Monday, February 19, 2018

The death of English

A prominent film critic once said something to the effect that the worst directors tended to come from film schools, while the best directors tended to transcend the limits of academia that such schools imposed on them and their colleagues. While it’s difficult to ascertain whether this is definitive, or true also of various other fields and professions, I can vouch, from my personal experiences, for the opinion, held by many, that it is true of writers, especially of critics: the best among them start out on their own terms, the worst among them come as young idealists from our universities. By no means do I intend this to be definitive, because there are exceptions, infrequent though they are.

My friend Dhanuka Bandara, waxing eloquent on two collections of essays, on the arts and on politics, by the late Regi Siriwardena, told me that Regi was not a top-of-his-class university product, and that Regi did not obtain First or even Second Class Honours from University College, adding in his own inimitable way that this was true of pretty much every great prose stylist in this country. That critic I referred to before, Pauline Kael, was like that too: she dropped out of the University of California, Berkley in her last year, owing to financial constraints (she made it a point, a few decades on, to joke and quip that the years she spent at Berkley encouraged her to get rid of a prose style which was academic and full of what she called “saphead objectivity”).

The point I’m trying to drive at here is that qualifications alone have never been enough to validate an artist, be he a performer or a purveyor. I am not aware how true this is of Sinhala and Tamil artists and writers, but I am painfully aware of how true it is of English artists and writers, particularly the latter. What schools and universities bestow on their graduates, that is with respect to a language, is the grammar and the syntax of that language. Taking what is learnt, while unlearning the rigidity entailed in committing it to your memory, and in the process unleashing your creativity to do away with (what else?) saphead objectivity, is part of the fun, but very many critics, from then and even now, fail to make that leap. Last Tuesday I talked about the death of Sinhala, from a specific angle. That compels me to visit the death of English, from another specific angle: the drab lifelessness of our critics and stylists.

It’s easier to write about an art form than it is to be a performer of that art form, easier to write about plays and movies and books than to be a stage director, filmmaker, or writer. But critics are needed, especially in as small and indefinable a country as Sri Lanka, because works of art by default require cohesive critics who can identify the worth of the artist and convey it to a lay readership. Helping others to see, or more to the point discern, is the critic’s primary function, and in a country like ours, where a rift exists between the vernacular and the non-vernacular, the absence of a critical fraternity that writers well in English does tend to worry. To be as simple as possible, how are we to get our art forms and artists to the world outside?

Speaking for myself, I prefer writers and critics who use their intelligence and instincts and let their emotions flow. When critics are insultingly put down as impressionistic, when what they write is ignored on the basis that their writings are ridden with emotions and vignettes (personal impressions, never even once following the rigid rationalisations that have been taught at school and at university), a confusion is sustained: what should criticism be about? It’s certainly an art in itself (that’s why we call it “vicharana kalawa”), and not a science, so to let go of those rigid rationalisations that mar good writing isn’t an option, it’s a necessity. Critics need to live, they need to breathe, to be alert.

What separates the late and the lamented writers of the past – Siriwardena, Ajith Samaranayake, L. O. de Silva, Philip Cooray, Gamini Haththotuwegama – from the new writers we have today is that the former were able to fulfil the chief function of any critic worth his salt: discerning what is new and original in a work of art and helping audiences see it. My belief is that Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Lester James Peries would have been able to survive with their work without such writers, but the existence of these purveyors, in the popular press (the most democratic form of media we have), helped them, and us, understand the sensibilities they were evoking in the people and the culture. On the other hand, the tendency of the modern critic is to rationalise something, anything, with academic principles. Just take a gander at this review of K. S. Sivakumaran’s recently published compilation, On Films Seen:

“David Bordwell suggests... there are four key components present in film reviews. These components consist of a condensed plot synopsis, background information, a set of abbreviated arguments about the film, and an evaluation. Generally speaking, when a reviewer is evaluating a film he/she tends to be assessing some, or all, of the following: the motivation for what happens in the film, the film's entertainment value, the film's social relevance and social value, and the film's aesthetic value. If it were easy everyone would be a film critic. It is a great job, most of the time. Unless of course, you are watching a genuinely bad film, the sort that once caused a notable film critic to comment, ‘That is 90 minutes of my life I can never get back.’”

