Thursday, October 19, 2017

Ravindra Randeniya: Reflections on a frown

What makes Ravindra Randeniya stand out, what makes him, at the end of the day, Ravindra Randeniya, is his contemplative frown. You see that frown creep up everywhere, in almost every picture he’s in. It turns him, in varying degrees, into a meticulous detective, a pained lover, a mistrustful husband, even a compulsive womaniser. The reason why he embodies all these characters, and their qualities, is because he’s so versatile; not the way Joe Abeywickrama or Tony Ranasinghe were, but in a less empathetic way. He is the only actor from here I can think of who can frown in both a commercial and a serious movie, make us think that he's serious even when he's not, and get away with it.

Randeniya is at his best, and his least empathetic, when he conceals his intentions with that frown. He is the great concealer, and is in fact so good at this role that nearly every other role is a variation of it. Not until the end of Duhulu Malak, the first real film he was in after supporting roles in a series of at best preparatory pictures, do we realise he is no more, and no less, than an irresponsible, prodigal playboy. We think he’s such an unlikeable womaniser but he’s not. (At the very end he throws his shoe, in frustration, to the sea, and in that act he is both resentful and upbeat about the fact that he’s lost his woman.) What conceals those intentions is his sense of debonair grace, which is so debonair that he can hide the vilest intentions of his characters with his charm.

That explains why Maya, Dadayama, Sagara Jalaya, and Anantha Rathriya work so well when he’s around: he’s so good at talking, at faking, but we believe him along with the (for the most) female protagonists, who in all these movies happened to be Swarna Mallawarachchi. When Rathmali from Dadayama has her illusions about the man who impregnated her twice and left her shattered, she threatens him and writes him a letter; when they meet the next time, he is flippantly ominous about her missive: “Who are you to post letters ordering me? Who are you to boss me around?” In the sequences that preceded this encounter, however, he is so charming, so apologetic about what he’s done to this woman, that both Rathmali and the audience know that she has every right to be intimidating towards him: because of his debonair grace he’s become a part of her, and all those dreams of hers about him derive from that quality of his.

Because he can be two people at the same time – sometimes for the better (as with Chuda Manikye, Siripala saha Ranmenika, and, to a certain extent, Sagara Jalaya), and often for the worst (Dadayama, Bhava Duka and Bhava Karma, and Roy de Silva’s Sudu Piruvata) – people choose to believe in the latter, which more or less indicates that we’re cynical enough to be swayed by villains. But Randeniya is not only a villain, though he was so typecast that he was thought fit to play no one else. In Vijaya Dharma Sri’s Aradana, which was almost a Dadayama turned the other way around, yielding a happy resolution and ending, he goes after the woman he befriended (Malini Fonseka) to reclaim her. There’s a Ravindra Randeniya that exists beyond that too.

He was born Boniface Perera in Dalugama, Kelaniya on June 5, 1945 to a successful mudalali family. A self-made businessman, his father initially put him into St Francis’s School, run by the Dalugama Church. Two years later, he was admitted to St Benedict’s College, Kotahena. This is where he was initiated into his first love: literature. His tastes at the time – Martin Wickramasinghe with Gorky, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov – wildly diverged from those of his classmates, who preferred easier-to-digest pulp fiction from that era and teased him for his own preferences. It was a largely vernacular backdrop which greeted him at St Benedict’s, despite the fact that it was, all in all, a missionary school. “There was only one period for English,” he remembered, “During other periods, we talked in Sinhala. We had Tamil and Burgher and Muslim friends. Race and religion didn’t matter. Not to us.”

What he read, he remembered, had for some time turned him into a leftist: “Everyone’s a socialist at 20!” was how he reflected on it for me. Surprisingly though, none of these encounters got him to act. Apart from a Fifth Standard production of Sigiri Kashyapa, in which he was Kashyapa, he never acted at all. His first real initiation into his profession would therefore come from an outsider: Dhamma Jagoda, who with Sugathapala de Silva was openly spurning Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s stylised conception of the theatre. One thing led to another, and soon enough, he was studying at the Lionel Wendt Theatre Workshop, which Jagoda had founded after returning to Sri Lanka from an American tour. “He brought Method Acting to this country, in fact. He had been to the Actors’ Studio, he had met Strasberg, he had seen Brando.”

