Thursday, August 31, 2017

'Aswatuna': Our voices, their voices

The deliberately un-rhythmic overtones, the overdrawn tonal improvisations, and the swift blend of tabla and clapping suggest a studied primitiveness, as though you’re listening to the first band the world inherited. Part of the pleasure of listening to Qawwali is this form of primitiveness. For sheer transcendental power I can’t think of another musical genre because of how frequently I’ve come across it nearly everywhere, on radio, on film, on television. “I am the Truth!” Mansur Al-Hallaj, one of the many Sufi mystics who inspired Qawwali, once exhorted. He was condemned, cursed, praised, and even murdered ambivalently. Ambivalence is a peculiar quality in the arts, and probably no other musical form has been adorned with it so much.

Most spiritual songs (it would be facile to consider a Qawwali session as a series of songs, but never mind that) celebrate impermanence, the hollow underpinnings of secularism, the clash between life and afterlife. The ghazal, na’at, hamd, and marsiya, the most easily recognisable Qawwalis, are known for their celebration of BOTH the spiritual and the secular, because of which they have retained that quality of ambivalence. It’s not poetry in motion, it’s ecstasy in motion. So when a group of Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Indians, and an American come together to breathe life into the genre in Sri Lanka, it should be regarded as more than an exercise in aesthetics.

One can’t talk about an art form that’s inspired so much censure and at the same time ecstasy without defending it, without listening to or watching it and appreciating how much of an impact it can have and has had on audiences. “Aswatuna” unfolded on Saturday, August 19 at the Russian Cultural Centre and on Sunday, August 20 at the Sooriya Village to rapt audiences. I’m less interested, however, in the event itself, which I unfortunately couldn’t attend, than in the prologue, the what-led-to-it, which compels me to defend the idea behind it. We are so enraptured by musical concerts and shows that we can’t seem to differentiate between them. We are, simply put, perpetually hungry for a new concert, a new show.

But first, what does Aswatuna mean? Basically, it translates to “Our Voices.” Whose, though? Yours? Mine? The answer, obviously, is “Everybody’s”, because its organisers have sought to bring together such a project in the hopes of building communities, reinvigorate the spirit of camaraderie that’s fast disappearing (because music is no longer consider a language, rather an aesthetic to be discarded, condemned, or listened to at one’s beck and call). To this end it’s worthwhile bringing up the names of those organisers, because in their story one can trace the evolution of their event: Haadiya Galely, André de Quadros, Adeel Mirza, Shahid Shabaz.

It all began with an audition held at Alethea International School which was attended by only three people. This was last May, three months back. The idea was to create a Qawwali band in Sri Lanka, an idea conceived in part by Professor de Quadros (a professor of music who teaches in America, whose website informs us that he’s a conductor, ethnomusicologist, music educator, writer, and human rights activist).

Eventually with those three hopefuls came the premier and most popular Sri Lankan Sufi Ensemble, Naqshbandi. The only problem, however, was that none of them, even with their musical experience, could pitch properly. The professor was nervous and not a little disconcerted, but the lady who had brought them together, Haadiya Galely, was not put off: “I told him to try them out.” In the end she was vindicated: “It’s amazing what a few weeks and months did. Almost overnight they transformed, though we were left with certain minor issues which didn’t bother us.” And to this group came another major name: Shahid Shabaz, winner of The Voice of UAE.

Not being a connoisseur in music by any stretch of the imagination, I deplore my inability to appreciate the subtle nuances and sincerity which would have gone into an enterprise as ambitious as this. Suffice it to say, then, that I have heard the band, Aswatuna, the way it should be heard: on the floor, reminiscent of the paduru party format which we’ve misconceived. It’s a virtually unassailable blend of vivacity and spirituality, which transcends categorisation and becomes its own standard, its own benchmark, to be emulated everywhere. How many Indian movies have we watched where the songs were obviously transposed ghazals? Closer to home, how many must-sing-along-to songs in the Jothipala-Muttusamy tradition have borrowed from Qawwalis in general? The connections, as always, were hard not to infer, to appreciate. They added more colour to an otherwise banal Colombo evening.

Professor Quadros’ involvement in this whole affair merits more than a passing glance. As I’ve mentioned before, he’s more than a musicologist. His work has primarily been in cross-cultural musical ensembles, or the ability of two worlds coming together through music. In 2010 he brought Israeli and Pakistani choral musicians together, not in some air-conditioned hall in comfortably neutral territory but at the heartland of conflict in the Middle-East, East Jerusalem. Having taught in Bombay and in Boston, having traversed through America, India, Central Asia, and even Latin America, he has, from what I have heard and read, never wavered in his belief in the power of music to celebrate commonalities.

And in opting for Qawwali, a genre that’s raised so much flak, so much censure, and that’s traceable in turn to a poetic form whose proponents have been imprisoned, exiled, tortured, and killed in the name of divinity (the same divinity which these proponents have, ironically, praised and apotheosised), his choice has been tense, terse, and spot on. After all, reconciliation in a troubled land shouldn’t call for compromise: its tenor must be absolute, its profusion unconditional. From the responses I was able to glean of those who attended both events, on Saturday and Sunday, I can concede this much: the organisers have delivered, and what they’ve delivered goes beyond anything that academic texts can hope to do justice to.

Aswatuna refers to a voice, yours, mine, his, hers, and ours. Perhaps that’s the best way I can conclude, sum up, and in the process pay my respects to the entire project.

Written for: Daily Mirror, August 31 2017

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Gamini Fonseka: Between love notes and fistfights

The last few years seem to indicate that our stars can never truly transcend their power, their sense of glamour and fame. Hemal Ranasinghe in Pravegaya is really no different to the Hemal Ranasinghe in Adaraneeya Kathawak. You see the same photogenic and potent features – his face, his drawl, even his strut – and you see him act out variations on the calm-and-quiet-hero-now-challenged, his elan. The same can be said of Uddika Premaratne, whose best performances (which are also the ones we remember, clearly) have him as a defeatist, the man at breaking point who needs someone to console him. (Part of the reason why the first half of Aloka Udapadi works so well in comparison to the second is that in there the man acts out this defeatist, while throughout the rest of the movie he’s a stereotypical resurrected hero.)

When we grow used to such actors and the kind of performances we think they’re suited for, we are always put off when they veer off. That doesn’t happen very often in our movies (as often as it should) but when it does we are excited. Who wants to see the same hero again and again, anyway? We want more.

I believe it’s true everywhere that as a film industry matures, actors find themselves being diversified and moved on to more complex roles. The only reason why Douglas Fairbanks or Buster Keaton or even Charlie Chaplin is remembered for the cranks and adventurers they were is that they were born to the early days of filmmaking. Roughly the same can be said of our own stars: of Rukmani Devi and Eddie Jayamanne and D. R. Nanayakkara. Even Joe Abeywickrema’s early work was limiting, and often denied him the range that he discovered in later years.

But these people had one excuse: they were there at a time when the producers demanded that they stick to one role. When a film industry matured and an actor persisted in being the hero or villain, in contrast, the excuse he had was that audiences were nostalgic and hence tired of the complexity that actors were subject to in this more mature era, and wanted a virile performer to remain virile. To a considerable extent, this explains the rise and the maturing of Gamini Fonseka.

Critics and commentators are ever so quick to compare Fonseka with Marlon Brando and Paul Muni. To me though, such comparisons are facile, hollow, and evasive, symptomatic of how facile, hollow, and evasive the critics themselves are. It’s as though these writers were not bothered about moving into what shapes and breathes life into a performance, a performer. Brando represented the West’s post-war rebellion against security, while Muni, as Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H* so succinctly put it, was the guy who played everybody when “Franklin Roosevelt was president and Joe Louis [the boxer] was always the champ.”

Fonseka never really rebelled against stability, nor did he get to play everybody. What he borrowed from these two was their flair for researching and preparing for their roles. But what he borrowed was not what he gave out. He didn’t symbolise rebellion: his box-office records would have been enough to convince him not to. Brando didn’t care how big he was because he was prone to emotional breakdowns, crying out to us about his personal inadequacies. Fonseka was never that kind of hero.

To compare the one with the other would be to make two irreconcilable film cultures look similar. Hollywood likes to glamorise petty criminals, outlaws, and cranks. The Sinhala film industry of the fifties, sixties, and seventies (its richest periods) didn’t want to legitimise such outsiders. Rather, it wanted a hero. Not because it didn’t have any, but because every star it had, from Eddie to Rukmani to Joe (whose rise would predate Gamini’s), was content to play either the second-rate jester or the first-rate lover. We were laughing or crying too much. We needed to be thrilled, to be excited. Gamini saw this void, and like all shrewd, calculating stars, he filled the gap.