Whenever I read a review that suspends and transcends disbelief, and in a bad way, I feel like that notable film critic: those minutes spent perusing and turning over the pages are minutes I can never get back. But really, must film criticism, the most alive of all modes of criticism, follow Mr Bordwell’s “key components” this way? There are reviews which don’t reveal the plot, and reviews (probably the best of them) that elaborate on rather than abbreviate arguments. When you follow the same format, you are not unlike that high school student who, to win his teacher’s attention and (if he’s in a co-ed class) his girlfriend’s attention, regularly polishes up his homework to stick to what that teacher prescribes as the only correct structure of an essay to his class. (Critics who strayed from this – Pauline Kael included – were often described as being frustrated and random, but I for one prefer such manifestations of frustration, however random they may be, to the boredom of those “correct formats” and “components" we are taught to accept at an early age.)

Mr Sivakumaran has reviewed, his book tells us, 58 movies; the most charitable and positive thing I can say here about On Films Seen is the fact that it contains (rather terse) reviews of Sinhala films which have not been explored by any English critic (Madhu Samaya, Umayangana, Mandakini). They are less reviews, in fact, than capsule reviews, which isn’t bad, though their lapses of judgment (especially those that involve puritanical overtures, like the following: “Being a natural heterosexual person, my immediate reaction in viewing the retrospective of the British filmmaker Derek Jarman was one of repugnance and repulsion”) take away from his sincerity.

The reviews for Jehan Aloysius’s Rag: The Musical were ecstatic when it first came out years ago: according to one writer it provided a “potent appeal against campus violence.” (“Because when you strip away all the hype and the hoopla [whatever that hype and hoopla is] Rag is a rare animal indeed: a musical with a social conscience” – but then have there never been musicals staged before that had a social conscience, however facile?) These were predictable in the praise (not to mention the hype and the hoopla!) they bestowed on the production; it was almost as though the musical had been turned into an ineffable experience that existed to be venerated. Common sense does prevail in such circumstances, though the one account of the play that I had been waiting for came after it was restaged this year, and not from a newspaperman; instead it was an undergraduate who came up with it.

“... the elitism of this play, especially in terms of its language politics, was deeply problematic. Sinhala was used in the play for two specific reasons. One was to imply a sense of roughness or vulgarity (the raggers resort to Sinhala, to which the students who resist the rag unanimously respond in English). The second, was for what could be called in Sinhala as ‘gong athal’ – to resort to cheap humour that ridiculed a much less privileged popular/folk tradition of Sinhala theatre, as well as to poke fun at the aesthetic sensibilities and gender performativity of Sinhala-speaking classes.”

It was the kind of elitism I encountered, though in a much less insidious form, in Dear Children Sincerely, last August. When critics are emboldened by the cosmetics of a production, or any work of art for that matter, they tend to miss out on the undercurrents, the subtleties and easy-to-ignore nuances, which breathe life into that production. When you can’t explain those undercurrents, when what’s on the surface is easier to project, the writer will resort to that surface; you can’t blame him for that, because that’s his training, and because Sri Lanka, being what it is, is too small for an individual voice to bring the curtain crashing down on the producers who (wrongly) believe that those superficial cosmetics are enough to validate and vindicate their work. That review above, which garnered outrage from many of the theatregoers at the Wendt, was rare, and beautifully so, but the likes of it continue to be limited to the thoughtful blogger, the ardent activist, the revolutionary student.

The role of the critic, Kael wrote in 1963, was to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn’t be, what is not in it that should be. Opinions do differ and converge, which is why what I like about an objet d’art may not be what you like, or what you notice. Given all this, then, our critics need to go back to school, though a different school, to unlearn what has been learnt, to shed away the rigidities that have been imbibed, and to start living.

The death of Sinhala

It is fashionable now and then to lament the death of this or that. Most if not much of the time, though, this act of lamenting is a way in which the elders exert and express their superiority over the young, with the most typical excuse trotted out being that the young don’t care. Probably no other artefact, treasured by these elders, has been so lamented like this than the mother tongue, Sinhala, with its supposedly impending death. (Since I don’t know Tamil, or how it’s venerated by the old and how the young treat it to the consternation of the old, I’m not sure what the situation is over there.)

The elders will confidently point out that the young don’t read. True. They don’t. No language can be sustained in the long run without recourse to literature, and no literature can survive if this demographic refuses to read. I’ve pointed out countless times, here and elsewhere, that a nation that doesn’t read eventually becomes a nation that doesn’t write, and in turn a nation that doesn’t produce any critics. This, I think, is truer for English than for Sinhala, because despite all that it has suffered at the hands of a non-reading public the Sinhala press has produced and continues to produce cohesive critics who surpass their English counterparts by a considerable margin. But then the absence of such cohesive critics isn’t the only or even the main problem.

