Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Later forays, lesser forays: The man and the milieu

The fifth in a series of sketches of the films of Lester James Peries.

Critics are so obsessed over separating the good from the bad, the merited and the prized from the spurned and the forgotten, in an artist’s career that they forget that what made the latter possible was the lesser aspects of the former. No one can deny that the later Hitchcock was bad (very few would contend otherwise), but no one can seriously deny that the Master of Suspense was being anyone other than the Master of Suspense in his later “lesser” films (Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, but not Frenzy and the deliciously enjoyable Family Plot). The bottom line is this, therefore: what make the later forays of a director possible, more often than not, are his earlier excursions into lesser territory. This was as true for Hitchcock as it was for Satyajit Ray or Lester James Peries.

20 films over 50 years are not, to be honest, adequate to pass judgment on Lester’s generally disregarded works, which fall under two broad categories: unqualified failures and unrealised masterpieces. Of those 20, interestingly however, only one can be singled out as a failure on any terms: The God King, back then the most lavishly financed production the West got involved with in the East (Kurosawa had backed out of Tora! Tora! Tora!). The God King was an unmitigated failure precisely because it was that: a production financed by another part of the world, over which technicians appointed elsewhere held sway. The final product – a strange mishmash of Manciewicz’s Cleopatra and Mehboob Khan’s Aan – was as confused as the story of its troubled production, which as Lester recounted deserves an entire book to itself.

The God King is so bizarre: its dialogues so outrageously and unintentionally funny (its campy flavour reminds you of Richard Burton’s deadpan monologues from The Exorcist II: high-flown, profound, yet colossally empty), and the rift between its epic vistas and its anything-but-epic plotline so naked (not for one moment does this rift relax, which is why it reminds me of what Gore Vidal once wrote of Ben-Hur, the 1959 version: “Any attempt to make sense of it would destroy the story's awful integrity”). Majestically conceived, majestically shot, it was ahead of its time in some respects (for Sri Lanka); in other respects, though, it was and remains as empty and hollow as the final battle between its antihero and his brother.

There is as much of Lester in The God King as there was of Kubrick in Spartacus, and coupled with the fact that it failed financially and critically, this means that it was the first and only detour in the man’s long career. To call it symptomatic of the kind of movies he was directing at that time would be stretching things too far, yet those who conflate the one with the other do so because the time he was in, and the material he had to work with, indicated a shift in the quality of his work that was discernible. But still, extrapolating from this and separating what is considered to be his lesser work from his masterpieces would be an injustice to him because, as I mentioned, much of what critics saw as lacking in his earlier work made its way visibly to his later forays.

David Shipman in his monumental two-volume The Story of Cinema (for which he watched more than 5,000 movies) wrote about Lester in a chapter on the Indian cinema and Satyajit Ray. Having seen every film of his until Ahasin Polawata, except Sandeshaya and, rather strangely, Golu Hadawatha (he makes no mention of them), Shipman contended that inasmuch as Ray was great, Lester was hardly his inferior. But the Western critic’s lack of familiarity with the lives of ordinary people from this part of the world – be they Apu or Charulata or Nanda or Nissanka – showed clearly in Shipman’s indictment of Lester’s work as slow paced. Here he separated Ray and Peries: the former’s films, while also slow, were more richly detailed. Even otherwise great essays as Delovak Athara and Akkara Paha were brought down: the former, “otherwise interesting, fails,” while the latter, at 132 minutes, is “overdue.”

Even Philip Cooray’s book on the man, The Lonely Artist, reflects and affirms in part Shipman’s views, ironic considering that Regi Siriwardena’s foreword repudiates the indictment in clear-cut terms: “I remember an irritated Mexican critic writing of Gamperaliya who said that every line spoken by the characters seems to be preceded and followed by a long silence. In this quality of his films, however, Lester is true to Sinhala life.” Which is true of course: fiercely open we as a people are, we are nevertheless content not in revealing in gushes and torrents our torments and sorrows, but in hinting at them (as Anula Karunatilake does in Golu Hadawatha). But what is pertinent to note here is not whether Lester was being true to life as seen within (David Shipman on Gamperaliya: “I’m not sure whether it reveals the ‘inner lives’ of its characters”) but what flowed from this quality of his: the weaknesses that would adorn even his real masterpieces.

It has been said that our movies are long and overdue and this because of poor planning, editing, scripting, and logistics. Such problems certainly did beset Lester, and they beset independent filmmakers even today, but while they are issues for which the director shouldn’t be held accountable, they do give rise to other issues which are in part at least those of the director. In Lester’s case, slow paced (tiring or otherwise) as his lesser works are, the qualities which they share with his earlier career are so discernible that they can’t miss the careful, discriminating viewer.

In his films, first and foremost, we come across a rift between the individual and his or her society: Sena and the rural peasantry in Rekava, Piyal and the feudal aristocracy in Gamperaliya, Nissanka and the urban bourgeoisie in Delovak Athara. This rift translates into another: between the individual and his or her milieu. The incongruity that results from it is very much present, and accounts at least partly for the strengths of Gamperaliya, Golu Hadawatha, Akkara Paha, and Nidhanaya over the weaknesses of Desa Nisa, Ahasin Polawata, Kaliyugaya, Awaragira, and Wekanda Walawwa.

It’s interesting to observe that almost all his later films were based on the uprooted elite, the aristocracy that he had eulogised in Gamperaliya and laid to rest in Nidhanaya. But in those two films the tensions as such, between our protagonists and their social backdrops, were, while unresolved (Nidhanaya ends with one murder and one suicide), never contradictory; the personal never transcended the milieu. You infer this when you compare Ahasin Polawata with Nidhanaya: both rely on pretty much the same technique, the flashback, but while the inhibitions of Willie Abeynayake are squarely the inhibitions of a decaying elite, the quirks of Sarath are (as Regi Siriwardena observed) never rooted in anything substantive.

Much of the critical drubbing that Lester endured from the late seventies to the early nineties – with Ahasin Polawata, Baddegama, Kaliyugaya, Yuganthaya, Awaragira – can be rooted in the lack of reconciliation between the milieu and the personal in those films, which isn’t to say that he deserved that drubbing: on the contrary, they were symptomatic of the thinly disguised confusions that young critics entertained (our Marxist critics never really understood that the personal experience of a work of art need not always be at the cost of its political relevance; they always wanted political symbols for it to be “relevant”). But I believe that the weaknesses apparent in these five films – Ahasin Polawata with its depiction of Sarath; Baddegama with its miscast cast; Kaliyugaya with the discrepancy between its brilliantly sustained first half-hour and the rest of its duration; Yuganthaya for its lack of engagement with the political; and Awaragira with its quickly cut ending – can be traced to a sustained incongruity between the individual and his or her backdrop.

And yet these are not unsalvageable films: hidden deep within, in several sequences, are feats of astounding technical craftsmanship. With a lavish score by Premasiri Khemadasa that identifies its protagonist with a poignant motif, Kaliyugaya’s first half-hour is a triumph in the use of the flashback in our cinema; Baddegama, while visually weak in many scenes (in Leonard Woolf’s novel Silindu imagines seeing demons in the forest after he angers Punchirala, the exorcist; in the film the director and the scriptwriter provide a literal transposition of these imaginings, with demon faces leering from the trees and the bushes) does bring out some great performances from Joe Abeywickrama as Silindu and Nadeeka Gunasekara as Hinnihami (though not Vijaya Kumaratunga, whose portrayal of the small-time, naive Babun was at odds with his urbane background); while Awaragira is a monumental family epic (with Ranjan Ramanayake’s finest performance to date, a pity considering that he never got offers for more films like it) that ends in a terrible murder by the daughter (Vasanthi Chathurani) of her own brother (Kamal Addararachchi) over her tormented love for her abusive husband (Lucky Dias, in one of his more memorable roles): the sequence, finely shot and edited, reminds me of the murder of Zhinovy in Wajda’s Siberian Lady Macbeth, which was also about a woman torn between two men.

Perhaps the most fitting epitaph to these later and lesser forays of Lester James Peries is this: in the end he gave what he had, genuinely but discriminatingly. And in the end we got out of them what we could have, again genuinely but discriminatingly.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 31 2017

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Notes from the 100th Shield

After 30 years the Boxing Club of Royal College clinched the renowned Stubbs Boxing Shield, beating last year’s champions Vidyarathna College to second place. Here’s a sketch of the Club and its history.

In Sri Lanka boxing was largely a colonial sport. It traces its origins to Ancient Greece, yes, but if we are to be more circumspect about its evolution we have to start in 1867, the year the 12 Marquess of Queensbury rules were drafted. After much wrangling from the authorities (who deemed that bare-knuckled fights were illegal and later banned movies which depicted tournaments and even individual fights) it split into two categories: amateur and professional. The 20th century pretty much saw the game at its peak, and in 1914 one of the first school teams in Sri Lanka was inaugurated along with the oldest and most renowned national schools boxing championship here, the Stubbs Shield. This year that championship was held for the 100th time, and this year that school, Royal College, won it after 30 years.

