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Biden-Harris win, Trump in denial, America left hydra-headed in transition!

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by Rajan Philips

In the last week of October, President Trump and the traditional Halloween pumpkin inspired the adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ fictional dwarf to create a new political meme – Trumpkin: “orange on the outside, hollow on the inside, and thrown out in November”. The November 3 US presidential election has come and gone. Americans voted in record numbers in spite of the coronavirus, and did throw Trumpkin out. But the big yellow head has got stuck in the nation’s garbage chute. It is refusing to budge, and political wags will have to come up with a different meme for Thanksgiving – a two-headed turkey? – to caricature their nation’s State (of affairs) after its so-called consequential presidential election. ‘Some election, some consequence,’ Sir Winston would have growled. America’s political detractors around the world are delighted. This is their LOL moment of schadenfreude as they portray the world’s oldest constitutional democracy as its newest banana republic. Seriously, not quite. But the old American fact and the new Trumpkin facial can cohabit handsomely in the universe of alternative facts that Trump has created for his Republican followers. He has quite a flock of them.

There are two parts to the results of the 2020 American Presidential and Congress elections. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have made history as the oldest President elect and the first female-and-person-of-colour Vice-President elect, while amassing a vote tally that will likely reach a record high 80 million by the time every vote is counted. The defeat of Trump, the incumbent President, is in itself historic, as Trump is the first President in the 21st century to be defeated after a single term in office. There have been eight before, four each in the two preceding centuries.

 

Washington Gridlock

The second part is that Trump was able to increase his vote tally from 63 million in 2016 to a potential 73 million in the final count in 2020, the largest by a sitting, and losing, President. Even though Biden achieved a great and convincing victory, winning both the popular vote by a much larger margin than Hillary Clinton in 2016, and the Electoral College Vote likely by the same margin as Trump did in 2016, it is not at all a convincing repudiation of the politics of Trump, or, as it has now come into vogue, of ‘Trumpism.’ Trump’s final vote tally is a shockingly powerful demonstration of the bedrock of resonance in the American social formation that a phenomenon like Trumpism can effortlessly tap into. The surge in the Trump vote helped the Republican Party to gain seats in the House of Representatives (although Democrats will keep their House majority), and to ward off the Democratic challenge for majority in the Senate.

There are still two pending Senate races, both in Georgia and scheduled for January 5, 2021. The Democrats must win both to tie their Senate tally with the Republicans at 50-50, which would give them the majority with Vice President Kamala Harris having the deciding vote as president of the Senate. If the Republicans win even one of the two races, they will retain their majority and control the Senate for at least till the next mid-term elections in 2022. Gridlock in Washington will continue. Joe Biden will not be able to implement all or any of his aggressive legislative agenda unless he is able to draw from his long senatorial experience and persuade some of the Republican Senators who are critical of Trump to vote with the Democrats on critical issues.

So far, fewer than dozen out of fifty Republican Senators have publicly acknowledged Biden’s victory and congratulated him. A majority of them will not publicly do so (a number of them are known to have sent felicitations privately through their Democratic colleagues) for fear of angering Trump and alienating the Trump Nation of voters whose support they need for their future electoral survival. The Republican Senate leadership is publicly standing by Trump for now – at least until the two Senate races in Georgia are over. They want to keep their petulant President engaged and his vote base in Georgia enthused to avoid Republican disenchantment in Georgia and a drop in their vote turnout on January 5. That might just happen in spite of all the Republican machinations. The Democrats clearly have their tails up, and the political wind behind them. Yet, it is a historically uphill task to win two Senate seats in a southern State at the same time.

Whatever the outcome, the Georgian Senate elections on January 5 will mark the formal beginning, if it did not begin already, of the end of Donald Trump’s first and only term as American President. If the Republicans win, they will cajole Trump to leave office gracefully, while enticing him with the prospect of rerunning for a second term in 2024. On the other hand, if the Democrats win both Senate seats in Georgia, it is all over – game, set and match, for Trump and the Republicans until the next time.