When I interviewed the late Ajantha Ranasinghe several years ago, he pointed out that the ability of a lyricist to root the social in the personal has, more or less, been lost today. What we have today, he implied (correctly, I believe), is a set of lyricists (barring the occasional exception) who dilute the social in the personal, which was manifestly different and inferior. What resulted from this was a culture of banality in our literature, where what is puritanically termed as “kunuharapa” (filth) would be confused for a “higher” vocabulary. Such kunuharapa is best suited for a very self-referential musical form: rap and baila are the two examples that come to my mind at once. In the long run, however, this can only spell out a deterioration, and not just in music.

It’s a vicious circle at one level: if people don’t read, their vocabulary is limited, and with a limited vocabulary even the most banal words acquire the status of high-flown erudition. That’s why we are so obsessed, as a people and a culture, over each and every music video and new star that pops up. We think that they will herald something new, something that will do away with the old, but in reality becomes just a rehashed, recycled version of what is considered to be old. This is bad on both fronts: it leaves the young with nothing to work on and the old, especially the puritans, with something which they can engage with in their battle against the young. What is lost is a culture that is refreshingly novel; what is retained is a culture of Puritanism.

I have been overwhelmed, and in a good way, by what is advertised as “new” in our recent popular culture: Sanuka Wickramasinghe, Tehan Perera, the team behind Koombiyo and Sahodaraya, especially the main star in the latter two, Thumudu Dodantanne, and from the movies, Ho Gana Pokuna, Premaya Nam, Adaraneeya Kathawak, and Adareyi Mang. There is a freshness in these works that excite the young in a way which leaves the puritans in the dark. What differentiates them from those who precedes them is that they are no longer bothered by the need to reject the old. A few months ago, for instance, I reflected on Sanuka, and I noted the following: “He is a New Voice because he no longer makes it necessary to defy the [old] line to gain new territory.”

There’s an honesty in these that transcends their cosmetic artificiality. People are quoting and creating memes out of Koombiyo (though not Sahodarayo) in ways that makes a laughing stock out of the conventional mega-series, though not in a way that makes it evident for us that they are rejecting what preceded them. It’s this kind of novelty – they aren’t bothered by their predecessors and aren’t paying attention to what the puritans among their elders are doing – which comforts me. But then will this be enough to counter the attacks that the young are enduring, rightly and justifiably, with respect to the death of their own language? This brings me to another problem, another issue.

Many of those who market themselves as New eschew the need to be nurtured by literature before embarking on their musical, cinematic, television, and theatrical careers. They are enraptured by the techniques of their craft, but when it comes to the written word, which more than anything else – at times, more than even the visuals – is what captures immediate attention, they are pitifully below par. To a considerable extent this has to do with the fact that at school they have not (and this is what I have picked up from conversations with them) been explicitly encouraged to read. When your language is limited to the grammar you have to memorise, what happens is that your interest in that language is limited to the societies you join, literary, drama, and debating. Even that isn’t a guarantee, since very few of those who join such societies continue with what they picked up, and loved, later on.

When neither the school culture nor the popular culture (remember what the former Warden of S. Thomas’ College, whom I referred to about two weeks ago, said?) emboldens the idealists to venture out into the arts with a healthy awareness of language and literature, only an aberration can result. Yes, they may be more than adequately endowed with the ability to transform the most mundane material to a technically and visually rich product, they may be able more than any of their elders to work with the production house, the camera, and Photoshop and Illustrator, because these are physical enterprises and they prefer hard labour, doing the hard yards, over using their imagination in terms of words. This is to be seen in a more insidious form in our vocalists: they are more concerned with the melody, the tone, the correct accent, the correct inflection, than actually making sense of what they are crooning.

If I am talking about music here rather too much the reason is painfully clear: as I noted a month or so back, music is largely self-referential (even when it’s not a self-referential genre like rap and baila), and it’s probably the only art form in the world in which the two levels of consciousness – of the producer and of the consumer – are never, even for one instant, dichotomised. What is produced is, simply put, what is consumed, so what is put out is what is digested. Probably second only to television, which is called the “idiot box” precisely because it has something of this quality (i.e. the ability to make the audience gullibly understand what the producer intends them to understand), the three-minute popular song is the yardstick with which the progress or regression of a language can be measured, today, in virtually any society.

