Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dharmasena Pathiraja, enfant terrible

Some reflections on the movies of Dharmasena Pathiraja

There was always a self-important sense of literariness, of artifice, in some of the movies of those directors who were censured by the ideologues, movers, and shakers of the Nouvelle Vague, or the French New Wave. These ideologues projected their censure and feelings of hurt to the American counterparts of those directors: to Billy Wilder, to William Wyler, to everyone else who were so constrained by the big studios that all they could do was forget their own voice. In the eyes of the new critics, nothing could absolve their shameless acts of fawning to the studios: their movies were at best literary, not cinematic, and second rate.

Pauline Kael called these critics (many of whom took to directing later on) movie brutalists. The movies they had grown up on were dead, obsolete, and rooted in milieus which were no longer relevant to the new world the new wave was riding on. They rejected the craftsmanship of the old order: the carefully conceived, technically superior, but banal work of the old directors. The directors they admired – Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock – were ignored by the mainstream producers because they couldn’t be rationalised by the criteria those producers brought up when assessing, and going for, the Wilders and the Wylers. It was left to the brutalists to promote them, and in doing so to emulate them.

The greatest movie brutalist of them all was Jean-Luc Godard. And not for no reason: apart from the fact that he is the only surviving member of the Nouvelle Vague, he was also the most consistent. Nearly everyone else who followed him or were part of the revolution he wrought returned more or less to the same cinema they had repudiated: Truffaut, Rohmer, even Chabrol. But Godard was different. His influence spawned imitators the world over, some second hand, others first rate. That his stints at moviemaking followed and ran parallel with the New Wave in East Europe was no coincidence: it was an era of rejection, rejection of values which were superficially different (conservative versus liberal, capitalist versus communist) but actually thrived on conformity, more specifically artistic conformity.

That culture of rejection came to Sri Lanka towards the end of the sixties, with a movie that brought in nearly everyone who would be part of the transformation of our cinema in the seventies: Sugathapala Senarath Yapa’s Hanthane Kathawa. Siri Gunasinghe had made Sath Samudura a few years earlier: it brought D. B. Nihalsinghe and Vasantha Obeyesekere together. Nihalsinghe would later make our only technically “American” movie: Welikathara. Obeyesekere would subvert the mainstream cinema by resorting to, and muddling up, the tropes it thrived on. But the brutalist who radicalised our cinema was to emerge from Yapa’s movie, one that was set in an integral locale of the revolution to come: the University.

Hanthane Kathawa is one of the few Sinhala movies that seem as fresh now as the day they were first released. It breathes naturally, in the open, despite the underlying tensions which move into an inexorable climax. Much of its texture, its raw feel of life in the University, came out from the fact that many of its cast and crew members were real-life students at Peradeniya. Two in particular had come from the same school and were studying for the same degree. One of them turned out to be an actor. Daya Tennakoon. The other turned out to be that aforementioned radical. Dharmasena Pathiraja. Last week Pathiraja the director and artiste “turned” 50. This is a brief outline of the man and what I believe his cinema has stood for.

Dharmasena Pathiraja’s characters, like the characters in Godard’s movies, entranced an entire generation. They entranced us because the world they inhabited was too chaotic, too turbulent, to make them plan for the day after tomorrow. They don’t conceive of what’s to come, they live for today. Because of this, his plots can’t be rationalised or boiled down. They are like sentences that never end, that lead backwards at times and take us to climaxes we never get to in others. Probably that’s why one of the books written on him was titled “An Incomplete Sentence.”

But Pathiraja is probably the only director here who has never made a technically inferior movie. (With other directors then and now you get movies which are great, good, not so good, mediocre, and terrible.) From his first real film Ahas Gawwa – I have unfortunately not seen Sathuro, which he made five years earlier, in 1969 – he said everything, and I mean everything, that he would elaborate on, though only obliquely, in his subsequent work. The only movie of his that made some concession to the box office, Eya Dan Loku Lamayek, was, I daresay, not that bad in comparison. But I remember what Regi Siriwardena wrote: “When one has praised Malini Fonseka’s performance in it, one has virtually exhausted its virtues.”