Gamini could never resist the camera, even when he was off-camera. There’s a sequence in Nidhanaya the morning after he and Irene marry, where Irene comes across a caged peacock and her husband slowly creeps up to her and disturbingly reflects on how the bird can, in a sudden fit of rage, kill its own mate. Douglas Ranasinghe (who had been in Lester James Peries’ earlier film produced by Ceylon Theatres, Akkara Paha) told me that when he was in location at the mansion and near that cage, Fonseka crept up to him in that exact same manner and began his meditation. “I was so enchanted if not disturbed by his worldly knowledge, his serious tones, until a few days later, when I found out that he had merely been rehearsing for his part.” That was Fonseka: the hero who needed to be a hero.

In an otherwise politically neutral review of Sarungale Regi Siriwardena made the following extraordinary claim: “When the time comes to draw up a balance-sheet of Mr Gamini Fonseka’s career, his role in this film as well as his part in conceiving its story and theme will have to be set strongly on the credit side against all the bad films in which he has played and his right-wing politics.”

Right-wing politics: what exactly did Siriwardena mean there? Was it the right-wing politics that adorns a film like, say, Sagarayak Meda, with its barely concealed attack on Felix Bandaranaike and socialism? Or was it the right-wing politics which pops up in his later performances as arbiters of law and order, even as the mellowed but potent antihero in Demodara Palama, the sequel to Titus Thotawatte’s Chandiya? Perhaps, but that marginalises another more important point: the populist strains of Gamini’s early career had by this time congealed to a rigidly conservative and right-wing ethic.

Fonseka’s depictions of police officers, army commanders, and law abiding citizens were the consequence of, and not a diversion from, his earlier depictions of thugs (the good sort), prisoners (the well intentioned sort), and outlaws (the Robin Hood, Yakadaya sort). In the sixties and seventies he was the man who broke every rule in the book if that meant standing up for the wretched who were unable to stand for themselves. In the eighties and nineties he achieved a kind of transubstantiation: he found out that outlaws, when ageing, didn’t necessary have to resort to “outlawing” to achieve that kind of justice: they could be purveyors of the law, conservative, and still be heroes. For that, obviously, he needed to be his own star, his own director, which is what producers were only too willing to let him be in the eighties. In the end Gamini Fonseka became what he’d always been wanted to become. Gamini Fonseka.

It is said that our greatest and most accomplished actors have a fatal weakness: they can’t help being great and accomplished. I firmly disagree, but I wonder whether that point holds true for an actor like Fonseka. When you see Joe Abeywickrema as Silindu and Tony Ranasinghe as Fernando you know that’s Silindu and that’s Fernando. But when you see Fonseka as Simon Kabilana, smoking cigarettes in that suave fashion and dextrously jumping from Sinhala to English and back to Sinhala, what do you really see in him? In the opening sequence of Welikathara you come across a star who was as able to hold a cigarette that way and dabble in both languages confidently. It’s the kind of confidence that never goes away unless one consciously wills it away. Perhaps that is why a prominent actor, no longer with us, once observed that when Fonseka asked for his opinion of his performance in Yuganthaya, he had only one answer to give: That in being Kabilana, he was being himself.

Of the many performances the man gave after Yuganthaya, his role as Kabilana being his comeback (he had vowed at that point to leave the cinema; the truth was that the cinema was trying to leave him, but couldn’t), only one really registers in my mind: the mudalali in Sumitra Peries’ Loku Duwa, easily the most self-parodying role he got in his career. “We sarong-wearing folk are better than those dogs who wear trousers, remember that!” he thunders to Geetha Kumarasinghe as she laments the fact that he just beat up her brother (Kamal Addararachchi). We are taken aback by his voice, but we aren’t intimidated; if we are, we are only intimidated to grin.

Fonseka was channelling a real-life mudalali (the sort who was never educated but prospered through his gut instincts) he had studied for his role but eventually we realised that he was channelling himself, only this time he wasn’t reinforcing his tough image, but making fun of it. Yuganthaya was directed by Sumitra’s husband Lester: these two were the only filmmakers who could depict Fonseka like that and get away with it. He’s so vile in Loku Duwa that you know you have to detest him, but you don’t, not because of the actor’s identity but because of how he forces the plot to take a detour in its second half. In the end you don’t hate him, you laugh for him, that ridiculously rough accent, and that ridiculously slimy leer and grin.

The man could have played everybody but he didn’t. He wasn’t being typecast against his will there, though. He wilfully submitted to what he surely knew was the only way he could sustain his life, his career, and with it his movies. By sustaining that, he might have known he was sustaining us too. He was all our idealised conceptions and imaginings of him, if not more. And in becoming that idealisation of him we’d treasured for so long, he became supremely confident that all he had to do in front of the camera was be the only person he could be. Himself. That was Gamini Fonseka at his best and (I daresay) his worst: the man who could only be what he’d got us, the people, to believe he could be. “I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am,” Marlon Brando lamented to Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront. Roughly the opposite, almost word to word, was true of Gamini. How could he have been a Brando in Sri Lanka, then?

Written for: Daily Mirror, August 30 2017

Friday, August 25, 2017

Liberalism: The history of a paradox

The recent spate of riots and indiscriminate acts of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia has raised alarm everywhere. What these riots suggest is that the alternative right has gained the upper hand, at least nominally, and that those in charge are reluctant to call a spade a spade. They are all copping out, so commentators point out. Nazism has obviously held sway in parts of the West where white middle-class workers feel upended by immigrants and African-Americans who are considered to be either living off the welfare system or living on the government. Those who are calling them out, incidentally, are white middle class liberals.

In the United States of America these white middle class liberals are identified as leftists, socialists, pinkos, or Commies by white middle class conservatives. John Maynard Keynes is a socialist in their books, as are the two other Johns, Galbraith and Kennedy. This confusion of ideologies is also a confusion of cultures, and it’s rooted in part at least in the West’s casual dismissal of socialism as doctrines that no longer hold sway in the world. It’s more or less a reflection of the liberal’s role in the West and (to a certain extent) in the East, rather self-contradictory as it has been.

Liberalism is the most enduring tribute to the West’s intellectual and academic presence in the contemporary world. Historically it emerged as a force that sought to do away with monarchs and despots (no matter how “enlightened” they were). Theoretically at least, liberals were against conflating the state and religion. They were the inevitable result of the Age of Enlightenment, where a political culture that differentiated between an absolute ruler and a horde of lords, serfs, and vassals was replaced by one that differentiated between representatives and voters. It was primarily a doctrine of ethical individualism, which idealised a system of representative democracy. Its proponents found their pivot with John Locke.

Locke was the father of the movement that culminated with the founding of the United States of America and the two documents that birthed it, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. His ideas were premised on private property conceived of as a reality that necessitated, not absolute monarchs holding a monopoly over power in a given territory, but universally agreed upon rules and principles which would ensure a flourishing democracy. In effect, he atomised the notion of rights as we know it today, rooting it in the individual and not a collective.

The problem is that this atomised notion of rights was in turn rooted in a variant of individualism that derived its historical and political relevance from a predominantly White Anglo Saxon and bourgeois polity. What was so interesting about this culture of liberalism that ran riot in the 18th and 19th centuries was that it was sustained by the centuries that led to them: the 15th, 16th, and 17th, which contained the seeds of fanaticism, intolerance, and bigotry that would be unleashed later on.

When Professor Nalin de Silva contended that Martin Luther was no different to the Catholic Church he railed against, he was not exhibiting a paranoid distaste for the West, but pointing out that the West has one way of seeing. De Silva them contended that every –ism that adorned history, from capitalism to Protestantism to Marxism to (yes) liberalism, could be traced to their atomised perception of reality. The liberalism of the 20th century tried to reconcile the fundamental dichotomy which resulted from this, between its privileging of individual dignity and its similarities with the –isms from the preceding centuries it claimed to act against, and succeeded only in part.

The tragedy of Western liberalism then is that it congealed eventually to its own antithesis. Its profusion in the 20th century was followed by its deterioration (a phenomenon which, perhaps, won’t last for long) in the 21st. The renegades of the last century, who took pride in being renegades and standing up for civil and civic rights, became turncoats, not just because of their personal failings but also because no ideology conditioned by a bourgeois (note that I use that term in an economic and not political sense), white, and Anglo Saxon base could be sustained for long. The progressivism that the two Roosevelt presidencies birthed was formulated by policymakers who were derided later on as dangerous parvenus, among them the Vice President under Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Wallace, whose attitude of conciliation towards the Soviet Union lost him support from even his own party colleagues.

Added to this was liberalism’s most discernible contribution to the modern polity, human rights. The eminent Czech jurist Karel Vasak in 1979 proposed a differentiation of human rights into three generations. The first generation, as such, was based on the ideas of liberty, fraternity, and equality during the French Revolution, ideas that were depicted in Eugene Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People. It was a conception of rights based on participation in civic life, with freedoms and corresponding duties. This was pioneered by two key documents: the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of Independence.

