Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Dharmasiri Bandaranayake: Beyond the personal

The four films of Dharmasiri Bandaranayake stand out like zeitgeists of the eighties and the nineties. They reflect what could have been, but was not, a more illustrious, colourful career. The alienation of the individual from his surroundings, the unreliability of an objective voice, the solace of psychological confinement, are all themes that brings these four films together; they differentiate them from his political plays. Bandaranayake’s cinema is never totally political in that sense. They never concede to political polemics. Based on the rift between power and its absence, the helplessness of the loner in the face of patriarchy, feudalism, and the many manifestations of power, they delve acutely into the personal. The late Cyril Perera observed that his films never really received the critical treatment they deserved. He was correct.

I remember the launch ceremony of Kumar de Silva’s book on Irangani Serasinghe more than two years ago, in which Bandaranayake (who had worked with Serasinghe and her husband Winston several times) subtly but confidently differentiated his generation from hers: “They were the generation of Ernest MacIntyre and English theatre. We were the generation of 1956, the children of 1956.” It was that generation which in later years, particularly after the disillusionment which the 1971 insurrection compelled in young idealists, fresh from University, determined that the local theatre belonged to a left-of-centre political sphere. Bandaranayake took over Henry Jayasena’s version of Makara and transformed it into Makarakshaya, reflecting this shift from Jayasena’s aestheticism to his deeply felt, sincerely articulated political convictions. The message that the play gave out, that there are more burgomasters than there are dragons, was aptly valid for a period in our history in which those burgomasters flourished in our political culture.

But that was the theatre, a manifestly different medium to the cinema. To trace Bandaranayake’s as a film director one needs to read on his childhood. He was born in 1949 and was educated at Vidyarathne College in Horana. Even then there had been a politically active theatre culture throughout Sri Lanka, particularly outside Colombo, and the man had felt this acutely through one of his drama teachers at his school, Hemasiri Liyanage (who also hailed from Horana). Apparently Liyanage had been one of his figures of destiny, who had let his student’s imagination run riot through the many plays he staged at school. This was during the sixties, a tense, uneasy period in our history.

Surprisingly, he was only a teenager when he first encountered the cinema. While he had not been a film fan as such before, his many encounters with the theatre had enabled him to meet Dayananda Gunawardena, who was directing his debut. Those who have seen Bakmaha Deege would no doubt remember Bandaranayake as the manservant, the childishly silly and innocent Premadasa. I believe he himself, speaking at that book launch ceremony I alluded to before, offered the most fitting comment or riposte: “When Avurudu is around the corner and when TV stations telecast the movie, I hear laughter throughout my neighbourhood and, I suspect, the country whenever Premadasa comes in.” He was about 17 at the time. Surprisingly, however, he never was interested in pursuing acting in the cinema thereafter: he was more interested in the camerawork and the editing, and hence struck up a friendship with Willie Blake and Sumitra Peries: “What fascinated me were the technicalities involved in the making of a film.”

Young Bandaranayake’s assessment of Gunawardena was clear: “He kept an admirable balance between the theatre and the cinema. He was, in other words, conscious of the differences which existed between the two mediums while being aware of their parallels. The film was an adaptation of an Italian opera. Gunawardena was very careful about vetting if not filtering out the theatrical side to it when transposing it.” To me, and no doubt to countess other viewers, this was and is one of the two biggest strengths of Bakmaha Deege, the other strength being the fact that it can’t really be sourced, i.e. that one can’t really state that it was an adaptation at all in the first place. I therefore put to Bandaranayake that the man indigenised the story so well that it became truly Sri Lankan, a point he agreed with at once.

After that first encounter with the cinema, however, the man let go of any ideas about the industry he may have entertained, and concentrated on the theatre. During the seventies, when our political theatre (and, to an extent, cinema) matured, he displayed his talent, proved his mettle, and took over from the stylised and the kitchen sink plays that had been the norm in the preceding decades. The shift from Ediriweera Sarachchandra to the likes of Sugathapala de Silva had been one of mood and temperament, from the former’s reliance on imagery to the former’s reliance on speech. The shift from the likes of de Silva to the likes of Bandaranayake was less of mood than of conviction, although the kitchen sink play, the best example of which was Boarding Karayo, reflected the personal agonies and social angst that would be unleashed in gushes and torrents after 1971. Boarding Karayo, in that sense, was a precursor to Makarakshaya, if only distantly so. As with Nanda Malini in our musical sphere, hence, it is to Bandaranayake that we owe our understanding of political potential of the arts, in his case the theatre.

It was in this context that Vasantha Obeyesekere selected him for the role of the protagonist in Palagetiyo. Between this and Bakmaha Deege there had been a space of 10 years, a long enough time for attitudes, idealisms, and personal convictions to change and, if provoked, sour beyond expectation. In Palagetiyo we come across a different actor in Bandaranayake: as Sarath Gunawardena, the embittered protagonist who works as a manager for a rich mudalali and then elopes with his daughter, he virtually distilled the alienation from personal feelings the youth of his time might have, against their will, felt. In Obeyesekere’s hands there is no attempt at romanticising the elopement (which occurs secretly, and quickly, at night) barring the first few sequences in Sarath’s village. The misery and the harsh realities that the girl (played by Dammi Fonseka, slain tragically in Kahathuduwa after the film was released) forces herself to are poignantly depicted, as is her confused, repressed feelings of love towards a neighbour (played by Ranjan Mendis) in the shanty house they are compelled to live in, given Sarath’s unemployed status.

Even on a first viewing, the parallels between Palagetiyo and Bandaranayake’s debut, Hansa Vilak, are certainly hard to miss: both have Bandaranayake as the condemned protagonist, both have Henry Jayasena as a ramrod figure of the establishment that he is pitted against, and both involve the conflict between eroticism and social discrepancies. But while the latter conflict in Palagetiyo is tempered by class rifts, the conflict in Hansa Vilak is tempered by a forever irreconcilable rift between personal feelings and familial obligations. Not even the acceptance of the divorce between the vague Miranda (Swarna Mallawarachchi) and Douglas (Jayasena) by the courts is enough for those obligations to be swept away in favour of personal feelings, and the message we finally get – that the institution of marriage represses, absorbs, and does away with everything that comes in its way – is enough to tide over what I consider to be a deliberately and provocatively confused ending. Hansa Vilak (which Regi Siriwardena referred to in his review as a “permanent landmark”) was probably the first technically superior debut made by a film director here. (The freshness it evokes is reminiscent of the freshness that Sugathapala Senarath Yapa’s Hanthane Kathawa evoked: both filmmakers were avid film lovers, and both never got beyond three films thereafter, with Yapa entering the Government Film Unit and Bandaranayake resuming his career in the theatre.)

In Thunveni Yamaya he went beyond the psychological subjectivity depicted in Hansa Vilak, to varying degrees of success. Perhaps the relative failure he encountered with that film – the authors of Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema correctly surmise that in it there is a disjuncture between the director’s “bold outlook” and the “complex demands” the themes he explored required – compelled him to fall back on adaptations of literary texts thereafter: Suddilage Kathawa, Bhava Duka, Bhava Karma (the latter two of which were filmed together). The complexities of mood and milieu that these films open the viewer up to can’t really be ascertained or described through one review, let alone a newspaper sketch, so suffice it to say that they reveal the director’s belief that the personal always has a hand in shaping the social, that relationships between individuals can congeal into power relationships between different layers of society. In these three seminal films, those layers are determined by a feudal structure, which is where an interesting historical contradiction in Bhava Duka and Bhava Karma comes out: the fact that colonialism was so easily able to intrude on our society because the stratifications in our society, between the favoured and the unfavoured, allowed the conqueror to easily disrupt our lives.

Perhaps that’s the most fitting tribute we can make to this all too misunderstood director. And perhaps that’s why the last word should be his: “People come to me today requesting permission to remake Suddilage Kathawa with me. Forget the costs involved in doing that. The fact is that one can’t remake Suddi. The fact is that I simply won’t.”

Monday, January 15, 2018

Notes on history: The thinkers and the doers

The 15th and 16th centuries were largely eras of intellectual development in the West. These were eras of polygots and versatile thinkers, whose preoccupation with whatever fields they worked in did not hinder them from exploring other fields. Da Vinci was in that sense a giant, with his range of interests extending to not just sculpting, not just painting, but also mathematics and music. The same could have been said of Michelangelo and Islamic Civilization (the latter of which saw its peak from the 9th to the 13th centuries): in these epochs we see polygots as more the rule than the exception. They also came in a particular order, and were conditioned by their respective cultural ethos: the Muslim world with its paradoxical affirmation and defiance of Islam, and the Christian world with its as paradoxical trysts with deism.

But the sensibility of these centuries gave way to a sensibility of specialisation, on the material and the intellectual plane. The Industrial Revolution, with its differentiation on the one hand between capitalists and workers and on the other between art for minorities and objects for mass consumption, oversaw a veritable bifurcation, which congealed into a world inhabited by either thinkers or doers. Adam Smith’s famous hypothesis about the pin factory, in which various levels of production are categorised and compartmentalised for greater efficiencies and output, applied pretty much to everything else: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” he wrote, and in that sentence he identified self-interest with a need to compartmentalise ourselves, to specialise in a given field of activity that would, theoretically, do away with the need for versatility and self-sufficiency. It was a culture of doers and dependents, of masters and slaves, in one respect, and of thinkers and doers, of philosophers and businessmen, in another respect. Karl Marx would later term this differentiation in the capitalist world as the rift between the base and the superstructure: between the multitude and the elite. The one needed the other.