What is exciting about Sanuka is that even in terms of the techniques he uses, he is miles ahead of these depressingly and frequently resorted to clichés of that three-minute song. He is no longer the star of his own videos; he is not crooning about fulfilled or cruelly denied love, rather about romances that never really pick up (“Perawadanak” is in that sense more enjoyable than “Saragayaye”, the latter of which, I am told, spurred certain schoolboys to form up their own schoolboy bands); he never really dilutes the social in the personal, but instead tries to reflect the most potent dreams of romance and young love that we never dare to have. The same can be said, accounting for the differences in the themes they tackle, with respect to those other examples I pointed out above, not just in music or on television, but in the movies too: Adareyi Mang, for instance, carefully plays around with the tropes of the mainstream romantic film in a way that makes us come back asking for more.

So where are we today? The elders, on the one hand, will continue to lament. As they do. The youngsters, on the other hand, will either defy the elders or try out something constructively new despite those lamentations. Munidasa Cumaratunga once wrote that a race that doesn’t try out anything new can never hope to reckon with the outside world. He was correct, I am convinced, particularly when it comes to the best efforts of the old to rein in on the young and the most sincere attempts of the new to pander to those efforts of reining them in by providing the old with excuses to say, “The language is dying, and these young artists, and with them our children, are responsible for its death!”

We have a choice here. We either continue with what our predecessors left us in all its pristine forms, or we add to it in a way which appeals to the young and the old alike. Sameness, whether from the elders or the youngsters, ends up promoting a singular vision, the sort that castrates a language of its ability to live, breathe, and flourish. The destiny of a language lays in our hands, and with it the destiny of an entire gamut of art forms, whatever the medium.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

70 years of resilience, 70 years of romanticism

Just the other day I came across a Facebook post written by a foreigner (British, Australian, American, I can’t remember). He or she wrote something to the tune that Sri Lanka, widely vilified as a failed state even after we had defeated arguably the most dangerous terrorist organisation in the world, had much to be grateful for: free education, free healthcare, freedom of religion, an integrative society that rehabilitated terrorist cadres, and the resilience of the people. This coming from a foreigner who probably set foot in the country for a short time reminded me, rather cynically I should say, of the many glamourous accounts of the former Soviet Union by first-time idealists who had never visited Russia before.

It’s okay to go overboard sometimes. Okay to say your country is the greatest in the world. Okay to say that there’s much to be grateful for. What’s not okay, though, is turning a blind eye to certain realities. Hours after that well-intentioned foreigner posted on social media, a Sri Lankan posted some of those realities which I felt needed to be made clear: in a nutshell, that the free education we receive suffers from qualitative deficits, that the free healthcare we get has become bureaucratised (need we mention the many strikes that doctors and nurses perpetuate every day?), that freedom of religion is okay as long as you’re Sinhalese and Buddhist, that integration works for LTTE cadres as long as they flirt with the Establishment (think of Karuna Amman), and that while the people are resilient, their lives are deeply complicated.

Obviously, not everyone agrees. Not everyone would consider what was posted palatable. One week after the free nation in us turned 70, perhaps it would do well to revisit history, to privilege facts over frill, to understand where we are and where we are, and to keep the debate this compels from romantics on both sides of the divide. Naturally enough, this provokes a significant question: when it comes to that debate, who are the romantics?

The romantic nationalists are easier to identify. They are the idealists who believe not just in a better tomorrow but a better today. They turn a blind eye to the realities that occupy our lives because they privilege the nation over the individual. Their opponents would suggest that they suffer from apathy, indifference, and a not-so-healthy dose of an inferiority complex, that what they idealise in terms of historical monoliths is miles away from the true status of those monoliths. Even in the arts, this apathy persists. We are wont to inflate the national hero without delving into what turned that hero into who he or she eventually became. We are very often anti-American at heart, regardless of political affiliations, but what we borrow from the United States is their romanticised disregard for history. The cowboy film in America, and the Cinemascope epic, is adapted here into the final battle in Aloko Udapadi, which turns out to be so inflated that we can only suspend our disbelief.