The second generation human rights moved into economic and cultural freedoms, away from the political. Largely a response to the civil rights movement, these entailed, inter alia, affirmative action policies along with rights to education, trade union membership, and housing. Third generation human rights went even further, eschewing nominal civil and social freedoms for collective rights, including the right to self-determination. These were pretty much an offshoot of the United Nations and the rise in international human rights law, particularly with the 1972 Stockholm Declaration and the 1992 Rio Declaration.

The rights/duties paradigm of the first and second generations was contradicted by the unilateralism of the third. It doesn’t take one much to figure out that the last few decades have seen a catastrophic rise in extremism bred by powerful countries claiming to eradicate “greater evils” by resorting to maverick fanatics. The Mujahideen, the Contras, and Pinochet, not to mention Videla: they were all allies of the liberal West, not because they actually cared for the notions of economic and political rights the West did but because they were on the side of the willing.

The truth is that liberalism was almost always tempered by a sense of exceptionalism and elitism among those who purported to stand for it, which explains the rise of that third generation and the West’s duplicitous record on human rights.

That’s not all.

The liberal hero in America during those happy civil rights days was Atticus Finch, the lawyer from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. A good book and an interesting movie at that, but consider its sequel Go Set a Watchman, published in 2015. A completely different Atticus Finch, bigoted, supportive of those infamous White Supremacist Citizens’ Councils, and opposed to desegregation because desegregation rails against his ideas of small government and free markets, greets us in it. When I was studying Mockingbird in school I was entranced by the man: the liberal hero who exuded our youthful idealisations of equality. The Finch of the second book was a rude awakening. Overnight, those idealisations soured in me.

When I look back now, however, I see in the man not the renegade that Wordsworth (“Just for a handful of silver he left us”) or Coleridge was, but the continuation of the small town liberal he had earlier been. There’s an interesting passage in Go Set a Watchman where his distraught daughter accuses him of being a hypocrite when considering his earlier record on civil rights. But no, she herself realises: that record was always tempered by his belief in black-and-white and blind justice, which had nothing to do with his personal stance on men and women of colour.

So when Atticus, “liberal hero” for many of those who were born to the sixties and seventies, contends that the only reason he opposes the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) is his belief that “coloured people” haven’t reached the standard “white people” have set for them, he is merely touting the rightwing and conservative variant of what everyone else, liberal, reactionary, or libertarian, has espoused: assess the negroes through yardsticks created by white men, the same white men who are out there, making lofty pronouncements against White Supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan.

I don’t like to disbelieve in liberalism. Much of the progress we’ve achieved, together, regardless of caste, creed, and colour, as individuals and collectives, have been owing to its profusion everywhere, in every polity. Its self-contradictory personality, which I will dwell on at length in a separate article, is what has ailed it, however, not just yesterday or today, but in all probability tomorrow as well. Sad, I should think.

Written for: Daily Mirror, August 25 2017

Thursday, August 24, 2017

For Clarence Wijewardena: Soaking it all in

Young people revel in being philistines not because their mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles don’t understand them (to be sure, they don’t), but because they want to show that they care, that they understand what their elders want them to understand. Some of the greatest art was born out of that kind of philistinism. And some of that philistine art has survived widespread censure. But the philistinism of the past was conditioned by an important fact. That fact was, simply, that young people knew what they were up against and had an underlying motive to please and to enthral.

The young of today are complacent, smug, passionate, and to an extent they at least try to please us. But the art they churn out can hardly be called art. They have the talent and the raw craftsmanship but they don’t have what it takes to convert that into something meaningful, something artistically fulfilling. When was the last time we heard a song which didn’t croon about love, be it imagined, lost, regained, lost again, or lost forever? When was the last time we saw a film which thrived without those Antonioni-inspired profundities that are so symbolically banal that when they actually didn’t mean anything, they are interpreted to mean something?

The problem with these cultural revolutionists is that they try to transform their common experiences into works of art they THINK we’ll take to. (For the record, of course, we don’t.) They feel so strongly that their experiences are enough, that their sense of daring will magically do the rest of the work. Depending on how you view it, this can be a sign of their laziness or convictions, and if it is the latter, those convictions of theirs aren’t really enough to convince us. Now my point here is that for any art to prosper, in any society, and for the popular to cohabit with the arty, the performer must be aware of and alive to his society. That’s what enriched our purveyors of pop culture: the H. D. Premaratne of Sikuruliya and Apeksha and the man who composed the music for both those movies, Clarence Wijewardena.

The two most discernible and easily identifiable points about a Clarence Wijewardena composition are that, one, it tells a story or at least has a story behind it, and two, it empowered a particular social milieu, middle class and demarcated as the petit bourgeoisie. Ajith Samaranayake in a tribute to Camillus Perera surmised that this bourgeoisie (or lumpen proletariat) had evolved into a special subclass on their own terms. It was that subclass which provided grist to Clarence’s work, which sought to bring together the sarala gee tradition of Amaradeva and the baila-calypso tradition of Wally Bastians, Desmond Kelly, Neville Fernando, and C. T. Fernando.

Clarence spoke or rather wrote and made others sing about the foibles of ordinary individuals, the Mangos and the Kalu Maamas who found life so mundane that they just had to make it interesting, if not colourful. This was reflected in even the instruments that the Moonstones, his first band, operated on: like the Beatles, they included the sitar alongside the guitar. Elsewhere Khemadasa was doing roughly the same thing, compounding the guitar and the piano with the sitar, the tabla, the violin.

Khemadasa took it upon himself to interpret Western chords and melodies to a discerning local audience. But that discerning audience was also discriminating, and belonged to the crowd which was fixated on the classically romantic. Clarence was not a romantic in any classical sense: his task was to refine, to readapt, and to interpret a form of music (baila and calypso) which had been disparaged by the same milieu that produced it. In doing that he wasn’t limited by the parameters of that genre, of course: neither the 6/8 beat that baila thrived on nor the deft interplay of words reflected in its lyrics. Added to this was another point, as important, as relevant.

The “low key” pop quality of much of Clarence’s work (regardless of whether they were written by him) was not really low key the way baila was. As I noted in my tribute to Anton Jones, baila lyrics celebrated a certain kind of freedom that subsisted on a happy-go-lucky, careless lifestyle. In “Mama Enne Dubayi Rate Indala” M. S. Fernando epitomises this attitude of carelessness rather well. You don’t come across that freewheeling carelessness in Clarence’s work, if at all because while they celebrated a freewheeling lifestyle, that didn’t thrive on a self-indulgent ethic.

His most suggestive, if not provocative, songs – like Mango Kalu Nande and Mame Kalu Mame – only hint at such an ethic. In this he was probably reflecting the milieu of those who doted on these songs, tempered by a middle class worldview, conservative, at times even puritanical, yet aspiring for more than what they had. They were not the kind of people that moralists would have deplored, but the kind that hinged uncomfortably on such a milieu. Ignored and neglected by nearly every artist here, they would eventually become Clarence’s biggest audience. That almost all of them hailed from the same locales which nurtured baila – Moratuwa, Negombo, Chilaw – was to be expected. They were overtly enraptured by baila, yet covertly disdainful of its celebration of self-indulgence; consequently, they were relieved at a man who reconciled the best elements of that genre with the qualities which they, as a collective, embodied. I fervently believe that was Clarence’s biggest strength.

It’s a curious interplay of love and hate, of sarcasm and infatuation, which is to be found in many of his songs. But while his early work celebrated this at times contradictory fusion of opposites, his later work, in the seventies and eighties, sought to do away with it. Like most artists who mellowed, matured, and grew wiser with the years, Clarence seemed here to have wanted to assert life as it was, without that streak of self-indulgence. To me, this is what explains the eventide quality of his later work – Atha Ran Wiman, Piyamba Yanawa Ma Akasaye, Sihina Lovak Dutuwa Mathakayi – eventide because when you listen to them, you feel as though they were composed just so to be sung at twilight, at dusk, when you look back on what went by and sought solace in the fact that you achieved something, anything, on that day.

In the end he took an entire career to celebrate what we, his greatest admirers, had been celebrating every day. He became alive to that eventide welter of life, in which all our sorrows and defeats and conquests congealed into a dusk which we all went to, forgetting enmities and realising that we were all in it, to win or to lose, together.

මේ ලොවින් එ‍හා සිටන්
ඈත ලෝකයෙන් ඇවිත්

In short, the composer got us to look forward to another tomorrow by closing in on today, when earlier he got us to remain transfixed on a seemingly eternal today.

