Sunday, March 11, 2018

#LRArmy: Of readers, writers, and doers

Sanura Kulanaka had an idea. He wanted the students to read. He also wanted them to write. So he organised class libraries, appointed library readers, got junior members to sketch out, in drawings, what they felt about what they read, and got more senior members to write down capsule reviews regarding the same. Time usually spent playing cricket, having brawls, or whiling away doing nothing and/or gossiping was hence spent on reading between the lines. As a result, the level of discipline improved. Considerably. And the students began reading, and writing, more than ever before.

But Sanura wasn’t really satisfied. He wanted to go beyond those class libraries. So he got a bunch of students and visited the National Library. He then got down two renowned writers, a translator and a novelist, and got those students to read what they had written, carefully, and jot down any questions regarding the craft and the themes in their work. Sanura himself came across an inconsistency in one of their books. At the reading session, he pointed out that error to the novelist, who conceded and smiled. The students were naturally happy. Sanura still wanted more, though. More than what a class library, a visit to a big library, and two reading sessions could yield.

Eventually, he hit on what he had wanted. An exhibition. One that would bring bookshops from across the country. He came up with a name. Poth Lanthaya. His friend, Rajitha Abeysinghe, translated it: Bookland. Held over two days, July 31 and August 1, it was supplemented by a schoolboy band, a quiz competition, and the “official handover” of World Book, the motto of which contained this line: “Today’s explorers are tomorrow’s leaders.” Sanura was an explorer. So was Rajitha. So were their friends. And so were the members under them. All that was needed was an initiative, a series of projects, which could turn them into those leaders. That initiative, which brought these boys together, bore three initials. LRA.

Sanura was the Chairman and Rajitha the Secretary last year of the Library Readers’ Association of their school. I wrote about the LRA right before they unveiled what was promised to be the ultimate showcase item of theirs, Bookland, which for lamentable reasons didn’t get the audience, and the enthusiasm, which it deserved. This, however, is less an indictment on them than it is on those who should have known better and patronised what Sanura, Rajitha, and the boys have been doing ever since they were inducted as members of the LRA Board. But I’m digressing here. I need to get back.

The Library Readers’ Association is the oldest club/society at Royal College, Colombo. Until 1946, a hundred years after it was originally formed, it functioned as a committee with positions filled in by teachers and members of the academic staff, and after 1946, it turned into a student organisation.

Ostensibly, its motive was and is to uplift the College library, but times have changed and with changing times other, as important if not more important motives have been prioritised, among them the need to improve, possibly finance, and coordinate the school library network in Sri Lanka, from the North to the South and from the East to the West. What’s interesting at the end of the day about the LRA, for me that is (as a student of the social sciences and social theory), is how its members have come to reflect and symbolise those changing times and how certain pressures have bestowed a higher responsibility on them. Not just a higher responsibility, but a higher calling.

10 years after the LRA turned into a student organisation, the history of this country, as we know it, changed. The social forces which had held sway and had been pervasive everywhere until then transformed, almost overnight and in the blink of an eye, into another set of social forces, centring on and revolving around one important historical eventuality: free education. The change this entailed, and compelled, was felt everywhere – in the cultural and the political – and it necessitated a shift in the way we thought about and articulated our art forms: our cinema, our theatre, and yes, our literature.

Before 1956, our authors, writing in Sinhala, teetered between two polar opposites – the propagandist literary tracts of Piyadasa Sirisena on the one hand and the earthy, naturalistic novels of Martin Wickramasinghe. Between these two (both of whom I have read and come to admire on almost equal terms) lay an entire country waiting to be emancipated – students and adults – and they were emancipated by the processes which 1956 unleashed.

Probably the best index we have of the extent to which such processes proved to be fruitful here is our literature, and probably the best demographic we have here to measure that index with is our schoolchildren, specifically the Sinhala-speaking schoolchildren. Those who had doted on Wickramasinghe and, if they felt his work to be too sophisticated, the more populist but rather high-flown anti-colonial rhetoric of Sirisena, graduated to other writers after 1956: Karunasena Jayalath (who wrote of young lovers when young love was a tabooed subject), Deemon Ananda (who still enchants us), and Chandana Mendis (whom every schoolchild swears by). The LRA members, most of whom I’ve talked with, represent this demographic, this shift, and with them the demographic and shift that will matter when they take their projects, and their ideas for a country of readers and writers, forward.

Having being brought up and educated in an “estranged” milieu, I frequently lament my lack of familiarity with the texts and authors that most of those my age and in their teenage years go for. In my case, it has been a case of graduating from Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton, Roald Dahl, and the Hardy Boys, right up to Agatha Christie and (as of now) pretty much everyone else. If you converse with these boys from the LRA, on the other hand, you’ll peruse a different set of literary preferences. Sanura himself, in the longest conversation I’ve had with a student that age (I don’t talk enough, I realise), contended that the fun, the pulsating rhythms of speech and dialect, which he enjoys in a Sinhala novel, especially his favourite genres (crime and mystery) don’t come out when he sits down to read an English novel, a notion which almost everyone else in the team echoes. (It’s pertinent to note that most of team members, like Sanura himself, come from “the village”, and that they have brought their preferences from “the village” to “the city.”)

The titles and authors they prefer, and do not prefer, tell a lot about where they come from and the background they bring with them with the books they read. Here’s a random list: translations of Russian (social realism) stories, Upul Shantha Sannasgala, Chandana Mendis (of course!), and from more recent times, Susitha Ruwan and his Ravana Meheyuma cycle of novels.

Individual preferences tend to diverge and converge: Vimuth, this year’s Secretary, tells me that while he is enamoured of Russian literature in general, he prefers Sannasgala’s Amma to Gorky’s Amma, while Roshan, the Treasurer, tells me that inasmuch as Gorky’s Amma has become a “standard text” for those as young as 10 or 11, his personal favourite is Poleyov’s The Story of a Real Man, translated as Saba Minisekuge Kathawak. Not that they aren’t picky over books this way all the way, though: another member, Sithira (the Assistant Secretary), tells me that he reads everything and anything (“I can’t pick and choose!”), as does the present Chairman, Sahan Kithmina. As for Rajitha, who contacted me over Bookland, he more or less prefers non-fiction: economics (Keynes, Milton Friedman), political science (Machiavelli, John Locke), and, the closest to a creative writer in his list, Dale Carnegie.

It’s a veritable mishmash, and I for one like it. A nation of artists and critics, after all, can only come from a nation of writers, and a nation of writers can only come from a nation of readers. Based on the projects they have committed themselves to – including, but not limited, to what I’ve outlined at the beginning of this sketchy piece – and the way they have set about articulating their preferences through the preferences they’ve promoted for everyone, I can only write down only one thing: if we don’t read enough, or write enough, we’ll continue with a culture that divides the high from the popular. How else do you think that rift has continued, between the young and the old, between you and me, today?

Photos by the Photographic Society and the Media Unit of Royal College

Written for: The Island YOUth, March 11 2018

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Forgotten flicks: 'Sagara Jalaya'

“It must be seen today, by the young of today,” Ranjith Rubasinghe told me over lunch. He was talking about Sagara Jalaya, Sumitra Peries’s fifth film, which I think is one of the three or four most perfectly constructed films ever made here, and which I believe is Sumitra’s masterpiece. Those who watch it today are often overwhelmed by the intermingling of opposites in it – of beauty and pathos, of love and hate, of reconciliation and vengefulness – which explains that sense of unpredictability which never lets go until the last scene. That it could be made with so much precision, back when movies had deteriorated in quality and worse, become debased, tells a lot about the cast and crew. I saw it twice: once when I was 10, once when I was 24. That gap, of almost 15 years, can open you up to facets of the plot you had never discerned before; the beauty of Sagara Jalaya is that even when you ignore those facets, it still seems to have been made for its time, for all time, and for everyone.

Simon Nawagaththegama, who wrote Ohu Mala Giya Pasu, in my opinion the best story from his collection Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuva Oba Sanda (from which the scriptwriter of the film, Lester James Peries, took the title), never reveals his characters, or their flaws, in gushes and torrents. Even in a middle period work as Suddilage Kathawa, published seven years after Sagara Jalaya, there’s never that kind of in-your-face apparentness that you sense in, say, Martin Wickramasinghe’s Koggala Trilogy. Part of the reason for that was that Nawagaththegama, who was of a different literary temperament, sought to transcend the limits of realism that the 20th century had imposed on the Sinhalese novel. But when set against this parameter, Ohu Mala Giya Pasu is an intensely poignant tale, with a kind of clarity of vision that only barely comes out in his other work, even the other stories in Sagara Jalaya.

As with much of his oeuvre, Ohu Mala Giya Pasu takes place in the dry zone: the Wanni region, near Medawachchiya, where people pray and also swear by Aiyanayaka Deviyo and where the harsh sun becomes a reality you have to get used to. In Nawagaththegama’s work the smallest tension, the tiniest ripple on the surface, will charge an otherwise unimportant scene with unbearable tension, and his characters will go on and on, spitting out frenzy, hate, inexplicable madness. Never for one moment are those characters gentle, not because they lack empathy but because that is what their world has compelled them to become. Whoever said that writers operate on universals, and that critics operate on those universals when assessing the work of those writers, was stating only half the story; the truth is that some of the greatest writers went for the milieus they grew up in. Nawagaththegama, in this sense, did through the Wanni area he had known, since childhood, what Martin Wickramasinghe had done through Koggala: depict life as it was lived.

