Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sumitra Peries: The agony of being more than a woman

In Vaishnavee, Yashoda Wimaladharma does what Gamini Fonseka did more than 20 years ago in Loku Duwa: divert the story to an entirely different mood and terrain. Fonseka did it rather effortlessly, since a man who was depicted as THE hero (and OUR hero) for over 30 years couldn’t just be depicted as a beastly womaniser without jolting the audience. What could hence have been a weakness on the director’s and the editor’s part, therefore, proved to be the best point about the movie. Fonseka’s intrusion into the story isn’t forced, or compelled artificially. As the father of the protagonist’s friend, he was expected. He is as hilarious as he is dislikeable, though not quite empathetic: a near-perfect culmination to a near-perfect career.

What Fonseka achieved in Loku Duwa, Yashoda tried to achieve in Vaishnavee. But the director, Sumitra Peries, intended something different. The first half of Vaishnavee is about the innocence of its locale and characters. The second half turns the tables on everyone, including our protagonist, Osanda, and his cousin, Ruchira, when Yashoda’s unnamed puppet-come-alive starts “terrorising” them. As I noted in my review, Yashoda is by default an actress who can convey both empathy and coldness, sometimes at once. But one senses an incongruity in Sumitra’s movie, partly owing to her. We never properly understand her intentions, and her passing remark right before the story closes (that love can’t be taken for granted) is at best vague.

Some of the best movies are born from moral simplification. The morality of Vaishnavee is rooted in Osanda’s feelings of hurt at being rejected by his betrothed, who elopes with another man. What complexity we are given, as viewers, we get through his impulse to carve what he liked about his betrothed into a puppet: in effect, he is using the puppet to visualise what he could not get from the woman he was to marry. So when that puppet does come alive, she is as confused as we are as to why Osanda does not take to her. And so she does the inevitable. She taunts him. It’s the kind of moral simplification that the most discerning artists go for in their later careers. With Vaishnavee, Sumitra has hence joined Ray, Kurosawa, and John Ford.

Elegantly composed, indulgently shot, the movies of Sumitra Peries have never been reviewed with the frame of reference they deserve. Critics have pigeonholed her, either as a feminist filmmaker or as her husband’s wife. Even the writers of that otherwise ambitious book, Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema, end up condemning her on the basis of feminist ambitions she probably wasn’t even aware of. By categorising her as a woman’s director, they rationalise her artistic failures as failures of intention and ambition. The fact that her best work, Sagara Jalaya, was unnoticed when it was first released speaks a lot about who is being selective and unfair by her.

I think Sumitra’s greatest achievement has been her ability to transform popular fiction into serious cinema. By serious I am not pigeonholing her: I am merely suggesting that when compared to the emotional hysterics of Leticia Boteju, Edward Mallawarachchi, and (to a lesser extent) Karunasena Jayalath, her movies are more composed. There are sequences of astonishing power which are held back so poignantly that they can only belong to the cinema: Vasanthi Chathurani bemoaning her cruel destiny at the end of Gehenu Lamayi, Ravindra Randeniya murdering his lover (Geetha Kumarasinghe) and her daughter in Maya, and Geetha discovering her lover’s duplicity in Loku Duwa. Watching these makes one realise that her foray into the movies was informed, not by the romanticism of Renoir (as with her husband), but by the austerity of Bresson and Dreyer, particularly the latter.

Sometimes however, she gives into what can only be described as a tendency to overindulge. One sees it in Gehenu Lamayi (the last half-hour), Ganga Addara (Nirmala’s wedding), Yahalu Yeheli (Mudithalatha grappling with her cousin), and Loku Duwa (towards the end). One does not see it in Sagara Jalaya, because it’s her least imperfect movie: consequently, even in sequences which might have been overindulgent by the standards she set for her other work (like the final confrontation between Heen Kella and her sister), we are subtly made to forget how overwrought they are. In that sense Loku Duwa was a sequel of sorts to Sagara Jalaya, since both are about women as hard-done-by fighters (unlike Mudithalatha from Yahalu Yeheli, who could only be empowered by manipulating the narrative).

