Friday, November 17, 2017

The State withers away


Somewhere in the late eighties, with the collapse of communism, the world that had hitherto been split into two camps shifted into an “Us versus Them” dichotomy of a different sort, this time between the multilateralists and the unilateralists. As Professor Nalin de Silva so eloquently put it, the world didn’t become multi-polar, which means, obviously enough, that history did not end. Fukuyama was wrong, Huntington was not. Superpowers had been built on the assumption that there was an enemy to be fought, somewhere, and it could include entire continents and cultures and civilizations. We were promised that life would get simpler. It did not. The truth is, it could not.

Today the multilateralists have, for all intents and purposes, sided with the unilateralists. Vast wars are embarked on, vast sums of money are spent on weapons, and what was described by Eisenhower as the military-industrial complex has expanded so exponentially that no number of leaked documents can do justice to its scope. Life couldn’t get simpler because the idea of two superpowers fighting against each other, or keeping the peace with each other, insured the rest of the world against one country, one empire, gaining a monopoly over everyone else. Once that was out, things could only get more complicated. Sadly, for better or for worse, that is what has transpired today.

Right after the end of the Second World War, when the Soviet Union began to be demonised and considered as the Enemy, down to the eighties and nineties, when the promise of a world free of bloodshed and conflict was aborted, despite the collapse of communism, by the commencement of the Gulf War, aggression was largely based on rhetoric, because both sides of the global polity knew, at least to an extent, that fighting against one another would mean suicide as far as they, and the world in general, were concerned. That is why we look back at the sixties and seventies as the era of James Bond fighting unseen global elites who want to flare up war between the Communists and the Free World so as to appropriate power for their members. As far as history, literature, and propaganda went, it was a dangerous time to live in, but it was also a nostalgic time, the time of spy novels, conspiracy theories, and the Profumo Affair.

Obviously, the tactics, the strategies, and even the philosophy guiding the movement against the Global Left changed during the eighties. The West has, for whatever reason, been shy about calling out its opponent in clear-cut, cohesive terms, which is why it tends to smother those opponents with politically correct slogans: the Evil Empire, Drugs, and of course Terror. As historians have pointed out, after all, even the American Civil War has been smothered with such feel-good slogans and labels (the best of them, and in fact the most mythical of them, being the “War against Slavery”) that people do not know the real intentions behind Lincoln’s campaign against the slaveholders. There was and is nothing different in the way the West, the Free World that is, sought to endear itself to nations that were springing out of communism and socialism. One way of suffocating the Global Left in this regard, therefore, was the empowerment of a Global Anti-Left. That came about in turn with the rise of the NGO intelligentsia.

This was the fatal contradiction at the heart of the Old Left: its susceptibility to the machinations of outside parties that had no interest, much less enthusiasm, about prolonging the leftist ideals it stood for. That contradiction was by and by the outcome of the discrepancy it reflected within itself between, as I mentioned last week, the stated aims of an equal society and the largely bourgeois ethic of the leadership it helped prop up. In Sri Lanka radicalism was, until the emergence of the New Left, limited to the “saadukin pelena wun” rhetoric of the Communists and Trotskyites, whose lasting achievements to the political sphere of this country cannot be discounted (they were, after all, behind the drive this country tried to move with towards an industrialised society, something the colonial bourgeoisie could not attempt, much less achieve). Unfortunately with the dissolution of the Old Left’s credibility courtesy of the 1971 insurrection, it felt rather abandoned. It needed to make a comeback. That comeback came about when we substituted an ethnocentric project for a class-oriented one within the Left Movement.

Hidden beneath the sloganeering of that movement was one key concept that the NGO intelligentsia was able to, inadvertently, pick up: the withering of the State. In Marxism that refers to the means by which a society of equals could be attained. It indicated an absence of not just class barriers, but also class consciousness, and it had to be preceded by a society that privileged the State as a necessary evil. What this meant, clearly enough, was that the State was always an instrument, and never an agent that could act on its own. When the intelligentsia intruded on the Left Movement in this country, it made use of this concept, or theory, and helped propel a private sphere that would remain independent of the State while making the State its primary instrument. The channel through which this contortion could be realised was the Old Left, and the method through which the Old Left could be made to yield to the contortion was the substitution of ethnicity for class. After 1956, after 1971, the single most significant political phenomenon in this country, for me therefore, is the emergence of the federalist-devolutionist discourse.

The man chosen to head this movement was Vijaya Kumaratunga. There were several advantages to be gained by having Vijaya. Firstly, he was popular. He courted voters in both the South and the North, and at a time when Sinhala politicians were considered as parvenus by the top rung of the LTTE, he was amenable even to the likes of Prabhakaran. (The fact that his funeral was attended by members of the LTTE attests to this.) As I have pointed out elsewhere, he was adamant in considering the war against the Tamil Tigers a chauvinist government-led project against the Tamil people. For the supporters of the conflict, it was the only way through which centuries of interethnic disparities could be corrected (this is true of the Sinhalese and the Tamil equally), but for the likes of Vijaya Kumaratunga, it was nothing more than a “jaathivadi yuddhayak”, a term he used during a television interview. Vijaya was the Southern politician that the North had been looking for, and he was the perfect foil to the then ascendant New Left, which as I observed last week was doing a pretty good job of being cultural nationalists and fervent Marxists.

Liyanage Amarakeerthi in an otherwise critical piece on Gunadasa Amarasekara and the politics of the Jathika Chinthanaya contended that the problem with our political parties and the NGO sphere was their inability to produce engaging thinkers. With respect to the latter I think the problem goes deeper: the truth is that our NGO sphere has been unable thus far to produce an sincere enough thinker who can go beyond the monolingual elite and capture the hearts and minds of the monolingual masses and/or the bilingual middle class. They have failed to do so even today. A careful perusal of Susantha Goonetilake’s book Recolonisation will show that these intellectuals were well equipped with the language of the coloniser. But they could not acquaint themselves with the cultures they were involved with, Sinhala or Tamil.

Amarakeerthi himself noted this: “Writing mainly in English, they could not really reach out.” This explains, to a considerable degree, the cynicism with which we regard those self-styled leftists academics, who write one piece after another justifying the policies of this government and any government that has supported their fundamentally flawed views on majoritarian hegemonies and chauvinism. I call them flawed not because they don’t merit scrutiny – no one can deny that a hegemony based on Sinhala Buddhism does exist in Sri Lanka – but because they don’t go beyond lambasting it by trying to find out reasons for the hegemony and its wide appeal among the people of this country.

What happened after the bheeshanaya is interesting to reflect on. The Vijaya Kumaratunga Front (the United Socialist Alliance) collapsed almost immediately after the man’s tragic murder at the hands of a New Left operative. The party that he and his wife had created congealed into an influential political movement, one that immediately forced the Old Left it had been associated with to be its vassal. Chandrika Kumaratunga, in what was seen as a landslide victory, swept into power promising change (based on the federalist-devolutionist discourse that the USA was premised on). It’s a testament to her foresight, her vision, and her policies that not even two presidential terms by her then most serious contender from the SLFP, and a potential third (which didn’t materialise), could erode her ideological sway. What we see today therefore is a return to that political discourse, though minus the Old Left, which has bifurcated between her (the Jayampathy Faction) and her erstwhile contender, Mahinda Rajapaksa (the Vasudeva Faction).

Where this has led us to, and what it means for the New Left, I will explore next week.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 17 2017

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Vasanthi Chathurani: The girl next door

There’s a sweet, almost naive sense of innocence in the early performances of Vasanthi Chathurani. It’s a new sensibility, to me, since a very few actors here, male or female, have been as able as she has been to project a form of purity that is at once enticing and delicate. Most of our actors are content in entrancing us and forming part of our wildest fantasies. Vasanthi doesn’t get us to think of her like this. More often than not, she wins our sympathy, our deepest fears and sorrows, because she’s at home with characters, with daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers, whose main role is to puncture their beauty and sense of charm with a welter of delicateness that can break apart at the slightest intrusion. As Kusum in Gehenu Lamayi and as Nirmala in Ganga Addara – the twin peaks of her early career – she epitomises this kind of female figure so well that she transforms herself into a different acting sensibility, the sensibility I referred to above.

It’s pertinent here to place Vasanthi in a particular context, in our cinema, before moving on to her career. Our actresses more or less continue a tradition begun by Rukmani Devi, a tradition that was passed over to Malini Fonseka in the early seventies. I believe it was Asoka Handagama who observed that Fonseka’s characters are definable by their ability to get every man to hanker after her. This is as true for her mainstream ventures as it is for her less commercial essays – Eya Dan Loku Lamayek and Baddegama – and her roles in films that take an intermediate position between the box-office and serious art – including Apeksha and Diyamanthi. She epitomises, not rebellion, but surrender.

