Thursday, November 30, 2017

Looking back fondly: 'Ho Gana Pokuna'

The ideology that pervades our movies is an ideology of commitment – secular, cosmopolitan, sometimes contrived, rarely felt – and they tend to constrict your vision. There’s an intense desire on the part of their directors to talk about social problems, to let us know that there are people out there who are suffering in want. It makes us want to cower before their vision, full of intentions but also full of a rift between those intentions and their production values. We want to do away with that rift, but the moment we try to we are lambasted as being escapist, fantasists, and tellers of fairy-tales. How can one be committed without resorting to explicit ideologies? It’s a tough call, but by extraordinary resolve some of our moviemakers have proved that one can be politically inclined without making his or her work a vassal to ideas. We already have a cinema of ideas. Now we want a cinema of life.

I saw Ho Gana Pokuna for the first time two years ago, in October, at the Savoy. The excitement on the faces of the child actors who were there, now grown up, was hard to ignore, and kept me expecting a great deal from it. I didn’t know the story behind it, nor of its cast and crew. All I knew was that Indika Ferdinando, whose play The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno I saw before, had directed it. Depressed somewhat at the hardened, dichotomised world that directors his age tended to depict in film after film (awfully sincere, sincerely awful) I was, naturally enough I suppose, unconvinced of this one’s prospects. I sat down, therefore, with a sense of tepid anticipation.

Two hours later I got up forgetting I’d ever harboured such feelings. Ho Gana Pokuna then became, for me, the most exciting Sinhala film I’d seen in the last three years.

In Sri Lanka the gap between children’s movies and movies featuring children has blurred so much that no one cares to make this distinction anymore. This is to be expected in any film industry where neither the critics nor the general public are selective in their preferences (the public just want to be entertained, the critics just want to be provoked). The fact that it’s normal and to be expected, however, doesn’t mean that it’s not deplorable: our filmmakers use our children to spout out convenient posters and labels that belong to the political so much that those children become no more than instruments, messengers. Ho Gana Pokuna doesn’t resort to this device. It teaches us just how imaginative our directors could be if they didn’t use their subject-matter to depict their adulterated imaginings of them.

Writing to the Sunday Observer a few weeks after its release, Dilshan Boange contended that Indika’s left-of-centre political sympathies showed, somewhat discernibly, in the film. This is true. But the intrusion of the political in Ho Gana Pokuna is mercifully short: all we have is a bunch of NGO officials gifting an expensive but useless piano to the school as part of a project. The piano isn’t used; the children are instead taught by their rather irate principal (Lucien Bulathsinhala), who is also their only teacher, to fear it. It’s an object of ridicule which only the idealistic teacher, Miss Uma (Anasuya Subasinghe), resuscitates, which is why whatever political inclinations there are in the film come out through her. She is the political centre, and the periphery, of the narrative, since she represents the affirmation of ideology as well as the rejection of the labels that ideologues tend to harbour.

This is a novel message for a Sinhala movie. Elsewhere filmmakers have been telling us that we need to be more open, more proactive, and to shout and protest with labels and dichotomies that never work out in reality. What Ho Gana Pokuna lacks is explicit political force: even at its most forceful moments (as when Wasantha Muhandiram as the headman-like grama sevaka niladhari refuses to let the children and the teacher use the bus for their trip) Indika pulls back, not because he’s fearful but because he knows the experience he’s pasted over his film is too magical to face such moments. Even the verbal encounters between Miss Uma and the principal, when they decide (the former willingly, the latter begrudgingly) to inaugurate an Assembly outside the school for the students, are short (the principal’s contention is that by democratising the institution the children will grow up to rebel against becoming the farmers that their fathers are): we see them debate, her cheerful, him scornful, but there it ends.

The “committed critic” may well see in this a complete rejection of the political, a convenient erasure of reality by a saccharine-coated view of life, but this rakes up the question as to what the intentions of the artist should be. Our “committed directors” don’t lack courage. They have enough and more of it and they are brave. But the fatal contradiction at the heart of their conception of the cinema is their inability to resonate with popular audiences. If we have not gone beyond the eighties and the nineties (which nurtured Dharmasena Pathiraja and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, the twin peaks of our political cultural sphere before Asoka Handagama entered the field) it’s because our film industry has bifurcated between the critics who conflate ideological profundity with aesthetic merit, the same conflation that our writers in the Sinhala theatre sustain, and the audiences who wish to see something richer in our halls. Compared with the fat politician played by Saumya Liyanage in Vidu, for instance, how much more believable are the villagers in Ho Gana Pokuna! The tragedy is that complexity is often taken as a sign of the uncommitted. The even bigger tragedy is that it is the lack of such complexity, through the one-dimensionality those other movies reflect, which we are supposed to watch and, what’s worse, enjoy.

It’s a view that certainly merits a second glance but it’s not the only view there is. The cinema thrives on plurality. Singleness, whether of intention or motive, isn’t usually very helpful, and eventually saps a film industry of its ability to fascinate. The recent spate of local films that can’t be categorised under that convenient artistic-commercialist divide our critics make is, I think, not a coincidence in that respect: from Ho Gana Pokuna right down to Adaraneeya Kathawak and Premaya Nam, there is an emotional resonance in them which easily wins audiences in a way that forced, unfelt political pamphlets and treatises cannot. No industry can flourish for long with practitioners who reject its commercial base, just as no industry can thrive with those who make money its only motive. Ho Gana Pokuna tells us, in its own special way, that there’s really no need to be a slave to those other movies. We are tired of the vision they spout because we know that the only alternative to them are the vigilante escapist flicks that our popular directors churn out, from Ranja to Wada Bari Tarzan.

Miss Uma, a transposed Julie Andrews/Maria von Trapp, and her children dominate the script because no one is a hero or villain in the village they inhabit: everyone cowers before them, wilfully. Whatever problems she and they face – whether in the form of the principal, the grama niladhari, or Justin, the bus driver who lacks a license – congeal gradually into their own solutions. In a way that lacks complexity, but when considering the alternatives – having her as a political ideologue or meandering to a set of happy-go-luck musical numbers – it’s more alive, more open, more textured. In contrast to many of those politically motivated films which are constricted, literally and metaphorically (many of them take place in tightly enclosed spaces, against a middle class milieu) Indika’s film hence has room to breathe, to move forward. You can’t blame people for becoming alert and alive to this kind of cinema because they want a work of art to keep them alert and alive. The political directors work from the premise that life is banal, following a depersonalised routine. (Handagama, in Age Asa Aga, has the husband, wife, and daughter follow the same setup every evening, again and again, to the point of tedium.)

Even as apolitical a director as Somaratne Dissanayake, in Siri Parakum, resorts to this banality, with entire sequences being repeated as if we didn’t get them the first time. What’s so interesting in the end about Ho Gana Pokuna is that it wilfully, delightfully does away with such tedium. There’s nothing really consistent in the plot. The children, along with their elders, always rake up something new for us; they even tide over an unlikely twist towards the end when Justin, the bus driver they all toiled and taught so as to procure a license, gets so carried away and drinks in exhilaration that he can’t drive the children to the beach.

At the movies we are repeatedly, though inadvertently, made aware that what we are seeing in front of us is a falsification of reality. Some directors get away with it, others don’t. When filmmakers embrace the political passionately, ambitiously, zealously, many of them, particularly the more recent ones, tend to sacrifice the real for the verbal. They will spell out each sequence elaborately for the audience hoping that the audience will agree with their outlook. Repetition of sequences, slipshod camera movements, jerky editing: these are the hallmarks of the political director, and he resorts to them as frequently as the commercial artist resorts to the needs of his clients by polishing up his output. Indika Ferdinando’s previous work, even as open-textured a play as Signno, bears out a political impulse. But in Ho Gana Pokuna, which as I mentioned at the beginning may well be the most exciting Sinhala film released in the last three years, the audiences are alive to what they are seeing. The movie no longer has to spell out everything to them believing them to be gullible idiots. The ending is, I think, a distillation of the entire plot in this respect: the teacher’s call for action over lofty ideals may well be a statement against the “serious” artist, who in his enthusiasm for ideas over execution prefers to explicate, rather than breathe.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 30 2017

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Malinda Seneviratne: Three poems and a life

Easily one of the most discernible occurences in the last 20 years within our local English literary sphere has been the ascent of Malinda Seneviratne. Before I get to Malinda the poet, whom I am acquainted with only barely, I need to get to Malinda the man, whom I know personally. There are clear connections between the two, so much so that I can’t separate the one from the other. To understand the reasons behind his rise and ascent, I think it best that we go through his biography before delving into his poetry.

Malinda Channa Pieris Seneviratne was born on September 23, 1965 in Colombo to Gamini Seneviratne, a Civil Servant and a poet on his own right who would eventually retire as the Chairman of the Coconut Development Authority, and Indrani Seneviratne, who taught English Literature and Greek and Roman Civilization in various schools, her longest tenure being at Royal College, Colombo. Both of them were English honours graduates from the University of Peradeniya. Malinda was the second in his family, with an elder brother, Arjuna, and a younger sister, Ruwani. They were all born to a culture of connoisseurship and appreciation of the arts. Malinda’s later forays into literature were consequently initiated by his parents, especially his father, who  got him to write a poem when he was 12 revolving around a tune played on the family piano.