In the original story, which Lester and Sumitra read in translation by Ranjini Obeyesekere, the sexual tensions the adaptation only subtly unearths are there, for all to see, while the child figure, Bindu, doesn’t occupy our attention the way he does onscreen. It’s a cruel world that these characters inhabit, but not as cruel and pathos-ridden as that of Suddilage Kathawa, which many consider to have been a spiritual successor of sorts to Ohu Mala Giya Pasu (those familiar with both would notice the similarities: the woman, left without a husband and without an income, preying on the sexual proclivities of a man she can never have), because of the scriptwriter’s affirmation of humanism. You don’t come across the uncontrollable savagery which Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s adaptation of Suddilage Kathawa oozes out.

In that sense Sumitra’s film is easier to wade through, no matter how young or old you are; as a 10-year-old, I would not have noticed the relationship between the mudalali (Ravindra Randeniya) and Heen Kella, but that did not take my interest away because I was focusing on the relationship between Heen Kella and Bindu, her son. 15 years later, when our comprehension of marriage matured, cynically, we discerned at once the source of the hatred between Heen Kella and the mudalali’s wife, her cousin, so much so that we can’t pass over it. That’s why I think, it its own way, that it was a film made for all time, and for everyone: not everything in it would have appealed to those who saw it, but the emotional texture, the humanism in it that is never repudiated, is what makes it a movie-for-all-to-see at the end of the day.

But while many people have seen, and appreciated, Suddilage Kathawa, very few people have seen, much less appreciated, Sagara Jalaya. If you peruse Sumitra’s career this can be said of pretty much her other films: they all were received warmly by critics, and to a considerable extent by popular audiences too, but the momentum that they rode on when they were first released fizzed out, owing to certain unfortunate reasons outside the control of the director.

Critics say that Dharmasiri Bandaranayake may be the most misunderstood and underestimated director in Sri Lanka, then and now. But the same can be said of Sumitra too, because the kind of recognition that her films, particularly her best work (Gehenu Lamayi, Sagara Jalaya, Sakman Maluwa), deserved never accrued to them; by contrast, her lesser works (Yahalu Yeheli, Duwata Mawaka Misak) compelled hysterics and a barrage of vitriol from both critics and popular audiences (Yahalu Yeheli, for instance, was indicted for its depiction of an upper class young woman taken up by revolution – as if affluent young women can never be taken up at all! – while Duwata Mawaka Misa, made at a time when her work was considered family-friendly, evinced anger when Thushani gave into her paramour’s advances willingly) that was not compensated for by the sustained sincerity of those other three films.

Because those who have seen and waxed eloquent over Suddilage Kathawa (and those other films which had Swarna as the central tormented figure: Hansa Vilak, Dadayama, Kadapathaka Chaya) have never “seen” Sagara Jalaya, the latter remains inexorably fresh every time it’s telecast on television, which I think is part of its charm. Sumitra was primarily an editor, and a disciplined editor at that, and that comes through Sagara Jalaya almost spotlessly; music and movement are intertwined so effortlessly that I sometimes wonder how the crew and cast managed to parse the production together (“We had to delay shooting by a whole year when the rains came,” she told me when we talked about the film one day) until the very end. It’s beautifully sustained, and owing to that, the turbulence and the oscillations of behaviour which come out, however uncontained they can get, never really rupture the gentleness and innocence at the heart of the story. When Swarna and her cousin (Sunethra Sarachchandra) argue, for instance, we don’t get the hysterics and outbursts that we do in many of Vasantha Obeyesekere’s films; the camera moves away and instead focuses on Bindu’s face, filled as it is with disbelief and helplessness. It’s one of the best edited films I’ve seen from anywhere; that has a lot to do with not just Sumitra and Lester, but also the cameraman, Donald Karunaratne; the editor, the sadly underrated Lal Piyasena; and the cast: Swarna, Sunethra, Ravindra, and the two children.

And in the end, it is those two children who salvage the story from the ambiguities of the plot (with respect to the relationship between Heen Kella and the mudalali). Neither the girl nor the boy had been exposed to the cinema back then; that was a different time, when children were not transformed into superstars. “They lose their childhoods early on,” Sumitra told me, talking about the tendency of the popular culture to overhype the young when they become popular in that culture. What gets lost in this transformation is that rare ability to be yourself: the children are forced by the scriptwriter to be younger and louder than they are. They can’t express themselves without resorting to the loudspeaker. A girl once told me (in jest, of course) that I behave like a 50-year-old who speaks like a 20-year-old who thinks he’s a 30-year-old; roughly the same anachronism exists with respect to our onscreen children: they act below their years, but in reality project the fantasies and idealisations of them that directors throw up.

The greatness of Sagara Jalaya, or Maya, is that the child actors in them never followed up on their performances and carved out careers of their own: the tendency of our film industry to throw up wannabe Shirley Temples is recent, because children always returned to their normal lives, back then, when the production wrapped up. They were never idiotic: they thought beyond their years even though they never showed it. That was true and very much so of the two actors in Sagara Jalaya, Rasika Kumari Wickramasingha (Midiya) and Susith Chaminda de Silva (Bindu). (Where are they today?) Bindu’s voiceover at the end, for instance, is insanely poignant, because Susith brings together the opposites at the heart of the story: pathos and beauty, innocence and ferocity. Most child actors I’ve seen bring about that poignancy without uttering too many words (think of Vasanthi Chathurani at the end of Gehenu Lamayi); Susith does it by spelling out an entire letter to the audience.

Which is why I think what Ranjith Rubasinghe told me still holds valid, after all these years. Sumitra’s film should be seen today, by the young of today, not only because I think it’s a “family picture” (and a good one at that), but also because it takes us back to a time when honesty and sincerity mattered; when the need to entertain, while certainly not the be-all and end-all of a film, was acknowledged and not forcibly repressed in the name of art. Those who believe in life and the affirmation of life in the movies should thus get out of their theories, their academised notions of art, and watch Sagara Jalaya.

Written for: Daily Mirror, February 20 2018

Monday, February 19, 2018

MUNation: S(t)imulating the world

If there’s one thing I remember from my schooldays, it’s the fact that I never took part in an extracurricular activity. Not. A. Single. One. School was about passing exams, doing homework, doing that extra assignment to please the teacher, and getting back home for a nap, a cup of tea, some biscuits, and a wholesome dinner. There was no room for cricket, football, or even the most popular sport at my school, basketball. No, I can’t swim, I can’t debate, and though I can play chess, I never dared to cross the line and join the club. I also remember there being a good Scrabble Master, but once again, I didn’t dare.

Then I hit adolescence in Grade Eight. The transition was terrible. I wanted to instil some meaning in my life, to get out of the world I’d shut myself in. Looking around and perusing the many clubs and societies (non-sport, of course) at school, I picked one I thought I could prosper in. Model United Nations. I’d heard from various friends that apart from being an enjoyable enterprise, it was headed at the time by a veritable set of determined prefects, elders, and teachers who wanted to see both the society and the school thrive outside. Having nothing to lose, and everything to gain, I hence tried it out.

The first few days were humbling. MUN, as those who’ve been at it would know, consists of simulating (hence the term “Model”) real life situations, based on the various bodies in the United Nations and based on multifarious and specific contingencies: disaster management, crisis avoidance, consensus, what-not. The first few countries you get aren’t popular, and for good reason: when you get to represent a popular country (the USA, India, even Sri Lanka), you tend to be complacent, because research and preparation – the twin peaks of any budding MUN student – become easier to handle. The first country I got, North Korea, was nowhere near that. Since this was long, long before broadband and Wi-Fi caught up in Sri Lanka, researching on such a country was a difficult, although enjoyable, enterprise. I stayed in the Club, happily, predictably, for a number of months, if not years (I can’t remember), after which I left, returned, left again, returned again, and left for good. That’s life.

We (my school and the club) soon reached a point where we could reckon with outsiders and this in a way that was beneficial to us, meaning a way that encouraged us to try and spread the MUN culture throughout the country. But try as they could, none of those prefects and teachers could take the MUN culture we had institutionalised in our classrooms to classrooms outside. Many, many years later, after expending much effort and after trying out this, that, and everything else that could be tried out, a group of students from a batch decided to stake everything and come up with a simple solution. That solution turned out to be a platform. The platform had a name. MUNation. I wrote about MUNation in 2016, but the footnote it compels today deserves a less sketchy article, particularly with respect to where they are now.