From Saturday the 7th to Tuesday the 10th of October, the 100th Stubbs Shield Championship (held at the Royal MAS Arena) saw Vidyarathna College, Horana and Sri Dheerananda Maha Vidyalaya, Kandy emerge as Runners Up and Second Runners Up respectively. Of the eight contenders from Royal six made it to the semi-finals, the most for any school at the meet, and four to the finals, wresting four gold medals in three weight categories (once for 52 kg, twice for 56 kg, once for 75 kg), two silver medals, and two bronze medals. One of them, Bhathiya Neranjana, was adjudged the Best Scientific Boxer for the entire tournament (the first time the team had won the category in 28 years), while the finals saw them wade through an Under 18 match that lasted for five rounds, all of which they squarely won. Obviously, 30 years is a long time, which is why I knew the boys from the team had a story to tell. Here’s a sketch.

Until a few years ago boxing here was for the most limited to Colombo and Kandy. It’s interesting to know that the situation has changed now, that tournaments and contenders exist and thrive outside these two cities, from the North to the South. It’s also interesting to know that, owing to how online access has widened everywhere, those who take to the sport from an early age get to learn about the icons from their field more quickly. It’s not just about Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, in other words, a point reflected in something one of the eight boxers from the Royal Stubbs team, Vimuth Dewmina, told me: “Personally I’ve always admired Ali and Tyson, but we’ve moved beyond them. We’ve always looked up to Lázaro Álvarez and Floyd Mayweather.” Vimuth’s admiration for Álvarez is intriguing but not surprising: both are left-handed, and in boxing parlance are referred to as southpaws.

How Vimuth got into boxing in the first place is intriguing as well. Having entered Royal College through the Grade Five Scholarship, he had dabbled in basketball, badminton, and athletics. A chance conversation with some friends had persuaded him to go watch the Royal-Trinity Boxing Encounter. “I would have been in Grade 7 at the time, one and a half years after I entered school. What struck me about the game was that while it superficially promoted violence and aggressiveness, it was in reality played with enough barricades for the players, with both players respecting one another despite the fact that one had to beat the other to a pulp. I would have been nervous before, but that chance visit encouraged me to try it out.”

What Vimuth hadn’t bargained for with all this, particularly when he joined the Club two years later, was the kind of strenuousness he had to put up with at practices. “We had practice sessions from 6 to 7 in the morning and from 2.30 to 4.30 in the evening, from Monday to Saturday. To say the least, I couldn’t handle it with the other activity I was engaged in, badminton. Mind you, no two sports can be more different. So after thinking about it, I let go of badminton and gave myself over completely to the boxing ring.” He was in Grade Nine at the time, and would begin to take part in national meets a little later: in order, the T. B. Jayah Memorial Shield, the L. V. Jayaweera Shield, and of course the Stubbs Shield.

Having joined it as a fully-fledged player in 2014, Vimuth saw through the Boxing Club’s most turbulent years, during which only two or three active contenders would go for tournaments. “In 2015 we ‘toured’ and practised at Pannala and won 5th place at the Stubbs Shield Tournament. The following year we practised at the Diyathalawa Training Camp, where we adapted to a colder climate and got ourselves to resolve for tougher matches. It’s that kind of resolve that we nurtured and fermented within ourselves this year, when we started warming up for the Stubbs Shield from August. For some reason the Shield was postponed to October. In the end we gave the best we had and got the best we could have.”

Vimuth isn’t alone in the Club of course, and it’s pertinent to note that the other seven players have their own stories. I noted in my article on the Royal Baseball Team that baseball has more or less inspired passion among schoolboys from outside Colombo. With respect to boxing, the split at Royal between Colombo and outside-Colombo is more even: while four of the eight players hail from places as far away and apart as Matara and Kuliyapitiya (the latter being Vimuth’s hometown), the remaining four come from the metropolis, including Dehiwela and Maradana (the latter being the Captain’s hometown). “The Stubbs Shield victory was one of several we clinched, as winners or runners up in various meets before. All of them ensured more members for the Club. Our numbers are rising. We predict they will continue to rise.”

There are other names, to reflect on and thank. “Our Coaches helped us tremendously, needless to say: Abdulla Ibunu, our Head Coach, and M. A. Jayalath and M. M. Nisthar, his Assistants. All three are from our school, as are Lakshman Amarasekara, who supplied what we needed to help us practise effectively, and of course Mr Dian Gomes, who’s been involved with boxing not just at Royal but also throughout the country. He’s the undisputed corner-man of boxing at school. His vision for our Club, so to speak, has begun to pay back, and we are reaping what he planned for us long ago. He has always backed us.”

30 years isn’t much. But then 100 years isn’t much either. What adds to victory isn’t just the length and width of defeat but the weight and scope of perseverance as well, and going by what this team of boxers have done and strived for, with their stories and their coaches and their sponsors, it’s safe to say that neither 30 nor 100 years, however long, can quite surpass their passion for the game. The Stubbs Shield victory, for me at least, therefore, should be viewed from this angle, and should be added to as the years go by. I fervently believe they will be added to. Today and tomorrow.

Photos courtesy of: ThePapare.com

Written for: The Island YOUth, October 29 2017

Friday, October 27, 2017

The dimensions of protests and politics

A friend of mine, having seen through last month’s spate of strikes rather cynically, had an interesting point to make: “The protests work for the protestors and their backers, whether they win or lose. On the other hand, even if they win, the protests rarely work for the people. Those behind them win whatever the outcome, while the people lose even if they are supposed to win.” Such an observation is of course crass when considering that not all protests have reneged on the public and that most if not many of them have served that same public. But then you do get his point: protests are political, and protestors, today’s protestors, have become ineffectual.

September and October were bewildering. To say the least. First, the weather: abnormal, destructive, ruthless. Then the strikes, touching on almost everything from electricity to the railway. The demands were all the same: rectify salary anomalies or face the consequences. There were areas outside Colombo which suffered power outages for over five days. Yes, five days. And there were people, whose daily routine consists of going to work at nine in the morning and coming back home at nine in the night, who found themselves stuck when the trains they were on stopped over a sudden strike, forcing them to either walk the rest of the way home or wait until the SLTB sorted the mess.

In all these instances the strikers had one thing to say: “If the people find it difficult to get about their work, then it is the government’s fault.” But then a man in Polonnaruwa died because of a power outage (the nearest hospital didn’t have a generator; by the time he was despatched to the city hospital, he was dead). He was 55. The government’s fault? Hardly. Which brings me to my point: part of the reason why strikes never really work today, unless enough effort is put into them, is that the people are tired. They are tired of looking for scapegoats to censure and criticise. They know the government isn’t any better, but they also know that this is arguably the worst time since the war years for strikes to take place. When times are tough, when protests are by default the order of the day, they look at those they can blame the quickest. Not the State, but the Striker.

It’s a well known fact that in Sri Lanka, antipathy towards trade unionism is informed less by political inclinations than by personal prejudices. It’s interesting to note that whether one supports this government or its predecessor, one continues to view these protests as an inconvenience. Those for the government wish it to use the power it has (but rarely uses) against them, even hinting at violence before a crisis imposes it as a necessity. Those for the predecessor curse the government based on what they feel their preferred political candidates would have done were they elected: again, use power and violence to quell these strikes. And that’s just what members of the unofficial opposition want: get the incumbent regime to commit hara-kiri by resorting to force and then diminish their sense of moral superiority. For the record, they haven’t resorted to it yet.

Voters here identify with and idealise a man of force in power. Even those who advertise democracy and individual rights, from a legal or humanistic perspective, tend to wallow before preferred political outcomes that give rise to such men of force. It is this fascination with contemporary supermen (in a disturbingly Nietzschean, neo-fascist sense) which has divided our polity into two intertwined political movements that don’t differ from one another. By this I am not really disparaging one particular movement and taking sides with another, rather just pointing out that the so-called divide between the progressives and the reactionaries has never been sustained in Sri Lanka: our progressives become reactionaries once they reach parliament, and even our bitterest and most conservative reactionaries become liberals once they are swept over to the opposition.

My point is that despite Sri Lanka being a former bastion of radicalism and trade unionism, protests and strikes will not and cannot work in a context where the people opt for one of those two aforementioned political movements. That this government has not resorted to cracking down forcefully on dissidents is good (I can’t imagine a former government, from living memory, tolerating a week-long strike at the Electricity Board without doing something about it), but then from various comments I got down from people – everyday, ordinary, mostly middle class though not consumerist, the sort who commute to Colombo from Galle and Beruwala on the train – I have realised that they are taking the people they have elected, or are opposing, as powerless, irresolute. They may not know much about political history of other countries but from those conversations one name and one country crop up. Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore.