ඔබේ සුරතල් මුහුණ බලන්නට මම හරි ආසයි
ඔබේ බොළඳ කතා අසන්නට මට හරි ආසය

And in the end, his work, his songs, kept us alive not just to today and tomorrow, but to yesterday. The same yesterday he adorned and yes, resurrected. For us.

Photo courtesy of Sooriya Records

Written for: Daily Mirror, August 24 2017

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Swarna Mallawarachchi: The woman I saw

A tribute to the first real woman I saw onscreen here.

In Yasapalitha Nanayakkara’s Anjana Swarna Mallawarachchi does something she never did in her other movies. Dance. Anjana erupts in a riot of colour (it still feels rather oversaturated today, like all those commercial films from the eighties) and practically subsists on sharply defined reds, greens, and blues: ideal for the lavish, visually lovely, but rather incongruous dance sequences it contained.

When we see Swarna in that glamorous red gown today, we are not taken aback, we are stumped. But then we belong to a different generation. In her time audiences would have followed her ascent, from Nanayakkara to Dharmasiri Bandaranayake and Vasantha Obeyesekere, gradually. In our time audiences would have flocked to see her in Dadayama and Kadapathaka Chaya and assumed that they were all she was in. We never bothered to look at her past, at all those supporting roles she had to tolerate before her big break.

Just as we secretly loathe our commercial comedies and melodramas and their cast members, we also secretly play along to the myths they make use of. The lone woman in the company of men is there to be caught and almost killed before the other men rescue her. The rich heiress elopes with her poor paramour to a life of ease and comfort. The idealist abandoned by her lover croons about her plight to the only people who will listen to her, the audience. These situations involve women, and not for no reason: our cinema has tapped into our patriarchal outlook of the world in ways no other art form has, ever. The myths they revolve around needed directors who could challenge if not upend them and, obviously, actors who could break them apart. Not until Swarna did we come across such a woman, such a performer.

Along with Anjana, there were four movies which signalled Swarna Mallawarachchi’s return to the cinema after her sojourn in England: Sankapali, Ridi Nimnaya, Biththi Hathara, and Yahalu Yeheli. She won an award jointly for the latter three from the OCIC in 1982, one year after she was snubbed off with a token Merit Prize at the Presidential Awards Ceremony for Hansa Vilak. The difference between her role in Hansa Vilak and those three performances couldn’t have been more apparent. The latter three reflected her debut roles in Sath Samudura, Hanthane Kathawa, and Thunman Handiya, because of how unlikeable she was in them: in Yahalu Yeheli, for instance, she sides with her father against her own sister (the protagonist), while in Sath Samudura and Thunman Handiya she was as unsympathetic a relative.

In Hansa Vilak Swarna, as Miranda Ranaweera, becomes an inexorable figure of vagueness and confusion. There’s really no character whom we empathise with in the first place: not Miranda, not her lover Nissanka, not her husband Douglas, and not Nissanka’s brother-in-law Dayananda. The only real figure of empathy is Nissanka’s wife, Samantha, but then she was played by Vasanthi Chathurani, a qualitatively different actress. (She was the girl next door, which Swarna never was.)

When Miranda confesses about her adultery to Nissanka (she wants to return to Douglas), and when Nissanka reacts by attacking her, she doesn’t weep or scream or even moan, she just laughs. “I’ve known all along that this was my fate. Why wait anymore then? Go ahead, kill me now!” she practically sneers. Nissanka’s feelings of betrayal are ours too, to be sure, but Swarna’s enigma intrigues us. What does she mean? Perhaps it’s her religious devotion, or the sense of guilt it compels in her.

Even Swarna was afraid of taking that role, she once informed me. “I read the script Dharmasiri had written, and given that back then our cinema divided women into either paragons of virtue or she-devils, I thought my character was dark. I called Dharmasiri and told him this, but he assuaged my doubts.”

She wasn’t completely wrong there, of course, because on the basis of the criterion we used to judge female characters back then, she was a conniver, a she-devil. The great achievement of Hansa Vilak was that it was the first Sinhala film that delved into the subjective consciousness of a single character. If audiences found fault with Miranda it was because of this lopsided perspective: we don’t see what Nissanka doesn’t, we only imagine it. He’s convinced that Miranda is a conniving double-crosser, and given that we are seeing the world through his eyes, we concur.

Fortunately for her, the films she got thereafter never played around with that kind of confused perspective we saw her through before. In Suddilage Kathawa, Dadayama, Maya, and Sagara Jalaya, not only is she suavely confident of her own infallibility, she is adamant that she is the only real human being in the story.

The first half of Suddilage Kathawa, for instance, until Romiel’s return from prison, is about Suddi’s sexual conquests, her only method of survival in her village. “Romiel: wasn’t he sent to prison for murdering somebody?” the mudalali, played by the lewdest womaniser to ever be depicted in our cinema, Somi Ratnayake, asks, to which Swarna casually replies, “The Arachchi will set him free soon; he’s looking after the lawyer who’ll be defending him.” We obviously don’t believe her, and neither does the mudalali. But her casual reply isn’t a mere reply, it’s an invitation: a few minutes later, she has got him hooked up with her, and he becomes her benefactor.

How she does it, and by doing it how she shows us her invincible, indomitable character, was Swarna’s real achievement. Dadayama is an enduring film even today not only because of Ravindra Randeniya’s Priyankara Jayanath, but also because Swarna stands for everything that a woman, at that point in time, was told to never be: a fighter, a rebel, a destroyer. She asserts her dignity in that last sequence knowing very well that she won’t survive, but she gets on with it to prove to herself, and to her tormentor, that she can be as animalistic and predatory as he is. You can’t imagine another actress in such a powerful sequence because no other actress could be as frighteningly bestial as she was. She’s no longer the prey or the hunted; she’s the hunter, hell-bent on tilting the scales against the man she once loved.

With other directors she was virtually in a different universe, but with Dharmasiri Bandaranayake and Vasantha Obeyesekere she almost always got to play that kind of woman: torn apart, wasted away, and always seeking a way of fighting back. In the end this meant that she would embody the qualities of the same people she was fighting against, which is what she underwent in Kadapathaka Chaya.

Laleen Jayamanne, in her book Towards Cinema and its Double, describes Swarna’s character in Kadapathaka Chaya, Nanda, as unappealing, ambivalent, fatal: not the woman who’s fated to destroy her man, but the woman who becomes an avenger through a complex array of familial, social, and power relationships. In Dadayama she dreams of a life with Priyankara. In Kadapathaka Chaya, that dream ends the moment she’s raped by her brother-in-law, which sets of a chain of events that end with her manipulating him for her ends and her act of throwing acid on his face. (As with Obeyesekere’s other films, this too was based on a real incident.)

In the seventies and eighties the Western cinema tended to represent women, not as heroines, but as heroes: as doers, not submissive receptacles. Swarna in effect trumped this way of representing women because she was both a doer and submissive receptacle even in her most landmark performances. She is at the receiving end of a patriarchal world, but ironically and until her own end she aspires to be a member of that same world. Her desire in Dadayama is to marry Priyankara, just as her desire in Kadapathaka Chaya is to live a life of peace and comfort with Piyatilake. In our films marriage has been the great consoler, so even when she’s beaten down and traumatised, it is to that consoler she wants to succumb, to run off.

Swarna Mallawarachchi’s forte – embodying our deepest affection for and fear and even mild hatred of the woman as a rebel – became its own standard, its own benchmark. That’s why it’s difficult to remake Suddilage Kathawa today (Dharmasiri Bandaranayake has been approached with offers to remake it, all of which he has refused): not only because there’s no contemporary equivalent for Swarna, but because we’ve gone past that eroticised, multifarious depiction of the female victim.

And as Asoka Handagama’s Let Her Cry shows, even she seems to have realised this. Swarna began her career as less than empathetic in-laws. She went on to depict victims we took to even though we knew they were doomed. With Let Her Cry, she has let go to turn into a morally confused matriarch. “No two performances of hers are the same,” Handagama has informed us. True. On that count, she has become the inverse of the tormented female she portrayed until another of his films (his debut), Channa Kinnari. Handagama brought her back to the cinema after 20 years. It remains to be seen what her return will portend. Until then, we can only speculate.

Written for: Daily Mirror, August 22 2017

Monday, August 21, 2017

A conversation with Lester James Peries


Biographical sketches bore me. Sure, sometimes they are the best way to disseminate the lives and careers of those who are being written on. But all too often, they are packed with so many inessential details recorded elsewhere that they become exercises in repetition and banality. Lester James Peries is no exception to this. With several books and essays written on the man, we still haven’t got to a cohesive, comprehensive text exploring not just his craft, but the names and the movies that shaped it. While my taste in the cinema is woefully inadequate to the task of delving into his career, I can try. So here goes.

Is there any overriding influence you can point out, right now?