Long before heresies became an established practice in a secularised West, heresies were entertained and even covertly encouraged in the Muslim world. The great Muslim philosophers – Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Al-Gazali, Averroes – exerted a profound influence over a pre-Industrial West, but they were not automatically accommodative of the conventional wisdoms and the orthodoxies that ran riot in their societies. Al-Farabi went as far as to suggest that God (of the Koran, no less) did not or could not know the particular (the contingent), rather only the general (the universal), which was an extension of Plato’s thesis of universal forms and their mimesis in the realm of the secular. In other words, the function of the secular thinker was to obtain particulars from universals. God existed to rule over the latter, while us mortal beings existed to rule over the former. My point here, hence, is that four or five centuries before European heretical thinking became the rule, the Muslim world flourished with such heresies.

It’s with the progression (or regression?) in the Muslim world from the secular to the anti-secular, and in the Christian world from the anti-secular to the quasi-secular (quasi, because even the most profoundly secular thinker, as Professor Nalin de Silva has observed, could not escape the clutches of the two-valued logic system that was more or less a Judeo-Christian inheritance), that we see a deterioration in the values that propped these civilizations up, intellectually, at their peak. What I’d like to observe here is that history, with all its shifts of affiliations and tempers (ranging from wars between countries and collectives and conflicts or grudges between heads of state), is very often a good indicator of how the world regressed on the intellectual plane from versatility to specialisation, from cohesiveness and openness to enclosure and compartmentalisation. The rift between thinkers and doers hence opened its wings more widely with the development of capitalism, which is where we move from the 19th to the 20th century.

In the 20th century we see, as has been frequently noted before, the peak of capitalism and communism. These two ideologies evolved in pretty much the same era (the closest to a Hegelian conflict that we got to), shifting from cohabitation to mutually assured destruction to detente. Economic systems, however, never always result purely from themselves, and are the consequences of a certain culture, a certain way of looking at things. The fact then is that both capitalism and communism retained the welter of Western thought which both identified with as the years progressed: that of the material over the intellectual, that of tying up the intellectual with the material (in capitalism: the managerial system to harness the power of labour; in communism: the collectivist system to harness the power of commonly owned resources). In other words the intellectual and the artist became vassals to both consumerists and collectivists. Knowledge became instrumental, a means rather than an end.

The scientist, who earlier had been a harbinger of good intentions, was now an evil man after Hiroshima. During the Cold War it was the activist, the artist, the peace-lover, who gained prominence and popular empathy. Professionals, or the doers as conventional wisdom has it, were on the other hand looked down on. In The Doctor’s Dilemma Bernard Shaw contends, rightly I should think, that “All professions are conspiracies against the laity”, which was contorted in a Reader’s Digest article I read as a child and misquoted (or paraphrased) as “A self-regulated profession is an insult to the laity.” Whichever of the two you pick, it’s the same story: the profession, the vocation, which was a product of the Industrial Revolution deteriorated to a network of moneyed, vested interests operating in the private sphere: doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants, and academics in general. But not artists.

But then we must understand that the popular image of the artist as a lonely bachelor or spinster (as opposed to the busy, married husband and wife the professional is identified as), whiling away the time doing nothing, has persisted, and it is here that we come across a fatal contradiction in our societies, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Taoist: the professionals are taken seriously, the artists are not. Not that the artists themselves have done themselves any favours, of course, particularly thanks to their penchant for obfuscations, for their blatant preference for ideological haziness and obscurity over vigour and clarity, after the advent of postmodernism. The separation of the thinker from the doer subsists in the arts, for the most, in the separation of the critic, the purveyor, from the artist, the performer. Two people. Two sensibilities. Two ways of discerning the world. Two ways of responding to that world.

Isn’t it ironic that the greatest theories expounded on the cinema and photography – especially in the most formative years of these art forms – were expounded not by the practitioners of the art but by theorists cut off from that same art? Neither Susan Sontag (On Photography) nor Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida) was an exponent of photography, and what they wrote, the thinking that buttressed these writings, was a product of their enthusiasms. Pauline Kael, who purveyed the movies more wildly and freely than any other critic in the history of the medium, was once employed by Warren Beatty as a consultant to Paramount Pictures; despite her reviews and rants and raves against the Hollywood studios, it took some months for her to comprehend fully the problem of art versus commerce that subsisted in those closeted studio quarters. She had only purveyed the movies: her short tenure helped her understand the power relationships that went into the making of those movies more clearly.

When criticism is cut off from the arts, when theorists and ideological obscurants and iconoclasts (for were not the postmodernists iconoclasts, shielded as they were from popular public opinion?) rule the day, and when experiences can’t be conveyed to the general public without resorting to hazy generalisations, they no longer become valid. I can enjoy a movie, however obscure it may be, by Antonioni or Fellini or for that matter Handagama, but when directors contend that works of art must be aimed not an mass entertainment but at esoteric tastes, the films they churn out in the name of Art (with a capital A) lose their sense of exhilaration, a point which I think can also be made of music, literature, drama, dance, and theatre too. The surest sign of a philistine is his ability to make clear to us his intentions, and our philistines in the arts have succumbed to the intellectualisations (real or imagined) of their purveyors and critics.

The sensibility embodied in the post-Industrial Revolution world flourishes on intellectualisations, particularly in the arts, and they seek to make the artist, who really should be but is not a professional (he lacks the defining qualities of the professional: frequency and stability of income, client relationships, deadlines, etc), the vassal of the ivory tower thinker. Which brings me to a point I’ve raised more than once in more than one newspaper: in a country like Sri Lanka, where theatre and cinema and even music remain leisurely and not common activities, such a rift, between thinkers and doers on the one hand and performers and purveyors on the other, can prove to be detrimental, for our artists and our cultural spheres.

It’s a crazy paradox, certainly.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, January 14 2018

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Aabid Ismail and Janul de Silva: Unscrambling the scrambled



Words fascinate me. They were made for scrambling and unscrambling. For ordering and disordering. For constructing and deconstructing. They are what we make of them and don’t make of them. But on their own, they are not enough.

The World Youth Scrabble Championship is not the only Scrabble tournament organised internationally, but it is by far the biggest and the most recognised. That’s why November 2017 was so important for us: for the first time, Sri Lanka produced an international Scrabble Champion, along with a close Runner Up. That Champion, Aabid Ismail (who won 20.5 out of a possible 24 games), and Runner Up, Janul de Silva (who won 20 out of 24 games), share the same story, since both trace their beginnings to the same childhood encounters with the game, the same clubs, at school or elsewhere, and the same passion for what they are doing. I met them more than two weeks ago. Here’s what they told me.

I spoke with Aabid first. Like Janul, Aabid begins his story in middle school, and like Janul, he discovered his passion for Scrabble long before. Seeing his sister play it at family gatherings had gradually aroused his curiosity. What happened next, therefore, was predictable: he began playing it, against his sister, his parents, and his wider family. While these first encounters were casual affairs, Aabid nevertheless graduated. That’s when he joined his school’s Scrabble Club and when he met Janul. The first few days, obviously, had been intimidating: Aabid had not prepared himself for the timers which he had not been bothered with when he began playing against his sister, family, and friends. But then those first encounters helped. They pushed these two friends to the next level.

So what took these two to the game in the first place? Janul spoke up: “The fact that it begins with a set of random letters that coheres into a meaningful pattern.” Yes, but what was the wider motive, the overriding reason? Aabid spoke up here: “The tactics. How you transcend the letters you have and work around the limits they impose on you.” Since I am at best an amateur when it comes to Scrabble, I ask them at this point to lay down how they progressed from their school Club to the tournaments they took part in, before getting to those tactics. The evolution had been easy: because they were much better players than the beginners who usually housed that Club, they were emboldened enough to try out age category championships organised by the Sri Lanka Scrabble League. That evolution had been quick, coming in one year after these two faced their first competitions (Aabid with an age category individual tournament held within the school, Janul with an interschool Under 15 team meet).

At the Scrabble League the two of them had swiftly graduated from Under 13 and Under 18 tournaments to the considerably more difficult and challenging Open category, where they got to meet various subsets and demographics. “With age category matches you are pitted against those who are your age, who tend to hail from your background. It’s a different story when it comes to open matches. There are just so many groups of people you get to encounter. For instance, there are people in their 50s and 60s who play Scrabble as a pastime but later grow so passionate over it that they turn it into more than a pastime. Then there are people who played as youngsters, abandoned the game during their school years, and rediscovered it in their University years. Then there are A Level players. It’s all a hotchpotch actually, and we are thankful because it opened up our perspectives. You need that at Scrabble.”

For obvious reasons, all those encounters upped their ratings, so much so that that Aabid and Janul today are ranked in the top national eight: the official Scrabble League website (www.scrabble.lk) has Janul in second place with a rating of 1399 and Aabid in third place with a rating of 1381. “Reaching 1000 is your first real achievement as a Scrabble player. These are all provisional ratings, because you need to play more than 50 games to get rated so highly. The two of us have played more than 400 games until now, which breaks down into an annual average of 100.” I get their point at once: while the quality of the game is more important, how much you play is important too. All this talk of numbers and scores, moreover, get me back to that point I left earlier: in a nutshell, what are the tactics and strategies these two resort to?

