22 January, 2018

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Looking Back Fondly: “Ho Gana Pokuna”

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

The ideology that pervades our movies is an ideology of commitment – secular, cosmopolitan, sometimes contrived, rarely felt – and they tend to constrict your vision. There’s an intense desire on the part of their directors to talk about social problems, to let us know that there are people out there who are suffering in want. It makes us want to cower before their vision, full of intentions but also full of a rift between those intentions and their production values. We want to do away with that rift, but the moment we try to we are lambasted as being escapist, fantasists, and tellers of fairy-tales. How can one be committed without resorting to explicit ideologies? It’s a tough call, but by extraordinary resolve some of our moviemakers have proved that one can be politically inclined without making his or her work a vassal to ideas. We already have a cinema of ideas. Now we want a cinema of life.

I saw Ho Gana Pokuna for the first time two years ago, in October, at the Savoy. The excitement on the faces of the child actors who were there, now grown up, was hard to ignore, and kept me expecting a great deal from it. I didn’t know the story behind it, nor of its cast and crew. All I knew was that Indika Ferdinando, whose play The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno I saw before, had directed it. Depressed somewhat at the hardened, dichotomised world that directors his age tended to depict in film after film (awfully sincere, sincerely awful) I was, naturally enough I suppose, unconvinced of this one’s prospects. I sat down, therefore, with a sense of tepid anticipation.

Two hours later I got up forgetting I’d ever harboured such feelings. Ho Gana Pokuna then became, for me, the most exciting Sinhala film I’d seen in the last three years.

In Sri Lanka the gap between children’s movies and movies featuring children has blurred so much that no one cares to make this distinction anymore. This is to be expected in any film industry where neither the critics nor the general public are selective in their preferences (the public just want to be entertained, the critics just want to be provoked). The fact that it’s normal and to be expected, however, doesn’t mean that it’s not deplorable: the truth is that our filmmakers use our children to spout out convenient posters and labels that belong to the political so much that those children become no more than instruments, messengers. Ho Gana Pokuna doesn’t resort to this device. It teaches us just how imaginative our directors could be if they didn’t use their subject-matter to depict their adulterated imaginings of them.

Writing to the Sunday Observer a few weeks after its release, Dilshan Boange contended that Indika’s left-of-centre political sympathies showed, somewhat discernibly, in the film. This is true. But the intrusion of the political in Ho Gana Pokuna is mercifully short: all we have is a bunch of NGO officials gifting an expensive but useless piano to the school as part of a project. The piano isn’t used; the children are instead taught by their rather irate principal (Lucien Bulathsinhala), who is also their only teacher, to fear it. It’s an object of ridicule which only the idealistic teacher, Miss Uma (Anasuya Subasinghe), resuscitates, which is why whatever political inclinations there are in the film come out through her. She is the political centre, and the periphery, of the narrative, since she represents the affirmation of ideology as well as the rejection of the labels that ideologues tend to harbour.

This is a novel message for a Sinhala movie. Elsewhere filmmakers have been telling us that we need to be more open, more proactive, and to shout and protest with labels and dichotomies that never work out in reality. What Ho Gana Pokuna lacks is explicit political force: even at its most forceful moments (as when Dayadeva Edirisinghe as the headman-like grama sevaka niladhari refuses to let the children and the teacher use the bus for their trip) Indika pulls back, not because he’s fearful but because he knows the experience he’s pasted over his film is too magical to face such moments. Even the verbal encounters between Miss Uma and the principal, when they decide (the former willingly, the latter begrudgingly) to inaugurate an Assembly outside the school for the students, are short (the principal’s contention is that by democratising the institution the children will grow up to rebel against becoming the farmers that their fathers are): we see them debate, her cheerful, him scornful, but there it ends.