In Ahas Gawwa the characters had some semblance of a family to fall back on. In Eya Dan Loku Lamayek the conflict is rooted in a love triangle between Malini and two men who don’t seem to have any family at all (Vijaya Kumaratunga and Wimal Kumar da Costa). It’s in Bambaru Avith that we come across a perfectly uprooted protagonist, with Victor (“Baby Mahaththaya”), played by Kumaratunga as the son of an ailing mudalali we never even hear about. But Bambaru Avith, like its music, was very operatic and stylised despite the salty dialogues and Donald Karunaratne’s cinematography. Pathiraja needed another movie to open up and do away with those operatic, epic overtones. He got to that with Para Dige.

Para Dige is the movie that best sums up that sense of obliqueness which comes through his characters. There are sequences that seem so random and out of key that the only reason they could be there was Pathiraja himself. Why do Chandare (Vijaya) and his sister (Sunethra Sarachchandra) go to the birthday party of those triplets? Why are they the only ones there when they cut their birthday cake? Why do they break into a small dance that’s at once mesmerising and confusing? And why do they never talk? I don’t think these are meant to be answered, but they are there, painfully obvious, never even asked. It’s not just that the director randomly inserts them: it’s also that he himself doesn’t make us WANT to question WHY he inserts them in the first place. That’s where he triumphs: with other directors, such randomness would at most be considered jerky. These sequences are arbitrary, but because of their arbitrariness they are woven into the narrative even though they exist outside it.

When Godard titled a section of Masculine Feminin with the famous line “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola”, he was thinking about how the world was dangling between two worlds, shell shocked and confused. The youth were revolutionaries, but they were also allured by popular culture: they were pop revolutionaries, neither here nor there, never seriously committed to anything. Para Dige epitomised them: desensitised but not incapable of love, impersonalised but not incapable of affection, synthetic but not incapable of honesty. They were in a class of their own, free of familial constraints.

Bambaru Avith, despite its operatic overtones, had Brechtian undertones: you never felt for its characters the way you did for those in Para Dige. Those undertones came from Pathiraja’s trysts with the theatre, in particular his Koraya saha Andaya, which was Beckettian. He returned to Beckett with Soldadu Unnahe, which more than anything that preceded it forced audiences to radically evaluate the cinema.

To an outsider, Soldadu Unnahe is shoddy, even untidy. It doesn’t quite contain the technical mastery of Pathiraja’s previous work. There are long, overdrawn sequences and sequences that end so abruptly that they confound judgment. It was destined to alienate audiences because it was formally meant to.

The late Ajith Samaranayake in a review contended that its climax (where the soldier, played by Joe Abeywickrama, comprehends the true meaning of sovereignty) was incongruent with the Gorkian poignancy of everything that led to it. Valid though his point was, it was a little misplaced. As Regi Siriwardena pointed out in a reply to Samaranayake, Soldadu Unnahe wasn’t Gorkian or realistic: it defied realism in a way that could only be described as Beckettian. Pathiraja had, in other words, reinvented our cinema: he had made the first real existential film we could claim.

The great tragedy of Pathiraja is that, like Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, his movies were never properly evaluated by the press. With Bandaranayake I think the problem was that the generation of Gamini Haththotuwegama and Ajith Samaranayake and A. J. Gunawardena was soon to pass away. With Pathiraja, on the other hand, the problem was the man himself. He trumped his critics with his refusal to enter the completely political. They were upset because he hadn’t conformed to their standards of propriety: for them, a movie like Bambaru Avith could work only if Victor was labelled as an evil capitalist and Helen (Malini Fonseka) was labelled as corrupted peasant virgin. They were upset, in other words, because he refused to turn our cinema into what Bandaranayake and his contemporaries had turned our theatre: politically fragmented, thriving on symbols, metaphors, protests, and stark dichotomies.

But in trumping those critics, Pathiraja has sealed his legacy. And I think it’s just as well: the intrusion of the theatre into our cinema has given me enough reason to lament, not celebrate. That no critic, apart from someone like Siriwardena, took him seriously remains the best tribute we can make to him. Not because he defied those critics, or criticism in general, but because he was able to make inroads to audiences despite the alienation those critics felt from his work. To date, I have not come across another director (in the serious cinema) who has touched the pulse of his or her audience so sharply while overturning those preconceptions of the medium that writers and commentators revere so highly. As always, he remains in a class and category of his own. Rightly. And justifiably.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 29 2017