Wednesday, December 13, 2017

'The Disaster Artist': The (un)making of a movie

“That is the worst piece of acting that has ever been put on film.”
(Doug Walker, “The Nostalgia Critic”)

“Leave your stupid comments in your pocket!”
(Greg Sestero as Mark, “The Room”)

There have always been movies that have defied easy categorisation, that have baffled, mystified, never given a clue as to their creative origins, ever since the cinema came into existence, but none of them has the charm, the touch of overblown sincerity, that Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has. It’s gloriously funny when it shouldn’t be, and it falls back on its own sincerity so much that your sides don’t ache, they split. You don’t believe that a film like this can exist – or for that matter, that it could have been conceived at all – which is when you turn to look at its actors, production crews, and of course, director. Made for six million dollars, it ran at the box-office and recouped all of 1,800. That’s when the producers decided to change their tactics: by marketing the film as Mystery Science Theatre delicatessen. No American film before it, not even Ed Wood’s incongruous forays into transvestism (Glen or Glenda) and science fiction (Plan 9 From Outer Space), had found audiences this way. Its impact was immediate, which is why it’s not really a cult movie. Cult movies take time to attain their status. Tommy Wiseau didn’t have to wait for long like that. He got what was due just weeks after he released it.

Wiseau belongs to a set of artists whose peculiar careers and creative imaginings can be traced to the poetry of William McGonagall, the novels of Amanda McKittrick Ros, the operas of Florence Forster Jenkins, and the cinematic monstrosities of Ed Wood. They have no real back-story, their origins can’t be determined with any certainty, but in their work we come across (paraphrasing Aldous Huxley) the discovery of art by unsophisticated minds. Their consciousness of their own greatness is at odds with our awareness of their lack of it. So imaginatively resolved they are that they remain oblivious to their reception by critics and general audiences. Tommy Wiseau is a 21st century’s equivalent of McGonagall, Ros, and Ed Wood. His film is what one person described as being designed by an alien. That term describes Wiseau aptly because to this day, no one knows where he came from. And now Greg Sestero tries to address this issue in The Disaster Artist, his account of the making, if not unmaking, of The Room.

It’s a neat little big book, to the point, never off the mark, fleshed out, never in a hurry. Sestero was involved with The Room even before it was planned out. He was, as those who’ve seen the film would know, Mark, the best friend turned betrayer to the protagonist, Johnny, played by Wiseau himself (who, in addition to directing and producing it, wrote it as well). The Room is an intensely personal work of art in a way that Ed Wood’s films and Amanda Ros’s novels were not, which is why Sestero, who has known Wiseau far longer than anyone involved with the movie, is the best person to write on him. The Disaster Artist hence follows two storylines: his involvement with its production, and his biography, right from the point that his decision to become a model and an actor got him to meet the man who (as he informs us candidly) made him realise what a mixed blessing the resolve to become who you wanted to become could be.

The quotes that preface each chapter keep apart and also curiously together these two storylines: quotes from Sunset Blvd for Sestero’s personal encounters, quotes from The Talented Mr Ripley for his experiences with Wiseau and the making of The Room. Both these films were, to be sure, about pretenders and hacks who aspire to be more than who they are, but while Sunset Blvd is about a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who senses opportunity in an ageing star hoping to make a comeback, Ripley is about an ambitious, insecure conman who takes on identities of people who teeter between anger and infatuation (like Dickie Greenleaf, played by Jude Law). It’s a terse, but appropriate, device: the chapters with Sestero’s life experiences reflect our image of him as a desperate artist, while the chapters of his run-ins and encounters aboard The Room reflect our image of him as an accomplice to a disaster artist. He’s the other half to a man he barely knows about; the only friend to someone who might as well be a nobody. But they are connected: Sestero’s own life, his own hankering after a career in the movies, echoes Wiseau’s own aspirations in the industry. The two are, and remain, the same.

Sestero’s story begins when, at the age of 12, he posts a letter to John Hughes over Home Alone; not a congratulatory missive, but a lovingly detailed script for what he hopes will be its sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in Disney World. Hughes must have read it, because a month later he mails back: “Believe in yourself.” The screenplay isn’t taken up though: it comes back with the reply. (Perhaps the idea of Kevin McCallister being LOST, as opposed to being left alone in his own home, appealed to the man, since Home Alone 2 would have him running around New York.) It’s this letter that starts Sestero’s journey, despite the protestations of his mother (“We get along and have always got alone, save for one key area: my choice of career”) and the insecurities which are fuelled by the various agencies that call him, drop him, call him again, then cut off all contact with him.

The entertainment industry operates on the few who can make it and the many who can’t. Sestero’s first few experiences aboard the industry – from the acting classes at the American Conservatory Theatre to the desperate last minute calls to various agencies – hence don’t fit the bill of the from-rags-to-riches narrative we’re used to when it comes to such actors and stars. Disillusioned by his diminishing prospects, at especially at the Theatre, he then finds himself in San Francisco, where he enrols in acting classes by Jean Shelton, in the Shelton Studios, which had previously tutored Danny Glover. Sestero hopes to find another Glover, another role model to look up to and emulate. Instead he finds a “half comic book character, half hair-metal icon.” Tommy Wiseau’s most distinctive feature is his hair: dishevelled, idiosyncratic, ubiquitous. Together with his heavy accent, it reveals his lack of any proper origin.

And part of the reason, if not the only reason, for that mystery is the fact that Wiseau has always been careful to not reveal his story, to anyone. But beneath his enigmatic personality is a generous spirit, as Sestero makes it clear: not only does Wiseau lavish gift after gift on him, he even takes him in to his (expensive) apartment in Los Angeles, where he hopes to make a comeback in the theatre along with business (in the fashion industry, though how he started there and prospered, heavily, we are never told). And yet this generous spirit comes at a price: he’s so tempestuous, so prone to fits of temper, that at one moment he’s overly friendly and the very next he’s grasping, demanding, angry.