Between the Malini Fonseka of the seventies, who symbolised feminine goodness (largely patriarchal, reflecting the attitudes of popular audiences), and the Swarna Mallawarachchi of the eighties, who symbolised rebellion and retribution, we have Vasanthi Chathurani, who falls into neither category and yet somehow is at home with both. Vasanthi’s most discernible quality in this respect is her voice, because it can alternate between rebellion and submission. In Lester James Peries’s Awaragira, she articulates respect towards their family manor and, later, her love towards a very abusive husband (Lucky Dias), with that voice, signifying the conflict at the heart of her tragedy. But before Awaragira there were other films, all of which followed her transition from the girl next door to a veritable matriarch, and all of which reflected her penchant for delicate beauty. It’s the kind of beauty that can waste away at the hands of abuse, which incidentally is her eventual destiny: to be made use of, rather cruelly and unfairly.

At the end of Gehenu Lamayi, Kusum asks of everyone, including us, “Is this my fate?” The director, Sumitra Peries, resorts to a literal transposition of her imaginings with a dissolve into a carved question mark on a mirror. That was a pretty prescient indication of the type of roles she would be asked to churn out for the next 10 years – in Ganga Addara, in Siribo Aiya, in Parithyagaya, in Adara Hasuna – barring the occasional detour that didn’t always seem convincing – particularly in Biththi Hathara, where her depiction of a sensual woman, who seduces the protagonist (Neil Alles) didn’t, to me at least, seem congruent with her earlier character portrayals – but sometimes was, as with Para Dige, Siribo Aiya, and Kulageya. She wins us unconditionally at this point in her career when she’s denied proper agency, where forced against her free will to submit to everyone else before herself: the parents and the rich aunt in Gehenu Lamayi, the irate father in Ganga Addara, the tempestuous, almost insanely jealous husband in Adara Hasuna.

Vasanthi’s story has been recorded and put down in print so much that I will not go beyond a brief recapitulation of her biography. Born Doreen Peterson in Gampaha, she was educated at Holy Cross College, where she excelled in acting and the arts in general despite the opposition such institutions (it was a Convent) displayed towards girls who get ideas of becoming performers and actresses. She was discovered by Sumitra Peries, in the late seventies, but in those first few days of shooting for Gehenu Lamayi she disappointed if not shocked everyone by her refusal to act in front of the camera. Gehenu Lamayi would have come crumbling down were it not for Lester James Peries’s idea to shoot another sequence, with her clad in school uniforms, at St John Bosco’s College in Hatton, where production mercifully proceeded. Gehenu Lamayi was a success, as was Lester’s Ahasin Polawata, but it was Ganga Addara that propelled her to stardom.

She had to be young when playing these characters, obviously, because the submissive women she got to portray couldn’t have been portrayed with sincerity were she an elder, a matriarch. She attempted to return to her youth at the turn of the millennium with two movies that showed just how much of a hurdle age was when embodying fragility and sensitivity: H. D. Premaratne’s Kinihiriya Mal, where she was a convincing but altogether incongruously cast elder sister to Sangeetha Weeraratne; and Chandran Rutnam’s Poronduwa, a film that was aptly summed up with respect to its choice of cast members (including Vasanthi along with her love interest, Ravindra Randeniya) by Nanda Pethiyagoda as follows: “If I were asked to give a prize, a sort of Oscar, for this latest Sinhala film that is being screened at the Regal and other cinemas, I would award it to the makeup man.” Pethiyagoda would write of Vasanthi’s portrayal, “She is no spring chicken,” acknowledging that she had captured something of her earlier avatar.

You come across a faint trace of this new woman even in the eighties, and particularly in Giraya. As Kamini, Vasanthi doesn’t “inhabit” and “occupy” the plot in the way that her counterpart in Punyakanthe Wijenaike’s story (conceived as a series of diary entries, an epistolary novel) does, but her intrusion into that plot rakes up trouble from her mother-in-law (Grace Ariyawimal) and the ominous maid, Lucy Hami (Trilicia Gunawardena). Giraya’s success owes considerably to the larger texture, the wider scope, which its director, Lester Peries, and scriptwriter, Somaweera Senanayake, brought in and affirmed to take it beyond Kamini’s perspective. What happens in the end is that Kamini, far from being the fearful woman the novel depicts her as, triumphs over her fears through her interaction with the other characters: her sister-in-law (Chandani Seneviratne), the gamekeeper (Cyril Dharmawardena), and the village monk (G. R. Perera). Earlier she would have succumbed, yielded; now she persists, like the unnamed protagonist of Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and towers over both the mother-in-law and the maid.

She tries to echo if not channel this kind of rebellious woman in Awaragira, but fails badly, because that is the fate set for her in the plot. Conceived as a vast family epic, Awaragira is rather episodic in its structure: ranging from the stubborn misadventures of the elder son (Kamal Addaraarachchi) to the thwarted idealism and romances of the younger son (Ranjan Ramanayake), its characters shift from one mood to another, from the hopefulness to deterioration and then complete annihilation. Set against such a large backdrop even Vasanthi changes wildly: in the very first scene she’s in, she proclaims her fidelity to the family and her father, but as the plot progresses she finds herself confusingly lost between her love for her family and for her abusive husband.

There’s a sequence in Awaragira which shows this growing, irreconcilable rift between Vasanthi the girl and Vasanthi the woman. It opens up in the second half of the story, when the family has begun to deteriorate. Awaiting her husband, we see her on a sofa; there are dark spots under her eyes. The wind ruffles her hair, the camera closes in on her, and she gets up after hearing the sound of a car outside. Lucky Dias, cheerful as always, comes up the stairs. “You’re always complaining about me coming home late, so I came early today,” he tells her, handing over a cake to her. Without a word, she takes it and prepares to make some tea for him. The husband is bewildered: “Vasa? What is the problem?” he asks. She replies with an irresolute shaking of the head. Unconvinced, he tries to allay her fears by caressing her, smiling. She nods, barely. In the next sequence featuring these two, they are no longer smiling and nodding; they are fighting.

By this time the family fortunes have begun to sink, and in this sequence, brief and superficially unimportant though it is, Vasanthi becomes a new woman, moving away from the idealism of her youth. That she fails to make this shift owing to her naiveté proves to be her undoing and her brother’s. In the end she channels the woman beneath her, asserts herself, and kills that brother in a sequence that was so choppily and arbitrarily edited by its producer that it fails to do justice to her; but even with this limitation, the murder reminds me, as I mentioned elsewhere, of the killing of Zhivony in Wajda’s Siberian Lady Macbeth, also about a female figure torn between two men.

By this point in her career she had been repressed so much that she aged beyond her years. Her subsequent career, as a result, would never be the same again: Awaragira coincided with the era in which she began producing tele-dramas, almost all of which (starting with Iti Pahana) had her as a stubborn but well-meaning mother. It’s a different Vasanthi we come across here: no longer the girl next door, she has by now embraced the matriarchal figure she was destined to embrace. It’s that matriarchal figure she has now completely been taken over: as a mother, as a sister, as a wife, and of course as a teacher. No longer with that welter of innocence which shrouded her before, she has become the kind of understanding, but determined and assertive person she continues to be today.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 16 2017

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Revisiting 'Sagara Jalaya'

Not a review. Not a retelling. Rather, a memory.

The movies have inspired. They have taught us how to cry and how to laugh. They have lifted, saddened, reassured, and humbled. They have also chastened, confused, and angered. Speaking for myself, they have made my life easier to bear. They have lit dark corners, given me hope when there was anything but, and taught me how to see others as I see myself. Consequently, they have (I believe) unearthed the human in me. This is a rough sketch, a memory in fact, of the first real movie that transformed me on that count, and how it remains ignored by our critical establishment, and even audiences.

Simon Nawagaththegama wrote Suddilage Kathawa in 1978. Seven years earlier, he wrote a collection of short stories titled Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuva Oba Sanda. Four years after Dharmasiri Bandaranayake filmed Suddi, Sumitra Peries adapted the most poignant story from that collection, Ohu Mala Da Pasu.

When Sumitra filmed Nawagaththegama’s story, she was consciously or unconsciously moving away from her previous movies. Gehenu Lamayi, Ganga Addara, and Yahalu Yeheli were adaptations of puerile novels, the first and third authored by Karunasena Jayalath. Sumitra went beyond any other director here in depicting the joys, sorrows, and defeats of our women, though she raised some flak for observing without commenting on their plights. Like the neo-realists of Italy, she was accused of depicting without dissecting.

In Ohu Mala Da Pasu she found her first serious source text to trounce her critics. Unlike Jayalath and the author of Ganga Addara, Leticia Boteju, Nawagaththegama was voluptuous in his literary tastes: his library was filled with the best of the East and West, from Joyce to Tagore to Yeats to Hesse. He was in the least an eclectic. His prose was spare, almost verbal. There are those who believe that the short story was a preparatory exercise for Suddilage Kathawa. There arguably are parallels between the two, parallels which found their cinematic equivalent in the choice of both Sumitra and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake to cast Swarna Mallawarachchi as the protagonist.

At its most essential level, Sagara Jalaya is about the woman as a bereaved mother. With Gehenu Lamayi and Ganga Addara, Sumitra featured the thwarted daughter, played in both by Vasanthi Chathurani in two different social milieus. In Yahalu Yeheli, she let go of that daughter: Mudithalatha (Nadeeka Gunasekara) refuses to let her family’s status decide her fate. So she rebels. But because of her ideological predilections, Sumitra couldn’t depict the woman as a rebel without manipulating reality. The ending of Yahalu Yeheli, therefore, seemed to almost preach to the choir. She returned to her forte with Sagara Jalaya. Three movies in another context would have sufficed for a landmark, but Sumitra had by then mastered the cinema to give out more than a landmark. Several months back, on a Friday night, a TV channel telecast it (the first time in 15 years). Here’s what I remember and what came to my mind.

