By Hafeel Farisz –
Sri Lankans know how to laugh. They also know how to laugh at themselves. They can even laugh with others who laugh at them. They know how to make political jokes and to use humor to critique people, things and political positions. ‘Puswedilla’ is a hit and has been one for a long time now.
Pusswedilla, as the ‘stage play’ or rather series of plays is referred to, in fact does what political satire is supposed to do, which in the most crudest of terms is ridicule dedicated to exposing the difference between reality and appearance in public life,although with many a caveat.
The inverted commas used when describing the ‘play’ is intentional because if there ever was something that was a cross between a street show/ political carnival and a play it has to be this. The audience got a kind of a preview even before the show began. They were made to be part of a long queue walking towards a ‘ Poling boother’ to get their tickets sealed , for no apparent reason except to indicate what it might feel to be at a polling booth. That’s what the audience was welcomed with. Walking out of the theatre three hours later and realizing that the polling booth had no connection to the play or its theme, was reflective of the play as a whole- It was something that seemed to have been put there simply because it was funny.
The cast was impressive with the likes of Pasan Ranaweera, Dominic Kellar and Gehan Block who have over the years proved to be versatile actors, but the play was little more than slapstick comedy. It possessed little imagination, taste and sarcasm. Perhaps the lack of all that was intentional given the fact that the audience the writer was catering to did not enter the Lionel Wendt to watch a tasteful play, but sarcasm or else the producers imagined they were so.
The play revolved around a parodying of events which were very real to the average Sri Lankan but the construction of such was too crude to fall within the ambit of sarcasm. Instead it was a parody of events that many in this country read and hear through the media. A parody constructed and designed to make an audience starved for political comedy of any sort laugh.
Reviewing a play of the likes of ‘ Puswedilla’ cannot be done without an understanding of the larger political reality in this country. Puswedilla was inherently political. This review mirrors the play in itself. Colouring the colourless is next to impossible, instead ‘slapstick’ is what was dished out to a packed house on two occasions I had the oppurtunity of witnessing the play, which the review also seeks to reflect.
Pasan Ranaweera who played the role of the secretary to the lead role was exceptional, as he has been throughout the Pusswediila series. He played the role to perfection and was the funniest among the actors on stage. The ‘play’ would have most certainly been a drab drag if not for the wit that Ranaweera brought on to the stage. The rest of the actors too played to their optimum with none of them showing any sense of discomfort in their roles. This however, should not be construed to mean anything other than the fact that they did the job assigned. There was little room for them to play beyond the script.
‘Puswedilla’ needs to be located within the larger political reality in this country because it is inherently political. It boiled down to mimicking a system that we have either confused ourselves about or ridiculing a system that those in Colombo love to loathe. ‘Yakkos’ governing the country is not something that many have been used to prior to the incumbent regime assuming power. The Premadasa era is often used as a case point to negate this argument, but fact remains that even during that era, the institutional mechanisms had not felt the social ‘turnaround’ as it has now. It is in this context that the writer seems to be making hay, through Pusswedilla, catering to an audience that largely comprises a population segment that is becoming negligible in the larger political schism of Sri Lanka.
It would be interesting to observe how a Sinhala speaking audience would respond to the play, although I have my doubts as to the effectiveness of such an experiment, it could be assumed that they would would either feel insulted or relate to what takes place on stage. This as opposed to the ‘reflection’ of ‘thinking’ that I ascribe the Colombo based audience’s response to.
It is beyond logic and reason to find the Colombite social phenomenon that is associated with play, except for the very fact that many of us are starved of any sort of comedy on the one hand and the love for the loathing and mimicking of a system we now have little or no control over on the other. It is these subconscious or conscious callings of an audience that was exploited by the phenomenon.
To give but two examples there is little or no explanation otherwise to watch an audience roar in laughter- a mature, English speaking audience at that, during the scene where Chaminda Puswedilla while reading a letter that was sent to him by Al- Qaeda continuously spat at another character. The letter he read was written in English which had words which the character did not have a problem pronouncing albeit the pronunciation being very native. Each time the character came across the letter ‘K’ or its equivalent he turned around towards Robert Western Thinking, the journalist in the play, and spat. It is of course understood that Arabs pronounce the letter or its equivalent with emphasis on the throat, but the letter is neither in Arabic, nor was it read by a character that possessed anything distinctively Arab.
The other example was the ‘rape’ joke. Many of Colombo’s pseduo feminists/ feminists would most certainly have taken offence at “if it’s broken consider it sold” joke among a few others, when discussing the ‘ Rape Marriage’ law in any other context, comedy or otherwise. The act reportedly provided an opportunity for rape victims to choose to marry their alleged rapist. As frightening as even a thought of such nature is the ‘ Rape marriage’ law was in fact proposed a few months ago by Tissa Karaliyadda, the Minister in Charge of Women’s Affairs. It was in this context that the joke came about in the play. I am no proponent of boundaries or socially constructed do’s and do not’s when it comes to comedy. Anyone should and must be able to joke about rape or any other social ill, impediment or otherwise. As long as a joke is constructed well, anything can be funny. The joke, however, lacked any such construction and instead was confined to parlance used by a few sex starved school boys. The entire ‘Rape’ episode which ran into roughly three jokes drew roaring laughter from the audience on both occasions I was at the Wendt, and I assume it was the norm rather than the exception. The joke in any other forum that the audience was present could not have garnered anything less than a long stare.
The production as a whole, lighting, sounds, diction projection and clarity were as good as it has been in some of the best theatre productions in the country. Having occupied the last seat on the balcony first and one of the best seats in the first few rows next, it could be safely said that the audience were given the best they could ask for as far as the production was concerned. It would be futile to enter in to the details of the production as the ‘play’ was not reliant on such. Instead it was the message, the idea and the mimicking that the ‘play’ was all about.
The above examples are but two case points of a theme that ran throughout the show, which however, kept the sell out audience which included me entertained. Ranaweera and his assistant were a personification of two village folk getting into high office, with the main character Chaminda Pusswedilla coming in a close second.
If there is similarity to be drawn in real life, it was like watching Mervyn Silva on rampage. Entertaining and insightful, insightful to the extent that it provides an opportunity to view the real thinking behind what goes on within the system. But that happens every other day. Pusswedilla was no different. For me the play, answered the many questions as to why the media continuously gives credence by way of publicity to the antics of many of our politicians- there is a market, and there is an audience that thrives on such antics.
Despite the above what mattered to many of those was a solid three hours of laughter, and to that end, I believe Pusswedilla was a success. If there is a Pusswedilla 6 make no mistake, I’d be the first to book tickets, whether that is a reflection of the levels or depths the Colombo based audience has sunk to or risen towards is a different question altogether.
*A version of this article appears in print on Daily MIrror lifestyle section