Friday, September 15, 2017

Sugathapala Senarath Yapa: The man and his camera

A tribute to the first one hit wonder of our cinema.

In 1968 and 1969 a series of films that went down as the most poignant love stories ever shot here was made, and released. Most were directed by those who were already established in the industry: G. D. L. Perera (Dahasak Sithuvili), Dayananda Gunawardena (Bakmaha Deege), and Lester James Peries (Golu Hadawatha).

In hindsight, I believe it was no coincidence that these three should have been made towards the end of the most classical and continental decade (since most of our directors, by then, had been shaped by the tradition that had earlier shaped Renoir and Ray) of our cinema. They would be followed by the more politically turbulent seventies, a decade of lopsided perspectives, jump cuts, and un-classical, jerky editing. (Perhaps they needed a set of love stories for us to get fully prepared for them.)

The enduring appeal of the other film among them, Hanthane Kathawa, released by Torana Video Movies last year, is derived from its polymorphous quality: it’s so fresh, so original, that it HAD to be made by someone who got into the cinema because he grew up on the movies. (Two of the other directors had, by contrast, grown up on the stage.) Seeing Hanthane Kathawa after all this time (The Sooriya Village screened it on Sunday, September the 3rd) hence makes one wonder about the man behind it.

Sugathapala Senarath Yapa was born in Akuressa in 1935. Both his parents had died when he was quite young; he would be brought up by his grandmother, a “generous woman” as he remembered later. This absence of a proper authority figure meant that his childhood was, again as he remembered later, rather boisterous, which reached unforgivable heights when, together with a friend of his called Abeywickrema, he spread a rumour around his first school, Rakvana Maha Vidyalaya, that the buns which were being served to the children during the interval were filled with worms. The outcry against the administration of the school this provoked, and the subsequent discovery of the two culprits, meant that the principal had no choice but to expel Yapa: out of one school, he got into another with Pelmadulla Central College.

Pelmadulla Central was headed by a stern but well meaning principal, A. V. Gunapala, a member of the Hela Havula. He had one message for young Yapa: no more antics; stick to your studies. He heeded it and got through his SSC Preparatory Exams. When he was pondering as to what to do next, however, a quirk of fate (one of many that adorn the lives of people like him) would prevent him from continuing his education. The school he intended to join for his SSC Exams, St Anthony’s College, rejected him, while the Rector, Father Moses, told him to wait for one year. Because he would have spent that year wasting away and playing around with boys his age and getting beaten up by them, he decided to abandon his schooling.

Before the concept of the cinema hall evolved in Sri Lanka (and India), the theatre was limited for the most to your nearest city. In other areas there were touring cinemas, which was an offshoot if not amalgamation of the peepshow and the circus. So since the hall was limited to the city, Yapa had to do with these moving theatres, which considering the tastes of his neighbourhood screened the usual populist stuff: Bollywood romances, Hollywood thrillers. Yapa would get to see the entire Zorro series, then get his first job as the company’s film title-painter. That led him to an encounter with the owner of the touring hall, Reggie Perera (the then MP for Lunugala), who upon seeing his flair for drawing, asked him to pay him a visit. Which he did, and which led to him being hired as a “kind of advertiser” for his company.

This would be followed by a second encounter: with his cousin, the comedian L. M. Perera, who got him into another Touring Cinema as a counter clerk. While he was working there, he sat for his clerical exams, passed, and shifted to the Labour Department. This was propitious: long, long before the independent cinema was born here, our most avid artists emerged from the clerical service. It wouldn’t take long for Yapa, a child no more, to get involved with the arts through his job, starting with a set of radio dramas that included a translation of Tagore’s Gora. The radio service helped him meet Mahagama Sekera, and eventually helped him land a role in a newly established drama troupe headed by G. D. L. Perera, Kala Pela. The role, however, wasn’t in a play, but in a film: Perera’s debut, the beautifully searing Sama, which also saw the debut of Denawaka Hamine and Leonie Kothalawala.