He is Dickie Greenleaf incarnate, a comparison that Sestero and another friend of his make, unnervingly, one night when they watch Ripley. At one crucial juncture it seems as though those fits and tempers are overwhelming enough for Wiseau to consider throwing him out, but if he ever did consider that we are never told why. Sestero openly wonders: is it because he’s jealous, or because he expects his pound of flesh in return for his generosity? It’s a slow moving drama, and it echoes, in many respects, The Room itself.

Most films have a tendency of making you want to see them again because a second or even third viewing helps you spot the weaknesses and the strengths and the mechanics more clearly. You don’t go to watch The Room the second or third time because of that. You go to watch it because its weaknesses, and even relative strengths (the few scenes of conviction), are astoundingly quirky and simply can’t be rationalised. Any attempt at making sense of the film will fail, because no one can get beyond its awful sincerity.

There’s no doubt (and The Disaster Artist makes this clear) that in The Room Tommy Wiseau was attempting at a fusion (of sorts) between Tennessee Williams and James Dean, the two archetypes of American post-war teenage angst. Sestero points out at his love for the American cinema, even when he seemed to get the movies he watched garbled up (at one point he tells Sestero that with his beard he looks like Spartacus, but Kirk Douglas never sports a beard or a moustache in Kubrick’s film). Adolescent angst, the alienation of the individual from his surroundings, the cruelty of the family, the heroism of the defeated: these were the themes that intrigued Wiseau, themes that he tried to transplant, but failed to, with The Room. Perhaps his fascination with the youthful Sestero was rooted in his obsession with Dean. He looked up to the latter heavily, which explains why he borrowed Dean’s line from East of Eden and, in his film’s most memorable scene, cries out to his indifferent girlfriend, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”

And in seeing himself as an original artist, an auteur, if you can put it that way, he aspired for nothing less than the red carpet and the Academy Awards. He consequently spared no expense over its production: He hired, rather than rented (which is what even the most endowed directors do), all his equipment; his purchases included both a 35mm film camera and a high-definition camera, “probably the most wasteful and pointless aspect of The Room’s production,” as Sestero notes; he kept on hiring and firing script supervisors and directors of photography and actors and making it appear as if his overbearing sense of contempt for his cast and crew was his privilege; he used artificial sets when a real alleyway would have done; he oversaw exterior shots across San Francisco without a permit (which ended up with a tense encounter with a police officer); and he mounted a strange but expensive guerrilla marketing campaign which included a poster of himself, a headshot with his face lowered, his lips pursed, and his eyes filled with furious, almost otherworldly emptiness (“I’m not sure whether I’ve seen a movie billboard that did less to communicate what the move it was ostensibly advertising was about”). He promised the people a movie they could enjoy. To his credit, he did well on his promise: The Room was marketed gradually as a self-parody, and it worked. The people didn’t just grow to like it but virtually grew on it: overnight they began organising private screenings, getting dressed up as their favourite characters and getting ready to mock its many idiosyncrasies, including its less-than-sagacious use of framed spoon pictures.

Sestero’s easy prose helps when he’s being witty and sarcastic, but it also helps when he’s portraying a sympathetic, poignant portrait of his friend. There obviously have been people who have befriended out-of-this-world and wacky and self-definable quirks, but Sestero is perhaps the only one who has written about one of them with such restraint. He’s not a Christina Crawford smearing an abusive parental figure, he’s not a disgruntled, alienated worker bemoaning his employer; he’s a fairly well-to-do but very much young actor who looks at life and all its slings and arrows with expectation and equanimity. His friendship with Wiseau, consequently, doesn’t suffer from one-dimensional rants and raves. When he temporarily loses that friendship, when Wiseau makes suggestive remarks about throwing him out of his apartment, he doesn’t get angry with the man, he gets frightened (“I started looking for a new apartment that night”).

In the end, when he provides us with a possible back-story on Wiseau, he indulges in the only fictional section in his narrative. Fictional, that is, in part: the man’s rise in the world of business, before he was discovered by Sestero, is a forever unresolved issue, so much so that what we might need is conjecture: the sort that conjures up the man as an escapee from the Soviet Bloc, who rises up as a waiter and later an immigrant in America before deciding on trying his luck with the most American of all the arts, the movies. Here both the writer and his friend come together: the one as a Joe Gillis (Sunset Blvd) who clings on to hope, to expectation, in the form of a deluded, self-defined artist; the other as a Dickie Greenleaf who is amused at his new friend but wants to control him, to force him to be his sidekick and later throw him away. The only difference here, of course, is that life wouldn’t have been so dramatic for Joe Gillis and Dickie Greenleaf if they were real characters. Life isn’t always so dramatic, period, which is why Sestero’s soliloquies, reflecting pain, worry, a lack of fulfilment, and sometimes a combination of all of them, and Wiseau’s Greenleaf-like, inconsolable rants and raves, are temporary and intermittent: just when you think their relationship will break down, they are reconciled. And when that relationship is about to break for good, our moody friend has a premonition, an apotheosis as one may call it, and decides to direct his own film. It’s here, in Chapter 14, that the two storylines in the book finally come together.

In an article written for The Atlantic (“Should Gloriously Terrible Movies like The Room be considered ‘outside art’?”), Adam Rosen contends that unlike most films considered bad and distasteful (like Caligula or the Friedberg-Seltzer spoofs from Epic Movie to Scary Movie), The Room’s sense of absurdity is centred on the director. It’s a solitary vision that transforms kitsch into enjoyable, campy art, like the vision that went into Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 From Outer Space, and unlike the vision that goes into those terrible parody films of today. The difference between a horrendously wacky work like Sharknado (and its sequels) and a merely bad and distasteful product like Scary Movie is films like the latter are always made to evoke responses from a specific audience. Sharknado is gloriously hilarious but we needn’t have come from such an audience to enjoy it; we could have been anybody, hailing from any demographic. But Sharknado was made to be aware of its limitations, because that was an integral part of its fun. The Room transcends even that and becomes its own standard. The director is no longer aware of how unsubtle he and it are. He believes that he is so great, so much an auteur, that whatever he makes inspire can only love or envy. Criticism is inconceivable, spite is not.