Whenever people asked me “Which of the movies you've directed is your favourite?” I was inclined to say “My next film.” It’s roughly the same answer I give whenever I’m asked about my influences, because there are so many and to pinpoint one in particular would prejudice you and me against every other influence. I was shaped by everything I laid my eyes on, be they films, filmmakers, my brother, or my country. But if I were to dig deeper, I’d point at Italian neo-realism. Directors like Vittorio de Sica and Luchino Visconti had a big say in my career. I was entranced and at times overwhelmed by their fidelity to realism.

To be sure, “realism” is a fluid term, always changing, never static. In this case, I use the term to denote the director’s ability to depict instead of representing, to stand apart and instil some flesh and blood into the characters being depicted. De Sica achieved that vision with his Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves, both of which I saw and was moved by when they were first released. In Bicycle Thieves there’s no attempt at glamour, at visual beauty or loveliness. What visual loveliness there is derives from the Italian metropolis and the poverty of the protagonists, the father and the son in search of their stolen bicycle. Most people think that neo-realism died during the Cold War, when moviemakers thought they had to be more politically slanted in their work. All stuff and nonsense. Neo-realism is still alive. It always will be.

Given this fidelity to realism, how did you find yourself when other directors and writers began covertly attacking you as a bourgeois filmmaker?

Names and labels are just that: names and labels. I was never really a politically committed director, but it depends on what you mean by “politically committed.” The definition used by these writers entailed anyone and everyone who sacrificed authenticity for an overtly political outlook. But I don’t think you need to film political manifestos to be committed. You can be aloof, you can try not to get involved in explicit political movements, and still talk about poverty, the oppression of the lower class, the conflict between the haves and the have-nots.

In Sri Lanka this wave of politically committed directors came about in the seventies. I remember a booklet that was distributed at the premiere of a film made by someone who was being championed as their mentor. The booklet was titled Appochchige Cinamawa, “Appochchi” being me. It echoed what was happening in France, where directors who didn’t fit into the model of filmmaking envisioned by the Nouvelle Vague and Cahiers du Cinema commentators were referred to as papa, with their work referred to as cinema de papa. It was an exact, word to word translation.

You mentioned Rossellini and de Sica. Any directors from across the Atlantic?

Satyajit Ray’s passion for the movies started with Hollywood. Before he began studying the director and the scriptwriter, he was infatuated with the big stars: Deanna Durbin, Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, and Humphrey Bogart. We all were, to be honest, because you couldn’t just escape the American cinema. It was everywhere. In every nook or corner. And it soon became part of our common experience. My stints as a journalist in London in the forties were a blessing for me in that respect, because I got to watch many American and British films. I remember reviewing some of them, even the continental ones like Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.

But if there was one movie that moved me into the cinema at that time, it was Citizen Kane. We were young when it first came out, so what was innovative, groundbreaking, and unprecedented about it caught us immediately. You could say it knocked our socks off, since we were so taken aback by this debut feature made by a 26 year old prodigy called Orson Welles. Most people would argue that it’s dated today, but I vehemently disagree. What was so dated to them is precisely what’s so timeless about it for me. Unlike Hitchcock’s thrillers and even a classic like Vertigo, which topped Kane in Sight and Sound’s list of the 10 greatest films of all time in 2012, it wasn’t seasonal. It transcended the time in which it was made.

There were other movies, other directors you couldn’t escape from. Like John Ford. He transformed the cowboy film into a folk art. He shaped the founding myths of America even though he wasn’t an American. The best part about it was that he never considered himself an artist: he would have glared at you if you were to describe him as one. When you see his Westerns now, which influenced all other Westerns made after his time, you don’t “discern” art. You discern a true professional at work, the sort who regarded his career only as a means of earning a living.

Any directors you didn’t take to?

I was never a fan of Cecil B. DeMille. Critics today acclaim the special effects and sense of grandeur in an epic like Samson and Delilah or The Ten Commandments, but for me they were add-ons. He was a showman, though his influence has pervaded every film industry. Every country has its share of DeMilles. They want to glamorise history, to instil some larger-than-life epicness into our myths, our legends. What they forget is that our people are the real bedrock of our cinema. They are far more virile and possess a greater range of experience than all the kings and queens in the world. Sadly however, they are neglected, and our directors choose to make another Ten Commandments, with their own Moseses and Samsons.

What can you say about the French New Wave?

It was not unlike Hitchcock’s films, largely seasonal, limited to the place and time in which it was fermented. Of the New Wave directors only one survived, and he’s the only one who’s still with us. I am talking about Jean-Luc Godard. Satyajit Ray once subtly compared his work to a collage. You can’t take to those films spontaneously. You have to gather the bits and pieces that make them up, carefully. That’s not to say they are intellectualised or cut off from the people, but they require a different conception of the medium to the one I operated on. Just as much as I diverged from the kind of epics that DeMille was making, I also diverged from what the New Wave followed.

But of course, their influence was very much pervasive here. I think it had to do with our defeatist attitude towards the world. In the seventies, when my work was lambasted as elitist, the typical young director took the East Europeans as his or her influence. The East Europeans were different to the Americans, because they were defeatist. The seventies was a brutal decade for our country. Naturally, that spilled over to our writers and our directors. Most people would use that as a criterion to argue that my films and my plots didn’t delve enough into the issues that ailed my characters, like poverty and landlessness. But like I said before, it all really comes down to what you mean by terms like realism and commitment.

Final question. 15 years ago in an interview, you compared the director to a conductor of an orchestra. Do you still stand by this observation?

I was never a big fan of the auteur theory, which stated that a film was what its director wanted it to be. Conflating the one with the other means missing out on the cast and crew that fleshes out the director’s vision. Speaking for myself, I have been fortunate enough to work with some of the best scriptwriters this country and my time could conjure, from Regi Siriwardena to Somaweera Senanayake.

Does that mean I wasn’t aware of my role in the filmmaking process? Of course not. One can be an individualist and a collaborationist. I think that’s quite valid for an art form, any art form, but it’s especially valid for the cinema, where by default you have to work with so many people. Accepting that you aren’t the only cast and crew member is a first step to a good film. A necessary first step.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, August 21 2017

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Hashen Hettigoda rows on ahead

The first few weeks, months, and years of trying out a new sport are never easy. You get injured, poked at, ridiculed, sometimes put down, and always intimidated. It’s probably that fear of being intimidated, or the anxiety of being in front of a large cheering crowd, that kept me from trying out anything at school, period. That’s a given. Some like to go ahead, others stay back. Those who stay back are blessed with the privilege of knowing they won’t be subject to the vicissitudes of victory and defeat those who go ahead are. Again, a given.

But what’s so difficult about those first few years is also what’s so manageable about them. There’s always a team to back you up, for one thing. It doesn’t matter how tough the competition from the other side can get, or how futile victory is to achieve. Once you’re in that team, you’re in. All honorifics disappear, name-calling becomes a no-no, and the individual gets subsumed by the group. Nowhere is truer than activities that force their team players to literally be at each other’s side.

I’m thinking here of rowing. Sri Lanka is of course no stranger to that sport, but with the recent spate of setbacks certain other activities and their national squads have undergone abroad, the country’s interest in it has improved. Rather considerably.

Those setbacks, incidentally, have compelled me to value one quality in those who take to a sport, any sport. Consistency. That’s what sets those I’ve interviewed for this column, for this paper, apart from their opponents. And that’s what sets the person I’ve interviewed this week apart from his competition. Hashen Hettigoda, who’s been rowing for more than six years, and has won practically every top rank a player his age (and above it) can, has come quite close to substantiating my preference for consistency over one hit victories. He clearly doesn’t belong to the latter category.

Hashen’s stints at rowing go back to 2009. They actually go even further back, considering that the first sport he’d indulged in was rugby and considering that he’d shifted gears after fracturing his leg twice during practices. That accident had got his mother worried, which, coupled with the one-and-a-half months he had to wait recuperating from his injuries, meant that he was open to other paths. It didn’t take long for him to find his own path.

“I was in Grade Six at the time. During those one-and-a-half months, I went to a friend’s grandfather’s funeral. There I met the rowing coach at my school, who happened to be another friend’s uncle. One thing led to another, and he ended up inviting me to a practice session. Normally I wouldn’t have gone, except for one issue: I was rather fat back then. I was dieting and badly wanted to get leaner. So I agreed with him then and there. And so soon enough I was going for those practices.”

That was in 2010. After around a year of those training sessions, Hashen entered his first tournament, a two kilometre open race at the Bolgoda Lake. He clinched a gold medal there, which had naturally encouraged him. “I won in the Under 13 category. I believe that first victory pushed me to try and triumph at tournaments which were beyond my age. Fortunately for me, that’s exactly what happened.”

