Saturday, June 30, 2018

Psychology or demonology: Where 'Garasarapa' lies

Garasarapa, Jayantha Chandrasiri's latest, was given a special screening at the Tharangani Hall at the National Film Corporation on Friday, the 22nd of June.

Dewnaka Porage, in one sense the hero of Garasarapa, is the definitive younger face of Kamal Addaraarachchi, who plays his character as a psychology lecturer when he grows older. Everything is there - the frown, the firm mouth, the aquiline eyes, even the stubborn resolve - and so when he woos a girl (played by the charming Kavindya Adikari) who happens to be swayed by morbid and supernatural forces, we only hope that when SHE grows older, she will be played by the actress who more than any other actress has been paired with Kamal in the movies. But this excitement, this sense of nostalgia with respect to the film industry and its plethora of stars, is not at the heart of Jayantha Chandrasiri's latest work, which meanders along, sometimes with purpose, sometimes without it, and ends up in a climax that is as anticlimactic as it's going to get. The payoff, so essential to Chandrasiri's oeuvre, even in his television serials, is absent, and in a tragic way. When Hail Caesar was released I contended that it was precisely what the Coen brothers, with their descent into abstractions, intellectualisms, what-not, had us expect. Roughly the same argument can now be made of Garasarapa. Perhaps that answers the question I posed at the end of my last piece on Jayantha.

Garasarapa is about memory, the discarding of memory, the keeping of promises, and the potency of love. It is about all these things, and it is about everything else too. At its centre is an intriguing figure we see in only two or three scenes, rightly, someone who pops up from the deepest recesses of our collective consciousness and taunts our hero, the lecturer in psychology, for a wrong he committed decades ago. As with Jayantha's other works, Garasarapa hence interweaves two different eras: the present and 1980. Significant, because the love story at the heart of the plot takes place against the backdrop of racial tensions and these years signify two eras with respect to the history of those tensions (Sinhala versus Tamil). In that sense the film is probably Jayantha's most culturally multifaceted yet, because Sinhala and Tamil cohabit with Sinhala Buddhist and Catholic. What more can you say about a film which pits the famed kalu kumaraya against a cane wielded by a well meaning but strict padre?

The story's simple enough. A boy, Sandaras Edirisinghe, and a girl, Vidya, fall in love (it's love at first sight, of course) on their way to the church at Gadagama. The girl, possessed by the kalu kumaraya, can only be healed by the priest, played by Sriyantha Mendis, though the kumaraya finds his match in the boy, who owing to the potency of his love for her manages to dispel the villain, at least for the time being. (A few exorcisms later, all of which have the churchgoers dance in madness, overcome with the possession, the boy manages to get him out of her for good.) The girl, however, has to leave for Canada owing to rising tensions between her family and elements sympathetic to the LTTE. Decades later, having seemingly forgotten her and yet also having struck a deal with the kumaraya himself to find her, he marries a painter, Frankie, (Ameesha Kavindi), moves into a comfortable, upper middle class life, and finds his past catching up with him when she gets possessed by the serpentine prince.

The film has some of the fluidity and the crazy grandeur of Jayantha's previous work, only this time he's emboldened it all by resorting to some visual effects (Jayantha in the Divaina: "Whether we like it or not, and whether we can or cannot, we have to try to join the rest of the world when making movies here"). Two sequences stand out: the scenes of possession in the church when, while the Lord is being praised by the padre, the churchgoers dance out with our two lovers as the only sane ones among the mob; and the sequence in which these two finally realise their affections for each other and they run out, the only animated people in a crowd that's clearly been made absolutely still by CGI. It's Orpheus and Eurydice in Sri Lanka, a point driven home by the unfolding of the plot later on, with Sandaras striking a deal with the prince, who promises her that if ever she returns to the country, she and he will find each other.

But while visually exciting, I felt there was something missing. It had to do with Jayantha's theatricalism. He divorces speech from movement, words from action, and thus isolates the two from each other to such an extent that even the song sequence in the film lacks the mobility it clearly needs. (We see the two lovers from two separate frames crooning at each other. The movement, the action, takes place elsewhere.) Not that this issue stabs the eye; the sole redeeming point of the story is that it manages to transcend the hollowness of the theme of love. And yet, hollow it is, not only because we have seen this kind of romance before (from Ali Mankada to Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka), but also because the payoff we await is the payoff we get, particularly when the two do meet years later, and that in a contrived way. Even the deal the boy strikes with the kumaraya, despite its Mephistophelian overtones, fails to deliver a bonus of any sort, because the catch to the deal is the catch we expected from the start: that he will meet her in circumstances which forbid them from seeing each other ever again.

The cast redeems the plot the best way they can, and given that this was directed by Jayantha, to think that they could not redeem it is impossible. It's the first time since Guerrilla Marketing, more than a decade ago, that Kamal Addaraarachchi, Sriyantha Mendis, and Jackson Anthony have been cast together, and while the three do not meet in the plot (Jackson, as I mentioned, is barely visible), their presence, together with that of Yashoda Wimaladharma (in a cameo) and Sangeetha Weeraratne (who is in a role we so eagerly expected her to be in the moment we saw her name in the credits), helped discernibly. Jackson roars and winces, passionately in love with a woman he cannot have, while Sriyantha, world-weary as always, does what he can to "purge" her. When we see the two meet at a church (of all places!) and when the hymns and sermons intersect with a "pagan myth", we are astounded. The performances help sustain our interest through this paradox (which is not a paradox once you think about how Catholicism in here has mingled with Buddhism, as with the poruwa), something I concede with respect to the new faces as well.

Given all this, what did Garasarapa entail or thematise? I refuse to believe or concede ground to the power-of-love claptrap that so easily induces one to fall in love with any work of art from the beginning. The theme, on the contrary, is to be found towards the end. Sangeetha, a doctor, explains to the audience that while Western science does not fit in easily with demonology, the two can and will cohabit, given the link between psychology and superstition. This explanation, rudimentary at one level, is to me important, because it reveals the Jayantha Chandrasiri who got swept away in the rest of the storyline thanks to that power-of-love rhetoric. This is the Jayantha who believes in a link between the West and the East, superseding those dichotomies between magic and reality sustained by intellectuals and rationalists. (Demonic possession, to give just one example, is not the preserve of Sinhala or even Indian societies.) That, and not the love triangle, is what came out at the end, though by the time it does come out, that triangle, and the overdrawn subplots around it which get nowhere (we see a friend of Kamal come and argue with him about finding the girl he loved; the conversation ends there itself, arbitrarily) ensure that such a theme gets washed away by the Butterfly Symphony-like idealism of the two lovers.

My friend Sahan, who sat next to me at the screening, comes from a generation that idolises Kamal, Sriyantha, and more than anyone else, Jackson, with the kind of devotion we exhibited when we were his age, and is more culturally sensitive and informed than the milieu I hail from. While enjoying the film (and predicting the "climax" and grinning at it as it unfolded), he seemed to feel that something wasn't quite right. "There's a lot to extract from someone like Jackson, and a lot to extract from a plot like this" was his comment to me when we walked out. True. There was a lot in what we saw, and a lot in what we should have seen but did not. In that sense Garasarapa left us groping for more. But in the lot it contained, particularly with its performances, it is a return to form for Jayantha, one which may well strike a chord with both the young and the old. As it has with pretty much all his previous work.

P.S.: Garasarapa is the second film by Jayantha after Samanala Sandhwaniya to not be scored by Premasiri Khemadasa. It is, as the opening titles make it clear, a tribute to the maestro, whom the young today are all the poorer for not hearing.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Jayantha Chandrasiri and the intersection of magic and reality

Jayantha Chandrasiri likes to talk, I have always noticed. And how. He can explain and rationalise something that appears to be so portentous and heavy that once he stops talking you are left telling yourself, "Damn, why didn't I think of that before?" At times, though, he can get mysterious, offering explanations for something none of which make sense or hold the key to the truth. This latter personality comes up when his films are concerned. That's natural, and to be welcomed. Directors love revealing threads from the plots of their work and Chandrasiri, being an exception, likes to tackle the eager journalist, writer, or spectator by giving him clues as to what those plots hold. That, plus the sense of mysticism packed into his films, helps explain why they are so intriguing and why only a very narrow section of the critical fraternity has done justice to them. This is a review of his latest film, Garasarapa, which I feel deserves full treatment by a worthier critic elsewhere and which, over here, needs to be prefaced by a few thoughts on a director everyone loves to get confused over.