Even on a first viewing, Sagara Jalaya remains fascinatingly refreshing. It opens up (after the titles) with Swarna Mallawarachchi, visibly worried. The son enters the frame, remarks he’s going out to play with his cousin, is asked by the mother to come back quickly, and runs off to the road like any 10-year-old would.

Amaradeva’s music enlivens the sequence; it’s the last time we’ll see the mother and boy interact that way again. The boy’s father (H. A. Perera) has died. The entire village is in grief, but that grief is not enough for Heen Kella, the mother. Like most mothers caught in such a predicament, she wants help, not charity or sympathy. She gets the son to ask her sister (Sunethra Sarachchandra) to come visit her. She does so only after a while, which infuriates Heen Kella so much that she lambasts her away. Because the rest of her community are unable to think beyond charity and sympathy, she does the predictable: spurn them all and in turn get spurned by them.

It’s difficult to say how one movie can strike us with so much power. Perhaps it’s the acting. Or the music, by Amaradeva. Or the editing, by Lal Piyasena. More than anything else, though, it’s the gentleness. Even at breaking point, that gentleness never breaks apart: the boundaries set down by the village are intensely tight. The second encounter between Swarna and Sunethra comes quite close to disturbing those boundaries, but that doesn’t happen. Sunethra taunts Swarna, Swarna returns those taunts, and with a snide remark aimed at Sunethra’s husband (Ravindra Randeniya) she gets her to leave without a word. Even by the standards of Sumitra’s other movies, this is deceptively calm. So calm, in fact, that not even the director or the scriptwriter (Lester James Peries) could have ended it without resorting to pathos.

Sagara Jalaya opens with our little protagonist on a dry, parched field. We return to that field in the final sequence, where he remembers how he used to play with his cousin (who has become angry with him). Earlier they had joked with each other (children can be profoundly innocent, I thought to myself, as I heard them recount what their mothers had to say about them). Now even they have grown distant.

As he smiles bitterly, he remembers a letter sent from his uncle: that uncle, who never came for his brother’s funeral, wants the boy to help him carry on his shop. The mother had refused, so had the son, but then he “hears” his cousin ask him whether he’ll ever go with that uncle. We don’t hear his reply, but we observe him write a letter on the sand. What he writes, we don’t see. We hear. It remains the most insanely poignant voiceover I have come across in any movie, Sinhala or English:

මාමන්ඩියේ, මං උබ එක්ක යන්ඩ කැමතියි. මිඩියා තරහ වෙලා හින්දා මං දැන් මාකරඹවත් කඩන්නට යන්නේ නෑ. උබ එනකල් බලාගෙන ඉන්නවා. අම්මා යන්ඩ එපා කීවොත් මං අඩලා හරි එනවා. මාත් එක්ක යන්ඩ නොවරදවාම වරෙන්. මීට ආදරණීය බිංදු.

I was about that boy’s age when I first watched this. I didn’t know how to react or whether to react at all. Where was the happy ending? It took a good many more movies to convince me that the cinema, as with the arts or for that matter life, didn’t always subsist on happily-ever-afters. That night I started to mature. I saw the movies in a different light thereafter. It was the same kind of response that de Sica’s Shoeshine compelled from Pauline Kael: “Shoeshine was not conceived in the patterns of romance or melodrama; it is one of those rare works of art which seem to emerge from the welter of human experience without smoothing away the raw edges, or losing what most movies lose – the sense of confusion and accident in human affairs.” Almost word to word, the same point could have been made of this film.

Sagara Jalaya swept every major film awards ceremony in the country that year (1988). It clinched for Swarna Mallawarachchi her third Sarasavi Best Actress Award and for Sumitra Peries her third Best Director Award. The critics were unanimous in their praise. Regi Siriwardena loved it, at a time when to have your movie even remotely liked by Regi meant that it was good. It became Sumitra’s best, never to be equalled or surpassed. And yet, it remains virtually forgotten today. Why, I can’t tell.

In any case, it does not matter. I called Sumitra the day after they telecast it. She had watched it, so I asked for a comment. Here’s what she said: “When I see it today, I am taken aback by its mise-en-scène and pacing. That I did all that speaks volumes about how well knit my crew were: Amaradeva, Lal Piyasena, Donald Karunaratne, my husband, and of course Swarna and that little boy and the rest of the cast. I directed it, yes, but seeing it again, I can say that it has gained a life of its own.”

I have wept at three movies in my life so far. The first was Spielberg’s E.T., the third Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff. E.T. was the kind of childhood fantasy that Hollywood could manufacture. Sansho was more uncompromising in its sense of tragedy. Between these two stands the more rhythmic and composed Sagara Jalaya. I have cried at its ending, just as I have with the other two. I am not ashamed.

Some movies can’t be analysed. I just let them move me. Sagara Jalaya was like that. It was made to be felt. Not dissected. Like the best works of art, one can add.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Some notes on parody

“Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described.” (Susan Sontag)

There is art that can arouse, that can provoke reflection. There is art that can detach, that can promote neutrality. The films of H. D. Premaratne and Stanley Kramer, the theatre of a hundred or so comedians who wish to be playwrights, and the works of the painters who line Ananda Coomaraswamy Mawatha fall into the former category. The films of Resnais, Bresson, and Wes Anderson, most of if not all the paintings of Anoma Wijewardena, and the theatre of Brecht falls into the latter category. But in both instances what is promoted is a sense of tragedy, of drama. The difference between them is really a difference of attitude. There is a larger difference and dichotomy that prevails, however: between tragedy and comedy.

The Western conception of art is derived for the most from the theory of mimesis and representation as articulated by Plato and Aristotle. A work of art derives from something: it sustains it, nourishes it, and breathes life into it. The Western drama had to depend on this theory, because of which there came about a dichotomy between reality and realism. The latter could only emulate the former; the former existed of its own accord. In this regard the Western comedy was there not to emulate, but to entertain, to keep sanity afloat. Comedy fulfilled this role perfectly, because it was sustained throughout with a sense of invincibility for its characters (epitomised most memorably in the image of Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock face above a street in Safety Last). There was nothing to take seriously, in other words.

The most basic and easily recognisable elements of comedy – deception, delusion, impersonation – are mimetic in the sense that they depend on a separate frame of reference. AnandaDrama’s Dracula, staged twice two years ago to empty seats, revolved around a cleverly yet chaotically worked out variation on the Bram Stoker legend, but its premise was structurally and formally the same story we’ve been reading for centuries now. The existence of a whole new frame of reference, which is used and subverted in order to entertain, indicates that comedy is reflective and mimetic in quite a different sense. While the split in drama is between reality and realism, the split in comedy, the best sort, is between realism and subversion.

It follows that if Western drama, more specifically tragedy, was mimetic, imitative, and reflective, then Western comedy was a mimesis of the mimesis. In other words, the latter was nothing more than a reworked, witty take on the former, which is why so many comedy films entertain us by subtly alluding to other more serious works of art, sometimes by using the same actors. But there’s a difference between comedy that alludes to other works of art like this and comedy that pokes fun at a way of life, a way of looking at the world. The Vijaya Nandasiri films which have the man as Raja Manthri satirise the corrupt and the feckless in power. But they don’t emulate another objet d’art, not even for an instant. All they bring about is satire. Such satire is discernibly different to the other variant of comedy which has not, unfortunately I should think, made strides in Sri Lanka: the subject of this piece, parody.

In Sri Lanka parody exists primarily in the theatre, and I include both the English and the Sinhala theatre here. Jith Pieris’s Affair at Ward Place Hotel borrows some of its elements from What’s Up, Doc, then cleverly compounds them with the producer’s view of corruption in the private sphere and notions of political honour and dignity in the public sphere. (The whole play was premised on similar dichotomies: between the politician and his idealistic understudy, between the politician and his pseudo-nationalistic opponent, between his understudy and the opponent’s understudy, between his wife and his mistress; in short, between the public and the private.) Part of the reason why parody hasn’t caught on in our movies or even TV series is that it requires that we understand the frame of reference that is being poked at and reworked. Everyone knew what was being subverted in Dracula, but not everyone would have known what Affair at Ward Place Hotel was subverting.

What audiences here react to in plays like Affair at Ward Place Hotel and films like Suhada Koka are the recognisable elements of our society. I’ve come across people who argue that by making fun of themes like corruption and idealism we are doing away with the need to be enraged and moved by them. (This culture of being enraged and moved is what our Sinhala playwrights indulge in, even at their most satirical.) The frame of reference they can identify with is their own society: their politicians, their colleagues, their government servants. In the end what we get is a crude but effective mixture of infatuation and hate: we are cynical about our politicians, colleagues, and government servants, but we love to see them depicted unflatteringly, which is why Vijaya Nandasiri’s portrayal of Raja Manthri still grabs audiences.