 

Trump and Trumpism

Until January 5, Trump is likely dig deeper into his petulance with irrational executive orders, firing and hiring, and all manner of legal shenanigans to upend Biden’s victory. Trump’s legal challenges are not seriously expected to succeed at any level in any of the courts. But they can and will have the effect of delegitimizing Biden’s victory among Trump’s supporters. Add to that all the confusion and disruption Trump is already creating using his executive powers, America is in for a rough period of transition in the midst of a raging pandemic. It is here that the dialectic between Trump and Trumpism come into play.

Jeff Goodwin, the New York University sociologist, has described Trumpism as a “contradictory, unstable amalgam” of social conservatism, neoliberal capitalism, economic nationalism, anti-immigrant nativism, and White nationalism. There is nothing new here, nor were any of these created by Trump. Pre-Trump, the Bush era Republican ideologues privileged social conservatism and neoliberal capitalism, while downplaying, even genuinely eschewing, the other ingredients of economic nationalism, anti-immigrant nativism, and White nationalism.

Then came the Tea Party, and with or without the backlash incentive of Barack Obama’s election as the first African-American President, forced the fusion of all five ingredients. But there was no one in the Republican Party to raise this fusion to the national level as a viable presidential platform. Until Trump came along in 2016. His perverse genius for marketing and his personal animus towards Obama found common cause with all the items of the Tea Party agenda, that other Republican presidential aspirants were simply too squeamish to touch all at once. The Trump Nation loved their Messiah’s crass candour, intimidating insults, and reckless lies and boasts. Trump won the election in 2016 against his own expectations and those of everyone in the Republican Party.

The marriage of convenience worked, and might have continued for four more years, but for Trump’s inept and unempathetic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. But even the pandemic could not stop Trump from being able to fool 10 million more people in 2020 than he fooled in 2016. The 73 million votes he was able to amass provides a solid base to challenge the new Biden-Harris Administration and launch a comeback in two years for the 2022 midterm elections, and in four years for the next presidential election. However, if Trump and the Republican overplay their grieving hand, that will likely turn off a good majority of the people who voted for Trump but who are not part of the Trump Nation.

Another trouble for the Republicans is that Trump is not serious about their future or the future of Trumpism itself. He is not committed to the future of the Republican Party or any aspect of Trumpism either by conviction or any kind of persuasion. He might just pick up his wallet and leave politics altogether, or may be constrained to stay in politics as a way to forestall state and federal cases that he is likely to face when he is no longer president. Whether Trump stays in politics, or someone else emerges to take his place, the social presuppositions of Trumpism will remain alive and cannot be wished away in the afterglow of Biden-Harris victory.

 

Biden-Harris Victory and Challenges

To emphasize the significance of Trumpism is not to detract from the greatness of Biden-Harris victory. The Biden-Harris hyphenation would appear to be becoming the new normal, and it was symbolically asserted when the honour was given to Kamala Harris as Vice President elect to address the nation first and introduce Joe Biden as President elect to deliver his address. This has not happened before and it will be interesting to see if there will be two inaugural speeches in January, if it would be possible at all to have a non-virtual inauguration given the pandemic and Trump’s transition tantrums. Addressing the nation for the first time as Vice President elect, Kamala Harris rose to the occasion splendidly and captured the history of the moment, both symbolically – wearing a suffrage white pantsuit (a nod to Hillary Clinton), and eloquently – congratulating Joe Biden for his ‘audacity’ (a nod to Barack Obama) in selecting a woman of colour as his running mate.

The election of Barack Obama as President in 2008 and 2012, the elevation of Kamala Harris as Vice President in 2020, and the Trump presidency in between speak to the deep tensions in the very soul of America – between the persistence of systemic misogyny and racism, on the one hand, and ever widening possibilities for inclusion and diversity, on the other. Given its power in the world and its foreign policy misadventures, America is an easy target for self-righteous condemnation by others. But few other countries in the world offer official space and opportunity for equality and diversity. In fact, in many countries, big and small, equality in space and opportunity are denied by customs, conventions and even constitutions.