This obsession over dichotomies – between love and hate, good and evil, loyalty and treachery – found its way to The Room. There’s little doubt that Wiseau always intended to feature himself as the protagonist, though we aren’t so certain as to whether he wrote the character of Mark with Sestero in mind (after all he never cast his friend right away in that role; it was originally given to another actor called Dan, with Sestero put into the production crew, before he was deliberately fired by forcing him to leave in such a way that it seemed that Wiseau was in the right). “Be very afraid, people,” Doug Walker informs us in his Nostalgia Critic review as he realises that the man is the star, the executive producer, the writer, and the director: because it’s a personal work of art that is rooted in an imaginary personal story. The love triangle never truly existed (Sestero’s portrait of his friend as sexually indifferent attests to that). It was used to project the heroism of an actor who wanted so badly to be a Tennessee Williams, a James Dean.

Directed by James Franco, and starring him (as Wiseau) and his brother Dave (as Sestero) along with Zac Efron (as the only “convincing” actor in The Room, Dan Janjigian, who plays the drug dealer Chris-R who, as with all other secondary characters in that film, disappears inexplicably), an adaptation of The Disaster Artist was released this December. What its merits are will be considered in another review, so for now let me conclude by putting down what I learnt from Wiseau’s movie: that in making an idiosyncratic work of art, he got us to respond to it as one-dimensionally as his story. As Sestero makes it perfectly clear in his moving account, “It wasn’t often that you got to see a man whose dream was literally about to come.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, December 3 and 10 2017

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Punya Heendeniya and the cinema of femininity

“He was a rich man now,” she hesitantly uttered in Gamperaliya, thus setting down the confusions and conflicts and shifts of temper that would adorn the first honestly conceived Sinhala film made. The man who taught her English in that sequence, conducting lessons under her mother’s watchful gaze, aspired to be that rich man, and for the entirety of the film he hoped to win her by gaining the wealth that his education would bring. She on her part gave the impression that she was no more than a submissive receptacle, never capable of any free will, and yet it was because of her submissiveness, her lack of a proper character, that the men and women who figured in her life changed. In the very first scene of Gamperaliya Lester James Peries said everything that he wanted to say in this respect, and in so doing he went for the perfect couple: the English teacher was Henry Jayasena, the student Punya Heendeniya.

In the history of the Sinhala cinema women have typically been portrayed as either the objectified fantasies of men they were supposed to be, in which case they were paragons of virtue, or the vamps, the seducers, the rebels they were taught all their lives not to be, in which case they were confused prodigals. Beginning with Rukmani Devi, the female figure almost always embodied goodness, but when she lapsed, when she went wayward, the hero and the star was there to rescue her. The first 20 years of our cinema, right after 1947, saw this kind of woman before the arrival of Malini Fonseka, who in Punchi Baba and Akkara Paha began playing to the fantasies of men by alluring them. The women of our cinema had existed to be rescued and redeemed by their lovers. It was with Malini that we saw a qualitatively different woman.

Between Rukmani and Malini, occupying a twilight world, we see Punya Heendeniya. Punya entered the industry towards the latter part of the fifties as an idealised woman because Rukmani Devi, who herself was idealised, though as a more tragic figure, was situated in a largely urban and sophisticated setting. Punya figured in quite a different milieu: the rural Sinhala Buddhist bourgeoisie, who gained more prominence after 1956 and the election of Bandaranaike. In the films of L. S. Ramachandran – Deiyange Rate, Kurulubedda, Sikuru Tharuwa – we see the emergence and the empowerment in our cinema of this rural bourgeoisie, along with the myths that they affirmed and in a way symbolised. They all played around with variations of the conventional morality play, pitting good against evil and derived from the female goodness and male heroism which our culture (largely Sinhala and Buddhist) epitomised. Women were never allowed, in the early days, to a watch a gammaduwa up close, nor were they allowed to don the headgear and go through the Ves Mangalya as they do today. That was at one level misogynistic, and was born in part from a culture of male protectiveness. The myth of female goodness derives for the most from this culture of protectiveness, and in Punya, who was featured in all those three movies, our storytellers found the archetype to square with that cultural sensibility.

The outlook that was articulated and reflected in Deiyange Rate, Kurulubedda, and Sikuru Tharuwa was manifestly informed by the outlook of the Colombo Poets, who, while residing in Colombo, were obsessed with life outside the city. The village, to these poets (who were shaped by the Lake Poets of 19th century England), was the ultimate salvation of their country, their race. As opposed to the Peradeniya poets and novelists, who preferred a Westernised conception of literature, with the individualist, psychological subjectivity of D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, their counterparts in Colombo inadvertently borrowed from the early English theatre (that influenced the novels of Samuel Richardson) and placed the rural Sinhala Buddhist bourgeoisie and peasantry on the stereotypes of that early morality theatre: the young hero, the ageing villain, the good girl. All three films depicted and placed Punya as that good girl.

In these movies, she consequently privileges tradition over individuality, and gradually becomes bereft of a personality. Ediriweera Sarachchandra in The Sinhalese Novel (which bolstered Martin Wickramasinghe’s reputation) contended that the only characteristic of Nanda, from Gamperaliya, was her lack of any vivid character. She only existed to listen to her elders, to willingly reject any outside intrusions and step in line with the accepted authority. Gamperaliya was a more realistic, and thus a more multifarious, depiction of that obedient woman; Kurulubedda, which got praised so lavishly by Sinhalese critics (particularly those like Jayawilal Wilegoda) that it was erroneously considered the first real Sinhala film (instead of Rekava), wasn’t multifarious this way. The women in it existed in a dichotomised world, between good and evil, submission and rebellion: in short, the past and the future.