The obsession of Sri Lanka’s anti-trade union bourgeoisie with the politics and politicians of East Asia is both fascinating and silly. To start things off, no two regions could have been structurally more different, in terms of economics or pretty much everything else. In an intriguing but relevant article written on the pre-1977 economy (which was when trade unionism thrived, even under the political right), Vinod Moonesinghe contends that three factors differentiated us from the Asian Tigers: that compared to them we didn’t implement wide ranging land reforms, that we ran out of foreign exchange because of the rice ration and the culture of democracy we implemented successfully after 1948 and 1956, and that we did not enjoy the benefit of friendship with the Atlantic powers, especially the USA, which East Asia did. Given this, the attempts we made to become an industrial hub, during the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime, were at most half-hearted and abortive, and would quickly be dismantled in the name of robber baron capitalism.

This curious contradiction – between who we want to be and who we are – explains why our bourgeoisie are rather stunted, hybridised, never really in one place for a long time, reactionary when in power and liberal when out of power, and irresolute. They try to be modernists, political or cultural, and they have a whole horde of artists, intellectuals, professors, and civil society activists who are, I daresay, sincere in their intentions, but then when the moment of reckoning comes they find their inability to think beyond sustaining their milieu a good enough reason to abscond the ideals those intellectuals and activists stand for. The anti-trade unionism this country has been swept with in recent years is, I believe, something we inherited because of the empowerment of that bourgeoisie, who tend to fill and inherit the corridors of power whatever the government and political party they are backing. They idealise Singapore but find themselves poorly equipped for the task of transforming their ideals into a breathing, living reality.

So if we take the electorate, or ourselves, as a reflection of who we elect, it’s only natural that our fondness for men of force over men of integrity runs concurrently with our political bourgeoisie’s inability to formulate a proper vision for the country and its people. Whatever the political movement, it’s almost always intertwined with the political movement it opposes, through that bourgeoisie. What happens in the end is that we are all tired, of our leaders and those who oppose them. Naturally then, trade unionism and student movements here, in recent years, have been lost on our people. The reason for that, more than anything else, is the fact that we have conditioned ourselves to accept the political moment, whether or not we are content with it, and let our private lives go on undisturbed. The moment it’s disturbed, and not just disturbed but downright distracted, we denounce those who protest in favour of the men and women they protest against. Even if those being protested against happen to be those we want out of power.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 27 2017

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Our criticism, their criticism

An indictment of sorts.

The role of the critic is at once curious and contradictory: he isn’t required to know what the artist he is assessing does, yet he has the prerogative to measure that artist on the standards he himself has created for him. It takes years and years of film schools and acting classes to become a great performer, but no amount of craftsmanship, however nurtured or fermented, can compensate for those slight shifts of quality which the critic notices, notes, and advertises. You can contend that becoming an artist is therefore intensely more difficult than being a critic, but in reality it’s the other way around when you account for quality: being a good, insightful critic is, all things considered, more difficult than being a good, insightful artist.

Obviously this isn’t too worrying in countries where theatres and film halls are as much a part of ordinary experiences as offices and factories, but in Sri Lanka where film halls are rarely full (even during weekends) and theatres barely attended (even when it’s your typical political or comedic skit) not having good critics does tend to alarm and disconcert. Even with the internet and the very many portals (which can be about anything, from film reviews to theatre reviews to situation reports) that promise much on the day they’re launched and yet are shut down on the next, people still prefer newspapers, and most of our writers and commentators prefer what the people do. The printed word is here to stay, at least for quite some time.

Criticism in Sri Lanka is mostly divided along linguistic lines: Sinhala and Tamil on the one hand and English on the other. I’m sure there are subtle differences between Sinhala and Tamil writers but these have to do largely with temperament and experience; the difference between them and their English counterpart is less subtle, and is marked less by temperamental rifts than by differences which go deep into their way of responding to their societies, their world. It’s all a reflection of the milieu which panders to them, respectively, since demographically the Sinhala and the Tamil critic have a larger audience, a varied base, which the English critic does not, has not, and probably will not. The former two enjoy a diverse public, and that diversity prevents them from congealing to an identifiable style or form of criticism. The latter, because his public is relatively small, does not suffer this impediment.

Because he enjoys a smaller audience, generally from a rather affluent, indulgent milieu, the techniques and, I daresay, styles he resorts to are predictable, sometimes despairingly so. The typical English review, or piece or scoop or whatever you may call it, teems with references to what people, from the audience it panders to, thinks or will think about a production. But then that’s to be expected, because even though he may not be on intimate terms with their cast and crew he knows them all the same, because like his audiences they belong to the same coterie and milieu he writes on. They don’t desire it and frankly they detest it – from my experiences thus far I can testify that they want the same kind of throbbing, worthwhile reviews their Sinhala counterparts are getting in the press and elsewhere – and yet they have to suffer it because that’s what our English critics operate on: mediocre, shallow profundity.

It would be easy to conclude that all this is the critic’s fault, but that’s not completely true. There are factors beyond his control which force him to compromise, to scuttle otherwise perceptive pieces, like the fact that our newspaper columns have diminished in scope and size to accommodate images at the cost of words. Economy, more specifically word economy, is the password in this age of jerky breaks and cuts and fast-paced, mindless television, and no one has felt this more deeply, more negatively, than your typical English reviewer. The latest play or book or film will gain as much text as pictures, in itself not a bad thing except for the fact that the pictures are there to preside over and overwhelm the text. And how? By using them to bring up what’s easily identifiable about the English cultural sphere in this country – names and faces, who’s adapting what famous musical from where, and so on. (The typical Sinhala and Tamil film review almost never contains images that transcend the text this way.)

Photographs, sketchy interviews, and randomly sought after comments do more for the English reviewer than an actual review because the people he writes on and writes for know each other well, and are usually on intimate terms. They’re like neighbours in the same community, at their most intimate with one another when they meet during a show. The critic in this sense emphasises on what his readers know, not what they should know, which is disheartening since this means that he is failing in his primary task: to get those readers beyond the present into the hereafter. In other words, they are stuck in time because they believe in the timelessness of what they stand for, which I think is the main reason why they are indicted as being culturally uprooted. They are joyously smug, joyously complacent, joyously indifferent.

The Sinhala critic can write with more vivacity and authenticity on our movies, our plays, our books, because they have ready access to the necessary material and they are enthusiastic about getting that material across. They know that’s what their readers want. In a way the fact that we are a local majority and a global minority is reflected in our confused and at times contradictory feelings when it comes to the vernacular and the English press: we are happy when a Sinhala critic writes on an objet d’art in a way that does justice to the objet and the auteur, but we are also happy, despite our limited understanding of the language, when we come across an English critic, no matter how lopsided his review is, doing the same.

There’s a culture of sullen indifference within the English intelligentsia when it comes to reviews and reviewers. They are more interested in how the critic notes down those points that make them part of a clique within an already domineering clique (the part within the whole). Yes, they are also interested in the perceptive review but because mediocrity has become a norm they are, quite naturally, indifferent, cynical, and not a little sceptical. I have come across instances where they have expressed delight, overwhelming joy, when the person taken in to assess what they’ve done at least partially captures what they intended. They aren’t sullen for nothing, after all.

On the other hand, even a mediocre English review will glean gasps and smiles of pleasant surprise and contentment from their Sinhala counterparts. The other day I happened to give a newspaper clipping of one of my reviews to some young boys who happened to be actors and producers attached to a drama society I had written on and they were stumped; the review was eagerly passed from one set of hands to another, making the rounds around the hall I was in, until it reached the last boy, probably the smallest and youngest of them all, who came up to me with an almost toothless grin, handed it over, and said, “Thank you sir.” They know gratitude because they know the excitement of seeing what they toil for in the press, in a language they want their work to be expressed in. Which brings me to my next, and final, point.

Barring the occasional freelancer, there’s no one in the English media to write on our movies, our plays, our books, our artists. The Sinhala critics are streets ahead in this regard, because they not only have the necessary material but also know how to make that material relevant to their readers. You almost never get that kind of penetrating insight from the English critic for the simple reason that a) he is not used to penetrating insights even when writing for his own readers, and b) he hardly bothers writing for another audience. No one wrote on Handagama’s Age Asa Aga, for instance, and no one reviewed Vithanage’s Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka. To be sure, there are exceptions, especially in the movies (which are the most democratised works of art in Sri Lanka), but never in the theatre or in our book industry, not anymore.

