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.