On the 21st and the 28th of January, 2018 (one year after they started out, that is), MUNation hosted the Sri Lankan Crisis Simulation Conference at the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT). What’s special about this is the fact that it is the first conference held in the country catered specifically to crisis situations. Crisis situations, in case you don’t know, are part and parcel of the MUN culture, because crises are what compel world bodies to get together and try to wade through them as peaceably and diplomatically as possible. The crises being simulated can be from the past or the present, and for that matter can even be imagined: at the MUNation Conference, for instance, six different specific situations were simulated and worked out: the Allied and Nazi High Commands for the Second World War, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the UN Security Council, NATO, and a futuristic (also unrealistic? idealistic?) Global Commonwealth of Nations.

To me such an enterprise is important, and not because it’s MUNation at the helm. If there’s one misconception of what the MUN stands for, which has been sustained throughout, it’s the misconception that the United Nations stands for the rights of individual countries over a global polity. In other words, nationalism, chauvinism, and the politics of sovereignty and autonomy and expedience are regarded (sometimes erroneously) as taking precedence over the interests of the entire world, as a whole, which explains the at times irrational wars and conflicts, small as they are compared to the two World Wars, which have been waged by bigger countries against smaller countries despite the best efforts of the United Nations to prevent them. Simulating crises, and locating them not just in the present but also in the past and future, goes a long way in dispelling that aforementioned misconception, because now the global body (i.e. the UN) now has truly become a global institution: arguments need to be made, disagreements need to be resolved and immediately. It’s consensus politics at one level, diplomacy at another.

The Conference, attended by various dignitaries on both days (including Senel Wanniarachchi and Malinda Seneviratne), oversaw various events and side-events, which eventually saw Royal Institute emerge as the Director General’s Award for Best Delegation. A marvellous start-up conference, it ended up enrapturing audiences with rapt speeches and with the timeliness and relevance the whole enterprise entailed. To a large extent, this had to do with the main figures at the head of MUNation, above them all the Founder of the organisation, Nikin Mataraarachchi. I remember the last word he put in the last time I interviewed him regarding MUNation: “We hope to help the future of the MUN and upcoming delegates. We would also like to hope to expand and become Sri Lanka’s first professional MUN consultancy service and also increase the knowledge of Sri Lankans as a whole on international politics.” It would seem that this service he hopes to provide has gone beyond just a website, just a platform, and just an idea. It has evolved. As it should.

Written for: The Island YOUth, February 18 2018

Some recent impressions

Most children I know, particularly schoolboys, take to photography from an early age. If there is a photographic society in their school, they join it the first chance they get. If they are able to scrounge up some money from their fathers and buy a decent Nikon D3300 or, better still, a Nikon D5300 in the second-hand market, they do that. If they come across a “benefactor” who’s willing to lend them a flasher so they can improve on their skills without resorting to that ominous ISO count, they go ahead then and there. Schoolboys love photography in much the same way they love the guitar and the ability to sing; it’s one of the easiest ways of winning someone’s attention, of showing off to the world, particularly the opposite sex, that they are doers. That’s why, when they become adults, they want to become actors and directors, instead of scriptwriters and editors. They want to be seen. By everyone else.

I’ve been fortunate these past three years in meeting young men and women who have shared their perspectives with me. Some of those perspectives, I find hard to agree with; others, I find hard to disagree with; and still others, I am not sure whether I should agree or disagree with at all. These young, wild teenagers – many of them behaving beyond their years – are the obverse of the children of our movies: they are idealists but they are not stupid, whereas their counterparts in our contemporary movies are so stupid that they can only broadcast those idealisms through the loudspeaker. Their love for photography, for the guitar, for the sheer, sensual pleasure of taking a microphone and singing in front of an audience composed of members of the opposite sex for the most, stems from this strange dualism: they are children, yet they think beyond their years in a way their age can’t do justice to.

The elders of this country are nervous about those who will take after them because of this self-contradictory position that the young are in: they are groomed to be the elders they are not at an early age, yet they are treated and indulged as the youngsters that they consciously try not to be. This is certainly one of the most discernibly peculiarities of modern sensibility, and for me it explains, at least to an extent, why our teenagers become adults long before they hit 17 and why so many of them (from the many I’ve met thus far) are so suave and smug and self-confident that they don’t feel the need to be aware or respectful of the adults in front of them. At one level that can be taken as a sign of their arrogance and complacency. At another, it’s something else.

In America, the youngest of all democracies, the young were a little like this after the Second World War; they rebelled against authority even when that authority yielded to them and indulged them. If James Dean, from Rebel Without a Cause, appears so shockingly outdated and even out of place today, it’s because America has gone beyond that kind of youthful angst which the fifties epitomised and because a country like Sri Lanka is yet to produce that kind of angst. Dean has nothing really to complain about, if we are to apply the standards that we, here, apply when it comes to the upbringing of our children, to him, and yet we do see a mild trace of his rebelliousness in the young of today. There’s a difference between this rebellious streak which is opening up in the country and the streak that characterised them two or three decades ago, because then the young ones wanted to please their elders and the society they were born to. Simply put, that rebellion converted them into doers, the generation of Clarence Wijewardena and Rookantha Goonetilake.

The young of those early days wanted to show off because they had what it took to translate what they had into something fulfilling. The young of the recent past were unable to make this leap (was it because, by then, a gap had materialised between the high culture and the popular culture, with the young taking to the latter even though the elders were adamant that they stick to the former?), owing to which they could only imitate any new artiste who came up. Our popular culture never went beyond Bathiya and Santhush and Iraj for quite some time, and later, when Batti and Paba and Muthu Kirilli came, they couldn’t go beyond the mega-series on television either. Look at those latter three TV serials today, the veteran cast members they had (can you imagine someone of the calibre of Irangani Serasinghe or the late H. A. Perera in a mega-drama revolving around a love story today?), and compare them to the shoddiness of what television puts out for mass audiences now.

The new modern culture is different in many ways, I believe. Thumudu Dodantanne, the star of Koombiyo and Sahodarayo (the former more popular and enjoyable than the latter, for me that is), is the newest face to adorn our silver screen, and he does a pretty good job at being that new face in a way that puts to shame even (from the cinema) Uddika Premaratne and Hemal Ranasinghe. For those who want a story instead of an overdrawn, overdue love story, for those who want a plot that parses, that keeps you expecting the next episode without making you feel cheated, Koombiyo is the ultimate television product. It relates to the contemporary society and culture we inhabit – people are turning the conversations in it into memes on Facebook – in ways that no other mega-series can or will, in the near future. (That’s why my excitement over it is tempered by my disappointment at the fact that it took years for the producers to get it approved by the top board at ITN.)

Apart from Koombiyo and Sahodarayo, what are the other symbols of this modern culture? To mention a few: Sanuka Wickramasinghe, Tehan Perera, Ho Gana Pokuna, Adareyi Mang. (We don’t have an equivalent for these in literature, for some reason.) What brings them together is their disregard for the rules that have been set for their respective mediums by other, more established players in the industry: neither Ho Gana Pokuna nor Adareyi Mang, for instance, yields to the commercialism or the profundities that the mainstream and the art house movie sector operate on. They promote rebellion but not at the cost of an absolute annihilation of the values which are being rebelled against. When people listen to Sanuka, they aren’t listening to songs about lovers being denied their romances by the world; they’re listening to songs about lovers being denied their romances from within. It’s the same story with Koombiyo: the urban angst that the serial purveys has been portrayed by so many directors in the medium, but no one has captured our attention in quite the same way the characters in that particular serial have. It’s not a rejection of the old, it’s a reworked, better version of the old.

The schoolboys of today are growing up on this kind of culture, and I for one am happy. When I was schooling I had to put up with either the insufferable yet strangely intriguing mega-drama or the shallowly profound mini-series about contemporary angst (sincerely awful, awfully sincere), and this was true even of the other arts: the only serious movies I had which I could watch came in the form of Aksharaya, long before Indika Ferdinando broke my prejudice against Sinhala films by giving us a film that soothed our sorrows and emboldened our joys without leaving me with the impression that what I was watching was a facilely serious production about a serious idea. The young of today, in other words, are inheritors of a serious culture, but without the overly serious overtones. It’s a new kind of youngsters that is being nurtured by the contemporary sensibility. When they take to photography, when they decide to croon Sanuka’s Saragaye, and when they try to entrance the opposite sex, they aren’t being shallow like their descendants from my generation were. They are truly, madly, sincerely serious about what they’re doing. They have the facilities. They have the confidence. And more than anything else, they have themselves. Isn’t that enough for now? I think so.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, February 18 2018

The anger of the people has spoken

Whenever I failed to get the grade or mark I wanted at school, at a term or a monthly test, I used to brood over it for a long, long time, often for hours, sometimes for days. I would first console myself with the fact that there would always be a tomorrow and another chance. When that wasn’t enough, I’d try to rationalise my failure by dishing the blame on someone else. The teacher wasn’t good enough; that particular chapter was too hard; compared with those who got the lowest marks I was much better off; my handwriting was probably not legible enough for the teacher; my concentration during the exam was disturbed by a friend laughing. It didn’t take long for me to realise that these excuses absolved the only real person who could be blamed. Me.