The “committed critic” may well see in this a complete rejection of the political, a convenient erasure of reality by a saccharine-coated view of life, but this rakes up the question as to what the intentions of the artist should be. Our “committed directors” don’t lack courage. They have enough and more of it and they are brave. But the fatal contradiction at the heart of their conception of the cinema is their inability to resonate with popular audiences. If we have not gone beyond the eighties and the nineties (which nurtured Dharmasena Pathiraja and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, the twin peaks of our political cultural sphere before Asoka Handagama entered the field) it’s because our film industry has bifurcated between the critics who conflate ideological profundity with aesthetic merit, the same conflation that our writers in the Sinhala theatre sustain, and the audiences who wish to see something richer, and more satisfying, in our halls. Compared with the fat politician played by Saumya Liyanage in Vidu, for instance, how much more believable are the villagers in Ho Gana Pokuna! The tragedy is that complexity is often taken as a sign of the uncommitted. The even bigger tragedy is that it is the lack of such complexity, through the one-dimensionality those other movies reflect, which we are supposed to watch and, what’s worse, enjoy.

It’s a view that certainly merits a second glance but it’s not the only view there is. The cinema thrives on plurality. Singleness, whether of intention or motive, isn’t usually very helpful, and eventually saps a film industry of its ability to fascinate. The recent spate of local films that can’t be categorised under that convenient artistic-commercialist divide our critics make is, I think, not a coincidence in that respect: from Ho Gana Pokuna right down to Adaraneeya Kathawak and Premaya Nam, there is an emotional resonance in them which easily wins audiences in a way that forced, unfelt political pamphlets and treatises cannot. No industry can flourish for long with practitioners who reject its commercial base, just as no industry can thrive with those who make money its only motive. Ho Gana Pokuna tells us, in its own special way, that there’s really no need to be a slave to those other movies. We are tired of the vision they spout because we know that the only alternative to them are the vigilante escapist flicks that our popular directors churn out, from Ranja to Wada Bari Tarzan.

Miss Uma, a transposed Julie Andrews/Maria von Trapp, and her children dominate the script because no one is a hero or villain in the village they inhabit: everyone cowers before them, wilfully. Whatever problems she and they face – whether in the form of the principal, the grama niladhari, or Justin, the bus driver who lacks a license – congeal gradually into their own solutions. In a way that lacks complexity, but when considering the alternatives – having her as a political ideologue or meandering to a set of happy-go-luck musical numbers – it’s more alive, more open, more textured. In contrast to many of those politically motivated films which are constricted, literally and metaphorically (many of them take place in tightly enclosed spaces, against a middle class milieu) Indika’s film hence has room to breathe, to move forward. You can’t blame people for becoming alert and alive to this kind of cinema because they want a work of art to keep them alert and alive. The political directors work from the premise that life is banal, following a depersonalised routine. (Handagama, in Age Asa Aga, has the husband, wife, and daughter follow the same setup every evening, again and again, to the point of tedium.) Even as apolitical a director as Somaratne Dissanayake, in Siri Parakum, resorts to this banality, with entire sequences being repeated as if we didn’t get them the first time. What’s so interesting in the end about Ho Gana Pokuna is that it wilfully, delightfully does away with such tedium. There’s nothing really consistent in the plot. The children, along with their elders, always rake up something new for us; they even tide over an unlikely twist towards the end when Justin, the bus driver they all toiled and taught so as to procure a license, gets so carried away and drinks in exhilaration that he can’t drive the children to the beach.

At the movies we are repeatedly, though inadvertently, made aware that what we are seeing in front of us is a falsification of reality. Some directors get away with it, others don’t. When filmmakers embrace the political passionately, ambitiously, zealously, many of them, particularly the more recent ones, tend to sacrifice the real for the verbal. They will spell out each sequence elaborately for the audience hoping that the audience will agree with their outlook. Repetition of sequences, slipshod camera movements, jerky editing: these are the hallmarks of the political director, and he resorts to them as frequently as the commercial artist resorts to the needs of his clients by polishing up his output. Indika Ferdinando’s previous work, even as open-textured a play as Signno, bears out a political impulse. But in Ho Gana Pokuna, which as I mentioned at the beginning may well be the most exciting Sinhala film released in the last three years, the audiences are alive to what they are seeing. The movie no longer has to spell out everything to them believing them to be gullible idiots. The ending is, I think, a distillation of the entire plot in this respect: the teacher’s call for action over lofty ideals may well be a statement against the “serious” artist, who in his enthusiasm for ideas over execution prefers to rant, to rave, to explicate, rather than to breathe.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com

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