Dharmasiri Bandaranayake: From Stage to Screen (PART II) | Daily News
[Stars of Yesteryear]

Dharmasiri Bandaranayake: From Stage to Screen (PART II)

While Hansa Vilak won unqualified praise from local critics (Regi Siriwardena, for instance, called it a "permanent landmark"), it also won accolades abroad, including a Special Diploma at the Mannheim Film Festival. No mean feat, considering that Bandaranayake had to juggle three roles (director, actor, and scriptwriter) in that film. He also tells me that it was a success at the box-office owing to its low production cost. "We spent around two lakhs (200,000 rupees) on it. It earned about 21 lakhs." He adds moreover that the nominal price of a ticket back then was about 1.10 or 3.50 rupees, which meant that the audience size was quite big.

This is obviously in stark contrast with the size of audiences who flock to cinemas today: while ticket prices have increased and guarantee profits for producers and directors, those who patronise film halls have reduced in number. That a film like Hansa Vilak was able to reach more audiences than a blockbuster would today speaks much of the director's talent as well as the film culture which existed back then. "Everything changed after 1983," he tells me, "Film halls closed down, and overnight the North was shut out from the rest of the country. We lost a vibrant film loving population because of this." Television too would have affected this, but the point is that the collective love for films by our people was quashed by the riots of 1983.

Looking at his other films, it's obvious that they are bound together by a strong commitment to lesser heard of but rampant social issues. Thunveni Yamaya, probably his most undervalued film (it didn't earn a profit for him), revolves around a man's inability to consummate his marriage due to a traumatic childhood, while in Suddilage Kathawa, which is my personal favourite, he represents the plight of its heroine (Swarna Mallawarachchi) in such a way that we feel nothing but sympathy for her, especially towards the end when the husband she had been longing and waiting for misunderstands and kills her.

There are those who thought this film is inferior to his other work. This is usually owing to how they feel the protagonist Suddhi is treated by him: as sexual object in her village. However, this merely serves to increase our sympathy for her. In a predominantly male society, women suffer, and as Bandaranayake points out in his film, they suffer even more when they rebel and try to cut into the predatory instincts of that same society. Perhaps this was what those who were critical of his film missed (writers after all cannot be expected to read into every little meaning a film offers). Still, I feel that in its glorification of the woman as a sexual object, Bandaranayake almost makes a melodrama out of Suddhi's story.

In Bawa Duka and Bawa Karma, Bandaranayake presents to us a saga of the changing face of Sri Lankan society. Through the story of Peduru (Jackson Anthony) he encapsulates the entire colonial era and how it changed society, especially through the agency of missionaries. Any faithful follower of the cinema would value honesty of treatment and subject-matter in a film of this sort, which is where Bandaranayake really succeeds. Like Hansa Vilak, here too there is no completely innocent and blame-free character. Instead, the director traces the uprooting of culture to the inertia of those who became complacent with the regressive elements of tradition.

He makes us understand that missionary activity was just one way by which colonialists made use of those regressive elements to alter and disrupt our way of life, exemplified in that sequence where a Catholic missionary encourages the villagers to convert, by claiming that his religion is free from the sort of class and caste structures prevalent in Sinhala Buddhist villages then. The director's message, then, is that the uprooting of tradition was partly our fault: we have only ourselves to blame for the "duka" and "karma" which persist us from one "bawaya" to another.

Dharmasiri Bandaranayake's films cannot be judged that easily. It is true that sexuality forms up the essence of them all, from Hansa Vilak onwards. Having directed just five films however (hardly a noticeable filmography, you would say), I feel that his vision hasn't truly been felt by us. I hence ask him why he hasn't been making more films, and he admits that unless and until he gets in the "mood" for translating a story into celluloid, he can't direct. "Recently I was asked by a bunch of people to remake Suddhilage Kathawa," he tells me, "That's ridiculous. I can't think of the film without imagining Swarna as Suddhi, Cyril Wickramage as Romanis, and Joe Abeywickrama as the headman. I told them to go look for another director to work with, because when you've made a film and you try to remake it, the original still stays fresh in your memory. That's always a problem."

He also tells me that the culture of films and filmmaking has changed, and not always for the better, today. "Most young directors today don't finance their films. More often than not, foreign agencies give their lion's share to them. This impedes on the director at times, and makes him think that he doesn't have to reach his audience with what he is depicting. In other words he misses the audience he should be aiming at." That's true. While it is evident that most foreign (and even non-foreign) agencies try to shove their at times pernicious ideologies into films, it's also evident that much of what goes for "good" and "parallel" cinema today eludes the local viewer. I tell Bandaranayake that while these films are catered more to intellect than to emotion, the audience who misses them instead patronise the big-screen epics which can hardly be called "films". He replies by cautioning that this is too crass a generalisation, because audiences are beginning to shun them too. "They aren't very successful, not even in terms of box-office receipts," he says. This is hardly a consolation for the film lover in this country, however, and while this trend continues, he will be neglected in a country which once boasted of a vibrant cinema culture. Still, it does point at the fact that big-screen doesn't always translate to box-office hits, and that audiences do get tired of having their intelligence insulted by such films.

Dharmasiri Bandaranayake has experimented, in both theatre and films. And it's not too difficult to find out where his real roots are to be found. There are some critics who have found traces of the theatre in some of his films, particularly Hansa Vilak and Thunveni Yamaya.

It is of course dangerous to incorporate theatrical tendencies into films, but happily for Bandaranayake, they haven't compromised on his reputation (not that much, anyway) as perhaps the most courageous filmmaker in our country. That's saying a lot, considering the number of films he has made. Other filmmakers have made much, much more, after all, and none of them has really reached Bandaranayake's standard. One can only hope that he comes back to the cinema soon, to give us a taste of how far he has progressed and matured. 

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