The romantic anti-nationalists are less easy, but still not that hard, to identify. They generally hail from close academic circles, and if they are not wont to rubbishing the nation and all its ills without considering the arguments put forward by their ideological opponents, they go a step further and perpetuate the ultimate myth: that we were better off under the colonialists. These are the same academics who criticise the Buddhist clergy’s involvement with the independence movement and what is felt to be their orientation towards socialist politics, and at the same time praise the status quo authoritarianism of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore (H. L. Seneviratne’s The Work of Kings, otherwise an interesting sociological document, fails precisely because it sustains this contradiction throughout). In other words, we had better prospects as a Dominion, never mind that we were never free, because we had it both ways: we would be defended by the Queen’s Army while the locals would be free to pursue their own national interests.

The latter opinion is, even today, widely disseminated, though only by a diminishing demographic: the generation of the fifties and the sixties, educated in the Ivor Jennings-styled University system, largely in English, and comprising, for the most, those academics pointed out above. They are a rare breed, but what they lack in numbers they make up for through academic and ideological unity. To put it in perspective, what they privilege – economics – is so important to them that everything else – culture, identity, national freedom – dissolves away and can be thrown to the dust.

If we empathise with the first of these two groups on the basis of their affiliation with the ideal of nationhood and sovereignty, then it goes without saying that there’s nothing wrong in empathising with the second of those groups on the basis of their rational, albeit flawed, conception of economics and technocracy. The romantic nationalists have been put down, in print, by the young and the old, everywhere, since time immemorial. Their critics snigger when they hear Sekara’s Me Sinhala Apage Ratai and in particular the following words: mulu lova eya ratata yatayi. There’s nothing wrong in healthy criticism of this sort, the way I see it, because going overboard with nationalism risks a serious problem.

Which is this: in any country, trying to shackle itself from colonialism, the most immediate nationalists, who emerged after the dawn of independence, hailed from a rather elitist English-oriented (if not bilingual) background that gave them access to the University and the Civil Service. We see this in other postcolonial societies too – Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya – and we see in the best of them an ability to transform their elitist backgrounds to a populist base on which complete independence was sought. Neither Nasser nor Nkrumah nor Kenyatta, on that count, were content in perpetuating the elitism that they had imbibed in their early years: they succeeded in making their backgrounds the buffer on which they based their populist, nationalist calls for freedom.

But those who followed these elites-turned-nationalists, born from the structures of empowerment which those elites opened (in Sri Lanka, free education; in Egypt, the concept of Pan-Arabism), were somewhat doomed because they repudiated any need to imbibe the modernity their forefathers had. In other words, especially in societies run on religious lines, the spiritual was raised to a position higher than the material, which proved to be the undoing of both in later decades. The ultimatum here is that these societies were contorted by their own independence struggles and movements.

As a final point though, if these points are adequate for us to criticise the romantic nationalist, it’s only fair to consider that the base on which criticism of over-the-top nationalism is sustained – the existence of elites – is also the base on which we can constructively assess the romantic anti-nationalist. Here too, the argument is both simple and complex: that Dominion status, while superficially emboldening us through the fact that our defences and foreign affairs would be handled by a foreign entity, would not embolden us to look after our own economic interests, because those in charge of handling those interests, before and after independence, were fatally tied to the interests of the colonialist: the colonial bourgeoisie.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Vijaya Kumaratunga: The stranger and the intruder

From 1969, which saw Sugathapala Senarath Yapa’s Hanthane Kathawa, to 1989, which saw Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Kadapathaka Chaya, Vijaya Kumaratunga, the greatest matinee idol to ever grace the screen in this country, averaged about five movies a year. In both these films, undervalued for their time, reassessed more favourably today, he was cast opposite that other great actor, Swarna Mallawarachchi, and yet no two roles could have been more different: in Hanthane Kathawa he was the lover, the swashbuckling epitome of youth, while in Kadapathaka Chaya he was the impulsive rapist, the cold, calculating businessman who meets his end at the hands of his own victim. It took Vijaya all of 20 years to make the shift; perhaps (for I can only speculate here) another 20 years would have seen him diversity his range further.

At their toughest, heroes and superstars are virtually invincible. Supremely confident of their infallibility, their presumptions of their own strengths, they can only glare at those who boost their own presumptions. (Right after G. W. Surendra ends his valedictory for the protagonist in the opening of Welikathara, that protagonist, a newly promoted ASP, smiles rather contemptuously at him; the ASP, played by Gamini Fonseka, let us know then and there that only he had the prerogative to assess and inflate himself.) They don’t opt for cooperation because being cooperative in this society is, when it comes to heroes at least, seen as a sign of weakness, so much so that those who prefer to dream rather than do, to idealise rather than act, turn out to be inadequate versions of themselves (as with many of Tony Ranasinghe’s characters).

