ONE LEAGUE OF SOCIAL CONSCIOUSNESS:
Dharmasena Pathiraja Speaks
by Brandon Wee
He has been referred to as a 'rebel with a cause', an 'enfant terrible of the '70s', and is widely recognized as the pioneer of Sri Lankan cinema's 'second revolution'. However, from his speech and writings, one gathers Dharmasena Pathiraja is more interested in reexamining the values that underpin such popular labels than to let his work be framed by mere posturing.
If Lester James Peries has been credited with the establishment of an indigenous Sinhala cinema coinciding with Sri Lanka's political, social and cultural revolution during the mid-'50s, with his subsequent works categorized as 'art films' dissimilar to the traditional mode of commercial filmmakers, Dharmasena Pathiraja's arrival on the scene in the '70s deconstructed the binary of center and periphery by redefining a socially conscious Other to Peries' gaze on 'bourgeois idealism'. For Pathiraja, critical engagement accompanied by a personal, stylized aesthetic was his 'alternative'.
Sri Lanka in the early '70s was a particularly tumultuous period for social change, but it was this chapter that produced a generation of artists dramatists, filmmakers, poets and writers who were thirsty to challenge existing social order so as to reclaim the political realities around them. Reacting to the failings of the country's successive socialist governments in 1956, 1962 and 1970 to deliver the benefits of the post-independence 'revolution' and the rise of Sinhala populism, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or People's Liberation Front led by educated but unemployed youths mounted an armed insurrection to overthrow the government in April 1971. In days, the rebellion was crushed, leaving scores of people dead. Goaded by an impassioned desire to say something about his times, as well as by the institutional incentives that came his way, Pathiraja emerged along with the likes of Vasantha Obeysekera, D.B. Nihalsinghe, H.D. Premaratne and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake to become one of Sri Lanka's best-known filmmakers of the time.
At the invitation of the Sri Lanka-based Asian Film Centre (AFC), the 16th Singapore International Film Festival hosted the first-ever Dharmasena Pathiraja retrospective outside Sri Lanka. Only five of Pathiraja's eight features were screened: One League of Sky (1974), Ponmani (1977), The Wasps Are Here (1978), On The Run (1980) and Old Soldier (1981). His most recent film, Some Day In The Future (2001), was an official selection at the 15th SIFF (2002) and also a Silver Screen Awards nominee in the Best Asian Feature Film category. Absent from the retrospective were Coming of Age (1977), which won a Diploma for Best Female Performance for its lead actress, Malini Foneska, at the 8th Moscow International Film Festival in 1978, and Whirl Wind (1994).
In the 28-page monograph An Incomplete Sentence: The Films of Dharmasena Pathiraja published by the AFC (eds. Robert Crusz and Ashley Ratnavibhushana) to accompany the occasion of this retrospective, Pathiraja, in conversation with Sivamohan Sumathy, essays his filmmaking autobiography at length with academic, anecdotal and autobiographical rigueur. "In a lifetime of work, the corpus is a work by itself; a text. Like a book, a line, a sentence. A historical line moving from film to film, text to text," he muses before acknowledging the spring of his proclivity. Recalls Pathiraja: "Youth and film you see there is a touch of romance there."
Illuminating the impetus for his debut feature One League Of Sky, a stirring take on the anxieties and ideals of youth, Pathiraja reflects with empathy:
What intrigued me, and something that continues to haunt my films is the idea of people from the outskirts pouring into the city. In our country, particularly at that time the '60s and '70s, Colombo was beginning to form, develop an identity. This identity was given shape by those who were moving in from outside. It was this search of those people that kind of matched mine as well. The characters are individualized enough to act, to have agency. For instance, there is no romance plot in the structure of the film. But there is romance. The overall story is the romantic yearning of the youth to belong within the cityscape.