From his first tele-drama, Wedahamine, to his most recently screened film, Samanala Sandwaniya, Jayantha is one of the few visual artists from here whose body of work I've watched, re-watched, and pondered over seriously. What I think about them has a bearing on what I think about Garasarapa, because in more ways than one Garasarapa is to Chandrasiri what, say, Hail Caesar is to the Coen brothers: it's an inevitable consequence of everything which preceded and prepared us for it. This is true when it comes to his most discernible motif: the intersection of magic and reality, and in the context of our history. Supplanted by romances that never run counter to that motif, it is coloured by dichotomies which both pit the past against the present and bring them together: village versus city (Wedahamine), old versus young (Dandubasnamanaya), man versus woman (Akala Sandya). He was, and is, at his best when he is dwelling on a theme no one without even a smattering of Sri Lankan history can understand.

That "history" is Sinhalese and Buddhist, but it is never exclusionist. That his best work ran parallel with the rise of a middle class Sinhala Buddhist consciousness which in turn ran parallel with the rise of an urban nationalist political movement (think of the Sinhala Urumaya and its successor, the Hela Urumaya), is not, I believe, a coincidence. When Gamini Akmeemana, in his review, castigated what he felt to be the "middle class nationalist" outlook of Agnidahaya, Jayantha's first film, he was contending that it entailed nostalgia for "the mythical and the pastoral." In a reply penned just days after the review was published, Malinda Seneviratne, in his own inimitable way, suggested that the people of the 21st century aren't as rationalistic as Gamini implied them to be, and that the mythical and the magical in Agnidahaya wasn't as superfluous or unnecessary as "rational" critics described them as being.

Here's the problem with taking a rational stand on the movies in societies like ours: once you bring in the concept of cultural identity and heritage, you are bound to alienate a broad section of the population which has never really understood the workings of that culture. I don't think this is a problem with the director. It is a problem with the critic. Agnidahaya, being Jayantha's first, was slightly overdrawn. Technically and formally, it didn't stand out: the intersection of love and hatred (the tagline, let's not forget, was "vairaya aadarayata vada ganakamai") between Kamal Addaraarachchi and Jackson Anthony over Yashoda Wimaladharma wasn't properly sketched out, to mention just one defect. But most of the critics, particularly from the "cosmopolitan", "liberal" English press, seemed to ignore that. The Sunday Times's R. Wickramasinghe, to give just one example, in a review tellingly titled "Step out of history" suggested that it was wrong of Jayantha to concentrate his entire plot on the year 1664. Forgetting, of course, that much of Jayantha's forays into our history revolve around the 16th and 17th centuries, near-perfect centuries to delve into considering that they entailed a dichotomy between the reality of colonialism on the one hand and the reality of our cultural presence in the rural hinterlands on the other.

I think the mistake made by the English critic when he or she tries to assess films like Agnidahaya or television serials like Akala Sandya is the confusion that is sustained between magic and reality. As scholars much more experienced in the field than me will tell you, hundreds of years ago what is considered magic today was treated as a living, breathing reality. And not just in societies like ours. Even in the West, the concept of magic evolved out of a desire to explain what couldn't be explained, to rationalise what couldn't be rationalised. There was hence nothing erratic in Jayantha resorting to the supernatural. Everything, and practically every last detail, has been so well researched that he leaves no room for arbitrary effects. As Akala Sandya, which in this respect is his most "supernatural" work, illustrates, the "concept" of reading and communicating between minds and the power of yogic meditation (let's not forget time travel) had a definite historical foundation during the reign of Rajasinghe the Second, who ruled at a time when there was a interest in the martial arts (angampora) and swordsmanship.

Guerrilla Marketing in that sense was a departure of sorts, though not completely, from what he had been leading up to. This, the most theatrical of all his films (it owes as much to our folk cultural forms, particularly with Premasiri Khemadasa's music, as it does to the theatre of Beckett and Brecht), also brought to light a basic problem in Jayantha's universe. I still think Guerrilla Marketing is his best work, and not because I have a penchant towards seeing popular political figures from yesteryear being parodied and rather well at that. (I am, of course, talking about Jackson Anthony's performance, one of the best performances I've seen in a Sri Lankan film.) I also think that his primary fascination - the rift between what can be explained and what cannot be, or between the mythical and the real - found its way to the director's depiction of that most contemporary of "magical" devices, advertising. ("Guerrilla marketing" is a cheap, crude advertising tactic, and the last scene, of our protagonist returning home along a road that has huge cut-outs of the man he "marketed", is an indictment on the monsters he has released through his own cheap, crude deception.) It also has some of the best performances that a Jayantha Chandrasiri cast (Kamal, Yashoda, Sriyantha, and of course Jackson, not to mention Sangeetha Weeraratne) could ever have had.

But nevertheless, there was a basic problem. That problem had nothing to do with its plot or themes or cast or even technique. It had to do with the clash which came out between the cultural imperatives of the work and the melodramatic love triangle the work depicted. Deborah Young's review of Guerrilla Marketing in Variety is at times off the mark because it fails to account for the richness in Jayantha's madness (when she indicts those "innovative dance numbers that jump out of nowhere", she is both paying a compliment to Channa Wijewardena's choreography and devaluing a key component of the plot, because without those dance numbers, we would not get a sense of proportion, a foundation, through which we can make sense of the link between Gregory Muhandiram's rabid aversion to culture and his idealisation of mass deception), but where she is correct is where she takes to task what she sees (a little wrongly) as a "silly, star-crossed love triangle" between Thisara (Kamal), his wife Rangi (Sangeetha), and his former lover, who happens to be working at the same ad agency that Rangi and Thisara are, Suramya (Yashoda). Here, for the first time, we saw a dichotomy arise between two facets Jayantha had brought together before.

I can't tell or ascertain whether Jayantha came to terms with this dilemma (several reviews, both local and foreign, pointed it out), but what I and what we do know is that it took a good eight years for him to return to the movies, and when he did return, he made the most atypical work he has ever given. Samanala Sandwaniya is Jayantha Chandrasiri through and through (not least because it has Yashoda as the main actress, and because it induces nostalgia for the past, particularly considering the reference to Gamperaliya through the names of its protagonists), but as Sumitra Peries, who loved it, once told me, "It is catholic in the sense that it is universal." And so it is. Unlike the patently indigene qualities of his previous work, Samanala Sandwaniya is a film for everyone and anyone. It was a retreat, and a great one at that (though here too, in the form of two buffoonish Laurel-and-Hardy-like jokers who cause a debacle at the park after mocking Yashoda, Jayantha steps out of line thanks to his theatrical past), and without any overt reference to "the mythical and the pastoral", it could be rationalised by both the liberal and the traditionalist. Maharaja Gemunu, which followed it, is a film I have unfortunately not seen. But what these two works necessitated was a return to Jayantha's previous oeuvre. Whether Garasarapa resolved the fatal contradiction Guerrilla Marketing unearthed, whether he managed to bring together the historical currents of his plots and the romantic triangle in them, however, are questions I will delve into in my review.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 26 2018

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Anagarika Dharmapala: Shedding the invective

Anagarika Dharmapala is the worst thing that happened to Sri Lankan history. He was a racist, a political pamphleteer, a propagandist who, at the end of the day, served the interests of the bourgeoisie by providing an antidote to the proletariat. He was a betrayer, a peddler of myths, and a demagogue. He was hence the definitive ancestor to S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and Mahinda Rajapaksa. He might have been a German or Japanese collaborationist or spy, and his comments on the vileness of non-Sinhalese people are enough to rank him alongside Hitler and Mussolini. He did not present a nation-building project, rather a half-baked project that favoured the Sinhala Buddhist businessman, whose interests brought him more into conflict with his Muslim and Tamil competitors than with imperialism per se. Ostensibly anti-imperialist, he was less concerned with combating the exploitative structures of colonialism than with constructing a grand unifying myth for the Sinhalese, of course to the exclusion of every other race. He was, in short, an opportunist of the political sort.

That’s one way of looking at it.

Anagarika Dharmapala was the sole saviour of the nation. He rose up against the establishment and became the first member from the bourgeoisie to combat the British. He was the closest to a Mahatma Gandhi or, more relevantly, a Subash Chandrabose that we could have had. At a time when people were compelled to be cowards in the face of the British, he had the guts to get up and, despite the cost to his family business and fortunes, rant against imperialism. More than anything, however, he was a unifier, in that he recognised the Number One problem which was ailing our society: the absence of a proper industrial sector. He visited Japan, understood the importance of building up such a sector, and returned to call upon the members of the Sinhala Buddhist business class to build up an economy which would lead the way towards independence. He was greater than most of those hailed as national heroes today. He was a hero on his own right, and not just of the political sort.

