Tuesday, January 30, 2018

'Adareyi Mang': Young love in Mount Lavinia

When Prageeth Rathnayake (as Pawan, the protagonist of his debut film, Adareyi Mang) enters his unfinished, drab, concrete-laden house with a bunch of flowers and a sense of exhilaration (he’s passed his university final year exams with a First Class), and looks into each and every room calling out his sweetheart’s name, it’s almost out of the scene in Brian De Palma’s Body Double where Craig Wasson does the same thing in a more expansive home. Except that in De Palma’s film the hero finds his girlfriend in bed with another man, while in Prageeth’s film the hero finds his wife unconscious (we later learn she has a brain tumour): the one punctures the protagonist’s idealism so much that he turns away, the other punctures it so much that he becomes a brawny macho, carrying the comatose wife to the hospital. (In fact the editing, which had been so happy-go-lucky and optimistic until that point, detoured rather wildly to what was, for me, a parody of the hero-saves-his-woman trope that our mainstream movies indulge in again and again.)

Adareyi Mang plays around, subtly and (I suspect) despite the director’s own intentions, with this kind of inbuilt self-parody. You feel something coming up, something that will culminate with the exhilaration of release, but it never does quite materialise: all you have are bits and pieces of the conventional cinema being tossed out to the audience, edited quickly and rapidly in one scene, then slowly in another, then cutting into a series of close-ups that end with the lovers, shocked at the callousness of their elders, either defying them openly (the husband) or dropping the tray of sweetmeats she’s holding on the floor, shocked (the wife). It’s dazzling, though strangely limited to one town (the entire story unfolds along Galle Road and in Mount Lavinia, except for the song-and-dance sequences, where you simply don’t care where the lovers are), and its editing, though rather reminiscent of kitschy music videos and testosterone-laden melodramas at several points, is redeemed by the acting and Prageeth’s carefully laid out narrative.

Movies tend to arouse certain special, private, hidden feelings, which I believe is the most essential function of any art form, anywhere. There’s no attempt at rationalising what you feel: what you feel is what you feel. That’s why I go to the Savoy, the Regal, and the Majestic, and closer to my hometown, the Tower in Moratuwa, intending not just to assess my relationship with the world and the people I have to put up with, but also to fulfil my expectation that once the show starts and the story unravels something will happen to me. I don’t want to spend too much time trying to make sense of what that something is. I believe, therefore, that I am a representative of the demographic that chooses to be enthralled by an otherwise conventional product like Dharmayuddaya and Adaraneeya Kathawak rather than be confused by the intricate workings of an art house picture. That is why I am thankful that Prageeth has chosen for his debut a love story that never quite gives up its devices to the conventional love story narrative, and yet doesn’t abandon that narrative either. This peculiar dualism – I long to see it being worked on in other mainstream Sinhala movies – is what I liked most about Adareyi Mang.

It’s so simple minded (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, by the way) that the characters can almost be identified as the types they faintly are: the idealistic lovers, the forever-forgiving-employer (when Pawan has an altercation with Malmi, his wife-to-be, played by Chathurika Peiris, and she leaves the nursery she is teaching, the Principal doesn’t rebuke her, she tells her that only she has the prerogative to fire her), the forever-by-your-side-and-then-by-his-sidekick to the woman (who regularly alternates between her friendship with Malmi and her devotion to the romance between Malmi and Pawan, to the consternation of both), the inflexible capitalist-executive father (who, as with every mainstream commercial love story from here, happens to be the father to the boy), and the leftist-idealist in-law (Malmi’s father). When Pawan’s father, played by Robin Fernando, asks after his prospective daughter-in-law’s father, played by Neil Alles, and his associations with the July 1980 strike, you sense the undercurrents of contempt and snobbery, but that’s it: the friendliness deteriorates, the two elders part ways in a fit of fury and anger, and as for the love story, well, it’s left to be strewn together from scratch by the two lovers. It’s certainly refreshing but then again isn’t it more of the same? It’s roughly the same thing with the sequence in which Pawan’s feelings of tenderness, aroused after his first real encounter with Malmi, are conveyed to us by his University friends singing “Sonduru Lovata Mal Vahala”: the same device, reworked, revisited.

So why is it that I was able to wade through those reworked, revisited devices without bothering to be tired by them? Again, that dualism I mentioned before. It’s the sort of dualism which elongates a scene or sequence and then suddenly punctures it: the discovery by the jovial husband of the comatose wife; the shattering of their idealisations of their elders by Robin Fernando’s abruptly delivered hints at Malmi’s infidelity (how many other men, he asks rather cruelly, has she been seeing before Pawan, and how many more men will she be seeing even after marrying Pawan?); the sudden outbursts of self-righteousness from Pawan after he finds out that Malmi borrowed some money from her mother (he sees this as a compromise, the sort that he is not at all willing to reach with his now emotionally distant father), followed by a reconciliation under a rainstorm (we expect them to reconcile the same way the lovers from Chandran Rutnam’s Me Wage Adarayak reconciled after the frail wife tried to get her father-in-law to talk to her husband and gave up after the husband lashed at her, but no: she merely tells him that she forgot the spare key to their house, evincing not tears but laughs from the audience).

The plot opens up almost like clockwork (he meets his girl because his car breaks down and he has to take the bus; he meets her again because he has to drop his niece at the nursery where she works at) but that doesn’t mean that everything follows the same conventional narrative that love stories usually follow. The hero doesn’t have to beat anyone: he has to be beaten up by everyone (i.e. the bus passengers who think he’s molesting Malmi). He doesn’t have to sing to her to win her: he just gives her a homily about love (it’s a reworking of the “love means never having to say sorry” one-liner, though I won’t reveal what Prageeth, who is his film’s scriptwriter, philosophises by way of explaining what true love is to Malmi). He doesn’t have to find the money to save the dying wife: the father, in a change of mind (perhaps he was testing his son’s fidelity to his newlywed by refusing to finance her operation), goes back on his earlier decision and gives the son the money to save her. The result? Everyone’s saved, everyone’s happy.