Pathiraja regards his films as social commentaries; they are critical of attitudes wrought by the social and political circumstances of the time but also sympathetic to the humanistic dilemmas that beset them. On The Run Pathiraja's favorite film is set against the backdrop of an emerging Colombo and is uncompromising in its observation of the recklessness and naiveté of youth. In The Wasps Are Here, Pathiraja tackles the politics of community by laying bare urban-rural tensions amid the ironic tranquil of a fishing village in Kalipinya, on Sri Lanka's west coast. Ponmani is a study of the familial institution, depicting an upper caste girl's elopement with a lower caste man and her indifference in the face of the consequences, much to the censure of her family and people.
It is Pathiraja's poignant treatment of the subject matter in Old Soldier, however, that reveals the humanist in him. The story takes place during Sri Lanka's Independence Day: the eve, the holiday and the day after, and involves the participation of four oppressed souls, a World War II veteran, a prostitute, her pimp (also a pickpocket) and a clerk, who have chosen a tree as their asylum from the spectacle of pageantry. An unusual tension hangs through the film as their disaffections with the construct of 'nationhood' become apparent and compellingly articulated.
Speaking of 'nationhood', the cinemas and filmmakers of Asia have historically been deprived of critical attention. Little is being written about them, and there are fewer attempts made to chart their stories and histories from the inside. We are thus left with a perfunctory but not futile criticism of the status quo that the invisibility of many Asian directors and films (particularly in Southeast Asia and South Asia) in cinema history is often symptomatic of the collective failings of indigenous film communities to discover, document and promote their artists.
Three days before the 16th SIFF came to a close and on the morning of his return to Sri Lanka, the 60-year-old Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Colombo genially accepted the offer of this interview. Alongside his own opinions on his work, the soft-spoken gentleman shares the memories of his formative years as a student besotted by cinema, his ensuing trials as an artist and filmmaker, and the (universal) problems that continue to plague emerging filmmakers in Sri Lanka.
Brandon Wee: Path, congratulations on this first-ever retrospective outside Sri Lanka. Back home you have been called a "rebel with a cause." Coincidentally, there are two other directors retrospected by the Festival who not only have been regarded as rebels in their homelands, but also have surnames beginning with "P." How do you feel about the label, "rebel with a cause?"
Dharmasena Pathiraja: It's really metaphorical. One should not think of the artist as a rebel who is going to bring about objective change. The rebel is within you. So you rebel not with the world but with yourself. In Asian societies particularly, one struggles to capture a reality in rebellious terms. One recreates realities through a rebellious search for freedom of expression from the tired old forms, the familiar ways of capturing reality, and the experiences of social reality. This rebellion has to come from within one by way of confronting familiar truths.
BW: How did filmmaking become your calling?
DP: My fascination for moving images began at 14 when I saw my first film, but we were forbidden to go to the cinema because our families saw it as a corrupting medium. It was not a well-recognized medium of art but seen as entertainment. When I saw my first film, it was like seeing a magic show. I was so excited then I didn't know how to express myself; I was fascinated. I started off as a writer: I wrote short stories, poems, drama and read about literature, but the fascination with the moving image stayed with me throughout. Then, as a student in university, I read about cinema, got highly involved with the film society movement and watched many films, especially from outside Sri Lanka. We didn't have any institution to teach film but I finally got involved with filmmaking while working with some senior technicians. It was like a lifelong desire that came true, which was achieved. I thought it was my medium; me. I could not find a better way of capturing the reality around me. At the same time I associated closely with the Left movement in Sri Lanka. I was never a party member of any political movement but sympathized intimately with some of the organizations. The political protests expressed though the Left programs combined and prodded me toward a protest medium in film. I don't think this was a deliberate attempt but an undercurrent. The Left opened up challenges not only in the avowedly political field but also in the area of form. For me, that kind of courage to think beyond the confinements of the familiar was an important part of the Left tradition, especially where my films were concerned.
BW: You often insert political elements at interesting moments. In One League Of Sky, for instance, you depict the grating, "victory to the oppressed masses" street demonstrations in the closing frames. Also, in The Wasps Are Here there is Little Master's friend who is initially framed as the film's prevailing conscience, but later we see his soapbox exhortation on the evils of exploitation. Can you comment on this fellow?