Why should this bother us? Because no culture was ever salvaged, purveyed, promoted, and disseminated without a horde of instinctive, incisive writers. In part this stems from the critic’s own lack of awareness of that culture, and the artists it breeds. In part this stems also from the lack of any new excitement in what our filmmakers and playwrights and novelists are doing, even though they are more willing, and more able, to absorb much of what’s happening elsewhere.

But I don’t think that that latter point is reason for complacency over the way things are going with respect to our English reviewers. They are as stuck in time as many of those they write on and for, they often don’t know what’s happening in other cultural spheres, and they are conditioned to tone down, be as simplistic as possible, and get whatever message across. The only consolation we have, of course, is that those other cultural spheres have “local” reviewers who are great, if not much, much better. But the world operates elsewhere, not here, and the world speaks another language. We have people who speak that dialect, that language, but not enough to properly convey what their own artists are doing, here, now, and forever.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 26 2017

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

I encountered Victor Ratnayake in Nugegoda

For Iraj and for Victor. For you and for me.

Three years ago, when I was happily unemployed, I was a joyful drifter, aimlessly wandering here and there. I had some money of my own (freelancing does pay, though it doesn’t pay much), enough for me to roam around and look for ways of earning some more. I remember the month. December. I remember the day. Tuesday. And I remember the appointment. A conversation with Malinda Seneviratne, at his office in Maradana. I was late, though: I needed to get a gift for someone who was to celebrate his birthday soon. Leaving Malinda, I got on the 176 bus to Nugegoda, left Maradana, and waited for my ride to end. It was about 10 in the morning.

The 176, like the 155, is one of those bus routes in this country which seem longer than they actually are. It’s also one of those buses in which the act of sitting, curiously enough, is as taxing as the act of standing. (The Rajagiriya flyover bridge, then as now, was not complete, so the strenuous and demanding ride was made even strenuous and demanding.) One journey is enough; two journeys are too much; and three, if one is to make through them, are so terrible that the only refreshing fact about the end of the third is the hope that one never wades through a fourth. This was the first time, in a long time, I had been on the 176. When I got down near the Nugegoda Station, I was hit with so much silence that I wondered where I was.

We happy unemployed drifters have a prerogative you unhappy workaholics do not: that of experiencing and encountering a neighbourhood, a community, even an entire city when it’s least busy outside, when the yuppies are at their offices and the only people walking on the road are drifters, children, housewives, and beggars. Station Lane, which is where the 176 I was in stopped, opened to one such city. Apart from a few shops and a few lottery ticket booths, the entire area from the lane to the station was empty. The perfect getaway for the happy drifter, I thought to myself.

And then, as I was revelling in the fact that I was unemployed and still studying for my law degree, the fact that being alive meant being free of any responsibility towards seniors and co-workers, the loudspeakers along Station Lane blared. At that time of day my ears are accustomed to hearing Sangeeth Wijesuriya (because drifters like me love Sangeeth: he has a voice which reminds you of greasy garages and sweaty palms in the hottest afternoons and the most humid evenings, a voice which has gone by unrecognised, even by those who enjoy it). This time around, however, it was a different vocalist. Victor Ratnayake. And a different song. “Paawe Wala”. When that different song and that different vocalist blared out of those loudspeakers, the ticket-booth owners and the drifters and the women, in a scene that would have made Robert Wise proud (perhaps I’m being too optimistic here, but still) sang along.

Victor Ratnayake has that supreme ability of enflaming you, no matter where you are, with his voice. He is the opposite of Amaradeva in that sense, because Amaradeva is didactic even in his most light-hearted songs, while Victor is only didactic off the air, when he’s speaking to people like you and me; on air, he’s a romantic. “Paawe Wala”, however, was not written for him; it was written for Mervyn Perera, whose voice was closer to Victor’s than anyone else’s. The last SA Prasangaya, which I attended two years before despite a fit of depressive anger, unveiled with him remembering the man who graciously conceded that song. “I am a Buddhist, he was a Christian. I wish that he attains the supreme bliss of Nibbana,” he told us after he performed it. If I can’t think of another vocalist who can inspire so much in us that we forget our worries and sing about love in the middle of the road and during the middle of the day without realising how self-consciously young we become, it’s because there isn’t one.

Even at this stage in his life and career, the man reminds you of how young you once were. This has as much to do with his voice as it does with the two lyricists he has resorted to the most frequently: Premakeerthi de Alwis and Sunil Ariyaratne, both of whom wrote copiously on love. He doesn’t really care what “styles” he goes for: jana gee or Karnatic, slow or fast paced, his compositions reverberate with the kind of liveliness which his performances do. “He made me dance through ‘Kundumani’,” Malinda wrote of Premakeerthi. That sense of immediacy comes through the composition, that honest-to-ethnic-origin melody, as well. What Victor’s work leaves behind, for you to savour, is neither aggressive nor didactic, but it isn’t completely romantic either. It’s a different form of romanticism: rather conservative, never completely free. Almost as though he’s afraid of reminding us of our youth. As though we’ll go mad, and depressed, if we are reminded of it in the first place.

Some of his best songs transcend that conservative streak and yield to our deepest impulses. That’s where Victor is at his loveliest, I’d like to think. “Sanda Hiru Tharu” has him sing about the collective, secular, extraordinary joy of samsaric living; “Sara Sonduru” has him and Nanda Malini explore the poignancy of winning and then losing a first love; “Mihiren Ma Dinu” has him reflect on the first impressions of passing beauty, faintly registered, never rationalised. The latter two, incidentally, were composed by Premasiri Khemadasa; Victor never sang Khemadasa’s compositions in the SA Prasangaya, nor did he record them again. He has his reasons, but listening to them today makes one wish that he revisited them. They are some of the most innocently lovely works I have come across in our sarala gee tradition. And not for no reason: if a lesser vocalist had sung them, they would have lost that delicate welter of innocence and set off lewd speculations about who was singing about whom.

It has been said of Elvis and Hendrix that young women wanted to love them and young men wanted to be like them. If I sound blasphemous there, rest assured I didn’t say it: Professor Carlo Fonseka did, five years ago around the time of the last SA. Now Professor Fonseka has a habit of comparing the artist to the most primitive sample of our species. He did that with Malini Fonseka, he did that with Victor Ratnayake. To him, the singer and the actor is first and foremost a man or a woman.

“It is reasonable to suppose that a tribe strongly bonded together by music will have the edge in the struggle for existence over a less musical tribe,” he wrote. Had I written it, with my deplorable understanding of both music and biology, I would have been put down as a heretic. Such heretical thoughts belong to those who have specialised in the fields which produce them. In that sense the Professor is right. Victor Ratnayake is (almost) everything that Elvis and Hendrix were. But that’s not his real achievement. His real achievement has been his ability to be an Elvis, a Hendrix, a Robert Plant, within the confines of our closely knit, repressive, and traditionalist society. Perhaps that’s why he’s so rousingly didactic outside, and so rousingly romantic inside. We all operate on such a dichotomy, after all.

And perhaps that’s why we love him so much, yet still feel uneasy about loving and giving into what we think he stands for (which, incidentally, happens to be what he DOES stand for). We are afraid of expressing our love, forgetting all the while that what we misconceive as love wasn’t what most of our ancestors thought it to be. The at times wildly divergent reactions the man gleaned from us, his single biggest audience, last year and this year, indicates that he is what he sings, and not what he says. Outside he can rabble about the importance of staying true to the past while the contemporary singer bemoans it, but the truth is that he makes us fall in love with our younger selves in far greater ways than that contemporary singer. So when that singer tries to get even with the man in the most imaginative way he THINKS is possible, he is both at the peak of his popularity and at the receiving end of the most intense vitriol he can inspire. He has defiled the deified. Done what he should not have done.

Cary Grant, the most romantic of all romantic screen personalities the world ever knew, once said that even he wanted to be Cary Grant. It took a great many decades for him to become himself. Men were afraid of him and wanted to emulate him; they could never be him. Victor Ratnayake has always been like that. He inspires both infatuation and confusion, on our part and on his own terms. He speaks for what went by, yet sings of what is. He is caught in the past, yet transfixed on the present. It’s tough to come up with another vocalist, another artiste, who thrives and flourishes on such a strange, oxymoronic combination of reverence and daring. People can go on hoping that they are less like him when it comes to being young, being themselves. At the end of the day, however, when they discover that he is, in fact, more of what they want to be, and much more of what they will never be, they will parody him using all sorts of ways: the media, the blogosphere, YouTube. They will fail, not because they haven’t tried, but because in emulating and parodying him, they are emulating and parodying that strange mixture of nostalgia and youth he lives on. The truth is that he’s both nostalgia and youth. The truth is that no parodist is going to change that.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 24 2017

Sunday, October 22, 2017

To talk, to fight, to believe

The Debating Fraternity of Ananda College, Colombo won this year’s Sri Lanka Schools English Debating Championship, organised by the Law Faculty of the University of Colombo. This is a sketch of that Fraternity and its evolution.