Which begs the question: what exactly does parody subsist on? Films like Spy Movie, Epic Movie, and Disaster Movie can be identified by the following points: a multiplicity of voices, frequent cameo appearances, pop cultural references, and excesses of camp, sometimes scatological. But these aforementioned movies aren’t particularly good. They are hardly defensible, as comedy or even parody. What they lack is a proper sense of charisma, which can only thrive on subtlety and restraint. Some of the comedies of the eighties, all of which were commercial hits (and many of which starred Leslie Nielson), like Airplane and The Naked Gun, reworked the melodramatic tragedies and action flicks of earlier decades: Airplane with Airport, and The Naked Gun with half a dozen James Bond films. It was this line of satirical, innovative comedies which inspired their inferior imitations from the nineties.

“Is parody dead?” is a question that’s tossed around frequently these days. Perhaps, and if so the reason, the only and main reason, is that films which spoof other films suffer from an excess of what is misconceived as parody: pop cultural references which go nowhere and which evince forced laughter.

The films of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg fall into this category: from Date Movie (2006) to Superfast (2015), even the titles allude to other more established movies or genres. Of the eight films they’ve directed, many of them have grossed an average of about 85 million dollars globally. But some of them have underperformed; it’s significant to note that those which have underperformed badly (particularly The Starving Games, a spoof of The Hunger Games) allude to themes which are difficult to spoof or parody in the first place. The disaster genre provides a multitude of ways and means by which it can be made fun of, and effectively. Very few genres share this quality, least of all post-apocalyptic, science-fiction horror.

In the end parody – great, memorable parody – depends on a subtle mixture of relevance and irreverence. For it to evince laughter from younger audiences (which Seltzer’s and Friedberg’s films are marketed at), it must be contemporary and recent: the movies that are being spoofed, as well as the themes, must be based on a country’s recent popular culture (Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs was released 10 years after the first Star Wars film, while his Robin Hood: Men In Tights was released barely a year after Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; the former was ignored, the latter not so), and also be irreverent about the seriousness of those movies in a coherent, explicable manner. That is why the Seltzer-Friedberg movies don’t work: there are sequences of satire and parody which drag on, which provoke laughs not from the larger meaning of such sequences but the fact that they are spoofing something explicitly (like substituting global warming for the alien invasion from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds).

Because of this, much of parody today is based on pop cultural references. These work in part (and the Seltzer-Friedberg films have been moderate hits) since those recent pop cultural references work on younger audiences, the target market for modern parody. It’s significant to note that the best spoof movies from the seventies and eighties – the peak of the genre – didn’t always allude to the recent, but in the very act of spoofing an otherwise serious or unfunny genre (the Western with Blazing Saddles; the monster film with Young Frankenstein; Alfred Hitchcock with High Anxiety) did retain that welter of funniness and felt humour that modern directors try so hard to reach, yet fail. The ultimate litmus test for parody, then, is not just relevance but also irreverence; focus on the one and abandon the other, and all you get is a gross contortion, an embarrassment, which is what most parodies have become today.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, November 12 2017

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Sumitra Peries: A woman’s world

Gentle, suave, reassuring, and calm, Sumitra Peries is the almost perfect embodiment of the women she’s depicted onscreen, from her first film, Gehenu Lamayi, to her lastest, Vaishnavee. ESTEEM caught up with her to delve into her past lives as not just a director, but also ambassador, editor, voyager, and chess player. She is arguably the world’s oldest living active filmmaker, on par with the world’s oldest living filmmaker, who happens to be her husband, Lester.

To start this sketch off, could you recount some of your earliest experiences?

Although we hail from Boralugoda as a family, I was born in and my mother’s side of the family came from Payagala. I was conceived in a dark, vaguely unlit room in our house, referred to as a thimbirigeya. My earliest memories involve my mother, who ran a distillery, and my father, who was far too impractical and kind-hearted to take to running a business at all. (He had studied law, but his heart had always been in the far less practical field of history.) It was actually a bilingual world I was made an heir to; my mother and father could wield both English and Sinhala, and my mother, like most women from her station in life, played tennis with the wives of local doctors and lawyers at the Avissawella Courts. She had a kidney problem.

While my elder brother Kuru was sent to the Musaeus College Hostel at the age of five, and my younger sister was sent to the Visakha Vidyalaya Hostel at the age of six or seven, I was kept at home and homeschooled. I would have been six or seven when I saw a school for the first time; not in Colombo, but at St Mary’s College, Avissawella. That was quite a school. It wasn’t an elitist institution, if you know what I mean. We had children of estate plantations and children of rich families all congregating in the class. It had a strict principal who wielded the cane, which more or less was a great leveller. The social milieu we were exposed to in the classroom, moreover, was equivalent to the milieu we were exposed to at home.

Did this milieu you speak of awaken any political sympathies in you?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. All I remember is that it was a great leveller, as it had been at St Mary’s College. I would have accepted at that early age that there were people of different shades in the world we lived in, of different castes, religions, social backdrops, etc. Going to school was a natural way of coming to terms with a very natural fact of life. I would play with village children, games like kon pittu and sand castles. A little stream passed by our house. I remember trying to catch little thiththayas and fish and all that from there and being chided by my elders for so doing. Then there were what we called bovitiya in the garden, because we had a fairly extensive garden. Rich or poor, haves or have-nots, our friends came with us.

As for my political sympathies, well I was a little girl when I first came across and talked with “Uncle Philip” as we called him: Philip Gunawardena, who would soon be put in jail by the colonial government for his agitation for independence during the Second World War. My father, whose sympathies were more or less aligned with his, had contested the area in 1931 (even before I was born) against the incumbent, Forrester Obeyesekere, missing what would have been a promising journey to the State Council by a mere 300 votes. Uncle Philip and even N. M. Perera would bring busloads of people to our house, and my family would serve them. It’s ridiculous to think that such childhood experiences can substantively affect one’s political inclinations as an adult, but they would have had a say for sure.

I wasn’t exactly brought up in an elitist background. We didn’t have the kind of luxuries people from our backdrop usually had in Colombo: no electricity, no drainage, and no bidet showers. We lived in a basic, almost primeval, home. It had a locked up well and a toilet outside, which we used to wash with buckets since we didn’t have a proper running water system either. So no, we didn’t live in a very well brought up, fashionable family; we lived a most ordinary life in Payagala.

We know what happens next, but could you offer a summary?

Well one thing led to another and I ended up at Visakha Vidyalaya. I was quite a headstrong girl there; the teachers at one point said, “You can’t remember your Buddhist gathas and sermons, but if we asked you to recite LSSP propaganda, you’d easily do so!” In fact my years at Visakha deserve an entire chapter, if not story, to themselves, particularly since it was there that I was “educated”, so to speak, before being let loose in the world. From Visakha, even before I completed my tenure as a student there, I went to Aquinas College to do my London A Levels.

It was around that point that my mother passed away. My brother Kuru, who was so devastated by it, left for France. Just like that. I followed him on a P&O Liner: an arduous but enjoyable journey, to be sure. When I left for France, and later when I returned, aboard that Liner, I would resort to playing chess with my friends. I found Kuru with a couple of his friends. We had quite a time in Europe, enough to fill a Hollywood scrapbook. Again, one thing led to another and soon enough I was boarded in an apartment with a nice but rather dominating old lady and studying French at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

From Switzerland I left to Paris; in Paris I was taken to the Ambassador, Vernon Mendis, and his wife, Paddy, the latter of whom was a relative of mine; in Paris I also met Lester, my future husband, who happened to be a relative of Vernon; and from Paris, after seeing his Rekava and understanding that the cinema was my field, I left to London, where for some time I studied subtitling under May Harris in Brixton, and where I met Lindsay Anderson, who would become a family friend.

How did your other roles in life unfold thereafter?

I started out as an Assistant Director to Lester, whom I hadn’t married at the time, aboard Sandeshaya. Afterwards I got to be his Editor, from Gamperaliya to Ahasin Polawata and spanning some 15 years. I came from a technical background. Then I moved on to directing, as we all know, with Gehenu Lamayi. Then I moved into Paris as an Ambassador. Later I became a lecturer, though I don’t lecture anymore. Lester and I are quite close. Always were, always will be. It was a meeting of two intricate sensibilities, from that chance encounter in Paris. He was the person who advised me to go to London; in a way, his destiny has been mine as well. So as far as my story goes, and my other roles, they all amount to one man, one destiny.

Written for: Esteem Magazine

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Marxist head and the cultural heart

There’s a story from the 1971 insurrection that intrigues me even today. This story, I heard or rather read about from Malinga Gunaratne, who had in turn heard it from Victor Ivan. Apparently Victor had been arrested, interrogated, and imprisoned for his involvement with the insurrectionists and a series of attacks they had masterminded on police stations throughout the country. One of those attacks had involved a frontal assault on the Kadugannawa Station and had been led by a man whom Victor had met later on. What this man had done had roused him. The man’s name was Senerath, by the way.