It’s probably not uncharitable of me to note that most of our politicians remind me of my juvenile years. That’s why I can’t help but smirk when the recent Local Government Election results, profoundly unsettling as they are, compel enough hysterics from those who thought they would win (when they did not and could not) that they contort those results so as to tide over their failures. Mangala Samaraweera, for instance, suggests that the percentage of those who voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa rose from 51.28% in 2015 to 55.35% in 2018. Anura Kumara Dissanayake argues that the final results justify neither the government (the UNP and the SLFP) nor the Joint Opposition (which begs the question: does it justify him?). And Rajitha Senaratne, whose seat (Beruwela), like Samaraweera’s seat (Matara), his party unexpectedly lost, says that while the election was a setback, “the majority of Sri Lanka is still anti-Rajapaksa” (can he get any more obscurantist there?).

The premise for any political commentator when arguing about the post-2015 political scenario was that Mahinda Rajapaksa lost to Maithripala Sirisena. If those who shouted for the government used this as their rationale, it’s only fair to say that the premise for any comment on the LG Elections is that the Pohottuwa (the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna) not only won hands-down, but also won so decisively that it created history by being the second outside-the-mainstream party to defeat the mainstream (the first, of course, being the SLFP, which has now been relegated to the dustbin of history). This was a protest vote. The people weren’t necessarily voting out of love for Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brand of expedient populism: they were fed up of the UNP and the UPFA. The anger of the people has spoken, in other words.

The voting patterns bear this out. Even in areas inhabited and overseen by parliamentarians and MPs, whose monopoly over their regions were virtually unassailable – the UPFA in Polonnaruwa, the UNP in many areas in Kandy and Beruwela and Kalutara – the Pohottuwa won. The numbers are so overwhelming that they simply transcend any attempt made by naysayers and disbelievers to contort them. Mr Samaraweera’s view, to give just one example, can be countered by the fact that unlike in 2015 the SLFP, the UNP, and the other coalition parties, including the TNA and, to a certain extent, the JVP, were not canvassing for votes as a single entity. In August 2015 the situation was different: the bitter memories that Rajapaksa evoked in the minds of his critics at the grassroots were enough for them to cast him aside. Last week, on the other hand, was surely not a case of the hansaya fighting against the kesara sinhaya. It was a one-man party, led by his cohorts and loyalists, against the two oldest political parties in the country. As far as electoral battles go, that one-man party, and that man, won decisively.

Dayan Jayatilleka contends, in three separate analyses written days after the LG polls, that the United National Party should take note of the election results and reform itself gracefully, because, in his own words, “the February 10th shrinkage of the UNP is the consequence, not the cause, of the UNP crisis.” But I rather think that the vacuum at the centre of that party – despite arguments to the contrary made by the likes of Dr Jayatilleka I can’t think of a plausible alternative for Ranil Wickremesinghe, never mind the last-minute attempts (alleged as they are) at trying to replace him with Karu Jayasuriya – will continue for some time, which logically leads me to surmise that the LG Elections was less about the UNP, less about the centre-right economic and political agenda of Ranil Wickremesinghe and his loyalists (EconomyNext, which Dr Jayatilleka notes as “well established” and “UNP and West-friendly”, describes those loyalists as members of the FRCS, or Former Royal College Student, Cabal), that about the wildly oscillating behaviour of the UPFA and the SLFP. True, voters were tired of the UNP’s involvement with the Bond Scandal (most if not all of those MPs tarnished by the Scam – Sujeewa Senasinghe and Ajith Perera included – had to concede defeat in their seats), but they were even more tired of the man at the top and his party.

The first mistake Maithripala Sirisena committed was to take over the reins of the SLFP. This move, expedient and clearly necessary though it was at the time (the only way you could chase the Rajapaksas was by purging the party he’d led of his loyalists), soon grew to besmirch the president’s image as a non-partisan leader. He would have done better, I thought at the time, had he handed over the party leadership to another person, obviously a loyalist, and then gone back to the parliament to become the benign Asokian leader he got us to idealise him as. Instead what we got was a foggy, dense presidency, where the president would speak of reconciliation and the need for interethnic harmony on one day and rant against the Army being tried at a court for crimes against humanity on the very next. What this necessitated was a tussle, apparent in all but name, between the two arms of the unitary government, and what that tussle compelled was the rise and empowerment of the cast aside predecessor. That cast aside loser had to win again, magnificently so.

Had he and his cohorts not won that magnificently, though, even if they came first, the SLPP would not have the numbers to turn victory into celebratory rhetoric. Neither Dulles Alahapperuma nor G. L. Peiris nor Gamini Lokuge nor Dinesh Gunawardena would have been able to hold press conferences and smile at the journalists and make flippant jokes about not joining the government (Gotabaya Rajapaksa to a journalist at the Airport: “Who’d want to be Prime Minister in this mess?”) if they had got even two or three or four points below what they expected. My own prediction, with the UNP coming first and the Pohottuwa a close second, would not have been adequate, and if it had not been adequate, the government would have moved on. Everything clicked in one place, to the advantage of the Pohottuwa AND the UNP, the latter of which now has the numbers to run a government of its own.

The SLFP, for all intents and purposes, is dead. It will be a natural, though temporary, death, because the principles it claimed to stand for were denied by the family members of its own founder and later by the men who clinched power by chasing the Rajapaksas away. Those who were associated with it from 2015 to 2018 – including Duminda Dissanayake and Wijith Wijayamuni Zoysa and Mahinda Samarasinghe – cannot survive politically unless they get out of the SLFP, and even if they do, it will take a long, long time for the people to forgive them. The SLFP, for a still longer time, I suspect, will be laid to rest, unless a more convincing leader – not the president, not Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, and not Mahinda Rajapaksa – takes over its reins. Gunadasa Amarasekara said something to the effect that the SLFP, despite its many self-contradictions, has the ability to throw up a Mahinda Rajapaksa. I rather think that Mahinda will stay for some time in the SLPP, until a resilient, nationalistic, and able person decides to lead the SLFP.

The death of English

A prominent film critic once said something to the effect that the worst directors tended to come from film schools, while the best directors tended to transcend the limits of academia that such schools imposed on them and their colleagues. While it’s difficult to ascertain whether this is definitive, or true also of various other fields and professions, I can vouch, from my personal experiences, for the opinion, held by many, that it is true of writers, especially of critics: the best among them start out on their own terms, the worst among them come as young idealists from our universities. By no means do I intend this to be definitive, because there are exceptions, infrequent though they are.

My friend Dhanuka Bandara, waxing eloquent on two collections of essays, on the arts and on politics, by the late Regi Siriwardena, told me that Regi was not a top-of-his-class university product, and that Regi did not obtain First or even Second Class Honours from University College, adding in his own inimitable way that this was true of pretty much every great prose stylist in this country. That critic I referred to before, Pauline Kael, was like that too: she dropped out of the University of California, Berkley in her last year, owing to financial constraints (she made it a point, a few decades on, to joke and quip that the years she spent at Berkley encouraged her to get rid of a prose style which was academic and full of what she called “saphead objectivity”).

The point I’m trying to drive at here is that qualifications alone have never been enough to validate an artist, be he a performer or a purveyor. I am not aware how true this is of Sinhala and Tamil artists and writers, but I am painfully aware of how true it is of English artists and writers, particularly the latter. What schools and universities bestow on their graduates, that is with respect to a language, is the grammar and the syntax of that language. Taking what is learnt, while unlearning the rigidity entailed in committing it to your memory, and in the process unleashing your creativity to do away with (what else?) saphead objectivity, is part of the fun, but very many critics, from then and even now, fail to make that leap. Last Tuesday I talked about the death of Sinhala, from a specific angle. That compels me to visit the death of English, from another specific angle: the drab lifelessness of our critics and stylists.

It’s easier to write about an art form than it is to be a performer of that art form, easier to write about plays and movies and books than to be a stage director, filmmaker, or writer. But critics are needed, especially in as small and indefinable a country as Sri Lanka, because works of art by default require cohesive critics who can identify the worth of the artist and convey it to a lay readership. Helping others to see, or more to the point discern, is the critic’s primary function, and in a country like ours, where a rift exists between the vernacular and the non-vernacular, the absence of a critical fraternity that writers well in English does tend to worry. To be as simple as possible, how are we to get our art forms and artists to the world outside?

Speaking for myself, I prefer writers and critics who use their intelligence and instincts and let their emotions flow. When critics are insultingly put down as impressionistic, when what they write is ignored on the basis that their writings are ridden with emotions and vignettes (personal impressions, never even once following the rigid rationalisations that have been taught at school and at university), a confusion is sustained: what should criticism be about? It’s certainly an art in itself (that’s why we call it “vicharana kalawa”), and not a science, so to let go of those rigid rationalisations that mar good writing isn’t an option, it’s a necessity. Critics need to live, they need to breathe, to be alert.

