Tuesday, January 2, 2018

It’s great art, but is it a good movie?

The complacency of the idealist, the smugness of the young, and the convictions of the activist all tend to drive me a little crazy at times. I don’t wish to demean what they believe in, but the truth is that their beliefs, when not miles away from the reality as they often are, don’t necessarily translate to actions, particularly when they are artists. This curious rift, between what they believe in and what they actually do, continues to confuse me, because the idealist, the assured, and the activist all come together by their ability to confuse their experiences (however limited they are) for their greatness, their individuality. These people, and artists, market themselves to the educated, the critics, the writers, and the editors of newspapers, who see in that conflation an absolute truth. That’s why the art house cinema of this country drives me nuts: because it’s a conflation which can’t be sustained, which doesn’t hold up. Its relevance, in other words, is questionable.

I’ve always felt that the milieu which patronises the Lionel Wendt, particularly those English plays (lavish musicals and comedies, social dramas, family entertainment), tend to idealise the middle class liberalism that those plays reflect. It’s an act of fawning on an ideology which empowers them to congratulate themselves over their attitudes and convictions. Our cinema, on the other hand, has historically never thrived on this kind of middle class liberalism, because that liberalism is part and parcel of an esoteric social subset: the English-speaking bourgeoisie and the petit bourgeoisie. The attitudes and convictions of those who patronise our art house cinema, therefore, are manifestly different, less uprooted, but (I daresay) just as confused and muddled up. It targets the educated as well, but in a different way.

The Wendites (as I like to call those who flock in droves to the Wendt) are inhibited by a curious paradox that goes right into the heart of their milieu. They laugh at and are moved to anger by what they see, but when the curtains come down they reflect on what they saw and move back to their comfortable lawns. “5000 disappearances?” the lady next to me asked her friend, explicitly shocked, after Ruwanthi de Chickera’s Dear Children Sincerely (staged last July) ended: it was an allusion to an observation made by one of Ruwanthi’s cast members about the Menik Farm tragedy towards and after the end of the Civil War here. It was a question born from the “oohs” and “aahs” that Wendites usually let out once they see a serious idea being debated on in a serious way by the actors and the crew, and was also born out from the attitude of self-indulgent indifference which most of the Wendites wallow in. In other words, the educated Wendite wants to get through a serious drama with a serious idea in as linear a way possible, so that the shocks that the producer delivers to them are effectively transposed and conveyed. In still other words, the conventional Wendite is ailed with a conservative streak that subsists on an old conception of the theatre.

The movies of Asoka Handagama, Prasanna Vithanage, Sanjeewa Pushpakumara, Malaka Dewapriya, and now Boodee Keerthisena target a different sensibility, and hence a different inhibition. With the sole exception of Vithanage, whose first few films are manifestly different from the films he makes now, those other directors have more or less followed a conception of the cinema that is both literary and theatrical, that flourishes not through the moving image but through a veritable series of symbols, metaphors, and deliberately mangled and unfinished sentences. The similarities between these individuals, whatever their personal ideologies may be, are too discernible and apparent to be coincidental, which is why it’s safe to say that they are the purveyors of a specific form of the medium they operate in. The Wendites and the English speaking liberals prefer linear narratives and symbols and metaphors that unravel naturally; the likes of Handagama and Keerthisena go about it the other way, with elliptical narratives and arbitrarily defined symbols. The one seeks to open you up gradually; the other seeks to force you down quickly.

I would like to suggest here that what is to an extent a disturbing gulf between two art forms is really an extension of the political beliefs which underlie each of them. The Wendite is largely a creature of liberal politics, and the most serious productions he or she purveys – from the past two years, Dear Children Sincerely, Walking Path, Picket Republic – reflect a theatrical form that, despite its acrobatics, despite its daring techniques (with respect to lighting, sound, backstage work, shifts between scenes, etc), is always conventional: in other words, a conventional play about a conventional idea. It’s more or less class-oriented, in favour of those who wield English (in Dear Children Sincerely the audience, a fairly good microcosm of the milieu that was being depicted onstage, laughed at an observation made by an actor that schoolteachers who were freshly recruited after 1956 taught their students that eggs were hatched with the aid of thunder and lightning: they were laughing, not at the observation, but at the milieu which they have been conditioned to laugh at) and discard the vernacular.