Firstly, a necessary requisite: knowing more words. “We can’t for sure determine how many words we know right now. They say an English professor knows about 15,000 words, Shakespeare would have known about 25,000, while an average Scrabble player, who has reached our level, would know between 40,000 and 100,000. We believe that for us, 40,000 would be a rather accurate estimate, since we have been playing for four years and have strived to learn about 10,000 new words each year.” Given the effort that goes into learning such words, surely constant practice must make it easier, I think, to add to this list of an ever growing vocabulary. To my surprise, it is not: “We must not only add to that list, we must also retain what we learnt last year. Right now we practice about an hour a day and learn new words for an additional hour.”

Navigating around what you know based on the tiles (Scrabble progresses with seven random word tiles taken from a bag, per turn) that you have, is trickier, and depends on those aforementioned strategies. “If you are a beginner who wants to show your opponent that you are ready for him/her and to hunt him/her down until s/he concedes defeat, you opt for what is referred to the ‘open board’, where you spread your tiles more widely and liberally across the board. It’s risky but it does tend to pass a message to the person you are fighting. On the other hand, when you mature in this game, you evolve to the ‘block board’, where you are more defensive, more bothered with what your opponent will do by resorting to a different tactic: equalising your worst case scenario with his/her best case scenario. We have evolved from the one to the other. We now know that a mature game-play depends on preventing your opponent from trumping you.”

Scrabble has its own dictionaries, its own quiz portals and software programs, and they all have aided these two youngsters. Those dictionaries and programs tend to teach you words based on the frequency on their use, however, which is not always an infallible guarantee. “Sometimes opting for common words can help, sometimes they cannot. Among the first 1,000 most frequently used words, we can think of ‘retains’. But using such words will not help you progress if you don’t play around with what you have. If you have a perfect tile combination, when all those tiles can be arranged to get a word, you are lucky. But that’s rare. You tend to get tiles with a difficult ratio of vowels to consonants. In such a context you need to play around with those ratios so as to restore some balance: if you get six vowels and one consonant, for instance, reduce the ratio to 4:3. Finally, you can also resort to synergy, whereby you compound bad tiles, or letters like Q and Z, with letter combinations like ING and ED and CE.”

So much for strategies, tactics, and the importance of vocabulary. But then there’s a world that exists outside these, which is why I ask Aabid and Janul to lay down their other lives. Both of them prefer Mathematics (not a coincidence, since Scrabble, like Chess, is very much a mathematical game based on probability and frequency) and each of them has his preferred literary tastes: Aabid with social studies and theory and (I am pleasantly surprised) Agatha Christie, Janul with a more varied fondness for fiction. The range of interests they indulge in at school is also varied: Interact, Drama, Debating (in Aabid’s case, both Sinhala and English), and Literary Societies (in Janul’s case, English).

Having paddled through several tournaments – the previous instalments of the World Youth Scrabble Championship (from 2015 onwards), the Astar Scrabble Challenge International in Malaysia (three years for Aabid, last year for Janul), and the World English Scrabble Players' Association Championship 2017 in Nairobi, Kenya for Janul (which Aabid didn’t take part in) – their latest victory portends many things, since it will, if the news is true, gain official recognition for the game. In fact that’s what these two bright youngsters talk about before they depart: with their family, their perseverant teacher in charge, Mrs Inosha de Mel (“She has been very enthusiastic about seeing us through, and we are grateful”), and their friends and other elders, they are resolved today to push the game forward in the country, especially through the largest school-based interschool tournament in Sri Lanka, organised by their school, Royal College.

Will they or won’t they, though? As that oft-quoted cliché goes, only time can tell.

Written for: The Island YOUth, January 14 2018

Friday, January 12, 2018

Inflating the critics, inflating the critiqued


I am amused by the tactics certain critics in this country resort to. They claim in opinion piece after opinion piece that they are free from the dominant ideological hegemonies that are supposed to exist in the country (Sinhala Buddhism) but then pay obeisance to other more dominant ideologies that hold sway elsewhere (postmodernism). This is as true for political commentators as it is for film and literary critics, after all there’s nothing much to separate the one from the other at the end of the day. The political exists in the cultural, and the cultural exists in the political. That is why I think the problems of our film industry can be traced to the limitations of those who write on the medium.

The World Socialist Web is a wonderful online portal where committed old leftists get together and churn out article after article examining and revealing conspiracy theories and hegemonies which apparently exert influence over both the private and the public spheres. It has not languished but it has, as the homepage informs us, been coerced into submission since of late by leading global corporations which want to get it out of the World Wide Web. Now I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories, but when it comes to the WSWS, there is enough evidence as to why critiques of establishment politics and disclosures of connections between powerful private interests and the corridors of power established therein can suffice for such corporations to censor such websites in the long run. I am less interested in these allegations, however, than I am in how this site reflects disparate opinions regarding the arts.

I know a friend of mine who expresses distaste at the American cinema and what has not unduly been termed “Hollow-wood” by those who see in the products of that cinema an erasure of the imbalances of power between social milieus in favour of a convenient feel-good liberalism. We all grew up on superheroes, in fact we graduated to superheroes rather early on in our childhoods, because they were pervasive. My friend, who might have grown up on such cosmetic figureheads himself, scoffs at them with the telling remark, “Hollow-wood at it again!” I am not sure whether he shares the sentiments of those who write to the WSWS but I think that he does. Consider, for instance, this review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, written by Michael McEgan and David Walsh:

“Many of those involved in the new film’s production have stated in interviews that the reason people are still attracted to Star Wars after 40 years is that the series has a positive message and gives people ‘hope’. The problem is that this ‘hope’ is not founded on any real answers to, or even explorations of, real problems. The fixation on ‘good’ and ‘evil’ personalities does not go far beyond the tabloid-soap opera approach to social reality – or the rubbish of American political campaigns where voters are encouraged to choose a man or woman based on images generated by the media, entirely apart from their social position and program (‘he has an honest face’, ‘she has leadership capabilities’).”

In Marxist criticism an objet d’art becomes a work of art by its act of being consumed by audiences: the book by its reader, the song by its listener, the film by its viewer. What levels the one with the other, i.e. the objet with its intended recipient, is the dominant framework the former affirms. For McEgan and Walsh, being the seasoned critics they are, the solutions proposed by a Hollywood blockbuster like Star Wars are at best dichotomised, between an unreal good and bad, and these are reflected in the world of political advertising where candidates are demarcated as “the way forward” (think of Donald Trump as Darth Vader, Bernie Sanders as Luke Skywalker). In other words, the dominant framework dictates what good and evil are, which explains Hollywood’s fixation in depicting these two as irreconcilable polar opposites.

What these two critics achieve is what any critic worth his or her salt should achieve: the dismantling of the facade in favour of the reality. That is not the preserve of Marxist critics only, of course, after all even Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag, and Roger Ebert (who can’t be considered as Marxists by any stretch of the imagination) indulged in this technique. But then McEgan and Walsh are not mainstream critics: the likes of them have to be content with online portals which are constantly threatened by capitalist censorship, which do not have the funds necessary to pay their contributors. These sites delve deeper than any other site or publication into the underlying framework of a political or cultural process. There’s no critical distancing between the artist and his intentions, in other words. Entertainment is shown to be the crass, crudely conceived escapist medium it always has been. The experience that Star Wars evokes, thus, is superficial, operating on a rift between good and evil which the world does not subsist on.

Non-mainstream writers like the above, strangely, find their equivalent in the mainstream critic here, if at all because, as I mentioned in this column last week, there’s a gap in Sri Lanka between art and entertainment in which our critics ignore the audience that patronises the latter to such an extent that they (the audience) feel alienated. It’s a curious phenomenon, because in it we see what ails our artists and what empowers their critics. If the premise of a review of a movie like Star Wars is that it’s faulty because it doesn’t reflect the social reality, and instead shows us a world split between good and evil, it is because the critics themselves are, while committed leftists, aware of the falsifications the left and the right indulge in when portraying that world. In that sense I think our Marxist critics are behind. Way behind.

More often than not, Marxist critics tend to appraise a work of art on the basis of its fidelity to what is social. In Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Bambaru Avith, the protagonist-antihero Victor (Vijaya Kumaratunga) could have been easily turned into a spoilt heir who corrupts Helen, the peasant virgin (Malini Fonseka). But he wasn’t. The reactions Pathiraja’s film got were hence predictable: the critics considered it an aberration that the capitalist/pre-capitalist civilisations contrasted against each other weren’t reflected in a good/bad dichotomy between Victor’s and Helen’s wider milieus. The only praise it got from these critics, as Regi Siriwardena noted, was for its ending, where the Rohana Wijeweera-like Weerasena stands on a platform and delivers an eloquent speech explaining the political reality to the coastal peasants. But here too the critics failed: they were praising his rhetoric when the director had in fact staged that sequence to convey to the audience the futility of resorting to abstractions when discerning any political reality.

Resorting to abstractions and dichotomies is what our critics indulge in. Again I go back to the World Socialist Web, to a review of another film that came out in 2015 here: Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka. Just read this excerpt from the review, written by Wasantha Rupesinghe and Panini Wijesiriwardena:

“[Prasanna] Vithanage punctures the ongoing lies of the Rajapaksa regime and the media, whose primary mission is to cover up the war crimes that were committed against hundreds of thousands of ordinary people during the bloody conflict. The point is powerfully driven home in a scene where the young couple arrive home after their marriage. Selvi is holding her suitcase and Sarathsiri switches on the television, which is broadcasting a military parade celebrating Rajapaksa’s so-called war victory.”