What separates the late and the lamented writers of the past – Siriwardena, Ajith Samaranayake, L. O. de Silva, Philip Cooray, Gamini Haththotuwegama – from the new writers we have today is that the former were able to fulfil the chief function of any critic worth his salt: discerning what is new and original in a work of art and helping audiences see it. My belief is that Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Lester James Peries would have been able to survive with their work without such writers, but the existence of these purveyors, in the popular press (the most democratic form of media we have), helped them, and us, understand the sensibilities they were evoking in the people and the culture. On the other hand, the tendency of the modern critic is to rationalise something, anything, with academic principles. Just take a gander at this review of K. S. Sivakumaran’s recently published compilation, On Films Seen:

“David Bordwell suggests... there are four key components present in film reviews. These components consist of a condensed plot synopsis, background information, a set of abbreviated arguments about the film, and an evaluation. Generally speaking, when a reviewer is evaluating a film he/she tends to be assessing some, or all, of the following: the motivation for what happens in the film, the film's entertainment value, the film's social relevance and social value, and the film's aesthetic value. If it were easy everyone would be a film critic. It is a great job, most of the time. Unless of course, you are watching a genuinely bad film, the sort that once caused a notable film critic to comment, ‘That is 90 minutes of my life I can never get back.’”

Whenever I read a review that suspends and transcends disbelief, and in a bad way, I feel like that notable film critic: those minutes spent perusing and turning over the pages are minutes I can never get back. But really, must film criticism, the most alive of all modes of criticism, follow Mr Bordwell’s “key components” this way? There are reviews which don’t reveal the plot, and reviews (probably the best of them) that elaborate on rather than abbreviate arguments. When you follow the same format, you are not unlike that high school student who, to win his teacher’s attention and (if he’s in a co-ed class) his girlfriend’s attention, regularly polishes up his homework to stick to what that teacher prescribes as the only correct structure of an essay to his class. (Critics who strayed from this – Pauline Kael included – were often described as being frustrated and random, but I for one prefer such manifestations of frustration, however random they may be, to the boredom of those “correct formats” and “components" we are taught to accept at an early age.)

Mr Sivakumaran has reviewed, his book tells us, 58 movies; the most charitable and positive thing I can say here about On Films Seen is the fact that it contains (rather terse) reviews of Sinhala films which have not been explored by any English critic (Madhu Samaya, Umayangana, Mandakini). They are less reviews, in fact, than capsule reviews, which isn’t bad, though their lapses of judgment (especially those that involve puritanical overtures, like the following: “Being a natural heterosexual person, my immediate reaction in viewing the retrospective of the British filmmaker Derek Jarman was one of repugnance and repulsion”) take away from his sincerity.

The reviews for Jehan Aloysius’s Rag: The Musical were ecstatic when it first came out years ago: according to one writer it provided a “potent appeal against campus violence.” (“Because when you strip away all the hype and the hoopla [whatever that hype and hoopla is] Rag is a rare animal indeed: a musical with a social conscience” – but then have there never been musicals staged before that had a social conscience, however facile?) These were predictable in the praise (not to mention the hype and the hoopla!) they bestowed on the production; it was almost as though the musical had been turned into an ineffable experience that existed to be venerated. Common sense does prevail in such circumstances, though the one account of the play that I had been waiting for came after it was restaged this year, and not from a newspaperman; instead it was an undergraduate who came up with it.

“... the elitism of this play, especially in terms of its language politics, was deeply problematic. Sinhala was used in the play for two specific reasons. One was to imply a sense of roughness or vulgarity (the raggers resort to Sinhala, to which the students who resist the rag unanimously respond in English). The second, was for what could be called in Sinhala as ‘gong athal’ – to resort to cheap humour that ridiculed a much less privileged popular/folk tradition of Sinhala theatre, as well as to poke fun at the aesthetic sensibilities and gender performativity of Sinhala-speaking classes.”

It was the kind of elitism I encountered, though in a much less insidious form, in Dear Children Sincerely, last August. When critics are emboldened by the cosmetics of a production, or any work of art for that matter, they tend to miss out on the undercurrents, the subtleties and easy-to-ignore nuances, which breathe life into that production. When you can’t explain those undercurrents, when what’s on the surface is easier to project, the writer will resort to that surface; you can’t blame him for that, because that’s his training, and because Sri Lanka, being what it is, is too small for an individual voice to bring the curtain crashing down on the producers who (wrongly) believe that those superficial cosmetics are enough to validate and vindicate their work. That review above, which garnered outrage from many of the theatregoers at the Wendt, was rare, and beautifully so, but the likes of it continue to be limited to the thoughtful blogger, the ardent activist, the revolutionary student.

The role of the critic, Kael wrote in 1963, was to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that should be. Opinions do differ and converge, which is why what I like about an objet d’art may not be what you like, or what you notice. Given all this, then, our critics need to go back to school, though a different school, to unlearn what has been learnt, to shed away the rigidities that have been imbibed, and to start living.

The death of Sinhala

It is fashionable now and then to lament the death of this or that. Most if not much of the time, though, this act of lamenting is a way in which the elders exert and express their superiority over the young, with the most typical excuse trotted out being that the young don’t care. Probably no other artefact, treasured by these elders, has been so lamented like this than the mother tongue, Sinhala, with its supposedly impending death. (Since I don’t know Tamil, or how it’s venerated by the old and how the young treat it to the consternation of the old, I’m not sure what the situation is over there.)

The elders will confidently point out that the young don’t read. True. They don’t. No language can be sustained in the long run without recourse to literature, and no literature can survive if this demographic refuses to read. I’ve pointed out countless times, here and elsewhere, that a nation that doesn’t read eventually becomes a nation that doesn’t write, and in turn a nation that doesn’t produce any critics. This, I think, is truer for English than for Sinhala, because despite all that it has suffered at the hands of a non-reading public the Sinhala press has produced and continues to produce cohesive critics who surpass their English counterparts by a considerable margin. But then the absence of such cohesive critics isn’t the only or even the main problem.

When I interviewed the late Ajantha Ranasinghe several years ago, he pointed out that the ability of a lyricist to root the social in the personal has, more or less, been lost today. What we have today, he implied (correctly, I believe), is a set of lyricists (barring the occasional exception) who dilute the social in the personal, which was manifestly different and inferior. What resulted from this was a culture of banality in our literature, where what is puritanically termed as “kunuharapa” (filth) would be confused for a “higher” vocabulary. Such kunuharapa is best suited for a very self-referential musical form: rap and baila are the two examples that come to my mind at once. In the long run, however, this can only spell out a deterioration, and not just in music.

It’s a vicious circle at one level: if people don’t read, their vocabulary is limited, and with a limited vocabulary even the most banal words acquire the status of high-flown erudition. That’s why we are so obsessed, as a people and a culture, over each and every music video and new star that pops up. We think that they will herald something new, something that will do away with the old, but in reality becomes just a rehashed, recycled version of what is considered to be old. This is bad on both fronts: it leaves the young with nothing to work on and the old, especially the puritans, with something which they can engage with in their battle against the young. What is lost is a culture that is refreshingly novel; what is retained is a culture of Puritanism.

I have been overwhelmed, and in a good way, by what is advertised as “new” in our recent popular culture: Sanuka Wickramasinghe, Tehan Perera, the team behind Koombiyo and Sahodaraya, especially the main star in the latter two, Thumudu Dodantanne, and from the movies, Ho Gana Pokuna, Premaya Nam, Adaraneeya Kathawak, and Adareyi Mang. There is a freshness in these works that excite the young in a way which leaves the puritans in the dark. What differentiates them from those who precedes them is that they are no longer bothered by the need to reject the old. A few months ago, for instance, I reflected on Sanuka, and I noted the following: “He is a New Voice because he no longer makes it necessary to defy the [old] line to gain new territory.”

There’s an honesty in these that transcends their cosmetic artificiality. People are quoting and creating memes out of Koombiyo (though not Sahodarayo) in ways that makes a laughing stock out of the conventional mega-series, though not in a way that makes it evident for us that they are rejecting what preceded them. It’s this kind of novelty – they aren’t bothered by their predecessors and aren’t paying attention to what the puritans among their elders are doing – which comforts me. But then will this be enough to counter the attacks that the young are enduring, rightly and justifiably, with respect to the death of their own language? This brings me to another problem, another issue.

Many of those who market themselves as New eschew the need to be nurtured by literature before embarking on their musical, cinematic, television, and theatrical careers. They are enraptured by the techniques of their craft, but when it comes to the written word, which more than anything else – at times, more than even the visuals – is what captures immediate attention, they are pitifully below par. To a considerable extent this has to do with the fact that at school they have not (and this is what I have picked up from conversations with them) been explicitly encouraged to read. When your language is limited to the grammar you have to memorise, what happens is that your interest in that language is limited to the societies you join, literary, drama, and debating. Even that isn’t a guarantee, since very few of those who join such societies continue with what they picked up, and loved, later on.

When neither the school culture nor the popular culture (remember what the former Warden of S. Thomas’ College, whom I referred to about two weeks ago, said?) emboldens the idealists to venture out into the arts with a healthy awareness of language and literature, only an aberration can result. Yes, they may be more than adequately endowed with the ability to transform the most mundane material to a technically and visually rich product, they may be able more than any of their elders to work with the production house, the camera, and Photoshop and Illustrator, because these are physical enterprises and they prefer hard labour, doing the hard yards, over using their imagination in terms of words. This is to be seen in a more insidious form in our vocalists: they are more concerned with the melody, the tone, the correct accent, the correct inflection, than actually making sense of what they are crooning.