That’s another way of looking at it.

Very few people have attracted revulsion, censure, and praise the way Dharmapala has. Not even Mahinda Rajapaksa comes close. I don’t think he was a saint. People tend to depict human beings as the angels and the saints they are not, and the popular culture, particularly in a country as small as Sri Lanka, has a tendency of turning individuals into icons and legends. When you take away the rhetoric of legend, you see those individuals for who they are. I believe the same can be said of the Anagarika and I believe that there are aspects to his life which have escaped the historian and the compiler. In this respect, I also believe that Sarath Amunugama’s attempt at sketching out this ambivalent figure deserves more than a cursory newspaper review. Such an attempt was called for. Clearly. Not because he was not a racist, not because he was not someone who tried to bring together the country in a bid to industrialise it, but because he was both and because human beings are hardly the monuments we worship. This is not a review, therefore.

There were certainly two sides to the Anagarika's campaign: the ethno-religious, and the economic. But as with William Blake, the mystic and the social revolutionary, and Ananda Coomaraswamy, the cultural renovator and the believer in the caste system, it is impossible to isolate the two and consider them separately (which is what scholars do). Rather, as historians have pointed out, it is the intermingling of these seemingly opposed sides and aspects to his character which reveal the true face of his national project, shorn of the invectives it has attracted, sometimes rightly, over the years. To understand the Anagarika's economic stances, one must therefore understand the brand (if you may) of his faith which he propagated in the 19th and 20th centuries. George D. Bond's insightful, exhaustive account The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka (1988) distinguishes between two Buddhisms: this-worldly and other-wordly. It was the Anagarika's overwhelming belief that Arahantship, which had been considered the preserve of an elected few, was possible in one's present life, that it need not be deferred to a future life. It was a strongly rational interpretation of the faith, which meant that he frankly deplored the worship of gods: "No enlightened Buddhist... would ever care to invoke a god." (notice the use of a simple G).

While being rational, it was also reformist, just like his reformism when it came to the economic and social sphere. Traditional Buddhism argued that the supramundane path, or the path of the sotapannas, the once-returners, and the non-returners, was not possible for layman. Dharmapala effectively wiped away this distinction by claiming that everyone and anyone could participate in the religious life. While this is tentatively comparable to the efforts made by Calvin and Luther in Europe during the Protestant Reformation, as Regi Siriwardena has argued, there was no real radicalism underpinning this new and revolutionary variant of Buddhism: it still thrived on a fundamentally conservative base. Be as it may, one can't really discount Dharmapala's attempts at opening the path to the lay devotee. He emancipated that devotee by arguing, controversially at times, that there was no real need to defer the achievement of Nirvana to a future birth. Naturally, this was on the other extreme of the traditional monastic elite, who preferred a more otherworldly interpretation of their faith in which higher states of consciousness were reserved for those who had donned the robes and passed through several stages in Arahantship.

The traditional monastic elite had as their patrons the traditional elite, the Nobodies who had become Somebodies through capitalist accumulation. They too subscribed to the a more mundane interpretation, arguing (perhaps to protect their own vested interests in this birth) that the chief aim of a Buddhist was to procure enough merit to enjoy a happier, more meritorious next birth. While this interpretation had not been birthed by the Theosophists, it grew out of those who followed Theosophy (which even Dharmapala subscribed to, until differences between him and Henry Steel Olcott made them part ways). D. B. Jayatilake, for instance, in an essay titled "Practical Buddhism", contended that the efforts of one life were not enough to attain complete renunciation. It required a preliminary course, the preparation for a future life. The chief aim of one's present life, on the other hand, was to observe precepts, support one's family through right livelihood, and do good in this world. Herein lies the subtle but fatal rupture between Dharmapala (the reformist) and his opposing group (the neo-traditionalist): the former was fiercely advocating the shattering of distinctions between the present and the future, while the latter conversely advocated the maintenance of those distinctions, and of various other distinctions which approximated to the views of those in the group who believed, inter alia, in the liberal ideal of a secular state, with a separation between the government and the temple, between faith and personal life: in short, between precept and practice.

It doesn't take one much time to ascertain that the overwhelming support for this school of thought came from the new bourgeoisie, because in part at least, they were seeking ways to rationalise their business interests through a new interpretation of Buddhism. Dharmapala too was an entrepreneur, but was hardly of the sort that the new bourgeoisie were. One can contend that it was his line of family businesses, which involved manual labour and the transformation of material into industrial products, which spurred him into his nationalist crusade. One can also contend that it was the nature of those businesses which compelled him to strike out on his own when it came to a radical re-evaluation of Buddhism. Years later, when Kumari Jayawardena's father, A. P. de Zoysa, would join that battle against the new bourgeoisie, who by then would become leaders of the independence movement, the political landscape had bifurcated between a left movement which sought to industrialise this nation and a rightwing movement which remained complacent with the petty, primitive nature of their form of capitalist accumulation.

It is difficult to draw up imaginary lines dividing Dharmapala the national figure from Dharmapala the lay preacher. In an essay on Buddhism, published at the turn of the 20th century, for instance, he implores the British to "let industrial and technical schools be started in populous schools and villages." Perhaps more than anything else, if we are to chart Dharmapala's ascendancy as a crusader and a radical wielder of his faith, we need to consider that it is the intermingling of these two strands, rather than the separate analysis of each of them, which can best help us understand the man beneath the robe, and the robe and the enigma which made up the man. Free from all that invective.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

On Professor Carlo Fonseka, for no reason at all

“With apologies for generalising, I would say that despite decades of free education Sri Lankans are still lazy thinkers; a most gullible lot. Astrologers abound and it is easy to spread a false story. Divine intervention is still widely believed and sought after and clever Kattadiyas make good money. Political leaders shamelessly dash coconuts asking for divine curses on enemies. Faith healing missionaries keep audiences spellbound. Schools do teach science but students are not encouraged to think scientifically. Subject content is studied for exams and the scientific thinking habit ends after uploading the textual content at exams. Science is divorced from lives.” (Shyamon Jayasinghe)

I still remember the first time I met him. It was somewhere in 2013. To keep a long story short, I had written a book and owing to my immaturity (I was 18 at the time, after all) I felt he was the best person to write the foreword to it. And why? Because the book, a novella (which I have since disowned, so horrendous it is!), delved into the perennial conflict between reason and mysticism and Professor Fonseka, a leading light in the Rationalist Movement in Sri Lanka, would have enjoyed reading on that. Or so I thought. What I knew, back then, during that first visit, was that he wanted to meet me. (I had provided him with a first draft beforehand.) So I went, rather pompously (I was 18 and I was immature, let us remember once more), to his residence, a large, sprawling, and yet somewhat unostentatious home tucked away in the corner of Pita Kotte, and rang the bell. He was not there, he was in the washroom, and he would meet me in five minutes, I was told. So I sat down and waited, eager and (again, I was immature) rather pompous.

I came to talk about the book, its contents, and what the professor could write by way of penning the foreword. Instead, after he came, the first thing (or one of the first things) he asked me was what I thought about Shakespeare. I was no Shakespeare fan by any stretch of the imagination – besides, I have a poor memory, so remembering those immortal lines of his has always been a tedious, impossible task – but I had seen some film adaptations of the Bard’s work, and I told him that the play which caught my attention the most was Julius Caesar, hastening to add that I was an ardent fan of the 1953 adaptation starring (of all people!) Marlon Brando. Professor Fonseka, whom I thought preferred the book to the film (which he did, as he implied later), was astounded, and went on relating his first experience seeing it at the Regal when he was a schoolboy at St Joseph’s, and how he would sacrifice the opportunity of seeing the Big Match to frequent the Regal and watch other movie adaptations of the Bard’s plays. “Shakespeare forged the first demagogue in the history of English literature, in Mark Antony,” he told me. The conversation trailed from one play to another, until it struck noon. We didn’t talk about the book.