What had happened was this: immediately after the assault, Senerath had played the role of a police inspector in charge of the Station. He had acted so well, in fact, that he had been able to give orders and run the show (so to speak) until the attacks were quelled and he was arrested. Now Victor had been interested by what he had done, so interested that he had been thrilled when a family member had given him a lunch packet to deliver to the man. Owing to his background in sociology perhaps, he had been able to wring out answers to the kind of questions he asked from Senerath, and so after handing him the lunch packet, he went straight to the point: Why did he dress up like that? The answer, which Victor related many years later to Malinga Gunaratne, had moved him to tears.

Senerath came from the village. From an early age, he had wanted to go to school and join the police. He had a problem though. He came from the Dhoby community. Strange as it may seem today, caste structures were once sharply enforced in Sinhala society. For that reason, Senerath had to suffer. He was not allowed to go to a proper school. He had no one to support his application to join the police. Worse, he was shirked by other more privileged boys. Having grown up shouldering this humiliation and seeing his dreams trampled on, he had done what most other boys, his age, would do. He had joined the JVP. The assault on the Station had thus brought him an opportunity that he had never before come close to. What happened after he was released, whether he got to the life he had clamoured after, however, Victor does not tell us.

There’s an interesting passage in Ranbanda Seneviratne’s “Ula Leno” I visit again and again. The song, incidentally, was about the 1971 insurrectionists and their hopes:

සංසාරේ හැටි තමයි
වියෝග ඇති වන්නේ
නිවනට ගියදා මේ
හැම දුක නැති වන්නේ

Ranbanda was writing about the insurrection, yes, but in these lines he was asserting what those against the insurrection had, patiently, been telling the would-be revolutionists: that what they suffered and endured was part and parcel of their miserable, samsaric life, and that they must continue to suffer and endure because it was, sadly, a universal truth. What transpired in and after 1971, however, was politically and socially interesting and uncomfortably paradoxical: the New Left, which had emerged in the sixties as a reaction against the apathy of the Trotskyites and Communists and what-not, did not take or affirm the rhetoric of revolution that had run riot before. In other words, they were no longer idealists envisioning Utopias. They wanted action, not policies, not manifestos. Gunadasa Kapuge’s lament was genuinely, movingly humanistic. But the values of this rather humanistic period of our history were soon to erode.

It was that inexplicable, rather pathetic contradiction – between the stated aims of an equal society and the largely bourgeois ethic of the leadership of the country – which bred and fermented two bloody insurrections. They eventually morphed into a Left movement that Malinda Seneviratne once demarcated as having a cultural heart and pseudo-Marxist heart. I would take issue with the latter label and revise it as follows: what 1971 and 1988 bred, in terms of the New Left, was a political movement that had a Marxist head and a cultural heart. They had repudiated the vanguard movement and all its ideological pretensions simply because they knew that any split between the leadership and the membership would breed an insidious kind of a conservative, reactionary society within their own ranks, affirming and sustaining a rift between those who could speak English and those who could not. Malinga Gunaratne himself wrote of this newfound suspicion of those who could speak the lingo, when once he was restrained from speaking for these radical leftists because he did not come from their class, their backdrop.

In other words it wasn’t the “saadukin pelena wun” rhetoric of the Old Left that would rouse the working class, rather the fiercely passionate, rooted, and at the same time culturally pluralistic Pawana rhetoric of Sunil Ariyaratne and Nanda Malini. It’s always tricky if not inadvisable to compare the objectives of a revolution with the lines and verses of revolutionary art, but in the songs of those two artistes we come across the kind of sensibility that the New Left, including but not limited to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, stood for: as I mentioned before, a cultural heart and a Marxist head, which affirmed the aspirations of the South (territorial integrity, with no capitulation to foreign entities) and the aspirations of the North (embracing every race, every creed, as one). To me this is best represented in the final few lines of the Pawana album’s most menacing song, Budun Daham (even more menacingly tuned as a virinduwa):

සිහළු ආපේ දෙමළු අපේ
මුස්ලිම් මිනිසුනුත් අපේ
උන් කඳවුරු බදින දිනේ
පරයන්ගේ බොටුව කැපේ

The New Left’s project was therefore opposed to the political project(s) of the Old Left, in that while it sought to do away with chauvinism it was also opposed to intervention by foreign actors, the latter of which was covertly supported by elements from their ideological foes, the Trotskyites and the Communists (this can be inferred by a perusal of Susantha Goonatilake’s unfortunately neglected book Recolonisation, where he exposes everyone and anyone in our political sphere who abandoned the rebels from the New Left for reasons of political expediency, including several members of today’s NGO intelligentsia).

Whether the JVP or its many offshoots, before and after its entry to the democratic process, was able to reconcile the head and the heart is a question to which even political scientists, let alone commentators, can’t supply an adequate answer. And why? Because of the deliberately vague, confused state of the New Left, then and now. It was the New Left that eschewed race and faith for comradeship unhindered by class distinctions (which, by the way, was the fatal contradiction of the Old Left, since the platform of racial and religious harmony they stood for was undone by their economic status), yes, but it was also this same New Left that, through one of its more prominent members in our parliament, asserted that homosexuality and bisexuality were totally alien to and unacceptable in Sri Lanka, despite its avowedly liberal attitude towards matters of such controversy. The heart, as always, remains cut off from the head.

And while they were all trying to connect the one to the other, their ideological foes elsewhere were being overwhelmed by the most disastrous wave of anti-left movements that were being paraded by their financiers as pro-left. The undoing of the Old Left was the undoing of Left movements everywhere in the eighties, a period that saw the end of the Cold War and the diffusion of political realities and conflicts between the unilateralists and the multilateralists, the latter of whom have joined the former in their quest to prove Huntington’s clash of civilisations. The end of the Cold War was, therefore, accompanied by a culture of intellectualism which sought to substitute the class consciousness of the traditional left for a new, ethnocentric conception of rights and justice. Where the Old Left figured in all this, and what response the New Left had to it, opens up another topic, one which I will dwell on next week.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 10 2017

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Shelton Wirasinha and the parameters of education

The inaugural Shelton Wirasinha Oration was held at Wesley College on Thursday, October 19 and was presided over by Kumar de Silva.

Probably many people feel about the weather these days as I do: it’s bewildering. You can never tell where it’s headed to, whether it’s going to drizzle, pour, or simply overwhelm. What happens more often than not, therefore, is that an already gridlock-choked Colombo becomes even more throttled and suffocated with bumper-to-bumper traffic on weekday evenings, a problem because, one Thursday evening last month, I had to be at a particular school several kilometres away from where I usually am (my office) within 20 minutes. Not difficult, but that’s only if you don’t account for the sudden downpour, which on this blessed evening materialised. Neither the rain nor the police-officers on the road, however, could keep me from reaching my destination, and so at 4.45 I was at Wesley College, drenched to my fingers, waiting for Kumar de Silva to open up what he told me was a very, very promising Oration.

To those of us who haven’t been to Wesley and to those who have been to Wesley after the eighties, the person around whom this Oration revolved around remains a mystery. I first heard the name when I sat down for an interview with the gentle, suave Saliya Pieris, the fundamental rights lawyer whose anecdotes I put down on paper and print years ago. Pieris had been, as he told me, an avid quizzer, a fanatical stickler for facts and figures and statistics, which had got him to what was then Sri Lanka’s premier Quiz Show: the Dulux Do You Know Contest. Heading that contest, as part-organiser and presenter, was a gentleman whose entire life, career, and views on education Kumar expounded on, ravishingly and for us, that evening. The gentleman, incidentally, was Shelton Wirasinha.

I sat down in the Wesley College Hall. The coloured glass, partly shattered, the piano, the stage, and the table and chair on the stage all stared back at me. The sleek blend of passion and piety that the College Choir gave out impressively in their performances, the preparatory speeches by various officials, and the half-whispers that everyone around was engaged in helped make me forget the torrential deluge outside. Moreover, the piano and the stage, brought together, took me back to an earlier, gentler era, of the Wesleyans and the Methodists who had, true to their roots, musicalised the experience of ordinary Christians the world over. And then, as I was contemplating on the quaintness of it all, Kumar came and began to speak. I took down notes, recorded what he had to say, and jumped to certain conclusions.

Shelton Wirasinha’s life in itself deserves, I believe, an entire biography to itself. Born in 1923 in Richmond Hill, Galle, he was educated at Richmond College and educated so well that he walked away with prizes for participation and victory as a debater, a dramatist, a scout, an athlete, a musician, and a cricketer. As a scholar too he triumphed, winning the prestigious Darrel Medal for Best Student. A student with so much promise could only be a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer, in the general scheme of things. But this student dared to disagree: he wanted to be a teacher, because he wanted to share what he had learnt. His first stint at teaching, at St Anthony’s College Rakwana, ended with him contracting cerebral malaria; after a short stint at St Peter’s College in Colombo, he returned to Richmond College as Vice-Principal. The year was 1947. About 10 years later, as the Principal, he would inaugurate Sri Lanka’s oldest school quiz club.

In 1961 he left Richmond College for Wesley College, where having assumed duties as Principal he waded through the difficult years of government takeovers and shifts in the national education policy. Having encountered the “difficult choice” of either going for the State or embracing a non-fee-levying model that would depend on private donations, Wirasinha and Wesley opted for the latter. It was around this time that Kumar made his entrance, being admitted in 1968 and surviving a tumultuous period in our education sector (owing to the syllabus change from the Ordinary/Advanced Level model to the NGCE/HNCE model that was aborted right after the government responsible for it was).

