Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Vasantha Obeyesekere we never knew

Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, in a Facebook tribute posted the other day, made the following observation: “වසන්ත ඔබේසේකර තරමට ශබ්දයේ ප්‍රබල බවත් සාරයත් හදුනාගත් වෙනත් ලාංකික සිනමාවේදියෙකු නොමැත” (loose translation: "There is no Sri Lankan filmmaker who could play around with the intricacies of sound as well as Vasantha Obeyesekere").

Whether or not this is the most discernible achievement of Obeyesekere, who passed away on Saturday, I will get to shortly, but for the purpose of my tribute I will concede this much: the man’s craft, which took the entire country through 13 films over four decades, reflected a shift in gender and power relations that made up much of the Sinhala cinema.

How did he bring this about? The answer to that can be found in an observation Regi Siriwardena made decades ago: the commercial cinema, far from being an escapist medium, could be creatively used to question the very same patriarchy and conservatism it pandered to. Siriwardena was thinking about the parallel cinema rampant in India back in his day. That parallel cinema never really spilt over to Sri Lanka, for reasons even I can’t comprehend. It came to us later through two filmmakers. The first was H. D. Premaratne. The second was the man who left us last Saturday.

Vasantha Obeyesekere came to us at a time when our cinema was being flanked by two ideological streams. The first, represented by Lester James Peries, absorbed from post-war Italian neo-realism. The second, represented by Dharmasena Pathiraja, absorbed from East European nihilism and pacifism. In critical terms, Lester was the bourgeois idealist, Pathiraja the bourgeois realist. Obeyesekere, whose first film predates Ahas Gawwa by three years, was a loner in all this, an individualist who rebelled against both those other directors and the ideologies they espoused. In other words, as director and artiste, he was neither an idealist nor a realist.

Who was he, then? What was there, in Palagetiyo, Dadayama, Kadapathaka Chaya, and Maruthaya that constituted his signature? Was it his willingness to flesh out otherwise mundane stories with fresh layers of meaning? Was it his willingness to depict the political and social through the personal? Was it his unyielding cynicism, which survives even in as optimistic and atypical a film like Diyamanthi? Or was it ability to entrance us with elements from the popular cinema, only to unsettle us by moving to a higher, artier conception of his medium? Perhaps.

We know that he was a cynic. In his first phase, which culminated with Palagetiyo, he was a naturalist who portrayed life as it was, like a documentarian. He evaded that naturalism (given its self-imposed ideological limits) and became more unforgiving in the eighties, a decade that was tumultuous and unstable for reasons we already know. From Dadayama onwards, his films were hence endowed by his signature: an eye for the dichotomy between the ideal and the real, which makes up the conflicts that drive his narratives. Because he was his own scriptwriter, he was even more able to rein in on his savage, critical view of the world.

This was the Obeyesekere we knew, the same Obeyesekere that Pushpakumara gleaned in one pithy sentence. Sample all his films after Palagetiyo: the opening sequence of Dadayama (where Rathmali walks down one city after another to discover the man who impregnated and then abandoned her), the first 20 minutes of Kadapathaka Chaya (where Danaratne’s funeral is interspersed with the marriage of his sister-in-law years earlier), and the court scenes in Salelu Warama, and you will infer that by disassociating the dialogues and images from the context they are relevant to, the director unearths a sharp contrast between the hopes of his protagonists and the reality they are placed in. To drive home this point, he resorted to two elements: sound and editing.

To my mind, the two films where he triumphed with both these were Dadayama and Kadapathaka Chaya. He tried with the latter to go beyond the former, by diffusing the conflict in the story with a bigger cast. While in Dadayama that conflict was concentrated between two characters (which brought out the best that both Ravindra Randeniya and Swarna Mallawarachchi could bring out, at that stage in their careers), in Kadapathaka Chaya you have a philanderer, his victim, and their families. All in all, a wider milieu.

In the end, what did we get? With Dadayama, we got an unbearable-to-sit-through finale (one of the most celebrated in the history of our cinema). With Kadapathaka Chaya, we got an even more shocking, but nevertheless transient sequence at a hospital ward (shocking, because owing to its patriarchal base the Sinhala cinema could not conjure up a maligned woman throwing acid on a man’s face). For that reason, it is my contention that Obeyesekere was at his best (with sound and editing) when he placed his narrative in a narrowed down milieu: the milieu he evaded in his weakest film, Maruthaya, and then returned to in Dorakada Marawa and his subsequent work.

Buttressing all this is another as important point: in doing what he did by displacing sound and image, Obeyesekere was questioning both tradition and modernity. In his review of Dadayama, Regi Siriwardena contended that while Rathmali’s descent destroys her family and drives her father insane, her first trysts with her tormentor are nervously accepted by them as a means of climbing the social ladder. This comes out devastatingly when, as he is beating her up after discovering her failed attempt to abort her second child, Rathmali exclaims to her father, “Didn’t you want all this?”

About a year ago I made the following comment on the man’s work: “In the films of Vasantha Obeyesekere, if tradition is stifling, then the forced thwarting of it by modernity leads to total collapse and decay (‘leaving only an empty shell behind’). One can argue that this reinforces traditionalist values, but it does not. To hold tradition inferior to modernity because of the retrogressive nature of the former is to ignore the acquisitive, ruthless character of the latter.” In other words, he indicted neither the optimism of tradition (which Peries was preoccupied with) nor the cynicism of modernity (which Pathiraja was preoccupied with), but rather the inevitability of the tragedies that befell his characters in an uncertain era.

Last January Swarna Mallawarachchi held a film festival. Five days, 10 films. Dadayama was shown on the second day, Kadapathaka Chaya on the fourth. On both days, one person was missing. We don’t know where he was at the time, but we do know that after he retired, he left his work so much that no one talked about him. People will talk about him now. They will offer their two cents, offer some caveats on his career, and pay tributes. I have my two cents. I will end my piece with them.

Vasantha Obeyesekere was 80 when he left us last Saturday. He entertained and enthralled us for much of his life. He taught us all there was to know about the centre that never held. Once he let go, everything came apart. Unsettling, yes, but that’s the way it is. I believe Sanjeewa Pushpakumara summed him up well in one sentence. Since I can’t hope to compete, I will stop here.

Written for: Daily Mirror, April 11 2017