Before I left, he brought a copy of The Island (it was a Sunday) and showed me an article he had written on the indomitable Richard Dawkins, and on rationalism. Back then I was not fully aware of the professor’s contribution to the field, barring a quick perusal of the translation of Abraham Kovoor’s Gods, Demons, and Spirits (the translation, Deviyo saha Bhoothayo, was by Dharmapala Senaratne, another firebrand from the Rationalist Movement). I didn’t think much about it but after I went home, and in the following days when I checked the archives of the Island and came across his encounters with the inimitable Nalin de Silva, I was fascinated. I could not decide on which side to take, or whether I was meant to take sides. Had I consulted Fonseka, I am sure he would have given the same answer. Like Nalin, he had been an eloquent speaker and moreover a member of the Sinhala Debating Society at his school (Nalin had been the Captain at Royal College). Despite this, they resorted to manifestly different styles and manifestly different tricks. I remember in particular an exchange towards the end of Doramadalawa where the professor, who never loses his cool, replied to his opponent with this aside:

“ඔබතුමා කියන දේවල් වල ඇත්තක් තියෙනවා අලුත් එව්වත් තියෙනවා. මට පේන්නේ ඇත්ත ඒවා අලුත් නැහැ, අලුත් ඒවා ඇත්ත නැහැ.”

Naturally enough, this enraged the opponent: “දැන් මොකක්ද ඒ කිව්වේ, මම බොරු කියන එක නේ!” He went on and on as the credits rolled. I couldn’t resist smiling. So I smiled. Not with all those intellectual salvos, not with all his credentials (and I have found much in those credentials to side with, to agree with) could he withstand that fatal, awe-inducing final remark. That was Carlo Fonseka. Cool. Witty. And resolute.

Over the months and years there have been so many other things about the man that I come across and have agreed and disagreed with, spanning the scientific, the cultural, the political, and the personal. His prose, at once self-explanatory and gradual, never seems to creep away and leave you in the dark. Perhaps it’s a legacy of his work as a medicine man, but when he writes, he writes so much at length that it seems he’s trying to get his point across as comprehensively as he can. It’s almost as though he’s afraid of leaving something behind, as though the careful reader (as opposed to the common reader) will chide him in his mind should he commit that unforgivable error. And heaven forbid any essay of his which does not include his thoughts on the link between evolutionary science and cultural, social, and political processes! Just take a gander at his pieces on Malini Fonseka, Rukmani Devi, Victor Ratnayake, and the late Amaradeva and Lester James Peries. He’s always bringing up biology, and while critics have taken him to task (some have even penned irate replies to what he has written) over this, I believe he is spot on.

Two years ago, he published a compendium of his writings, fittingly titling it Essays of a Lifetime. I have not read it. I could not. By the time I got around to buying it, it had been sold out. But I have read reviews of the collection by, among others, Laksiri Fernando (“I was delighted to know Professor Carlo Fonseka’s popular writings are now published in one volume”), Kumar David (“Carlo is an N. M. man; I am a Samasamajist”), and Shyamon Jayasinghe, whose article I have alluded to at the beginning of this tribute. Shyamon takes to task the contention that erudite as he was, a Fonseka would never have been born after the advent of Free Education and Sinhala Only, and though I only partly agree with this thesis (which has been demolished by many leading intellectuals and critics, top among them Regi Siriwardena, over the decades), I nevertheless am in accord with his stance that there is much in our education system which leaves no room for free thinkers, let alone rationalists and scientists and radicals.

Where I also agree with it is the fact that since he took the Rationalist Movement to what it became in the seventies and eighties, people are as gullible as ever. Is this an indictment on the professor’s own work, which has been criticised by the likes of Nalin de Silva as being blatantly Judeo-Christian as the Christianity and theism it seeks to encounter and flay? I am not in a position to say.

Ever since that day in 2013, I must have met him about five times, including once in 2016 and again in 2018, the latter about three weeks ago at the Memorial Service for Lester James Peries (where he delivered the eulogy). He has mellowed gracefully. His wit, his way of talking slowly, to the point, and never off the cuff, is still there. They say Lester Peries reminded one of a Bourbon Prince: short, unassuming, and never beset by the arrogance which visits lesser personalities. Well, if that were the case, you can say the same thing of the good professor: short, full of humility, and never even once arrogant. “I keep my pride locked up. It escapes only through my work,” Lester told me. Again, you can make the same case for Fonseka: his word is his work, and his work is his pride. But that was a different time. A time so different that we can’t escape into it. The past, as someone once wisely said, is another world altogether. One would have to be extremely fortunate to have born to it. Lester was. Carlo was. Many others were. We were not.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 14 2018

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Sketches from the South: A history of schisms

The history of the Buddhist clergy, in this country, has largely been a history of schisms, splits, and amalgamations. Over the decades and centuries, several important points have been inferred with respect to this (at one level) inevitable historical process. First and foremost among them, that the breakdown of Buddhist sects in response to growing caste militancy was a consequence, and not cause, of the political games played by the British after their conquests. Insignificant though this may be, it is nevertheless important in that people tend to paint a rosy picture of caste-ism while forgetting that the rifts between the different castes were exacerbated once the Colonial Office realised it could harness them to its advantage. As scholars have noted, regardless of their political persuasions, caste-ism, while not rampant in Sri Lanka as it was in India, eventually found its way to the political process. Caste politics was not unheard of before the advent of the British, but it was institutionalised after it. To a considerable extent, this was reflected in the history of the Buddhist sects, and to an even more considerable extent, the battle over caste in the order was played out between Kandy (the hill country) and the South (the low country).

In contrast to the conservative, tightly knit Siyam Nikaya, which spread out to the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters, the Amarapura Nikaya, which was an offshoot of the caste militancy that grew after the Kandyan Kingdom was annexed, was a fairly loose confederation. As with all such tightly knit sects, however, the Siyam Nikaya was bound to give way to the policies of intruders, in this case the British, whose (deliberately) ambivalent responses to the practices of the Nikaya have been recorded by historians elsewhere. While a copious recounting of those responses and their historical route is hardly the point of this essay, perhaps a brief, cursory look might enable readers to appreciate how the dominance of one sect had to give way to the dissemination of other sects over the centuries. The timeline relevant to this cursory look, incidentally, spans from 1815, the year of annexation, to 1848, the year of the Matale Rebellion.

When the annexation was complete, assurances were made by the Colonial Office that steps would be taken to preserve the privileges of the traditional elite, which obviously included the monastic orders. Until then, the politics of the Kandyan Kingdom had followed a largely cyclical process, encompassing shifting loyalties and shifts in the regime (particularly, it can be said, after the Nayakkars began their reign). But with the advent of the outsider, this was destined to be succeeded by a largely linear process, in which that outsider, the conqueror, managed to concentrate hitherto traditional privileges within his vast bureaucracy. The traditional elite, naturally anxious to preserve those privileges, sought to preserve them through religion. It was in this context that the Siyam Nikaya was guaranteed the continuation of its practices, in part through the much vilified, controversial Kandyan Convention. No less a person than the then Governor of Ceylon, Robert Brownrigg, visited and placated the nervous monks at the Malwatte and Asgiriya with assurances that “the protection and security promised to their religion would never be wanting.” John D’Oyly, Chief Translator and later Baronet of Kandy, made similar assurances and entreaties to the kapuralas of the four devales in Kandy (Kataragama, Pattini, Vishnu, and Natha). The two promised to undertake three practices which had been the duty of the King: providing food to the temples from the Maha Gabadawa, holding the pageant of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, and maintaining the Dalada Maligawa.

Of the three, the first is the most interesting, since the adherence to and the abrogation of its practice is for me a good indicator of how the Colonial Office affirmed, and later derogated from, the practices of the traditional Kandyan elite. It took several decades for the British to abscond from taking part in the ceremonies of traditional society in India, and that was a consequence of the Mutiny, which took place in 1857. In other words, it took an entire Mutiny to turn the British away from Indian life and culture. In Sri Lanka, by contrast, only 17 years were needed for them to renege on their promises regarding that life and culture; by 1832, contrary to the provisions in the Convention, the Colonial Office had elected to do away with the provision of food to the monks, and instead replaced it with a scheme whereby an annual stipend of 310 pounds (or about 30,000 pounds, when adjusted for inflation) would be paid to the temples. This was an uneasy proposition from the start, and was doomed to stall. It did stall 15 years later, in 1847, when after a campaign against it led by the Legislative Council (which argued that to fund Buddhist monks would be to force a Christian legislature to support heathenism), it was shelved off in favour of a meagre land ownership scheme to benefit the monks. As no proper arrangements were made for the management of these lands, however, some of them would pass into alien hands. This same process, of representations to the effect of preserving traditional privileges giving way to their retraction, can be seen even in the way the British “took to” the pageant and the maintenance of the Maligawa.