Mainstream Hollywood can’t stand up to reality because it takes a decidedly refined, artificial approach to that reality. Rupesinghe and Wijesiriwardena take each and every point in the plot in terms of their fundamentalist distinction between “good” and “bad”. So how does one differentiate between the two reviews? By understanding that THOSE critics prefer a film that unearths the real structures of power hidden by artificial good/bad rifts, and that OUR critics like to unveil the ethnic (and class) relations those structures of power thrive on by looking for a good/bad distinction in the films they are reviewing. To their credit, of course, the latter two do point at a significant aspect of the war that Vithanage’s film brings up: “the unemployed Sinhalese youth forced into the war by economic circumstances.” But the good/bad rift remains, intact: there are no shades of grey, no middle ground or territory. Only the one or the other. Has this helped improve our movies, particularly those touted as serious and art house? Probably not.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Some reflections on the cultural bourgeoisie

The cultural bourgeoisie is a curious creature. But then the Colombans, or the Kolombians as Malinda Seneviratne calls them, usually are. They live within municipal limits of the city, failing which they live in one of those suburbs which give the impression of being closer to the neighbouring rural hinterlands that the likes of me have lived throughout our lives.

The latter subset, by the way, are the bourgeois bohemians, or bobos as David Brooks called them, and as Malinda described them some time back, they surround themselves with cultural artefacts that are supposed to indicate that they are purveyors of culture, local and/or foreign. Now the area around Race Course and the Lionel Wendt subsists on a dichotomy, between eateries on the one hand and shops selling such artefacts on the other. It’s interesting to note the demographics that patronise each: the young usually eat, the old usually buy. The Kolombians, in other words, become or think they become bobos as they mellow. Whether they do, of course, being another debate altogether.

Years ago I attended a classical music concert that was held at the Musaeus College Auditorium (newly built back then) and was led by a prominent German conductor whose name I unfortunately don’t remember now. Before the curtain opened and the show began, however, I had to, against my will, keep up with the conversations that were springing up around me, between the ladies and gentlemen, the Kolombians, who were moving from one topic to another in quick succession while keeping to a welter of formality with respect to what they really wanted to talk about. They talked of drama, of the movies, of music, then  f how their kith and kin and nephews and nieces and so on and so forth knew each other.

So Kolombian A was talking with Kolombian B about how her son happened to have been in the same Debating Society that Kolombian B’s son was, how their husbands had attended the same Societies, had even been Prefects in the same batch, and how bloodlines established with respect to schools and other such institutions attended proved that their families were meant for each other. Before this graduated to marriage proposals, though, the show began (to my relief). But as that prominent German conductor impressed me with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (I prefer the Second Movement to the First) and the Overture to Mozart’s Magic Flute, I turned around and saw, to my astonishment, these same purveyors of drama and movies and music sleeping. The music which was supposed to impress them had put them to slumber. These grown up bobos weren’t talking. They were instead snoring. Throughout.

The Kolombian bourgeois bohemians are a curious bunch because of a contradiction that lies at the heart of their milieu, between their aspirations and their realities. This is as true for their political affiliations as it is for their cultural affiliations. It would of course be crass to brush their society as clueless and indifferent when it comes to the rest of the country, but such crass simplifications exist because, as Gomin Dayasri has pointed out years ago, they believe they know everything because of the inbuilt advantages that the metropolis is supposed to bring: multiculturalism, modernity, privileged education. Such inbuilt advantages are not the preserve of those who live in Colombo only, but because of their defining marks – high fluency in English and lack of fluency in the mother tongue, Sinhala or Tamil – they have been able so far to market themselves as purveyors and promoters of high culture, art, etc.

In whatever cultural sphere in whatever country, there is almost always a disjuncture between the multitude and the elite, between the street-smart and the book-smart, in other words between mass consumption and discriminating tastes. Be it the cinema, the theatre, literature, or art, the tropes the artists resort to reflect that disjuncture. The situation is not much different in Sri Lanka: our playwrights (if it’s an English play), for instance, tend to lampoon the unprivileged as naive, gullible, idiotic, and the privileged as intelligent, able, worthy. You see this paradox crop up the other way around in our children’s movies: from Siri Raja Siri to Paha Samath, the poor are portrayed as smart, idealistic, while the rich are portrayed as weak, effete. Such dichotomies lack the conviction they require, but they are based on popular views of the rich and the poor and they tend to take in rupees and cents at the box office.

The Kolombians usually display a culture of condescension towards the rest of the country and, fittingly it would seem, the rest of the country returns that compliment. I believe that’s why Sinhala novelists, playwrights, directors, and scriptwriters resort to that timeless and overused trope of English-speakers-who-relapse-to-Sinhala-when-threatened. There’s an episode in Bodima in which Buddhi Wickrama is an English teacher to the most intelligent member of the titular bodima (played by Jayalath Manoratne), and this teacher consciously never speaks Sinhala, only high-flown English. When he’s about to be whacked, when he’s about to be thrown out violently, by the most ruffian-like resident of that bodima (I believe he was played by Daya Alwis), though, he stutters, stammers, and begs for mercy using the Sinhala he pretended not to know. They are all pretenders, hence: they know what they want us to think they don’t. That, incidentally, is one of many episodes of tele-dramas I’ve seen which play around the trope. It’s used even in our novels, our films, our plays.

But let me get back to that subset of the Kolombians I am concerned about, the bourgeois bohemians, or the cultural bourgeoisie. In the eighties and the seventies, the American corporate sector teemed with advertisements that referred to quotes by Gandhi, the Beat Generation, the Buddha, the Taoists, and Confucius. It was, as David Brooks (who wrote Bobos in Paradise) contended in a New York Times article, a set of “peculiar juxtapositions”, because how on earth could America’s McDonald’s and India’s Gandhi ever come together? In the early decades of the 20th century, it had been relatively easy to distinguish between the bourgeois culture and the bohemian counterculture. It was the bohemians who were behind the sixties counterculture (Godard, in his films, which were parodies of popular American myths, depicted these bohemians as the pop revolutionaries they were). They came from a largely White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) demographic, from which the bobos emerged.

Colombo is very much a stratified society, and so is the United States, but it was the diffusion of different sensibilities, the sense of being Americano, that led to a culture of bobos to flourish rampantly in the latter. America was never really the Land of the Free (it wasn’t even the bastion of democracy that writers believed it to be: Gore Vidal, I believe at the Galle Literary Festival, observed years ago that the American Constitution doesn’t once contain the word “democracy”) but there probably hasn’t been any other culture, in modern times, where the arts got together so sleekly. The bobos of America could have been bankers or artists, so much so that differences of class disappeared, at least to an extent, and gave birth to a heavily self-parodying society. If Pauline Kael’s assertion that no other country could criticise and satirise itself appears overblown, it’s because there’s a touch of sincerity in what she wrote.

Malinda wrote a series of satirical sketches, from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, parodying our bobos in 2014 and 2015 (“Notes of an Unrepentant Kolombian”). These sketches instilled some relevance to the January 2015 Election (which thanks to statements by Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Mahinda Rajapaksa, turned out to be a tussle between the baiyas and the toiyas), and they delved into certain issues pertaining to those bobos: the bursary (they are financially enriched, endowed), their lack of awareness of their language (“Their offspring can barely manage enna, giya, or awa”), their monopoly over commerce (regardless of who’s in power), and the relationships between Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe. From these sketches the final sketch of our bobos comes out: neither here nor there, wallowing in the cosmetics of a culture they aren’t aware of.

It’s not “our” culture they inhabit, consequently, rather the cosmetics thereof: the mask, the drum, the exotic dances, the archaic music, which we inherited. In an age where finance capital and commerce in themselves are not enough, when the age of information has made obsolete the conventional capitalist, financiers and speculators and executives are playing Gershwin on their pianos, flocking in droves to see our dances and drums being performed and played out at the Lionel Wendt, holding literary festivals which ostensibly advertise the “local culture” but which in reality congeal into a celebration of their narrow circle. That’s the difference between them and us: we are more content in imitating the American yuppie and bobo, instead of nurturing and fermenting our own culture of yuppies and bobos. In aesthetics as in politics and economics and everything else, we thus remain, to the last drop, imitators. We will talk of how sophisticated we are when we meet at a concert, but the minute the show starts, we will start yawning, shrug indifferently, snore, and finally, snuggle. Yes they snore. Yes they sleep. Yes they pretend. And how.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

On getting that 'culture' right

Just the other day I came across an amazing comment on Facebook. The commenter had argued that Sri Lankans, to be specific Sinhala Buddhists, were too apathetic to bother with economic issues and were busier with racist issues. In other words, “keeping their strength relative to other ethnic groups” was our overriding concern. It was a vicious circle that results from this fixation with racial superiority, since leaders, who naturally pander to the numerical majority, affirm chauvinism to ensure the votes that keep them in power. This sadly results in leaders who think of economics as a peripheral concern, something that aggravates, again, the culture of apathy to economic issues the Sinhala Buddhist collective prefer to ignore. Made me smile. And not because I disagree.

But then I don’t think it’s just economics the Sinhala Buddhists are apathetic to. And I don’t really think we are apathetic to economics. If the writings of Fernand Braudel are anything to go by (given that he was the 20th century’s foremost historian), economics is largely a product of culture, and culture is dependent on a horde of other factors, prime among them the geography, the climate, the demographics, of a collective, a country, or even an entire region. If at all, then, we are apathetic to what makes us. To what shapes us and allows us to evolve. To what we are and what we eventually become. In one word, to our own culture. Since I am no expert on economics by any stretch of the imagination, I think it’s valid at this point to ponder on that Facebook comment and concentrate on its validity for a related field: the evolution of cultural standards and how we take them in.