Wirasinha, enduring all this, took to teaching Kumar personally, given that the latter happened to be the only student at the time who had offered English, French, and German for his A Levels (a choice that was to follow his life as journalist, broadcaster, compère, and raconteur). He knew his poets (Wordsworth, de la Mare, Keats) and his playwrights (especially Shakespeare), so what Kumar learnt about these poets and playwrights, he learnt from his Principal. Having retired in 1983, Wirasinha then served as the presenter of the Do You Know Contest right until his death two years later. Two days before his passing away, he was reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I have not read it, and neither has Kumar (though he was asked to by his erstwhile guru). The date was November 13, 1985. 11 days later, he would have turned 62.

What of the man’s character? Kumar told us of his perseverance and of his at times erratic, unpredictable behaviour: how, for instance, he would go on teaching him long after the interval bell had rung and would accompany the hungry English student to the tuck-shop and get him excused long after the interval was over (“The prefects, obnoxious as they were, took delight in pulling me up. I had the perfect cover. I would say, ‘Ask the Principal.’ They dared not”). He was also a fervent believer in the cane, which Kumar affirmed (“You used the cane and corrected the child”) and yet also in nurturing the student’s innate sensibilities, which is how, during his tenure, a horde of teachers and children who tilted towards the arts made a mark for themselves in their respective cultural spheres: among the teachers, Felix Premawardhana and Cyril Wickramage; among the students, Givantha Arthasad and Kamal Addaraarachchi (who was given the encouragement to act in Gamini Fonseka’s Sagarayak Meda that he needed but did not get from his parents, to whom he lied for his first role; the rest, they say, is history).

In fact what emerges from Kumar’s Oration is the portrait of a polygot as a teacher. Because he was just that: a polygot, who knew almost everything under the sun. It was an almost self-contradictory man who resided in him: on the one hand he believed firmly in education as a means of emancipating the mind (without focusing only on jobs), and yet on the other he believed as firmly in obtaining technical skills.

The shift from the one to the other was, naturally, a sign that the times were changing: he had been a polygot who had received his education from a system that would become more democratised, more open, and hence more pressurising and employment-oriented. (The much heralded Medium Term Plan for education under the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government, which substituted the NGCE and HNCE for the Ordinary and Advanced Levels, was implemented 12 years after Wirasinha became Principal.) This shift affected the content of the subjects he had loved as well: at the time of his retirement, we had moved from Leavis’s Great Tradition of Austen and Eliot and embraced contemporary poets and novelists, including Gabriel Okara. Kumar remembered how he got his former student to teach him these writers and their works for his private tuition classes, after his retirement. ”Such was his humility!” the student remembered the teacher in his tribute.

Broadly speaking there always have been two schools of thought that dominate our education discourse: those who believe in the good old days and those who look to the future. The nostalgic tree-dwellers, so the discourse goes, believe in an education system which imparts as much knowledge, and wisdom, as possible in the student without extrapolating and finding out whether that knowledge and wisdom are practical and can obtain employment. The futurists, on the other hand, are specialists: they want to divide knowledge into several streams, cut off from each other so much that doctors don’t know how to paint and painters don’t know the first thing about first aid. I am of course being simplistic there, but my point is (and this is something Kumar implied in his Oration) that this so-called discourse has for so long been embroiled in a conflict between those two schools: a conflict which never existed among the likes of Shelton Wirasinha. I never met the man, I never studied at any of the schools he taught at, but I do know this: he was an educationist who believed in the congruence of education and employment without those needless doomsday predictions about which subjects were worthy of careers and which are not.

So yes, I did enjoy Kumar’s Oration. The man has that rare ability to keep his audiences transfixed (which is why I am surprised, if not shocked, that it took more than 10 screen tests for him to become Bonsoir’s presenter back in the eighties), with just the right blend of wit, sobriety, and soul-searching that an Oration of this sort needs. Did I know Shelton Wirasinha any better? Yes. Do we all miss him, and the likes of him? Yes. Can we look forward to the day when the likes of him will flourish? For our sake and for the sake of generations to come in this blessed country of ours, I certainly hope so.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 9 2017

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Lathikka Niriella: Mad about quizzing

Reflections on Sri Lanka’s Number One Quizzer.

Quiz competitions aren’t just about questions and answers. They are about teams pitting their wits against each other and getting to know about each other. They are about teachers, students, and well-wishers exchanging pleasantries. And they are about relationships and commonalities rooted in the excitement of knowing the correct answer to the correct question. Unfortunately I haven’t been to many quizzes, I haven’t met many teachers, students, or well-wishers, and I haven’t exchanged (m)any pleasantries this way. But I have met Lathikka Niriella, the Number One Quizzer in this country. He had a story. And I badly wanted to write it down.

Lathikka Asiri Niriella was born to a family that instilled in him an open, liberal attitude to the world. His father, Professor Chandrasiri Niriella, had been a forensic pathologist, while his mother Chitra Niriella had been a stickler for the arts (particularly music). Consequently young Lathikka grew up adoring the arts and the sciences, a point he attributes to another fact: that he was able to read, and understand, beyond his age. “When I was eight, I went on reading more and more history and science books, all of which happened to be discernibly outside what had been prescribed.” Compounding this, of course, was his education: firstly at Trinity College, Kandy, and later at Richmond College, Galle.

Curiously enough he had studied almost exclusively in Sinhala at Trinity, a problem given that he became probably the student in his class with the “least amount of knowledge” of English. “But I picked it up, primarily because at Trinity we were taught textbooks that were far advanced for our age. So we ended up studying the Grade Four textbook in Grade Three. And it wasn’t merely my schooling. My two brothers and I were encouraged to listen to Western music, and not just Sinhala or Hindi melodies, and to read as much as we could in English by my parents. We soon became cosmopolitans."

Things had been different at Richmond College, where he and his brothers were admitted to after the whole family moved to Galle in 1982. His father’s job had been the reason for the shift. “That was a time when highly educated people were respected. We weren’t really rich, but people didn’t bother with status. They were awed by my father, the result being that we were held in esteem by our new neighbourhood.”

He quickly adapted to life at Richmond, not surprisingly, revelling in his favourite subject, Social Studies. It was at his new school, moreover, that this young reader, learner, and connoisseur of sorts engaged in his first real school activity: the Quiz Club, apparently Sri Lanka’s oldest such school club with a history going back to 1957. This had been supplemented by a TV series: the first local quiz show, the Dulux Do You Know Contest, hosted by the man who had established the Club at Richmond, the redoubtable Shelton Wirasinha. Lathikka was impressed: “All what my parents encouraged in me came out in the questions he asked.” The Dulux Contest wrapped up in 1985 (when Wirasinha passed away), but its impact on him was monumental.

Lathikka did his O Levels in 1988, gaining nine distinctions, and his A Levels three years later, gaining less-than-expected results (three C’s and one S) that compelled him to sit for it again the following year (1992). His second attempt yielded a more favourable total (240 out of 400 marks), enough to secure him a placement at the University of Moratuwa. Meanwhile he had joined the Quiz Club during his A Levels, taking part in his first competition in January 1991 at the Master Mind Contest organised by the Lion’s Club (the Master Mind, back then open to only schools, would later open up to private teams and individuals). The Richmond team emerged third (“I believe the Royal College team came first”). After his A Level years were up, however, he left the Club, which meant several years spent concentrating on his degree: a Bachelor’s in Built Environment (a multidisciplinary field that has since been divided into various streams).

Those years of study and concentration eventually gave way to his love for quizzing, when it was resuscitated by a series of foreign shows he began watching on local television, especially Jeopardy. “About two years after that, in 1999, there was a quiz organised at the University inviting every Faculty to participate. I was strangely the only contestant from my department. Pitted against so many other students, I emerged as the winner.” The quiz had been organised by Dinesh Weeratunga (a veteran quizzer from Royal College), who, seeing the victor, asked him to consider joining his team. “That’s how I got to meet my other quizzing partners: Ruwan Senanayake and Nalaka Gunawardene. I joined them in 2001.”

By the time he completed his degree in 2003, he had let go of any desire to be an architect. “I figured out that I didn’t want to ‘apply’ what I had learnt. So I became a journalist, starting out in 2000 with the Daily Mirror. Back then Lalith Alahakoon was the Editor.” He had followed it up with teaching stints at Elizabeth Moir from September 2002 to July 2003, Colombo South for a few months in 2007, and a small school in Nugegoda called Southland from 2008 to 2011, before joining Royal Institute in January 2012. “I teach Science and History,” he tells me, “And I enjoy it very, very much.”

So how did this journalist and teacher pursue quizzing? From 2001 to 2007 he and Ruwan Senanayake forged on ahead with more contests throughout the country. Of his own accord, Lathikka went for pub quizzes, starting with the Echelon Pub Quiz at the Colombo Hilton, coming in at third or fourth place, and finally winning it in 2002. This latter victory opened him to another invitation, extended by Haren Fernando and a group of students from Elizabeth Moir (where he would soon be teaching). “What happened thereafter was this: for Pub Quizzes I would be in Haren’s team, for normal quizzes I would be in Ruwan’s team.” Added to this was another landmark win: the 2006 World Quizzing Championship, where Lathikka came second 125th in the world and second in Sri Lanka after Haren.