A cursory list can’t really sum up all his subsequent achievements, but I’ll try at one all the same. Hashen has emerged as the Under 13, Under 14, Under 18, and Under 20 top national rower. In 2014, having contended at school and national level regattas, he was part of the contingent that left for Taiwan for the Asian Junior Rowing Championship. He was ranked as the eighth Under 18 Asian oarsman there. “Taiwan opened my eyes. We are improving as a nation, but we are nowhere near the East Asians. I was actually lucky to be in the team that went there, lucky because I was selected after I beat my opponent to become the top sculler in the country.”

And that list doesn’t stop there. He clinched gold medals for the Under 18 Scull and the Under 19 Quad Scull at the Head of Bay Regatta in Hong Kong this year. He came second at the Scull and first at the Double Scull at the recently held ARAE Regatta in India. Last year he was in the Rutherglen Regatta in Melbourne, Australia, where he won second place in the Open Eight and third place in the Open Four. Around that time, he also clinched the 13th Under 18 rank at the Asian Junior Rowing Championship in Pattaya, Thailand. The Asian Junior Rowing Development Camp, organised by the International Rowing Federation and the Asian Rowing Federation and held in Taiwan, as well as the Madras-Colombo Regatta, held in Sri Lanka (both in 2014), are two other tournaments where he got to represent his country.

Quite obviously, his motives at playing the game changed over the years. The fatty kid no more, Hashen got entranced by the sense of camaraderie which brought the rowing crew together at his school, Royal College. “In rugby, the team is spread across a field. In rowing, by contrast, you are tied to your partner. You need to be at one with him and to develop a brotherhood. That’s why we don’t have ‘aiyas’ and ‘mallis’ in our squad. Age isn’t what matters. What matters is how you blend in with the rest.”

Having blended into his team, Hashen hence didn’t take much time to get into the most looked forward to tournament in his school calendar, the Royal-Thomian Regatta. The past few years hadn’t fared well for the Royalists: a string of victories in 2010 and 2011 had been followed by a set of devastating defeats.

“Our morale was ebbing away, to be honest. We needed just the tiniest of victories to keep us going. In 2014, the year I left for Taiwan, we lost again. But my partner and I managed to win a Double Scull against the Thomians. It was a margin of victory amounting to a mere 23 milliseconds. I unfortunately lost another Scull due to a mistake which we refer to as ‘catching a crab’, when I was unable to remove my oar from the water on time. But that was a case of bad luck. The Double Scull victory lifted our spirits. My Scull defeat lifted mine even more.”

What supplemented this was the fact that much of the squad had aged over the years. The elders had left, while the younger rowers had encountered enough and more defeat on the Beira to push them. “The Royal-Thomian Regatta consists of eight point races and three exhibition races. In 2015, except for one B Pair Match which we lost, we emerged as the overall Champions with a score of 48-04. In 2016 we vowed not to concede even one inch to the Thomians. We realised how well the previous tournament made us strive for more when we clinched a much bigger score of 50-02, which was actually a record breaker. 2016 was special for another reason: we also clinched the highest number of trophies from a single Regatta.”

Presently the Captain of the Rowing Crew at Royal, he has discerned the point that victory isn’t bred overnight, and is the result of weeks, months, and years of training and practice. “We practise from 1.30 to 7.30 pm thrice a week, at the Beira or the Diyawanna. We are expected to give the best we’ve got. That’s what we deliver.”

Inasmuch as he is into rowing and devotes almost all his energy to it, Hashen leads other lives, within and outside school. He is a President’s Scout, is the Finance Director of the Interact Club, and is part of the Souvenir Committee (which collates the relevant material for the Souvenir of the annual Big Match between Royal and S. Thomas’). Despite a hectic rowing schedule that could overtax anyone, he is also sitting for his Advanced Level exams, not once but twice: he has offered Commerce for the Local A Levels (this month) and will be offering Maths for the London A Levels. His ambition, from what I’ve read elsewhere, is to be an engineer.

What of the “thereafter” that all these accomplishments, clinched within a few years, merit? Hashen has set his eyes on the Olympics, and as ambitious as it may seem, I believe he has what it takes to mould himself for that tournament.

That recent spate of setbacks which some of our national squads have faced and endured has made me realise that there’s enough form in our youngsters to keep us hoping for more. And for better. We seem to lack consistency because we are so full of complacency. Given Hashen’s past record, I’d say that he hasn’t been complacent. The Roy-Tho, those stints in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Thailand, as well as that time long, long ago when he tried to make it to the rugby field and instead fractured his ankle, have taught him well. We can only hope. We should then hope.

Photos courtesy of ThePapare.com and The Review

Written for: The Island YOUth, August 20 2017

Friday, August 18, 2017

How we got to where we are

The democratic process is premised on the idea that we don’t owe our representatives anything, except the “gratitude” that we must pay through taxes and other levies to maintain public services. It’s a two-way street: you pay to keep those services and they run the country through what we pay. Nothing that goes beyond this can be considered as gratitude. What goes beyond can hence only be considered as servility. Servility of the most nauseating, ridiculous sort. The kind that adorns politicians whose pasts have been tarnished thanks to allegations of abuse and misappropriation. I am not singling out the present regime here, incidentally.

I know this government has those leftover hurrah-boys who still think that what transpired on January 8, 2015 was a revolution, never mind that revolutions can’t be sustained if those who were part of the status quo that worked against the “revolutionaries” are hired by the latter as their lackeys (as this government has done). Expedience is sometimes considered the better part of imperative, sadly, which is why we have to sacrifice principles, but even adjusting for that the government has failed to deliver on our brief. Anyone who bats for it using revolutionary rhetoric, then, clearly needs to look up the word in the dictionary.

But these revolutionaries are just part of the crowd that keeps on batting for the government. Consider the other elements, i.e. those who applaud its representatives on the basis of their arbitrary conceptions of democracy, elitism, and meritocracy. It is these conceptions that demarcate the Old Boys Club in the government as well-intentioned technocrats, while the likes of Palitha Thewarapperuma and even Mahinda Rajapaksa are disparaged as backward. They will go to any lengths to defend even someone like Ravi Karunanayake on the premise that those they defend are worthy of eloquent praise. These claims wouldn’t stand the test of scrutiny, since the educated, as history has taught us, have not been better and indeed have been worse than the “uneducated” in resolving several compelling national issues.

We’ve messed up our notions of decency and education so much that we look for the wrong indicators thereof when assessing our politicians. We will consider Dayasiri Jayasekara’s momentary gaffe at pronouncing Latin phrases as something to laugh and poke at. We will disregard the horrendous mispronunciations in Sinhala (yes, the mother tongue) being made every day in parliament. Some would say this is a symptom of our colonial hangover, but for me the problem goes deeper. Fact is, we’ve screwed up the fine line between being uneducated and indecent so much that we pick and choose politicians based on the image they project of their status.

A recent Facebook comment compelled my interest in this: “Why we're in this rut as a country is because your generation was preoccupied with correcting 'e's and 'a's instead of doing anything constructive.” The comment was aimed at those who were more interested in grammar and pronunciation than in the spirit in which something was written or spoken. Reminds me of a certain Prime Minister who, in a heated argument in parliament with Robert Gunawardena, chastised him over a grammatical faux pas or slip of the tongue the latter made, with his own classic slip of the tongue: “Why don’t you speak a language you understand? Speak Sinhalese?” “His tones left no doubt that this [Sinhalese] was a language fit only for the lower orders,” Regi Siriwardena later wrote. That Prime Minister, incidentally, was not a rightwing elitist. He was S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. Telling, I should think.

Given our political culture it’s no surprise that there were people who sobbed at Ravi Karunanayake’s departure. Whether or not these people were “paid” to do what they did is beside the point. What’s important is that they were there, some of them even worshipping the man. What’s as important is that those who were hell bent on ridiculing Mahinda Rajapaksa over his habit of holding up babies and consoling emotional, if not hysterical, supporters (right after he was defeated) are speechless and selective when it comes to this display of emotion and hysterics. To be sure, the fact of his departure, more forced than willingly conceded to by the alleged wrongdoer, speaks volumes about our political culture now. But that political culture is still predicated on that timeless excuse for incompetency, relative merits.

Relative merits, ladies and gentlemen. The we’re-better-than-them argument, which has become too old and outpaced to be taken seriously. The problem with that argument, of course, is that it works both ways: the Mahinda Rajapaksa Cabal can use it just as effectively as this regime can. And in case you’re wondering, they are. The recent tirade against the Attorney General’s Department over what is alleged to be their partiality against members of the present government is symptomatic of a political culture that operates on such arguments. That’s not to say the Attorney General is to be absolved everywhere and with respect to every allegation, but then there’s a fine line to be drawn between constructive and baseless criticism.

