MIDWEEK REVIEW

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The Popular Sinhala Cinema:

~ Part two ~

by Laleen Jayamanne

Ethnicity perhaps was not a political problem in the fledgling film industry, unlike in the wider political world, after the ‘Sinhala only’ Act of 1956, which made it the sole national language. In fact, without the entrepreneurial skills and vision of a group of indigenous and Indian Tamil businessmen, it’s very likely that the first steps towards the creation of a Lankan film industry of sorts would have been delayed at least by about a decade or so after political independence in 1947. The connection with India was essential. The first Sinhala film Kadawuna Poronduwa (Broken Promise, dir. B.A.W. Jayamanne, 1947), was in fact filmed in a studio in South India, belonging to the Indian producer S.M. Nayagam, who, subsequently, came to Ceylon and established the Sundera Sound Studio and obtained citizenship. The lack of capital, technical know-how, infrastructure and technology meant that the fledgling industry was dependent on India, in several ways, including the robust Indian melodramatic genre films in Tamil and Hindi which provided a durable prototype for many years to come.

However, despite the fundamental contribution of Tamil and Muslim, businessmen, technicians and artists in developing the Sinhala film industry, since the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, the history of Sri Lankan cinema is blood stained. The pioneer entrepreneurs who established the national film industry were a group of astute Lankan and Indian Tamil businessmen not unlike the pioneering American Jewish entrepreneurs (immigrants from Eastern Europe), who established the major Hollywood studios in the 1920s in a foreign tongue. Despite this contribution to the national culture, the director K. Venkat was burnt alive in his car in July 1983 anti Tamil pogrom, by a Sinhala nationalist mob. Also, the most high-profiled pioneer film producer and industrialist, K. Gunaratnam’s house was attacked in July ’83 but he managed to escape the mobs and found refuge in the Holiday Inn. But his Vijaya Studio was burned down along with a large number of Sinhala films stored there. A large number of imported modern looms he had stored there, to be installed in a new factory for weaving a specialist textile, were also destroyed. In 1989 a JVP gunman shot him dead in his car, at point blank range, during a period of extreme Sinhala terrorist and state violence, between 1988-89. He donated the Tower Hall cinema, which he owned, to the state at President Premadasa’s request, but I read that there was no visible sign of acknowledgment of this magnanimous, rare, public-spirited gesture of Gunaratnam’s. Gunaratnam has been referred to as a movie Moghul because he established and controlled significant assets in all three tiers of the Ceylon film industry, namely production, importation and distribution and exhibition, from the early 1950’s on, producing Sinhala films that were highly successful at the box office. He also astutely diversified his business portfolios into the manufacture of plastics, and other industries, such as tourism, as it grew in importance after the open economic policies of 1977. Sir Chittampalan Gardiner’s Ceylon Theatres funded Lester James Peries’ Rekava, considered the foundational film for a new realist cinema after the nationalist revival of Sinhala culture in 1956, which also introduced Irangani Serasinghe to film. When this pioneering film flopped at the box office, Gunaratnam took a big risk and funded Lester’s historical epic, Sandeshaya which was a box office hit. This is a turning point in Lester’s career and therefore in the fledgling Lankan film history, too. Jabir Cader owned several theatres, including the New Olympia, where Hollywood films were screened.

Two approaches to Lankan Film History

One might approach Lankan film history from two different perspectives or with two different emphases. The first approach is the perspective formulated by the Royal Commission on the Film Industry established in 1962-1965, chaired by Regi Siriwardena, the eminent film critic and independent scholar. The second approach is one that would ask how the Lankan popular Sinhala cinema was produced from 1947, its economic foundations and examine the specific aesthetic reasons for its durable mass appeal in the country for about three decades, focusing especially on the songs, which is where Rukmani Devi and Master Baig come into the picture.

The huge popular appeal of the genre cinema and its songs and lyrics (printed on attractive song sheets sold at cinemas), rather than the rather poor dances, often as many as 10 songs per film, has been acknowledged and discussed in the circles of older cinephiles, who collected song sheets and Rukmani Devi’s records for instance from their youth. I am not sure what the younger contemporary critical intelligentsia thinks of this past film culture though. Here, Aruna Gunarathna’s encyclopedic knowledge of Lankan film history, as a long term, but now retired, editor of Sarasawiya and his extensive YouTube programmes on the early popular cinema are in a class of their own. He calls himself a ‘pictur-pissa’, someone crazy about cinema as such, a medium like no other. One would also have to agree with the Royal Commission’s approach outlining the reforms needed to create a local product that was economically, aesthetically and culturally viable. This entailed the rejection of the Indian prototypes. Though the exclusive emphasis on vernacular Sinhala subjects and language, effectively implied an erasure through silence, of the ethnic minorities from the new desired model of a national (appema ‘our very own’ Sinhala) cinema. This idea of ‘our very own’, meaning ‘Sinhala only’, is one that had considerable currency then. This desire for ‘original purity’ resulted in considering the popular Tamil and Muslim artists as ‘honorary Sinhala folk’! That these confident artists from the minority communities (with access to other traditons), were all creating together, durable, hybrid films and songs, which also might have resonated with the minority communities in the country. Such a possibility was rarely actively explored, the exception being Garmini Fonseka.

So, it’s a matter of emphasis now, from this historical distance, when we can assess that past in a non-polemical sophisticated way, after a 30 year civil war waged on the competing, exclusionary claims of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms. That is, to not simply reject the ‘song and dance’ films, as they were referred to, in a dismissive manner by critics, who called for a true national cinema, which was ‘Sinhala’ in themes and use of language. The emphasis on songs and dance were abandoned in favour of more ‘serious’ concerns. But it’s worth noting that some ‘serious’ directors still loved using songs and those from say Bambaruawaith and Hansavilak scored by Khemadasa master, have by now become classics with their poetic lyrics. However, once a popular cinema is lost it’s not possible to recreate the conditions that gave rise to it, especially its devoted mass fan base in the first instance. This was so with Classical Hollywood cinema during the studio era with its mass audience and it was so with the Sinhala films made during the first 30 years or so. But India remains the striking exception to this mass cultural historical decline, especially after the advent of Television. India with its diverse folk songs, including Thumri and several classical musical traditions (Drupad, Khayal and Karnataka), and vibrant hybrid pop cultures should teach us that musical and cinematic creativity flourishes only when artists are open to outside influences and exchange of ideas. Indian films inherit all of this diverse cultural patrimony with unshaken confidence, while Lankans in power turn inward by sustaining an obsolete idea of cultural purity.

(To be Continued)

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