By no means did the rebel sects emerge purely because of the activities of the British. Long before Pilimathalawa’s and Eheliyapola’s defections, long before the Chieftains decided to side with the British in a bid to oust the King, those rebel sects were quickly coming up. Their emergence was conditioned by the regions they originated from. In the hill country, the dominant caste was Govigama; in the outer fringes and the low country, the dominant castes were Salagama, Karava, and Durawa, and in that particular order. The Siyam Nikaya yielded to the pressures this conundrum necessitated, and years after its founding by Welivita Saranankara, it yielded to the dominant caste. Upasampada was restricted to this caste (which was not dominant in the low country, or along the coastal belt). This was true especially when considering how power was distributed in the bureaucracy, prior to the British annexation, between the different castes: while in Kandy the non-Govigama castes had their own headmen, the departments to which they were attached for the performance of their duties were overseen by Govigama chieftains.

These discrepancies, unaddressed for years and decades, had to spill over. They did spill over in 1799 with the founding of the Amarapura Nikaya, which had its biggest following in the South among various groups, ranging from those who felt marginalised by the policies of the Siyam Nikaya to those who were tied to British interests and thus wanted to “affirm” breakaway factions (in the secular or non-secular realm) which were free from the control of the former Kandyan Kingdom. This was tied to the fact that, while certainly not free from the shackles of colonialism, the South was freer than the hill country and Colombo, and was thus more open to a revolt in the Buddhist order. (In fact open support was given to the revolt by local headmen, many of whom had repudiated Buddhism and professed Christianity to become part of the bureaucracy.) But while two upasampada ceremonies had been conducted, in 1772 (at the Thotagamuwa Viharaya in Thelwatte) and in 1798 (at Tangalle), these were not endorsed by the conservative monastic elite (which in 1764 conspired to restrict ordination to Govigama; Sitinamaluwe Dhammajoti was the last non-Govigama monk to receive his upasampada at the hands of the Siyam Nikaya). In 1799, therefore, Ambagahapitiya Nanavimala, a Salagama monk who resided in Welithara (a Salagama stronghold), went to Burma with a contingent of five samaneras and three lay devotees. They stopped at Amarapura, where they were duly ordained in 1800, and from where they returned in 1803 to inaugurate the new sect at Balapitiya. This was the Amarapura Nikaya, and their trek to Burma was financed by a leading entrepreneur from the region, Dines de Zoysa Jayatilaka Sirivardana, most likely an ancestor of Cyril de Zoysa, who would lead the Buddhist revival in the 20th century.

But for this sect to get formal recognition, it needed a stamp of approval from the British in the Maritime Provinces. This could only come about through the efforts of an ally monk, and that monk, also from the Salagama caste, was Kapugama Dhammakhanda. He enjoyed the patronage of the chief headman of his village, Adrian de Abrew, who like de Zoysa was an ancestor of a prominent Buddhist lay revivalist (Peter de Abrew, the founder of Museaus College). Kapugama organised an expedition to Burma on his own account, and in 1807, with the patronage of de Abrew, he set off, to return two years later. Curiously enough, however, while the objective of the expedition was to gain recognition for the new Nikaya, the certificate of confirmation given to him by the monks at Burma did not make reference to the sect; that would come about in 1825 (a decade after the annexation of Kandy) with an official Act of Appointment given to Nanavimala Thera. (The British had commenced the practice of issuing written Acts of Appointment a few years before.) The reason why Kapugama himself was not handed the Act was simple: in 1816, he rejected Buddhism and became a Christian. But this act of departure, symbolic though it was, did not, as events later showed, prevent the rise of ideological clashes within the Amarapura Nikaya itself.

On Somaweera Senanayake and on television

Not too many years ago, before I found a job, I was involved with tracking down, calling, and interviewing veterans from various cultural fields who had contributed something substantive to Sri Lanka. I would summarise their lives and work and try to fit those into the (horrendously meagre) space of a 1,500 or 2,500 word article (which would sometimes be in two parts). It was a challenge I had to meet and a challenge I grew to like. So I went on, from filmmaker to actor to lyricist, until somewhere towards the end of 2016 I met Somaweera Senanayake. I had not read him, I had only read (into) his scripts of those many, many TV series I grew up watching and loving here, but with what I knew I did my best and put together a sketch for the papers.

The day after it was published, another to be deceased artist, Premaranjith Tilakaratne (who passed away, after a failed surgery, in 2017) called me. "Everything you've written is correct," he informed me, "But you missed one point: that Somaweera Senanayake is the only scriptwriter of his stature we have who came from the village. He is of the village in ways that no one in his field has ever matched, before or after him." I was confused, so I asked him about those others in his field. Premaranjith was adamant: "I came from Ratnapura, Tissa Abeysekara came from Maharagama, and Tony Ranasinghe came from Modera. None of us could be called villagers. Yes, we hailed from a rural backdrop. But we were not of it. We belonged to a fairly middle class setting, and what we wrote, even of the village, was conditioned by that specific setting. Somaweera faced no such problem. When he wrote of villagers, he went into their skins." Perhaps the irony is that he didn't get into those skins as often as this description of him might have guaranteed, since the truth of the matter is that Senanayake, who passed away last Saturday, seemed to be more concerned with the same middle class lives that Tilakaratne, Abeysekara, and Ranasinghe had known of.

Somaweera Senanayake will be remembered more than anything else as the man who scripted those television series and dramas which helped transform television in Sri Lanka into a family affair. In India, film theatres and halls were springing up by the dozen throughout the eighties, while in Sri Lanka, those theatres and halls were coming down with the entire industry. Television was never conceived of as an alternative to the cinema, but here, it almost was. As with popular movies, therefore, television serials, once they made inroads into our television screens, talked about the prejudices and the emotions of those who lived in a twilight world: between the city and the village. Somaweera had lived in both. He had resided more completely in the former. The values he projected in those series he had a hand in shaping, or writing, therefore, were values which would define the entire medium for years to come.

Part of the reason for this was the time in which all that happened.  The eighties was a tumultuous decade for reasons which have already been examined by economists, historians, and writers. It was tumultuous because of the tragedies it entailed as well as the promises of prosperity it held back. Those promises were enough to embolden a new middle class, who while certainly not equipped enough to be masters of their fate the way the bourgeoisie were, nevertheless dreamt big and cashed in on lives governed by a bourgeois ethic. The free market mantra the eighties opened Sri Lanka to brought about an unlikely synthesis here: between an older generation which sent their offspring to the cities, to educate them and to find them jobs, and those offspring who repudiated the traditionalism of the elders to modernise themselves.

This was the era of Michael Jackson, video recorders, and instant noodles. It took decades for the popular culture to nurture a sensibility like this to claim as its own. But while it transpired, it gave rise to a tragic rift: that between the goals and preferred outcomes of the new middle class, and the inevitably high failures of a great many from that middle class to achieve those goals and outcomes. The elders had built up their careers in stable government jobs; they had pushed their children into the private sector, dreaming of more stable and secure and lavish lifestyles for them. But once a great many of them failed to catch up with those lifestyles, they lived a rather pathetic heenamana existence, idealising their present with visions from their supposed future. (Think of that English-speaking fraudster of a father, played by Cyril Wickramage, from Kande Gedara.) It was this paradox which Somaweera revolved many of his stories around. They engendered botched dreams, false promises, and a forever unresolved rift between the face of the middle class and its fragile, delicate reality.

The heroes of Somaweera Senanayake's world were those who acknowledged this rift and were not afraid of calling out something for what it was. The elder son from Asal Vesiyo, the elder son from Yashorawaya (adapted from Senanayake's own novel, the first in Sri Lanka to be adopted as a University thesis), and Nilmini Thennakoon's character from Doo Daruwo, to name just a few, are not idealists by any stretch of the imagination, but their strength lies in the fact that they are somehow able to tower over the dreams, the wishful thinking, and the fantasies of their elders. They were a voice of reason, back when reason had been evicted by avarice. Moreover, as with the movies of Lester James Peries, Somaweera's scripts are preoccupied with the family, but unlike Lester's films, it doesn't always become a unifying factor; more often than not, those families are defined by a conflict between those who dream and those who do. In Asal Vasiyo, the comedy thus comes out not just from Ellen Silvester and her daughters, but also from their tenants: between the pomposity of the father (the perakadoruwa who constantly blurts "I know the law!") and the younger son Pradeep (the mechanic who parades as an engineer) on the one hand, and the long suffering, but persistent and unyielding humanity of the elder son Jayamangala on the other.