He attended Royal College, where he dabbled in Literature and Chess among other activities. Having won all major awards for English literature, he wound up as Prefect and Chess Team Captain, winning the National Championship in 1983. That year he sat for his A Levels, where he offered Mathematics and obtained adequate results to enter the University of Peradeniya. However, he opted to sit for his A Levels in the Arts Stream the following year, where again he secured good enough results to enter University. He entered Peradeniya in 1985 for a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology.

Owing to his exceptional academic performance in his first year, Malinda was selected to an exchange program at Carleton College, Minnesota for a Trimester. During the infamous UNP-JVP bheeshanaya of the eighties Universities were shut down in Sri Lanka. After sitting for both TOEFL and SAT, Malinda got a scholarship to Harvard University in December 1988. As with Peradeniya, he studied Sociology, returning to Sri Lanka two and a half years later towards the end of the bheeshanaya.

Following various stints at politics and teaching, including one as an ELT Teacher at the Medical Faculty of Peradeniya University in 1992, he was hired as an Editor at the Agrarian Research and Training Institute in March 1993 before leaving it the following year. He then resumed his higher studies, when upon a friend’s advice he applied to the University of California’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, got in, applied a year later to Cornell University, and managed to read for a PhD in Development Sociology there. However he never completed his PhD: having left his thesis (titled “Journeying with Honour: In Search of the Vague and Indeterminate”) halfway through, he was instead given a conditional Master’s Degree. As of today, he has not completed it.

His first collection of poetry, “Epistles: 1984-1996”, was published in 1999. He submitted his poetry, in manuscript form, for the Gratiaen Award on six occasions between 2007 and 2013. Five of these collections were shortlisted: Threads” in 2007, “The Underside of Silence” in 2008, “Some texts are made of leaves” in 2011, “Open Words are for Love Letting” in 2012, and “Edges” in 2013, while “Stray Kites on Stringless Days” didn’t make it to the shortlist in 2010. He won the Gratiaen for "Edges", his best anthology by far. Two years earlier, in 2011, he had won the H. A. I. Goonetilaka Award (also with the Gratiaen Trust) for his translation of Simon Navagattegama’s acclaimed Sinhala novel Sansaranyaye Dadayakkara, which he first read at Cornell University and translated, in part, for a class exercise on Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.

I would hazard a guess here and contend that of his literary influences, outside his immediate family that is, Neruda and Navagattegama take a prominent place. Malinda’s interest in Neruda – his subtle, effortless use of imagery in verbal terms – is there in his best poetry, and to me that is what characterises his prose as well. In Neruda you don’t see the technical gimmicks that are so nakedly apparent in, say, e.e. cummings or Ogden Nash; you see instead the displacement of myth and conjecture and convenient fictions (whether conceived on the personal sphere or by officialdom) through the use of understatement. There is never a rift between the personal and the social. They get together in ways that one essay can’t do justice to.

Malinda is at his most characteristic, and I’d like to think his most enduring, when he abandons the social for the personal and embraces the kind of life he has grown up on and grown up to love. His poems on his daughters, for instance, merit particular scrutiny:

I’ve held you both
together and separately
in wakeful hours and while asleep

The cutting of a whole sentence into a set of lines is characteristic of Neruda and Latin American poetry in general, but it’s interesting to note that Malinda, unlike most young poets here who are entranced by Neruda (not unlike their descendants who were entranced by what they erroneously felt to be the essence of Rabindranath Tagore’s work), doesn’t confuse technical gimmickry for mastery of language.

But there’s one issue that bothers me. Critics, in their attempt to get at the man, tend to fault him for resorting to religious imagery in his poems. Some of them have faulted him in front of me. Their argument is as follows: for a poet to be truly universal, he or she must transcend his or her affiliations to a particular collective. In the case of Malinda their allegation is rooted in what they feel to be his desire to belong, his exhilaration at being at one with a faith and an ethnicity. I would like to examine two of his poems in this respect, because I know that the yardstick those critics use is a largely mythical image of an artist as a transcendentalist. (They don’t even want him to affirm humanity; they are content in making him reject his ethno-religious garb.)

The first poem is disarmingly simple: “To a little boy holding (onto) a Buddhist flag over his head.” In 24 lines he draws a link between the flag and the collective it represents. While superficially easy, his attitude towards his own faith comes out strikingly in the last line: “It [the flag] is for holding and breaking son.” The flag is a symbol, at most a quasi-secular symbol. What transcends it is the faith it embodies.

Malinda’s politics has reflected his poetry to a lesser extent than his prose. It’s interesting to note that, not unlike his political essays, he is content in dichotomising between the secular and the mythical whilst remaining respectful of the latter. It’s no coincidence that he refuses to indulge in his faith so much in The Underside of Silence, which is chock-a-block with idealisations of his family and his country. He becomes more confident of indulging in faith and ethnic identity, however, in Open Words are for Love Letting (from which the above poem is taken), and even more so in Edges.

In “Dhamma” he goes a step further: he enters his faith without merely gazing at it.

... words can be clap
and can be clasp
some are lit
and others light
this Vesak
and always.

Again you see a dichotomy, between clap and clasp, between lit and light, congealing to this Vesak and all time. It now seems as though polar opposites are reconcilable through his faith. There is a transcendentalism here that one comes across very rarely in his other poems. It’s almost a new sensibility, but is it enough to counter what his critics are saying? The answer to that question lies in another poem: “Temples”, also included in Edges and manifestly more lengthy, and exploratory, than the above two.

... their altars crumble
for want of flowery word
and clasped hands
in those timeless
rituals of evermore love
grass peeps from stone-edge
listening for footfall
that tripped on word-edge

In that first poem I mentioned, Malinda differentiates between the flag and the collective: the latter in effect overwhelms the former. In the second, “Dhamma”, he draws a dichotomy between the mundane and the supra-mundane that faith trivialises. He has grown more vociferous here: the altars he refers to (which can be from any place of worship, by the way) thrive on an attitude of devotion among their patrons. Patronage, in other words, is constructive, if not essential, to a faith and a collective. He has let go of any transcendentalist tendencies, and embraced a more frank and sincere conception of the relationship between the laity and the clergy. What can we say to his critics, then?

That they are correct in their observation, but wrong in their remedy. Poets are not uprooted secularists. They do not abandon their religious fervour, and some of the best poets one can name derived their themes from their faith. The myth of a transcendentalist poet can be shattered when considering that transcendentalism was in effect an offshoot of Orientalism, or the belief that the two main world systems – the West and the East – would come together through universalised conceptions of the faiths adhered to in the latter (Buddhism, Taoism, the Upanishads). It evolved from the essays of Thoreau and had its finest hour in the poetry of Whitman. The humanism in their works was largely derivative and decorative, which means that they had to give way once they moved on to the 20th century. To consider that humanism a sign of a poet’s ability to abandon faith and collective is erroneous, because they were informed less by the secular than by the supra-mundane. Malinda is no transcendentalist, but nor is he the obsessive religious devotee he is touted as, by those who happen to take issue with his politics.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 28 2017

Monday, November 27, 2017

Our children and our cinema


Two months ago, while I was on my way home, I ran into a storm that threatened to turn the city I was in into a merciless, never-ending river. The driver of the van I was in was frustrated, the traffic outside looked interminable, and the rain didn’t stop: it kept on coming back. We took a detour and drove through a shortcut into a road that was, unfortunately, so small that every other driver and vehicle that had decided to drive into it found themselves in a veritable procession of cars, vans, and irate cyclists. We were stuck, helpless, with nothing to do but look at the streams that were opening up and the way everyone in our route had to slow down and patiently, agonisingly, cross them.

The road cut into several lanes, all of them quite small but nevertheless resident to several houses, the occupants of which did not come out. No one would have of course, but then out of the blue I saw someone, umbrella in hand, walk towards us. The storm had calmed down a little, enough for me to discern that this was not an adult, but a schoolboy.

He would have been no more than 12 or 13. He had come out to look at the rain, and he was looking the drivers who were frustrated and the passengers who were bewildered if not irritated. The expression on his face, barely visible though it was, reminded me of the young prodigals from the stories of Saki: amused, excited, yet somehow contained. It’s the kind of sensibility we think children ought not to have, that operates on an inchoate mixture of happiness and indifference. And yet, it was exactly that sensibility which made me forget the rain, my driver, my fellow passengers, and reflect on the kind of movies our directors make for our children today. That schoolboy, incidentally, had by now disappeared, probably to his house. If he reads this essay, let it be known that he might as well have been its co-writer.