It was a Colombo poet who scripted these films, incidentally: P. K. D. Seneviratne, acknowledged by Lester James Peries as probably the only man at the time who wrote original movie scripts. He attributed to Punya’s characters an emotional resonance and spirit of resilience which could easily be squared with the triumph of moral goodness within her. Punya was a beauty, but never overly and superficially adorned: she was more a simple village damsel than the cosmetic nightingale that Rukmani Devi had been, and continued to be. She gave the impression of being fragile, of being open to exploitation, but because of her moral standing she warded off every and any obstacle that beset her (particularly in Sikuru Tharuwa, where she wards off the advances of the lascivious vel vidane played by D. R. Nanayakkara).

Her career was never as prolific and versatile as that of her contemporaries, but I’d like to think this was more a strength than a weakness on her part. In an industry where men were said to make the moves – long before Nadeeka Gunasekara, Swarna Mallawarachchi, and Anoja Weerasinghe came forward and, in the films they were in, repudiated the patriarchy inherent in their field – being a prolific actress could have diluted her image of the perennially optimistic and tradition bound woman. We needed her at this juncture (the sixties) because, while her characters seem rather overly optimistic and hopeful today, they help explain, and also reflect, the subtle ways in which culture and cinema cross each other’s paths even in a society where the movies are still derided as a Western import (like ours). Ramachandran’s Deiyange Rate, an adaptation of the W. A. Silva novel, was a watershed in this respect.

Peries did away with the need to bifurcate our women – between goodhearted lovers on the one hand and unredeemable vamps on the other – with Gamperaliya. I wrote before that in Lester we come across our first filmmaker who raised flak and earned praise from every quarter in our critical fraternity. That was because he was uncompromising in his attempts to peel away the false and the tawdry, the remnants of the past, which the Sinhala cinema thrived on. If Gamperaliya seems too slow paced today (especially to those who have short attention spans) it’s because no one can match his meticulous attention to visual detail. To a considerable extent this was true of his depiction of the two main women in the story: the Kaisaruvatte sisters, Nanda and Anula. In Punya he had found the perfect embodiment of rural innocence, but he never forced her to become one-dimensional the way she had been earlier. What this compelled, subsequently, was an amalgamation of sensibilities between the realist in Lester and the romantic in Seneviratne. The two would amalgamate in Ran Salu.

Kurulubedda was celebrated as the first real Sinhala film, erroneously, even though it was inspired by the visual loveliness of Rekava. Ran Salu, which is set against the urban bourgeoisie, in Colombo 7, was in that sense inspired by the milieu that was depicted in Delovak Athara, with roughly the same cast (Irangani Serasinghe, J. B. L. Gunasekara, Tony Ranasinghe). Laleen Jayamanne in her book Toward Cinema and Its Double implies that in Ran Salu we see the authorial intervention of Peries in the story’s transformation of the innocent village girl to an innocent Colombo 7 girl. But that wasn’t really Peries, because as he himself said frequently, he had no actual control over the plot: it was Seneviratne himself who had wanted to turn Punya into an urbanised version of the village damsel she had played before. Lester’s film is an inversion of the modernist paradigm of getting the city to assimilate the village; Punya’s character, Sujatha, well to do and complacent, sees the futility of such a thing and tries to achieve the opposite. Again, we see here that thin line between submission and rebellion, in turn reflected by the line between the past and the future. The past is idealised, poetically and in almost unrealistic ways, while the future is demonised (the antagonist, Cyril, who is engaged to Sujatha, dreams of such a future in England: he tells her father that he is disgusted by betel-chewing villagers). Unlike Seneviratne’s previous forays, here goodness and badness are not concentrated in the village, but are instead split between the rural and the urban: the former epitomised by Dayananda Gunadawardena as Senaka, the latter by Tony Ranasinghe as Cyril. Her implied engagement to the former at the end, which subverts our expectations of her taking to the life of a nun, repudiates any image we would have entertained of her giving up her upbringing for the religious. Punya remained moored to the secular world, as a harbinger of moral goodness: a secular life of explicit devotion.

After her departure to Africa and later to England, with her husband, she returned to the cinema to play a different woman: the Nanda of Kaliyugaya. We see a shattering of the idealisms of her youth here; all that’s left is a shell-shocked, sterile, empty life. But one role was never enough, which is why, even today, as I look through all her performances, she remains the finest tribute to rural femininity we could have had. The cinema of rural femininity, in Sri Lanka that is, consequently belongs to her.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The children of the children: The culture of envy

It’s convenient now and then to root our collective, national incapacity for something, anything, in our (real or imagined) feelings of cultural inferiority. Not just convenient, but also justifiable, given our harrowing trysts with colonialism. But what is convenient and justifiable emotionally and in terms of rhetoric isn’t always what is true and what should be true. That is why we have to move on, though not at the cost of forgetting what decades and centuries of black-and-white exploitation left us with: a ramshackle economy which never took off thanks in large part to the inability of the colonial (and post-colonial) bourgeoisie to transform it into an industrialised society. Our bourgeoisie are modernists only when it comes to their ability to emulate superficially the Occident. They’ll probably be surprised to learn that Anagarika Dharmapala, whom they vilify using all sorts of expletives and what-not today, was more of a modernist than them.

