Dharmasena Pathiraja has been described as a "rebel with a cause" who appeared on the Sri Lankan filmmaking landscape in the late '60s wanting to create a new cinema that "proposed a counter-discourse to the bourgeois artistic cinema and the formula-based popular cinema of the time." He is generally considered as the leader of the "second revolution" in Sri Lankan filmmaking, the first being initiated by Lester James Peries in 1956 with Rekawa. Born in 1943, Pathiraja was educated at Dharmaraja College, Kandy, and graduated from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in 1967 with an honours degree in Sinhala and Western Classical Culture. In this interview by Sivamohan Sumathy, Pathiraja gives the background to the films shown in the 16th Singapore International Film Festival's first ever retrospective of his works. As Pathiraja says: "We wanted to move on in other directions, and wanted to break free of tradition. That was in 1965. At the cusp of change. When we, the youth of this country, all, were confident and yet angry; in love and yet already beginning to hate what was around us."

Tickets at $8.80 from www.filmfest.org.sg.

ONE LEAGUE OF SKY [AHAS GAWWA]
April 28, 9.15 pm, Prince 1

 

As themes go, One League Of Sky (1974) dealt with the problems of the youth, the new generation of workers; unemployment. 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 individualised enough to act, to have agency. For instance, there is no romance plot in this structure of the film. But there is romance. The overall story is the romantic yearning of the youth to belong within the cityscape.

ON THE RUN [PARADIGE]
April 26, 9.15 pm, Jade 2

 

After One League Of Sky, I returned to my urban films with On The Run (1977) and Old Soldier (1981). Ajith Thilakasena, one of the greatest short story writers of our time, wrote the script for On The Run. Unfortunately, it is not a much-discussed film. But it is one of my favourites. What I like about On The Run is that it takes a hackneyed "family theme," woman getting pregnant and resolves it outside the family, within the crowds of the city, in a hostel for working women and unemployed youth. It works with displacement but without much sadness for that loss of rootedness. The two or three main characters in On The Run are displaced people, displaced from the villages, alienated from their families and eking out a life in the margins of the city. On The Run undertakes the destruction of the nation most fully and unromantically.

In that sense it was rather prescient. If Lester James Peries's films are about the emerging nation, the bourgeois nation, On The Run creates a structure for the deconstruction of the nation, through both a surreal and a fragmented discourse of the family. It is also a very funny film, funny because it asks irreverent questions about family, marriage, romance and reproduction.

Both the family and nation are treated parodically. There is pathos, but fragmented and cut-up into episodic bits. The sequencing of a phenomenological apprehension of reality is countered by a visual commentary. It subverts story telling itself.

I still do not understand why those who welcomed One League Of Sky did not appreciate the realities of On The Run. People did not want to confront those truths about life, about romance, about its leaders. None of my films have been, with the exception of Coming Of Age (Eya Den Loku Lamayek, 1977), commercial successes. But On The Run did not win any acclaim even from the critics. It was not even among the top 10 of the films selected for the Presidential Awards for that year. But in my reckoning it was one of my best films. It has begun to be noticed only now.

People have said that On The Run is a film made before its time. That may be a compliment in its own way. But if critics did not like it at that time, it is not because it was ahead of its time. I don't think any product can be called as such. It also has to do with dulling our senses with too much "artiness."

Today, a lot of "arty" films get made, pretentious; but also conservative and conformist. We must somehow try to break through that kind of mind set. It is dangerous to set paradigms and models to judge films by. It is a good film only if it conforms to some notion and "standards;" we must move on from that thinking once and for all and look at new ways of reading film. On The Run at that time and even now will not conform to any formula for the "arty" film or the alternative, unfortunately. But fortunately too. It is not stuffy.

OLD SOLDIER [SOLDADU UNNAHE]
May 1, 7 pm, Jade 2

 

In Old Soldier I broaden the scope of the city, go right up to the edges, where the underworld, the prostitutes, a pickpocket, a clerical servant fired from his job and a discarded soldier eke out a living under the tree. The tree is their home. And the tree becomes part of the lives of these people.

The film is about what these four protagonists encounter within three days, a day before and after the Independence Day and Independence Day itself. Here, more than in any other film, I use a fragmented style within the story telling mode. Again, it is perhaps the most Brechtian of my films. But I also think I sued a mixed idiom of Brecht and Chaplin.

The old soldier in the film evokes both the critique that Brecht is famous for and, at the same time, the Chaplinesque quality of pathos one feels for the tramp or the outcaste. It is also quite trenchantly critical of the nation, the idea of sovereignty, and how one must wage war to protect its borders. Yes, strangely, it is as much a film about the '90s as that of the '70s and '80s.

PONMANI
April 29, 7 pm, Jade 2

 

I made Ponmani (1978) at an important juncture in my film career. I had begun to teach at the University in Jaffna, then called the Jaffna Campus. It had just been established; many of us from the South, particularly the Sinhala scholars, went there with a great deal of excitement as it was going to what we thought of as unknown terrain.

I remember the long journey by night mail to Jaffna with other colleagues of mine, Sucharitha, for instance, who taught Sinhala there. We sat by the doorway, drinking… we watched the changing landscape. This is what I found really fascinating.

Kavaloor's story, which we turned into a film script, had a very strong focus on the family. But this story did not treat the family as a closed-off private space. It was opened out unto all of the forces of the land. Ponmani, the heroine's family, was alienated from its own values. And there was something happening there. A waiting for the new. A social impasse. An emotional impasse.

I mix the narrative with the dramatic, with social commentary like that played by the Greek chorus. Those are the most poignant moments in the film. There is an unstated realisation that the situation will explode one day. And it did. The film was made in 1977; the unrest and violence had already begun. But it had not taken the mammoth proportions it was to take later.

The story, in a way, despite its focus on the family, begins to tell the story of the Tamils, the lower middle class ethos of Jaffna life, its caste and class inhibitions. It is eventually a story of Jaffna and its future. The violence? Yes, you can say it is also about the violence directed against women. But it is not domestic violence, violence perpetrated upon women by the men of the family. Domestic violence and social violence merge together. They are seen from a social and socialised perspective.

The violence is also a motif, a feature that will come into increasing prominence in militancy, in the encounters of the ethnic conflict and the war.

THE WASPS ARE HERE [BAMBARU AWITA]
April 23

 

Well, what about the non-urban films? I have tried to deal with communities that have been cast as the "other." In The Wasps Are Here (1978), I switch gears completely. You may ask how I conceptualised such a subject that is not immediate to my own reality — the life of fishing people. I developed some kind of interest in the life of the fishing community living in Kaltptiya after my first visit to shoot a few scenes for One League Of Sky.

I like The Wasps Are Here for there you are walking a tight rope between melodrama, sentimentality on one side and a distanced political critique. In the film, the fishing Mudalalis who go from the big towns are technically not at fault. But they are part of an overall change that was taking place within the economy. That has to be taken into consideration. These changes are permeated with violence; it is not enough, even worth while, to point fingers and accuse this or that person. One must think of the social forces that impact upon these people.

Secondly, one must look at the choices and directions that the protagonists, and the communities take and wonder why they do so. If in The Wasps Are Here, the community is divided between the outsiders and the obviously much more powerful entrepreneurs on one side and the local traders and fishermen on the other, if one looked at the whole affair from Helen's point of view, the dilemma, the political division may take on a completely new light. She is cheated by both parties. She is trapped. But above all, one sees Helen as a Desiring subject. She may be punished for that. But she is not defeated. That is very important for me.

Note: The above interview is used through the courtesy of Ashley Ratnavibhushana and the Asian Film Centre.


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