In most countries, there is a difference between movies for children and movies about children. In Sri Lanka the confusion between the two has been, for some reason, sustained so much that we can no longer differentiate between them. Nearly half the films we recall watching as children, which we thought were about them and, naturally, about us, weren’t; they were slick exercises in commercialism, because by inserting the kind of stories we like to listen to in them, the directors of those films were able to market them as family pictures. One such picture I saw had an altercation on a bridge between a monk and a “savage” (yes, you know what film I’m talking about here) that ends with the latter throwing his axe out of fear at the other. But this confusion or conflation between two paradigmatically different genres has served to intensity the debate over any picture with children in it. For the truth is that, unfortunately and in both genres, our directors have so far failed to identify the sensibilities and the emotions of their target market.

Our children are, according to these movies, rich, poor; spoilt, brash; naive, honest; fat, thin. They are conceived by our directors as the products and extrapolations of the tropes that operate in our popular cinema. In most cases the rich prodigal is terribly spoilt, so much that he can’t be salvaged: the film either tosses him aside or destroys him. And in three cases out of four or five the poor child will be honest-to-god sincere, naive, adaptable, and heroic. Producers prey on these dichotomies and tropes because they are what got them the rupees at the box-office when they were churning out movies for the masses, the adults. By condensing those tropes, by approximating them to our children, they are on their way to marketing bigger pictures, this time not for adults but for entire families. Let’s face it: who doesn’t like entertainment with kids thrown in, anyway?

The boy I saw that day inculcated the sort of sensibility those producers and their directors purposely leave out when they attempt family entertainment, the sort that displays a casual disregard for rich/poor dichotomies. Such dichotomies are hard to sustain, because while the rich are considered despicable and the poor virtuous it isn’t difficult to ascertain that the rich aren’t always that despicable and the poor aren’t always that virtuous. Privileged children suffer from onscreen apathy: they are forced by our scriptwriters to be sickly, weak, and spoilt, as Heena Hoyana Samanallu makes it obvious. To make these qualities more apparent to us, they are also forced to overact, to be unrealistically brittle when they are rich, endowed, and to be ungodly positive (exceeding even Pollyanna’s standards of optimism) when they are poor, destitute, when the truth may be different. Our children don’t flourish in want, nor do they suffer in wealth. It’s actually the other way around, though our directors don’t want to admit that.

If you survey most of the children’s pictures these directors have made, whether marketed for families or not, you will find the main quality that brings them together is their attitude of condescension towards their (ostensible) subject-matter. Everything is staccato, careful, slow, gradual, yet sloppily edited. The children in question are loud, jerkily depicted and conceived, and the director appears to be cautious or daunted about letting them breathe, or even letting them be themselves. Every burst of emotion that’s compelled from them is spelt out in clear, straightforward terms, perhaps because the cast and crew are afraid of relaxing what I frequently see as a perfectly constrained, and hence lifeless, movie. Somaratne Dissanayake’s early works don’t suffer from this limitation (especially Saroja) but his later works, particularly from Bindu onwards, do. They are less children, in fact, than messengers of their directors and scriptwriters and other adults. No one bothers about them; the truth is no one has to, because it’s a family picture, and these kids have become what the writers want them to be: loud, expressive, and virtually incapable of subtlety. They are anything but, especially in their adolescent years.

A film like Siri Raja Siri works in this sense because, while the script virtually oozes bursts of emotion (always calculated, never spontaneous) from its child actors, we don’t doubt for a moment that these are children: they are loud, but they are young enough to be as brash and naive as they are. It’s a different story with a film like Heena Hoyana Samanallu or Daruwane, which forcefully transposes the childhood “necessity” of being wide-eyed expressive about everything into their child actors, boys or girls.

There’s a sequence in Siri Raja Siri where our hero, Sirimal, and the bully almost get to be on speaking terms with each other in the classroom. We know by this time that Sirimal has been chosen to play the king in an upcoming school production and the antagonist is to play the prisoner (a stark reversal of fortune: the poor will now order the execution of the rich prodigal, onstage); we know the antagonist doesn’t like this; yet it seems almost as though he’s forgiven it all and moved on. But then, just as the director is about to force this unrealistic piece of feel-good kitsch on us, he doesn’t move ON, he moves AWAY: those friendly overtures by our bully are revealed as overtures to a tentative “deal” to steal Sirimal’s role for himself. Sirimal refuses, only to have our antagonist mock him and leave. The disjuncture in the mood during and after this encounter was, I think, one of the saving virtues of that film. (The other saving virtue was that hilarious moment where our hero, now forced to be the condemned villain, weeps so hysterically at his fate, and wins the Best Actor Award; this sequence, featuring cameos of the likes of Rohana Baddage, H. A. Perera, and Charitha Priyadarshani, had me laughing right until the end.)

Such flashes of reality, tempered down to suit our kids, win us when they are based on either confrontation or comedy, as Siri Raja Siri proves. They cannot be based on feel-good kitsch that directors throw at us in the name of morality and sincerity. But then this truism isn’t understood by everyone, not even by those who stick to it in their other work. Now I understood the rift between savagery and enlightenment in Sooriya Arana (also by Somaratne Dissanayake) and I even enjoyed it, but I could relate more to the sequences of freewheeling friendship between Sumedha (“Podi Hamuduruwo”) and Tikira than the incongruous altercations between them and their elders. Once you entrap your audience, most of whom happen to be kids, with this kind of incongruity, you bewilder them; it’s almost as though the song-and-dance sequences (“Iren Handen” was the best song I’d heard back then in a long, long time) were directed by one person, for the kids, while the sequences of the monk rebelling against the veddah and vice-versa were directed by another, for the adults. Which brings me to my earlier point: sugar-coated cheerfulness makes sense where family pictures are concerned, but so does violence, because the former appeals to youngsters, the latter to elders, and bringing both to the halls brings in more money to the producers.

It has been said of our society, and the popular culture our society inhabits, that our children want to be adults and our adults want to go back to their younger days. This isn’t true for our time only, because that dichotomy between childhood and adulthood has been there, always, and has been used creatively by filmmakers the world over. Chaplin resorted to it (in The Kid he’s as naive as the boy he adopts), and Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, a touching part-tribute to Chaplin, resorted to it too, while in Sri Lanka we’ve had Mahendra Perera as a cheerful but stunted clown in Arumosam Wehi, one of the few movies about children made here I enjoyed sincerely until the end, and Isham Samsudeen and (on two occasions) Harith Baddewala and Harith Samarasinghe playing the role of schoolboys-turned-magicians-and-detectives in Ran Kevita and Ran Kevita 2, which borders on a silliness that could only have been conjured up to be convincing by Udayakantha Warnasuriya, who directed both. But I’m not talking about this sort of age reversal. It’s far more insidious: the truth of the matter is that we have forced our children to be the adults they are not, the end-result being that our directors can only portray them as idiotic, lanky, and unremarkable, to make them come to the theatres and see or project themselves as the children that they have been conditioned to not become.

Moviemakers and scriptwriters need to be endowed with a certain kind of intelligence when they try to depict children because children can’t be rationalised on their terms. In Mouse we come across an almost Dickensian hero in the form of its titular protagonist, whose ambition is to master the world of computers his background makes it impossible for him to get close to. In many respects the movie flounders wildly, but its greatest strength lies in its perceptive handling of the main character, despite the idiocy of nearly every adult in the story (case in point: the maid of his rich friend, who looks on angrily as he unloads his bladder on the carefully tended garden). But the hero of Mouse is more the exception than the rule, and in fact all too often comes from strained circumstances (as with Heena Hoyana Samanallu). The message we get here – that the rich are stupid and incapable, the poor noble and heroic – is unrealistic because it lacks the timbre of conviction such a dichotomy requires. Vittorio de Sica tried his hand at this dichotomy in film after film – the noble poor against the ignoble rich – until, in Miracle in Milan, he transposed it to children and lost his ground. (Its sentimental ending, where the poor fly up to heaven, was described aptly by de Sica himself as being “desperate.”)

It’s more fun and exhilarating to watch them think beyond their years but that’s only if the adults they are emulating think and behave intelligently, and intelligibly. In fact even the TV shows we saw back in our day, dubbed or otherwise – from Tintin to Pancha to Api Raja Ibbo to Naana Katha Malliya – were predicated on young heroes who used their wits in ways that couldn’t do justice to their youth. They were thinking ahead, and living ahead, and we revelled in being them. But that was the past. Today we have TV shows of poorly and sloppily animated characters, often between the ages of 10 and 15, who gain their personality not from their minds, but from their muscles. One of these cartoon shows, telecast here currently, has its protagonist rely on a type of food that teeters between samaposha and aggala. (The argument that Asterix and Obelisk relied on their arishta this way falls flat on the ground because they used their wits when they ran out of that arishta, which they often did.) What’s tragic about this is that such cartoon shows are miles away from the movies that kids targeted by them watch. The kids grow up on cartoons that promote idiocy and movies that promote heroism unhindered by moral scruples. The result is that they’re growing up, if not already grown up, before they hit 17, and become either cheerfully idealistic or insufferably arrogant. (Case in point: those elders they earlier referred to as sir or aiya, they now refer to by name. They have grown up to be more casual, in other words.)

