By Uditha Devapriya –
Pauline Kael once complained that what was so uninteresting about David Lean’s films was that they were in such “goddamn good taste.” Suneth Malinga Lokuhewa’s Nidahase Piya, in that sense, has taste, “goddamn good” or otherwise. In the end that’s the only real thing it can claim for itself.
Everything’s so clearly planned and choreographed: the period pieces and costumes are authentic; the dates of various events are made obvious (too obvious) for us; and when these don’t seem to suffice, the scriptwriter (Nishantha Weerasinghe) gives us one self-righteous one-liner after another. (A sample: “The air we breathe exudes the freedom you won for us!”). But all this is a facade.
I knew what I was in for, and what lay beneath that facade, when, in the opening sequence at Galle Face beach, Richard Aluwihare (Douglas Ranasinghe) and G. G. Ponnambalam (Milinda Perera) incessantly praised the hero as the man who “brought freedom” to the country. The praises kept on coming and going like a ball at a tennis match, so much so that I begin to wonder whether the hero of the story had been conceived by the scriptwriter solely to attract praise from his co-stars. He’s more saintly than Gandhi, and less misunderstood. At one point, I couldn’t help but think that the crew had the cake with him and ate it too: he’s so perfect, his intentions so clear, his purpose so messianic. He cannot fail. He does not.
This comes out even in the opening credits: the music (by Samantha Perera) exudes a patriotic streak, until bang! – after the director’s name is listed, the title of the film comes onscreen like it’s the opening to a superhero flick. I almost heard the director whisper to us there, “It’s not the nation’s Father, stupid, it’s Superman!”
Part of the reason why Nidahase Piya staggers like a ship rigged with so many holes that wants to make it to the next port even though it’s sinking is the ambivalent nature of its protagonist. Nationalists, even hardcore Sinhala Buddhists, idealise Senanayake for having salvaged their heritage through the Gal Oya scheme and the Senanayake Samudraya. In this revisionist version of history, the members of the Ceylon National Congress, of which Senanayake was a leading light, regained the centuries we “lost” to the British. By carving a moderate political settlement, so the narrative goes, the Congress embraced a pluralist society, which freed them from the sectarian pressures that rocked the Indian independence movement, culminating with the establishment of the United National Party in 1946. Given that most if not all of the heavyweights behind the film (Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe was one of the producers, and I saw Mangala Samaraweera’s name in the credits) are card carrying members of the UNP, it comes to no surprise that the UNP and the Congress are valorised as shining lights that rescued Sri Lanka from the fate that befell its neighbour.
But that’s the revisionist view. The historical reality, as always, is different.
The film itself tells us what that reality is by what it omits. One does not have to read Kumari Jayawardana’s meticulously researched essays and books to understand that behind the Temperance movement, the Buddhist revival of the 20th century, and the drive towards constitutional reforms was an almost never-ending clash between an old order and a new order of legislators who didn’t have much that distinguished them from each other (as Professor Jayawardana puts it, it was a fight between the old Mudliyars and the new Misters).
It wasn’t the shining lights of the Congress who called for complete independence, though the movie tells us otherwise; it was Philip Gunawardena, who did so 14 years before Senanayake resigned from the Congress because he disagreed with its revised aim of full freedom. I don’t need to mention here that the film makes no reference whatsoever to the Left movement. When it does come close to the campaigns of that movement (as with the Mooloyo estate strikes), the director hurries along (because, after all, the strikes were organised by the samasamajists, and not the Congress, though we see Senanayake’s troupe meet Andrew Caldecott).
Then there are the 1915 riots. To its credit, the movie makes one fact clear: the belief nurtured by the Temperance movement that the British were instigating a riot between Sinhalese and Muslims at the behest of Indian Moors. (I wonder whether the director inserted this to justify Senanayake’s later act of disenfranchising the Indian estate Tamils. Which, if true, begs the question: is it adequate as a palliative for guilt?)
But then there’s the execution of Henry Pedris. In his depiction, the director presents the man as a hard-as-nails, tough-as-stone anti-imperialist, going as far as to stage an encounter atop a bridge between Pedris (on horseback) and an English couple. Laying aside the god-awful tripe that passed for dialogue there (I found myself rooting for Pedris, not because of my patriotism, but because of the acting of the couple), this version of what happened fails to account for one point: that he was a scapegoat and that he did not side with the Sinhalese (against the Muslims). In fact, so successful and efficient was he at disbanding the rioters (Sinhalese Buddhists) that he stoked jealousy among the more established elite. This, and not his nationalist streak, was what led the British to press false charges on him.
Nidahase Piya hence does a good job of concealing the rifts between two different sections of a landed, conservative, compradore elite. And yet, that’s not what repels me; after all, even David Lean and Robert Bolt took liberties with history.
But despite his romanticised depiction of history, Lean was able to make his films convincing in some strange, fascinating way. What most people don’t get about them is that it’s not just the set pieces or the cinematography or the costumes that make them so evocative. Images and visuals count, but if there’s nothing for them to stand on, they end up standing apart from the rest of the film, when then meanders along until we lose the thread and wonder what the heck it is that we’re watching.
We know, for instance, that even though that’s not how the Russian revolution played out (Doctor Zhivago), or how the Irish rebelled against the British after the Easter Rising (Ryan’s Daughter), there was a semblance of reality captured within a mass of artifice. This is exactly what’s missing in our biopics, especially those that try to imitate the craftsmanship of Lean, and that’s what missing in Nidahase Piya.
There’s another problem.
People may fault me for ignoring the fact that the actors who played Moses and Spartacus and Commodus and all those Romans and Greeks and Asians were miles away from the milieus they were supposed to represent; that they whitewashed or, if I am to recast a local term, “toiyya-fied”, these characters. I am willing to meet that accusation when I claim that I see the opposite problem in Nidahase Piya.
I am not an English speaking snob by any stretch of the imagination, but when so many mistakes of diction are made, at odds with the milieu the characters come from, I wonder where the money those big shots put into the production went to. I read somewhere (I think in Mawbima) that the director resisted an offer by a powerful individual who insisted on having his son cast as Senanayake. Laudable, certainly, which is why I believe that had he been more circumspect, without giving into the urge to have a star studded cast, the performances would been more convincing.
As they stand, right now, they are not. (To give just one example, G. R. Perera’s interpretation of Don Spater Senanayake comes off as incongruous on so many levels; he transforms the patriarch from the ruthless capitalist of the Bothale walawwa that history remembers him as to a well meaning but irate village headman.) Audiences will come from Nidahase Piya with the most wrong ideas about the kind of people these heroes were: the biggest failing in Lokuhewa’s film, bigger than the historical realities it omits. And what’s worse is that it has been explicitly marketed as “suitable for children”. Talk about mis-educating the youth!
Curiously enough, the only part of the film that really appealed to me needn’t have been there: the sequence where the young Senanayake tells a lie about his class rank to his parents. It was fictionalised, hardly, if at all, essential to the story. And yet, it’s the only part which stood out for me. Why? Because, for a moment at least (because of its humour, perhaps), it transcended its blatant a-historicism and embraced that sense of conviction which the cinema, as Lokuhewa should know, is so capable of conjuring. It was the only spark that kept the film alive, not because the rest of the film was glossed over, but because it was original.
Nidahase Piya, in short then, was unoriginal. Worse, it was uninspired.