The Law Faculty Debating Championship, organised by the University of Colombo, is the biggest annual debating tournament held at present in Sri Lanka. It extends to not just English, but also Sinhala and Tamil. Since the former is discernibly different to the latter two, and since I’m painfully unaware of how the latter two operate, my knowledge as such is limited to English debating. That is why it interests me that a particular Club from a particular school has moved up, done the hard yards, and won or come second place for the last four or five years. Namely, the Debating Fraternity of Ananda College, Colombo.

I first came across this Fraternity in 2012 and 2013, when MTV aired The Debater and two schools, one of which was Ananda, were pitted against each other at the Finals. Some of the faces which emerged at that competition, during those last few episodes, would make names for themselves over the years. Back then, naturally, I was piqued by the campaigns the Anandians were conducting, online and on paper. To say the least, I was impressed. Their level of commitment was unmatched, even by the school it was pitted against, which happened to be mine. That’s why I wasn’t surprised that we lost, and they won. What I didn’t know until a couple of weeks back was that 2012 and 2013 had been definitive years for these boys.

How they were, at least to me, is as important as where they are. To this end I met more than 15 members of its 30-40-plus team, on a dreary Friday evening.

The Fraternity consists of three sharply defined teams: A, B, C, and Novice. The A Team is housed by younger boys, the youngest of whom at the interview was a 13-year-old. Because of their age, and because they have to contend against elders and seniors, all they have and will need are wits, which I noticed in plenty among them. The B Team, in comparison, has older players (even from Grade 13), while the C Team consists of Ordinary Level students. The Novice Team, as the name obviously implies, is housed by those who haven’t gotten through tournaments, or in debating parlance those who haven’t “broken”.

One of the more inscrutable and hard to possess qualities for a debater is the capacity to suspend or abandon his or her beliefs. Seth Ganepola, who’s presently in Grade 12 and in the B Team, told me as much: “Debating ‘well’ means getting out those notions you have about particular topics. I may be personally opposed to smoking, but I need to dispel those opinions if I am to stand up for whatever motion I’m given. And it actually helps you to look at the other side. Take smoking. Most people believe that it’s damaging, harmful, and basically bad. But once you stand up for the other side, so to speak, you understand that inasmuch as they are paved with good intentions, the very many rules, regulations, and taxes against smoking can also distort, even harm.”

Seth has an interesting portfolio, by the way: having debated at every Law Faculty Championship since Grade Nine, he is also involved with his school’s Broadcasting Unit, English Literary Unit, and Model United Nations, and was involved for a while with English Drama.

In fact nearly everyone I met that evening are engaged with other Clubs and Societies, for the most revolving around rhetoric (the MUN and the Broadcasting Unit), language (the ELU), and performance (the Drama Society). Which brings me to another important point: the ability of all these young debaters to think beyond their age. This in turn raises two more points: the way they are nurtured, and the way they “graduate” with respect to their other interests.

The first of these is easier to delve into. Apparently, and for the most, interested candidates at Ananda are free to walk into the Club and check for themselves whether they have what it takes to talk, pontificate, and convince. “We give these candidates 10 minutes to speak about themselves,” Chanidu from the A Team told me. “As for me, I was, to say the least, quite nervous,” he explained, adding with a grin, “I was entered into various practice sessions. One thing led to another. Naturally enough.”

Each debater has his own story, a given since no two debaters even from the same Society are the same. The range of interests these young talkers and thinkers indulge in is therefore varied, diverse: Chanidu himself likes Maths, English, and Science (he’s in Grade Eight), many others prefer Maths, and Rithmaka Karunadhara, from the C Team, prefers drama to almost everything else, which unearths a special point: at Ananda, many debaters find their way into drama circles, while in other schools the opposite is true and most dramatists find their way to debating circles.

Interestingly enough this unearths yet another point, again as relevant: at Ananda, what you are interested in isn’t “categorised” as such. You can like Western music and take to it without being pigeonholed into a generalised Music Society, and you can like broadcasting and announcing without being pigeonholed into a generalised Literary Society. Students are allowed to discover themselves, to find out who they are.

Obviously, all this goes back to a particular time during which everything changed, a time which had been preceded by a rather dark past. I asked those I was interviewing to fill me in on the what-was and what-almost-would-have-been, pertinent questions when delving into any group’s evolution, I believe. The reply came from the two most senior boys at the interview, Gihan Samarawickrama and Lithmal Jayawardhana, both of whom pinpointed a particular year as their frame of reference. 2012.

“Frankly speaking, there was no Fraternity in the first place,” Gihan told me, “What differentiates this team from most Clubs and Societies, at Ananda, is our repudiation of a junior/senior rift. Such a rift is harmful and inimical to any Club, any Society. Sadly, it’s that kind of rift which existed during our time. I joined in 2009, so I saw firsthand the trials, the tribulations, and the humiliations our Fraternity had to endure. There was a rampant culture of favouritism. Juniors like us weren’t trained properly. We didn’t go through the proper selection processes. Championships and tournaments hardly mattered. Even if we went, we lost. And then, just like that, at the beginning of 2012, an Old Boy came back. His name was Damitha Karunarathne.”

Damitha had completed his LL.B. at the University of Colombo and was at the time engaged with Law College. He had left Ananda in 2006. A seasoned debater, he had coached the Law Faculty Debating and Mooting Society and this despite the fact that he hadn’t engaged in debating at school. At the time, everything had been a mess.

Gihan continued: “Damitha aiya came in, instituted selection processes, empowered youngsters, and got them to practise late until about 12 or 1. He’d get us dinner, and sit there and get us to debate in front of him. He inaugurated a brotherhood between us, to be honest. Even when we ate, we would invoke that brotherhood by eating together. But of course, he was quite serious about what he was doing. Not only would he make us debate all over again if he didn’t like how we were going, he’d also make it a habit to make us listen to his speeches. Those speeches, motivational and encouraging as they were, were never less than one hour. We had to stand for that whole hour. We hated it intensely, but grew to like him.”

I mentioned 2012 as their frame of reference became a) it was then that Damitha arrived and b) it was the beginning of a new era. Not just new, but also propitious, as evidenced by the many accomplishments they went through soon afterwards: becoming the Novice Champions at the Law Faculty Debates; winning the finals at MTV’s The Debater, with a formidable team (Lithmal, Gihan, Binura Gunasekara, and Oshada Abhayasundara); restarting the longest and largest interschool English Debating Tournament in the country, the N. M. Perera Championship (reinvigorated by the teacher-in-charge, Mrs Eesha Liyanage), in 2013; and of course clinching victory after victory at the Law Faculty Debates (Runners Up in 2014, Semi-Finalists in 2015, and winners in 2016 and 2017) along with the Asian Schools Debating Competition. A reckonable history however short it may be, I should think.

And all that history has paid off. As a final point, another member, Minul Muhandiramge, remembered Damitha for me: “He could figure out what was wrong with us. He could correct us. He didn’t treat us the same way because, obviously, we had different problems. In my case, it was a tendency to speak too fast. Today I’ve gone past that.” He remembered a horde of other names as well: “Mr Gomin Dayasiri; Nishantha de Silva; the present head of the Debaters’ Council of Sri Lanka, Shan Dantanarayana; Harindra Gunaratne; and Vishakha Wijenayake. Most of them are Old Boys, the rest are well-wishers. They helped us get to where we are. It would be unbecoming of us to forget them.” And then he ponders on an ultimate, last point: “Damitha aiya started this tradition whereby Old Boys come back and help their juniors in the Fraternity. It’s a tradition that continues even today, even now.”

There’s a lot to be said for these boys. So much, in fact, that one sketchy article can’t suffice. I’ve come to believe that a group is what its members make of it, a truism that holds true even for school Clubs and Societies. The Debating Fraternity at Ananda clearly abides by this, a point which I won’t be able to comprehensively delve into here. For now, therefore, I’m done. But these boys, young as they are and matured as they are as well, deserve better. They deserve our assessment. Yours and mine.

Photos courtesy of: LetMeKnow.lk and the Debating Fraternity of Ananda College

Written for: The Island YOUth, October 22 2017

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Lithmal Jayawardhana: Charting a performer

He concentrates on the now and the thereafter. His eyes give the impression that he’s looking into you while looking away. With other people his age, there’s a rift between the person and the performance. I’m not entirely sure whether that applies to him.

To start off Lithmal, remember your childhood for me.

I was born in Pita Kotte, which is where I live even today. As a child, my first love was dancing and drawing. I was born into Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, Thriller, and Heal the World. I saw him dance on TV and, though I wouldn’t have taken in what he was saying, I was interested in how he conveyed his feelings through his body. Added to that was a veritable onslaught of Disney cartoons, which got me to draw.