These young adults, as I like to call them, are so indulged by their elders that when they grow beyond their age, and become optimistic and downright conceited, they are praised by those same elders. This contradictory culture of forcing them to be more than who they are while treating them as kids – one of the peculiarities of modern sensibility – is what finds its way to the films made about them or films which feature them, in this country. Like I wrote before, they are more often than not loud, staccato, an indication that the directors and writers of these movies feel that every gesture, every breath, by the child actors have to be delivered as over the top bursts of emotion. The difference between the protagonists of Saroja and the protagonists of Siri Parakum is not difficult to spot in this regard. In the former, our heroes and heroines are given some kind of outlet for them to think and act and behave on their own, and the adults are at least superficially independent and intelligent, if not flawed (the most powerful character in that film, I must note here, was not the teacher played by Janaka Kumbukage, but the doubtful, mildly racist, yet caring wife played by Nita Fernando); in the latter, though, the children are helpless until they are grown up: they have to fall, stumble, be corrected, carried away, and looked after all the time. Their only source of independence is their ability to talk loudly, which is why the line, “Mama raja kumarayek nemeyi, mama game kollek!” became so popular throughout the country: audiences haven’t come across this sort of naive confidence in a young actor before, and our children are, needless to say, thrilled.

I think we are missing the bus, or getting on the same bandwagon, or both. Back in the day children were intelligently conceived, depicted, and directed. Today we have run out of scriptwriters who can conceive them and directors who can push them properly. Consequently this trend of being overly expressive has turned them into idiots: they are unable to project their intentions without resorting to the loudspeaker. The past was a different world, a world in which even filmmakers like Chandran Rutnam (Janelaya), Sumitra Peries (Maya and Sagara Jalaya), and Lester James Peries (Rekava and Madol Duwa) could handle their child actors cohesively. They thought beyond their years at a time when in reality they were told not to. The irony, if you can see it by now, is that we have come to a point where they are encouraged to be the big men and women they are not, whereby they age so quickly that they are wont more to silence and introspection than to childishness (this can sometimes be a sign of their arrogance).

And yet, even with this, our directors have regressed. Perhaps they want to take us back to those dark times where we were compelled to be ourselves even though we dared to think beyond our years; they want to repress us, in other words. How do you repress children who want to be adults? By making them loud and idiotic, of course. If the recent past is anything to go by, therefore, our movies portray them as the purveyors of mindless noise and idiocy that they are anything but. A tragedy? I certainly think so.

Written for: Ceylon Today MOSAIC, November 19 and 26 2017

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Bhathiya Neranjana reflects on the ring


My first encounter with the sport was through my father’s film collection. A long time ago, I picked up one of the VHS cassettes we had and started to watch it. The story was intriguing enough: a loan shark, i.e. someone who coerces debtors to meeting their dues, is enraptured by a prizefighter’s open offer to contend with a random nobody, to uplift him and along the way show their country (America, the Land of the Free) that when it comes to making the hard yards in the game, no one gets excluded. It’s a classic Cinderella tale, told this time from a man’s point of view. Soon enough then, this man, our hero, abandons his job to concentrate on training, running, fighting, basically everything he can do to toughen himself. At the tournament, where he endures 15 rounds, he loses owing to a split decision. That’s where I learnt that this was a game which went beyond the imperatives of victory: even in defeat, what you struggled through, and how you struggled through, becomes more important. The film, incidentally, was Rocky.

Probably no other game depends so much on two people facing off each other. Literally. Boxing, at its inception, was a projection of the desire to defend one’s sense of honour and dignity with a fisticuff. The more polite way of wading through such altercations of course was through the sword and the gun, so when everyone substituted the fist and the knuckle for those two, the art of combat returned to a rather primeval, amateurish state. When the Marquess of Queensberry rules were first instituted 150 years ago, the game was upgraded from a casually combative pastime to a clearly defined and categorised activity. Those who take to it, therefore, tend to do so from a young age, because it’s very democratic: it’s open to everyone. That’s what appeals to youth, after all: freedom and access. And affordability.


In Sri Lanka boxing was largely a colonial sport, as I noted in this column last month. Now, however, it’s more democratised, so democratised, in fact, that despite the many rules and regulations and controversies surrounding the meets and tournaments held in this country, people tend to drop in to the ring at an early age. And among those many tournaments we have, one stands out considerably: the Stubbs Shield. This year Royal College claimed that Shield after 30 years, and this year the 2016 Captain triumphed as the Most Scientific Boxer. This article is about that Captain. Bhathiya Neranjana.

Born in 1998 in Bandarawela, and educated initially at Welimada Vijaya Vidyalaya, Bhathiya obtained high marks at the Grade Five Scholarship Exam and entered Royal College. Like many entrants from the Scholarship Exam, he soon opened himself up to a number of activities, ranging from volleyball to karate to Elle. Of these various activities, he took to volleyball with considerable interest, encouraged by friends.

He started playing volleyball while in Grade Six. His interest in boxing commenced a year later. What intrigued him was the fact that it wasn’t the violent series of quarrels those his age normally considered it as, something he points out for me when he remarks, “Most people think that what improves a boxer is his ability to deliver one punch after another. That is not true. You need to concentrate. You need to build up respect, for yourself and your opponent.” And then, while in Grade Nine, a chance encounter with a set of friends pushed him to try the game out for himself during an inter-house meet. This was in 2012. Back then, he tells me, there weren’t many players. But one point stood out: the Coaches were determined.



What comes out Bhathiya’s story, to me, is a parallel, between his rise and that of the Team, owing to the resolve of those Coaches. He lists down their names for me here: “There was Abdulla Ibunu, our Head Coach. And there was M. M. Nisthar and M. A. Jayalath, his Assistants, the latter of whom is a technical advisor who has, over the years, coached several Captains. We all look up to them.” And he remembers the Principal, B. A. Abeyrathna, and the Senior Games Master, Aluhar Riyaz, rather warmly as well.

What transpired thereafter was a series of encounters that led up to one ultimate victory. It all began in 2015 when Bhathiya encountered his first national meet: the T. B. Jayah Championship, where he emerged as a Gold Medallist in his weight category, 49 kg. He won in that same category, this time a Silver Medal, at that year’s Stubbs Shield, which made him the Best Loser in the tournament. In 2016, as the Captain of the Team, he oversaw to a series of victories at the Shield when of the four finalists from Royal (himself, Vimuth Dewmina, Kevin Chamod, and Ahmed Althaf), two clinched Gold Medals. Fast-forward to 2017, when they finally trimphed with the top prize after three long decades. The last time a boxer from Royal had won the other award Bhathiya did, as the Most Scientific Boxer, was 30 years ago, with A. N. Alwis.


That latter victory was obtained partly through a coincidence, by the way. The Stubbs Shield until 2017 had operated on two age divisions: Under 17 and Under 19. For some reason they had been shifted by one year, respectively to Under 18 and Under 20, the result being that Bhathiya, who had planned on coming back after his A Levels to help train this year’s troupe, found himself as one of the contenders, since he was, after all, below 20 and therefore able to qualify for the meet under a new weight category, 56 kg. I put to him that were it not for the near-misses in the last few years, this coincidence would not have given him the impetus to hanker after victory. He agrees: “I badly wanted to win. For my team, for my school.”

Needless to say, the victory was the culmination of months and years of careful strategy, sustained training, and unhindered dedication. “When I first joined the Team, I was a little nervous, but within the first week I had got used to the vigorous training sessions. They were obviously tough, especially with the other activities I was engaged in, so as time went by, I realised that it was much better to abandon them and commit myself completely to the ring. After all, I reasoned, if I gave myself to both this and volleyball, I would be dangling between two activities without being able to realise my full potential in either. For that reason, during my A Levels, and what with studies, I made a choice. If I would win for my friends and my school, I would do so through boxing.” Which is what happened in the end, naturally.


Which brings me to another important part of our interview: with all these experiences, what has he learnt about this at times ambiguous sport? “Above everything else, that it’s not based on how well you fight. It’s actually based on three factors: mental capacity, concentration, and patience. You can’t substitute sheer physical grit for any of them. If you try to win as a boxer only through your punches, you will triumph in, say, a beginner’s tournament like the L. V. Jayaweera Championship, which you can only take part in once, but not the other larger tournaments and meets you have in Sri Lanka. Moreover this is not an activity that depends on a multitude of players competing and helping out each other. This is based purely on you and your opponent. You need to train your eye to pick up, identify, and take advantage of any misses that opponent may betray from his side. In other words, it’s about keeping up and about being patient.”

All these reflections surprise me when, after recounting them, Bhathiya tells me bluntly that he might not pursue boxing once he’s done with it this year. “I have given back the way I could, I feel that I have what it takes to graduate up the ranks nationally, but I won’t, because I want to concentrate on my higher studies, which I hope to complete in the field of engineering given that I chose maths for my A Levels.”