DP: There is a subversion of this man's character in the film. He's a Left-oriented man, but you can see some kind of romanticism in the way he has come to the village to talk about Marxism and exploitation to the people. This attitudinizing was part of a generation who were quite sincere and 'objectively' correct, yet were somewhat out of touch with the realities of the people, their material conditions, power, and even their powerlessness. We have had a series of youth insurrections in Sri Lanka, but none have been able to mobilize people through their Marxist vision. These people were alienated from the society they wished to deliver from exploitation. In that scene I try to remark on that subtly: this character holds forth from a platform in the village but as he moves off the next moment, we see an empty square. In another part of the village a police post is being set up. This character is not caricaturized. He is, as you say, the conscience of the film; a narrator, but it is more than that too.
BW: The Wasps Are Here underscores the tensions between fishing village folk and city dwellers, and we are told 'wasps' refer to city people by implication, nasty urban insects. Yet the fish merchant, Anton is equally parasitical. So is the title intended as an ironic double-entendre?
DP: Yes, this also because the wasps are already there. Symbolically, the film is about exploitation. Even the relationship between the male characters and Helen, the central female, is exploitative. There is a sexual theme running through the film. It is very much about that as well.
BW: On The Run is your favorite film, but the public did not take well to it when it was released. Why?
DP: Some people said it was ahead of its time but I didn't believe that. The film has a very simple theme but they didn't see it as simple. People look for hidden meanings instead of what is already there and have preconceived notions of what a film should be like. But, a lot of people talk about the film now. They like it very much even those from my generation and I think there is an understanding of its style now that wasn't there before. I like this film because the lead character Chandare also came from the village to the city, like me. I come from a village near central hill country.
BW: Did the abortion issue in On The Run command attention?
DP: Yes. There is a lot of talk about abortion, whether one should do it or not. It is a controversial topic in Sri Lanka even today. The abortion subject was central in the film and I used it to penetrate the traditions of the village and city. I wanted to show the rootlessness and alienation of the people who come from the villages, particularly the displacement of young people and their inability to resolve their problems. They're always on the run, looking for something in life.
BW: Is this a commentary on the restlessness and naiveté of youth?
DP: Yes, but it is more than that. It is about how everybody is dislocated in the city, the village or wherever they live in this country. It is social dislocation tied up with personal dislocation.
BW: What was so controversial about Ponmani?
DP: This was the first time a Sinhala director directed a Tamil language film. It was made with my friends when I was teaching at the university in Jaffna city. At the beginning there was a campaign against the film and the controversy emerged because the main issues we discussed were the dowry and the caste problems. In the film, Ponmani, an upper caste Vellala girl, elopes with a low caste Catholic boy from the fishing community. In practice, this would be likened to a crime. The other thing was that audiences were too used to the formulaic films of the south Indian industry and so the familiar signifiers were not present here. They saw their cities, villages, roads and people who looked like them and these representations made them uncomfortable.
BW: How strong was the campaign?
DP: Not so, but people coming to watch the film were approached by others and told not to, and to go. It happened to me. After the fourth day of release in a theater in Jaffna, I went to see the film but was told not to watch it. They didn't know I was the director at the time. Later, they stopped showing the film in the theaters.
BW: I notice a feminist undercurrent to some of your films. You are sympathetic toward women even though they may be powerless, and the emotional accent on them is evident. Is this what you have set out to do?
DP: Women are central in a way because the narrative or the disjuncture in the narrative gets routed through them. They are focal points. It is a particular reality of women that is represented there.
BW: Is there a reason why you have understated the emotions, particularly at the end of the film?
DP: It captures the bottled up nature of their lives, particularly the lives of Ponmani's family. These people are together, but separated all the same. They are severely alienated from society; given their high caste and yet economically failing wealth, they are at the mercy of their own prejudices, bonds and conservatism.
BW: What is the status of Sri Lankan cinema now?
DP: It is quite productive. I think we can call filmmakers like Asoka Handagama and Prasanna Vithanage the third generation. They're courageous, creative and have amazing talent. But all of us are suffering from a lack of finances. We can't think what our next films will be because if you don't have any kind of finance, it means you can't think about anything. You can't even begin to conceive a new film. Last year, the National Film Corporation funded 40 productions but this year they are not going to continue because they said, "No, we don't have money and we didn't recover the money we have spent." So who is going to finance independent ventures? If the state can't come up with money to finance films, especially for this younger generation, then I think there is no hope.