I believe that a firm engagement with history, its pluses and minuses, its flattering and less than flattering facets, is what makes for the blooming and nurturing of a cultural sensibility. In Sri Lanka that sensibility never really endured for long, considerably owing to the fact that we are, after all, still a post-colonial society. Our filmmakers and artists are wont to describing our society as post-war, but in this they are only partly correct: neither the war, nor the efforts made at building bridges after the war, can conceal the inexorable culture of apathy on the one hand and elitism on the other hand which our bourgeoisie continues to stand for. And affirm. The emergence of an alternative education system in the late 70s and 80s is, I rather suspect, a good indication of that culture. For the fact of the matter is, and I am being quite blunt here, that the rise and proliferation of private, international schools was a vague result of the emergence of a swabasha education sector after 1956. The one necessitated the other through English.

It has been said of the Israel that its founding fathers (and mothers) were idealists, while those who were chosen to lead it after their demise were the realists. I suppose the same can be said of other incidents in history, including the founding of the United States, with the truism that ideals are always tempered by disenchantment. The aborted project that was 1956, which we can trace to the writings of Dharmapala and also, faintly, in the Buddhist Renaissance brought about by the Theosophists, empowered one generation, a generation who were already vassals to an education system which privileged entrance to the Civil Service as the only mark of distinction in society that mattered. The irony is that our elite sent their children to Oxford and Cambridge for the sole purpose of entering that Civil Service, and not for anything that was nationally, economically, productive. (Part of the reason why P. de S. Kularatne returned to Sri Lanka to act as Principal at Ananda College was his realisation that the British were less interested in the Civil Service he himself hoped to enter than his own countrymen.)

The rift which existed before 1956 was largely economic but also determined by language, specifically English. In his book on the LSSP, Working Underground, Regi Siriwardena observes that in colonial society the latter sometimes overrode the former to such an extent that even the middle class, bereft of privilege and occupying an intermediate position between the haves and have-nots, were able to rise socially. A revolution, cultural or political, is decided at the outset by this intermediate class, who enjoyed the benefits of a median position without the inhibitions and deficiencies that visited the elite and the multitude equally. Siriwardena became our foremost critic, translating our cultural sphere to the patrons of the Lionel Wendt and our English Departments despite his inability to wield Sinhala, the language of the 1956 revolution, properly. But this intermediate position wasn’t filled only by those who spoke and wrote in English. It was also filled by the rural and the urban Sinhala Only bourgeoisie. They would elect Bandaranaike as the idealists, while their children would become the realists.

The dichotomy between the ideal and the real in our cultural and political spheres this point reveals is important because, carried away by the world of social empowerment that the Bandaranaike government promised would open to the Sinhala Only bourgeoisie, the idealistic elders educated their later-to-be pragmatic children in the vernacular, forgetting, or choosing to ignore, the fact that what transpired in 1956 was the substitution for the hitherto existing class discrepancies of a more insidious form of elitism. The social rifts which prevailed until then were bottled up, repressed in fact, until what resulted was a culture of envy (as I pointed out last week). A key element of this new culture of envy was the inability of those who had been promised rice from the moon to comprehend the alternate space that the English intelligentsia carved for themselves here. The latter lacked the numbers, but what they lacked in numbers was compensated for by their sway over policy. They became the policy elite: Michael Young’s technocrats.

And in seeing the hegemony that these new elites and their offspring wallowed in, the empowered ones found themselves quickly to be disempowered and disarmed. They were the insurrectionists who had felt betrayed by a largely obsolete left movement. They attempted to abort elected governments in 1971 and 1988, the former largely drawn from our universities and the latter from the rural, political South. (It’s interesting to note here that many of those who led the 1971 insurrection, and were later rehabilitated, remained JVP’ers while partaking of the NGO sphere that invaded the country in the eighties. Some of these former insurrectionists have today become apologists for whatever government spouts their rhetoric of federalism and devolution.) Being largely rural and pragmatic they would have realised the follies of their elders who had elected for swabasha in 1956. Being insurrectionists they would have confused the follies of their elders for an excuse, on their part, to discern each and every organ of the State – including the judiciary and the education sector – as an arm of a rightwing status quo.

The fringe movement of the JVP has always been that party’s most vocal, committed, and eloquent crusader against the intrusion of the private sphere on the public. But in being radicals they were unable to fully become the pragmatists that the Sinhala Only middle class and bourgeoisie were, because while the Sinhala Only peasantry became disenchanted and turned into crusaders, the former forewent on their fidelity to the rhetoric of 1956 and embraced the same uprooted, neither-here-nor-there lifestyle that their parents had heard Dharmapala condemn. We are a nation of imitators because the colonial bourgeoisie are still in power. When we see them emulate the West thinking that the West is best, we want to emulate them because in that act of emulation we are guaranteed social upliftment. So when our education sector was opened to the private sphere in the eighties, with the establishment of international schools, the children of the children of 1956, who hailed from the Sinhala Only middle class, embraced them. They had been educated in the vernacular. Owing to the feelings of insecurity this compelled in them, they chose to send their children, not to the bastions of vernacular education their elders had idealised, but to the institutions of privilege those elders had decried.

The international school system in Sri Lanka was initially divided into two broad categories: the elite schools that catered to the children of diplomats and other top-ranking professionals, and the budget schools that catered to the middle class. The latter made and continues to make good business sense because, in stark contrast to the former, they were targeted not at a specific market segment but at an entire sensibility: the sensibility that had grown tired of the Sinhala Only rhetoric of the Bandaranaike years. They had studied in Sinhala and had come to know how lowly they were regarded by their better off countrymen. So they sent their children, thinking and hoping that those children would not meet the fate they had. This class still flourishes because there is always a middle class that studied in the vernacular, who wish to see their children acquire the privileges that English and a Westernised education bring.

But then the international school system, which had before bifurcated between the elitist institutions on the one hand and the budget institutions on the other, splintered off to yet another category, this one comprising of institutions which were set up everywhere, on an ad-hoc basis, because (to this date) private and international schools are not monitored by the State. The milieu that patronises these new international schools do not approximate to the middle class that earlier sent their offspring to the budget institutions. They belong to a more ruralised, less ambitious, but nevertheless pragmatic milieu, whose knowledge of English is far less than that of the post-1956 Sinhala Only bourgeoisie. This makes good business sense because these new schools are staffed by teachers who are paid more relative to the state sector and because their standards, or the lack thereof, are never questioned by their intended customers (who after all can’t spot out the mistakes in the curriculum their children are taught).

