The man of the middle | Daily News
H. D. Premaratne:

The man of the middle

Sri Lanka was never really open to the kind of parallel, middle cinema that invaded India. There are reasons for this, among them being the fact that our cinema was, at its inception, theatricalised to such an extent that, unlike our immediate neighbour, for it to break away from the semi-operatic form it had succumbed to, it had to tear itself away from the visual image and embrace the written word. That is why Lester James Peries opted for adaptations of popular and serious novels and short stories.

Lester, however, was a documentarian who recorded life as it was. When compared to the films of Satyajit Ray’s heirs (Shyam Benegal, Mira Nair, Adoor Gopalakrishnan), his works can be traced back to the Italians and French. It is my contention that despite his attempts at reporting local rural life, he was constrained by his (lack of) roots from conjoining the visual and the verbal in them. The problem with those who could conjoin those two, on the other hand, was their inability to transcend the commercialist tendencies of their films.

Ravindra Randeniya, at the launch of Dileepa Perera’s book on Tissa Liyanasuriya last year, implied that Tissa stands between Lester and Dharmasena Pathiraja. This is both correct and incorrect: correct because Liyanasuriya, in the films over which he exerted complete creative control (Saravita, Punchi Baba, and Narilatha), went for stories that were more socially conscious; incorrect, because despite their lofty exhortations (Getawarayo is about the corruption of the village by the city, while Saravita is about an uncorrupted idealist from that same city), they could not transcend those populist, moral overtones that Pathiraja would reject.

Moral conservatism

Much of the groundwork laid by these pioneers – Liyanasuriya, Mike Wilson, and Shesha Palihakkara – would be adapted and added to in the seventies, not by Pathiraja but by two other directors. The second of these, Vasantha Obeyesekere, did the implausible: make use of the tropes in our commercial films to subvert the patriarchy and moral conservatism embedded in it. Barring Diyamanthi, all of Obeyesekere’s films depict a shattering of hope, be it Kusum’s highbred notions of marriage life in Palagetiyo, Rathmali’s idealisation of her tormentor in Dadayama, or Nanda’s dreams of a stable, secure life with her errant husband in Kadapathaka Chaya.

If Obeyesekere tilted towards the anti-romantic, however, the other director tilted towards the opposite extreme. That is why I consider H. D. Premaratne as the more daring artiste of the two: not because he hit it big at the box-office with even his most serious stories, but because he brought serious themes to popular audiences through those stories. If Obeyesekere shocked, then, Premaratne preached.

Because cinema is the youngest art form, those who take to it tend to align themselves with other, older art forms. Measured against this truism, Lester was a modernist director, having grown up on Wallace Stevens, Proust, and Hemingway, while Pathiraja was the postmodernist, eschewing the idealism of his ideological foe. I think it a fair criticism of both these pioneers that they were as dependent on literature as those they were contending against: the Jayamanne brothers, Sirisena Wimalaweera, K. A. W. Perera.

The cinema of H. D. Premaratne was never rooted in the written word. Premaratne was our first director who worked out his stories, not through his scriptwriters, but through his composers. I believe this observation (personal though it may be) is borne out by a rough perusal of his work: the contrast between the energetic freshness of Sikuruliya and Apeksha and the more serious undertones of Parithyagaya and Deveni Gamana, for instance, comes out when considering that the music for the first two was composed by Clarence Wijewardena, for the latter two by Premasiri Khemadasa.

Poignant ending

In Premaratne’s work, consequently, the image, the spoken word, and music are almost effortlessly conjoined. Premaratne’s more popular films (Apeksha, Saptha Kanya, Adara Hasuna) bring about what can only be described as pure visual poetry: the final sequence of Adara Hasuna, for instance, where Vasanthi Chathurani’s character is reconciled with her lover (Ravindra Randeniya), echoes the kind of happy but poignant ending that Douglas Sirk shot in Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows. There are sequences from even his darker films – Palama Yata, Visidela, Seilama – which depart from cynicism and entreat us to forget.

And for me, that was what constituted the man’s strength AND weakness. While Obeyesekere became more cynical with each successive film (to the point of overkill, as Maruthaya showed), Premaratne remained the disciplined, romantic idealist, though not at the cost of depicting otherwise taboo themes. For better or worse, however, that idealism became his undoing when he went for the overtly political. That explains the limitations in Visidela and his last film, Kinihiriya Mal.

Visidela caught hold of an actual political experience and used it as background material for a fictionalised world. The story takes place around the time of the bheeshanaya, with its main characters all figuring in the tragedy that leads to probably the most downbeat ending that Premaratne contrived in his films. What we see, understand, and empathise with, is the plight of the characters played by Anosha Sonali and Jackson Anthony, siblings who get carried away by the idealism of youth despite the harsh realities that exist outside (and sometimes within) their village.

I know what certain critics would have thought of this: that in making the bheeshanaya “background material”, Premaratne privileged the plight of these two siblings, which essentially made the political aspect of the story a mere instrument at the hands of the personal. What this assumes is that the personal is “lower” in terms of relevance than the political, an erroneous misconception. I’d say that the director’s weakness comes up in another form: not when he privileges the personal over the social, but when he dabbles in both at the same time rather confusingly.

The authors of Profiling Sri Lanka write that Premaratne’s films display an uneven quality, which to a certain extent is true. That unevenness comes up strongly in Visidela, and I can pinpoint the exact time when it emerges: when, after Sonali and her lover (Razi Anwer) flirt with each other over Samitha Mudunkotuwa’s rendition of “Gumu Gumuwa Wadule”, we see Sonali’s uncle (played to perfection by W. Jayasiri) making covert sexual advances on her (the theme of incest, I must note here, wasn’t that convincingly portrayed, especially when contrasted against how he treated socially relevant themes in his other work).

Pertinent issue

In Kinihiriya Mal he was crippled by another inhibition. Malinda Seneviratne in his review pointed out that the story was limited by the dichotomies reinforced between the virtuous village (symbolised by the elder sister, played by Vasanthi Chathurani) and the corrupting city (symbolised by the younger sister, a prostitute played by Sangeetha Weeraratne). “The urban-rural dichotomy depicted in the film is contrived for such clear demarcations are no longer tenable, not even in the imagination of the romantic ruralised,” he wrote.

Premaratne’s attempt to depict a pertinent issue (underpaid garment workers being ensnared by prostitution) was marred by the good/evil divide that commercial films subsisted on. Given his inability to do away with those dichotomies, he was unable to free himself of the box-office tendencies of the same middle cinema he brought about.

Obeyesekere faced roughly the same problem: in his last film, Aganthukaya, he tried so hard to do away with the commercialist strains of his story that he ended up reinforcing the same good/evil divide that Premaratne tried to evade, but could not.

Lester James Peries and Dharmasena Pathiraja werereacting against the conventional wisdom, with Lester as the modernist and Pathiraja as the postmodernist. Obeyesekere and Premaratne steered clear of both. In the end, they could not realise the full worth of what they were doing because they were in a country where the divide between the popular and the arty, even in the cinema, was too firm to penetrate, much less defy.

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