What strengthens the relative merits argument is that the government is partly correct. They are better procedurally than the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. What weakens it, on the other hand, is the point that it depends on whether the government has been better than Rajapaksa’s regime at improving the democratic machine. There’s a difference between procedural and substantive democracy, after all. A careful perusal of every antidemocratic act taken by the government, any government, in the last three decades will prove that nearly all of them have been absolved by the argument that the state is the ultimate arbiter of political action, since it derives legitimacy from the fact of being elected by the people. The paradox of modern democracy is that it shields deplorable state action under a facade of procedural correctness.

But consider this. We haven’t seen a repeat of Rathupaswala, at least not yet. Protestors were beaten up and continue to be beaten up and/or tear-gassed, but that is not as coercive as being killed or shot. There’s been a definite improvement in the way political dissidents are being accommodated (Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe being a good example), though that’s less a sign of political correctness than one of political lethargy. Allegations of graft do abound, but they are less than what we saw during the previous regime. Putting all these together, is our present political culture better than what it used to be?

I would be tempted to say yes, with some reservations. Political sycophancy still continues. Those who raised hell over Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters now stay shut over how they themselves are covering up the alleged wrongdoings of this government. Had Rajapaksa stalled any election, presidential, general, or provincial, he would probably have raised flak not just from the UNP, but probably also from the American, British, French, and even Indian Embassies. Delaying an election, any election, no matter how much one justifies it, is a serious transgression of the democratic process. Those who came to power in 2015 did so with the intent of transforming a culture in which expedience flourished into one where imperative and necessity would reign. Neither of the latter two has. Not yet.

Better than the rest, clearly, is an argument that endorses wrongdoing as long as it’s seen as better than what used to be. The problem with such an argument is that its parameters are arbitrarily set: just what is better, and just where is one to draw the line between them and us? Let’s not forget that we as a country are prone to political amnesia. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cohorts can be, and probably are, behind the recent spate of strikes and the AG Department’s sway against the current regime. But even if we concede that they are, the relative merits thesis loses water when considering that no government elected in a liberal democracy can sacrifice certain norms to get back at the opponent’s attempts to undermine them. And why? Because we don’t give a damn about that opponent.

This government’s slip is showing. Rather tellingly. It used to be said that political elitists were independent enough to not be swayed by the allure of power and wealth. Not true. If the recent past and the horde of allegations this regime has attracted are anything to go by, our political culture has improved only marginally, and that because of the demands for betterment that we, the people, and certain outfits we’ve organised for ourselves have made. The truth is that the same people who cried foul over Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cronies and supporters now write, say, or do anything and everything they can to justify what is being written, said, and done by their representatives. The trouble with that is that their representatives happen to be ours as well. The 5.8 million are, effectively, in the hands of the 6.2 million.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Vijaya Nandasiri: The comedian as professional

A tribute to Vijaya Nandasiri, who left us but not our consciousness a year ago.

Vijaya Nandasiri was greater than his successors in Sinhala comedy the same way that Joe Abeywickrema was greater than his predecessors. The latter was the apotheosis of Eddie Jayamanne. He was of course greater than Eddie could be, since Eddie’s roots were in the theatre, never really on film. Vijaya, on the other hand, was the grand culmination of everything that Joe stood for, with the caveat that the one was manifestly different to the other. He is the last comic we can claim as of today, since everyone else, as I pointed out in my last article, were and are at best mimetic.

Despite their differences, both began their careers as comic foils, whose function in the movies they were in was to console the protagonists. In the sixties Joe was almost always this foil, with Getawarayo (opposite Gamini Fonseka) and Dahasak Sithuvili (opposite Henry Jayasena). The seventies saw him emerge as his own player, good and redeemable except when he was the antihero or villain, in which case he was either doomed to suffer and die (Welikathara and Bambaru Avith) or to disappear from the story altogether (Suddilage Kathawa and Adara Hasuna). The only difference between them was this: while Joe belied a serious facade even in the most absurd dilemmas, Vijaya could at most only pretend to such a facade.

Vijaya’s inability to hide the absurdity of whatever situation he was in proved to be his strength just as his ability to so do proved to be Joe’s. Even in Kolamba Sanniya, the most enduring tribute to Sinhala comedy ever conceived on film (lavishly produced, it was a lavish hit at the box-office), you never distrust his ability to walk on a tightrope. As funny or inescapable some of the dilemmas he’s in are, he escapes them, trumping his own family’s expectations of him by contesting as a politician in his area. He’s a man of order, of method, even though he deceives us into thinking that he’s not. “Yuri Gagarin, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy: they are all my cousins!” he pompously remarks in Kolam Karayo. We disbelieve him, obviously, but not the sincerity and conviction with which he utters it.

The opposite was true for Vijaya Nandasiri’s characters. “I’m an honest man!” he parrots out as Rajamanthri. We believe neither the remark nor the confidence and conviction. Because both the man and his ideals are never what they seem, he was almost always a trickster, a conman, a deceiver no matter how good his intentions were. His characters were all vain, conceited, and self-centred, interested in what is out there only as long as it serves him. Loud but never too loud, brash but never too brash, his characters were almost always cowards when it came to grappling with reality.

He revelled in having no self-respect even when we ascribed to him some sense of honour and dignity. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune Premachandra flirts with the woman next door (Sanoja Bibile) though we never get why the latter returns his affections (is she tired of her husband, or is she truly infatuated with her idiotic neighbour?). As Senarath Dunusinghe in Yes Boss, the situation is reversed: he has to suffer another man playing around with his wife, the problem being that the man happens to be his employer who doesn’t know that they are married (couples can’t work at the same office). You wonder why he doesn’t seek shelter in another agency, but then there wouldn’t be a story in the first place, would there?

Vijaya represented our contempt for womanisers, cuckolds, and politicians by turning them into stereotypes to be laughed at. In Nonawarune Mahathwarune he was the womaniser, in Yes Boss he was the cuckold (though his wife only pretends to give in to their boss’s advances), and as Rajamanthri, easily the most recognisable comic figure in our cinema from the past 20 or so years, he was the politician. It was as Rajamanthri that he prospered, even in those movies where he wasn’t him (as with Sikuru Hathe, King Hunther, and Magodi Godayi). Joe could never quite transform our contempt for his characters because they weren’t contemptible in the first place: they were either lovable or hateful. His calm exterior never betrayed itself, as I pointed out before, whereas for Vijaya it always would.

Some years ago I watched a miniseries on Rupavahini about a politician and his driver. Vijaya Nandasiri was the politician, Vasantha Kumarasiri the driver. And yet I sensed something odd about them. Their voices were different. The dubbing team had synced one actor’s with the other, a feat that survived the first 10 or 15 minutes of the first episode, after which these two meet a horrible accident which (inexplicably) leaves both onlookers and relatives confused as to what body is whose.

Because both are so near dying, a quick surgery is followed by a quick plastic surgery, in which the wrong face is placed on the wrong body. The voices are back to the correct actor. In hindsight this was an unnecessary gimmick, but it was also a welcome gimmick, since for the rest of the story the driver becomes the conservative believer in authority and the politician the radical believer in Marx. Crude, and rather one-dimensional, but fun. And it wasn’t just a change of voice: it was also a change of spirit, of two contradictory personalities transplanted to each other. That was Vijaya’s charm. You could never anticipate anyone other than him, when he was there.

If Joe was redeemable because he was at the receiving end of some confusing dilemma (like the baby he has raise in Punchi Baba, or the lifestyle of Colombo he has to get used to in Kolamba Sanniya), Vijaya was unredeemable because he was at the other end, always provoking if not unleashing some havoc. It’s probably not a coincidence that in this respect, his characters were always middle class, consumerist, often in professions that called for security, stability, sometimes status: as a Junior Visualiser in an advertising agency in Yes Boss, the chief in a security firm in Sir Last Chance, and a sergeant in Magodi Godayi. Where he was his own man – the magul kapuwa in Sikuru Hathe or Rajamanthri in so many movies and TV series – he wasn’t a provocateur, but a lovable antihero. And like all antiheroes, he conceals goodness because he despises it, like in Sikuru Hathe, where all those deceptions he commits were for his daughter.

Where he was paired with another actor, he failed. He was his man, so when in Methuma he and Sriyantha Mendis are caught as two lunatics by a veda mahaththaya in some village, he didn’t really shine the way he had in Ethuma. Even in Magodi Godayi, opposite Gamini Susiriwardana, he was less than he usually was. Yes Boss and Nonawarune Mahathwarune had him among other actors, to be sure, but then he was on his own there. He could have been in his own world.

So once he was cast with another actor, he couldn’t give his best. He could give his best only if his co-star was alert and alive to his range, or if his character was a lesser breed than that co-star. That is what transpired in King Hunther, where he could be himself opposite Mahendra Perera for two reasons: because Mahendra was a versatile comic actor himself, and because Hunther was from a different time, so different and long ago that this present world (in which Mahendra is an escaped convict) is outlandish, overwhelming. It needed time to get used to, and that meant getting used to the first two people he befriends: Mahendra and Anarkali Akarsha.