All these leave much to reflect on. What that is, however, I will get to next week.

Written for: Daily Mirror, December 8 2017

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Cyril Wickramage: The man from Kohilagedara

In Ananda Abeynayake’s Kande Gedara (scripted by Somaweera Senanayake) there is a servant to the two protagonists who is casually referred to as “Kalagune” (for what reason, we are never told). The protagonists, an ageing couple (the father, played by Rohana Baddage, is placid and friendly, tolerant of everyone, including his wife, played by Ramya Wanigasekara, who’s more hostile and grasping, more careful with the family fortunes), have three indulgent children, one of whom has a conniving father-in-law who, acting above his station in life, garbles up his Sinhala and English drunkenly and calls this servant Karl. This father-in-law, played by Cyril Wickramage, is a distillation of every tragicomic aspect to the story. A conman who’s almost caught more than once, he gives the impression of being a well-meaning, unapologetic, expert trickster, and he is: more frail than evil, more misguided than misunderstood. Probably no other actor could have depicted him so well back then.

Cyril Wickramage is what one can call an instinctive actor. In performance after performance he makes you think he’s giving less than what he has. But he never does. Just when you think he’ll stop displaying those hysterics and emotional outbursts he’s very much capable of, he instead does something intensely cathartic. It happened in Sath Samudura, one of his first films, and it happened again in Bambaru Avith 10 years later. In both he realises the futility of loving a woman who can never love him back, and in both rants and raves against his fate and then triumphs over life, and the need to seek commiseration for his sorrows, by sailing and diving, literally, to his death. That’s his niche: his outbursts are enough to convince us that he’s distraught or unhappy or (as Kande Gedara showed) crafty, but never to the extent where we believe him to be a stereotypical talker or faker. He is what his instincts have us believe of him.

And to a considerable extent, those instincts came to him from his childhood, one that was spent in the village and away from the metropolis. Born in Kohilagedara in the Kurunegala District on January 26, 1932, he grew up on a diet of Sokari, Nurti, and Nadagam, patronising them as drama troupe after troupe travelled from Negombo to his hometown. “We watched and revelled in them. During Avurudu we’d look forward to Nurti plays. No, we never dreamt of becoming actors, onstage or onscreen, but my friends and I made these outings an integral part of our common experience. We watched them for the fun of watching them, to be honest.” That was the kind of encounters which Joe Abeywickrama, in Ratnapura, would indulge in. Like Abeywickrama, Cyril didn’t get to watch a great many movies: “There was the Imperial Theatre in Kurunegala town. We didn’t see English films, only the Sinhala and Tamil ones.” He was about 15 when the Minerva Players made and released Kadawunu Poronduwa. (Perhaps it was the symbiotic relationship between these and the Nurtis he looked forward to that appealed to him.)

But it wasn’t acting that got to him as a career: it was teaching. Having flirted with the idea of joining the Army (which children his age usually fantasised about), he qualified from the Peradeniya Training College after a two year course. Thereafter he was employed at various institutions, including the Ratmalana Deaf School and Wesley College, Colombo. All in all he would have taught at seven such schools, and all of them got him deep into not just teaching, but also another field that was linked to his childhood encounters onstage: music. “I mastered the violin and later dancing during those years. And of all the schools I taught at, it was Wesley that got me thinking seriously about acting.” The latter school got him into contact with Ananda Samarakoon, who had come to watch a play, had seen Wickramage, and had beckoned him to the theatre.

While he was interested in the theatre at the time, however, it was the cinema which initiated him properly into the performing arts, when in 1965 he was cast opposite Vijitha Mallika in Kingsley Rajapakse’s Handapane. A minor role, it won him praise from those who knew him, including his colleagues, which paid dividends a year later when Siri Gunasinghe cast him opposite Swarna Mallawarachchi, Edmund Wijesinghe, and Somasiri Dehipitiya in Sath Samudura. What I like most about Gunasinghe’s film, apart from its fidelity to a milieu that only documentary makers had explored before in our cinema, was its preference for silence and introspection over wordy conversations. In large part that was exemplified in the sequences with Wickramage’s character Gunadasa, who hankers after a woman who can never have him, fights with a brother and an insensitive sister-in-law (Mallawarachchi in her first outing), and is loved only by the mother (Denawaka Hamine). Wickramage had grown up on the verbal barrages of the Nurti theatre. The film and roles he clinched were worlds away from those barrages.

To this end two people figured in his subsequent career: Dr Linus Dissanayake, the producer of Sath Samudura, and Dharmasena Pathiraja, who cast him in nearly every film of his from Ahas Gawwa. Aboard Sath Samudura as an Assistant Director was Vasantha Obeyesekere, who together with Dissanayake made his first film, Ves Gaththo, in 1970. I have unfortunately not seen Ves Gaththo, but I do know that the theme it tackled – the rift between education and employability – was tackled and realised more vividly in his second film, Valmath Wuwo. Both these featured Wickramage and the latter of them had him perform a Nadagam song, probably a tribute to the plays he had watched as a child. Meanwhile, a second collaboration with Dissanayake resulted in Wickramage’s first directorial venture: Sihina Lowak, a love story that more than anything else is remembered for the Amaradeva-Mahagama Sekara classic, “Ma Mala Pasu.” An even bigger set of collaborations would follow with Dharmasena Pathiraja.