He does hope to take part in a national level meet next year, given that before the Stubbs Shield, he won at a Junior Tournament held at the Jayathilake Stadium in Nawalapitiya which qualifies him for the nationals, but for now all that’s conjecture. So by way of conclusion I will write this: I have not seen him play, I have not seen him win. But Bhathiya has a no-nonsense demeanour that almost unnerves me. That he has enjoyed what he’s done, and is aloof about what he’s won, speaks volumes about his attitude to the only real game that won him over, at school and (I suspect) everywhere else.

Written for: The Island YOUth, November 26 2017

Friday, November 24, 2017

The New Left: A new hope?

Not too long ago before the American election unfolded and upset what was predicted to be a Hillary Clinton victory, I posted the following comment: “Clinton is a domestic dove and foreign policy dove. Trump a domestic hawk and foreign policy dove.” This was a simplification on my part, but one that was based on the belief we held as sacrosanct at the time that Donald Trump would deliver on his promises and take the United States away from the interventionist streak it had been cursed with since the George W. Bush regime. Things don’t always transpire as we expect them to and now you have Donald Trump, who promised to keep America from foreign misadventures the same way Charles Lindberg had during the Second World War, reneging on those promises.

The comment gleaned two fundamentally opposite responses. One was from an American, an unabashed supporter of Clinton, i.e. a liberal: “You are making a mistake. Foreign policy is almost always tied to domestic policy goals.” The other was from a Sri Lankan: “Hillary Clinton is part of the neo-liberal right-wing.” The former tried to equate the two sectors I had differentiated; the latter did pretty much the same thing by contending that Clinton’s foreign policy objectives were based on neo-conservative domestic and economic policy objectives. It was all a matter of perspective. Now I realise how erroneous it was of me to make such a simplistic distinction with respect to a political movement involving an entire country.

It’s roughly the same story with our Left movement. There is rhetoric and there is perspective. Being the month of revolution I suppose the leftists will have their say in the matter of “out-lefting” their ideological opponents within and outside their movements. Being the month of Lenin and Marx and Trotsky the new and the old left will probably get together by their denunciations of the capitalist order. And being the month of their own stalled project the New Left in particular will be commemorating their dead, those who were murdered for their political affiliations. (They were, as Malinda Seneviratne put it, killed for the sin of being born to the wrong decade, the wrong convictions.) They weren’t the only ones who suffered though.

They also made the people suffer. That is why perspectives matter. This was evident in the 1971 insurrection, when the likes of Colvin R. De Silva and N. M. Perera referred to them as fascists. But the New Leftists were never fascistic. They were only desperate. Consequently, they made the people desperate, somewhat overzealously. The idealism of Old Left rhetoric disappeared with those who were made to disappear. The second insurrection, bloodier and more enduring (for all the wrong reasons), was born out of this shattered idealism. From that shattered idealism evolved a new idealism, a new hope. For the first time in our left movement’s history, the youth, the educated and the unemployed, got involved. The New Left had done what the Old Left had not: take its fringe movement beyond the upper classes.

The JVP and its affiliated offshoots including the Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya substituted action for rhetoric in the bloodiest, most violent way possible. They were merely stoking the fires that the State, then headed by the UNP, was about to unleash on the country. They were the provocateurs, not that this absolves the State by any stretch of the imagination. Those who joined them were not just hard done by, they were also disgusted by what they felt was a lack of understanding and sympathy by a largely conservative society. There’s a saying that everyone is a socialist at 20, which was pretty much true of the eighties here. I’ve heard stories of teenagers who ran away from home, because of personal tussles with their parents and relatives, and joined the JVP. They were there for a reason. They were sick, tired, and wanted something that could let those elders know that they cared. They did this by resorting to the gun.

It is true that youthful idealism is at the heart of any revolution, and in the case of the JVP and the DJV that idealism was a response to the contortion of political realities in the South by various State actors, including the president and the military. Nanda Malini in her song “Rana Derane” implores a soldier to not shoot a member of his own class for the sake of vested class interests elsewhere. That was how determined and resolved the insurrectionists were. The result, in fact the only result, of all this was the creation of a powerful ideological apparatus in our institutions: our Universities, our Trade Unions, but not our political periphery where compromise was and is the name of the game and once political membership was guaranteed even the purest of revolutionists would turn away from their ideological convictions. No, our New Left was largely self-financed, rooted in youthful idealism, provocative, and opposed to what 1956 bred: a bifurcation of our public sphere between the few who had power and the many who had no power.

The bifurcation of our intelligentsia into swabasha and non-swabasha has been debated by two schools of thought. One of them contends that 1956 represented the dislodgment of the elite (Kumari Jayawardena); the other contends that it represented the substitution of a more insidious form of class discrepancies for the discrepancies that had existed until then (Regi Siriwardena). What this leaves out is a third possible theory, which I subscribe to: that 1956 represented a bifurcation into the swabasha multitude and non-swabasha elite that appropriated privileges so much for the latter that a rift developed within the former between those who wanted to maintain their identity and those who wished to join the elite. The proponents of the federalist-devolutionist discourse, who joined the NGO intelligentsia despite their rural backgrounds, belong to this specific social subset.

The truth is that this Left movement was spent long, long ago. The truth is that the New Left had to be the ideological shapers of that movement. The truth is that not even a bheeshanaya could dislodge the peripheries of power that developed within our Universities. As long as the State remained apathetic, as long as the Old Left was seen to be flirting with the status quo, those peripheries would stay in place. The rift between the Communists and Stalinists on the one hand and the Trotskyites on the other was largely an ideological one borne out of personal convictions. The rift between the Old and the New was more than just ideological: it was a statement for those who wished to do away with the establishment and against that aforementioned social subset that sided with it. The split in the latter, between the JVP and the Peratugami Samajawadi Pakshaya, was not unlike the ideological splits in the former during the forties and the fifties, with the caveat that it has not been enough yet to erode the dominance of the JVP.

I hate taking sides in any revolution but I am aware of the enormous and exorbitant expense, in terms of human lives and resources, that such revolutions necessitate. When the Cuban revolution played out and was later intensified by the threat of outside invasion (courtesy of the US), you couldn’t have sided with José Miró Cardona, who became Prime Minister under Castro and later left, ostensibly disgusted with the new administration’s descent to an authoritarian state, to become his fiercest ideological opponent. When the Russian Revolution played out you couldn’t have sided with the Mensheviks and the reformists. When the French Revolution played out you couldn’t have sided with the middle class bourgeoisie. You had to be the revolutionist or join those who wanted the revolutionists out. Moderates and intermediaries were not popular on either side. Human lives are lost, damage is inflicted on property, but these are prerequisites to any secular revolution and upheaval. It was no different in Sri Lanka.

The truth is that the New Left, be it the JVP or the Frontline Socialists, is the only proper movement in this country which defends the public sphere against the private. The tussle over the SAITM issue, the spate of strikes in the Electricity Board and the railway sector, indicate quite clearly that they remain as potent as ever, even if those who lead these strikes and protest movements are different to and more committed than the individuals who lead their parties. Let’s not forget, after all, that last year’s private bus strike was carried out independently, without the express approval of the president of the Private Bus Owners’ Association. Let’s not forget that in pretty much every movement of this kind a rift exists between the leadership that flirts with the status quo and the membership that thrives on idealism.

We ought to be thankful. Particularly when 37 years of globalisation and neo-liberalism in Sri Lanka has led us, not up the garden path, but down the rocky slope. The private sphere pretty much determines the public, an issue I wish to tackle in a later column. For now, however, let us reflect on this month of revolution, on the men and women who laid their lives, and the idealisms that bred and nurtured them.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 24 2017

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Swineetha Weerasinghe: Reflections on an open canvas

There’s a sequence of overpowering lyrical rawness in Welikathara where the protagonist and his wife fight over each other’s pasts; it transforms the plot from a terse, Cape Fear-esque thriller to something pulpier, taking us back to the whodunit potboilers of the forties and the fifties. That sequence was only partly there in the restored version, shown about two months ago to a indifferent audiences at the Regal in Colombo, because the first few scenes in it had (for some reason) been cut off. Unfolding after our protagonist, Wickrema Randeniya (Gamini Fonseka) gets taunted by Goring Mudalali (Joe Abeywickrema), those scenes depict Randeniya’s wife, Geetha, angry that her husband has done nothing to get rid of the villain, ominously rejecting his advances. In that act of rejection, the film reaches its climax, and inadvertently betrays its pulpiness.

This encounter between wife and husband is so claustrophobically shot, with two frames cutting into each other, that owing to its overwhelming CinemaScope format (the first time it was used in South Asia) you almost cynically WANT them to continue bickering, building up the tensions until Randeniya does the only thing a character played by Gamini Fonseka, at that point in his career, could do to assert himself: slap the wife and, with the sense of shame it compels in him, project his anger against the antagonist of the story. Fonseka of course met his match with Goring in Welikathara (it’s a testament to how provocatively and refreshingly novel Joe Abeywickrema was that after one point we don’t root for the hero, we root for him), but that conflict would never have intensified without Geetha. She needed to be depicted in such a way that in the first half she symbolises obedience and respect, and in the second contempt and hatred.