But then, owing to the freewheeling-ness of the second half, I felt that the first half of Adareyi Mang was rather mechanised, as though the director was afraid of loosening up a little, as though slackening up was, in his opinion, antithetical to the meticulousness of his editing. Even the acting reflected this shift from the first to the second part of the story, especially Prageeth’s acting: rather too cautious in the first few sequences, only later being liberated from the straitjacket that overly careful acting can compel. Perhaps that’s to do with the fact that Prageeth, who I used to see as a child in the occasional teledrama, abandoned the movies for the stage and hence, upon his return to the cinema, couldn’t evade the careful planning, the in-your-face expressiveness, the rigid playing, that the theatre inspires. This could be seen in even the songs: the first two or three (the music is by Victor Ratnayake, who performs duets with Uresha Ravihari) pieces felt forced and contrived, while the very last (“Neela Guwan Thale”) felt rather less so.

With five musical numbers, and no fights, Adareyi Mang is a peculiar product: the boy is rich and the girl poor, but neither the boy nor the girl has to put up with the indifference of the elders, since their elopement is so quickly edited that we don’t bother with those elders either. Perhaps Prageeth felt that slow editing and putting up with expository dialogues and sequences and dances and fights would have punctured the economy of the whole plot. Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh here when I say that Prageeth may not be in the right completely there. And perhaps I’m being a bit fair by him, and his debut, when I say that the tagline for the film (“For those who have truly loved and for those who have not”) aptly sums up the demographic it’s aimed at. Which happens to be you and me.

NOTE: Adareyi Mang, the opening titles inform us, is Prageeth’s tribute to the man who taught him “acting, directing, and life”, Salamon Fonseka. Who? A great man, a great teacher, underused in his own country. I intend on writing about him. Soon.

Monday, January 29, 2018

On (un)shielding the movies and their critics

Adareyi Mang, which premiered last Friday at the Regal, is Prageeth Rathnayake’s first film. I first saw Prageeth as an actor, many, many years back, and I should be forgiven for thinking that when he briefly left the screen for the stage, he left the industry for good. The movie (a love story) begins with a tribute to his acting guru, the incomparable yet tragically underutilised Dr Salamon Fonseka (“who taught me acting, directing, and life,” the titles inform us), and while its plot isn’t something the art house director could have conjured up if Fonseka was his guru, it is entertaining, seems to be technically proficient, and thankfully doesn’t bother to excessively focus on and praise its own workings (more on this in my review next week). This isn’t about Adareyi Mang though.

To be sure, the film wasn’t profound in any conceivable sense. But I am tired of the notion that the movies, in this country, need to be profound. If we are put off by avant-garde directors, it’s not because we are less intelligent than them, but because we aren’t supposed to be intelligent in such a facile sense when we flock to the theatres. If the people want something, and if that something isn’t predicated on serious themes, there’s no harm in delivering what they want. I think the critics are misconceived, consequently: it’s not that we don’t want serious themes onscreen, it’s that we go to the halls less to intellectualise than to be entertained, and more to have something happen to us than think on what is happening to us. The rift shouldn’t be between art and entertainment: it should be between good and bad, with respect to whether a film entertains its audience even if they disagree with the ideology articulated in it.

I’d rather have a good/bad binary playing out in our cinema this way as opposed to the art/entertainment dichotomy we’ve grown so used to. And why? Simply because the cinema, no matter how far the avant-gardists want it to go, hasn’t left behind its instinctive character. Movies play on our instincts, and once you let go of that and operate on the assumption that they no longer need to be felt, you let go of the only real principle that keeps the industry going. That industry, here, is one year older than our independence: this year marks 70 years of the latter, 71 years of the former. Perhaps now’s the time to seriously look back and reflect on our history in the medium, and how critics have, whatever the epoch they were and are in, been shielded from all these fundamental truisms when it comes to their assessments of the medium.

From 1947 to 1956, the conventional critical discourse in the film industry was that we should get out of the formulaic narrative: the narrative which copied and pandered to the Hindi and Tamil popular cinema. In those early days, as the authors of Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema aptly note, popular audiences came largely from an consumerist and urbanised lifestyle, particularly the Sinhala speaking bourgeoisie, and they thrived on the urban rich/village poor binaries that our first few directors churned out. These binaries, while derivative from the Indian melodrama, were also rooted in the Western cinema, which means that the leading critics at the time were against imitativeness on both counts: the leading voice at this juncture, of course, being Jayawilal Wilegoda. Wilegoda’s polemics against the Indian cinema proved to be successful when Lester James Peries made Rekava in 1956, but Lester was for him a Westernised filmmaker: he instead found the kind of movies he wanted in Sirisena Wimalaweera.

But his nationalist voice largely disappeared from the popular press when Lester was at his peak, to be replaced by the politically committed, symbol hunting critic who wanted to go beyond Lester, shirking not just the Indian melodrama, but also the foundations of tradition that the man depicted and affirmed in film after film. Their hero was Dharmasena Pathiraja: at the premiere of his Ahas Gawwa, these critics distributed copies of a leaflet titled Appochchige Cinemawa, which reflected the young French critic’s distrust of the old masters of the medium in his country. The French had a term for these masters and their movies: le cinema de papa. For their Sri Lankan counterparts, therefore, Lester was the papa who needed to be defied. In this era of political uncertainty, being a nationalist critical voice no longer made sense.

From the first wave unleashed by Lester to the second wave unleashed by Pathiraja, we come to the third, unleashed by Prasanna Vithanage and Asoka Handagama, and the fourth, which we are still seeing through the likes of Vimukthi Jayasundera and Sanjeewa Pushpakumara. Around them there were and are other filmmakers, but they pander to popular audiences, which these artists don’t. It’s interesting to note here that none of those who unleashed these waves in our film industry retained popular support: what they unleashed did not, and could not, receive the public in a spirit of camaraderie because what their films stood for was not what popular audiences clamoured after, and for that matter idealised. The critics who were with them were, inadvertently, pitted against such audiences, because of which the cinema dissolved into the art/entertainment binary we are witnessing today. The foundation of the industry appears to be nowhere today, a worrisome prospect because when an industry operates without a proper head or base, it tends to go confusingly haywire.

To me, hence, the solution is as simple as it is obvious. In Sri Lanka, those who are considered as veterans to be reckoned with in the field of criticism tend to privilege art house over popular entertainment. When there’s really nothing much to offer by way of such entertainment, and when all you have as entertainment is a self-referential figure (Ranjan Ramanayake, Vijaya Nandasiri, Bandu Samarasinghe, and Tennyson Cooray) performing the same antics and getting into the same mishaps, you can’t blame critics for ignoring their work. But to me, the worth of a film like Adareyi Mang lies in the fact that to ignore the likes of it altogether would be to shield audiences against what those aforementioned critics consider as bad and unwatchable. What happens in the end, because of this, is that audiences are mollycoddled by the writers, and form assumptions of good and bad art based on the criterion of values the writers arbitrarily come up with. How’s the industry going to progress with that?

We need audiences to go watch Prageeth’s film, just as need them to go watch a film by Pushpakumara that happens to have won every conceivable award from European film festivals. So what’s the solution? Un-shielding the audiences, of course. How? By un-shielding the critics. And with them, the directors.

Friday, January 26, 2018

On Tintin and the intricacies of translation

I’d like to get back to Tuesday’s article, and to what that former Warden of S. Thomas’ College, at an official function, said: that the death of the Sinhala language can be traced to the difference in quality between the television serials our children watched and what they watch today. He was thinking of foreign dubbed series, since he referred to Pissu Poosa and Dosthara Honda Hitha. Aptly put, since translations tend to open you up to creative ways of conveying foreign experiences to local audiences, and if those creative ways are exhausted, if our knowledge of our maw basa sizzles, there can be no hope for the mother tongue. An anecdote will probably help here.

Ask any ordinary teenager from my generation as to what dubbed series they watched and in five or six cases out of 10 they will say, “Pissu Poosa!” Part of the reason for this is that Pissu Poosa is still being telecast on local television (Rupavahini), just like that other lovable series which my generation grew through, Dosthara Hondahitha. Closer to our time, I think we’ll probably also quote Koombichchi (who can forget the title song, set to the tune of Clarence Wijewardena’s “Kurulu Gamey”?), Naana Katha Malliya (Ang Pang Man in South Korea), and for good measure, Inguru Pan Malliya. All of them, incidentally, were relatively “low cost”, lacking proper copyrights, if they had copyrights in the first place, and targeted at a generation which preferred stories about inanimate and unfeeling objects and creatures that were brought to life by our actors. But then there were other series, other titles, and other names.

Two years ago on Facebook, I came across a poll that ranked the best dubbed cartoon series from the last 20 years, in the form of a video. There were the usual suspects, many of them overseen by Titus Thotawatte (like Ha Ha Hari Hawa and Walas Mama, the latter of which was created by the same person who gave us Woody Woodpecker, Walter Lantz). One title was missing, though, which I waited impatiently for given that it had, more than the other series, taught me the value of emotional authenticity when it came to dubbing a foreign television series. Well, TV Show Number Two, Dosthara Honda Hitha, came and went. I waited for TV Show Number One.

I sighed. With relief. It was as I had expected. Tintin. Yes, Tintin.

Long before I took to Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton and long, long before I caught up with Harry Potter and Hogwarts and Voldemort, I started reading Herge and Tintin. This was, I feel, a direct consequence of reading our history as comics and newspaper columns, particularly in the Funday Times, which continues its series on our kings and queens and people to date. I grew to love these comics because they had speech bubbles which conveyed what the characters were thinking even if the other characters didn’t hear them. But long before I even read Tintin, I watched him.

The Adventures of Tintin, made in the early 1990s, was a coproduction between France and Canada and was telecast on HBO. It was a moderate success, but it caught on with audiences in Asia, so with time it was gradually dubbed into other languages: Persian, Japanese, Hindi, even Vietnamese. Sri Lanka had a sizeable audience that had grown up on the character. It made sense, as it still does, to bring him here. When he did come here, the Rupavahini dubbing unit was no longer flanked by Thotawatte. It was being handed over to another, as formidable person: Athula Ransirilal, who would later give us Koombichchi. But there was a problem, one which those who had “overseen” Dosthara Honda Hitha and Pissu Poosa hadn’t really encountered. The Adventures of Tintin was technically superior to anything we had dubbed in the eighties. For it to be popular, two things had to be perfect: the cast and the dubbing.

I’d like to think that Rupavahini tackled both these issues well because to this day, and I am speaking frankly here, I can remember the dubbed Tintin more than the original Tintin. But then, my memories of Herge were in the first place predicated on this series. Not the books. At one level that can be quite blasphemous (after all Herge had passed away by the time of the HBO series, and his most memorable character was supposed to linger with us through his books), but at another it isn’t, since this meant that those in charge of dubbing at Rupavahini had succeeded in disseminating his lovable protagonist, the most loved fictional journalist to be ever conceived, among local audiences. Not surprisingly, then, the show won with both cast and translation.

First, the cast. By default, Tintin needed to be voiced by an actor who could convey youth and courage, and Sangeeth Kalubowila, who has since conceived a career of his own as an announcer and a journalist, met this requirement by his ability to articulate both naïveté and resolve. As much as Kalubowila helped, however, the show would have been nothing were it not for the supporting voice players. Who can look at Captain Haddock, for instance, and not think of Parakrama Perera? Who can look at Bianca Castafiore, particularly in my favourite Tintin adventure, The Castafiore Emerald (which never goes beyond Marlinspike Hall), and not think of the late Mercy Edirisinghe? What of the Thom(p)son twins and Gemunu Wijesuriya, and what of half a dozen supporting characters and Wijeratne Warakagoda (whose name, perhaps because of seniority, was always at the top of the opening credits)?

It wasn’t merely the cast, though. It was also the language, to be specific the translation. This was important, particularly for me, because Tintin’s world operated on unforgettable villains who needed catchy phrases which could help me remember them even I wasn’t watching the series. Haddock’s two memorable oaths (being Tintin-philes, you ought to know what they are) had been dubbed excellently in my mother tongue, but more than them, it was the conversations and dialogues which kept up my interest. To a considerable extent, that helped make the Rupavahini version superior to the English original: by spicing up those conversations.

There are so many examples I can quote here. For the time being, I’ll pick on two.

The first. Flight 714. The scene? Rastapopulous, the villain, leaves Tintin and his friends inside a volcano (after inadvertently activating it with a detonator). Tintin escapes with the rest, but in an unlikely way: a UFO (the story was written at a time when the West was “haunted” by the counterculture and the American fascination with aliens had spilt over to Europe). The UFO comes across Rastapopulous and his troupe, on a small boat aimlessly wandering along the sea, and awakens them. Rastopopulous looks up, asks the others as to what it is, and gets a reply from Alan.

The HBO version has Alan say, “Looks like a UFO.” To which Rastapopulous replies, “I don't care what it is, shoot it!” Or something like that, I can’t really remember. The Rupavahini version, on the other hand, has Alan say, “බොස් ඒක පියාබින පීරිසයක් වගේ.” Rastapopulous’s reply? “මට පියාබින කෝප්පයත් එකයි මිනිහෝ, වෙඩි තියපල්ලා!” Neater, because of the wordplay involved (there's no real word for UFO, only the literal translation of “flying saucer”) which the original in English couldn't make use of. Yes, this had to be the most memorable dialogue in the story.

The second. The Calculus Affair. The scene? Tintin and Haddock are on their way to the train station to meet Professor Calculus, whom they’ve just missed at his hotel by minutes. Two Bordurian agents, hell bent on killing our heroes and kidnapping the Professor, delay them by tripping the Captain, who seethes when one of the two remarks that he is as blind as a wombat. The argument is terse, but nothing stands out. Until you get to the dubbed version: “ඇස් නොපෙනෙන රැවුලා!” the agent snaps at him, to which we get the reply, “උඹ රෑටත් ඇස් පේන්නෙ නැති වවුලා!” Again you sense the superiority of the dubbing: the wordplay between ravula and wawula, which in English doesn’t have the same sting, the same power.

It's no surprise, to me at least, that after more than 10 years I remember the dubbed more than the English version and this despite the fact that I still watch the latter on and off. And I'm not the only one: ask anyone who was fortunate enough to watch Rupavahini back then and I'm sure you'll come across others who say they prefer that to the original. I could write more on this, but words are not enough.

Tintin was frequently telecast by Rupavahini. Sadly, however, not for the last 10 or 15 years. For reasons of copyright, I suppose (both Dosthara Honda Hitha and Pissu Poosa, while popular here, were relatively nondescript in their countries), although that's not a good enough excuse. Yes, audiences are different now, but children (thankfully) are still alert to nuance and subtlety. I am sure they'd still love it.

I watched Tintin before I read him. I watched him as he fought Rastapopulous, Müller, and Müsstler with his friends. I caught on what they did. In the end (I like to believe) they shaped me, as they shaped every other kid. Rupavahini helped. And one of these days, I'd like to watch him again. In Sinhala.

Sangeeth Kalubowila sent me the following message after reading this article: "Well, this Rupavahini version of Tintin was not produced at the SLRC, while the dubbing was done at a private TV production house. Although the original script was done by Mr. Thotawatte, it was directed and supervised by the late Mr Ajith Dahanayake who was a talented person in many fields. I must say that there were lots of tweaks to the original dialogues. Having said that, I don't underestimate the creativity and the capability of SLRC's dubbing unit which was later headed by Mr Athula Ransirilal, whom I have worked with many times."

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The books that we read, the books that read us

My friend Dhanuka Bandara, currently studying in the United States, sent me a comment the other day: “The decline of a reading culture is a serious problem, rather acute in America. I’ve even concluded that this has caused the current crisis in Western civilisation.” I was and still am not qualified to argue on the latter point, but I agreed wholeheartedly with his first point. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, after all, to comprehend the fact that we tend to disparage reading, and with it those who prefer to read more than anything else, as the years go by. The decline then is actually a descent, an inevitability that we choose to bring upon ourselves. Sadly.

But then there are problems and there are solutions. To get to the latter, you need to understand the reasons for the former. The issue here is that the current discourse on literacy plays out between the academics and the intellectuals on the one hand and the defiant dilettantes and the bohemians on the other. This dilemma, sadly, is worsened by the tendency of contemporary society to categorise and classify, between what is prescribed and what is prohibited (when it comes to what is read, written, and expressed). The minute you concede ground to this false distinction, and maintain a rift between what you should read and should not, the problem we are talking about here starts to materialise, and we end up becoming a nation of non-readers.

Why is being such a nation such a problem? Simply, that a culture that is opposed to readers is also opposed to writers, and simply, that a culture that is opposed to writers is opposed to creative, independent thinking, the kind of thinking that got us to where we are, culturally and socially, from where we were before. This is as true for those who read and write in the mother tongues as it is for those who prefer English, and in fact it’s truer of the former in very, many respects. A civilisation is predicated almost entirely (not completely though) on the language it thrives on, and once that language is cut off from literature through prohibitions on what we read, only an aberration can result. An aberration because we can no longer discriminate on our own, for ourselves.

Speaking at an official function a few years ago, a former Warden at S. Thomas’ College (I have unfortunately forgotten the name) observed, rather interestingly, that the impending death of the Sinhala language (a death that has a number of pallbearers and doomsday prophets, by the way) could be traced to a deterioration in our mass media. What he meant was that his generation and his children’s generation lived through the culture that saw, and enjoyed, Pissu Poosa, Dosthara Hondahitha, and (later) Tintin, Naana Katha Malliya, and Koombichchi. All these series were dubbed, mostly from Europe, and they managed to teach us the subtle intricacies of dubbing a foreign popular culture into the mother tongue (something I’ll get to in my next article). We revelled in seeing them and at the same time read into the language that was being articulated, unlike today, when children are exposed to a half-uprooted, neither-here-nor-there entertainment and media culture (particularly on television).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are parallels between the way children behave and the way they are depicted by our film and television directors. The difference between the Somaratne Dissanayake of Saroja and Siri Raja Siri and the Somaratne Dissanayake of Bindu and Siri Parakum is really a difference, not of personal conviction or sensibility, but of the attitudes entertained towards youngsters by adults. The children of those earlier films had an agency of their own, and in being themselves they transcended their youth in ways their age could not do justice to. The same could have been said of the television serials which depicted them, particularly Channa Perera’s miniseries that revolved around boy scouts (I am thinking of Punchi Weerayo here). But what did we get with Dissanayake’s later films? Children who have to be picked up and carried around forever, endlessly. (Perhaps that’s why entire sequences are repeated again and again in Siri Parakum: for us to get them, as though our attention spans have slackened.)

In other words, children onscreen had a sensibility they could call their own. They revelled in being the adults they were not, in a rather boy-scout-ish, intelligent way. Naturally, we revelled in being them. They were both book-smart and street-smart, and what they did was often supplemented by what they read. There was no real differentiation between the two, a wholly different world to what has transpired now: a culture whereby children are, on the one hand, pushed to mature beyond their years in terms of what they do, and on the other hand, constricted when it comes to what they read. We are a nation of readers limited in what we are given to read when we are young, which wouldn’t be so bad if this didn’t lead us to that problem I highlighted above: the emergence of a nation of non-writers, non-critics, non-artists. No society can survive without writers, critics, and artists, just as no society can survive without doctors, lawyers, and engineers. It’s a crazy, roundelay issue, come to think of it.

At a recent seminar-of-sorts I had to speak at, I was given a rather clichéd but perennial topic: the importance of reading. I pondered on the topic for some hours before writing down the points I wanted to get across at this seminar. Which, by the way, all congealed into the following truism: inasmuch as the act of reading, and of inculcating the habit of reading, is important, what is even more important are the mechanics that go into that habit, i.e. the questions of what should be read, what should not be read, whether one should remain in a library like one would in an ivory tower, cut off from the rest of society. To the best of my ability I brought out what I felt to be a pertinent fact: that it is as important to be a “kavi karaya” (a poet) as it is to be a “wada karaya” (a doer). I’d like to think that the audience gathered at this seminar-of-sorts got my point, because I intended them to: it was held in a library.

Dhanuka used to write a lot when I started out in this field, years ago. For reasons which I still can’t fathom, though, he left that field. A pity, because in him I continue to see the kind of writer we haven’t had since Ajith Samaranayake. Perhaps that’s a national tragedy at one level: we haven’t had any real, proper critic and writer since Samaranayake, certainly not in the English press. But I rather think that’s inevitable, since we continue to be a nation not only of non-readers, but also of anti-readers.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Savindu and Pasindu Herath: Reflections on brotherhood


Savindu and Pasindu Herath have been to the same school, indulged in the same sports and clubs and societies (well, almost), passed out with flying colours in the same subjects and streams, and entered the same University, resuming the same activities they’d done and encountered in their younger days. What they’ve done interests me less for their associations with various tournaments than for the fact that they (and this is something I noticed when I interviewed them) are so casual about what they’ve done. The fact that they can’t really be categorised the way I’ve categorised each and every person I’ve interviewed for this magazine speaks volumes about what they’ve triumphed in. Here’s their story.

Naturally enough, we have to start with the elder brother. That’s Savindu. Savindu’s parents and uncles and cousins had engaged in a variety of sports in their day – rugby, cricket, cadetting – and this, he tells me, had naturally enough led them to expect him to resort to and balance out both sports and academics during his student years. His father and mother were both engaged in finance and management, the father as a Director of Finance and his mother as an Auditor. Having entered Ananda College, Savindu hence lost no time in getting involved in extra-curricular activities. To find out which among them he could get used to the easiest, however, he had to wade through swimming in Grade One and gymnastics and chess as the years progressed. It was in Grade Four that he found what he’d hankered after. Hockey.

Why did he take to hockey? “Because I had endurance, I could run quickly, and I felt that the game was meant for me.” That conviction stayed with him for a long, long time, long after some tepid and harrowing first encounters with President’s College, Asoka Vidyalaya, and St Joseph’s College that saw his team being defeated. By this time he had, of course, let go of gymnastics and swimming, though in later years he got involved with power lifting (which culminated in the South Asian Junior Games held in Bangalore, India). He did not, fortunately, let go of chess: while he did not win age category matches as such, during his A Level years he got to be the Vice Captain of the College team, ending up as the fourth best national school team in 2011. He had waited until Grade Eight, however, to get selected to that school team.


Savindu also became Head Prefect, yet another responsibility he had to put up with while concentrating on probably the most difficult subject stream anyone could offer for his or her A Levels (in 2012), Physical Science. But he got through, not by passing but by obtaining A’s for all the subjects he had selected (Maths, Physics, and Chemistry). The results had been enough (he had incidentally been the Head Prefect to secure the highest marks in the stream he had chosen in the history of his school) to secure a placement at the University of Moratuwa for Mathematics, where, reflecting his career at school, he got involved in hockey. “I had to choose one sport, and it was basically a struggle of sorts between chess and hockey. In the end I opted for the latter.” For obvious reasons, hockey at University was different to hockey at school, since team members graduate and leave every other year. He then captained the team at Moratuwa, clinching victory at the Mora Sevens and the Kelaniya Nines and becoming runners up at the Inter University Tournament, organised by the Sri Lanka University Sports Association, last year. At school he had been the Left Insider, while at University he became the Right Insider.

