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