Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Towards a parallel Sinhala cinema

In my tribute to Vasantha Obeyesekere two weeks ago, I noted that Sri Lanka was never really open to the kind of parallel cinema that invaded India. There are reasons for this, prime among them being the fact that our cinema was (at its inception) theatricalised to such an extent that, unlike our immediate neighbour, for it to break away from the semi-operatic form it had succumbed to, it had to tear itself away from the visual image and embrace the written word. That is why Lester James Peries opted for adaptations of both popular and serious novels and short stories.

Lester, however, was a documentarian who recorded life as it was. When compared to the films of Satyajit Ray’s heirs (Shyam Benegal, Mira Nair, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan), those of Lester can be traced back to the Italians and the French. It is my contention, therefore, that despite his attempts at reporting Sri Lankan (village) life, he was constrained by his (lack of) roots from conjoining the visual and the verbal in them. The problem with those who could conjoin those two, on the other hand, was their inability to transcend the commercialist tendencies of their films.

Ravindra Randeniya, at the launch of Dileepa Perera’s book on Tissa Liyanasuriya last month, commented that Tissa stands between Lester and his ideological foe, Dharmasena Pathiraja. This is both correct and incorrect: correct because Liyanasuriya, in the films over which he exerted complete creative control (Getawarayo, Saravita, Punchi Baba, and Narilatha), went for stories that were more socially conscious; incorrect, because despite their lofty exhortations (Getawarayo is about the corruption of the village by the city, while Saravita is about an uncorrupted idealist from that same city), they could not transcend those populist, moral overtones that Pathiraja would reject.

Much of the groundwork laid by these pioneers – Liyanasuriya, Mike Wilson, and Shesha Palihakkara – would be adapted and added to in the seventies, not by Pathiraja but by two other directors. The second of these, Vasantha Obeyesekere, did the implausible: make use of the tropes in our commercial films to subvert the patriarchy and moral conservatism embedded in it. Barring Diyamanthi, all of Obeyesekere's films depict a shattering of hope, be it Kusum’s highbred notions of marriage life in Palagetiyo, Rathmali’s idealisation of her tormentor in Dadayama, or Nanda’s dreams of a stable, secure life with her errant husband in Kadapathaka Chaya. For this reason alone, they remain the landmarks they are.

If Obeyesekere tilted towards the anti-romantic, however, the other director tilted towards the opposite extreme. That is why I consider H. D. Premaratne, long ignored by critics, as the more groundbreaking of the two: not because he hit it big at the box-office with even his most serious stories, but because he brought serious themes to popular audiences through those stories. If Obeyesekere shocked, then Premaratne preached. This essay is an outline of what his work stood for.

Because cinema is the youngest art form, those who take to it tend to align themselves with other, older art forms. Measured against this truism, Lester was a modernist director, having grown up on Proust, Wallace Stevens, and Hemingway, while Pathiraja was the postmodernist, eschewing the idealism of his ideological foe through Barthes and Lyotard. I think it a fair criticism of both these pioneers that they were as dependent on literature as those they were contending against: the Jayamanne brothers, Sirisena Wimalaweera, and K. A. W. Perera.

The cinema of H. D. Premaratne was never rooted in the written word this way. Premaratne was the first director who worked out his stories (wittingly or unwittingly), not through his scriptwriters, but through his composers. I believe this observation (personal though it may be) is borne out by a rough perusal of his work: the contrast between the energetic freshness of Sikuruliya and Apeksha and the more serious undertones of Parithyagaya and Deveni Gamana, for instance, comes out when considering the fact that the music for the first two was composed by Clarence Wijewardena, for the latter two by Premasiri Khemadasa.

In Premaratne’s work, consequently, the image, the spoken word, and music are almost effortlessly conjoined. Like Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, Premaratne’s more popular films (Apeksha, Saptha Kanya, and Adara Hasuna) bring about what can only be described as pure visual poetry because of this: the final sequence of Adara Hasuna, for instance, where Vasanthi Chathurani’s character is reconciled with her lover (Ravindra Randeniya), echoes the kind of happy but poignant ending that Sirk opted for in Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows. There are sequences from even his cynical films – Palama Yata, Visidela, and Seilama – which depart from that cynicism and entreat us to forget.

And for me, that was what constituted the man’s strength AND weakness. While Obeyesekere became more cynical with each successive film (to the point of overkill, as Maruthaya showed), Premaratne remained the disciplined, romantic idealist, though not at the cost of depicting otherwise taboo themes. For better or worse, however, that idealism became his undoing when he went for the overtly political. That explains the limitations in Visidela and his last film, Kinihiriya Mal.

In Visidela he tried to reflect a politically fragmented era in a thwarted love story. Jackson Anthony’s character (a soldier) is at odds with his more politically active village. His idealisation of the political Establishment crumbles when he learns that his sister has been raped by his father’s friend (the sequence of the rape cuts to her father’s discovery of her boyfriend’s corpse: a victim of the ongoing insurrection). In the end we are as unable to connect the social and political as Anthony, so we blindly follow what he does next: kill the old man and in turn get killed by the same officers who employed and later promoted him. The tragedy here, poignant though it is, to my mind is inadequate to make up for the disjuncture between the love story and its political backdrop.

In Kinihiriya Mal he was crippled by another inhibition. Malinda Seneviratne in his review pointed out that the story was limited by the dichotomies reinforced between the virtuous village (symbolised by the elder sister, played by Vasanthi Chathurani) and the corrupting city (symbolised by the younger sister, a prostitute played by Sangeetha Weeraratne). “The urban-rural dichotomy depicted in the film is contrived and unconvincing for such clear demarcations are no longer tenable, not even in the imagination of the romantic ruralised,” he wrote.

Put simply, Premaratne’s attempt to depict a pertinent issue (underpaid garment workers being ensnared to prostitution) was marred by the good/evil divide that commercial films subsisted on. Given his inability to do away with those dichotomies, he was unable to free himself of the box-office tendencies of the same parallel cinema he brought about. Obeyesekere faced roughly the same problem: in his last film, Aganthukaya, he tried so hard to do away with the commercialist strains of his story that he ended up reinforcing the same good/evil divide that Premaratne tried to evade, but could not.

Should we regret, though? At one level, perhaps. But then Obeyesekere and Premaratne were quirks in our cinema: there was nothing to explain why they entered our film industry. Lester James Peries and Dharmasena Pathiraja were reacting against the conventional wisdom in that industry, with Lester as the modernist and Pathiraja as the postmodernist. Obeyesekere and Premaratne steered clear of both. In the end, I believe they could not realise the full worth of what they were doing because (and this I will get to in a later article) they were in a country where the divide between the popular and the arty, even in the cinema, was too firm to penetrate, much less defy.

Written for: Daily Mirror April 25 2017