It was a critique of modern society he seems to have offered (though like Martin Wickramasinghe he couldn't go beyond demarcating it as inevitable), and if it was, then the question arises: what would have been an ideal society for Somaweera? The middle class teetered uncomfortably between one extreme and the other, courting both superstition and rationalism, both tradition and modernity, but without actually linking themselves to the one over the other. This rising petty bourgeoisie, who as I wrote before found solace in petty professions (teaching, repairs, journalism, what not) in the private sector (while their elders had worked as government bureaucrats), either continued to rise or went down with a bang. This could compel censure and empathy, drama and pathos; Somaweera, who turned it into both tragedy and comedy, thus envisioned an ideal society with the sons and daughters who stuck by the way of life their elders had once stuck by. In other words, he seems to have affirmed the past, to have turned those sons and daughters into heroes. The obedient and the good, in his stories, became the strong and the quick-witted.

But this also meant a turning away from the inevitability of modernity, a point which cropped up more and more uneasily with each passing teledrama in the eighties. It is hard, for instance, to watch Yashorawaya today and try to understand the writer's attitude towards interracial marriage, and it is hard to comprehend why it would have been so difficult to marry into another community (Rathna Lalani Jayakody with a Tamil businessman, Gamini Hettiarachchi with a self-indulgent Burgher girl) back then. But the resultant clashes, the once buoyant hopes, the cruelly dashed dreams here were as inevitable as they were hard to accord with. (Roughly the same argument can be made of the depiction of marriage between different social classes in Vasantha Obeyesekere's Palagetiyo.) It was not a limited vision, it was an all too real vision, firmly underscored by what middle class Sri Lankans, particularly Sinhala Buddhists (the "Olcott Buddhists" or the "Protestant Buddhists", as they are sometimes referred to today) felt. Somaweera's solution may have been that we should all turn away (which wouldn't have worked). Or perhaps that this middle class was ill suited for what had worked well for other demographics, including interracial marriage. Either way, it was an idealisation of a pre-middle class, pre-urban society, though to consider that this is all that Senanayake could do would be understating his real achievement.

With each passing generation, the past becomes another world. My parents probably know less about the ways of that past, and the lifestyles and the ethics which governed it, than their parents do, and their parents probably knew even less than their own. The past becomes something to be idealised, or thrown away. And once urbanisation becomes a way of life, people try throwing it away. Vasantha Obeyesekere depicted, brutally, the conflicts this exposed us to, in film after film. In a more humane, less savage way, Somaweera Senanayake did the same on television. The beauty of it was that his eyes were open to this clash, inevitable in a majestic, awful manner as it was, while his entire life had been conditioned and fermented in the village. Premaranjith Tilakaratne was right, I am inclined to say. He was of the village, he moved out of the village, and in character after character, he depicted the flaws of an entire generation which had moved out with him, but which was now refusing to look back, as he was.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 12 2018

Monday, June 11, 2018

Lester, the man

In his memoirs Pin Athi Sarasavi Waramak Denna, Ediriweera Sarachchandra dwells on the intricate link between a cultural resurgence and the identities of those who take part in and eventually get to lead that resurgence. Taking a rather puritanical stance, he contends that while the Japanese cinema gave birth to Akira Kurosawa and the Bengali cinema gave birth to Satyajit Ray, the Sri Lankan, specifically the Sinhalese cinema, gave birth to Lester James Peries. “They had Kurosawa and Ray, in keeping with the names their cultures had forged. We, on the other hand, continued with our colonial past” was the gist of his argument. When I pointed this out to Lester, he had one answer: “No one can take away my name. To my last day, I will remain Lester James Peries.”

Lester did well on that pledge. He remained Lester, until that last day. But while he remained who he was, he gave back to the country of his birth, and the culture of the majority of that country, in ways which surpass the contributions of those other cultural revolutionaries. This is not to belittle Amaradeva, Chitrasena, and Sarachchandra. But their cultural impediments were minor compared with those which bedevilled Lester. As the man himself put it to Malinda Seneviratne around 15 years ago, “Cinema salvaged me. It brought me to my roots. I had a Western education. I was born into a staunch Roman Catholic family. That was two removes from the heartbeat of my people.” By the time he completed his last work, Ammawarune, had had got closer to that heartbeat. And why? Because he did a better job at delving into the sentiments of the same community which had bred chauvinists and charlatans in the form of spokespersons. He was an outsider looking in. And he did a better job at looking in than those spokespersons.

All this came to me last Monday, the 28th of May, at St Mary’s Church in Lauries Road, Bambalapitiya, where Lester’s family held a memorial service for the man. A quiet, largely family affair, it was nevertheless attended by outsiders, i.e. those who had known him throughout the better part of their lives and even those who had known him for a couple or so years (like this writer). Contained though it was, it fascinated me, not so much owing to the facts I came across with respect to Lester’s fidelity and adherence to his faith, but more pertinently owing to my understanding that he was that rare man: someone who had an identity of his own, far removed from the identity which he had helped resuscitate through the arts, and one which he never let go even when he was (as he continues to be) lambasted for moving into a specific, limited milieu and canvas.

Where should I begin? Most probably at the end of the service, with two remarks made by the two individuals who delivered the memorial address and the eulogy to the man being commemorated, Nirasha Perera (Lester’s grand niece and the original singer of “Ran Tikiri Sina”) and the inimitable Professor Carlo Fonseka. I’ll start with Nirasha.

She brought up several anecdotes. Humorous anecdotes. Lester was very, very close to his two brothers and sister, and was especially close to Ivan, whom he stood by when the latter suffered a nervous breakdown in London. “Their bond remained all through their lives, and Uncle (Lester), who was fond of his brother, always argued that he had been the favoured son and that Ivan was the more gifted sibling.” Apparently the three brothers and in particular Lester had been very mischievous as children, getting into all sorts of trouble at home. “He used to climb the tree at their residence in Dehiwela, and his grandmother, who was of a very ill temperament, got up into such a fit out of concern that she would shout at him to get down. These entreaties would work only if he was given the five cents he almost always asked for to buy some comics.” The grandmother had been a benign influence, moreover: “Contrary to what many people think, Uncle was never really removed from the Sinhalese culture. She was the link he had between his anglicised upbringing and that culture, since she spoke virtually no English at home.”

Lester’s run-ins with accepted officialdom were a given the moment he rebelled against the priest at St Peter’s who taught his class apologetics. “He was insistent on me joining a seminary,” he once recalled for me, “And when I told him, ‘Father, you need a vocation to become a priest’, he would retort, ‘Nonsense! You decide to become a priest and you become a priest, just as you decide to be a doctor and you become a doctor.” Later on, these run-ins continued, especially throughout his years in journalism (“Twice my facts were challenged, twice I was under threat of dismissal,” he recounted to the late A. J. Gunawardena) and at the Government Film Unit (especially that incident where, having seen him brilliantly edit a documentary, he had to defend Titus Thotawatte against his England born Supervising Editor, to no less a figure than the Director of Information), and this interplay of rebelliousness and placidity continued with his film career as well. He was no joker, but his wit (a characteristic sample: “I drink so much Nestomalt that I might as well call it ‘Lestermalt’”) was, as Nirasha aptly noted, subtle and also sharp. Even the most cynical of human beings, like me, could not fail being swayed by it.

Professor Carlo Fonseka has a way with words and he quite probably gets to his points the same way he gets to his diagnoses as a medicine man: gradually, painstakingly, but with purpose and resolve. While the eulogy at the service more or less reflected the eulogy he had written and got published for the man’s 93rd birthday back in 2012, it nevertheless seemed to ring even more sincere and contained within itself a fresh lease of life the second time around. “Let us recall that he belonged to a special subgroup of gifted people in this country,” he informed us, as he proceeded to class Lester alongside James Peiris and his son Charles Jacob Peiris, better known today as that great singer and cultural renovator, Devar Surya Sena, who “composed a Sinhala liturgy based on the Gajaba Vannama.” Lester and Sena did not hail from the same milieu (the latter came from the Anglican elite), but in terms of class origins they reckoned with the same basic problem: economic privilege on the one hand and a lack of rootedness on the other. (His paternal grandmother hailed from the Jayawardena family, who owned half of Dehiwela.) When Lester told Malinda that the cinema salvaged him, he was echoing what Devar Surya Sena felt, years before the man conceived Rekava, when, in 1929, he organised a concert at the Royal College Hall which featured, for the first time in the history of the hall and the country, a selection from our folk songs, ballads, and vannams.

Surya Sena’s forays into those vannams were reflected several years later in Lester’s forays into films which depicted the identity that had produced those vannams. Here I quote Tissa Abseysekara (whom as Professor Fonseka noted would have been, were he alive, the person delivering the eulogy) and a critique he made of those who, like Surya Sena, seemingly transcended their uprooted lives in an effort to reclaim their cultural heritage: “None of these artists, however successful they have been in their chosen fields, have attempted to turn this conflict within themselves (between their lives and their art) into the source of their creative passions.” His indictment, incidentally, was that “within the socio-cultural crisis of the anglicised upper crust of colonial Ceylon” there was a Great Theme, much like the theme of familial bonds in Lester’s films, which could have been turned into a veritable motif for the cultural sphere of postcolonial, independent Sri Lanka. This begs a pertinent question: how did Lester resolve this crisis within himself?