The cultural discourse in Sri Lanka is mostly divided between the purists on the one hand and the hybridists on the other. Whatever the art form – cinema, theatre, literature, dance, music – thrives therefore on a never-ending debate between these two. The purists would want to see a return to a largely distant past or an idealisation thereof. The hybridists would want to see a fusion brought about in those various art forms and cultural spheres. This is really another version of that debate between art and entertainment, between what preaches, what enthrals, what teaches, and what satiates, what satisfies, what keeps you happy. Based on that standard Amaradeva is to be put up on a pedestal and baila, the most hybrid cultural borrowing we can claim to in the realm of music, is to be degraded. Without taking sides in this tentative debate, I would like to suggest that both sides are wrong. Collectives never flourish through purism, nor do they prosper when hybridised.

A friend of mine who’s involved with the Hela Havula made an interesting observation on Facebook recently. Apparently one Asiff Hussein, in his book Zeylanica: A Study of the Peoples and Languages of Sri Lanka, has contended rather arbitrarily that weeding away Sanskrit words completely from the “maw basa” would do more harm than good for the latter, and that such a culture of weeding away those bywords was brought about and promoted by Munidasa Cumaratunga. Erroneous, since nowhere (based on what I have read, of Munidasa or by him) have I come across explicit polemics against resorting to Sanskrit at all. It seems that even academics, even the best read intellectuals, can’t move away from indulging in simplifications when assessing the cultural history of Sri Lanka. In fact I have a problem with anyone who categorises the likes of Cumaratunga, in such a way and I think it best to quote Malinda Seneviratne here: “Reading ‘Kumara Gee’, I cannot help but conclude that Cumaratunga Munidasa, much as he loved the language of the Sinhalese, loved it less than he loved his nation and his people.”

I think the main problem here is that we can’t, as a people or a community of critics, get ourselves beyond the dichotomised spheres we are made to gloss over. In the movies we are told to patronise the serious auteur, who wins award after award at film festivals the world over. In the realm of literature we are asked to go for established writers who win big at literary festivals organised by the State or by private bodies. Who has properly read Kathleen Jayawardena, for instance, without confusing his or her inability to get past her eloquent but difficult prose for her lack of clarity, and who can watch Udayakantha Warnasuriya while seeing in him the great though flawed visual artist he is?

I think that’s the mistake we are making here: confusing our inability to discern, to understand, to read, for our critical invincibility. It’s that kind of invincibility which made Malcolm Arnold claim that Charlotte Bronte’s Villette contained “nothing but hunger, rebellion, and rage.” Such critical comments reek of complacency, chauvinism, defensiveness, which is what we ourselves have succumbed to. Sadly.

This is why, before we go after foreign academics for distorting our people and our values, we need to fundamentally rethink our own attitudes regarding those values. What are values, in any case? A series of convenient fictions maintained to sustain uniformity over a collective? A series of myths and legends validated so as to empower a collective to assert its strength, numerical or otherwise, over other ethnic groups? Should such values, which are really more or less a mishmash of religious and secular if not quasi-secular conventions, necessarily define a particular culture, be it in the arts or in any other field? Is there a critical distance that must be maintained between art and culture? Can a separation thrive in the longer term, and if so, should it be maintained for long?

After the passing away of Amaradeva I observed, to my amusement, a barrage of hysterics issuing in gushes and torrents from commentators who on the one hand contended that the man, at the time of death, transcended his Sinhala-ness and Buddhist-ness and became universal, and who on the other hand responded that the cultural specifics of an artiste are too overwhelming, too powerful, for such an apotheosis to occur at all in the first place. Both were right and wrong, though I am inclined to lean on the argument of the latter (for personal reasons): right and wrong because cultural specifics exist but not to the extent whereby they prevent the local artiste from being celebrated by those who don’t look for such specifics. The truly local artiste does not hence remain local, but neither does he lose that welter of localness even after death. The same, incidentally, can be said of other cultural auteurs: Chitrasena, Sekera, Martin Wickramasinghe. After all, if cultural specifics were so holy as to erase the possibility of cultural fusion, we wouldn’t have been able to preserve the Sinhala language, in the form we resort to today, by importing (for the lack of a better term) Western linguistics.

When it comes to cultural dynamics, consequently, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a sacred or holy cow. Nothing is sacrosanct, not even the truth, though I would prefer the truth to almost anything else when it comes to those cultural dynamics. Here both sides are in the wrong, again: the puritans because of their fervent, understandable, though considerably flawed act of rebellion against what they (erroneously, rarely correctly) see as an invasion of the local by the foreign; the hybridists because of their as fervent, as understandable, as flawed contention for a coming together of “universal” forms (of art, science, knowledge, belief systems, etc) at the cost of local specifics. The former group artificially “barricades” such cultures from modernity, while the latter seeks to open up those cultures, not to modernity, but to debasement and degradation undeserving of the modernist streak those who promote it market it as.

There is never one art, never one cultural specific, but a multitude thereof. I believe that’s the main if not the only way to combat the purist and the uprooted. Both purists and uprooted cosmopolitans believe that cultural forms are or have been made to be singular and thus seek an artificial, unsustainable unity. It is this latter belief, or misconception, that compelled hysterics from those who reacted negatively towards Kishani Jayasinghe’s operatic rendition of “Danno Budunge”, thinking that “Danno Budunge” was a Buddhist song (imagine that!), a rather anti-historical claim that compelled a Facebook response from the great-grandson of the composer of that song (John de Silva), Harsha Makalande. Here too, you see the same conflation: of critical puritanism with critical invincibility.

I think it’s time we realised that it’s because we make such conflations, unconsciously or otherwise, that outside academics make arbitrary judgments on our own cultural histories. Yes, tragedy at one level, but an inevitability at another. Makes me smile. Again.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Notes on theatre and cinema

In the writings of Pauline Kael, the greatest movie critic who ever lived, you infer a patent distrust of any dichotomy drawn by writers between art and entertainment. At a time when Alain Resnais and Ingmar Bergman were idealised as messiahs and patron saints of the medium, therefore, it’s refreshing, if not disconcerting, to come across essays written by her lambasting them as boring. The question we would have been conditioned by mainstream critics to ask would have been, “Is entertainment art?” We would have answered it in the negative, since even today the gulf between spectacle and contemplation is too obvious and overwhelming to be bridged by the movies. The question she would have asked, on the other hand, would have been, “Is art entertainment?” For her, the cinema had as its salvation its capacity to enthral, to fascinate, in other words, to entertain.

The rift between entertainment and art is the debate between movies and films: the one entertains and is an object for mass consumption, while the other forces you to contemplate and is an “objet” (note the difference) for an esoteric minority. Small wonder, then, that Kael refused to term what she reviewed as “films”, an archaic term for the medium if ever there was one, and instead wrote of “movies”, whether from the silent or the sound era. This ontological debate is at the same time an extrapolation from the debate, old as it is and spent as it is today, between cinema and theatre. “When movies, the only art which everyone felt free to enjoy and have opinions about, lose their connection with song and dance, drama, and the novel, when they become cinema, which people fear to criticise just as they fear to say what they think of a new piece of music or a new poem or painting, they will become another object of academic study and ‘appreciation’, and will soon be an object of excitement only to practitioners of the ‘art’,” she once wrote, and she was correct despite the mainstream critic’s insistence on drawing a barrier between cinema and every other objet d’art.

The attempts made by Resnais and, more significantly, Robert Bresson, to liberate the movies from their relationships with those art forms, were lauded by several writers and commentators who wanted to be purveyors of what they referred to as pure cinema. Purity in any art, however, tends to divest it of any life, any vitality, though to deny these films a place in cinematic history would be pushing things too far. Without getting into this tentative, contentious issue (i.e. whether pure cinema is cinema in the first place), I would instead like to suggest that no art can survive for long if its interrelationships with other works of art are questioned and put down. Let’s not forget, after all, that the cinema was derivative (the first films were all theatrical, and even a director like Méliès, with his A Trip to the Moon, was a proponent of the single camera angle which approximated to the eye-line at a typical theatre) and that while very few successful plays have been made of movies, very many successful movies have been made of plays.

It’s interesting to note that while the first few movies were adaptations of plays, and were often heralded for their fidelity to a medium which, though derivative in one sense, was the most industrial the world had ever conceived, the cinema’s later deterioration into sound (the 1920s and 1930s saw a debasement in the quality of films) were put down as a deterioration from the movies to photographed stage plays. Note the insinuation here: at its best, in those first few years, the movies approximated to theatre (and a literary conception of the theatre, which I will get to later); at its worst too, such an interrelationship was stark and clear. Formal, polished dialogues, static camera angles, inflexible characterisations with individuals demarcated as types and not fleshed out, ordinary everymen, were the staple of the play, and they would, right until the forties and the fifties, become a staple of the cinema before the new critics, the Cahiers du Cinema writers, tried to differentiate between the two mediums.