Vijaya Kumaratunga was our first onscreen hero who taught us that heroes need not always opt for unilateral action, and that the occasional compromise, the infrequent lapse, was forgivable and, more to the point, expendable. The romantic male stars, from here, weren’t really aggressive, but for the most they teetered between the domineeringness that Fonseka embodied and the fragility, the sense of inferiority, that Ranasinghe embodied. Both Fonseka and Ranasinghe instilled in their characters an intense desire to own the women they hankered after (which is why, when these two were cast together, as with Parasathumal, they tended to fight over the same love interest). But when Ranasinghe was featured opposite Vijaya, the tide turned: it was no longer about a woman, rather about that eternal battle between age and youth. Even when he mellowed, even when he was cast against younger players, Vijaya remained very much young, which meant that he was forever destined to conquer the women he desired so much. Ranasinghe’s characters would have given up (unless, as with Duhulu Malak, the women of their dreams came back on their own accord), and Fonseka’s would have gone ahead, never bothering to try their luck with their fiancées again, but Vijaya was different: he cared, he compromised, and he came back.

He was almost an outsider, the man from a different world, an intruder who dared to creep in at a time when the trinity of our film industry – Gamini, Tony, and Joe Abeywickrama – was firmly established and had virtually monopolised that industry. They each embodied a different zeitgeist – Gamini with heroism unhindered by moral scruples, Tony with fragility underscored by a delicate, almost otherworldly handsomeness, and Joe with a sense of mock seriousness which no chaotic situation could trip – and they commanded the names and the salaries that would have made any newcomer a nonentity. But these three were from a different era. The outsider and stranger who intruded into their universe heralded a new age: an age in which education and employability had become polar opposites, an age in which stability was a hated word (simply because it was impossible to obtain, except through force). The young of those days, who had venerated heroism and fragility and mock seriousness, wanted something more: someone who could compound these qualities and embody them at the same time. They found their pivot with Vijaya.

There are commentators who suggest that Vijaya never really acted, that he was being himself and that he hardly ever bothered to wait for the correct cue or take. Part of the reason for that, of course, was that unlike Fonseka he never selected his scripts meticulously: what he got was what he landed. That was, at one level, crude and almost primeval, but then in a country as small and yet indefinable as Sri Lanka being overly selective could have swept him off at a time when the market he inadvertently targeted – the young and the dispossessed, cut off from their own familial bonds – would have crassly ignored him if he wasn’t that frequently cast. Having averaged about one or two films from 1967 (Manamalayo) to 1969 and 1970 (Hanthane Kathawa), he struck gold at the box office with Neil Rupasinghe’s Hathara Denama Soorayo (in 1971). Three years later, Dharmasena Pathiraja chose him for Ahas Gawwa, and three more years later, he chose him again for Eya Dan Loku Lamayek.

When Gamini and Tony and Joe were cast as villains, they evaded our sympathy and evoked our deepest fears. Gamini began his career with a set of films that had him play around with the duality between love and hate, as with Seethala Wathura; Tony became less likeable as he aged, as Ahasin Polawata and Duhulu Malak showed; and Joe, when he was not ranting like a self-deluded man (like the husband in Adara Hasuna), played around with a variation of the duality that Gamini had, this time between fear and self-mockery (Welikathara). But even at their most dislikeable, these men knew what they were in for: they didn’t fall or trip, and if they did, the script prepared us for them. With Vijaya, on the other hand, those trips and falls were never part of a carefully ordered and ordained narrative. The lover in Wasana has to croon “Oba Langa Inna” to try and get back Malini Fonseka, and in Eya Dan Loku Lamayak, he endures the hatred and contempt of a teenage lover of Malini, played by Wimal Kumar da Costa, to marry her.

Having covertly slept with Helen in Pathiraja’s Bambaru Avith, and having been upbraided by his two friends (Amarasiri Kalansuriya and da Costa), the man still feels confused about what he’s done: “What COULD I have done?” he sternly asks da Costa, the fiery revolutionary, as da Costa warns him about the chaos he’s unleashed on the fishing community they’ve moved to. If Bambaru Avith feels rather operatic today, rather blown out and loud and crude and deliberately cluttered, it’s not because of Premasiri Khemadasa’s innovative music only, but also because of the fact that Vijaya had become a new lover: the antiheroic lover, who falls in love with a peasant girl engaged to another man (Cyril Wickramage). Vijaya trips and falls, but until the end those trips and falls are never explicitly rationalised by the script. Consequently, by being an antiheroic lover, he had become an antiheroic hero: the sort that his audiences had wanted all along, and got, with every other subsequent role of his.