Played by Swineetha Weerasinghe, she embodied both rather well. That has as much to do with the script, by Tissa Abeysekara, as it has with her ability, because the truth is that Swineetha, whom I met several years ago, has always been an intriguing actress, capable of enormous sensitivity without the stereotypes that such artists are forced into. The greatest tribute to the range of emotions and experiences she could evoke, I think, was H. D. Premaratne’s Sikuruliya, where she was transformed from a village damsel, in love with Vijaya Kumaratunga, to a hapless, unhappily married wife of a cruel, dwarfish aristocrat, played by Bandula Galagedara, and then to the fiancée of a considerably older man, a ruffian, played by Joe. Coming right after Welikathara, Sikuruliya was also a massive success, and it too was shot and screened on CinemaScope. In both we saw Swineetha up-close, and in both we were moved by her complexity.

Swineetha’s career belongs to a twilight period, the sixties, coming right after Rukmani Devi was acknowledged as the queen of our cinema and before Malini Fonseka became her successor. It was an intermittent period, in which our actresses were taken to portray ordinary women who went about their lives without the need to attract, to be heroic. Swineetha was not alone here, but unlike those other actresses who entered the cinema during that intermittent period (especially Punya Heendeniya) she projected an at-times ambiguous attitude to the patriarchal world she was filmed against. In the movies of Robin Tampoe (her first screen credit was in a dance item in Suhada Divi Piduma, in 1962, followed by three successive pictures: Sudu Sande Kalu Wala in 1963; Samajaye Api Okkoma Samanai in 1964; and Sudo Sudu, which paired her with Gamini Fonseka, in 1965) she found her niche, as the village damsel who possesses agency and does not genuflect unconditionally before male dominance. As Chitra in Delovak Athara, her first serious outing, she expanded on this quality of hers, dangling between friendliness and hostility with respect to her relationship with the protagonist, Nissanka Wijesinghe.

I once asked Swineetha to list out the names of some actresses she looked up to at that point in her career, after Delovak Athara proved that she could reckon with both commercial and serious movies, and she did: Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Chaplin, Rita Tushingham. It’s farfetched to suggest that this is enough for us to understand her élan but then again these actresses were, and continued to be, symbolic of a new woman, the kind that defied cosmetic innocence for independence, autonomy, defiance. Swineetha’s characters, especially from the late sixties, embodied these values.

In a way her biography offers some clues as to this contradictory streak in her. Swineetha was born to a middle class family in Dehiwela. Her father had been a gunman in the British Army; her mother remained a housewife. Educated initially at Buddhist Girls’ College in Mount Lavinia (until the Fifth Standard) and later at Dehiwela Madya Maha Vidyalaya, she proved herself by winning awards for singing, dancing, athletics, and netball. “I was never interested in acting as a career,” she informed me, “But I was interested in medicine. More specifically, indigenous medicine.”  Resolving for a career in that field, therefore, she enrolled herself at the Government Indigenous Medical College. She never completed it; during her third year she read an advertisement calling for budding actresses, received some flak from her mother and encouragement from her father, answered it, and got the role: in that dance item in Suhada Divi Piduma.

Lester James Peries noticed her in Sudo Sudu, which marked one of Robin Tampoe’s rare forays into serious territory (that it failed, as Tissa Abeysekara later wrote, indicated how unfamiliar that serious territory was for him), “borrowed” her from RT Studios (“Because they weren’t ready to just hand over an actor like her to a director like me who was defying their system,” Lester recounted to me years ago, chortling), and cast her in Delovak Athara in a role meant for the much younger Anula Karunatilake. Ironically, she had begun her career with commercial, mainstream movies, but returned to them only briefly thereafter, preferring the more serious ventures that would get her travelling to various film festivals: to Tashkent (where she met Simi Garewal, Sunil Dutt, Nargis, and Shabana Azmi) and Krakow with Welikathara, and to Tehran (where she met the Shah of Iran and, on his last day before departure, Satyajit Ray) with Hulavali.

Most actresses, as they age, tend to turn themselves into the matriarchs they used to defy in their younger days. It happened with Malini Fonseka; it happened in a more nuanced way with Punya Heendeniya (the difference between her Nanda in Gamperaliya and Kaliyugaya attests to that); and it has happened, to a certain extent, even with that most defiant of onscreen women, Swarna Mallawarachchi (as Age Asa Aga shows). In their younger days they cried over the men they fantasised about; when they mature and grow wiser they cry when other women fantasise about their husbands. They enthralled us by their sense of daring; now they enthral us by their realisation of how hollow their youthful streak was. It’s a testament to Swineetha’s capability that she has undergone this shift without the usual blasts of emotions that accompany it. Perhaps it’s because of how subtle her acting is, or perhaps it’s because no one has filmed her or made use of her capabilities since the eighties. Either way, you can’t place any of her characters against a specific canvas. They are blissfully pliable, ambivalent, and multidimensional.

There have, of course, been other actresses, who came during that twilight period I wrote about earlier: Punya, Anula Karunatilake, Swarna Kahawita, Sobani Amarasinghe. But while they either yielded to their fates in their stories or defied them altogether to their cost, Swineetha’s characters don’t let us know immediately as to what they are feeling and which side of this divide they are on. In Delovak Athara she is, in several sequences, infuriated with Nissanka when Nissanka is calm and (inexplicably) cheerful when he is for obvious reasons frightened. This refreshingly contradictory quality of hers is what adorns almost every performance, no matter how good or bad her films seem today. I think the reason for that is that she wasn’t prolific the way that Malini or even Swarna was: she chose her scripts meticulously. A prolific player tends to accept roles that pigeonhole him or her; a more selective player tends to go for roles that he or she is comfortable with. Swineetha is, I believe, a living embodiment of this strange paradox.

And in the end that’s why she’s able to symbolise both submission and rebellion. In Welikathara she literally cradles her husband, comparing him to their soon-to-be-born baby. A couple or so sequences later, however, she has begun to feel so betrayed by his attitude of appeasement towards Goring Mudalali that she contorts her earlier feelings to spurn his very manhood. It’s a call for defiance, a statement almost, but he gets it, the same way Nissanka gets it by facing his conscience and Vijaya Kumaratunga, Bandula Galagedara, and Joe Abeywickrema get it by discerning their inadequacies: with the realisation that beneath her sense of simplicity are strong undercurrents of individuality and agency. That’s where she triumphs: you never actually get her, because she prefers to reveal her characters, not in gushes and torrents, but in a more nuanced, less explicit way.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 23 2017

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

80 years was never enough, Mr Bluth

Walt Disney was primarily an entertainer. He knew what sold and he knew how animation entranced a cross-section of the population that had been alienated by the movies. Cartoons, he correctly realised, would appeal to children if they were based on stories they grew up on. It was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs which established his subsequent career in that respect, and from that point on, he ensured that every story he supervised (until The Jungle Book) would use traditional techniques to instil some sense of authenticity, of effort, which children would appreciate. He needed dedicated animators for this, obviously.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opened in 1937. So many things happened in 1937. People were born, people died. Nations fought, nations receded from fighting. War was in the air, war was off the table. Among those who were born that year, who lived through the war and later wound up in the entertainment industry, was one such animator who saw the decline of the industry after Disney’s death and yearned to bring back its golden era. That man, who turns 80 this year, was Don Bluth.

Don Bluth’s movies almost always centre on outsiders. Mrs Brisby in The Secret of NIMH, Fievel in An American Tail, Littlefoot in The Land Before Time, Barkin in All Dogs Go To Heaven, and Stanley in A Troll in Central Park: these are all outcasts trying to fit in. Bluth’s goal with them seemed to have been to make the audience cry because they were outsiders. He seemed so fixated on separating them from their surroundings, moreover, that he kept them separated right until the end.

Movies are determined by their directors. Directors are people, and like all people they are conditioned by their faith and ethnicity. As Pauline Kael noted, for instance, the shift in Hollywood from the optimism of the fifties to the cynicism of the seventies was brought about by the Vietnam War and the concurrent shift in the industry from Protestants to Catholics. Controversial though this remark was, it indicated that the religious background of directors could explain the leap from the studio system to New Hollywood.

Don Bluth was neither Catholic nor Protestant. He was a Mormon, affiliated to the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. From the beginning, Mormonism was an estranged denomination. Condemned as heretics, its adherents were forced to flee to Utah. Soon enough they flourished in Arizona and Wyoming, but that sense of being excluded, morally and physically, never quite left them. They were Protestant in the strictest sense of that term, but they repudiated both Protestantism and Catholicism.