He was, admittedly, two removes from the heartbeat of his people. If so, how close was he to his own identity, and how did he bring about a reconciliation between that identity and the identity he reached out to? “Uncle Lester said that while he did not pray openly and loudly, he prayed every night, softly, but devoutly,” Nirasha told us, and I wasn’t surprised. When it was suggested that a movie was made of Dona Catherina, the Queen of Kandy whose reputation remains controversial owing to her Catholicised upbringing, Lester shot down the idea, arguing that to go ahead would be to offend the same people, and public, he had helped discover themselves through his work. The man destined to be the father of the Sinhalese cinema, in other words, came from a background which had historically been at loggerheads with the Sinhalese. Whether he transcended this conflict is for another article. For now, though, I’d like to end by paraphrasing what the Bishop of Chilaw, the Right Reverend Father Dr Valence Mendis, contended by way of summing up that link between identity and art which Sarachchandra alluded to in his memoirs:

“Years ago, when I was young, I watched Akkara Paha. Later, I watched Yuganthaya and Desa Nisa. Akkara Paha is about a bright student neglecting his scholarship and later returning, broken, to his family, who accept him. In it I felt the story of the prodigal son. Yuganthaya is about the inevitability of revolution in the face of intense oppression and exploitation. In it I felt the parable about living and dying by the sword, and the injustices of the world. And in Desa Nisa, I came across love and compassion, and this love and compassion struck the student of theology in me. They were markedly about Sinhalese Buddhists, yes, but they were also about the fervent, devout Catholic that Lester was.”

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 5 2018

Monday, June 4, 2018

What makes movies tick

Movies, the most sensual of all arts, are also the most misunderstood. Critics try to rationalise them, to make them conform to their standards of propriety, and more often than not, they fail abysmally. They assume that audiences react to them basely, but that’s because many of them, if not most of them, visit the theatres as invitees, and therefore miss out the responses which popular audiences tend to blurt out when they’re watching a film. On principle, I feel, reviewers should be made to watch the works of directors from the perspective of uncultured, unrefined audience members; this business of inviting them as guests makes them miss out on the one element that makes films tick: you and I, people with busy schedules on our hands who look out for that one free day in which we can all go to the theatre. The most misunderstood art in the world is misunderstood, not by us, but by the critic.

Is it any wonder, then, that films tend to be misinterpreted more often than they are interpreted? I myself have been guilty of this misdemeanour; more than once I have muddled up a plot element, got the symbolism (what little of it there is) confused, and even got the names of the characters and the actors wrong. Film directors try their best to rationalise everything in their works by distributing brochures and leaflets at the theatre, and this is undoubtedly a solid guide for us to not get the plots and symbols and names wrong. But by themselves, such guides are not enough: what is needed is concentration, and the human mind, which has the leisure of rereading a book or a photograph or even a painting, does not have the privilege of re-watching a movie to gain that concentration. That requires payment for the ticket, and though we aren’t stingy enough to make that payment, we hardly find the time these days to go watch Aloko Udapadi or Kusa Paba or Infinity War again, even if we truly, badly want to.

What makes movies tick is the fact that the way we react to them is not the way others have reacted to them. Aloko Udapadi is, for instance, to me an ambitious half-success in which the great battle scenes, inflated and clearly beyond the confines of reality and common sense as they are, are compensated for in no small measure by the vividness, the clarity, and the lucidity of its first half. But when you talk about it with teenagers who are still going to school, you realise that to them, those battle scenes are what matter. Conversely, when you talk with an elder, preferably a Sinhalese Buddhist for whom the last 2,500 years are a matter of pride when it comes to his or her identity, those battle scenes are what epitomise his or her heritage and history, thus validating the weaknesses of the plot (of which, I am sorry to say, there are very many). For teenagers, the battle scenes are what drive away the banality (in the form of schools and tuition classes and god knows what else) of the outside world they have to return to; the elders, by contrast, who have the leisure of contemplating on what they see, want something more, something that validates an abstraction (in this case, the fact that their identity is Sinhalese and Buddhist and that it is under siege).

Sometimes these responses differ on the basis of where the movies come from. Obviously teenagers and adults are not going to react to Infinity War the way they would have reacted to Aloko Udapadi. Since of late, I’ve been walking everywhere and talking with people from all walks of life, trying to ascertain what it is that they want to spot out in a film. Then I realise that their attitudes have been conditioned by what they’ve come to accept at the movies. Going by this, they are picky when it comes to the shortcomings of a Sinhala film; take a teenager to watch Bandanaya or Adareyi Mang and chances are he’ll look out for the defects, the little details which stand out. But chances are also that he’ll be willing to overlook those little defects in a movie like Black Panther. The reason is simple enough: Black Panther is set in a vast canvas, an alternative dimension within our dimension (Wakanda), and the special effects and the seamless union of The Lion King, Hamlet, and science fiction (at times it feels like space opera, which I think is part of its charm and which distinguishes it from most of the other products from the Marvel movie universe), while Bandanaya concentrates itself within two families, and neighbours, feuding over a piece of land by resorting to black magic. It’s easy to come across defects in family drama, even if it’s fused with supernatural horror. And for the record, it is this fusion, this weird appropriation of The Exorcist, which teenagers found to be at once both appealing and raucous about Udayakantha’s movie. It wasn’t a failure (Udayakantha’s films never do), but then it wasn’t the overwhelming success we thought it would be.

Talking with one young man over Bandanaya, I came across this complaint: “It’s full of promise, and it flows along well, until that last bit, silly as it is, where Hemal Ranasinghe has to physically fight with the devil.” It’s like watching out for the rain: the slightest onset of clouds from afar makes you think that a thunderstorm is coming. Likewise, the slightest little jarring detail is enough for anyone to rant and rave against the whole history of the Sinhala cinema. I don’t see this attitude of being picky and testy with, say, a DC Comics movie. Superman versus Batman, to give just one example, was hyped beyond the wildest dreams of a comic book fan, and at the end of the day turned out to be a colossal void. Yet the fans here were defending it against the highbrow critics from that part of the world (in The Atlantic, New Yorker, and Variety) who were unanimous in their criticism of the plot. Part of the reason for this, I think in hindsight, is that with familiarity, contempt grows, so we’ve conditioned ourselves to not be so easy and generous with our own movies. But there’s a bigger, deeper reason: the critics. Specifically, their inability to call a spade a spade when it comes to the shortcomings, and defects, which colour up those movies in question.

The greatest damage to our movies continue to be done by those who don’t know what makes movies tick, those who believe that their own notions, academic and intellectual beyond the dreams of a University don, of movies and cinema are all that matter. I’ve written about this at length, here and elsewhere, over the past year, and I’ve based what I’ve written on what I’ve seen at film festivals and in newspaper columns. Critics settling into art house, serious films write as if they’re knighting the directors of those films and bestowing a benediction on their work. At one level, it’s a subtle gesture of condescension from their end: if we don’t know what we’re seeing, we assume that’s because we aren’t intelligent enough to appreciate art. Heaven forbid any discussion of the merits of the film; the premise, for these critics, to any such discussion is our appreciation, unconditional, uncritical, of the work. If you don’t like it, and if you have any flaws to pick on, they you have to leave that discussion.

Movies are best dissected by those who see them as a habit, or even a pastime. When I recommended, to a young man, still in school, a list of horror films he said he wanted to watch while recovering from an illness, I found out that the usual recent titles – even the ones which weren’t screened here – he had seen. Then I recommended a film which should have been screened here but which was not: Jordon Peele’s Get Out. But Peele’s film couldn’t be categorised as horror in the same way that the other movies I listed out (Lights Out, Ouija, Ouija: The Origin of Evil, Annabelle) could, so he was disappointed. At one level, this ignorance, this obsession with considering a film on the basis of its fidelity to a specific genre, may exasperate critics like me who prefer variety to staticity, but at another level, it’s an indication of the restlessness of the young, who want stability but can’t find it in their restless, banal lives. In that sense, art has gotten closer to advertising: people want to know that the money they spend on a ticket is the value of the film they’re seeing. (Critics, invited as special guests, don’t have to spend money on those tickets; the director, by inviting them, is flattering them into giving favourable reviews to their movies.) They don’t have much time on their hands – particularly the school-going demographic and the working class – and out of the little time they have, they want to have a good time: by watching movies and reading books which hit on their senses and fulfil their expectations. Even if they don’t fulfil those expectations, they want to be routed, to be fiddled around with, and to be given endings and resolutions which they can be excited about. This is what makes up the charm and the cleverness of Hitchcock’s early thrillers (the original Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes): they distract you from the defects that colour up films like Bandanaya, so that afterwards, when you reflect on them, you aren’t moved to anger or spite, but rather to enjoyment. Our movies and our critics, in that sense, distract us the wrong way. They don’t take us from boredom to excitement. They opt for the other way around.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, June 3 2018

Friday, June 1, 2018

Reflections on history: What inflames bigotry?