Pathiraja, in Bambaru Avith, cast Wickramage as an almost inverted version of Gunadasa from Sath Samudura: now more assertive, more brutal. Even though the plot doesn’t let us in on why he resents the antihero, Victor (Vijaya Kumaratunga), it is manifestly clear that he seethes with anger and jealousy when Helen (Malini Fonseka) falls in love with him. It may well be that Wickramage’s character (also called Cyril) can’t reciprocate Helen’s love for him the way that Victor can; or it may well be that there’s a political subtext, with Cyril’s milieu militating against Victor’s on the personal plane (sexual politics, after all, is politics). Either way, his love for the woman who rejects him blinds and in the end consumes him (we are not made to see whether he commits suicide, or whether he’s killed off by one of Victor’s goons), and also provokes the final tragic encounter in the film: between Victor and his enemy, the feudalistic Anton aiya (Joe Abeywickrama), killed off (again) by one of the former’s goons (Daya Tennakoon).

With Pathiraja, as one can see from the roles he was chosen for, he was cast in a different mould. Not surprisingly, Wickramage remembers the man with sincere delight. “No other director tried to weed out the false and romantic from his films as he did, I can tell you that. He came from the village, very much like I did, but he was adept at depicting the urban youth. He was in fact fascinated by how the city was being invaded and assailed by the village and how the city in turn tried to assimilate the village to its values. To this end he was faithful in his depictions of both locales. Other directors went for their share of criticism when it came to the settings and backdrops of their movies. Not Pathiraja.”

So when television came to Sri Lanka, and Wickramage was selected to play various secondary characters in our first TV serials, Pathiraja was there with him. I have not seen Wickramage in some of these serials, including La Hiru Dahasak (reputedly Sri Lanka’s second after Dimuthu Muthu), Sasara Sayuren (which won for him a Best Actor Award from Wijeya Newspapers), and even Manik Nadiya Gala Basi (where he’s a gem merchant consumed by idealism first and later greed and envy), but I have seen him in Kande Gedara, Alle Langa Walawwa, and Kadulla, the latter two of which trace the subtle interrelationships between the colonial bourgeoisie and the village peasantry and both of which were directed by Pathiraja. In Alla Langa Walawwa especially, which gives the impression of being made indifferently, in a hurry, he’s the centre that holds the narrative together as the manservant Appu Hamy, despite its various meanderings and confusions that culminate in what I consider to be a less than satisfactory ending.

As he mellowed, Cyril Wickramage let go of his youthful avatar and became the sagacious, empathetic man of few words. While he decries contemporary television shows, for instance, he is nevertheless a character actor in them, usually playing out the role of the friendly, concerned elder. He never speaks more than he has to, and never being wont to emotional outbursts he’s caught our attention as a side player in ways that youth can’t really exude and match. This makes his admiration for Marlon Brando (“Brando was the only real actor in a Shakespearean cast in the 1953 adaptation of Julius Caesar,” he told me frankly) all the more mystifying. He’s certainly no Brando, and he is, as I pointed out to a friend of mine around a year ago, as far away from the cinema of brawn as Gregory Peck was from John Wayne, if we are to take a metaphor and point of comparison from the American cinema of the fifties: the decade in which he bloomed.

Written for: Daily Mirror, December 7 2017

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Malini Fonseka: The girl grows up

The line between emotional authenticity and contrived melodrama has been so thin that even our best actors can’t resist crossing it. If it’s surprising to come across Ranjan Ramanayake in as atypical a performance as the youngest son in Awaragira, or the father to the Gautama Buddha in Siddhartha Gautama, it’s not because we doubt their ability in both the commercial and the serious cinema, but because he (and others like him) have not been given a proper outlet to be flexible in that sense. This is roughly true of every film industry which lacks a solid base: some actors make it and adapt, others remain more or less limited. In Rukmani Devi we come across the former of these. She remained, to her last, a veritable queen, but she retained a certain welter of conviction. After her we come across another monarch in Gamini Fonseka. After Gamini Fonseka we come across our cinema’s first real queen, Malini Fonseka.

In the two Fonsekas we see a bifurcation of the sensibilities that nurtured Rukmani Devi, between our need for a hero and our need for a heroine. It’s certainly not true that Gamini and Malini represented a synthesis of aesthetic sensibilities when they were cast together (whether in a commercial outing like Hondata Hondayi or a more serious outing like Nidhanaya) because Malini was the first actor here able to make herself the only destined woman to whatever man she was paired with. If one imagines her equally adept in front of not just Gamini, but also Tony Ranasinghe, Joe Abeywickrama, Vijaya Kumaratunga, and the later generation of Amarasiri Kalansuriya, Ravindra Randeniya, and Lucky Dias, it’s because, as Asoka Handagama pointed out in a Facebook status, her characters were conceived to enrapture the male protagonist. They existed almost solely for this reason.

Malini was the idealised female, the fetishized woman. Even in the worst film concocted here, she gave a decent performance, and in all her performances, she made every man who came across her desire her. Directors who realised this tapped into the box-office potential of their movies, not by pairing her with the two biggest names in the country (Gamini and Vijaya), but by separating her from the characters they played. In K. A. W. Perera’s Wasana Vijaya’s character croons Jothipala: “Oba Langa Inna” was that film’s distillation of this quality in Malini’s lovers. Separation they say makes the heart grow fonder. This was the underlying philosophy in Wasana and later, in H. D. Premaratne’s Apeksha. Malini not only made us want her, she also made us go to any lengths to have her. It’s difficult to think of any other actress here who could equal her in this respect, because her directors understood where her forte lay.

That explains why she was never really a femme fatale. The closest to such a character that she got to was the unsullied heroine in Sasara Chethana, which she herself directed and which had her intertwine the Western with the fairy-tale-like theme of forced separation at childhood. But even there she was unsullied, whose sense of chastity was so calculated and yet fresh. Her most distinctive features – the sleek, flowing hair (which she uses in Sasara Chethana to fight a villain), the shy, contained, but genuine smile, and the beguiling, yet careful eyes – helped her in this regard. Some of her most memorable commercial outings in the seventies – the films of K. A. W. Perera, for instance – personifies her as a doll: fragile, defiant, tempestuous. In Sahanaya (directed by J. Selvarathnam) she’s paired with Gamini, but their roles are somewhat inverted: she is the spoilt heiress; he is the idealist who paints her, and compels her to slap him angrily when she finds out. Sequences like that abound in many of her films, but they are always intermittent, and always there for a reason: to ensnare the man closer to her.