Jagoda had taken it upon himself to preach Strasberg’s gospel in the country, and Randeniya had obviously come under his influence. He had not, however, entered the Workshop to study acting at all, rather screenwriting, directing, stage decor. “Somehow or the other, I found myself in an acting class. I had by this time been drawn to the whole idea of becoming a performer, instead of remaining backstage. That was also a common class: whether or not you had chosen the subject, you had to attend it for at least one or two hours.” The course lasted for two years, and Randeniya found himself being dragged into various roles and performances. His first production as such had been Gunasena Galappaththy’s Muhudu Puththu, controversial for its time owing to its depiction of adultery, but a culmination to everything he had learnt.

Dhamma Jagoda
Muhudu Puththu had been a success; among those who thronged that night at the Wendt was the filmmaker and the iconoclast, Manik Sandrasagara, who after congratulating Randeniya’s performance insisted on taking him to his first movie, Kalu Diya Dahara (1970). Kalu Diya Dahara was another success; having watched it and been impressed by his portrayal of an estate labourer, another filmmaker came around, congratulated him, and took him aboard his next film. The director was Lester James Peries, and the film, released two years later and lukewarmly received, was Desa Nisa. No two directors could have been more different. Randeniya himself was warm about both: “Manik had a way of asserting himself. Dr Peries never asserts himself. In fact you never feel that he’s there overseeing you.” In Desa Nisa he was a morally ambiguous hermit, able to restore sight or stunt it at his will. It was followed by Duhulu Malak (1976), another hit.

None of these movies really “awakened” the thespian in him. That would come a year later, in 1977, with Amaranath Jayatilake’s Siripala saha Ranmenika, where he starred for the first time opposite Malini Fonseka and which took him back to a role which would creep up in the years to come: Samson, the Sinhalised version of Stanley Kowalski, from Ves Muhunu, Dhamma Jagoda’s adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. “To become Siripala I had to become bestial, almost inhumane. It was the same story with Samson.” When we were young we were horrified when Kowalski (Samson, by the way, had first been portrayed by Jagoda himself, in 1963) jeers at Blanche DuBois; when we grew up, we realised that it was his way of asserting the truth, that Blanche was, in fact, a pretender, and that her gentility never rubbed off on an animalistic brute like him. It was that kind of animalistic brute, who never cares for affection and never even once feels sorry for anyone – he doesn’t even care for himself – which is embodied in his subsequent, villainous performances. That they are among the best of their kind indicated that he had found his signature.

There were of course other characters, other films: as Moggallana in The God King (1975); as a modern-day Rama in Sita Devi (1978); as the hero in Weera Puran Appu (1979); as the brother-in-law of Swarna Mallawarachchi in Sagara Jalaya (1988); as the troubled protagonist in Anantha Rathriya (1996), as the nouveau riche mudalali Lionel in Wekanda Walawwa (2005). In the first three movies he’s a beleaguered hero, and in the latter three he’s a beleaguered antihero. In Weera Puran Appu, which was made as an epic that dwelt on sharply and clearly defined heroes and villains, he was clear, concise, direct.

What makes up his sense of indirectness, obliqueness, is that we are never entirely sure as to whether he’s going to stick to his word: he’s a talker, a consoler, but also a concealer. With one set of characters he’s a different man. (You see this in Dadayama, where to his fiancée, played by Shirani Kaushalya, he is the perfect lover; he is anything but to the woman he impregnates, who demands that he suffer for what he’s done to her.) It’s a call for condemnation, and his Priyankara Jayanath is so despicable that Regi Siriwardena, in an otherwise laudatory review, called him “a solid, if less complex, character portrayal.” That was who his villains were, at the end of the day: solid, despicable, hateful, and one-dimensional. What made them all stand out, as I observed before, was that deceptively contemplative frown.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 19 2017

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Almost home: Why we aren’t quite there


The third and last in a series of articles delving into our local theatre.

Because of certain fortuitous and unfortunate circumstances, those who want to engage in our local theatre are hindered from pursuing it once school is over. This is true in particular for regions and districts and provinces which privilege hard subjects over softer ones, i.e. science and commerce over the arts. It’s significant to note, for instance, that in Colombo, Kandy, and Galle the ratios of commerce and science students to arts students have always been above 2, while those ratios in Moneragala (which has consistently recorded the highest Gini coefficient at 0.53) has always been below 0.6. Let’s face it: numbers don’t lie, even if they indicate a relationship between social status and choice of University subjects which we are at times told doesn’t exist. In Colombo especially, this relationship is profound, potent, unassailable.