Having become Secretary and Treasurer of Kala Pela, Yapa later abandoned it, determined to strike his own path in the movies. In his first few years at the Labour Department he had made it a habit to visit the British Council and the Regal Theatre, to move away from what he had encountered at the Touring Cinema. This too was propitious: the fifties, when he was beginning his career in the arts, was the decade that nurtured Italian neo-realism, Satyajit Ray, and Akira Kurosawa.

In his own words, what he saw during these years made him aware that the cinema was built, not always on overt action, but rather on fleshed out individuals who kept their intentions hidden away from plain sight. De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Kurosawa’s Rashomon influenced him greatly in this regard, since both films are, after all, about such individuals: in the former, a father and son who are reluctant to reveal themselves to one another, and in the latter, witnesses to the murder of a samurai that no one, not even the dead samurai himself, can truthfully speak about.

Five years later Ediriweera Sarachchandra staged Maname. 10 more years later, Colombo screened Antonioni’s Blow-Up, which would influence another artist, the architect Tilak Samarawickrema (who would soon make Antonioni’s homeland his surrogate motherland) and Polanski’s Knife in the Water, which depicted a terse, claustrophobic love triangle between two men and a woman. Having seen Kurosawa, Sarachchandra, and now Polanski, Yapa borrowed elements from all three, compounded them, and, in 1969, directed Hanthane Kathawa, the 218th movie to be made here; nothing like it, given the director’s background and its rich, polymorphous outlook, had been made before, or would ever be made again.

There are filmmakers who are so original that they don’t care about what they are doing: from the American cinema I can think of D. W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, John Ford. Then there are directors who, while original, fall in love with the movies so much that their first few films are a tribute to the masters of the medium they had grown up on: again from the American cinema, I can think of Peter Bogdanovich, William Friedkin, Quentin Tarantino. Of the latter three only Tarantino remains fresh, potent, persistent, while both Bogdanovich and Friedkin, after their first few films, slid out of sight, since the kind of cinema they were shaped by was from an earlier, gentler era: Bogdanovich with Hawks and Ford, Friedkin with Hitchcock and Clouzot. For me, hence, there can be no other reason as to why Yapa slid away unnoticed like these two later on: his film owed its mood to a classical conception of the cinema, one which, in his own words, was soon attacked by directors “who believed that THEIR cinema was the only true one.”

That his debut was so significant for Yapa was proved by another victory that same year: the Silver Peacock at the New Delhi Film Festival, for his first documentary (really a docudrama), Minisa saha Kaputa (a study of human greed). That the fact it went unnoticed proved to be his downfall can be gleaned from his subsequent work: two films, despairingly commercialist in their outlook (Pembara Madu and the much better Induta Mal Mitak), and 28 other documentaries. These were supplemented by occasional stints at writing lyrics (earlier in Hanthane Kathawa he had done the impossible: bring Mahagama Sekera and Premasiri Khemadasa together for a song he himself partly wrote, Sara Sonduru Mal Patali).

“The raw material of the cinema is life itself,” Satyajit Ray wrote. If that raw material seems too processed and refined today, it’s because our directors (at least most of them) don’t believe in life, and think their audiences don’t either. Pauline Kael once noted, quite correctly, that when the American cinema became liberal in the fifties, it confused morality for art; the opposite is true for our cinema, today: the lack of morality, or the rebellion against it, is equated with profundity, which is why our movies don’t seem to be felt, but rather force you to feel them (a paradox?).

What Ray said, and how what he said has been rejected today, was echoed the other day when Sugathapala Senarath Yapa told me the most inspired thing a director from his era could have as an aside on our cinema: “Dreams have become extensions of reality.” The movies were born out of those dreams, but those dreams were never meant to replicate life. Yapa had directed our 218th film, one among a great many more, which reflected quite aptly just how the medium had got reality and fantasy, the worldly and the extraordinary, the real and the romantic, to cohabit. That it went by unnoticed, along with the man behind it, says a lot, I should think. Even today.