By Dev N Pathak –
Sinhala cinema completed sixty-nine years in 2016. Or so was stressed in various parts of Sri Lankan media. Curiously, the National Film Corporation (NFC) in Sri Lanka also celebrates its forty-fourth anniversary this year. And this too was stressed with equal vengeance. There were self-congratulatory notes afloat and state ceremonies were organized in which ministers and cinema-giants bestowed usual self-congratulatory platitudes. But, Sinhala cinema deserves more than vacuous rhetoric and empty adulation at this junture in history of post-colonial Sri Lanka . It deserves a self-critical soul searching which could aid in understanding as to what really went wrong! This article does not promise to offer a comprehensive glance of the six decades of cinema in Sri Lanka. That is a mammoth task, and a meaningful one, to be undertaken some other time. This article is merely to flag the anomalies from the perspective of a young theater actor, performing artist, cinema-maker, script-writer, and so many other things rolled in one, named Jagath Manuwarna. An extremely articulate Jagath has spearheaded the much-needed idea of a politically conscious, optimally self-critical, and aspiration to be ‘different’ film makers. Jagath discloses with an actor’s rawness the anomalies of Sinhala cinema scene. And, one finds it difficult to disagree with him. He has acted in some of the critically acclaimed films such as recently released Motor Bicycle, Nikini Wessa (August Drizzle, 2014), scripted and acted in Karma (2013), directed Water Lily, Playing Cards, Cleansing, and various short films including Gindera Poddak (Speck of Fire). Apart from international awards for some of his cinematic works, he was conferred the award of one of the best directors in the National Drama Festival in 2004, and has many of his forthcoming films in the offing including Undecided, Train to Kandy and Ikka (Hiccup). Jagath has been a theater actor and director for considerable numbers of years. He has created a new language of theater performance, though not winning the attention of culturally impoverished audiences.
In the backdrop of these released, and about to get released works, Jagath has a host of unreleased works due to the lack of interest of the theaters and distributors. Nobody wants to get along with the new actors and filmmakers in Sri Lanka. Jagath says, “newcomers are absolutely not welcome in Lankan Cinema world”. But it is not all about newcomers’ struggle in a predetermined industry that this interaction with Jagath reveals. It also underlines the serious issues such as state’s responsibility in the domain of arts and culture in Sri Lanka. It is the larger political apathy that causes anomalies in Sinhala cinema industry.
As Jagath observes, Sinhala cinema today seems to be struggling with many anomalies. One is about the strong compartmentalization of commercial-popular cinema and art cinema. This is unlike the cine-industry in India which many established film makers in Sri Lanka tend to ape. Anybody aspiring to experiment with ideas, innovate in style of cinematographic story telling, and defy the formulae in Sinhala cinema is kept at bay by the industry-giants, producers, and even audiences. Even state does not offer any support to the diehard experimental cinema-artists. Thankfully, there are strong whimpers emerging in the cinematic surroundings in Sri Lanka, a silver lining in the bleak cinematic horizons. These whimpers, including that of Jagath Manuwarna, are posing serious questions to not only cinema industry but also state cultural policies and theater-performance scene in Sri Lanka. These whimpers have begun to surface in more solid forms. A tastimonial was available when theater artists showed up with placards and black armbands articulating their concerns in the 43rd State Drama Festival, 2016. The state Drama Festival offers awards to the selected dramatic artists for their works. It met with a creative protest organized by the artists to mark dissent to the process of shortlisting the artists for the award, insufficient state support provided for this year’s state drama awards in particular and the general indifference to art and culture in Sri Lanka. The protesters’ placards called on President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Education Minister Kariyawasam to stop ‘harassing’ artistes.
The artists usually find state hand in glove with the market and industry in promoting mediocrity and disregarding cultural-artistic synergy in Sri Lanka. Some of the artists in the protest work in cinema industry too. And they tend to see a general anomaly, which ails state’s approach to drama, art and aesthetics, performances, and cinema. This is about disrespect for experimentation, innovation, and quest of new tales. It becomes sharper with reference to Sinhala cinema, as Jagath along with other actors point out. The state has seemingly been ineffective in providing support to young film-makers who aspire to radicalize the Sinhala cinema-scene with their works which don’t imitate popular Hindi qua Indian cinema. Jagath puts a question straight: why is Sri Lanka not interested in having its own cinematic language after so many years? In other words, this is a logical protest against various agencies trying to perpetuate Sinhala cinema as a poor clone of Hindi/Tamil cinema.
Under the critical scanner come other issues such as lack of attention given to the new filmmakers, new actors, and alternative cinema. The National Film Development Board’s surrendered its responsibility with the advent of open economy in Sri Lanka. In its earlier avatar as National Film Corporation in the decades of 1970s, the body did more meaningful work of encouraging the Sinhala filmmakers. But now it seems to have come under the control of aged filmmakers and cultural bureaucrats. It works with the preferences of the Guild of film producers and hence it neglects the imperative of encouraging the ‘new’ in any form of cinema making. It seems that cinema has been left to the so-called free-market economy without care for the issues of qualities. Hence, some of the young filmmakers don’t even wish to bother about the body such as the National Film Development Board. They want to utilize the new media, operate with the shoestring budget, and win international award. But then, does it make any difference in the scene of Sinhala cinema? Moreover, as Jagath asserts, the relation between dramatic arts and cinema has dwindled in recent times despite the fact that some exceptional interesting cinematic works happened due to film-makers inclined to dramatic arts in the decades of 1970s and 1980s. Names of Prasanna Vitange, Ashoka Handagama, Jayantha Chandrasiri, Prasanna Jayakody surface for recognition. They employed actors from drama circles in their films. They tend to persist with the genres and styles of the 1970s credited to the names such as Dharmasena Patiraja and Dharmashree Bhandarnayake. The relation of cinema with theater has become weak also because of the lack of facility for ‘good theater’. Jagath points out a very fundamental issue. There are not many theater halls where drama groups could perform. The former premier of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksha had Nelum Pokuna theater built. Paradoxically, the tariff for the theater is so high that no theater performance can afford to utilize it. The hall eventually became a shelter for army. Most of the time, it is only an outdated Lionel Wendt hall that is used for theater performances. With this fundamental limitation of the space of performing modern proscenium theater it is hard to imagine the perpetuity and quests in modern theater, with exceptions few and far between. And as we know, street theater died long ago in Sri Lanka.
Given this, it is fair to suggest, as does Jagath, that state in Sri Lanka tends to conspire against cultural activism of artists, cinema-personnel, and performers. It fears the theatrical and cinematic intervention in the realm of political consciousness. But, could ‘cultural’ be entirely silenced by ‘political’? This is a question on which Jagath departs from the interview. The silence shall be a sign of hope!
*Dr. Dev N Pathak – Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi