Friday, January 5, 2018

Candid reflections on our art house films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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