That’s Savindu. In a nutshell. What about the younger brother? Pasindu too had got involved with hockey, inspired no doubt by the elder, though at an earlier age: while Savindu had to wait until Grade Four to discover his passion for the game, Pasindu discovered it quite easily in Grade Two. “I got to be the first Captain of the first ever Under Nine Hockey team inaugurated at my school,” he told me, adding rather wistfully that the category has since been abolished. Hockey had obviously been the first choice, but it had also been (for him, that is) the only option. It was in 2004 that he became the Under Nine Captain. Things moved quickly thereafter: the first match he encountered had been with and against S. Thomas’, and the team, he remembers, weren’t equipped enough: consequently, they had lost by a wide margin, 5-0. That first defeat, however, had not discouraged him, and it in fact emboldened him to push harder and wade on.

The result? “We ended up as the Second Runners Up at the Sri Lanka Schools Hockey Championship in 2004, the same year I became a hockey player at Ananda.” From then on he had secured the captaincy for the Under 11 (2005) and the vice-captaincy for the Under 13 (2006) teams. His preferred hockey icon, incidentally, had been Jamie Lundmark, who had also in a way inspired Savindu. “Jamie taught us that being tall and stout wasn’t an automatic qualification for this game. He taught us that what mattered was pushing your stamina to its limits.” There was another point: Jamie was a centre fielder, the same position occupied during his school years.

This was in turn followed by a series of veritable wins and mild defeats as the years went by: in 2010, for instance, he captained the Western Province team that went to Malaysia, but they could not (“because, to be honest, we weren’t good enough”) break into the quarter finals, while a more promising encounter aboard the Under 21 Sri Lanka Schools Championship (the Junior National Hockey Tournament) had seen them break into the quarter finals, though they were defeated by a team from Kandy. That latter encounter, by the way, had been Pasindu’s first real achievement in the game. Eventually, they managed to become the Runners Up in 2012 at the Under 17 National Championship.

But then it wasn’t only hockey which moved him. This is where I get to his involvement with chess and an activity that he remembers with deep nostalgia, police cadetting.

First, chess. Having started out in Grade Two (“I discovered that the queen, for some reason, was my favourite piece”) he nevertheless had to wait until Grade Five to be taken into the College Team. That year, he became the fifth in an age category match nationally, which had spurred him to try harder and end up representing Sri Lanka at the 3rd Asian Schools Chess Festival, held in Sri Lanka. He became the 11th in Asia there. For some reason, though, he had to give up the game in Grade Seven, which meant that he had to divert his attention and energy to the other activity he got involved with, police cadetting. That had come right after yet another Club he joined at Ananda, which had only recently been started back then: mountain running, a mishmash of athletics and mountaineering which saw his team win the top national slot in both 2014 and 2015. That feat, over two consecutive years, was adequate for him to win colours.

He began police cadetting in 2012. Like mountain running, this was an activity that his brother had not been involved with. It had in fact been a coincidence which got him into the cadet team: a much needed member had become absent owing to exams, and they needed a replacement. That replacement was Pasindu. As with every other club, society, and sport he had got entangled in, this too had fascinated him, enough for him to (what else?) push himself into trying harder and winning big. The end-result was worth it: from a Cadet member to Lance Corporal to Corporal to Sergeant and finally to Company Rank, Pasindu had led the team to several victories at the Rantembe Camp, where the team as a whole had to undergo a set of written and performance-based examinations. “We missed the top slot by just four marks in 2012. Four years later, when I volunteered to be the Sergeant owing to the fact that the person who was the Sergeant had to obtain study leave for his A Levels, we triumphed with eight trophies and secured that top slot.”

All these had been supplemented by intermittent trysts with English debating, English drama, and the Model United Nations (“I started out as an administrative staff member, and then graduated to be a delegate of Lebanon and the Congo”). They had in turn been supplemented by his being appointed as the Head Prefect for the period 2016/2017, though these had not got in the way of his studies too much. With enough results (again, in Physical Science) to get a placement at the University of Moratuwa, Pasindu would no doubt have followed his brother’s footsteps for his higher education, when, on the day before I interviewed him and Savindu, he received news that he had been selected for the MEXT scholarship to study in Japan. The package was enticing: 120,000 yen a month, plus medical insurance and tickets to Japan. “I spent two weeks at Moratuwa. For the scholarship, I decided to offer Mechanical Engineering.”

Everything I’ve written here speaks for itself, I should think. In what these two brothers have done, have engaged in, have from the sidelines partaken of, and have decided to do for their future. Their story hasn’t ended. Obviously. It has only just begun.

Written for: The Island YOUth, January 21 2018

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Left in a crevice: Reflections on a sensibility

For decades we have been told that, regardless of the fact that movies are based on falsifications of reality, we have to assess the medium on the basis of its fidelity to that same reality. This is probably why we take for granted the oppositions between art and entertainment. Such oppositions echo Ananda Coomaraswamy's thesis that modern sensibility has differentiated between mass consumption and discriminating tastes, or as Regi Siriwardena put it, between a Chinese porcelain vase in the drawing room and a kitchen clay pot from Kelaniya. Probably no other industry has this dichotomy done more harm to than the film industry, and for good reason: it’s the most technologically driven art form.

I would like to propose here that art house audiences are drawn to their conception of the cinema in much the same way that those who flock to see Doctor Nawariyan are drawn to theirs: on both counts, it’s an act of self-congratulation. I am aware that I am generalising here but such generalisations are meant (in this series of essays) to be more suggestive than definitive. So here’s what my suggestion leads me to: the theory, validated by personal experiences on my part, that the cinema is far, far away from redeeming reality. Those who believe that movies can thrive on theories about reality and the redemption thereof through the art house sector are, frankly, deluding themselves. They have their coterie and they have a loyal following. But they are mostly purveyors of a minority art. They survive on patronage. Not popularity.

Pre-bourgeois civilisations did not operate on a rift between art and non-art like this because in those societies, art was a product of human labour, not intellectualisation. Modernism was a consequence of industrial capitalism, in that art more or less became an experience withdrawn from the majority. But even in the modernist era – as one can infer in the writings of such critics as Walter Benjamin – we didn’t witness a separation of academia from general audiences. There were writers and critics and intellectuals who communicated what they felt to be art (with or without a capital A) to the consumers of that art. Modernism thrived on a linear conception of culture. What postmodernism achieved was the separation of academics and critics from their readers. Culture was no longer seen as linear. Consequently, the search for order, for any form of meaning, no longer seemed necessary for these new critics.