I entered a preschool in Kohuwela, the first student to be enrolled there. The lady who ran that place, whom we affectionately referred to as “Aunty Sue”, got us hooked on to the piano and the organ. They say we are the musical instruments we grow up with, which is why I grew up adoring those two instruments. I would certainly say these first impressions were vital to my later career, especially since it was under Aunty Sue that I got rid of my stage fright and began to sang and talk.

So how were things in school?

Ananda College was different. It had to be. I quickly fell under the influence of my first real teacher in the arts, Vidyarathna Fernando, who taught dancing and was very much conversant with the pahatha rata tradition. Vidyarathna sir knew almost all forms of dancing, because at the end of the day, whatever culture it’s derived from, it’s about conveying what you feel through your body. I continued for two years. I would have been about nine or 10 at the time, in Grade Four. This was followed by Pipena Kakula, a little like, but more, much more, than a talent show, organised to uncover what students that age were good at.

It all began with a teacher called Mrs Dulcie Fernando. I believe she later wound up as the headmistress of the primary section, though I’m not really sure. Pipena Kakula had no criteria to fulfil, no prior experience to list out if you wanted to enter. Back then teachers knew parents and parents knew what the teachers thought about their children. It so happened that Mrs Fernando asked my mother to enrol me. She obliged. One thing led to another, and I found myself among four students who were being trained to announce. At the time I thought Pipena Kakula was trying to get us to try out different activities. Looking back, however, I realise now that it was actually getting us to concentrate on what we excelled at.

Did you continue with your love for talking and performing after that?

Frankly, no. There is a blank chapter in my life from Grade Six to Grade Nine. Apart from picking up the guitar and the violin, the latter less so, I let go of my love for the performing arts in favour of a stable routine: going to school, coming back home, studying, watching Scooby-Doo, chilling out.

I knew something had to give, and it did. That something was debating. I wasn’t even in the Debating Society at the time, back in Grade 10. I was dragged to it, supposedly to fill in a quota for an upcoming series of tournaments. I was first asked to speak for three minutes on any topic I wanted. Then I was given a topic to speak on for two minutes. My first real encounter thereafter was with the Sri Lanka Schools Debating Championship, organised by the Faculty of Law at the University of Colombo. To say the least, it opened my eyes. Even more so when the same people who took me to debating dragged me to another activity I fell in love with: drama.

Obviously, drama is a different kettle of fish altogether. How did you fare there?

The first play as such to feature me was the Ananda College Drama Circle submission to the Inter-School Shakespeare Drama Competition in 2010, Macbeth. I was taken in as a messenger there. The following year, I took part in the Circle’s production of The Tempest, again submitted to the Competition. I was Ariel there. Thanks to these stints, I found myself returning to those pursuits I had abandoned. After my O Levels in 2012, I studied hip-hop dancing under Natasha Jayasuriya at the Deanna School of Dance, for about two years. In 2014 I studied ballroom and Latin dancing under Kevin Nugera for about six months.

How did you continue with debating thereafter? And theatre?

Since 2011, I have been involved with tournaments here and abroad. That year, I went through my school to two of them: the Sri Lanka Schools Debating Championship and the World Schools Debating Championship, the latter in Dundee, Scotland. In 2012 I captained the College “A Team” which went to Ipoh, Malaysia for the Asian Schools Debating Championship, the same competition I went to in 2013 in the Philippines and last year, as the Coach, in Kuala Lampur.

As for my other lives, I would say that both drama and debating got me into announcing, which I’d mildly touched on at school. In October 2014 a prominent radio station hired me, firstly as a show host and eventually as a news presenter. It was certainly exciting, not least because it was an entirely different experience. The same thing goes for theatre: except for professionally directing my own play, I have been involved with almost every aspect to a production, from backstage to scripting. Acting, however, remains my favourite pastime, because I love to be in the spotlight, though never to the extent of hankering after it. That is what I consider to be my signature, and at the end of the day, that is what defines me.

Written for: ESTEEM Magazine, September

Friday, October 20, 2017

The 'expatriation' of our culture

The rift between exoticising a culture – thereby turning it into an object of study and assessment – and expatriating it – thereby looting and destroying its artefacts, its cultural relevance – is actually a fiction. There’s no rift, in other words, and if there is, it’s largely fictional, and like all fictions is maintained to promote the kind of superficial gloss that Orientalism has thrived on: a separation of the material from the ideological in the West’s dealings with the East. What is there in the robbery of the Koh-i-Noor that bears any resemblance to the destruction of the temple and the kovil? The assumption, sustained mischievously by Western scholars and intellectuals, that the East was there only to be objectified, studied, and validated as inferior, ignorant, and immaterial. Back in the day the colonial project armed itself with religious tracts on the one hand and the sword on the other; now we have substituted that magic, otherworldly phenomenon called “globalisation” for those tracts.

If there’s to be any meaningful attempt at globalisation there must be an exchange, as such, in the realms of culture and politics, which are, as I pointed out last week, interconnected. But we have been content with a globalisation that promotes affluence and materialism on the one hand and poverty and exploitation on the other. We advertise poverty to invite materialism, which as Professor Nalin de Silva rightly has noted depends on a largely Judeo-Christian frame of (two-valued) logic. Either it is, or it is not. Such a frame of logic can be squared with a dualistic conception of the world as it is and is not. The West has taken upon itself the role of defining what that world is, and should be, and what it is not, and should not be. Not hard to figure out who’s behind what in this sorry state of affairs we refer to as modernity.

That essay of Henry Kissinger which I referred to last week (“Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy”) manifestly reflects all these points. Kissinger, who among other things is a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and a diplomat who introduced the realpolitik of 19th century Europe to 20th century America, speaks for his clique when he writes that the East never went beyond the Newtonian phase of history. What he means there is that the West is materialist, that it believes in an external reality independent of the senses, and that the East believes in “internalising” its surroundings. Edward Said alludes in his book to another essay, one by a renowned psychiatrist (Harold Glidden) and written in 1972, which extrapolates and contends that the Arab culture as such was based on a “client-patron” relationship that in turn promotes subservience and dominance. The dichotomy is clear: the West is domineering, destined to conquer; the East is doomed to serve, to be conquered. The one will win; the other shall lose.

Perhaps some points need to be made here. Perhaps we need to be reminded that when European doctors and students were actively banned from dissecting bodies, the so-called ignorant Arabs had discovered cures for several diseases. Perhaps we need to note that the Renaissance, which preceded the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Enlightenment, involved actively the confusion and congruence of both the West and the East, and that a key painting from this period, Raphael’s The School of Athens, depicts Averroes and Zoroaster alongside Aristotle and Euclid. Perhaps we need to remember that the humanistic values which survived the Inquisition, and which were reinvigorated during the Renaissance, could not survive the Reformation and the Enlightenment, which respectively promoted religious and secular values against the East, by now again demarcated as ignorant and ignoble.

Perhaps we also need to remember the role that popular culture has played in propagating these dualisms, mischievous and unnecessary as they are and always were. Kipling’s India was not Forster’s India, Emerson Tennent’s Ceylon was not Woolf’s Ceylon. The shift from the one to other was the shift from a conservative to a liberal. Kipling has been denoted as a rightwing neo-fascist (regardless of his detractors and followers those epithets have followed him beyond the grave), but his depictions of Indian life were so accurate, if not romanticised, as to have come from an actual Indian. The same could have been said of Tennent, whose two-volume account of Ceylon is a testament to the coloniser’s interest in knowing the East more than the typical Westerner and even Easterner. Orient and Occident met, for a brief, intermittent period, with the bureaucrat and the artist; when the artist turned liberal, as Forster and Woolf did, there was a critique not just of the colonial system, but how that system spawned its own horde of brown sahibs, Mudliyars, and Muhandirams.

I noted in my article on liberalism that the White American Liberal has always sought to define the Negro on his terms, and not the Negro’s. The liberal does this by idealising a perfect variant of the former slave, which is how Stanley Kramer turned Sidney Poitier into John Prentice (from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). But these were, while condescending, not really unflattering portraits of the Other. Such unflattering if not racist depictions of the Other came about when writers, poets, and filmmakers looked to the East as a means of vindicating their part of the world. It takes an entire film starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks Jr for a contorted, black-faced Indian played by a Jewish American to earn the line, “You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.” The Indian is better than the Englishman because he serves that Englishman. He serves the Englishman by being a stupid, incompetent, and downright simplistic man. In Gunga Din that Indian can’t even march straight: his shoulders are always bent, his eyes always bulging too much. He can’t be a better soldier, and among soldiers he can only be a better man to join their ranks.