If I am talking about music here rather too much the reason is painfully clear: as I noted a month or so back, music is largely self-referential (even when it’s not a self-referential genre like rap and baila), and it’s probably the only art form in the world in which the two levels of consciousness – of the producer and of the consumer – are never, even for one instant, dichotomised. What is produced is, simply put, what is consumed, so what is put out is what is digested. Probably second only to television, which is called the “idiot box” precisely because it has something of this quality (i.e. the ability to make the audience gullibly understand what the producer intends them to understand), the three-minute popular song is the yardstick with which the progress or regression of a language can be measured, today, in virtually any society.

What is exciting about Sanuka is that even in terms of the techniques he uses, he is miles ahead of these depressingly and frequently resorted to clichés of that three-minute song. He is no longer the star of his own videos; he is not crooning about fulfilled or cruelly denied love, rather about romances that never really pick up (“Perawadanak” is in that sense more enjoyable than “Saragayaye”, the latter of which, I am told, spurred certain schoolboys to form up their own schoolboy bands); he never really dilutes the social in the personal, but instead tries to reflect the most potent dreams of romance and young love that we never dare to have. The same can be said, accounting for the differences in the themes they tackle, with respect to those other examples I pointed out above, not just in music or on television, but in the movies too: Adareyi Mang, for instance, carefully plays around with the tropes of the mainstream romantic film in a way that makes us come back asking for more.

So where are we today? The elders, on the one hand, will continue to lament. As they do. The youngsters, on the other hand, will either defy the elders or try out something constructively new despite those lamentations. Munidasa Cumaratunga once wrote that a race that doesn’t try out anything new can never hope to reckon with the outside world. He was correct, I am convinced, particularly when it comes to the best efforts of the old to rein in on the young and the most sincere attempts of the new to pander to those efforts of reining them in by providing the old with excuses to say, “The language is dying, and these young artists, and with them our children, are responsible for its death!”

We have a choice here. We either continue with what our predecessors left us in all its pristine forms, or we add to it in a way which appeals to the young and the old alike. Sameness, whether from the elders or the youngsters, ends up promoting a singular vision, the sort that castrates a language of its ability to live, breathe, and flourish. The destiny of a language lays in our hands, and with it the destiny of an entire gamut of art forms, whatever the medium.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

70 years of resilience, 70 years of romanticism

Just the other day I came across a Facebook post written by a foreigner (British, Australian, American, I can’t remember). He or she wrote something to the tune that Sri Lanka, widely vilified as a failed state even after we had defeated arguably the most dangerous terrorist organisation in the world, had much to be grateful for: free education, free healthcare, freedom of religion, an integrative society that rehabilitated terrorist cadres, and the resilience of the people. This coming from a foreigner who probably set foot in the country for a short time reminded me, rather cynically I should say, of the many glamourous accounts of the former Soviet Union by first-time idealists who had never visited Russia before.

It’s okay to go overboard sometimes. Okay to say your country is the greatest in the world. Okay to say that there’s much to be grateful for. What’s not okay, though, is turning a blind eye to certain realities. Hours after that well-intentioned foreigner posted on social media, a Sri Lankan posted some of those realities which I felt needed to be made clear: in a nutshell, that the free education we receive suffers from qualitative deficits, that the free healthcare we get has become bureaucratised (need we mention the many strikes that doctors and nurses perpetuate every day?), that freedom of religion is okay as long as you’re Sinhalese and Buddhist, that integration works for LTTE cadres as long as they flirt with the Establishment (think of Karuna Amman), and that while the people are resilient, their lives are deeply complicated.

Obviously, not everyone agrees. Not everyone would consider what was posted palatable. One week after the free nation in us turned 70, perhaps it would do well to revisit history, to privilege facts over frill, to understand where we are and where we are, and to keep the debate this compels from romantics on both sides of the divide. Naturally enough, this provokes a significant question: when it comes to that debate, who are the romantics?

The romantic nationalists are easier to identify. They are the idealists who believe not just in a better tomorrow but a better today. They turn a blind eye to the realities that occupy our lives because they privilege the nation over the individual. Their opponents would suggest that they suffer from apathy, indifference, and a not-so-healthy dose of an inferiority complex, that what they idealise in terms of historical monoliths is miles away from the true status of those monoliths. Even in the arts, this apathy persists. We are wont to inflate the national hero without delving into what turned that hero into who he or she eventually became. We are very often anti-American at heart, regardless of political affiliations, but what we borrow from the United States is their romanticised disregard for history. The cowboy film in America, and the Cinemascope epic, is adapted here into the final battle in Aloko Udapadi, which turns out to be so inflated that we can only suspend our disbelief.

The romantic anti-nationalists are less easy, but still not that hard, to identify. They generally hail from close academic circles, and if they are not wont to rubbishing the nation and all its ills without considering the arguments put forward by their ideological opponents, they go a step further and perpetuate the ultimate myth: that we were better off under the colonialists. These are the same academics who criticise the Buddhist clergy’s involvement with the independence movement and what is felt to be their orientation towards socialist politics, and at the same time praise the status quo authoritarianism of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore (H. L. Seneviratne’s The Work of Kings, otherwise an interesting sociological document, fails precisely because it sustains this contradiction throughout). In other words, we had better prospects as a Dominion, never mind that we were never free, because we had it both ways: we would be defended by the Queen’s Army while the locals would be free to pursue their own national interests.

The latter opinion is, even today, widely disseminated, though only by a diminishing demographic: the generation of the fifties and the sixties, educated in the Ivor Jennings-styled University system, largely in English, and comprising, for the most, those academics pointed out above. They are a rare breed, but what they lack in numbers they make up for through academic and ideological unity. To put it in perspective, what they privilege – economics – is so important to them that everything else – culture, identity, national freedom – dissolves away and can be thrown to the dust.

If we empathise with the first of these two groups on the basis of their affiliation with the ideal of nationhood and sovereignty, then it goes without saying that there’s nothing wrong in empathising with the second of those groups on the basis of their rational, albeit flawed, conception of economics and technocracy. The romantic nationalists have been put down, in print, by the young and the old, everywhere, since time immemorial. Their critics snigger when they hear Sekara’s Me Sinhala Apage Ratai and in particular the following words: mulu lova eya ratata yatayi. There’s nothing wrong in healthy criticism of this sort, the way I see it, because going overboard with nationalism risks a serious problem.

Which is this: in any country, trying to shackle itself from colonialism, the most immediate nationalists, who emerged after the dawn of independence, hailed from a rather elitist English-oriented (if not bilingual) background that gave them access to the University and the Civil Service. We see this in other postcolonial societies too – Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya – and we see in the best of them an ability to transform their elitist backgrounds to a populist base on which complete independence was sought. Neither Nasser nor Nkrumah nor Kenyatta, on that count, were content in perpetuating the elitism that they had imbibed in their early years: they succeeded in making their backgrounds the buffer on which they based their populist, nationalist calls for freedom.

But those who followed these elites-turned-nationalists, born from the structures of empowerment which those elites opened (in Sri Lanka, free education; in Egypt, the concept of Pan-Arabism), were somewhat doomed because they repudiated any need to imbibe the modernity their forefathers had. In other words, especially in societies run on religious lines, the spiritual was raised to a position higher than the material, which proved to be the undoing of both in later decades. The ultimatum here is that these societies were contorted by their own independence struggles and movements.

As a final point though, if these points are adequate for us to criticise the romantic nationalist, it’s only fair to consider that the base on which criticism of over-the-top nationalism is sustained – the existence of elites – is also the base on which we can constructively assess the romantic anti-nationalist. Here too, the argument is both simple and complex: that Dominion status, while superficially emboldening us through the fact that our defences and foreign affairs would be handled by a foreign entity, would not embolden us to look after our own economic interests, because those in charge of handling those interests, before and after independence, were fatally tied to the interests of the colonialist: the colonial bourgeoisie.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Vijaya Kumaratunga: The stranger and the intruder

From 1969, which saw Sugathapala Senarath Yapa’s Hanthane Kathawa, to 1989, which saw Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Kadapathaka Chaya, Vijaya Kumaratunga, the greatest matinee idol to ever grace the screen in this country, averaged about five movies a year. In both these films, undervalued for their time, reassessed more favourably today, he was cast opposite that other great actor, Swarna Mallawarachchi, and yet no two roles could have been more different: in Hanthane Kathawa he was the lover, the swashbuckling epitome of youth, while in Kadapathaka Chaya he was the impulsive rapist, the cold, calculating businessman who meets his end at the hands of his own victim. It took Vijaya all of 20 years to make the shift; perhaps (for I can only speculate here) another 20 years would have seen him diversity his range further.