Of all art forms it was probably the novel that had to bear an undue burden with respect to this paradigm shift, since the novel, more than even the movies or the theatre, was a text, an inheritance from the same 19th century bourgeois civilisation that postmodernism sought to combat, and in this age of postmodernist polemics, texts no longer depended on a definitive author: their meanings were dependent on what the reader wanted them to be. Extrapolating from this, Barthes’s assertion of the death of the author gave way to a culture of criticism whereby singularity, and coherence, no longer was deemed necessary. That is why most of those postmodernist polemics – be it the notion of “intertextuality” or the “distancing” of the author from his own text – were absorbed in other art forms quickly: because they were so pervasive as to intrude on everyone’s individual perceptions of those art forms. Especially the cinema, where talked of the death of the auteur, or the death of the director as a film’s author.

The result was an implosion of intellectualisations and a diminishment of sincerity. The preoccupation of the director in this new era was to do away with a need for any narrative (the postmodernist’s lack of regard for what are commonly referred to as “grand narratives”, which are buttressed by cultural or other hegemonies in a given society, is his most distinctive quality), and although it took a long, long time after Dharmasena Pathiraja brought about a New Wave and succeeded Lester James Peries, it nevertheless made inroads in Sri Lanka. But for this postmodern revolution to materialise and be disseminated more effectively throughout the country, it had to be conveyed to the masses, a largely Sinhala and Tamil speaking population. That’s when the X-Group came in: they took it upon themselves to fulfil the role they were evidently ordained for, at a time when Barthes and Derrida didn’t make sense to the lay Sri Lankan reader. That they succeeded in part speaks volumes about whether we actually wanted to make sense of the writers and academics they translated for us.

In pre-bourgeois societies art was for the most self-referential. It depended on the standards that it had created for itself. Even when those standards – one can think of perspective in drawing, or tonality in music – were supposedly demolished, they depended for the most on the assumption that those demolishing them, like Picasso in drawing and Jean-Luc Godard in the cinema, were aware of these foundational standards. Postmodernism did away with any need to know the latter, because of which it became a withdrawn experience that was easy to purvey: all you needed to do was fill your objet d’art with vast obfuscations which, if you didn’t understand them, were supposed to test your intelligence and your creativity. From the richness of the paintings that the Modernists and the Pre-Raphaelites came up with, we have now entered an age in which a solitary orange dot on the centre of a white canvas can compel aahs and oohs and positive comments from “discerning” spectators.

Simply put, therefore, art was no longer considered as self-referential. It’s easy for it not to be, harder for it to be. And why exactly? Because there was no need for objectivity. “There are no facts, only interpretation,” Nietzsche quipped: it would be in this postmodern era that the truth of its validity would be tested. With one important caveat: it wasn’t just facts that postmodernism sought to do away with, but also the cultural values, or any unifying factor, that would validate such facts. It’s hence probably no cause for wonderment that along with Nietzsche, postmodernist philosophers and academics were heavily influenced by Althusser (his notion of the ideological state apparatus) and Gramsci (his notion of hegemony): these were the backdrop figures for a whole new critical culture, and they eventually found their way to art forms that had not experienced this kind of critical polemics. Even the cinema.

It seems to me that what we initially went through in the postmodern culture was a period of critical democratisation, in which values were free, for all, to be demolished. But as with Marxism, it bred its own gurus and students, the latter rather adulatory with respect to the former. It had substituted one kind of ideological dominance for another. To be sure, Derrida and Barthes, particularly the latter with his notion of “readerly” and “writerly” texts (which assumed that no one could be an “authority”), would not have known that their death would be followed by the usual bantering and bickering which would breed a culture of slavish disciples, but this was anyway the case with all other intellectual figures before them: from religious leaders to Karl Marx. The sad footnote this compels is that when the generation of Barthes and Derrida died, they left virtually nothing for those disciples to improve on. What was the outcome? A sensibility in which everything was rationalised by theories.

Perhaps that’s why this rift between art house movies and mainstream movies worries me so much. Not because I oppose that art house, but because no culture can survive on it alone if there isn’t an alternative, majoritarian, mainstream sector operating elsewhere. Films like Konsthapal Punyasoma make sense not because they are artistically fulfilling (whatever that means), but because we NEED them. They don’t rely, for one thing, on brochures that elaborate on their own workings. (I had to wade through one such brochure to make sense of some of the sequences in Handagama’s Age Asa Aga, a brochure which the director had distributed on the night of the premiere.) Those workings need to be left to be discerned by the audiences. When they aren’t, when there is no proper centre to hold them, and when even the majoritarian movies theatres screen are also devoted to their own workings (like the Ranjan Ramanayake, Bandu Samarasinghe, and Tennyson Cooray vehicles), audiences eventually get tired and decide to shirk those theatres. The postmodern culture is wonderful, but it has left us, or rather our cinema, in a crevice.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The elders can relax, but can we?

There are days when I run out of ideas and topics to write on. Those are days I suffer from creative blocks, on account perhaps of drowsiness or the languor that a full stomach tends to invite. All it takes to get out that block is a quick perusal of my bookshelves, a random flip-through of a book I’ve just finished reading, but sometimes even that method never works out. That’s when I stray from the usual topics I like to write about and instead read what other writers from here have come up with.

The other day I fell into such a block, and after hours of reading and thinking and still not coming up with anything to ponder on, I decided to browse the web. Browsing through several sites brought me to Malinda Seneviratne’s blog and an article he wrote recently, “Elders of the world relax, the kids are fine.”