The confusion between the two, moreover, comes out starkly when considering the opinions of two renowned critics and academics from this era, Allardyce Nicoll and Erwin Panofsky. For Nicoll, stage plays thrived on stock types, the movies on individuals; for Panofsky, stage plays thrived on individuals, the movies on stock types. That no real consensus was reached even at that point in film history speaks volumes about the misconceptions which have been formed and sustained with respect to the differentiation between what’s staged and what’s screened. As Susan Sontag aptly points out in her essay “Theatre and Cinema”, “There is no reason to insist on a single model for films.” But such models are often prescribed and recommended. In the writings of Siegfried Kracauer, for instance, reality is supposed to be redeemed through the director’s fidelity to authentic characterisations and settings and a linear narrative. By that token, the work of the neo-realists in Italy, as opposed to the Hollywood moguls (Goldwyn, Mayer, Zanuck, Disney), validates the medium’s very existence, and by that token, the early directors (of Expressionist cinema, and the works of Murnau and Wiene) are to be lambasted as manipulative.

This is a common refrain among those who lament the invasion of the theatre into the cinema. It’s largely a misconception, since no film has redeemed reality. Even the examples that Kracauer brings up, particularly the films of Vittorio de Sica, don’t really pass the test that he devised for them. According to him, de Sica’s Miracle in Milan, which culminates in the poor and the wretched literally flying to heaven, is a failure that refuses to transcend its theatricality, while Umberto D, which used a real model and depicted a heartfelt relationship between that model’s character (a poor, unemployed professor) and his dog, is a success. I believe Pauline Kael supplied the most cogent argument against this line of thinking: that both were, and remained to the last sequence, staged: “How and why is the fantasy defying the medium, and how is it that Umberto D, which is just as staged as a movie set in medieval Japan or Gothic Ruritania, is supposed to have an ‘unfixable flow’?”

Sontag, in that aforementioned essay, points out two ways through which the two mediums have been dichotomised: in formal terms (theatre is live, subjective; the cinema is mobile, objective) and in ontological terms (theatre deploys artifice; the cinema is committed to reality). Having demolished both, she instead contends for a differentiating factor that is more in touch with contemporary realities: that the theatre is confined to a logical and continuous use of space, while the cinema can open the audience up to a discontinuous series of spaces which are not logically ordered around in any particular way. Through editing, through the use of various techniques, the cinema has liberated itself from the same sequential and linear narratives the likes of Kracauer so heartily championed. The cinema has instead become a veritable collage, starting from the films of the Nouvelle Vague directors (prime among them, Godard) to the present-day Wes Andersons and, closer to home, Hitoshi Matsumotos. While the convention before Godard’s time was to approximate cinema to the theatre or literature, today the trend seems to be to approximate it to commercials, to advertising, to music videos: precisely what Godard’s films, especially his colour films, conceded ground to. Distinctions persist and abound, yes, but they are hardly ever sustained.

My own personal view is this, hence: Sontag’s view that cinema and theatre can only be differentiated with respect to their use of space is hardly the only factor we can account for when engaging in differentiating between the two. But it’s the most relevant, and probably the most valid, and it validates Pauline Kael’s view that no art form can be free of any other art form. The latter would of course have taken the former to task over the former’s view that no one set theory can help explain the dynamism of the cinema, since Kael was known for her negative views of Bresson (“Bresson is the only director who made a film [Diary of a Country Priest] that put me to sleep twice. I don't understand why, since I think it's a great movie; I admired it while I was dozing.”) and of Resnais (“Breathless and L'Avventura were to be either admired or disliked or ignored, but Hiroshima Mon Amour was described in hushed tones; it was some sort of ineffable deep experience. Why?”), both of whom were written on reverently by Sontag. But the essential quality that brings the two together over this contentious topic is, simply, that art can’t be compartmentalised, especially not, as the cinema aptly showed, when the birth of one art form was dependent on an already fermented art form (i.e. movies on the one hand, stage plays on the other).

However, the fact that they can’t really be differentiated does not in itself give a broad license to those here, in Sri Lanka, who seek to do away with theatricality and excess from the cinema while retaining the crucial base on which such theatricalities and excesses thrive: symbols, metaphors, and as I mentioned last week, mangled, unfinished sentences. The cinema of Sri Lanka has for the most been bifurcated, by audiences and critics, between such displays of excess (the commercial sector) and unfelt, overhyped, virtually castrated works of art that operate on a more literary conception of the theatre: flourishing on words, stock individuals and types, as opposed to visuals and fleshed out individuals. The former celebrates excess, the latter downgrades it and makes it an excuse to purge out any form of imagery. In both cases, we come across a deterioration in the industry, mainstream or off the beaten track.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, December 31 2017

Friday, January 5, 2018

Candid reflections on our art house films

Have our movies lost the power to entertain, to impress? Wherever I go and whoever I ask, the response is virtually the same: people don’t go to watch our films anymore, people go to sleep through them. There was laughter throughout the hall, I remember, when I sat down with my friends to see Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka two years ago. The ordinary man on the street who notices that he has time on his hands, and that the nearest hall is screening a promising film, is too busy, too wearied, to contemplate on the intricate workings of such films, and instead bothers himself with those points at which, for him, they fail spectacularly. I remember one such man, who unfortunately was seated right next to me, chortling when Sarathsiri and Selvi made love to each other; this scene, shot from behind, was supposed to make us aware of how debased, how animalistic, even the most basic instincts become at the hands of an unfeeling miser, but my neighbour didn’t care. He went on laughing and eating his popcorn.

In theatres and halls, every breath and blast of emotion, every nuance and gesture, is amplified and magnified to such an extent that what you hardly notice on the TV screen becomes too apparent and discernible for you to pass over. Golu Hadawatha, screened at the Tharangani at the National Film Corporation more than two months ago (the first in a series of screenings organised by the Premasiri Khemadasa Foundation) had me grinning at sequences which I thought I had not (but which I had) seen on television. When Dhammi tells Sugath, “Don’t be shy to ask a girl to help you out when you’re a boy”, the schoolboys seated next to me, who doubtless would have reflected on their own romances and memories of young love, grinned openly. These were not sequences they would have opened up to on the small screen. And why? Because movies have that power: they make you feel, they make you notice.

So when directors try as hard as possible to NOT make you feel, to NOT make you notice, you instead concentrate on and laugh at those scenes and sequences and the underlying tensions in them from which the director consciously tried to bring out a specific meaning. The sequence of Selvi and Sarathsiri making love was supposed to evoke a different response; by that token, so was the sequence of these two kissing each other the morning after, by the window overlooking the Bogawanthalawa hills. But what did audience members respond to? The fact that these two were kissing each other before washing themselves, before performing their ablutions. It’s roughly the same response they gave when they saw, in another film, the lead female character professing her love to a man by telling him that he has the same odour and fragrance around him that he did the previous night. “Sure ekata u aga hodala naha!” shouted an “ordinary” audience members. I couldn’t help it: the unintended humour was too much, so I grinned and laughed.

Anoja Weerasinghe argued, decades ago, that despite a plethora of promising, serious directors our film industry cannot and will not be salvaged unless and until the base, the popular base that is, has matured. She was correct, I think: after all, India could afford a Satyajit Ray because of the Mehboob Khans and America could afford a Wes Anderson because of the Steven Spielbergs. And yet, our critics, and for that matter our painters and poets and purveyors of high culture, contend otherwise. For most of them, the cinema must remain cut off from its populist inclinations. It’s this line of thinking that compelled so many journalists to describe Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka as the greatest post-war film made here, what made our Marxist critics (who seem to have forgotten that class relations are more important to their discourse than the ethnic relations they gloss over, a point I will get to next week) praise Prasanna Vithanage using every epithet from their dictionary. When popular audiences feel alienated this way, they either shirk the serious cinema and patronise the popular cinema (Ranja, Wada Bari Tarzan, the comedies of Vijaya Nandasiri), or, more disturbingly, judge that serious cinema via the values they ascribe to the popular.

What do popular films have, that serious films do not? For one thing, a welter of formality. There is less carelessness, in editing or scripting or camerawork, in a movie like Suhada Koka or Sikuru Hathe than there is in more than half of those art house products that are end up winning awards at film festivals. That welter of formality, in these movies or even an awkwardly made product like Maya (Ranjan Ramanayake as an androgynous hero) or Sinhaya (Ranjan Ramanayake as a guardian at an orphanage) or Doctor Nawariyan (Ranjan Ramanayake as a purveyor of what he’s referred to in an interview as the “medical mafia”), redeems their lack of intelligence, their acts of condescension towards the audience, which happen to be their biggest limitation. In redeeming that failure, then, they eventually become self-referential: Vijaya Nandasiri is Vijaya Nandasiri and Ranjan Ramanayake is Ranjan Ramanayake, so what they do, the mishaps they cause, and the injustices they correct, follow a particular pattern.

Popular films also tend to become more visual as the stories progress, while serious films lose that visual flair towards the end. The former open you up, the latter constrict you, which isn’t saying much for the intentions of their directors. Age Asa Aga, to give just one example, compels you to remain in the Professor’s house: the entire drama revolves around the bedroom and the kitchen, and occasionally the bathroom, before the family visits a temple in a sequence which was supposed to depict the tension between the private and the public but which, in reality, deteriorated to a series of hysterics that undid its own seriousness. This new trend – of suddenly opening you up to an overwhelming visual festival – is apparent in our other art house movies too, and for better or worse, such sequences abort, rather than add to, the responses the director tried to glean from us with everything that preceded them. Unpredictability in the movies can be wonderful, as opposed to the boredom of linearity commercial films thrive on, but unpredictability can also subvert what it was supposed to bring about with respect to the intentions of the director, the auteur. Why did I laugh at half the scenes in Aksharaya, for instance, and why was I sincerely moved at Ini Avan and Thani Thatuwen Piyabanna and Channa Kinnari, in my humble opinion Asoka Handagama’s best works? Because there was no incongruity between intention and outcome even in the most unconventional, least linear plot-lines in the latter three.