At their toughest, heroes and superstars are virtually invincible. Supremely confident of their infallibility, their presumptions of their own strengths, they can only glare at those who boost their own presumptions. (Right after G. W. Surendra ends his valedictory for the protagonist in the opening of Welikathara, that protagonist, a newly promoted ASP, smiles rather contemptuously at him; the ASP, played by Gamini Fonseka, let us know then and there that only he had the prerogative to assess and inflate himself.) They don’t opt for cooperation because being cooperative in this society is, when it comes to heroes at least, seen as a sign of weakness, so much so that those who prefer to dream rather than do, to idealise rather than act, turn out to be inadequate versions of themselves (as with many of Tony Ranasinghe’s characters).

Vijaya Kumaratunga was our first onscreen hero who taught us that heroes need not always opt for unilateral action, and that the occasional compromise, the infrequent lapse, was forgivable and, more to the point, expendable. The romantic male stars, from here, weren’t really aggressive, but for the most they teetered between the domineeringness that Fonseka embodied and the fragility, the sense of inferiority, that Ranasinghe embodied. Both Fonseka and Ranasinghe instilled in their characters an intense desire to own the women they hankered after (which is why, when these two were cast together, as with Parasathumal, they tended to fight over the same love interest). But when Ranasinghe was featured opposite Vijaya, the tide turned: it was no longer about a woman, rather about that eternal battle between age and youth. Even when he mellowed, even when he was cast against younger players, Vijaya remained very much young, which meant that he was forever destined to conquer the women he desired so much. Ranasinghe’s characters would have given up (unless, as with Duhulu Malak, the women of their dreams came back on their own accord), and Fonseka’s would have gone ahead, never bothering to try their luck with their fiancées again, but Vijaya was different: he cared, he compromised, and he came back.

He was almost an outsider, the man from a different world, an intruder who dared to creep in at a time when the trinity of our film industry – Gamini, Tony, and Joe Abeywickrama – was firmly established and had virtually monopolised that industry. They each embodied a different zeitgeist – Gamini with heroism unhindered by moral scruples, Tony with fragility underscored by a delicate, almost otherworldly handsomeness, and Joe with a sense of mock seriousness which no chaotic situation could trip – and they commanded the names and the salaries that would have made any newcomer a nonentity. But these three were from a different era. The outsider and stranger who intruded into their universe heralded a new age: an age in which education and employability had become polar opposites, an age in which stability was a hated word (simply because it was impossible to obtain, except through force). The young of those days, who had venerated heroism and fragility and mock seriousness, wanted something more: someone who could compound these qualities and embody them at the same time. They found their pivot with Vijaya.

There are commentators who suggest that Vijaya never really acted, that he was being himself and that he hardly ever bothered to wait for the correct cue or take. Part of the reason for that, of course, was that unlike Fonseka he never selected his scripts meticulously: what he got was what he landed. That was, at one level, crude and almost primeval, but then in a country as small and yet indefinable as Sri Lanka being overly selective could have swept him off at a time when the market he inadvertently targeted – the young and the dispossessed, cut off from their own familial bonds – would have crassly ignored him if he wasn’t that frequently cast. Having averaged about one or two films from 1967 (Manamalayo) to 1969 and 1970 (Hanthane Kathawa), he struck gold at the box office with Neil Rupasinghe’s Hathara Denama Soorayo (in 1971). Three years later, Dharmasena Pathiraja chose him for Ahas Gawwa, and three more years later, he chose him again for Eya Dan Loku Lamayek.

When Gamini and Tony and Joe were cast as villains, they evaded our sympathy and evoked our deepest fears. Gamini began his career with a set of films that had him play around with the duality between love and hate, as with Seethala Wathura; Tony became less likeable as he aged, as Ahasin Polawata and Duhulu Malak showed; and Joe, when he was not ranting like a self-deluded man (like the husband in Adara Hasuna), played around with a variation of the duality that Gamini had, this time between fear and self-mockery (Welikathara). But even at their most dislikeable, these men knew what they were in for: they didn’t fall or trip, and if they did, the script prepared us for them. With Vijaya, on the other hand, those trips and falls were never part of a carefully ordered and ordained narrative. The lover in Wasana has to croon “Oba Langa Inna” to try and get back Malini Fonseka, and in Eya Dan Loku Lamayak, he endures the hatred and contempt of a teenage lover of Malini, played by Wimal Kumar da Costa, to marry her.

Having covertly slept with Helen in Pathiraja’s Bambaru Avith, and having been upbraided by his two friends (Amarasiri Kalansuriya and da Costa), the man still feels confused about what he’s done: “What COULD I have done?” he sternly asks da Costa, the fiery revolutionary, as da Costa warns him about the chaos he’s unleashed on the fishing community they’ve moved to. If Bambaru Avith feels rather operatic today, rather blown out and loud and crude and deliberately cluttered, it’s not because of Premasiri Khemadasa’s innovative music only, but also because of the fact that Vijaya had become a new lover: the antiheroic lover, who falls in love with a peasant girl engaged to another man (Cyril Wickramage). Vijaya trips and falls, but until the end those trips and falls are never explicitly rationalised by the script. Consequently, by being an antiheroic lover, he had become an antiheroic hero: the sort that his audiences had wanted all along, and got, with every other subsequent role of his.

If Vijaya seemed careless in his movies and the scripts did nothing to hold him back, the only consolation we had was the fact that he had no one but himself to fall on. In Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Diyamanthi he throws away his “useless” Bachelor of Arts certificate after he gets evicted by an irate landlady (Ratnawali Kekunuwala) and, in one of the most bizarrely concocted coming-together sequences I’ve ever seen in any film, befriends a pickpocket (da Costa) and a hard-done-by, recently released criminal (Somasiri Dehipitiya), as they venture out and make friends with a carefree heiress (Malini Fonseka). These men have nothing but themselves to turn to: they have no family, no one dependent on them and no one they are dependent on. In one sense this was more Godardian than Hitchcockian (the latter term being used by critics when reviewing Diyamanthi), except that Godard’s characters didn’t just lack families and dependents but were downright repelled by them. That attitude of being repelled and being alienated came out, for Vijaya, in Pathiraja’s greatest film, Para Dige.

In Ahas Gawwa the ending, which to many seemed apt and expedient for the two protagonists (Vijaya and Amarasiri Kalansuriya), also seemed rather contrived: there was nothing to suggest that either of them would have taken part in strikes if they were placed in a different setting. There needed to be an explicit rationale, failing which their act of participating in those strikes looked almost manufactured. Para Dige, for the first time in Vijaya’s and (I think) Pathiraja’s career, did away with a need for such a rationale, if at all because the characters don’t come to us with any back story: neither Chandare, the protagonist, nor his girlfriend (Indira Jonklass) encourages us to find out more about their pasts, barring a section of the narrative in which Chandare returns to his sister (Sunethra Sarachchandra) and his parents (Chitra Vakishta and Joe Abeywickrama); that section, very much unlike the freewheeling style of everything that preceded it, naturally felt detached from the rest of the story.

This evolution – from the in-your-face likeability of the seventies to the cynical ambivalence of the eighties (at the end of Para Dige, Vijaya as Chandare embodies this ambivalence by answering his girlfriend’s questions with a slapdash remark: “I don’t know”) – was obviously one which would have led to a shift in his career, and like Gamini and Tony and Joe he would have made a leap to a new phase. But then there was only one film which indicated this shift, and after it was released in 1989, he was shot down and killed. That film was Obeyesekere’s Kadapathaka Chaya, where for the entirety of the plot he teeters between a superficial charm and a repressed sexual hideousness that spells out his own murder. Kadapathaka Chaya, unlike Dadayama and Palagetiyo, plays out like clockwork: the past and the future are inextricably woven together, and in Vijaya’s characterisation of Danaratne, the mudalali who rapes his own sister-in-law, there is a deterioration, which at times frightens us. Perhaps Kadapathaka Chaya was the only fitting end we could have had to a man we wanted so badly to be: a lover, heroic, antiheroic, or otherwise.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Geetha Kumarasinghe: Giving out while never giving in

When you see Geetha Kumarasinghe dancing away, her own way, dazzling us, you wonder whether this could be the same performer whose father, an editor of a conservative Sinhala Buddhist magazine, prohibited her and her siblings from going to the theatre. Then you realise that Geetha’s career, in the movies and also, to a considerable extent, in politics, has been built on a contrapuntal, at times contradictory mixture of daringness and prudishness. She formed part of our wildest fantasies, got us to picture her running from one romance to another in those fantasies, and yet succeeded at creating a welter of security, of stability, around her. Malini Fonseka never faced this problem, because she came from a different time: she was the guiding star that everyone else after her had to follow, so she had the prerogative to be whoever she wanted to be. Geetha was different. In a rather exhilarating way.