BW: Are you saying the state doesn't value culture?
DP: Not in the way we think of culture. I think the situation is fast deteriorating. The main thing is this ethnic war, which has been around for decades. I don't even think the government has money for its own survival. Prices are going up steeply by the day and you see the suffering of people, so I don't think they have enough resources to spend on cultural activities. The other thing is the cost of making a film today is very high. Not a single film can recover the costs and if one cannot recover the costs one will be in bad shape.
BW: How hungry is the Sri Lankan audience for locally made films?
DP: Not that much. But it's highly competitive because society has changed rapidly over the last two decades. This did not lead to improved standards in the arts and culture but did pave the way for other social changes. In 1971 we had a youth uprising and people were scared to even go out of their houses. Back then, film meant family entertainment but now because of this economic depression, the whole family can't go to the cinema because it will cost a lot of money. Then in 1983, during the anti-Tamil riots, Sinhala hooligans driven by other interested parties, including powerful sections of the government, set fire to about 50 theaters all over. And during the war, theaters in Jaffna and the northern peninsula were destroyed. So now we have a very limited number of cinemas and that's not enough. But even within Sri Lanka, films don't travel much.
BW: What you have described seems at odds with the kind of content that is being produced currently. Asoka Handagama was saying during the Q&A session of Flying With One Wing (2002) that audiences reacted very strongly to his film, and certainly, dealing with the marginalization of a class of people is a courageous thing to do. Are contemporary Sri Lankan filmmakers tackling similar issues?
DP: Yes, they are really sensitive to these types of social and ideological issues relating to marginality. People welcome that, but you also see a lot of resistance, a kind of backlash. People also take on moralist positions. For Asoka's film, there were a lot of these so-called moralists opposing it, not to mention the campaign against it. But people still received the film very well. It showed to packed houses.
BW: What is your future?
DP: Looking back at my career as a filmmaker, I can't understand how I survived. I didn't earn any money from these films although I have had my job teaching at the university for the last 35 years. That was how I survived but actually, I am uncertain about filmmaking. This is a feeling I have had from the very beginning. My first feature, One League of Sky didn't make money. I had to wait more than two years for another producer to arrive before starting my second production. After that I had to wait again. There was never this continual process during my career.
BW: Can we see restored prints one day so that these can travel to festivals?
DP: Yes. Ashley Ratnavibhushana of the Asian Film Centre, who was the one behind this venture, wants to preserve these films and he's planning to find some finances to get them restored.
BW: Will we see your films on DVD one day?
DP: I think so because until the Singapore International Film Festival had this retrospective, my films were not exposed internationally. When I went to UCLA in Los Angeles in 1994 and screened On The Run, the audience there was surprised at its style. The professor of film and television studies asked me, "Why didn't you send out this film at the time you produced it?" I said the simple answer was I didn't have money for subtitling. The other thing was I didn't have any kind of international connections. That's the reason why my films didn't get proper exposure internationally. Unfortunately, for this retrospective, the screenings were in BETA format and were very bad copies. I did not have a single reprint of a film.
BW: Once again, congratulations and thank you very much.
DP: Thank you.
1974 One League Of Sky (Ahas Gawwa) [B&W]
1977 Coming Of Age (Eya Den Loku Lamayek) [B&W]
1978 Ponmani [B&W]
1978 The Wasps Are Here (Bambaru Avith) [B&W]
1980 On The Run (Paradige) [B&W]
1981 Old Soldier (Soldadu Unnehe) [B&W]
1994 Whirl Wind (Vasuli) [Color]
2001 Some Day In The Future (Mathu Yam Davasa) [Color]
Shorts and Documentaries
1969 Enemies (Sathuro) [B&W]
1972 From Darkness To Light (Anduren Eliyata) [B&W]1974 The Coast (Werala) [Color]
1988 Shelter For Million Families [Color]
This article first appeared in Senses of Cinema. © Brandon Wee, June 2003
Brandon Wee lives in Toronto.