Popular culture, as I’ve observed many times in this column, is ambivalent, unclear, at times mischievously inaccurate. “The movie industry is always frightened, and is always proudest of films that celebrate courage,” Pauline Kael once wrote, and what she wrote can be taken as an indication that the popular culture we inhabit is strewn with stereotypes and mythical depictions of the Other which, while made to gain sympathy for those being depicted, actually sustains the interests of the intellectuals and academics that Edward Said attacked in his monumental book on Orientalism. Remember Mickey Rooney as Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Rooney as Flip, the minstrel-show Negro-like toad, from Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland? Well, those depictions were ostentatiously innocent, unintended. But nothing is ever unintended. No one is ever innocent. It’s more complex than that.

What do all these lead us to? The final journey from exoticising a culture to expatriating it, naturally. To be sure, not every mode of expatriation can be considered negative, regressive, harmful – think of Maurice Jarre’s beautiful score for David Lean’s A Passage to India, or Ravi Shankar’s attempts at Western melodies and instruments, or closer to home, Premasiri Khemadasa’s act of bringing the opera and the symphony to Sri Lanka – and obviously much of what is exchanged in cultural terms is to be welcomed as positive.

But just as fictitious as the supposed rift between the cultural and the political (and this rift, I myself subscribed to until recently) is the rift between assessing a culture and destroying it. The one uses religious tracts, or secular science; the latter uses weapons. “Sextus, you ask how to fight an idea. Well I'll tell you how: with another idea,” Messalah declares in Ben-Hur. The clash of ideas being roughly equivalent to the clash of civilisations (as per Huntington), we can hence conclude that cultural exploitation is no different to political exploitation, in terms of their ability to alienate and uproot a way of life.

In the end nothing is ever innocent. Kissinger may argue about how our part of the world is still stuck in the pre-Newtonian phase of human history, and Glidden may contend that we Easterners can only succumb, yield, and be psychologically dominated. But consider the extrapolation this leads us to: as Kissinger notifies us quite honestly and candidly, the dichotomy between the Orient and the Occident requires that the West construct an international order “before a crisis imposes it as a necessity.” In still other words, before hell breaks loose in this part of the world, it’s best that the West intervenes, meddling in our state of affairs if necessary, resorts to whatever method to cleanse us of our sins, and then leaves.

It doesn’t get any more innocent than that, folks. Today, tomorrow, or the day after.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Ravindra Randeniya: Reflections on a frown

What makes Ravindra Randeniya stand out, what makes him, at the end of the day, Ravindra Randeniya, is his contemplative frown. You see that frown creep up everywhere, in almost every picture he’s in. It turns him, in varying degrees, into a meticulous detective, a pained lover, a mistrustful husband, even a compulsive womaniser. The reason why he embodies all these characters, and their qualities, is because he’s so versatile; not the way Joe Abeywickrama or Tony Ranasinghe were, but in a less empathetic way. He is the only actor from here I can think of who can frown in both a commercial and a serious movie, make us think that he's serious even when he's not, and get away with it.

Randeniya is at his best, and his least empathetic, when he conceals his intentions with that frown. He is the great concealer, and is in fact so good at this role that nearly every other role is a variation of it. Not until the end of Duhulu Malak, the first real film he was in after supporting roles in a series of at best preparatory pictures, do we realise he is no more, and no less, than an irresponsible, prodigal playboy. We think he’s such an unlikeable womaniser but he’s not. (At the very end he throws his shoe, in frustration, to the sea, and in that act he is both resentful and upbeat about the fact that he’s lost his woman.) What conceals those intentions is his sense of debonair grace, which is so debonair that he can hide the vilest intentions of his characters with his charm.

That explains why Maya, Dadayama, Sagara Jalaya, and Anantha Rathriya work so well when he’s around: he’s so good at talking, at faking, but we believe him along with the (for the most) female protagonists, who in all these movies happened to be Swarna Mallawarachchi. When Rathmali from Dadayama has her illusions about the man who impregnated her twice and left her shattered, she threatens him and writes him a letter; when they meet the next time, he is flippantly ominous about her missive: “Who are you to post letters ordering me? Who are you to boss me around?” In the sequences that preceded this encounter, however, he is so charming, so apologetic about what he’s done to this woman, that both Rathmali and the audience know that she has every right to be intimidating towards him: because of his debonair grace he’s become a part of her, and all those dreams of hers about him derive from that quality of his.

Because he can be two people at the same time – sometimes for the better (as with Chuda Manikye, Siripala saha Ranmenika, and, to a certain extent, Sagara Jalaya), and often for the worst (Dadayama, Bhava Duka and Bhava Karma, and Roy de Silva’s Sudu Piruvata) – people choose to believe in the latter, which more or less indicates that we’re cynical enough to be swayed by villains. But Randeniya is not only a villain, though he was so typecast that he was thought fit to play no one else. In Vijaya Dharma Sri’s Aradana, which was almost a Dadayama turned the other way around, yielding a happy resolution and ending, he goes after the woman he befriended (Malini Fonseka) to reclaim her. There’s a Ravindra Randeniya that exists beyond that too.

He was born Boniface Perera in Dalugama, Kelaniya on June 5, 1945 to a successful mudalali family. A self-made businessman, his father initially put him into St Francis’s School, run by the Dalugama Church. Two years later, he was admitted to St Benedict’s College, Kotahena. This is where he was initiated into his first love: literature. His tastes at the time – Martin Wickramasinghe with Gorky, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov – wildly diverged from those of his classmates, who preferred easier-to-digest pulp fiction from that era and teased him for his own preferences. It was a largely vernacular backdrop which greeted him at St Benedict’s, despite the fact that it was, all in all, a missionary school. “There was only one period for English,” he remembered, “During other periods, we talked in Sinhala. We had Tamil and Burgher and Muslim friends. Race and religion didn’t matter. Not to us.”

What he read, he remembered, had for some time turned him into a leftist: “Everyone’s a socialist at 20!” was how he reflected on it for me. Surprisingly though, none of these encounters got him to act. Apart from a Fifth Standard production of Sigiri Kashyapa, in which he was Kashyapa, he never acted at all. His first real initiation into his profession would therefore come from an outsider: Dhamma Jagoda, who with Sugathapala de Silva was openly spurning Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s stylised conception of the theatre. One thing led to another, and soon enough, he was studying at the Lionel Wendt Theatre Workshop, which Jagoda had founded after returning to Sri Lanka from an American tour. “He brought Method Acting to this country, in fact. He had been to the Actors’ Studio, he had met Strasberg, he had seen Brando.”

Jagoda had taken it upon himself to preach Strasberg’s gospel in the country, and Randeniya had obviously come under his influence. He had not, however, entered the Workshop to study acting at all, rather screenwriting, directing, stage decor. “Somehow or the other, I found myself in an acting class. I had by this time been drawn to the whole idea of becoming a performer, instead of remaining backstage. That was also a common class: whether or not you had chosen the subject, you had to attend it for at least one or two hours.” The course lasted for two years, and Randeniya found himself being dragged into various roles and performances. His first production as such had been Gunasena Galappaththy’s Muhudu Puththu, controversial for its time owing to its depiction of adultery, but a culmination to everything he had learnt.

Dhamma Jagoda
Muhudu Puththu had been a success; among those who thronged that night at the Wendt was the filmmaker and the iconoclast, Manik Sandrasagara, who after congratulating Randeniya’s performance insisted on taking him to his first movie, Kalu Diya Dahara (1970). Kalu Diya Dahara was another success; having watched it and been impressed by his portrayal of an estate labourer, another filmmaker came around, congratulated him, and took him aboard his next film. The director was Lester James Peries, and the film, released two years later and lukewarmly received, was Desa Nisa. No two directors could have been more different. Randeniya himself was warm about both: “Manik had a way of asserting himself. Dr Peries never asserts himself. In fact you never feel that he’s there overseeing you.” In Desa Nisa he was a morally ambiguous hermit, able to restore sight or stunt it at his will. It was followed by Duhulu Malak (1976), another hit.

None of these movies really “awakened” the thespian in him. That would come a year later, in 1977, with Amaranath Jayatilake’s Siripala saha Ranmenika, where he starred for the first time opposite Malini Fonseka and which took him back to a role which would creep up in the years to come: Samson, the Sinhalised version of Stanley Kowalski, from Ves Muhunu, Dhamma Jagoda’s adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. “To become Siripala I had to become bestial, almost inhumane. It was the same story with Samson.” When we were young we were horrified when Kowalski (Samson, by the way, had first been portrayed by Jagoda himself, in 1963) jeers at Blanche DuBois; when we grew up, we realised that it was his way of asserting the truth, that Blanche was, in fact, a pretender, and that her gentility never rubbed off on an animalistic brute like him. It was that kind of animalistic brute, who never cares for affection and never even once feels sorry for anyone – he doesn’t even care for himself – which is embodied in his subsequent, villainous performances. That they are among the best of their kind indicated that he had found his signature.