A few directors face the opposite problem: their storylines are terrible but their visuals are redemptive. Many of Udayakantha Warnasuriya’s and Priyantha Colambage’s films leave much to be desired, artistically, but their visual finesse, their regard for meticulous editing and what not, often make up for that. Both Bahuboothayo and Ran Kevita 2 are at several points crudely conceived, but the visual effects, the carefully scripted conversations, the twists in the plots, often compensate for what would otherwise be considered as sequences made in bad taste. The intentions of the directors here, I feel, are at odds with the outcomes in quite a different way: these directors want to entertain, to do away with any need for artistic fulfilment, but inadvertently, because of their eye for imagery (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Warnasuriya and Colambage were and are involved in advertising), they trump their own lack of regard for aesthetic merit by their at times unconscious, meticulous, careful mise en scène. The problem of the art house director is manifestly different: he wants to intellectualise, but subverts his own objectives by providing the audience with reasons to laugh at and ridicule, rather than contemplate and be moved.

A few months ago, I contended in an article that the lack of discerning, cohesive critics should worry us in a context where theatres and film halls are rarely full, even on weekends, because when plays and films have ceased to be a part of common experiences (and instead become the occasional hobby or interest of that audience member who discovers that he has time to spare from an otherwise busy schedule), we need critics who can discern works of art for what they are without beating around the bush. Paraphrasing Pauline Kael, when movies, the only art that everyone can have an opinion about, lose their casualness, when they become an art to ponder on by resorting to brochures which reproduce Derrida (rationalising the obscurities of the director), they lose their potential to be a part of those common experiences.

To me, hence, as worrying as the lack of cohesive critics is, what’s even more worrying is the gulf between the popular and the serious, a gulf that operates on the following principle: disregard the popular and lavish attention on the serious. The end result of following that principle is this: audiences will be alienated, they will continue to ignore the art house cinema, and even if they do patronise that art house film, they will find reasons in it, not to contemplate or reflect, but to laugh and grin.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Anoja Weerasinghe: Between the one and the other

Keli Madala, D. B. Nihalsinghe’s fourth film, was arguably also his weakest. It teeters between anger and hope, between idealism and cynicism, rather unstably, and it concentrates that conflict of opposites within the terse, tragic love story between the politician and his teenage paramour. The two most memorable sequences depict the shift from reconciliation to malice in that story: the first of them has them meet, for the last time, by a river, declaring their affections for each other no matter what; the second has the politician, now hardened, in a close up that reveals his blind hatred towards her. The latter is followed by an arbitrary, less than satisfying, and predictable ending: the woman is gunned down at her doorstep, at his orders. Keli Madala has none of the fluidity, the unhurried pacing, that Maldeniye Simion and Ridi Nimnaya and Welikathara had, partly because of its vignette-like narrative (at one point you feel that the script barely parses, that the plot never properly coheres), but thankfully it is salvaged by its acting. As the politician, H. A. Perera proved his versatility in the cinema, and as his paramour, so did Anoja Weerasinghe.

I have seen Anoja Weerasinghe in a great many films, and from them four stick to my memory the most, for her ability to salvage the story that way: Keli Madala, Siri Medura, Janelaya, Seilama. (I have unfortunately not seen Maldeniye Simion.) The features of hers that entice one – that rough, unapologetic voice; those bulging, expressive eyes; that sensual, defiant figure – crop up in film after film, and for better or worse, that’s what has cut her out as a different actress. In this sense I think her biggest strength has been her ability to embody contradictory feelings, sometimes in the same sequence, a quality to be met very rarely among both her contemporaries. After smiling and talking with the boy for the first time in Janelaya, for instance, she turns around and faces the antagonist (Ravindra Randeniya): the smile is gone, and so is her radiance. It’s the same story in Keli Madala, where at one moment she’s exchanging pleasantries with her lover, and the very next she’s berating him for his callousness; where at one moment she is listening to his sympathetic daughter’s (Nilmini Tennakoon) suggestion that she join an organisation for hard-done-by women, and the very next she’s scorning that daughter’s shows of sympathy to the father himself.

In the seventies and eighties, right after Malini Fonseka claimed the right to be the queen of the local cinema, a horde of actresses destined to repudiate the populist, patriarchal base which Malini’s characters inadvertently stood for entered the industry. They came in a particular order, and Anoja, chronologically, was the third among them. The other two, Nadeeka Gunasekara and Swarna Mallawarachchi, came earlier (though while Swarna entered the industry long before her, her second phase, in which she played the defiant woman, commenced after Anoja’s first forays). The differences between these three couldn’t have been more apparent: Nadeeka was almost always the timid, introspective rebel, while Swarna, even at her most defiant, was urbane, calm, contained, controlled. With Anoja you come across a player who fit into neither category and yet was somehow at home with both: less urbane and by default less contained. She expresses her rage in gushes and torrents; at her most expressive, she virtually oozes out that rage.

If she appears to be almost never contained in these films it’s because that attitude, of being unforgivable and ruthless, make her embody the same predatory characteristics of the societies she is rebelling against. The transition in her from a naive, simple girl to a strong, defiant fighter was, I think, reflected in a childhood spent oscillating between the village and the metropolis. In Siri Medura, Keli Madala, and Seilama, her characters oscillate in that sense between these two opposite worlds, while in the first of those films she occupies a walawwa that is at home with neither the one nor the other. It’s an almost shell-shocked, schizophrenic house that she inhabits, that is bound to drive her against the established order. She rarely does fight back overtly, of course, but in Siri Medura she does, though her act of gunning down two people is followed, not by the exhilaration of release, but by a series of ambivalent hysterics. Fittingly, the film ends with her running away from the manor (where to, though?).

So what of her childhood? Anoja Weerasinghe was born in Kailagoda, in the Badulla district. She never received any formal training in her field, but she had an intimate bond with the temple and her parents, the latter of whom were very artistically inclined. She attended schools in both Badulla and Moneragala, in which she took part in concerts and plays. The first of those plays, staged when she was five or six, had her play out a Japanese princess, while her first performance came about when she was 13. That performance, in a play titled Anduren Eliyata, won the praise of the Chief Guest, a local politician, who not only commended her but went as far as to suggest that he could see a great actress in her, that she could turn into a film star one day. Reflecting on the compliment, Anoja had this to say: “Imagine a 13-year-old village girl being told all that by a politician who resided frequently in Colombo!”

She discovered the theatre in the village, the movies in the city. At a time when going to the cinema was considered a ritual, Anoja and her friends would walk four miles patiently every time (because there weren’t any buses after 6.30 in the evening) to watch the latest shows. One of the movies that struck her at once was Welikathara: because many theatres couldn’t accommodate the CinemaScope format, they were forced to show it through the conventional projector and screen, distorting the image in the process. But that sense of daring, and the experience stamped on the film, exceeded its technical interest, so for a long time it entranced young Anoja. Resolved on entering the industry, she hence watched as many movies as she could, almost all of which, she remembered, had Malini Fonseka. Malini became a guide of sorts for her, and in her own words, “I would imitate her for days on end.” Eventually she landed in the industry with a 30-second appearance in Yasapalitha Nanayakkara’s Tak Tik Tuk, released one year after her debut in Monarathenna (also by Nanayakkara), opposite Malini, Vijaya Kumaratunga, and Rukmani Devi.

There were other roles, of course: opposite Swarna Mallawarachchi in Sinhabahu (Pathiraja S. Dayananda), opposite Malini in Aradhana (Vijaya Dharma Sri), opposite Sanath Gunathilake in Kaliyugaya (Lester James Peries), and opposite Swarna again in Muhudu Lihini (Sunil Ariyaratne). Muhudu Lihini was shot by D. B. Nihalsinghe, who saw her and was impressed enough by her performance to take her aboard Maldeniye Simion. But when her name was suggested by Nihalsinghe for one of the leading female characters, both Arawwala Nandimithra (who wrote the original novel) and the producers tried to back out. But the director held firm: if he couldn’t cast her, he wouldn’t direct the film. So they relented, and so she was in. Remembering Nihalsinghe for me, she had this to say: “I was like a ball of clay under him. I can’t understand how I played for him in Simion and Keli Madala. He’s so soft-spoken that when he instructs me, the actor beside me can’t hear him. In a very subtle manner, he drew the character I played into my soul.”

It’s interesting to note here that her first few performances had her as a rural woman, right down from Monarathenna. This was despite her adulation of Malini, who gradually in the seventies (the decade in which Anoja bloomed and matured) moved from the village to the city (barring the occasional film). It’s interesting also to note that Swarna’s first few performances, in the eighties and even before, had her depict more urbane women (think of Yahalu Yeheli, Ridi Nimnaya, Biththi Hathara, and Hansa Vilak) and this despite her past adulation of Punya Heendeniya, who was anything but urbane (barring her portrayals in Ran Salu and Kaliyugaya, where she nevertheless wasn’t completely cut off from the rural). In both cases it was, all in all, a subtle inversion of the mentors who had figured in their careers, and with that I think you can discern the difference between Anoja and Swarna: the one was destined to suffer, to be expressive about her rage, while the other, also destined to suffer, was doomed at the same time to suffer more for expressing that rage. When Anoja fights back (in Keli Madala, for instance), her death is planned and executed rather abruptly: her deterioration is never extended, never unbearably dragged on, while in Swarna’s case (Dadayama, Suddilage Kathawa, Ayoma), it usually is. The one is shut out and done away with at once, usually; the other is shut out only at the very end.