Commentators have swung left and right to find presidential precedents that Joe Biden could draw from as he battles his way through his time in office – from Franklin Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan. But Joe Biden’s unique political challenge is going to be in balancing the contending forces inside the Democratic Party. Already, the so called moderates are clamouring that the young progressives cost the Party a much bigger victory than what has been achieved. The accusation is a bit rich because conventional moderation would have dampened enthusiasm and turnout among the young and minority voters. Without progressive enthusiasm, eighty million voters would not have come out to vote for the Democrats, and in a way they may also have ended up provoking the extraordinarily large Republican turnout.

The new Administration has its work cut out, and has offered an agenda that is both balanced and ambitious not only to address the many crises facing America, but also to satisfy the competing constituencies of moderates and progressives within the Democratic Party. There is no shortage of crises and challenges – from Covid-19, to jobs and the economy, climate, government reform, health care, racial justice, immigration, taxes, infrastructure, and foreign policy – the list is long and daunting. The easy part on every one of them would be to stop doing whatever Trump was doing. Systematically ending many of Trump’s ill-advised and ill-planned initiatives would in itself be progress.



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Ukraine War: Mother May I?

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By Gwynne Dyer

“This obviously does not happen because of a thrown butt,” said British Defense Minister Ben Wallace. But the Russian Ministry of Defence insisted that the explosions that destroyed at least eight warplanes at Saki Air Base in Russian-occupied Crimea on 9 August were due to “a violation of fire safety requirements.”

The implication is that some careless Russian smoker tossed away his cigarette butt and caused a fire that set off explosions. That’s hardly a testimonial to the discipline of the Russian air force’s ground crews, but it’s better than admitting that Ukrainian missiles have reached 225 km behind Russian lines to destroy a whole squadron of Russian fighters.Moscow also claimed that no Russian aircraft had been damaged by the explosions in Crimea, although the wreckage of the destroyed fighters was clearly visible on the ‘overheads’ from satellite observations.

The Russian Defence Ministry played the same silly game in April when Ukrainian cruise missiles sank the ‘Moskva.’, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It claimed that a fire had caused munitions to explode, and that the ship then sank while under tow due to “stormy seas” (although the sea was actually flat calm at the time).And what caused that fire? Careless smokers again, presumably, because even the most damning statements about the indiscipline and incompetence of Russian sailors and airmen are preferable to an admission that the Ukrainians are really hurting Russia.

Ukraine’s Defence Ministry is having fun with this, reporting that it “cannot establish the cause of the fire [at the Russian airfield], but once again reminds of fire safety rules and a ban on smoking in unauthorized places.”

Taking responsibility for these strikes deep in Russian-controlled territory is not in Ukraine’s interest, so it’s happy for Russia to take the blame. Various anonymous defence officials in Kyiv further muddied the waters by suggesting that Ukrainian partisans were responsible, or Ukrainian special forces already operating far behind Russian front lines.

But why is it not in Ukraine’s interest to take ownership of these small but symbolically important victories?

It’s because the really decisive front in this war is how fast American and other NATO weapons systems are sent to Ukraine, and that is determined by a process that seems to be derived largely from the old children’s game of ‘Mother May I’ (also known as ‘Giant Steps’).The opening move is quite straightforward: Kyiv asks Washington for a hundred HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems so that it can counter Russia’s huge superiority in older artillery and rocket systems and drive Moscow’s forces from Ukrainian soil.

Washington replies that it can take two giant steps and a frog hop. No, wait a minute, it replies that Ukraine can have four HIMARS systems now. Once the crews have been trained and have demonstrated their proficiency in using the weapons, Kyiv can start the next round of the game by asking for more. This takes four weeks.

Getting into the spirit of the game, Ukraine then asks for only twenty more HIMARs, leaving the rest for later. Washington replies that it can take four baby steps and a pirouette – or rather, four more HIMARs now, but with the range still restricted to 70 km. and no thermobaric ammunition (fuel-air explosives). And so on.We are now in the fourth round of this game, with sixteen HIMARs promised of which Ukraine has already deployed between eight and twelve on the battlefield. At this rate, Ukraine will have the hundred HIMARs it needs to expel the Russians around April of 2024.

Similar games are being played with other badly needed weapons from NATO stockpiles like Western-made combat aircraft, modern anti-air defence systems, and longer-range missiles for attacks like the one on Saki Air Base. This is all driven by an excess of caution about such ‘escalation’ at the White House and in the National Security Council.