Critics have pinned her down as a woman’s artist, forgetting that her movies aren’t about women, rather about women trying to be more than who they are. To be sure, they are sometimes subservient to a largely patriarchal world, but even then they aspire for more than they have. In that sense, Kusum in Gehenu Lamayi is more rebellious than her sister Soma (Jenita Samaraweera), who dreams of life in the movies. She falls in love with a man she is cautioned against marrying (owing to her social standing), and in the subsequent clash between her desire and insecurity, we come across our cinema’s first real tragic female figure, overshadowing even her sister’s tragedy, which we anyway expected given her hubris.

Sumitra Peries came to the movies as a director in the eighties, when a veritable onslaught of directors and actresses and scriptwriters ensured that women would be depicted as the fighters they had been told not to be all their lives. These actresses came in a particular order: Nadeeka Gunasekara, Swarna Mallawarachchi, Anoja Weerasinghe. But there was a contradiction in some of the movies which featured them. Fearless, daring, and frequently aggressive, they were represented as harbingers of intense, sometimes forced eroticism, which repelled us from them. (A case in point was Tissa Abeysekara’s Mahagedara, where Geetha Kumarasinghe, who was supposed to awaken our moral conscience, actually nauseated us, thereby making hypocrites of us all.) Even in otherwise landmark and frank productions like Hansa Vilak and Thunweni Yamaya, the eroticism was intellectualised, not felt.

None of Sumitra’s movies depict sex, but what eroticism there is, she doesn’t nauseate us to the point of titillation. After the unforgiving violence of Duwata Mawaka Misa, she returned to form with Sakman Maluwa, where love is no longer expressive, complicated, repelling. On the contrary, her later work, right until Vaishnavee, is morally both simple and profound, simple because her craftsmanship comes through effortlessly, and profound because even her most banal sequences enchant us. Given that it’s her most recent movie, Vaishnavee indicates the latter point well: its characters, like Osanda’s father and grandmother, are defined in clear-cut, empathetic terms. They are not overwrought simply because she doesn’t need them to be. She has reached that place where a director can go on shooting a character talking, talking, and talking in a static, square frame while retaining the audience’s interest.

Not surprisingly, the contradiction that makes up even the most sincere woman’s director doesn’t come through in her movies. I was taken aback by Vijaya Kumaratunga’s impulsive rape of Swarna Mallawarachchi in Kadapathaka Chaya, for instance, but while I was intrigued by how crudely and carelessly it was edited, I wasn’t exactly moved. It was manifestly better in Dadayama, particularly the first seduction scene by Ravindra Randeniya in the hotel, and horrendously out of pitch in Maruthaya, Vasantha Obeyesekere’s worst movie. Our feminist filmmakers, for me at least, have sustained that aforementioned contradiction in nearly all their movies, which can be taken as a sign of their irrationality or indiscipline depending on how you look at them. (Which is why Obeyesekere’s Palagetiyo remains the only film of his that honestly depicted the problem of eroticism versus class discrepancies.)

It’s a truism that can be sustained anywhere that directors, unlike novelists, painters, and composers, tend to become more frenzied as the years pass by. This is especially true of continental directors: Tarkovsky, Bresson, Resnais, Antonioni. They hold on to their cinematic style, often adamantly (because after all they think that’s the only style that matters). Sometimes this works, often it does not, which is why the later Bresson is not as great as the early Bresson and why the later Resnais is more bearable, and in some respects better, than the early Resnais. Sumitra belongs to the former category. By making her world so profoundly uncomplicated, she justifies her act of hanging on to a composed style of filmmaking grossly out of place in an industry where careless, disjointed editing has run riot. And she succeeds.

Within 20 years Sumitra Peries became our most accomplished editor. In the movie industry there is almost always a discrepancy between craftsmanship and imagination. Sumitra didn’t fall into that discrepancy. When I talked with her not too long ago, she compared the act of editing, and even directing, to writing (what I do): “There are enough and more words one can pen down, but to make them cohere well is something only a stylist can achieve.” Being that stylist was never a problem for her: her challenge was to combine it with imagination. If the past 30 years are anything to go by, and considering the way she has been pigeonholed, she has stood up to that challenge in a way no other technician-turned-artiste here has.

Written for: Daily Mirror, July 25 2017