Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Premaranjith Tilakaratne: The forgotten rebel

When way back in 1963 the Ceylon Civil Service was abolished and replaced by the Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) Administrative Service, two things happened. Important things.

The first, quite obviously, was a shift from the elitist, Anglophile mentality that the Civil Service (being a product of colonialism) had pandered to. The second was the emancipation of a horde of artistes who, thanks to a more “nationalised” administrative service, were able to balance their work and their other lives well.

Of these artistes, a great many were playwrights and actors. Henry Jayasena is probably the name that crops up at once, while among our actors Tony Ranasinghe figures in significantly. Because of the security provided for them by a more amenable government, they were able to experiment and take on the mantle that Sarachchandra and his golayas had secured for themselves in our Universities. Neither Jayasena (who stood for a hybridised, semi-operatic theatre) nor Ranasinghe (who was a leading member of Sugathapala de Silva’s troupe) were products of those Universities, which probably brought about a clash or conflict between these two meandering streams.

To make matters more complicated, both Jayasena and de Silva stood for a theatre driven by dialogues: even Jayasena, for all his exquisite handling of decor and music, could not really think beyond the lofty soliloquies that garland much of his work. For that reason, a playwright who could do what was then considered implausible – challenge Sarachchandra’s stylised theatre while privileging the visual element – had to come. That playwright was Premaranjith Tilakaratne.

Before I sketch out his biography, a broad sweep of his work is called for. Premaranjith was not a revolutionist in the theatre. He wasn’t interested in being one anyway. His first play, Vaguru Bima, was staged in 1963. They were followed by a veritable torrent: Wahalak Nethi Geyak (1964), Thoththa Baba (1965), Ammai Appai (1966), Kontare (1967), Julie (1977), and a novel take on a Nurti tragedy, Sri Wickrema (staged during J. R. Jayewardene’s presidency).

When I quizzed him about Sri Wickrema, the man talked not of the play, but of the man who patronised Tower Hall that day: “Jayewardene was literally a cultured man. He knew Nurti and had seen Nurti plays as a young man. In my day, however, there was a culture of dismissing that kind of theatre as third rate and second hand. What its detractors missed out, which the then president did not, was that culture is a sum total of seemingly disparate visuals and words. You can’t privilege one over another. More often than not, the dialogues-based plays that had been in the vogue since the sixties had monopolised the industry. That is why I never pandered to this convenient myth where words and verbose dialogues were considered superior to decor and music.”

The overarching motif that defines Premaranjith’s work then (and I can only conjecture, given that I haven’t seen them firsthand) is a commitment to the visual potential of the theatre. He confirmed this for me when he told me of an encounter he had with Shelton Premaratne, who composed the music for his most expensive work, Kontare (an adaptation of West Side Story):

“I realised at the inception that the challenge and in fact the thrust of the play would have to be its music. I sought out influence from Bach, Beethoven, Mozart,  Tchaikovsky, and contemporary popular music, before coming up with the lyrics for the songs in it. Those songs would guide the story, so I attended to them meticulously. Afterwards, when I explained to Shelton as to how they would be played out, all he had to tell me was, ‘Prem, to be honest you’ve done everything. I don’t really have much to do here.’ It was a compliment, of course.”

And in a big sense, that compliment echoes the man’s upbringing. He was born in Ratnapura in 1937, educated initially at Sri Palee College in Horana (which had been structured along the lines of Tagore’s Shanthiniketan) and later at Dharmapala Vidyalaya, Pannipitiya. Apparently classes at Sri Palee ran on Saturday and halted only on Sundays and Wednesdays. “That proved to be an obstacle for us, because it was at that school that we fell in love with the movies."

Schools are remembered for certain memories and these include “playing hooky.” Given the schedule at Sri Palee, Premaranjith and his friends would resort to that on Saturdays, when they’d skip classes for the 10.30 show. Not that it had been easy, of course: his father (a strict iskole mahaththaya) was opposed to films on principle. Predictably, the son rebelled against the father. While much invective would have flowed, however, he remembers him with affection for me: “He taught me much about respect, honour, dignity, and responsibility.”

Incidentally it was his father who had entranced Premaranjith to the theatre. “He was a big admirer of Sirisena Wimalaweera. Wimalaweera had a penchant for overblown dialogues, which were aligned with the religious parables he went for. I wasn’t very religious as a child, which explains why I was more intrigued by the visuals than the stories in them. In any case, I continued to rebel against my father and patronise the cinema. I had grown enamoured of Bollywood, especially the films of Bimal Roy.” Needless to say, like Wimalaweera’s work these films attracted him for the mise-en-scène and music: “I don’t have a good memory for dialogues.”

There was a man he befriended at his next school, Dharmapala, who had such a memory. That man was Tissa Abeysekara, against whom Premaranjith comes out as an artiste of a different mould. While I will not delve into his friendship with Abeysekara, I will point out that while the man (later to become our foremost scriptwriter) could and did recite the words and dialogues in a film they would see effortlessly, for his friend what came out more discernibly in a work of art was its sense of style. “To be honest, I was a critic of Tissa’s work, barring his dialogues and scripts. We consequently clashed, sometimes over our conceptions of art and sometimes over politics. But through it all, we remained the best of friends until his passing away.”

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Tilakaratne never became a professional artiste. “How I got into scripting and directing plays is interesting,” he confesses, “Wickrema Bogoda, whom I’d befriended at Dharmapala, went to watch a couple of rehearsals of Sugathapala de Silva’s Boarding Karayo with me. Now Bogoda would later join 'Ape Kattiya', but before that, having seeing the play, I was enchanted by the idea of striking my own path.”

There’s much more than this which he’s recounted for us, in his biography (published recently by Surasa) Durganthaya, including the inevitable clashes he had with Sugathapala: “He knew what he was doing. I differed from him. Because he didn’t like that, given the cult that had grown around him, we agreed to disagree.”

Perhaps it’s a result of all his encounters, wild and divergent as they are, but I sense a hard to infer, harder to solidify character in the man. He is a nationalist, but he spurns tradition. When I talk with him about our jathaka canon, for instance, he is quick to exclaim, “What’s there in them that merit attention, as a literature?” When I dwell on our epics, he is quick to retort, “We don’t have epics here, only episodes.” In this respect, he resists categorisation, which is probably why the best way to sum him would be to differentiate him from the kind of theatre that BOTH Sarachchandra AND Sarachchandra’s rivals represented. “I belong to no camp,” he might as well have told me.

Where is Premaranjith Tilakaratne today? He lives in Malabe, near Talahena, with his son. People have (I am sorry to say) forgotten him. That reflects badly on us, given his deteriorating (physical) condition (for since of late, he has not been in good health), but that also reflects badly on him.

In short, he remains a forgotten rebel, forgotten not because his work was never re-staged despite the popularity they enjoyed (in particular, Kontare) but because, given his distaste for popularity and populism, he shirked the kind of coverage his contemporaries received from the press. There is a reason, after all, why Lionel Ranwala is remembered and not Piyasiri Wijeratne and W. B. Makuloluwa, or why Amaradeva and Khemadasa are remembered and not Lionel Algama and Shelton Premaratne. The fault, as always, isn’t with those who got the popularity they deserved, but rather with those who forget the other giants as deserving of that popularity they never got.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, April 12 2017