To understand how Bluth’s faith influenced his work, one should watch the final project he worked on with Disney, The Small One. I saw it as an eight-year-old and I remember being moved by how deftly it concentrated, not on a human figure, but on an animal.

The story is largely fictional, even as a parable: it constructs a fable out of the donkey which carried Mary to Nazareth. But out of that fable emerges certain strands that bind his later work: the Fagin-like overwhelming villain (the tanner), the confused protagonist (the donkey), his faithful friend (the boy), and a horde of other characters who are, at best, indifferent to his plight.

In Bluth’s world, judging from this, the narrative is driven more by the indifference of the many than by the cruelty of the few. His stories do contain villains (and they are some of the cruellest I’ve come across), but it’s mostly the helplessness of the protagonist we identify with. In Disney’s movies, we know the good and the bad, and we know that a clash between the two is inevitable. In Bluth’s movies, by contrast, that clash exists, but to get to that clash, the protagonist must endure immense shame, humiliation, and scorn from everyone else. That is what Mrs Brisby suffers in The Secret of NIMH and what Chanticleer suffers in Rock-a-Doodle. That would have been the same indifference the Mormons suffered when they began their movement.

We never get that sort of indifference with Disney. Disney’s heroes don’t suffer ignominy: they know that they must combat evil somewhere, but are aided by a set of sidekicks. Bambi has Thumper and Flower. Cinderella has those mice and birds. Sleeping Beauty has Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather. Mowgli has Baloo and Bagheera. We never doubt their sincerity for one moment, because if we did there wouldn’t be a story in the first place. None of Bluth’s heroes shares this fate: Mrs Brisby, for instance, has to cross some hard yards to convince the rats of NIMH that their homes will be ravaged by the neighbouring farmer.

For that reason, perhaps, these movies are housed by a great many characters, a great many when compared with Disney. Roger Ebert contended that The Secret of NIMH had so many heroes and villains that it was difficult to empathise with any of them. But that was Bluth’s intention: like in Lester James Peries’ Rekava (an unlikely point of comparison, I know), these characters, some menacing, some likeable, are there simply because it takes a collective to get us to identify with an individual. In NIMH, it was Mrs Brisby. In An American Tail, it was Fievel.

When in the mid-nineties he partnered up with Fox Animation Studios, he let go of his earlier avatar. The Don Bluth of Rock-a-Doodle, Thumbelina, A Troll in Central Park, and The Pebble and the Penguin was spent, even overspent: he had run out of ideas. Of the three movies he made for Fox, however, only one can really be said to have stood out: Anastasia (his second project was a sequel to it, Bartok the Magnificent).

Thematically Anastasia doesn’t resemble his earlier work. His heroine doesn’t suffer ignominy and she isn’t alienated the way his protagonists usually are. We know she’ll be reconciled with her grandmother, the Dowager Empress, just as we know that before the final reconciliation she’ll encounter her foe (Rasputin) in a fantasy sequence which has no actual basis for itself: it simply happens, she rescues her benefactor (Dimitri), and everyone resolves for a happy ending. Yes, the heroine is estranged, yes, she has to find her way back (“Heart don’t fail me now / Courage don’t desert me”), and yes, like Mrs Brisby she isn’t aware of her own past. But in other respects, it was patently a Disney flick churned out by Fox.

80 years is a long time, long enough for an artist to get out what he wants. With fewer than 15 movies over two decades, however, I doubt Don Bluth ever closed in on what he desired. His best work, which lasted just three features (NIMH, An American Tail, and The Land Before Time), reflected his upbringing in a way which Disney’s did not. Full of estranged protagonists and characters whose main function was to spurn those protagonists, they not only precipitated the return of Disney, but also (as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast clearly showed) ensured that it returned with a refreshingly different conception of the children’s cinema. But no, 80 years wasn’t enough. Not for Bluth. NIMH bankrupted him, his studio was liquidated, and he had to resort to outside patronage (Steven Spielberg and Fox) to nurture his creativity. His work was as much the result of estrangement as his heroes were. The only consolation we can derive from this, then, is that he wasn’t estranged by his audiences. The Secret of NIMH on that count remains a superior work of art: superior to the pixelated fantasies our children wade through today.

We should be grateful, I believe. And we are.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, September 17 2017

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Answering his critics: Reflections on a lonely artist

The sixth and the last in a series of sketches of the films of Lester James Peries.

Lester James Peries began his career in 1956. With Rekava he became Sri Lanka’s first professional director, of movies and not photographed stage plays. So simple and yet profound was the story of Rekava, so influential it was in gaining recognition for our dormant, static film industry, that no less a person than Mervyn de Silva, then writing to the Ceylon Daily News, put aside all historic and exogenous considerations, the fact that it was the 41st Sinhala film, and contended that it marked the beginning of our cinema. No film before it had strayed so remarkably from the confines of the studio, and no film before it had encountered so many troubles, logistical and otherwise.

19 films and 60 years later, Lester has gone down in history as the only local filmmaker who has attracted praise and censure from every corner of our critical fraternity: the intellectuals, the nationalists, the Marxists, the literary experts, the purveyors of feminist cinema, etc. In 1974 when Ahas Gawwa was released a pamphlet was published and copies of it disseminated. It was titled Appochige Sinamawa. Lester had fathered an entire generation of directors and scriptwriters and cameramen; they were now rebelling against him. He had hence bred, not slavish disciples, but independent artists.

The truth is that Lester, who turned 98 this year, is the last reminder of 1956 and the revolution it inspired that we have. As Regi Siriwardena noted, 1956 was no accident, but the congruence of the political and the cultural was. Lester hailed from the milieu that we the people were rejecting. So had his brother, Ivan. By resorting to a visual medium, they redeemed themselves in the eyes of their people.

But there were times when those deficiencies showed, when the man seemed to ignore a key element of the milieus he was depicting in his work. It happened in Rekava, where you don’t come across a single temple. It happened again in the three epics he directed and particularly, among them, The God King. The writers in the press were tepid in their reviews, naturally. Jayawilal Wilegoda, considered the first real movie critic in the Sinhala media, castigated him for mindlessly imitating the West. (According to him, this was partly proven by the man’s penchant for featuring cars, something H. L. D. Mahindapala noted in his review of Ran Salu when he observed, wryly, that the camera seemed to be obsessed with those cars.) But these critics belonged to a certain class, a certain category. The most devastating critics of Lester didn’t come as nationalists and intellectuals. They came as Marxists and literary purveyors.

With respect to the Marxists the problem is easier to understand. The election of a socialist government, the intrusion of the New Wave and the cinema of East Europe, as well as two insurrections that almost brought the country to a standstill proved to be too much for any critic who looked for a sign of commitment and secular upliftment in a work of art. Lester’s films did not, as I noted before, satisfy these parameters and yardsticks. They ended right when the poor and the wretched were about to suffer more (as with Akkara Paha, which culminates with Sena and Sandawathi departing to a life of destitution); they didn’t tell us how the poor and the wretched could tide over their suffering, rather that they were destined to suffer. The French, even at their most political, knew how to end their films in idiosyncratic flourishes and swipes (think of the ending of Breathless, where the dying Michel has just one thing to say to Patricia, his former fiancée: “You’re a real scumbag”), but the East Europeans were defeatist, adamant that their characters claim destinies they could never control. The Marxist critics looked for such characters. Lester couldn’t provide them. He hence became a betrayer.

In the seventies when these critics rode on a high wave, they were at their peak. Regi Siriwardena frequently implied that they wanted the cinema to be politicised the same way the theatre had been. The political theatre is a vassal of ideology, whatever ideology, and the theatre of the left tends to conflate reality for symbolism and resort to explicit add-ons to depict a particular social context. It was this kind of climate that prevailed in our film industry, though unlike many other left-leaning countries it survived: the truth is that after Dharmasena Pathiraja we never had a Mrinal Sen of our own. Pathiraja created a new standard, but only he could be measured against it; no one came close to him. Lester’s standards, on the other hand, spread more widely. He didn’t indulge in political polemics, but even without indulging in them he had liberated the industry. The seventies didn’t go beyond Pathiraja. It instead nurtured Vasantha Obeyesekere and H. D. Premaratne, both of whom conceived, not a political cinema, but a middle cinema.

The political left continues to inhabit and make the waves in our film industry. That is its greatest virtue and worst limitation, because our independent cinema is considerably hegemonised by a left-of-centre political sphere. Our art-house film movement never really picked up owing to this, barring the early work of Asoka Handagama, because no political cinema can survive on symbols and allegories and explicit add-ons without compromising on density. Some of the movies that directors like Handagama make are extraordinary, and they are the result of decades of experimentation, but they are far, far away from the technical craftsmanship of the old masters. Even at their worst, a mainstream Sinhala film retains a welter of formality which the art-house director lacks. The political left’s most powerful contribution to our film industry was the independent movement, but what it lacks in this respect has been its undoing and has hindered it from reaching a local audience. It survives, as always, on private donors and film festivals.

