Thursday, July 20, 2017

Asking for keeps: 'Gamperaliya' and 'Nidhanaya'

The second in a series of sketches on the movies of Lester James Peries.

The loveliest scene in Nidhanaya is the only hopeful, life-affirming sequence from that entire movie: Willie Abeynayake, the tortured aristocrat, dancing with the woman he married to kill as a sacrifice. It builds up slowly (to a waltz composed by Premasiri Khemadasa) and then flourishes in quiet, contained ecstasy. The best part about it is that it’s all imagined. Willie isn’t actually dancing with his wife, Irene: he’s dreaming that he is. Technically it stands out, not just from the movie but also from the director’s oeuvre, because it’s fascinating: in how the eyes of this couple interlock, how the waltz teeters between hope and distrust, and how the man is awoken from his fantasy. It’s also poignant, because these two never consummate their love.

Nidhanaya was the third of three movies made by Lester James Peries for the only producer that stayed with him for more than two, Ceylon Theatres. It proved that with the right blend of capital and artistic freedom, he could churn out a technically and artistically fulfilling film. Like much of his other work, though, it was barely a box-office hit, nevertheless compensated by its wins abroad (in London and in Venice). When in 1997 the government compiled a list of the 10 best movies from the preceding 50 years, it was unanimously accepted as the greatest. It may have been the first Sinhala movie that was made to be conscious of its own power.

G. B. Senanayake’s short story, one of several compiled in an anthology, Paliganima, came about before blindness had struck him. There’s a streak of schizophrenia in much of his subsequent work. Some of his novels, like Awaragira and Ekata Eka, while not optimistic, opened out in a wider milieu, which compensated for that. With Nidhanaya, however, he constricted it, forcing us to ponder on its own workings without daring to venture out. In Willie Abeynayake he channelled the unnamed narrator from Allan Poe’s The Raven, which is why Lester’s movie feels rather expressionistic, so expressionistic, in fact, that we see cobwebs and stuffed birds in his protagonist’s mansion even when there aren’t any. Like Lewin’s film of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, it was deeply, maddeningly claustrophobic.

And in a way, the tragedy that befalls Abeynayake is reminiscent of the tragedies that befall Poe’s as well. The latter are always self-absorbed, rarely open to the world outside. They are driven by their obsessions, even at the cost of another’s life, but when they face the fact that all those were for nothing, they end their own. They are carried away by their madness, but they retain the welter of self-sacrifice and honour and dignity that dawn on them only when they realise their follies.

It’s a self-contained world, cast away, obsolete, largely irrelevant, that we come across in Nidhanaya. It’s not the world of the Kaisaruvattas, because the Kaisaruvattas didn’t fall, they deteriorated. Perhaps that’s why Gamperaliya is so elegiac, while Nidhanaya is almost a preannounced funeral and memorial service from beginning to end.

When Lester was filming Martin Wickramasinghe’s novel, he was viewed with suspicion by the big producers (among them Ceylon Theatres), which in hindsight was justifiable: his cameraman Willie Blake was eschewing the studio for the sun when it came to lighting. It’s not easy to make a Gamperaliya now, because that sense of harmony between its cast and crew members isn’t easy to obtain.

But it isn’t just the cast and crew, or the camerawork. It’s also the timing. Speaking for myself, I haven’t come across a Sinhala film that had everything right, correct, to the dot, and yet appeared so spontaneous with respect to its characters’ reactions. When Piyal suggests that Nanda come to his house after they stop hearing from Jinadasa, for instance, the camera cuts to Nanda slowly, excruciatingly, highlighting her feelings of insecurity. When she finally cracks, however, it doesn’t flow out like a wound: it’s quickly done away with, so quickly that Piyal is as shocked as we are at his callousness. That opening scene at the mansion, with the upstart teaching the lady English (the educated aren’t rich, yet) and Nanda’s mother tending to her needlework behind, has become something of an epiphany for our cinema, “both in what he (Lester) tried to express in all his films as well as in the simple, elegant, and unostentatious way he said it” as Tissa Abeysekara put it later.

In Nidhanaya Lester broke away from that simple, elegant, and unostentatious way of saying things. He was too emboldened, too empowered, to continue with that Renoirean simplicity which characterised all his movies until then. Partly this was because he was now under a contract which was, for the second time (after Cinemas Entertainment for Sandeshaya), stipulated by a major production company. He had upset his benefactors with Golu Hadawatha (which, were it not for Bernard Soysa’s timely intervention, would have been released without Dammi’s version of the story) and had scored a mild success with Akkara Paha. Both would be featured at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) courtesy of Donald Richie, through which Lester was introduced more properly to the world he had been inspired by.

Consequently, Lester’s ninth film was also his first self-conscious work. “It reeks of noirishness. Worse, it reeks of intellectualised noirishness,” Pauline Kael wrote of Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, and the same could have been said of Nidhanaya, with the caveat that it doesn’t reek, it overwhelms. Everything in this unquiet masterpiece constricts, from Willie Abeynayake’s search for a virgin with four birthmarks (consisting of a series of close-ups, almost suffocating) to the moment he catches his sight of Irene (initially as a long shot, then zooming in to an extreme close-up) and to Irene’s futile attempts to get him to love her (in one of the movie’s most disturbing sequences, she wanders off from their first night in bed and gazes sorrowfully at the portrait of his mother: the whole scene is punctured by a musical variation on the Buddhist stanza venerating the mother, adding irony).

But all this meant that Lester had abandoned his humanist streak, a little of which was retained in the movie’s most heartfelt section (where Willie and Irene are reconciled to each other). In abandoning it, he had abandoned what had characterised his work before. Death, decay, and self-destruction: none of these had obtruded on his world. Even in Akkara Paha, which is his first film about the downfall of the village peasantry, tragedy is briefly superseded by a sense of bittersweet poignancy, particularly towards the end. In Nidhanaya there’s no poignancy, only complete annihilation (because Willie is the last male heir to his lineage) that’s quickened by an unyielding destiny. It was a quirk in that respect: after it was done, Lester would return to that same humanism he had repudiated through Desa Nisa.

For all its exquisite attention to detail, and its constricting interiors, it became a masterpiece despite its deep-rooted cynicism. If Gamperaliya had been the work of an ambitious idealist, Nidhanaya was the work of an empowered idealist. Because of its outlook perhaps, however, it was shunned by some of our critics, and compelled Regi Siriwardena (in a perceptive essay titled “Sinhala Cinema, Class and Personal Relations”) to take to task those among them who had taken Lester’s attention to the individual as a sign of the social irrelevance of his work.

He was right, I should think: whether or not you identify the abnormal, stunted psychology of its characters, Nidhanaya is a rich work of art, rich in its depiction of a milieu that Lester would not (barring Awaragira) feature with such unforgiving ferocity. “Nowhere else has ensemble playing been so perfect in my films,” he said of Gamperaliya, adding the caveat: “Except in Nidhanaya.” The comparison shows, I believe, notwithstanding the thematic differences between the two.

Written for: Daily Mirror, July 20 2017