He found himself in another team when, in 2011 after Ruwan had left for Australia, he was extended another invitation, this time by an almost larger-than-life artist who had returned from the United States with his brother: Vindana Ariyawansha. “That was quite a team, to be honest. We were joined by Haren, Dilantha Gunawardana, and Dhammika Atapattu, all of whom have since become reckonable quizzers.”

I put to Lathikka that inasmuch as quizzing, like chess, inspires passion so much that ardent fans tend to take to it at the cost of nearly everything else, in Sri Lanka some balance must be struck between what you love and how you live. He agrees. “I always tell my students to study what they do not just for quiz competitions but for their general education as well. Especially in private schools, there is an immense pressure for you to ‘recover’ what your parents spent because of you by entering University. Quizzes are fun. They are exhilarating. They open you up. But by themselves, they are not enough.”

Which brings me to my next question: what does it take to win at a quiz? Memory? Logic? Common sense? According to Lathikka, it’s a sleek combination of all three. “In this field, all other things being what they are, having a good memory will immediately improve you and put you at an advantage. But a good memory alone won’t do. You need to think logically, to deduct and to add. If three of four possible answers to a question about Pre-Raphaelite painters involve Picasso, Da Vinci, and Monet, you know the fourth answer has to be the correct one.” That last point compels another question, incidentally: in an era where Google has overwhelmed memory and recall, do quizzes really matter?

Lathikka is noticeably cautious in his reply: “For one thing, quizzes are exciting. They oil your memory. I believe it was Niels Bohr, the physicist, who contended that the more you stretch your mind, the more it liberates itself. So yes, in answer to your question they do matter. Moreover, the point that the digital era makes quizzes obsolete is rather fallacious considering that this means you don’t need to remember mathematical calculations and equations because of calculators. Today’s children are interested less and less in recall than in resorting to Google. They’ve become dependent on technology, simply put.”

What about the quality of the game in the country? “Inasmuch as those TV shows we have are competitive, and qualitatively better than they used to be, we are still very much behind our neighbours. For instance, this year I was ranked the 23rd top quizzer in the Asia-Pacific region. Of the other 22, 19 are from India, two from Australia, and one from New Zealand. This cannot be a coincidence. Even the Indian Quiz Shows are far better than ours. Which brings me to another point: the fact that none of the top 25 Asian Quizzers is from East Asia – including Japan and Singapore – indicates that their preference for memorising facts hasn’t helped them become major players in this field. That takes me to what I told you earlier: having a well oiled memory won’t help you stay ahead in this field all the time. You need to think logically as well.”

Well oiled memory and logical thinking: it would seem that Lathikka Niriella has fortunately been blessed with both. That has doubtless helped him stay ahead, wherever he has been: as a teacher, as a journalist, as a raconteur. Surprisingly for me, though, he prefers to remain aloof, though when shared interests come into play he opens up and pours out one anecdote after another. Perhaps it’s that passion for reading he still has. Perhaps it’s his mother and father. Perhaps it’s Shelton Wirasinha, Richmond College, and all those fellow travellers he has encountered. Or perhaps it’s a combination of all these things. Whatever the answer, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve done my job. I’ve taken down his story.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 7 2017

Friday, November 3, 2017

The history of the vanguard

Somewhere in the late forties and early fifties in the United States a group of intellectuals and artists who had earlier been members of the Communist Party publicly and willingly denounced communism. Some of them went further: they alleged that communists had infiltrated the government and the movie industry and thus consciously started a witch-hunt against those who were felt to be too liberal, too soft, with respect to the Soviet Union. An irony, considering that the US War Propaganda Machine had covertly encouraged filmmakers to depict the Soviets as a peace-loving people (this was during the Second World War, when the communists sided with the Free World against the Nazis). The result of all these experiences with left-wing politics was a long tract against left-wing politics by the ex-communists: The God That Failed.

Isaac Deutscher, the Polish journalist, critic, and activist, whose biographies of Trotsky and Stalin are revered and acclaimed the world over even today, reviewed this book and began his review by quoting one of the writers, Ignazio Silone: “The final struggle will be between the communists and the ex-communists.” The names of the other writers were marketable enough: Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon), André Gide, Louis Fischer, Richard Wright, and Stephen Spender. There were other names involved, of course: Whittaker Chambers, who denounced Alger Hiss during the Red Scare years, and Max Eastman, who had been a close friend of John Reed, the American journalist who covered the October Revolution and was cremated at the Kremlin.

Deutscher spared no words: for him, inasmuch as the disillusionment felt by these six ex-communists would have been powerful and understandable, the route they had taken, from disenchantment to anger to downright fury, merely made them embrace a form of totalitarianism and paranoia that was no different to that which they had rejected. As legal scholars have pointed out, after all, the Hollywood Blacklist, in which suspected communists in Hollywood were disbarred from engaging in any work in the industry, had no proper legal basis: it was and it remains illegal because no crime was ever properly defined, the powers of the American Congress notwithstanding. In embracing that kind of irrational frenzy, therefore, the ex-communist was no different to the Stalinist. “The heretic,” Deutscher observed, “becomes a renegade.”

But there were reasons for the change, not least of them Stalin’s Purges. In themselves these constituted a flagrant betrayal of the revolution because the liberal tradition that had preceded it, during the Lenin years, were all gone in a series of kangaroo trials. It’s not difficult to imagine the ardent Stalinist or even Trotskyite cringing before the sight of intellectuals and thinkers being put to death, or before the cowardice of those who had to yield and betray friends. An irony, certainly, because in later years they would be willing organisers of a similar series of kangaroo trials in their own country that promoted witch-hunts on the one hand and betrayals on the other. But I’m digressing here.

This November marks a hundred years since the October Revolution. What it means for Sri Lanka, whether the left movement in this country (if there is such a movement) has survived, are questions best answered later. For now, what interests me is this: in a context where the left has been consistently vilified using all sorts of epithets, what place did it have here and elsewhere? In other words, has history been unkind?

In colonial societies like ours, the rift in the left movement was between the base and the superstructure, or in other words the leadership and the membership. This translated to the rift between the vanguard and the laity, a rift that was necessitated in our societies because for the most it was the vanguard leadership who had access to Marxist literature. Obviously the membership, most of whom were barely conversant in English, did not have that access, a problem compounded by the fact that this was long before any proper Sinhala translation of those texts were made. What resulted was a curious contradiction, between the stated aims of a society of equals and the class orientation of the vanguard, most of whom, it must be said, came from the anglicised upper crust of their countries.

Given this situation it wasn’t too surprising that over the years the personal views of the leadership should clash and give way to rifts, splinters, and amalgamations within the parties based on ideological grounds: between the Stalinists and the Trotskyites, and later between the revolutionary and the gradualist wings of the Trotskyites. Sri Lanka unfortunately proved this to be more the case than the exception, unfortunate because, as the likes of Regi Siriwardena has observed, we did not have the kind of militantly nationalistic bourgeoisie who were agitating for independence in India. Consequently there was an opportunity for the Trotskyites, an opportunity that was not availed of. But this is not the only difference between colonial and postcolonial Sri Lanka (between Ceylon and Sri Lanka) that is vital to any assessment of our left movement.

Commentators sometimes contend that what gave rise to the Stalinist excesses of the thirties and forties was the fact that the Communist Party, in Russia, was a vanguard entity, which is true to an extent. But the vanguard entity that spawned totalitarianism in that part of the world spawned apathy and complacency in ours: despite the best attempts by our most farsighted leftist leaders, N. M. Perera and Philip Gunawardena included, they could not resist yielding to ideological pressures brought about by populist politics. It was this culture of political complacency that was echoed in the reactions of the left to the JVP student insurrection of 1971. One by one, the revolutionists, who would all be rounded up and rehabilitated and then only released to their societies, were indicted as CIA-sponsored fascists fresh from their adventures in Jakarta (where the CIA had earlier taken part in the rise to power of General Suharto, by no means a leftist).

1956 had released a whole horde of idealists who would wallow in free education and a government they could consider as theirs. But not unlike the idealists of the forties in the United States, the children of 1956, or the children of those children, who had voted for change over the status quo and hence Bandaranaike over Senanayake, were fast becoming disillusioned by the people that had become the leaders of their movement, economically and socially. Needless to say it was during these years – the Sirimavo years, when Sri Lanka attained self-sufficiency in food and tried to keep up with the rest of the industrialised world – which gave rise to two issues: growing unemployment on the one hand and growing racial unrest on the other. The first would breed the insurrection; the second, a bloody, costly 30 year war.

By this time, of course, the rift between the vanguard and the laity, and the laity and the fringe, had given way: because of free education along with translations of Marxist texts and literature from Russia, an entire bilingual and vernacular generation grew up to spurn the Old Left that had inspired the vanguard movement. The Old Left was exactly that, therefore: Old. This wasn’t the time for swimming pool, armchair socialists who smoked and led extravagant lives that were manifestly at odds with the kind of the lifestyles they were promoting throughout the country. They had earned the enmity of the bourgeoisie before; now they were earning the enmity of the people, predominantly the middle class.