If Vijaya seemed careless in his movies and the scripts did nothing to hold him back, the only consolation we had was the fact that he had no one but himself to fall on. In Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Diyamanthi he throws away his “useless” Bachelor of Arts certificate after he gets evicted by an irate landlady (Ratnawali Kekunuwala) and, in one of the most bizarrely concocted coming-together sequences I’ve ever seen in any film, befriends a pickpocket (da Costa) and a hard-done-by, recently released criminal (Somasiri Dehipitiya), as they venture out and make friends with a carefree heiress (Malini Fonseka). These men have nothing but themselves to turn to: they have no family, no one dependent on them and no one they are dependent on. In one sense this was more Godardian than Hitchcockian (the latter term being used by critics when reviewing Diyamanthi), except that Godard’s characters didn’t just lack families and dependents but were downright repelled by them. That attitude of being repelled and being alienated came out, for Vijaya, in Pathiraja’s greatest film, Para Dige.

In Ahas Gawwa the ending, which to many seemed apt and expedient for the two protagonists (Vijaya and Amarasiri Kalansuriya), also seemed rather contrived: there was nothing to suggest that either of them would have taken part in strikes if they were placed in a different setting. There needed to be an explicit rationale, failing which their act of participating in those strikes looked almost manufactured. Para Dige, for the first time in Vijaya’s and (I think) Pathiraja’s career, did away with a need for such a rationale, if at all because the characters don’t come to us with any back story: neither Chandare, the protagonist, nor his girlfriend (Indira Jonklass) encourages us to find out more about their pasts, barring a section of the narrative in which Chandare returns to his sister (Sunethra Sarachchandra) and his parents (Chitra Vakishta and Joe Abeywickrama); that section, very much unlike the freewheeling style of everything that preceded it, naturally felt detached from the rest of the story.

This evolution – from the in-your-face likeability of the seventies to the cynical ambivalence of the eighties (at the end of Para Dige, Vijaya as Chandare embodies this ambivalence by answering his girlfriend’s questions with a slapdash remark: “I don’t know”) – was obviously one which would have led to a shift in his career, and like Gamini and Tony and Joe he would have made a leap to a new phase. But then there was only one film which indicated this shift, and after it was released in 1989, he was shot down and killed. That film was Obeyesekere’s Kadapathaka Chaya, where for the entirety of the plot he teeters between a superficial charm and a repressed sexual hideousness that spells out his own murder. Kadapathaka Chaya, unlike Dadayama and Palagetiyo, plays out like clockwork: the past and the future are inextricably woven together, and in Vijaya’s characterisation of Danaratne, the mudalali who rapes his own sister-in-law, there is a deterioration, which at times frightens us. Perhaps Kadapathaka Chaya was the only fitting end we could have had to a man we wanted so badly to be: a lover, heroic, antiheroic, or otherwise.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Geetha Kumarasinghe: Giving out while never giving in

When you see Geetha Kumarasinghe dancing away, her own way, dazzling us, you wonder whether this could be the same performer whose father, an editor of a conservative Sinhala Buddhist magazine, prohibited her and her siblings from going to the theatre. Then you realise that Geetha’s career, in the movies and also, to a considerable extent, in politics, has been built on a contrapuntal, at times contradictory mixture of daringness and prudishness. She formed part of our wildest fantasies, got us to picture her running from one romance to another in those fantasies, and yet succeeded at creating a welter of security, of stability, around her. Malini Fonseka never faced this problem, because she came from a different time: she was the guiding star that everyone else after her had to follow, so she had the prerogative to be whoever she wanted to be. Geetha was different. In a rather exhilarating way.

And to me, that explains the kind of paradoxical world she operates in, in whatever movie and under whatever director. Malini was discovered by two cineastes – Tissa Liyanasuriya and Joe Abeywickrama – after she took part in a play staged at the Lumbini. She came to the cinema, in other words, with the theatre. Geetha never dallied onstage like this or like her other contemporaries, but got film producer after producer to help her graduate in the industry with a beauty contest held at her village. If you can’t think of another actress who could be drafted into 21 films and at the same time be extended a marriage offer from a well-to-do engineer from England without taking part in a single production, it’s not because Sri Lanka lacks capable actresses, but because it lacks capable actresses who can choose to dare. Geetha is paradoxical as a performer, and also a politician, because she is never who she seems to be with her life and career. At one point she can dance away on her own terms with whatever man cast opposite her; at another point, she can confidently refuse a tentative offer by no less an outfit than Playboy magazine to feature her on their cover. That’s where her package lies: in her ability to give out while never giving in.