Vijaya Nandasiri’s triumph then was his gift at getting us to feel for unfeeling antiheroes. Sometimes he could trump us, as Joe often did, like in King Hunther, when he hears that the politician who befriends him to further his own interests has decided to kill him off, and surreptitiously escapes. You never thought he was capable of such a feat, but that’s how the movie ends. In vindicating his faith in us, he was getting us to vindicate our faith in him, no matter how idiotic he was.

He couldn’t be like that as Rajamanthri because he was not reflecting our contempt for figures of authority, but downright embodying it. When, towards the end of Suhada Koka, he is killed off by an assassin acting on the orders of the second-in-command to the Prime Minister (W. Jayasiri), there’s a homily on the corrupting influence of power that’s supposed to represent every politician’s ultimate fate. And then, just as you come to terms with this end, he wakes up (because it was a nightmare).

You’d think he’d learn from his fears, but he doesn’t. Even after that harrowing fantasy, he’s back to being the pompous figure he always was and will be. But in that short sequence he told us everything that needed to be told about the way in which the corrupt could be taught the errors of their ways. Was it a cruel coincidence that the only time Rajamanthri was killed off like that marked the last time Vijaya played Rajamanthri? We don’t really know, but perhaps it was more than a coincidence. Perhaps it was the only fitting end to such a career that could be filmed.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The tragedy of our comedy


The end of tragedy in the West came about with the rise of reason and intellect. As Nietzsche points out in The Birth of Tragedy, Euripides and Socrates were the main culprits. Simply put, they rationalised what couldn’t be rationalised.

But Western tragedy, as Lionel Abel contends in his book Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form, was never the preserve of Western culture. The best playwrights, including not just Aeschylus and Shakespeare, but also Euripides and Racine, were unable to depict characters that lacked self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is what inflates Macbeth, Hamlet, even King Lear. Their awareness of a destiny, of a cruel higher fate ordaining their universe, is what was supposed to compel their tragedy. No, Abel points out: by dramatising these characters and attributing to them a false sense of order, their writers were actually foregoing on their tragic element.

Self-consciousness is also what epitomises comedy. The basic traits of the Western comic theatre – manipulation, deceit, contortion, and confusion – are to be found in tragedy as well. But what differentiate the one from the other are their respective relations with the cinema. The Western tragedy approximates to the Western dramatic film only if the character or protagonist is compelled to break the fourth wall. This is rare, if at all because the cinema, unlike the theatre, believes in distancing the viewer from the plight of its heroes and heroines when the latter are faced with calamity.

The worst of the American cinema – by which I include Tommy Wiseau’s hilariously unwatchable The Room – breaks this rule, in which case the tragic element is sacrificed, sometimes inadvertently, for the comic. Wiseau’s film is terrible because it tries to relate to us his protagonist’s tragedy (which, because this was a personal work of art, was also his tragedy) with pretensions to a dramatic form. He does not believe in distancing us. He is self-aware. Consequently, its mood deteriorates to a rather bizarre form of comedy. When one indulges in this playful wreckage of genres, one indulges in parody, the kind of parody that has pervaded comedians everywhere. It’s a crude, hopelessly prolonged form that leaves us in the dark, groping for more.

And it’s exactly that form of parody that has invaded our cinema, our directors, our scriptwriters, our actors. In the Western dramatic film the characters do not break the fourth wall to address us, unlike in a play. They keep us away from their dilemma. The same can’t be said of the comedy film. Of comedy and drama in the theatre Susan Sontag (reviewing Abel’s book) contended that they were “best defined in relation to each other.” But in the cinema they are pitted against each another. Drama and tragedy lose their theatrical sense of artifice and epicness when adapted to the screen. Comedy and parody do not. Consequently, they are the more unsubtle of the two, and as such don’t require a breaking of the fourth wall: they require the assumption that the fourth wall has already been broken even before they begin. And even in the movies.

The difference between their comedies and our comedies is that in the West, even with the likes of Wiseau and Uwe Boll (whose films transcend their genres in a terrible way), humour never condescends to artifice: it celebrates it (I’ll come back to this shortly). The characters are believable even in the most absurd situations. They are cheerfully dumb, which as Sontag points out “secures their invulnerability” (think of Harold Lloyd dangling dangerously from the hands of a clock high above a street in Safety Last). By contrast, here we neglect the believability of our protagonists.

The problem with our directors today is that they don’t make us laugh with original ideas. They merely recycle the past. And if they can’t recycle the past, they recycle the foreign, marketing it as an original. Maya was the inevitable continuation of all those films which had certain superstars as cross-dressers (including Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan). The film inspired a panel discussion after its release, which tried to drive home the point that it was more than what it actually was. Of course, Ranjan Ramanayake’s ascent (or descent) into a cross-dressing hero was worthy of any such point, but then at the end of the day, it was an exercise in recycled parody.

Wada Bari Tarzan spliced footage from George of the Jungle. This was only to be expected: the production cost would have soared if Tennyson Cooray were to be filmed fighting a digitalised lion. But its shallowness came about precisely because of these slow footed attempts at parody. And it wasn’t even a parody of what its title suggested, since the film is closer to the American cinema’s own parodies of Tarzan. This parody of a parody, or a parody within a parody, is what our moviemakers have marketed to us as entertainment, and like obedient children, we enjoy it.

The difference between comedy and parody is the same as the difference between originality and mimesis. It’s an extension of the idea of art as a replication of reality, the latter of which makes up the theory of aesthetics from Plato’s time. So if art is replication, the replication of art is further away from reality, even further away if it’s a replication of a replication (which is what recycled parody is). Any attempt at approximating to drama that ultimately proves to be unsuccessful is no different, as Wiseau’s The Room and Boll’s Alone in the Dark show. It’s not even art, rather subversion of art, and like all acts of subversion the subversive artist must be equipped with the tools to transcend the limits of what he or she is doing.

The most refreshing comedies from the last five years, including Giriraj Kaushalya’s Suhada Koka, don’t attempt at recycled parody despite their barely fleshed out plots. Suhada Koka has no original ideas that can distinguish it from those other comedies revolving around Rajamanthri. And yet, because of how well it offers variations on the same plotlines, the same narrative devices (case in point: Rajamanthri hiring his poor cousin as a household servant, in direct contrast to an episode of Ethuma where that same cousin and his mother are denied an audience at his office), it does more than reuse the past. There’s nothing being recycled here. Only refurbished.

Suhada Koka, like Sikuru Hathe, King Hunther, and Ko Mark No Mark, doesn’t belong to the category that most of Ranjan Ramanayake’s movies do. The Ranja series, and even a film like Sinhaya (which has him as the guardian of an orphanage), are self-referential. There’s nothing new, not because of a want for new ideas but because Ramanayake has superseded himself so much that he doesn’t need to be overtly self-conscious: we know the moment that blast of testosterone-laden music and that bald vigilante sporting sunglasses and an unsmiling face appear that it’s going to be the same deal. He is no subversive because, given his public image, why should he try to be? As with the Tennyson Cooray and Bandu Samarasinghe vehicles, his work is therefore a slapdash rehash of everything you’ve seen before.

What is tragic about our comedies, then, is that even the best of them are sometimes subject to the excesses of the worst. Those excesses aren’t celebrated, they are condescended to. (This is the real difference between parody and recycled parody.) One notices such a dichotomy even in America: starting from the eighties, the deterioration of comedy into a poor, shoddy mimesis culminated in Epic Hard, Superhero Movie, and the Scary Movie series, all of which force us to enjoy their ill-timed, indifferently lit, and clueless plotlines. One can’t be forced to laugh, of course, unless one is provided with cues to so do. Resorting to such cues is a sign of artistic bankruptcy, though it does bring in dollars and rupees.

Contrary to popular belief, tragedy never died in the West with Euripides. There was no tragedy in the first place, as Abel points out: all that was there was a form of theatre rooted in the self-consciousness of its characters. If what one takes as tragedy in this respect was similar to comedy, there was no dichotomy between the two onstage. But the cinema was a different art form, which meant that only comedy could subsist on self-consciousness: its greatest strength and weakness. In Sri Lanka, the comedy film has come to rely so much on this sense of self-consciousness that its deterioration to recycled parody could only spell out its death knell. At one level, it’s almost a national tragedy. But are we lamenting? I don’t think so.

In France there was a theatre form that celebrated violence and horror. They called it the Grand Guignol. I rather think that we have transcribed it to our comedies, with the caveat that we have substituted gluttony and excess for gore and erotica.

Written for: Daily Mirror, August 15 2017