There were of course other characters, other films: as Moggallana in The God King (1975); as a modern-day Rama in Sita Devi (1978); as the hero in Weera Puran Appu (1979); as the brother-in-law of Swarna Mallawarachchi in Sagara Jalaya (1988); as the troubled protagonist in Anantha Rathriya (1996), as the nouveau riche mudalali Lionel in Wekanda Walawwa (2005). In the first three movies he’s a beleaguered hero, and in the latter three he’s a beleaguered antihero. In Weera Puran Appu, which was made as an epic that dwelt on sharply and clearly defined heroes and villains, he was clear, concise, direct.

What makes up his sense of indirectness, obliqueness, is that we are never entirely sure as to whether he’s going to stick to his word: he’s a talker, a consoler, but also a concealer. With one set of characters he’s a different man. (You see this in Dadayama, where to his fiancée, played by Shirani Kaushalya, he is the perfect lover; he is anything but to the woman he impregnates, who demands that he suffer for what he’s done to her.) It’s a call for condemnation, and his Priyankara Jayanath is so despicable that Regi Siriwardena, in an otherwise laudatory review, called him “a solid, if less complex, character portrayal.” That was who his villains were, at the end of the day: solid, despicable, hateful, and one-dimensional. What made them all stand out, as I observed before, was that deceptively contemplative frown.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 19 2017

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Almost home: Why we aren’t quite there

The third and last in a series of articles delving into our local theatre.

Because of certain fortuitous and unfortunate circumstances, those who want to engage in our local theatre are hindered from pursuing it once school is over. This is true in particular for regions and districts and provinces which privilege hard subjects over softer ones, i.e. science and commerce over the arts. It’s significant to note, for instance, that in Colombo, Kandy, and Galle the ratios of commerce and science students to arts students have always been above 2, while those ratios in Moneragala (which has consistently recorded the highest Gini coefficient at 0.53) has always been below 0.6. Let’s face it: numbers don’t lie, even if they indicate a relationship between social status and choice of University subjects which we are at times told doesn’t exist. In Colombo especially, this relationship is profound, potent, unassailable.

The English theatre is more fortunate because its members, or coterie as I like to identify them, are socially insured against poverty when they opt for the stage. Especially when it comes to the themes they opt for – musical comedies, satires and farces, socially relevant dramas – they always have veritable reserves of actors, producers, and writers who pursue other careers while pursuing the stage. No one is a full time producer in this country, except those who’ve been active for more than 20 or 30 years (think of Jith Pieris and Jerome de Silva). But they are insured against an unstable industry because that coterie which patronises them are always there, particularly if it’s a musical comedy or light-hearted farce. The problems of the Sinhala theatre are more complex, more intriguing. Here’s an attempt at a sketch.

It’s fashionable now and then to indict an art form as practiced by a certain milieu, in formerly colonial societies, as being elitist. The conventional discourse here, then, is that the English theatre, as practiced by the Wendites, is cut off from the people, while the Sinhala theatre panders to the people. If this were indeed true, it’s inscrutable that the latter must be ailed with a dearth of dedicated, energetic schoolboys and schoolgirls who wish to pursue it after they leave school, like their counterparts in the English theatre. Obviously it’s not a problem of numbers, but rather a problem of a dichotomy between numerical strength and lack of unity. The typical English Drama Society of a typical school, particularly in the Big Cities, is different from its Sinhala counterpart because there are fewer people in the former. Consequently, there’s a broader sense of unity, of togetherness, which big numbers can’t replicate.

More often than not there’s a symbiotic relationship between certain Clubs and Societies and the monetary power of the English theatre. These Societies are entrenched financially, and their members are often found in other Clubs which are as financially sound. All that goes back to the English Drama Societies, which are partly funded, by these other Clubs, and which are housed by members and participants who come from backgrounds that are amenable to the theatre. It’s a circle that never stops going round and round, in one sense, and it explains at least to an extent the potency of the English theatre, at school and elsewhere, and why Drama Societies are able to stage their productions for the public if those productions happen to be in English. (One can think of Around the World in Eighty Days, Dracula, and Kensuke’s Kingdom, all of which were produced through these Societies.)

Let’s look at the numbers again. An average production would normally cost anywhere between 500,000 to 1.5 million rupees, and that’s just for one or two shows. Numbers are inescapable and so are big budgets, particularly in these hard, harsh times, and they necessitate sponsors. Unfortunately even institutions which patronise and sponsor the arts, and concerts and shows and so on, think twice about financing Sinhala productions, be it a drama or even a felicitation ceremony, because they fear they won’t get a proper audience. That’s the kind of fear they think they can evade through English productions; this is true of musical comedies but true also of any school production that involves huge casts, marketable plots, and the Lionel Wendt. I find the latter alluring too, so that may explain why sponsors are easier to get for them. (And as if to add insult to injury the sponsors admit this point candidly; just the other day a boy told me that he had approached one of them for an exhibition of the evolution of the Sinhala theatre and had been informed that they prefer to sponsor events organised for English-speaking audiences.)

These reasons in themselves are not, of course, enough to explain why our schoolchildren leave our theatre rather quickly. There’s another reason: in the Big Cities, most if not many of those who join Drama Societies (Sinhala) tend to come from streams and to study subjects which are not immediately connected with the theatre. It’s pertinent to note that we are duplicitous when it comes to the arts: we want to adorn our houses with paintings and music but don’t want our children to be painters and musicians. Similarly, when we opt for harder subjects – Science, Maths, Commerce – and when we join a Society, what we do after school, or whether we continue with the activities these Societies engaged in, depends on what those subjects by default ordain as our careers. The lucky ones, even if they do these hard subjects, resolve and manage to be “freelance” artists and writers. But they are rare.

And because they study hard subjects, how they get into these Societies is as arbitrary as how they get out of them: more often than not, all it takes for them to be scriptwriters and actors (the latter more than the former) is a chance encounter with an official or a teacher who discerns his or her penchant for the arts (because the arts, unlike science and commerce, is rather instinctive; you don’t study it, you GET it) and then takes him or her in. Such chance encounters aren’t as rare as you’d think they are, and they explain how the members of Drama Societies get in (whatever the language), but because of how condescended the Sinhala theatre is, it’s not considered a safe, veritable, worthwhile option even as a hobby once school is done with. Contrast that with how members of the English Societies come back.

We are living in a world of freelancers and one hit wonders. Our movies, which were once housed by thespians, have now partially abandoned the theatre and, like the advertising industry, begun to take in models, some of whom have no real idea about the intricacies of acting. This is not to imply that our models are unintelligent. They are not. But for the most they come with a background in photography (because the model was built to be photographed, if not filmed for a matter of seconds or minutes); the level of commitment needed for a 30-second commercial is different to the level required for a 90-minute film. Sometimes these models make the transition sleekly (think of Rithika Kodithuwakku), but in these cases they understand the medium.

What we lack isn’t just a network of practitioners and performers, but something more: a mechanism to encourage more practitioners and performers from our schools, particularly in the Big Cities. This is important because in those Big Cities the rift between those who go for hard subjects and those who opt for softer subjects has never been wider before. Such a rift can only negatively impact those who wish to indulge in a form of theatre that is at once quantitatively superior and frequently condescended. The Sinhala theatre is suffering at present, not for want of good performers and writers, but because of that accursed tendency of our schoolboys and schoolgirls to drop out once they’re done with their studies, owing to reasons I’ve sketched above. And this affects drama more than any other medium, since the theatre is one of the most expensive art forms. Debaters, novelists, and poets, in whatever language, can follow what they do even if they don’t pursue it as their careers (a debater can be a doctor, an engineer, or a scientist, for instance), while a dramatist has to expend effort on his or her work, and turn it at least into a part-time commitment.

What these reflections bring me to is a simple, potent, unassailable fact: we are haphazard, random, chaotic, and uncommitted when it comes to our local theatre. Particularly in our schools. It’s fatally easy and convenient to pinpoint certain facts and figures as the reasons for this malaise, but the truth, as always, is more diverse and multifaceted than that. In the end it’s all to do with that crude, inscrutable mixture of reverence and condescension with which we treat our own art forms.

Perhaps the irony is that we are more willing to exhibit Pirandello and Beckett and Shaw in English than in Sinhala, despite the many creative ways in which these playwrights and their works have been adapted and reworked by our producers and actors. We prefer spectacle to subtlety, and in the English theatre, within or outside our schools, we are explicit about our excitement. And let’s face it: numbers may not lie, and big numbers may be alluring, but the more people there are on a boat, the more likely it is that they will bicker, fight amongst themselves, and fall into the water. In a manner of speaking, no matter how inapt that metaphor may be, this is what’s happening to our local theatre. Inside and outside our schools.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 17 2017