These were formative years, of course, since she hadn’t completely let go of her theatrical past. In Monarathenna she found it difficult to get used to the subtle nuances the cinema was capable of, while in Maldeniye Simion and Keli Madala she was, as with Siri Medura, overtly expressive but more in command of her characters. I particularly remember the last sequence in the latter film, in which she gives into an onslaught of hysterics which, she informed me, came out rather spontaneously. “Back then, I didn’t really know what film acting entailed. This bothered me particularly in when I had to give into my repressed feelings after shooting and killing Ravindra Randeniya’s and Malini Fonseka’s characters. This involved a lot of footage, which necessitated a series of rehearsals and a perfect final take. When Parakrama aiya asked me to do a rehearsal, however, I was lost. How could I act out when there was nothing in my mind? I told Parakrama aiya to go for the take, hoping that something would ‘come out’. What happened next? I don’t really know, but when the camera started rolling, I began asserting my natural self. This led in turn to a barrage of hysterics which continued until the very last shot. That first take was taken in. Right there.”

Photo by Dayan Vitharana

Written for: Daily Mirror, January 4 2018

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Douglas Ranasinghe: Second to none


Sena, the protagonist of Madawala S. Ratnayake’s Akkara Paha, embodies for me the failure of the post-1956 youth to realise their social aspirations. Lester James Peries selected Milton Jayawardena, then an unknown player, for the role in his adaptation, while days after his choice was finalised he was visited by Vijaya Kumaratunga. I think it was a blessing, for both Milton and Vijaya, that the former got the character and the latter did not, because Vijaya would have been too brash, too assertive, to depict Sena’s failings and defeatism. In fact so defeatist and so much a failure was he that he gave the impression of being used, and guided, by every other character, especially the woman who ends up as his destroyer, Theresa, and his friend in the first half of the story, Samare. Theresa was played by Janaki Kurukulasuriya, who left the industry afterwards, while Samare was played by Douglas Ranasinghe, who stayed in the industry and remains there today. His performance was so frank, so unlike the more nuanced and gentle characters he would get later, that no less a person than Peries himself remarked that he had great difficulty saving the “hero” from him, a view shared and articulated by Philip Cooray in his book, The Lonely Artist.

Douglas Ranasinghe got to be the secondary player, the supporting actor, in whatever film (commercial or serious) he was in. This has been his biggest strength and limitation, though within his confines he gives out the best he could. You feel that some of his performances – think of Siridasa from Viragaya – are so calculated that they rise above the main actor. Then you feel that his other performances – think of Kulageya – have him as a side player, whose main function is to accentuate the conflict at the heart of the story, or – think here of Aravinda from Yuganthaya – to speak on behalf of the established order, of reason over emotion. Most of our supporting actors from the early days graduated into their own stars, especially Joe Abeywickrama, though some of them remained behind, especially because that’s where they were meant to be until the end (like D. R. Nanayakkara). Ranasinghe, strictly speaking, doesn’t belong to either category, because he transcends himself. And in transcending himself, he transcends his character.

He was born in Kurunegala and was sent, initially and in keeping with the family tradition, to the game iskole, the hodiya panthiya (comparable to the kindergarten today). From the hodiya panthiya he was despatched to St Anne’s College, where he grew to dote on athletics and other sports activities. He obviously remembers his days well even now: “St Anne’s was a missionary school, but unlike today missionary schools took in quite a number of non-Christians. In fact one of my schoolmates was Wijeratne Warakagoda, who was my senior, and who later left to Ananda College.” Apparently his first love, which he encountered while at St Anne’s, had been the military, owing primarily to the sports activities he took part in. Compounding this was the fact that he had been a prefect, which later made him try out the police and which emboldened him to apply for the post of Sub Inspector. Failing twice, he succeeded on the third attempt, and was drafted for a training course at Kalutara.

He also aspired to be a lawyer and to this end, immediately after leaving school, had decided to join Law College. “Acting never really figured in my scheme of things. That’s not to say that I shirked the performing arts, but in my day, films and plays were at best leisure activities, and never career options. By default, as professions, we had either the government service or those other fields which we could prosper in, including the law, medicine, and of course engineering.” Given this it comes to no surprise then that Ranasinghe’s forays into those performing arts was, as he himself admitted, accidental. Onstage, he found his niche through Sathischandra Edirisinghe, who suggested that Ranasinghe play his role (a Corporal) in Henry Jayasena’s Hunuwataye Kathawa. “That training course in Kalutara had at the time been delayed by three months. Sathis aiya had done me a favour, years ago. I was only too happy, consequently, to help him out.” It was a largely propitious debut, since after seeing his performance, Lester James Peries asked after him, took him in, and cast him opposite Milton Jayawardena in Akkara Paha. Jayasena had, naturally enough, been suspicious: “He told Lester, laughing, ‘Now, now, you are taking all my good actors away!’”

His performance as Samare had actually been his second, after G. D. L. Perera’s Romeo Juliet Kathawak (released one year before, in 1968, but filmed after Akkara Paha), which probably more than anything else is remembered for the Sunil Shantha classic that he croons with a guitar, “My Dreams Are Roses.” As for Akkara Paha, Ranasinghe remembers his experiences under Peries with understandable nostalgia. “It was frankly an eye-opener for me. With ‘Maestro’, you’ve always got to be sure of what you do and where you are. He never bosses you around, but that doesn’t mean you can be complacent or that you can forget your cues. In other words, he expects something substantive from you, and to this end opts for three takes: one for him, one for the camera, and one for the lighting. When all three are done, you go for the final take. Because nothing escapes his eyes, incidentally, you need to remember all three.”

What of his career after these two debuts? After taking part in a short film titled Bhavana, directed by the legendary Paul Zils and entered into the Berlin Film Festival of 1970/1971, he decided to leave for England for a three year course at the London Film School. The decision, he tells me, was both conscious and spontaneous: “I left behind a career in law just so I could learn more about the mechanics of filmmaking and acting. At the end of those three years, I was asked to stay back and take part in Shakespearean productions, perhaps to get involved with the Royal Shakespearean Company. But I was homesick. Perhaps a little too homesick. In any case, had I stayed behind, I would have been a different man. Who can tell?” Who can indeed, for even with the supporting characters he got to play after his return, Ranasinghe has retained a welter of conviction which empowers him to be more than who he is. It is in this second phase of his career that he becomes controlled, contained. He has weeded out the emotional hysterics which marked out Romeo Juliet Kathawak and Akkara Paha. Those three years in London helped, clearly.

Opposite both experienced and younger players, he has triumphed: Richard de Zoysa, Chitra Vakishta, and Somi Ratnayake in Yuganthaya; Sanath Gunathilake and Sriyani Amarasena in Viragaya; Vasanthi Chathurani, Sriyani, Lucky Dias, and Tony Ranasinghe in Kulageya. We see him occasionally in glimpses now (Siddhartha Gautama, Aloko Udapadi, Dharma Yuddhaya) and in all his recent performances he has mellowed gracefully. His most distinctive features, particularly his square, firm jaw, lend him both credibility and force. I’d like to think that’s where he triumphs.

Perhaps that’s why, as Aravinda in Yuganthaya, he doesn’t retain the sort of conviction he echoes in Viragaya. In Martin Wickramasinghe’s novel Aravinda is a flawed antihero, an aspirant who wishes to join the upper echelons of a society that he has from birth been alienated from. Lester Peries finds an equivalent, somehow, for Ranasinghe through several sequences which have him wondering through his village, silently, introspectively, and advising his friend Malin (Richard de Zoysa) against being a political rebel. But we are never used to this Ranasinghe, because in his other performances he doesn’t caution against rebellion but becomes more understanding of the reasons behind that rebellion. He does nurture a conservative streak (as Siridasa in Viragaya, for instance, he trivialises Aravinda’s selflessness as foolishness), but that never crops up to the extent whereby he represents, and affirms, the Establishment.

It’s a tragedy at one level, but I believe that we have ignored Ranasinghe’s versatility. For one thing, he has in addition to the cinema also operated in theatre, television, and radio broadcasting. Not every actor has taken part in, much less aspired for, all those fields, which is why the fact that the man has been involved in them deserves more scrutiny. That’s also a reason why his views on contemporary cinema, here, deserve more than a cursory sketch. Since I can at best offer such a sketch, though, here goes:

“To be honest, now the cinema teeters between crass commercialism and anti-war ideologies. The latter wins awards, the former wins hearts. I am not saying that we don't see a middle way between these two, but they are hard to come by. As a filmmaker myself, I prefer the lives, emotions, and sentiments of my people to what any outsider thinks they ought to be. Sadly enough, few ‘serious’ directors today realise this.” And he comments on how different the characters portrayed onscreen were in his day. “Back then we had a kind of character called the ‘parajithayo’. They lost out on life. They lost out on love. But through their defeat, they became heroic figures. I can think of two characters here, now: Sena in Akkara Paha and Sugath in Golu Hadawatha. But with the advent of time, they changed and went out of fashion. That's why we see polar opposites in mainstream films now: they are either angels or villains. Such characters do not exist, and reality isn't so stark, but I suspect filmmakers are playing into audience sentiments.”

Written for: Daily Mirror, January 2 2017