The English theatre is more fortunate because its members, or coterie as I like to identify them, are socially insured against poverty when they opt for the stage. Especially when it comes to the themes they opt for – musical comedies, satires and farces, socially relevant dramas – they always have veritable reserves of actors, producers, and writers who pursue other careers while pursuing the stage. No one is a full time producer in this country, except those who’ve been active for more than 20 or 30 years (think of Jith Pieris and Jerome de Silva). But they are insured against an unstable industry because that coterie which patronises them are always there, particularly if it’s a musical comedy or light-hearted farce. The problems of the Sinhala theatre are more complex, more intriguing. Here’s an attempt at a sketch.

It’s fashionable now and then to indict an art form as practiced by a certain milieu, in formerly colonial societies, as being elitist. The conventional discourse here, then, is that the English theatre, as practiced by the Wendites, is cut off from the people, while the Sinhala theatre panders to the people. If this were indeed true, it’s inscrutable that the latter must be ailed with a dearth of dedicated, energetic schoolboys and schoolgirls who wish to pursue it after they leave school, like their counterparts in the English theatre. Obviously it’s not a problem of numbers, but rather a problem of a dichotomy between numerical strength and lack of unity. The typical English Drama Society of a typical school, particularly in the Big Cities, is different from its Sinhala counterpart because there are fewer people in the former. Consequently, there’s a broader sense of unity, of togetherness, which big numbers can’t replicate.


More often than not there’s a symbiotic relationship between certain Clubs and Societies and the monetary power of the English theatre. These Societies are entrenched financially, and their members are often found in other Clubs which are as financially sound. All that goes back to the English Drama Societies, which are partly funded, by these other Clubs, and which are housed by members and participants who come from backgrounds that are amenable to the theatre. It’s a circle that never stops going round and round, in one sense, and it explains at least to an extent the potency of the English theatre, at school and elsewhere, and why Drama Societies are able to stage their productions for the public if those productions happen to be in English. (One can think of Around the World in Eighty Days, Dracula, and Kensuke’s Kingdom, all of which were produced through these Societies.)

Let’s look at the numbers again. An average production would normally cost anywhere between 500,000 to 1.5 million rupees, and that’s just for one or two shows. Numbers are inescapable and so are big budgets, particularly in these hard, harsh times, and they necessitate sponsors. Unfortunately even institutions which patronise and sponsor the arts, and concerts and shows and so on, think twice about financing Sinhala productions, be it a drama or even a felicitation ceremony, because they fear they won’t get a proper audience. That’s the kind of fear they think they can evade through English productions; this is true of musical comedies but true also of any school production that involves huge casts, marketable plots, and the Lionel Wendt. I find the latter alluring too, so that may explain why sponsors are easier to get for them. (And as if to add insult to injury the sponsors admit this point candidly; just the other day a boy told me that he had approached one of them for an exhibition of the evolution of the Sinhala theatre and had been informed that they prefer to sponsor events organised for English-speaking audiences.)

These reasons in themselves are not, of course, enough to explain why our schoolchildren leave our theatre rather quickly. There’s another reason: in the Big Cities, most if not many of those who join Drama Societies (Sinhala) tend to come from streams and to study subjects which are not immediately connected with the theatre. It’s pertinent to note that we are duplicitous when it comes to the arts: we want to adorn our houses with paintings and music but don’t want our children to be painters and musicians. Similarly, when we opt for harder subjects – Science, Maths, Commerce – and when we join a Society, what we do after school, or whether we continue with the activities these Societies engaged in, depends on what those subjects by default ordain as our careers. The lucky ones, even if they do these hard subjects, resolve and manage to be “freelance” artists and writers. But they are rare.

And because they study hard subjects, how they get into these Societies is as arbitrary as how they get out of them: more often than not, all it takes for them to be scriptwriters and actors (the latter more than the former) is a chance encounter with an official or a teacher who discerns his or her penchant for the arts (because the arts, unlike science and commerce, is rather instinctive; you don’t study it, you GET it) and then takes him or her in. Such chance encounters aren’t as rare as you’d think they are, and they explain how the members of Drama Societies get in (whatever the language), but because of how condescended the Sinhala theatre is, it’s not considered a safe, veritable, worthwhile option even as a hobby once school is done with. Contrast that with how members of the English Societies come back.

We are living in a world of freelancers and one hit wonders. Our movies, which were once housed by thespians, have now partially abandoned the theatre and, like the advertising industry, begun to take in models, some of whom have no real idea about the intricacies of acting. This is not to imply that our models are unintelligent. They are not. But for the most they come with a background in photography (because the model was built to be photographed, if not filmed for a matter of seconds or minutes); the level of commitment needed for a 30-second commercial is different to the level required for a 90-minute film. Sometimes these models make the transition sleekly (think of Rithika Kodithuwakku), but in these cases they understand the medium.

What we lack isn’t just a network of practitioners and performers, but something more: a mechanism to encourage more practitioners and performers from our schools, particularly in the Big Cities. This is important because in those Big Cities the rift between those who go for hard subjects and those who opt for softer subjects has never been wider before. Such a rift can only negatively impact those who wish to indulge in a form of theatre that is at once quantitatively superior and frequently condescended. The Sinhala theatre is suffering at present, not for want of good performers and writers, but because of that accursed tendency of our schoolboys and schoolgirls to drop out once they’re done with their studies, owing to reasons I’ve sketched above. And this affects drama more than any other medium, since the theatre is one of the most expensive art forms. Debaters, novelists, and poets, in whatever language, can follow what they do even if they don’t pursue it as their careers (a debater can be a doctor, an engineer, or a scientist, for instance), while a dramatist has to expend effort on his or her work, and turn it at least into a part-time commitment.

What these reflections bring me to is a simple, potent, unassailable fact: we are haphazard, random, chaotic, and uncommitted when it comes to our local theatre. Particularly in our schools. It’s fatally easy and convenient to pinpoint certain facts and figures as the reasons for this malaise, but the truth, as always, is more diverse and multifaceted than that. In the end it’s all to do with that crude, inscrutable mixture of reverence and condescension with which we treat our own art forms.

Perhaps the irony is that we are more willing to exhibit Pirandello and Beckett and Shaw in English than in Sinhala, despite the many creative ways in which these playwrights and their works have been adapted and reworked by our producers and actors. We prefer spectacle to subtlety, and in the English theatre, within or outside our schools, we are explicit about our excitement. And let’s face it: numbers may not lie, and big numbers may be alluring, but the more people there are on a boat, the more likely it is that they will bicker, fight amongst themselves, and fall into the water. In a manner of speaking, no matter how inapt that metaphor may be, this is what’s happening to our local theatre. Inside and outside our schools.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 17 2017

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sanuka Wickramasinghe: Something of a sketch

One never really gets to a sensibility, particularly when it comes to a person who makes a profession out of his or her voice. Vocalists are sometimes too good to hate, at other times too bad to love, and frequently too mediocre, too average, to care about. Most of them, you love to hate, while others, you grow to love. Interviews, biographical sketches, profile photographs, Facebook correspondences, and text messages, not to mention phone conversations: these can capture something of a portrait with respect to such personalities. But they are not enough. To capture a sensibility, an outlook, a worldview, of such a figure, what is needed is not a sketchy pen portrait in a newspaper, but an attempt at understanding his or her sensibilities.

Sanuka Wickramasinghe is something of an enigma. Even now. His voice conveys a kind of contemporary excitement that makes it his signature, and ours. It’s not the sort of excitement which turns him into a romantic or a spurned lover or an idealist, all three of whom you see every day, everywhere, on TV and over the radio. In fact it would be a mistake to label someone like him as a romantic or a radical. His is a voice that’s chic but reverential, that’s out-there but in-here, that’s daring but guarded. His two most recent songs – both released on YouTube, both massive hits there and everywhere else – convey this strange blend of conflicting aesthetic elements, and it’s to be seen even in his lyrics. Sanuka is the New Voice, but it’s not really New. To be New there must be an Old and a rejection of the Old. Sanuka doesn’t reject it; he is downright indifferent to it. He is, and performs with, his own standards.

The male pop voice in here evolved with Neville Fernando, moved into Clarence Wijewardena, and found its way through Jothipala in the seventies, Rookantha Gunathilake in the eighties, and a horde of names in the nineties (culminating with Athma Liyanage and Sangeeth Wijesuriya on the one hand and Athula Adikari, among a great many others, on the other) before meeting the new century, the new millennium, with Bathiya and Santhush, who in turn gave way to Iraj Weerarathne and a set of pretenders who never transcend their imitativeness and hence paled away. Sanuka is the New Voice because he surpasses all these; he is no longer trying to imitate, to pay homage. He’s done that, but now he’s through with it. His “Saragaye” was, I think, the ultimate culmination, though he hasn’t stopped. It’s the most breathtaking local love song I have listened to since Kashyapa Dissanayake’s and Nelu Adikari’s “Ahasata Sonduruda”. It’s sincere, sentimental, but not sappy.

As good and popular as they were, neither Bathiya and Santhush nor Iraj had the luxury of the Web to help them reach a wider audience, because that wider audience didn’t surf online. They had their collaborators – Nilar Cassim and Wasantha Dukgannarala were their most frequently opted for lyricists – and they had their production houses. But they had to fight, and fight hard for every inch to win us over. (Tissa Abeysekera was one of the few commentators, during their time, who recognised Bathiya and Santhush for the pop revolutionaries they were, and would go out of his way to defend them.) What they fought for, they won, even if in later years they deteriorated. Sanuka comes from this line, this tradition, so to speak. He is a New Voice because he no longer makes it necessary to defy that line to gain new territory.

What’s so obvious and yet enigmatic about Sanuka is that no one understands him, or more specifically why they like him. They’re tantalisingly short of not even GETTING him. And for the record, some people don’t. They like his conception of the medium he’s in – the melodies, the vocal range, the lyrics – and he himself has pointed out in several interviews that the sleek amalgamation of all these elements is what makes him so popular, and varied, but that’s a despicably easy cop-out. Of course it’s the melody, the vocal range, and the lyrics that make up any vocalist, popular or not. What else could there be? I think the more appropriate answer is that he can paddle several genres: pop, rap, baila, even devotional. Here a brief perusal of his work, and the reactions they have gleaned, might help us get it, and get him.

If there’s an almost eternal sense of youth in Sanuka’s work it’s because he started young and is still very much young. His first real song, a tribute to his mother titled (what else?) “Amma”, debuted on YouTube in April 2011, and as of today counts in almost 60,000 views; it was followed eight months later by a cover version of “Hallelujah” and a further year and eight months later by another cover, this time of Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors”. These two were, to be sure, largely derivative, but they did open up his range, before he moved into the Great Theme of encountered love with “Mal Wiyan”, on February 2015 (it presently counts in more than 515,000 views).

An attempt at a rap single (“Oluwa Wikarayai”) was deliberately absurd but also stunning; it invited comments as positive as “I don’t know the language, but I love your style” and “You rap better than most” which compelled a return after his next effort, “Sihinaye” (shot like a commercial, and manifestly a lesser work). “His Tin” (April 2016) was also breathtakingly refreshing, if not a minor, rap single, but it’ll probably be remembered as the song that came before his first big hit, “Saragaye” (August 2016), which as of today courts more than 1,060,000 views. His next single came a year later, an unusually lengthy interval for him but one which yielded another hit: “Perawadanak”, which schoolboys and even schoolgirls I know are still swooning over. Paraphrasing those two YouTube comments, it showed that he was better than most even to those who didn’t even know his language; an achievement in itself since, after all, rap doesn’t thrive on a language (it’s formally self-referential) while pop singles do.

“Saragaye” and “Perawadanak” and even “Mal Wiyan” represent Sanuka at his best, his most appealing. They are all about encounters – short, temporary, never properly fulfilled – and they end abruptly, sometimes happily, often unhappily. “Perawadanak” isn’t even a love song: it’s a carefully crafted, promising love story that is tragically stalled midway. People like it because they’re tired of listening to the same ditties on romance again and again. They are tired of coming across lovers crooning over insurmountable, impenetrable walls (literal and metaphorical) and they are fatigued by the onslaught of cheap, unappealing music videos. They don’t want the vocalist to be his own star. Sanuka isn’t. That’s where his package is.

And that’s where his sense of mystery comes from. In an interview with one of those banal but disconcertingly popular gossip websites he has openly refused to disclose his age. He’s a teenage heartthrob, a contemporary Brian Hyland and Paul Anka: puppy love is what he’s got, and we like him all the more for it. We don’t care for how old or how young he is because we’re so enflamed by what he represents: the deepest, most potent dreams of romance we never dare to have, simply because we’ve never encountered it beyond a few glimpses. Hyland sang of a girl named Ginny he met “a couple of days ago”. That’s the kind of crisp, terse love stories Sanuka tells us. Because of that, he appeals not to youth, but to adolescence. Quite obviously, the fact that “Saragaye” spurred schoolboy bands in several schools, especially his own indicates, that we’re into something new. And someone new. Here. Now.

Photo of Sanuka by Flexus Labs

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, October 15 2017

Friday, October 13, 2017

The 'exoticisation' of our culture

Someone once noted not too long ago that modernity was the West’s way of measuring itself against the Other, the rest of the world. It was a way of assessing progress, for the most material, which is why the transition in the 17th and 18th centuries from the Inquisition to the Reformation and then to the Enlightenment is so significant. The truth is that the West, particularly continental Europe, saw a fading away of its (for the most) theological systems of thought in favour of a rational, economistic conception of the relationship between the individual and the world. Whatever the critics might say, this was founded on a Judeo-Christian tradition (as Nalin de Silva has noted, its system of logic was no less different to science and Marxism), and it would not have blossomed into the Industrial Revolution without the Inquisition or the Reformation, the latter of which, particularly through Calvin and Luther, substituted collective salvation for individual repentance.

Gandhi once offered an amusing riposte to someone who asked him as to what he thought of Western civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.” Hidden beneath the amusement and the wit was a blunt, if not brash, comment on the dichotomy between the real and the ideal at the heart of that civilisation. Those who have read Fernand Braudel will no doubt believe that all civilisations were essentially one, that the world was not always divided between China and India on the one hand and continental France and Britain on the other. True. But then differences were bound to arise, partly because of the economic strength of the latter and also because that economic strength brought about a pressing need to make comparisons, to feel superior, to exert force on the Other. Contemporary imperialism at its strongest, most insidious.

Cultural imperialism is nothing without the cultural aspect to it, and that aspect comes out most strongly with respect to how different civilisations casually demarcated as the “Other” are depicted, represented, patronised, and condescended to. Even today. The first few decades of British rule in India, before the Mutiny of 1857, involved an exchange of cultural artefacts, in fact two ways of life. The colonialist found it to his liking to be Indian, to go around town inspecting the ways of life he had intruded on, to make himself a part of the people he had invaded. It was roughly the same phenomenon that unfolded itself in Sri Lanka, with the main bone of contention here being the promise made by the invaders to protect Buddhism and act in place of the deposed King. Stewart-Mackenzie overtly made it his mission to convert our “heathens” to Christianity, thus severing the ties between State and faith. The latter part of the 19th century saw a reversal of this trend, with Sir William Gregory and Sir Arthur Gordon explicitly recognising the place of Buddhism and emphasising neutral relations between their government and our faith.

Naturally this concurrent system of condescending to and denigrating a culture, as defined by the Other, could only result in an insidious history of looting and expatriation of artefacts on the one hand and conversion and destruction of the people on the other. What was material about our way of life – the Koh-i-Noor, the Nassak Diamond, Shah Jahan’s Royal Jade Wine Cup – was what was also exotic about it, while what was superficially not material, and therefore based on ideas and ideology – faith, feudalism, casteism – was what irked the colonialist into either doing away with it altogether, by force, or (as with the caste system) transforming and then contorting it for their own benefit. How else could such a “barbaric” and “primitive” system of governance as feudalism not give way to capitalism in colonised Ceylon, and how else could the system of casteism which British intellectuals had pondered over and deplored be retained to produce a horde of brown sahibs and Nobodies and Somebodies whose lineage continues today, and who are responsible for many of the economic shortfalls we are suffering at present? How else indeed!

In Forster’s A Passage to India the British officials and their wives laugh when Mrs Moore and Miss Quested demand that they get to know Indians. Forster’s novel indicts a conception of India drawn and then shattered by the West. Quested and Moore, the latter more than the former, are bored by the Westerner’s attempts to be polite and to retain their identity amidst the natives. It’s this otherness and aloofness that explains the mixture of amusement, condescension, imitativeness, and patronage which marks much of the relationship between the Orient and the Occident. They want us, they want to overwhelm us, but they can’t because they don’t know us. Because they don’t know us, and because their economic and political strength has made it their prerogative to conquer the rest of the world, they maintain a split personality with respect to how they treat us, and in the end “exoticise” us.

A friend of mine pointed out to me recently that all politics is culture, and all culture is politics. Correct. Nothing that is cultural can be cut off from the political, the social. The Mutiny was as much a political statement as the theft of the Koh-i-Noor, and the Uva Wellassa Rebellion was as much a political statement as the destruction of the temple. They are all connected, and interconnected in diverse, intriguing ways. If one is to divide the one from the other one inadvertently conceals the many other interrelationships that make up modernity, especially those between cultural exploitation on the one hand and political exploitation on the other. It’s confusing, in a vague and indiscriminate sense, which is why making sense of the mess we’re in, and sorting out that mess, involves understanding what those interrelationships are.

Because spatial constrains prevent me from delving into them, I’ll talk about them in next week’s column. Suffice it to say that these interrelationships and even dichotomies, at their most basic, differentiate between the old and the new, not as we know them today, but as the cultural imperialists and the wagers of cultural wars identify it: a tool demarcating what is knowledge and what is not. In turn this has, as I will point out, subsisted on the notion that all knowledge is what the West has made of it, which the East can only emulate. It’s a line of thinking, sinister and prone to all sorts of mischievous extrapolations, which was there during Arthur Balfour’s time in the 19th century. It’s a line of thinking that’s found its way to modernity courtesy of realpolitik diplomacy. Arthur Balfour is dead, but his intellectual heirs live today. They continue their assessment of the Other, the Orient, based on their assumptions of what we know, and do not know, and even willingly profess ignorance about.

A perusal of Henry Kissinger’s essay “Domestic Structure and Foreign Policy”, referenced in Edward Said’s monumental book Orientalism, indicates quite clearly that, for the West, the problems of the Third World weren’t problems of exploitation, cultural or political (in any case, such a gap between those two does not exist); rather, it was a problem with the East’s inability to be accurate. All those years, decades, and centuries of oppression and looting and condescension can, for Balfour and for Kissinger, be put down to one simplistic reason: we can’t think, we can’t reason.

Why and how is this wrong? What other dichotomies does it open us to? What of the gap between modernity as defined by them and modernity as defined by us? What place has globalisation got in the midst of all these distortions? More importantly, how do we differentiate between a modernity we have no choice but to embrace and an uprooted sensibility referred to as modernity which we have to recognise and do away with? All these are pertinent, as questions and as food for thought, and they deserve more than a cursory paragraph. They deserve an entire sketch. Next week.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 13 2017

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Marching towards home: Where our children are


The second of a series of articles delving into our local theatre.

What is great about our local theatre – Sinhala and Tamil – is that it’s so relevant and contemporary. It’s always strived to extrapolate, to think beyond the present and to predict what’s out there, what’s unforeseeable. It’s not sustained by nostalgia, although there’s enough and more of that, too: one of the more inscrutable qualities about our playwrights is that they are as adamantly reverent of their veterans as they are disdainful of the conception of the medium those veterans idealised. The latter were in turn dejected sticking to one form of the theatre, which is why they absorbed from new playwrights from elsewhere and which is why we evolved rather quickly after 1956, even more so, in fact, than the cinema, which for 20 years remained with Lester James Peries, and literature, which for 10 years remained with Martin Wickramasinghe. It didn’t take long for Sarachchandra to be upended by Sugathapala de Silva, in turn to be followed by Gunawardena, Premaranjith Tilakaratne, Nawagaththegama, and Bandaranayake.

That our schoolboys idealise serious plays about serious themes and ideas which make people laugh indicates, not surprisingly, how idiosyncratic we are about the social and the personal, the relevant and the irreverent, with respect to the Sinhala theatre. In Preston Sturges’s beautiful screwball comedy Sullivan’s Travels our hero, a director of escapist, shallow musicals and comedies, defiantly leaves Hollywood to lead a life of penury so that he can direct socially relevant dramas. Along the way he meets a girl who loves comedies and in particular those directed by the hero; he questions her choices and asks whether the world has spurned comedies at a time of depression and squalor (“Don't you think with the world in its present condition, with death snarling at you from every street corner, that people are a little allergic to comedies?”), only to be given the defiant reply, “No.” Laughter is the best medicine, the only antidote, which can convey serious themes without wringing controversy. It gets us to think, to reflect, without those contortions and distortions typical of any art form when made to be facilely courageous and profound.

In terms of “ideology” we have moved beyond Sarachchandra – who stood for an ideology of moral upliftment – and Sugathapala de Silva – who stood for an ideology of commitment – and we have even passed the seventies and eighties and nineties, when Sinhala theatre was for the most the prerogative of the Left. It’s interesting to note that our generation, and today’s schoolchildren, tend to affirm and side with actors, scriptwriters, directors, and producers who can make us laugh without cutting corners. It’s not the kind of humour you come across a conventional “tea party” comedy of manners. The closest our English theatre can and does get to such a form of humour is when its own actors relapse into the vernacular, sleekly and efficiently: many of the skits in IdeaCouch’s The Garage Show contain this quality, for instance.


But then there’s humour and there’s humour, the one forced and contrived, the other natural and spontaneous. In the theatre spontaneity is almost always the consequence of preparation, not improvisation. It’s hard to improvise on stage because it’s live, not because it’s impossible, and in comedy what matters is the correct timing, the correct cue. Of the two broadly definable genres onstage, therefore, comedy is the default quality of the medium. Not because it’s greater or lesser than drama, but because it’s easier to make people laugh out of a tragedy gone wrong than it is to wring tears out of a comedy gone wrong. (In fact very few comedies ever go wrong; they are the result of either careful planning or careless miscalculation.) Humour is always felt, never expressly projected, which is why our political satires are so shallow. They always resort to the same tricks and dichotomies: the big fat nationalist versus the young, bespectacled, idealistic understudy, one which our English playwrights alludes to frequently as well.

And then there’s the issue of novelty versus banality: it’s much easier to keep audiences here transfixed on comedies and skits that obsess over the same form of slapstick (the wrong accent, the wrong costume for the wrong gender, a play-within-a-play gone horribly wrong because of miscast actors, etc.), and it’s much easier for a drama, in that sense, to become obscurantist (which, incidentally, can be said of our films too, especially our art-house avant-garde films). In the former instance what comes out is a contorted but refreshing form of novelty: we’ve seen the same slapstick routines in other plays before, but we are alright with it; in the latter instance what comes out is banality: the same themes, once reworked, induce boredom, indifference, sometimes anger.

Part of the reason why our playwrights turn political and resort to symbols and caricatures is that, obviously, they want to circumvent censorship. The more direct they are, the more likely it is that the Censor Board (a remnant of the past if ever there was one) will censure and block it. Directness is the preserve of the madly honest, and our political playwrights are for the most not mad, only honest. The capitalist is Big and Fat, the worker Thin and Sallow. (I capitalise these terms because the producers do a pretty good job of doing so onstage as well, without spelling them out overtly to audiences.) In Jayantha Chandrasiri’s Mora the titular protagonist is shot at in the end, but doesn’t die. Why? Because the truth can’t die: it survives and grows. Likewise the Dragon in Makarakshaya dies off to be replaced by the Burgomaster; we have so many dragons, but many more Burgomasters. The message is potent, but vague.

Which is why some of these symbols and caricatures evoke laughter, sometimes intentionally, often not. A few plays do, with extraordinary resolve, keep us transfixed and deeply depressed throughout – some of Bandaranayake’s plays, like Trojan Kanathawo, are like that – but they are unfortunately rare. Rajitha Dissanayake’s POLITICAL plays are more the rule than the exception here, since they subsist on a contrapuntal mixture of anger and laughter. His best intentions are undone by what those intentions lead up to, a point summed up by my friend Dhanuka Bandara: “I strongly feel that he has much more to offer, a fact that his older plays attest to.” Again, this goes back to my earlier contention: in any art form, especially in the theatre, comedy is the default form of expression, not tragedy, because tragedy is the consequence of meticulous planning, while comedy can both be planned and also undo the most carefully constructed dramas. There’s a name for this latter phenomenon, by the way: bathos.


Our schoolboys and schoolgirls believe that there’s something new and innovative and exciting about plays that make you laugh and make you think about people who live without homes and sanitation and even employment, at the same time, because they are fascinated by what’s being staged and also repelled by the way these articulate their intentions. They want something new out of what they believe is already new. They are the new purveyors, who are enamoured of what their predecessors do but want to go beyond. “For exactly what kind of play?” I asked one of these schoolboys the other day. Momentarily stymied, he finally settled on an answer: “One that involves music and dance and laughter and at the same time provokes you to think.” A play that does all that is pretty much like a film that eventually becomes a parody of its own genre, its own kind. The new theatre, which these boys idealise, is provocative but spontaneous, aware of its own falsifications but not overtly joyful about it. That conversation, incidentally, got me talking with two other boys, about the kind of plays they not only like but also write.

Both these boys had, in fact, scripted their own plays at their school (note: very few children take to scripting these days: they prefer acting, naturally I suppose). One delved into a stock tragicomic situation: a dying family elder being fought over by his prodigal sons and daughters (the undercurrents of tension and hilarity were there). The other too presented a stock situation: three men, all three two-faced and duplicitous, on a boat. But while they are, in a manner of speaking, stock, their treatment at the hands of these young scriptwriters bespeak to a higher sense of self-confidence in them: there’s no proper resolution in either production, and the fact of there not being a proper resolution compels both laughter and reflection, the amalgamation of which, as we all know, is pathos (“කරුණාරසය”). Pathos has always been fresh, current, relevant because it stands against both indifferent humour and over-the-top seriousness.

For all their intentions and efforts, however, these boys are doomed to forego on their conception of the theatre, not because they’re discouraged from engaging in those conceptions but because they’re institutionally discouraged from indulging in the theatre in the first place. There are reasons for this, clearly. Pathos has almost never been the preserve of the Wendt because the Wendites are content in being formally conservative and facilely novel, a sensibility that lacks that revolutionary, tongue-in-cheek daring to be found in your typical Sinhala stage production. It’s a new way of looking at old themes and ideas, a new way of looking at the world in fact. Why it’s so hard to come by, and why our children find it difficult to engage with it, is a completely different topic, one which I intend to explore. Next week.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 12 2017