And to me, that explains the kind of paradoxical world she operates in, in whatever movie and under whatever director. Malini was discovered by two cineastes – Tissa Liyanasuriya and Joe Abeywickrama – after she took part in a play staged at the Lumbini. She came to the cinema, in other words, with the theatre. Geetha never dallied onstage like this or like her other contemporaries, but got film producer after producer to help her graduate in the industry with a beauty contest held at her village. If you can’t think of another actress who could be drafted into 21 films and at the same time be extended a marriage offer from a well-to-do engineer from England without taking part in a single production, it’s not because Sri Lanka lacks capable actresses, but because it lacks capable actresses who can choose to dare. Geetha is paradoxical as a performer, and also a politician, because she is never who she seems to be with her life and career. At one point she can dance away on her own terms with whatever man cast opposite her; at another point, she can confidently refuse a tentative offer by no less an outfit than Playboy magazine to feature her on their cover. That’s where her package lies: in her ability to give out while never giving in.

Most of our popular actresses learn to perform a balancing act between commercial and serious flicks rather early on. Malini was like that (her first role, in Punchi Baba, wasn’t exactly “mainstream”; she had to wait some time for that kind of role); so was Swarna Mallawarachchi (who never really operated in the mainstream film industry) and Swineetha Weerasinghe and Swarna Kahawita and Anula Karunatilake. Geetha, strangely enough, though, had to wait for a decade before she could get out of the populist canvas that K. A. W. Perera (Wasana) and Neil Rupasinghe (Lassana Kella) had got her into. These two directors conceived her as a side player; she won us as that side player. It was in Kolamba Sanniya, as the daughter, that she epitomised her image as a freewheeling girl (an image you conjure up when you see her dancing, crazily, to the bitingly witty lyrics in Clarence Wijewardena’s “Nelum Pokuru Wage”, which ends with these suggestive lines: “දෙතොල රතට ලේ වගෙයි / මුණ හදුන් ලී වගෙයි”).

Malini was seductive in a kinder, gentler way: her coy eyes, her careful, cautious, but warmly encouraging smile, and her childlike strut were qualities that existed almost solely to convince the men who figured in her life that they were destined for her (or rather, that she was destined for them). Geetha, whether in Wasana or Lassana Kella or Kolamba Sanniya, acted differently: forceful, manipulative, at times cunning. She contorts our expectations of her as a peaceable lover because she is, frankly speaking, never really at peace. Here I quote the inimitable D. B. S. Jeyaraj: “She was not prepared to play the coy maiden if and when a scene warranted close encounters of the physical kind.” She never shies away, and can get provocatively loud or candid when she wants to. Malini provokes empathy, even when she’s in the wrong; Geetha provokes infatuation. This difference, vague to some, explains the incongruous contradictoriness of her more serious forays, right down from Karumakkarayo.

In Karumakkarayo she starred opposite Vijaya Kumaratunga; she would croon with him again and again, in Jaya Sikuru, in Raja Wedakarayo, in Jaya Apitayi, and more memorably than in any of these, in Anjana, the latter of which also starred Swarna Mallawarachchi (both she and Geetha dance in Anjana; for Geetha it was usual fare, while for Swarna it was not). So fixated she was on getting the men she wanted (who almost always happened to be played by Vijaya) that even in those serious forays of hers, she can never get away from the playful streak it compels in her. As Dotty in Palama Yata and as Punna in Loku Duwa – both of which she produced – she is almost always frail, vulnerable to abuse. But when the moment of reckoning does come – in Palama Yata, when she faces up to the indomitable, cruel Walaha (Sanath Gunatilake), and in Loku Duwa, when she tenders her resignation to her lascivious boss (Gamini Fonseka) – she is ready to unleash her fury. We see this happen with respect even to her closest friends and acquaintances, as with the brother in Loku Duwa (Kamal Addararachchi) and the lowlife husband in Ran Diya Dahara (Jackson Anthony). In the mainstream cinema she was always provocative while maintaining a welter of security; in these serious outings she was always frail and fragile while only at the last minute unleashing that provocative character in her. It’s a subtle inversion at one level, and it helps us understand her forte as a performer and even a politician.

Malini Fonseka, when she took to directing and producing films, provoked empathy from her female protagonists. Geetha wasn’t ready like that to portray women as forever-hard-done-by-weepers, which is why, in Palama Yata and Loku Duwa, she asserts her desperate need to be through with her miseries and at the time makes us aware of the fact that she has been schooled by her terrible experiences. (In a manner of speaking, both Dottie and Punna meet with the same tragic encounters, though they hail from two completely different milieus.) Perhaps it had to do with the fact that these films were better received by critics, here and abroad, than Malini’s directorial ventures, but when I see them today, I am reminded of the commonly held view that they were associated with her, that they were considered as directorial ventures on her own part. Geetha is Geetha in both these flicks, so much so that they become her. She pushes for what she wants, and becomes who she acts, even when she’s off-screen.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Reconciliation and the politics of forgetting

Once in a while you come across amazing statements made by politicians and members of civil society that you just can’t pass up. Or let go. Just the other day, Chairman of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) C. V. K. Sivagnanam is reported to have said at a news conference that it is futile and meaningless to continue with the ban imposed on the LTTE within Sri Lanka. Since I am no speaker of Tamil, and since even my Sinhala is at best passable, I don’t know how much was lost in translation at the conference. But the thrust of his arguments is clear: continuing with the ban is useless because those who were being banned don’t exist. This argument, logical to some, provokes me to comment.

Words are made for scrambling. And unscrambling. Political rhetoric, on that count, is almost always malleable because it doesn’t require anyone to maintain neutrality: it’s always politically coloured, always covered in bias. Sivagnanam’s words can consequently be twisted and turned to obtain whatever meaning the harbingers of peace on the one hand and unyielding chauvinists on the other want to. Since I follow neither of these camps and since my issue with those words have nothing to do with the politics of war and peace in Sri Lanka, I will instead concentrate on what I feel to be the real implications of this statement, centring on the need for reconciliation.

It’s easy to forget and easy to forgive. All it takes is political willpower, which we in Sri Lanka, with the current government, don’t seem to lack as much as we did with the previous regime. But to forget and to forgive there must be a cause which compels memory and bitterness. I am not suggesting here that to “let go” we need to measure the political weight of each and every statement made by each and every politician, particularly those who come from political groups which were known at one point or the other to have spoken up for those causes provoking bitter memories, but I do appreciate the fact that this statement brings me to that difficult question as to whether, if reconciliation is premised on punishing the wrongdoer without letting him or her off the hook, selective amnesia can be the best antidote.

Sivagnanam states in no uncertain terms that the time has come to consider releasing all LTTE suspects in custody and to let them integrate into society. The truth is that for all its deficits when it came to the reconciliation process, the previous regime kick-started several programs did aim at integrating LTTE cadres into those very same societies that shirked them. (Which was natural, I suppose, given that many of those cadres were considered as traitors by the people who bred them, nourished them, and then sent them to war against the State.) You can argue that these programs were not conceived properly, that they were done more out of a need to obtain votes for the Mahinda Rajapaksa government from the North and the East (but then, of course, we can argue that even the TNA does this in every feel-good statement it issues), but at a time when every political act is committed with that end in view, you can also contend that the government at least tried to rehabilitate those cadres. Yes, at least they tried.

Isn’t it repeating the painfully obvious when we say that the LTTE was an outfit which was an undeserving of the praise and nostalgia it compels today as the “hegemonic” regimes it waged a war against? Isn’t it stating what everyone knows when we say that no government in the world has fast-tracked the processes of reconciliation and integration with respect to terrorist organisations proscribed by other countries if it was felt that fast-tracking those processes would be antithetical to the imperatives of sovereignty and autonomy that these countries privilege(d)? To be fair by Mr Sivagnanam, he does confess that the cadres should be integrated after taking the necessary legal precautions (he doesn’t elaborate on them), but then that’s followed by an outright absolutist remark: that the LTTE must no longer be banned.

Reconciliation has its pitfalls and no one can say with any certainty that it’s the perfect antidote to a country’s ills, particular a country like ours which emerged out of a catastrophic, disastrous war a paltry eight years ago. The North and the East today is not the North and the East that was there before those eight years, but recent events (especially those as of yet unsolved incidents of swordfights and murders in broad daylight, and that street-gang going under the name AAVA) do tend to worry. If one peruses history, one can easily ascertain that two broad things compelled the rise of extremism in both the North and South: the apathy of the government and the empowerment of alternative vigilante groups that sprang out of nowhere but proved to be stronger than the official arms of the State in the areas they operated in.

The NPC is asking us to forget. Well, I am all for forgetting. And so are a great many Sri Lankans I know, of whatever religious and racial affiliation. But what does forgetting and forgiving really entail? Does it entail forgetting and forgiving those horrendous crimes against humanity perpetrated by the LTTE, and if so, does that act of letting bygones be bygones apply to the Armed Forces, which the likes of the NPC and the TNA and, elsewhere, the Global Tamil Forum, are adamant on bringing to a foreign court, too? If one chooses to let go of the LTTE’s past, will one be as willing, in the interests of reconciliation, to let go of the Armed Forces? Would those documentaries and docudramas financed by news agencies abroad then have been to nothing, then? And if so, would all this political rhetoric over the Army being tried (even Mahesh Senanayake, a man I admire, has reiterated the need to try the bad egg soldiers who broke conventions while in the battlefield) be just that: empty rhetoric?