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."
at $8.80 from www.filmfest.org.sg.
LEAGUE OF SKY [AHAS GAWWA]
28, 9.15 pm, Prince 1
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
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.
THE RUN [PARADIGE]
April 26, 9.15 pm, Jade 2
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
SOLDIER [SOLDADU UNNAHE]
May 1, 7 pm, Jade 2
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.
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.
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.
April 29, 7 pm, Jade 2
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
WASPS ARE HERE [BAMBARU AWITA]
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.
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.
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.
The above interview is used through the courtesy of Ashley Ratnavibhushana
and the Asian Film Centre.