his problem. I am no critic, merely a writer, but having seen the first few episodes of his latest production, I can say this much: it’s time we gave him a chance. Not because he is a bum and clamours for charity, but because he deserves better. If all you are looking for is an unwholesome, elastic story, then Yathrikaya won’t be for you. On the other hand, if you are the lover of stories we as Sri Lankans and human beings always were, you will let yourself be enthralled by its story. The choice, I therefore believe, will not be difficult to make.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, March 5 2017