|Monday, 26 May 2003|
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Line of destiny
In the early 1950s, Sinhala cinema was little more than an extension of South Indian cinema. The plots, characters, settings and even the directors were the same. Only the language was different. Even the songs were lifted straight from India, with Sinhala lyrics replacing the Hindi or Tamil ones.
One man almost single-handedly changed this pathetic course of local cinema in 1956. His masterpiece, Rekhawa (The Line of Destiny) did not have even a trace of South Indian cinema. The story, locations and songs were 100 per cent local.
The tale of a boy who could cure ailments by touch did not go down well with local audiences used to a staple diet of copycat songs and dances, but its cinematic success marked a new era for the Sinhala film industry. Lester James Peries had just started a revolution in the local film arena.
A string of critically acclaimed films and 47 years later, Lester had done Lanka proud by receiving one of the film world's highest accolades in Cannes, France, which was incidentally one of the movie festivals that originally screened Rekhawa. The Cannes film festival paid tribute to Lester, at 84 the oldest director screening at the world's premier movie showcase.
Lester's latest feature film "Mansion by the Lake", a moving drama about a family of aristocrats facing changing times, was shown out of competition, while a documentary recounting his work during half a century in film was also presented. Lester is now hailed as one of the three Asian Masters of Cinema, the others being Satyajit Ray (India) and Akira Kurosawa (Japan).
While Lester is undoubtedly the guru of Sinhala cinema, several other directors, their films and actors have also gained recognition. Some of these films have become controversial at home - Purasanda Kaluwara and Thani Thatuwen Piyambanna for example - but their innovative portrayal of social realities gained a multitude of awards at major movie festivals here and aborad.
It is thus heartening to note that several young directors are steering Sinhala cinema in the right direction with a crop of stimulating films that openly discuss contemporary issues. They invite the viewer to think beyond the plot and form his or her own conclusions.
Unfortunately, they are in the minority. Most Sinhala films are cheap, commercially-oriented 'comedies' with equally nonsensical names that do little to help the growth of local cinema.
These films are absolutely mediocre efforts that actually insult the viewers' intelligence, although some directors have adroitly managed to bridge the gap between commercial and arthouse films with middle-of-the-road creations.
The National Film Corporation and other relevant authorities must encourage the production of more serious movies with an eye on the international market. Films produced in India are shown virtually all over the world. We may lack the clout of Bollywood, but we should strive to go beyond festivals and aim for the theatrical release of at least a few award-winning Sinhala films in major capitals of the world.
We should also enter into agreements to show Sinhala films on foreign television channels. Locally, more cinemas should be included in the prestigious circuit so that patrons islandwide can watch the arthouse movies.
A proper training centre for film artistes and technicians is essential, as is an archives and restoration centre.
Lankan film makers will then be able to draw their own line of destiny, as Lester did all those years ago.
Produced by Lake House