Commitment beyond compare | Daily News

Commitment beyond compare


Dharmasena Pathiraja’s soft-spoken and grizzled exterior belies hidden depth: his prolific work in the seventies, during a time of great political upheaval and civil unrest, is remembered for undertaking the task of tackling the issues faced by the underrepresented, underprivileged urban youth in Sri Lanka.

Dharmasena Pathiraja 
Pictures by Ruwan de Silva


His latest film, ‘Sakkarang’ currently making the rounds in the local film circuits, tells the story of traditional dancers in Kandy during the time of the British occupation, and how their inherent social structure was changed: The the way in which the great rebellions of 1818 and 1848 afforded rights to these people, lies at the crux of this tale.

The Daily News sat down with Dharmasena Pathiraja to find out how he views his work and what his plans for the future are.

Q: ‘Sakkarang’ is doing well in the film circuits, do you have plans for another project in the pipeline Yes I am working on something with Eric Illayaparachchi.

Q: Did you get into filmmaking because you were always interested in film, or did you take the circuitous route and end up there

I studied at Dharmaraja College, Kandy. Such an interest to make films or to be a filmmaker or something like that did not develop in me at that time. At that time, my interest was in literature and after literature, drama and art.

Then I entered Peradeniya University. Those days it was known as the University of Ceylon. I studied Sinhala Literature and Western classics for my degree. My last days at the Peradeniya University is the time I gradually began to watch films, along with my school friends. We formed a film society. Then through that, you know, we applied for membership from the Colombo Film Society based at the Lionel Wendt. I think it is the oldest film society in Asia, started by Lionel Wendt and Lester James Peries.

Q: What sort of films did you watch at your film society

We watched Sinhala films and international films. Whatever films they screened in Colombo, we took them to Peradeniya and screened them there. With that, we got to know many people, especially film critics, like Gamini Hattotuwegama, Cyril B. Perera, Elmo Silva, Leslie Boteju and Reggie Siriwardene. We discussed film with them and through our conversations we got to know about what was happening globally in the film scene and then we expanded our relations with institutions like the Alliance François, the British Council, the American Centre and also embassies like the Russian and Czechoslovakian ones. Most embassies actually – if there was a film showing, you know, we’d grab the opportunity, jump in there and watch the film!

Q: What were the kinds of films you liked best

I liked mainly French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realist and also East European Czechoslovakia-Polish films.

Q: Do you find that you have incorporated elements of those films in your films

Well, you know, it was only after I began my Ph.D in film studies that I came across this very interesting concept of ‘inter-textuality’ from a Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva. Now, when I look back at the texts of some of my films, I see that it sometimes has something similar to another text that I have seen, especially in the New Wave and East European film trend, consciously or unconsciously. But I can’t single out one particular film that it comes from.

Q: What was your first film

I entered the scene with a film called ‘Hantane Kathawa’, or the ‘Story of Hantane’, based on contemporary university students’ life. I was a student then at that time in Peradeniya. I was one of the screenplay writers, together with Berty Jayasekara and Berty Gunasekara. When they came to shoot the film at the Peradeniya campus, I got to know many other people, especially cinematographers and developed a very close friendship. Through them I resolved a lot of the issues and questions I had with the technological aspects of filmmaking as I was starting out.

Q: What came next

After graduation, I joined the Kelaniya University - Vidyalankara University it was known as at that time - as an Assistant Lecturer. I was based in Kelaniya then, nearer to Colombo and so I got to know a lot of people, in all the fields, you know, drama, literature and film. So I attended various seminars, discussions, workshops and then I decided I wanted to make a short film. So with the help of my friends and with a distress loan from the university, I made, in Sinhala ‘Sathuro’ (Enemies), and it won an award at the FCJA – Film Critics and Journalists Association Film Festival. It was also selected at West End Short Films of the World, a very prestigious international short film festival in Bilbao, Spain. After that, my first feature film was ‘Ahasgawwa’ or ‘One Yard to the Sky’, about the struggle of the urban youth, especially the urban underclass youth.

Q: Do you find that it is mostly social issues that you touch on, with your films 

Yes, mostly social issues.

Dharmasena Pathiraja  Pictures by Ruwan de Silva


Q: What has been the general response to your films

Well it depends… The film, ‘Eya Dan Loku Lamayek’ is a coming of age film. It represented Sri Lank at an international film festival and won an award for best female performance by Malani Foneseka. The film became very popular. After that ‘Bambaru Avith’ (The Wasps Are Here), also became a bit of a popular film with Malani Fonseka, Vijay Kumaratunga and Joe Abeywickrema but I always get mixed responses about these films. The two films I made after that were financial failures – ‘Para Digey’ and ‘Soldadu Unnahe’; both of them were highly acclaimed by critics. Still they think that those are some of the best among the Sri Lankan films. But it didn’t’ make money. They were commercial failures – so it’ a mixed bag, really…

Scene from Hantane Kathawa


Q: What were the other films you made

After a lapse of about 10 years, I made another film – ‘Mathu Yam Davasaka’ – ‘Some Day in the Future’. It was a highly controversial film and I had to take a lot of pressure from the government at the time and I had to take the film back from the theatres. It was also about the underrepresented youth - how they became political victims and that kind of thing. I was very interested in the issues faced by the youth at that time.

In 2013, I released ‘Swarupa’ – ‘Metamorphosis’, an adaption of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis by the writer Eric Illayaparachchi. In 2014, I made ‘Sakkarang’, which is currently screening.

But I also made other things, aside from feature films. In 2006, I made a docu-feature, ‘In Search of a Road’ taking three routes, the A9, the railway and illegal routes during the war as signifiers. I attempted to trace the link between the North and the South during the last 100 years through this documentary. It was not commercially released, but premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival. It was also screened at London, Melbourne, Sydney, Rome and Paris.

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