If there’s an almost naive sense of self-discovery in her first roles it’s because that’s what she echoes in real life. A biographical sketch would help us here. Malini Senehelatha Fonseka was born on April 30, 1947 in Peliyagoda as the third child of a family of 11 siblings. She was educated, firstly in Nugegoda, later at Gurukula Maha Vidyalaya in Kelaniya, where she met and befriended some of her later collaborators: Wimal Kumar da Costa (a classmate), H. D. Premaratne, and Donald Karunaratne. Gurukula bordered on the Vidyalankara Campus (now the University of Kelaniya), and got her involved in the theatre. One day some students from Vidyalankara came over looking for an actress to play the lead role: a problem because the University had no women, only boys and monks. The dancing teacher at Gurukula considered Malini, asked her, and after she got permission from her family, acted in it. That play, Noratha Ratha, was written and directed by H. D. Werasiri, and marked the first time she had acted outside school.

In 1965 she took part in a play titled Akal Wessa, which won for her a Best Actress Award and got her the attention of two members in the audience who were looking for a newcomer to play the leading female character in an upcoming film. Tissa Liyanasuriya and Joe Abeywickrama unanimously chose her for her intense subtlety. Remembering his choice many decades later to me, he had this to say: “Some people thought she was thin and rather unsuitable for my film, that she was untried. Joe was satisfied with her though, and so was I.” Punchi Baba marked Malini’s first foray into the cinema. Of her encounters aboard it Liyanasuriya had this to say: “I didn’t order her around. She seemed fully involved.” That sense of being involved and committed was what coloured her career in the seventies, but in these first few performances (including her second role, as the distraught sister to an obsessed elder brother, played by Henry Jayasena, in Dahasak Sithuvili) she was still naive: more the girl next door than the girl of your heart.

You see Malini shedding this avatar from her through her first serious roles, particularly Akkara Paha, where she’s the sister to another obsessed, introspective brother, played by Milton Jayawardena. In Dahasak Sithuvili she more or less succumbs to the quirks and fits of temper of Henry Jayasena, but here she’s more assured, more assertive. By the time she was featured in Nidhanaya, which was the culmination of all those commercial outings that paired her with Gamini Fonseka, she was fully aware of her own parameters: she has let go of being the girl next door, in other words. This was true especially of Siripala saha Ranmenika, which had her opposite Ravindra Randeniya, as well as the films of Dharmasena Pathiraja: from a minor role (again, as a sister) in Ahas Gawwa to the titular role in Eya Dan Loku Lamayek, and to Bambaru Avith and Pathiraja’s understated masterpiece, Soldadu Unnahe. Soldadu Unnahe, however, lacks conviction on her part, because she’s a prostitute, cast against type: consequently, despite her outbursts and tempestuousness, despite that ending where she is poignantly taken away, she is as convincing (if you can put it that way) as Swarna Mallawarachchi in Anjana.

It’s a sign of her personal tastes perhaps, but when I ask her as to what her favourite film is, she first thinks for a while and replies, “Aradhana.” This film, directed by Vijaya Dharma Sri, has Ravindra Randeniya befriend her and then, pushed by guilt and infatuation, come back to reclaim her. His character here is almost like his character from Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Dadayama, and in fact the entire film inverts Obeyesekere’s (even though the latter was released three years after Aradhana) to compel a happy resolution. That it was screened in the eighties, and in colour, is not a coincidence, because Malini admits that those were her favourite years (the years which saw her rise from a player to a director: Sasara Chethana in 1984, Ahinsa in 1987, Sthree in 1991, Sandamala in 1994. All these thematise femininity: frail, open to abuse, but always well meaning and vindicated. Sthree is an attempt at universalising the female experience by drawing a parallel between her character’s travails and those of a newly reared cow.

As the years went by, it seemed as though she took on increasingly matriarchal roles, as evidenced by her acclaimed performances in Punchi Suranganawi (2002), Wekanda Walauwwa (2003), and Ammawarune (2006). It would be unforgivable to omit her role in Prasanna Vithanage’s Akasa Kusum (2009) here, and I think it merits much more than a cursory glance. She won her quite a number of awards internationally, including the Silver Peacock at the Indian Film Festival (which she herself called the “biggest achievement in my forty years” in the cinema). The role was that of a former film star whose return to fame is marked by scandal. In hindsight, perhaps Prasanna Vithanage was spot-on for having chosen her to play the character. Echoing the “fading film star” motif which has figured in countless films in the West, the film delved into the patriarchal “despotism” at the heart of our country and our entertainment industry.

One can spot out a kind of naked austerity in Malini’s performance. There are no attempts at exaggerating: here, more than in any of her previous films, she achieves a deliberate underplaying on her part. This underplaying is essential for her character of Sandya Rani, whose nostalgic reveries of the past are underscored by a harsh, all-too real present. The clash of personal feeling and class/social realities (especially when she gets involved in the scandal the movie centres on) is the epicentre of the narrative, and she epitomises this clash succinctly. Suffice it to say that it represents the achieving of an overarching goal Malini’s career has revolved around: the removal of the theatrical and the excessively emotional from her acting. She was earlier the girl next door; now she has become the woman next door, all too aware of the rift between fantasy and reality. Malini Fonseka’s career has been, in that sense, an attempt at self-discovery. In this phase of her career, it seems as though that she has completed her course in that respect.

Written for: Daily Mirror, December 5 2017