So we all became renegades, but not before those among us who remained idealists took to the New Left. In the eighties the LSSP along with a bunch of other parties formed the United Socialist Alliance with Vijaya Kumaratunga to emulate the freewheeling, sahodhara-premaya rhetoric of the JVP. But it was to no avail: as I noted a few months back elsewhere, while the USA depended on Vijaya, Vijaya did not depend on the USA. When he was killed, consequently, the USA was finished, bringing about the third most significant political phenomenon since 1956 and 1971: the federalist-devolutionist discourse that continues in our political circles even today. But that’s for another article.

If the sixties and the seventies saw a dismantling of the vanguard structure in our left movement, then the new millennium saw a dismantling of the rift between the lay membership and the fringe, at the expense of the leadership. What I mean here, of course, is the empowerment of the student movement, and the fringe movement, both of which have proved to be more powerful, more credible, than the politburos of the New Left. The fringe movement was formerly the monopoly of the ivory tower academic, whose main role today is to apologise for the excesses of whatever government he or she is a part of (a sad contradiction, certainly): now, on the other hand, it has been transformed to an oppositional space occupied by ordinary folk, artists, civil rights activists, intellectuals not cut off from the general public. This particular phenomenon deserves separate treatment. I will get to it. Here. Next week. For now, I am done.

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 3 2017

Thursday, November 2, 2017

For the love of quizzing, or Angelo Rozairo's lesson


The Blue and Gold Quiz, organised by the General Knowledge Club of Royal College, will be held on Tuesday, November the 7th at the College Hall for the 27th consecutive time.

Angelo Rozairo, who taught French at my school, was the wittiest teacher I ever encountered. He had that rare ability to turn the most banal sayings downside up, to disrupt the processes and structures which organisations flaunted in the name of order, to defend his students if they ever had been misunderstood by authorities. He had a big enough heart and a big enough mind too: open to virtually every field of activity a language could open anyone up to, he could refer to anything substantive, be it from his subject to the latest movie. Teachers like that are rare, sadly. They just don’t come like that anymore.

I remember a particular evening at the school canteen, a few weeks after the Quiz Club had organised an inter-house competition which had, all in all, not gone very well. Monsieur Rozairo, as we called him then, had read the souvenir I had hastily put together for the occasion. Buried deep within that souvenir was a message I had even more hastily penned: a banal, pretentious essay on the importance of knowing facts, understanding the world, and so on. Monsieur Rozairo had read it, and as I entered the canteen, he stopped me, grinned, and pointed me to something I had written in that essay: that true knowledge, like true wisdom, can never harm or unduly benefit anyone. In hindsight that was a rather stupid point to make.


Monsieur looked at me, quoted what I’d written, and informed me point-blank and candidly, “Knowledge is not a weapon, you say. It’s not a tool to expropriate from others, you say. But that’s knowledge as you understand it, with respect to harmless statistics. There’s a body of knowledge that is a weapon and can expropriate. It’s called blackmail.” This was new to me of course, not least of all because it never occurred to me that blackmail could constitute knowledge. Looking back now, I believe that was a failure on my part: knowledge resists compartmentalisation. It includes everything. And excludes nothing. As it should.

The rift between knowledge and wisdom is so tight that no one, not even a dim-witted halfwit, would consider challenging it. And to a considerable extent, there is a great deal of truth in that dichotomy: while knowledge, as we understand it today, has been reduced to parroting out facts and figures, wisdom entails application, discrimination, analysis, more than mere comprehension. It’s easy to know, tougher to know how to apply what one knows. In turn this is rooted in the rather terrible dichotomy between the thinkers and the doers in our society: the former know what kind of nail your Monet or Degas needs to stay pinned on the wall, while the latter will not know but will be ready to comply with whatever nail is given to them. Which brings me to the subject of this piece: the function and place of quizzes and quiz clubs here.

First and foremost, there are more table quizzes (my definition: a series of rounds whether clearly or vaguely defined which get participants to pen down answers around a table) in here than there ever were before. This sudden proliferation, obviously, has to do with the mass culture we have institutionalised. Probably no one would have imagined the kind of populist quizzes aired on television today (think of Sirasa Pentathlon) three or four years ago, or those reality shows that test and reward what one knows in front of a live audience (Obada Lakshapathi). There are traditions embedded in these competitions, however, which not even the most glamorous, technically novel reality show can flounder. In large part, these traditions have been kept and sustained by clubs which bear a long history. Particularly in our schools.


On Tuesday, November the 7th the General Knowledge Club of Royal College, Colombo will unveil the 27th Blue and Gold Quiz, the longest running school quiz in this country. Incidentally the Club itself is not the oldest, since that distinction belongs (I believe) to the Club at Richmond College, Galle. Whatever the number of years, the length, or even the distinctions, historical or otherwise, however, these competitions help us understand how the culture of quizzing evolved in Sri Lanka, or for that matter in the world, from a series of casual flings to what it has become today.

The Blue and Gold Quiz differs from most other quizzes, whether organised by school societies or private institutions, with respect to its format: while most competitions are categorised into rounds dedicated to particular themes (Current Affairs, History, Geography) this tournament is more or less scattered with rounds that don’t follow such themes and are a veritable mishmash of written down queries and audio and video clips. While this can disconcert, it also can push the unwary quizzer: if he has come expecting certain questions to follow a certain format, he will be sorely disappointed, but at the same time his mind will be more sharpened and pitted against every other competitor. It’s an exhilarating, open textured format, in other words, refreshingly random, though it has attracted its share of flak over the years.

27 years isn’t a long time when considering that quizzing in Sri Lanka boasts of a longer, richer history, but it is relevant considering that its inception coincides with the flowering of a cohesive culture of quizzing. The oldest school quiz club, as I mentioned earlier, was established at Richmond College somewhere in the late fifties (1957, if I am not mistaken, in which case 2017 marks its 60th anniversary).

It was from Richmond College that two prominent quizzing personalities emerged. The first of these, Shelton Wirasinha, who later wound up as Principal at Wesley College, became the first Quiz Master in Sri Lanka, when in the eighties he hosted the Dulux Do You Know Quiz, a must-watch show from the day it started in 1982 to its demise three years later (when Wirasinha passed away). The Dulux Quiz (followed by its Sinhala variant, Soyamu Pilithuru, hosted by Gunaratne Abeysekera) had among its more illustrious participants Saliya Pieris, who won second place in 1984 and who has now become one of Sri Lanka’s most well-informed fundamental rights lawyers.

The eighties and the nineties were clearly tumultuous decades and this in particular owing to the rise and maturing of television. It is television, then, that salvaged quizzing, though ironically it was overwhelmed and taken over by the traditional table format we see today, at our schools or at private institutions ranging from the banking to the telecommunications industry. That the Blue and Gold Quiz began in 1990, then, is not coincidental: the truth is that television had saved our quizzers, but only for a short while. With the turn of the millennium, and the entry of the World Quizzing Championships in Sri Lanka, we returned to the conventional table tournament.

Which begs the question, naturally: in a context where everything and anything is at our beck and call through the internet, do quiz shows matter? Yes and no: yes because Google has all but completely trivialised the need to recall, and no because the argument that the webscape is a substitute for our memory is fallacious since a) it means we are depending on technology, which shouldn’t be the case anyway, and b) it’s no different to saying that we must let go of the need to remember mathematical calculations and equations because of (what else?) calculators. This latter point was conceded by the second prominent quizzer that Richmond College bred: Lathikka Niriella, currently the Number One Quizzer in Sri Lanka, whose story I will get to. Soon. For the time being, though, here are some final reflections.


Like I noted before, there are more school quizzes being inaugurated here than ever before. Two reasons account for this: one, the proliferation of TV shows that market quiz shows like hotcakes, and two, the solid base the activity has been blessed with, thanks to earlier quiz shows organised by older schools. Whatever the part of the country – from the North to the South – quizzing is an intensely fascinating activity which continues to take in more and more members each year. The fact that the General Knowledge Club remains among the five most popular extracurricular activities at Royal College is a testament to this. I believe the same can be said of Clubs and Societies in other schools, elsewhere. With one caveat: if they are made to privilege age and seniority over interest and enthusiasm, they cannot and will not see through the long term. That is why there are selection procedures and why students are trained from a young age.

Magnus Magnusson, who died 10 years ago after a lifetime spent hosting what was then the leading TV Quiz Show, BBC’s Mastermind, once quipped on the controversy surrounding memorising nuggets of information: “To my mind, there is no such thing as knowledge not worth knowing.” This raises another question: should quizzes test you on knowledge alone? After all, I’ve come to appreciate more hardy questions, the sort that asks you, “If a peacock lays three eggs in one hour, how many eggs can it lay in three?” and laughs at you when you answer “Nine” when the correct answer should have been “Peacocks don’t lay eggs, stupid!” Perhaps these quizzes, including the Blue and Gold, will get us closer to them. And perhaps what Monsieur Angelo Rozairo told me holds true: there’s nothing that can’t be called knowledge.

Photos courtesy of: The Photographic Society of Royal College

Written for: Daily Mirror, November 2 2017