But it’s not just the political left or political theatre that has hindered the birth of an honest independent cinema movement. It’s also the literary purveyors, the intellectuals and academics who tend to either put down the cinema or assess the worth of a movie on the basis of its fidelity to qualities that are more suited for a book review. These are the critics who lambasted Lester and A. J. Gunawardena over Baddegama. The debate over the equivalency between two modes of narratives – moving image and prose fiction – has, as Gunawardena himself observed, largely grown obsolete in other countries, but in Sri Lanka, owing perhaps to the dominance of Romantic and Edwardian standards of literary criticism in our English Departments, it has persisted. Lester was a literary-minded director – he adapted several works of Sinhala fiction, all of them landmarks for their time – but even this was not enough to salvage many of his works, particularly with respect to the Koggala Trilogy, from criticism at the hands of those experts.

Apart from these critics, the man stoically endured years and decades of criticism. He raised some flak among nationalists and intellectuals (especially Jayawilal Wilegoda) but they were transitory, because their standards could and did change. The political left and the literary intelligentsia were not malleable this way, because their standards remain stubbornly present in our cultural spheres. That he lacked commitment, that he lacked enough foresight to keep to the letter and spirit of a literary masterpiece, have been two of the most frequently cited indictments against him, over the years and including, I must add, his penultimate film, Wekanda Walawwa. They deserve to be answered, elsewhere, in full, because in those indictments we can infer Lester as Cooray’s lonely artist. “But aren’t all artists lonely?” Tissa sceptically asked. The answer to that, of course, is yes, they are, but that with this artist it was a different story.

Lester turns 99 next year. There are others who’ve made more films over a fraction of the time it took for him to make his. That’s a tragedy at one level, but a blessing at another. For the films he made, though intermittent, were awaited. Rekava was a leap of faith. But like all leaps of faiths, it wasn’t vindicated immediately. Sandeshaya was a hit, but that wasn’t really Lester. Gamperaliya, Delovak Athara, and Ran Salu weren’t hits, but they recouped at the box-office. And then, Golu Hadawatha, his sixth, won an entire nation to his side. Yes, it took some time. But that’s how icons operate. They are patient. Never in a hurry.

And in the end, this gentle human being, who was never in a hurry, took his time and proved to us, in his own special way, that one can never assess the worth of an artist by a fidelity to arbitrary standards. Whether they were manufactured by the Left, whether they were disseminated by our Universities, they remained standards that did not require their designated targets to be their vassals. Perhaps Lester himself offered the most appropriate response to them all: “They work with symbols. I work with human beings.” He told this to me two years ago. Two years on, our filmmakers continue to work with symbols. They were inspired by him, but failed to retain that quality which defined him. They were all students who wanted to imitate, but they all repudiated his élan, his zeitgeist.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 21 2017

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Michelle Dilhara: Acting on, moving on

Michelle Dilhara is something of an enigma. For the most. By her own confession she is still learning her craft, which means she is still a student in that perplexing, disillusioning field called television, but what she’s learnt so far has given her enough confidence to pause, take stock of what was, and prepare herself for bigger and better roles, scripts, directors, and shows. I met her several months back, promising that I’d write on her within a couple of weeks. Never happened. In hindsight I realise this owes less to my carelessness than to a manifest inability to unscramble her story in a meaningful manner. Well, weeks have passed, as have months, and here I am typing down that story right down to the last detail. Naturally then, I will begin at the beginning.

She was born in Chilaw and was educated at Negombo South International until her O Levels, which she sat for as a private student, before joining Newstead Girls College for her A Levels in the Arts stream and in the English medium. While she secured enough results to obtain a placement in a local University (which means, clearly enough, that those results were good, or more to the point excellent), she dithered owing to her passion for and fascination with acting, a field which people her age would normally be discouraged from pursuing but which was actively encouraged by her father and mother. “They were very supportive,” she remembers, smiling at me, “I made it clear that I wanted to know this field before I worked in it. So a few months after exams were done, I joined the Abhina Academy run by Anoja Weerasinghe. She became my first guru.”

Now I have been to Abhina and I have seen Anoja teach and instruct and direct. While I haven’t been to her classes as a student, I know enough to understand what Anoja is doing: transplanting her years of study and research at the London Academy of Dramatic Art (LAMDA), which she attended in the early nineties courtesy of a scholarship financed by the Lever Brothers, in our children. Anoja has that remarkable ability to compel attention from you while being serious and jovial at the same time, and this, it must be said here, was what intrigued young Michelle. “I got to know of her Academy through word of mouth, given that she hadn’t advertised it in the media,” she tells me, “What I learnt there centred not just on acting, but also on personality development, on being more outgoing, a problem since I was an incorrigible introvert.”

While Michelle did not obtain a certificate or qualification as such from Anoja’s classes (to obtain that one must continue with her yoga sessions, which Michelle did not), it compelled her to seek instruction from other gurus in the field. And so, in 2014, barely one month after she left Abhina, she joined an acting class run by Damayanthi Fonseka, a qualitatively different teacher. “At Anoja Madam’s school I had studied about how to be myself and let my character out through meditation and reflection. Damayanthi Madam was more focused on acting, specifically on transforming a character from a script to a living, breathing entity. However I did not spend much time in her classes. After about two weeks, I left it and landed on another class, conducted by Randika Wimalasuriya and held at the Abhiranga Arts Centre in Negombo.”

Randika was, as expected, a qualitatively different guru. More focused on the theatre, he nevertheless made it clear to his students (Michelle took private classes from him as well, by the way) that there was a wide gap between the stage and the screen. One of his exercises, which he resorted to frequently, involved getting his students to act in front of a camera. Given that we love to overact and by default onstage at an early age most of the students would, obviously, overact. Randika chastened them. He got them to see the medium differently. In short, he was the kind of guru Michelle wanted right before she left the class to start her career. This, incidentally, had been compounded by an acting workshop conducted by the Indian playwright Ujwal Singh, who came down to Sri Lanka in 2016. “Ujwal got us through the Indian theatre and the children's theatre. That helped open up my perspectives on the medium.”

After her studies were done, at least for the time being, Michelle went for a screen test at Susila Productions, through which she got selected for two dramas: Dhara (in which she was a main character) and Sal Sapuna (which at the time of our interview was still being shot). Having built up the necessary contacts she got into another production: Bodhi, directed by Sanjaya Nirmal. Of these three, it is Sal Sapuna that interests her especially, since it was directed by a veteran: the formidable, reckonable, and in many ways larger-than-life Nalan Mendis (whose speeches, at various events and functions I’ve attended or heard of, are as expansive as his TV series). I start things off here by telling her, rather wryly, that he can be overwhelmingly and brutally honest about a person’s acting capabilities, especially first-timers, and she agrees wholeheartedly. I am pleased to hear, therefore, that he’s had nothing but praise for her acting.

Like Nalan’s other productions, Sal Sapuna is rooted in a largely middle-class milieu and involves love triangles, plot twists, and character changes that are too wide to describe in a single article. Suffice it to say, therefore, that in it Michelle, who plays the role of a girl called Preethika who has recently returned from London after completing her A Levels there, is a journalist who enters the family at the heart of the story and basically falls in love with the protagonist, a privileged and somewhat spoilt but well-meaning boy. The other members of the cast, including Rohana Baddage and Damitha Abeyratne, had all but completely and unconditionally encouraged her, going as far as to provide moral support for her portrayal. “They were all quite helpful,” Michelle remembers, smiling. Her next production, Dhara, was more vigorous, requiring up to 13 scenes a day. Shooting had been tight and the schedule uncompromising, but what Michelle remembers most clearly about it was the fact that its director, Suranga Lakmal Seneviratne, allowed more scope for the actors by encouraging them to improvise. Considerably.

These have been followed by other promising productions: Rathu Pichcha and Bodhi, both of which are being telecasted on Sirasa TV and the latter of which had her play, of all things, a she-devil named Kali Amma (though not the Kali Amma of Indian folklore). “That latter production taught me about the research an aspiring actor needs before delving into a character, any character. If I’d just gone ahead with Kali Amma without doing the needful, I would have survived, but I wouldn’t have been convincing. That’s where I need to remind myself, ‘Your learning experience isn’t over yet. You need to reflect on what you’ve studied and study some more.’ It’s hectic, but useful.” As for films, while Michelle hasn’t got any offers yet, she is hopeful as always. “If a good script comes my way, I will be more than happy to take part in it. I don’t want to go with the flow and be allured by easy, convenient fame. I want to learn more about my field.”

Three years, naturally, are not enough. I believe Michelle Dilhara has more to tread through, to wade through. Judging by her performances so far however (and I have seen them, though I normally don’t watch television these days) I believe also that what she has to wade through, she will wade through easily. So easily, not because she has built up a veritable network of contacts, but rather because she has that earnest love for her field that comes only to those who wish to pursue it less as a career as more as an interest. She will only do well, I am forced to conclude. Which is what all of us predict.

Written for: The Island YOUth, November 19 2017