Most of our popular actresses learn to perform a balancing act between commercial and serious flicks rather early on. Malini was like that (her first role, in Punchi Baba, wasn’t exactly “mainstream”; she had to wait some time for that kind of role); so was Swarna Mallawarachchi (who never really operated in the mainstream film industry) and Swineetha Weerasinghe and Swarna Kahawita and Anula Karunatilake. Geetha, strangely enough, though, had to wait for a decade before she could get out of the populist canvas that K. A. W. Perera (Wasana) and Neil Rupasinghe (Lassana Kella) had got her into. These two directors conceived her as a side player; she won us as that side player. It was in Kolamba Sanniya, as the daughter, that she epitomised her image as a freewheeling girl (an image you conjure up when you see her dancing, crazily, to the bitingly witty lyrics in Clarence Wijewardena’s “Nelum Pokuru Wage”, which ends with these suggestive lines: “දෙතොල රතට ලේ වගෙයි / මුණ හදුන් ලී වගෙයි”).

Malini was seductive in a kinder, gentler way: her coy eyes, her careful, cautious, but warmly encouraging smile, and her childlike strut were qualities that existed almost solely to convince the men who figured in her life that they were destined for her (or rather, that she was destined for them). Geetha, whether in Wasana or Lassana Kella or Kolamba Sanniya, acted differently: forceful, manipulative, at times cunning. She contorts our expectations of her as a peaceable lover because she is, frankly speaking, never really at peace. Here I quote the inimitable D. B. S. Jeyaraj: “She was not prepared to play the coy maiden if and when a scene warranted close encounters of the physical kind.” She never shies away, and can get provocatively loud or candid when she wants to. Malini provokes empathy, even when she’s in the wrong; Geetha provokes infatuation. This difference, vague to some, explains the incongruous contradictoriness of her more serious forays, right down from Karumakkarayo.

In Karumakkarayo she starred opposite Vijaya Kumaratunga; she would croon with him again and again, in Jaya Sikuru, in Raja Wedakarayo, in Jaya Apitayi, and more memorably than in any of these, in Anjana, the latter of which also starred Swarna Mallawarachchi (both she and Geetha dance in Anjana; for Geetha it was usual fare, while for Swarna it was not). So fixated she was on getting the men she wanted (who almost always happened to be played by Vijaya) that even in those serious forays of hers, she can never get away from the playful streak it compels in her. As Dotty in Palama Yata and as Punna in Loku Duwa – both of which she produced – she is almost always frail, vulnerable to abuse. But when the moment of reckoning does come – in Palama Yata, when she faces up to the indomitable, cruel Walaha (Sanath Gunatilake), and in Loku Duwa, when she tenders her resignation to her lascivious boss (Gamini Fonseka) – she is ready to unleash her fury. We see this happen with respect even to her closest friends and acquaintances, as with the brother in Loku Duwa (Kamal Addararachchi) and the lowlife husband in Ran Diya Dahara (Jackson Anthony). In the mainstream cinema she was always provocative while maintaining a welter of security; in these serious outings she was always frail and fragile while only at the last minute unleashing that provocative character in her. It’s a subtle inversion at one level, and it helps us understand her forte as a performer and even a politician.

Malini Fonseka, when she took to directing and producing films, provoked empathy from her female protagonists. Geetha wasn’t ready like that to portray women as forever-hard-done-by-weepers, which is why, in Palama Yata and Loku Duwa, she asserts her desperate need to be through with her miseries and at the time makes us aware of the fact that she has been schooled by her terrible experiences. (In a manner of speaking, both Dottie and Punna meet with the same tragic encounters, though they hail from two completely different milieus.) Perhaps it had to do with the fact that these films were better received by critics, here and abroad, than Malini’s directorial ventures, but when I see them today, I am reminded of the commonly held view that they were associated with her, that they were considered as directorial ventures on her own part. Geetha is Geetha in both these flicks, so much so that they become her. She pushes for what she wants, and becomes who she acts, even when she’s off-screen.