A careful perusal of history indicates that racism begins with the economic as opposed to the religious or communal. When food prices are rising, when it’s difficult to earn a proper income, especially under a barrage of taxes, and when living through today is the credo you wake up to every day, it’s difficult and painfully so to affirm unity and harmony with other communities, particularly if the chauvinists draw a rather negative picture of those other communities. That’s why the Jewish population of Russia inspired so much derision from the elite and the masses before AND after the Revolution: because the economy, in both cases, was so stifling, so unbearably down, that a scapegoat had to be found. One can make the case that wars begin in the minds of human beings, and they do, but before they do, they are fermented by the shifts of economic imperatives. Simply put, if you can’t live properly, you turn to hatred.

The riots in Digana, and elsewhere in Kandy, a little over two months ago were, I feel, the inevitable consequence of the communal riots which erupted during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency in Aluthgama. I was privy to various comments interjected by members of both communities, with respect how they saw the riots and how they rationalised them. The main issue for the Sinhalese Buddhists, that is, minus the Islamophobic rhetoric about Muslims outstripping Buddhists in terms of population growth, was the inclusion of the Halal certificate in food packaging everywhere. It was just that: a harmless certification. But it was rooted in the economic, as opposed to the religious and the communal, and as with all other racial conflicts, it found its way to riots that it compelled. Unfortunate though they were, those riots were a direct consequence of the government’s ability to address an issue that had been growing rampantly over the years. The Sinhalese Buddhists, rather the extremists among them, wanted a scapegoat. They found one, conveniently, with that certification. It could have been anything. That anything was a piece of paper.

Four years later, here we are.

The riots in Kandy weren’t rooted in anything abstract. It was rooted in an actuality: a man who happened to be brutally killed by a gang (having accidentally damaged a vehicle belonging to one of its members). That man happened to be Sinhalese and Buddhist, and the gang members (who were jailed) happened to be Muslims. A friend of mine told me that around the same time, a Sinhalese teenager was hacked to death just as brutally by a Sinhalese elder. Obviously, some things make it to the news, others are not deemed newsworthy enough to make it there. The first incident was bad enough; the fact that the man succumbed made things worse. Aluthgama came back. It wanted something substantive, rooted in the communal as opposed to the economic. A certification wasn’t going to cause riots. A murder was. So Aluthgama begat Digana. In this sense, it’s interesting to compare the timelines at these two sites with the timeline that transpired in 1915 during the much written about Sinhala-Muslim riots.

Obviously, contexts matter. 1915 was not 2014 and neither was it 1815. But the centenary of the capitulation to the British in 1915, and the tercentenary thereof, along with the centenary of the riots, in 2014 and 2015, helped accentuate the rifts and the violence rather considerably. Unlike what transpired in Digana and Aluthgama, though, the 1915 kolahalaya was instigated, not by an economic issue, but by a communal malaise: specifically, the issue of allowing a Buddhist procession to pass through the vicinity of a mosque in Gampola. The Kandy District Court had given a judgment in favour of the Buddhists; the Supreme Courts, where the judgment was challenged, reversed the decision in favour of the Muslims. Thus came about the first onslaught of racial attacks. For the time being, while the British didn’t do anything much to contain the violence, they were aware that it could take on a nationalistic character. Ironically, that nationalistic character emerged, not from the bhikkus and the clergymen from both communities, but from a secular source: trade unions. It is here that the communal turned into the economic, when, in Colombo, members of the railway union, the most literate of all unions at the time (as scholars have ascertained), had an argument with the owner of a Muslim shop near their workplace over his decision to raise the price of a cup of tea. After having that argument, the workers returned to the station, and from the other side of the road, pelted stones at the shop.

More than 115 deaths later, the divide between the Sinhalese and the Muslims had been buttressed by a more powerful divide between the Sinhalese and the British. With the conservative Sinhalese elite decidedly on the side of the latter, by their denunciations of the rioters as deviants who were a miniscule minority among those loyal to the Crown and Empire, the moderates, the Senanayakes and the Jayatilakes, were imprisoned. They were the Nobodies of Kumari Jayawardana’s narrative, the upstarts who found the first anti-imperialist movement sustained by the bourgeoisie, the Temperance Council. But here too, the economic took precedence over the racial: there’s next to nothing to suggest that these moderates, worshipped as national figures today, shared the sentiments of the rioters, whose chief concern was the preservation of the Sinhala identity. As various scholars, including Professor Jayawardana, have correctly noted, a rift existed even within this clique of moderates, with the result that the only man hailing from the bourgeoisie who projected himself as the saviour of the Sinhalese, Anagarika Dharmapala, was sidelined by them as a communalist. (The fact that he was debarred from joining the Colombo Total Abstinence Central Union speaks volumes about the intentions of the “moderates” with respect to identity.)

What explains the precedence of the economic over the racial in Aluthgama, and the precedence of the racial over the economic in Digana? In 1915, the trade unions took to the streets and instigated an entire collective against another after, and not before, the issue over the procession near the Mosque in Gampola. In 2017, on the other hand, the riots instigated by the murder in cold blood of a Sinhalese worker was preceded by, and was not the consequence of, a conflict rooted in economic imperatives, i.e. the halal certification. One of the reasons, if not the chief reason, for this shift was the fact that 2014 and 2015 marked the centenary of the 1915 riots and the extremists among the Sinhalese Buddhists were ready to take on anything, even the smallest rumour, as carte blanche. At the same time, let’s not forget that while the halal issue proved to be the crux of the riots, it was preceded by a communal clash revolving around a similar assault on the Sinhalese: this time, by Muslims from Dharga Town, and on a Buddhist monk and his driver. (However, this remains a rumour, so it can’t be compared with protests against Muslims stopping Buddhists from conducting their pageant.) Even when we discount this incident, which remains unverified, it must be said that even the leading representative, from the clergy, of the Sinhala Buddhists at the forefront of the riots, the infamous Gnanasara Thera himself, turned the ruckus over the halal certification into the ultimate symbol of discord between the two communities.

Perhaps what transformed the economic to the communal, more than anything or anyone else, was Gnanasara Thera himself. No other monk before him, from recent memory, has been capable of inciting so much revulsion. The leader of a breakaway faction from the already ethnicised and reviled Hela Urumaya (reviled particularly owing to the comments of its leader, Champika Ranawaka, to the effect that Muslims were “outsiders”), Gnanasara was the spark that turned Aluthgama from a rumoured assault and paper certificate to attacks on businesses owned by Muslims in even the multicultural metropolis, Colombo. 1915 did not have a figurehead like that, because by then, the bhikkus who had led the nationalist movement were slowly, eventually, being replaced at the forefront of that movement by the trade unions, which through A. E. Goonesinha’s hardening attitudes towards ethnic minorities were becoming more and more racialised, biased towards the Sinhalese and against the Indians, the Moors, and the Malayalis. If there was such a figurehead, it was to be found, not with the clergy, but with a lay spokesman: the Anagarika.

The 1915 riots were informed by the centenary of the biggest humiliation those Sinhalese Buddhists had faced in their troubled history, the surrender of Kandy. As such, for a riot to run riot (proverbially speaking), what was needed was an actual communal rift springing from the actions or the omissions of the Other, in this case, Muslims. 100 years later, with the centenary of the riots themselves, what was needed for history to repeat itself was the smallest rumour, the most mundane issue. Both that rumour (the attack in Dharga Town) and that mundane issue (the halal certification) found its pivot with Gnanasara Thera, and when 2014 gave way to 2017, it was a reversal of what happened 100 years ago: instead of a racial issue being inflamed by an economic issue (i.e. the railway workers), here the economic issue inflamed a racial clash (i.e. the murder of the Sinhalese worker). In either case, the carnage, the fires of discord, the racial insurgencies, were definitive. Be it the economic or the communal, that carnage thus continues on.