Our art house cinema began with Handagama. He is its primary purveyor, its guiding star. We could never claim to an independent cinema before him, barring the early work of Boodee Keerthisena (the man’s Sihina Deshaya, which I liked, was a preparatory exercise for Mille Soya, which I liked even more), so the standards he created, which everyone later followed in some way or the other, were almost always his. We see Handagama, at his best (Chanda Kinnari, Thani Thatuwen Piyabanna, Ini Avan) and even at his worst (Aksharaya, Vidu, Age Asa Aga), as an extension of the man who sided with Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, Deepthi Kumara Gunarathne, and the other members of the short-lived X-Group, which sought to translate if not transliterate (one could never tell the difference) the postmodernists to Sri Lanka. The Wendites were complacent with a kind of verisimilitude that in effect took us back to the 19th and the early 20th centuries; these rebels, on the other hand, were never satisfied with that verisimilitude. They wanted more, so they shifted from modernism (with its emphasis on a subjective, individualist psychology), to postmodernism (with its profusion of individual voices and unreliable narrators and plot devices).

Their failure to disseminate postmodernism among their audiences the way they intended to, which Dhanuka Bandara commented wryly on when he once told me, “I understood the original Derrida, with all his obfuscations, more than I understood Deepthi Kumara’s attempt at making those obfuscations clearer to us”, found its way to the cinema they later conceived. Is it any cause for wonderment that Handagama’s most successful films, which reached both critics and popular audiences, were not derivative in this sense than the films which were less successful? Channa Kinnari is an almost contemporary retelling of the Mrs Dalloway narrative (a day in the life of an ordinary woman beset by extraordinary experiences and perceptions), while Ini Avan may well have been, after his more clumsily but as honestly directed Me Mage Sandayi – the greatest post-war film made here (the critics were wrong when they described Vithanage’s Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka with that epithet). Compare and contrast these two with Aksharaya (hilariously unwatchable, hindered by its own convictions) and Age Asa Aga (with manifestly better performances, but still hindered by those convictions). It’s easy to put these discrepancies down to the low budgets that these directors have to work with, but then Sihina Deshaya was also lowly budgeted, and so, to a considerable extent, was Mille Soya, and yet these are films I can go to and enjoy, again and again, as opposed to Boodi’s own Nimnayaka Hudakalawa, through which (I am sad to say) he has joined Handagama.

Those early films sustained both the audience and the critics, but the deterioration of their directors to what they have become today indicates that, for all their sense of daring, of courage (however facile), of rebellion against self-indulgent liberalism (at one level, one can contend that both Aksharaya and Age Asa Aga lampoon this liberalism), the likes of Handagama and Malaka Dewapriya are destined to be cut off from popular audiences. A friend of mine recently told me that the true function of art, as opposed to advertising (which typically operates on the principle of the lowest common denominator, of debasing yourself with vulgar tastes), was and is to empower your audiences to graduate to your level, your way of seeing the world. People may dislike Handagama’s films the same way the Wendites like what they see at the Wendt, but I don’t really think that this reason, this rationale, is enough to vindicate those films, because the typical English play, for some reason, plays around with the same devices while marketing a facilely new take on the themes it’s already explored so many times before. It’s a facilely new way of exploring the old, simply put. Our directors, long crippled by the intellectualism that destroyed the X-Group (who reads their magazine, London, anymore?), aren’t bothered enough to think of new ways. They resort to the same tricks, the same beliefs, the same belief systems.

The Wendites were always inhibited by their conservative streak. That has been their weakness, but also their strength. Watching Dewapriya’s Bahuchithawadiya, released recently, and reading him justify his decision to film an otherwise conventional overhead shot of the city by deliberately shaking the camera with his overriding belief that the metropolis is never static, never stable, I wonder whether the Handagamians, as I will now call them, were always inhibited by their inability to see the world through anything other than the symbols, the metaphors, the mangled sentences they churn out in the name of Art every year. I am still wondering, by the way.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, December 31 2017