Rather tellingly titled, I felt. The article was basically about how young people prefer to look beyond ethnic and communal rifts when celebrating or protesting a particular course of action taken by authorities, in this case the deforestation underway at Wilpattu. There are those who feel that more important issues are ailing our polity in far more insidious ways and I would be inclined to agree (no one, for instance, talks about the deliberate robberies and thefts from the electorate perpetuated by the leaders that make possible something like Wilpattu), but for the time being let’s forget that. Let’s instead focus on the crux of Malinda’s argument: that the young who converged about a month or so back, at the Viharamadevi Park, to campaign against the destruction around the Forest, were far more perceptive about the communal-less-ness (I have invented a term there, I know) of the issue than their elders, who on the one hand were accusing the Other of encroaching on their property and on the other reacted defensively to this allegation with the claim that Wilpattu has housed their kind for years. It’s an argument that merits scrutiny.

The old call the shots. For that reason, what they say of the young in whatever sphere the latter operate in – politics, literature, music, drama, indeed the arts in general – are generally disseminated, promoted, and affirmed by the majority through the press and mass media. The idealism of the committed, who almost always happen to be young, tend to drives me a little crazy for this reason, since I have been conditioned by the old to accept the weariness and the disillusionment that goes with the passing of time: sooner or later, according to these elders, that youthful idealism congeals into its own opposite. This is as true for our young musicians as it is for our young politicians, who creep in with the promise and hope of doing something new, anything new, and to trump the conventional wisdom. They want to rebel by being pop revolutionists. How do they become pop revolutionists? By letting go of any desire to be committed to anything. These are the rebels that the sixties and the seventies bred, the flower power youth. We are seeing a resurgence of that flower power youth, here, right now, everywhere.

Should we be worried? Yes and no. I have reason for hope and reason for lament. Before getting to the latter, though, let me come out with my rationale for hope.

I am sincerely emboldened by the new Youth Spring that’s taking the country’s polity by storm, be it the Viharamahadevi Park protest against the destruction in Wilpattu or the countless and frequent protest campaigns conducted against otherwise politically tainted issues like constitutional amendments and the bond issue. These are remarkably less politically motivated than, say, the demonstrations against unfair pay hikes, discrepancies between the private and the public sector when it comes to medicine and education, and laws and regulations curtailing trade union action. And why? Because the latter, regardless of the idealisms of their provocateurs and agents, tend to turn out to be exercises in protests that are aimed at procuring monopolies and benefits for those provocateurs. The Youth Spring is considerably different, therefore more welcoming.

What of my reasons for worry? Call me conservative, call me outdated, but I simply can’t see this “Spring” as anything to seriously reckon with. I know some of the people who attended the Viharamahadevi protest and that less than half of the participants come from the Kolombian subset which is satisfied with candle vigils that go nowhere. These youngsters are committed, and not to political groups. Still.

Regardless of my reservations about what transpired after the January 2015 election, though, I am encouraged by the fact that the mainstream political parties (well, the UNP more than the UPFA, but let’s forget that for the time being here) consciously engaged with the young in a way that left the young in a state of disillusionment after those First 100 Days. It’s that sense of disillusionment which helped them become a class of their own, or to be more specific, become committed pop revolutionaries free of old political affiliations. And yet, even with this tide of youthful idealism, I am worried by the fact that it may well be a temporary phenomenon. It’s roughly the same story in other countries.

And it’s also roughly the same story in the arts. If we have never progressed beyond the old masters – in the cinema, in music, in dance and drama – it’s because there’s a disturbing disjuncture between the young rebel’s desire to defy what those masters did and the material needed to validate that act of defiance. When a particularly ambitious young singer lampoons the personal life of an established musician, he gets crucified, not by the old, but by the young (the reactions and comments that such works of art glean from his fan base indicate this only too well), and when another ambitious young singer sidelines another master with the remark that there are better singers from his age, he gets crucified again by the young. You see the point I am making here: the pop revolutionaries don’t seem to have what it takes to transform defiance into cohesive action plans. That’s the contradiction at the heart of our youth today.

Are our youngsters “disconnected” from their surroundings? The old seem to think so. The last few years, however, have taught me otherwise. They may appear to be indifferent and informal (they have progressed in the way they address elders, because to them everyone is an aiya, an uncle, an auntie) but that is because they believe they know everything, so much so that they are willing to look beyond problems and realities to make way for their own solutions. To them, hence, the problems of destruction and deforestation at Wilpattu are a sign of political apathy, and not racial discord. To me those problems are remarkably and unfortunately different, because racial discord has become a living, material reality: no one can escape it, and no one can ignore it. But the allegation that this indifference to such discord makes the young uprooted from their reality is, at best, misconceived and a result of what we, the elders, think to be the correct attitude to such problems. The young are not disconnected, they are not indifferent.

I rarely write about the young to this paper because I too, because of my conservative streak, believe that there’s nothing serious to write about when it comes to them. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t written on them at all: the various events that school clubs and societies organise, the music concerts, the photographic exhibitions, the book stalls and quiz competitions, I have gone through in this newspaper. These are all handled by a demographic that has, thanks to social media, and to the multiplicity of voices that YouTube and the blogosphere has brought about, is becoming more powerful in the country. These youngsters, from that demographic, are supremely confident of what they believe in. They may be erroneous, fundamentally wrong in their assumptions, but I feel that their beliefs are to be welcomed.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting schoolchildren who dabble in poetry in ways that trump and stimulate my imagination. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting schoolchildren who listen silently and reverently to elders who chastise them and then succinctly point out where they are wrong, often to their faces, if not to me. They have become emboldened by a false consciousness of their own strength. A false consciousness, because it’s buttressed by what they read, often do, but all too often engage in online. The internet and social media has democratised opinion, so when youngsters come across those opinions, they tend to be suave and smug, thinking they know everything they need to know. This attitude of being overconfident can in the long term be its own descent, but I see in them, particularly those who can be referred to as street-smart and book-smart (i.e. those who think and do at the same time), a new hope for the future. They are friendly, eager to accommodate, but they can also get testy when they are questioned unfairly.

So yes, perhaps Malinda was right. Perhaps the elders should be relaxing. Perhaps they already are. Either way, we get the point: however smug and smart they (think they) are, the young can carve a different part, one free of political and communal parameters.

Written for: Daily Mirror, January 18 2017

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