Washington is right to be concerned about Russia’s reactions, but it is prone to see the Russians as dangerously excitable children. They are not. They are poker players (NOT chess-players) who bet over-confidently, and are now trying to bluff their way out of trouble. The Russian ruling elite, or at least most of it, remains rational.

The Ukrainians, however, have to take American anxieties into account even when they use their own weapons, some of which have been modified for extended range, on distant Russian targets. The simplest way is just to pretend it wasn’t their weapons that did the damage.The same policy applies to the numerous acts of sabotage carried out in Russia by Ukrainian agents – and by a happy accident the Russians are willing to collaborate in this fiction. They’d rather blame the clumsiness, ignorance and incompetence of their own troops than give the credit to the Ukrainians.

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Book Review : An incisive exploration of Sri Lanka’s religiosity

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Title: ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka’ – Innovation, shared spaces, contestation

Editors – Mark P. Whitaker, Darini Rajasingham- Senanayake and Pathmanesan Sanmugeswaran

A Routledge South Asian Religion Series publication

Exclusively distributed in Sri Lanka by Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo 5. (e-mail: vijiyapa@gmail.com)

Reviewed by Lynn Ockersz

This timely publication could be described as a revelation of the fascinating nature of Sri Lanka’s religiosity. It is almost customary to refer to Sri Lanka as a ‘religious country’ but it is not often that one comes across scholarly discussions on the subject locally. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, a collection of research papers put together in book form, fills this void most adequately.

Although not necessarily synonymous with spiritual development, religiosity in Sri Lanka essentially refers to the widespread prevalence of organized or institutionalized religion in the lives of the majority of Sri Lankans. What qualifies the country to be seen as religiously plural is the presence in it of numerous religions, though mainly in their institutionalized forms.

What ought to pique the interest of the specialist and that of the inquiring layman alike is the fact that though falling short of the highest standards of spirituality most of the time, religion is used innovatively and creatively by its adherents to meet some of their worldly and otherworldly needs. That is, religion is a dynamic and adaptable force in the lives of Sri Lanka’s people. ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’ explores these characteristics of religion in depth and underscores the vitality of religion in the consciousness of its diverse practitioners. A chief strength of the publication is the featuring of almost all the main religions of Sri Lanka, from the viewpoint of their innovative and adaptable use by devotees.

The research papers in question, numbering 16, were presented at an Open University of Sri Lanka forum held in mid-July in 2017. The editors of the volume have done well to bring these papers together and present them in book form to enable the wider public in Sri Lanka and abroad to drink deep of the vital insights contained in them, considering that religiosity has gained increasingly in importance in post-war Sri Lanka. Fittingly, ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka..’, is dedicated to the memory of well-known Sri Lankan social scientist Malathi de Alwis who, unfortunately, is no longer with us, but had contributed a paper at the relevant forum prior to her passing away. Her paper too is contained in the collection.

The thematic substance of the volume could be said to have been set out in some detail by co- editor Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake in her introductory essay titled, ‘Spaces of Protection, healing and liberation…’ She writes: ‘Religiosity appears as a means of coping with life’s transitions, celebrations, disappointments, diseases, conflicts and violence; and events such as birth and death, illness, exams, marriage, divorce, the sense of the sacred, the auspicious, and inauspicious (Sumangali-Amangali). Fundamentally, beyond the political, (multi-)religiosity provides an individual’s coping strategy and/or a social performance for negotiating with the perceived power, energies and structures that are greater than oneself, particularly the supernatural and transnational.’

When seen from the above perspective, the ability of many Sri Lankans to comfortably worship at multiple religious institutions and shrines, for example, while claiming adherence in the main to this or that religious belief makes considerable sense, because the average Lankan devotee is of a pragmatic bent and not a religious purist. Depending on her needs she would worship at a major Buddhist or Hindu temple, for example, and also supplicate her cause at a prominent Catholic church. Such practices speak volumes for the flexibility and innovativeness of the devotee. They also testify to her broad religious sympathies and her ability to share her religious spaces with others of different religious persuasions. A few places of religious significance in Sri Lanka that thus draw adherents of multiple religions are Adam’s Peak, Kataragama, Madhu Church and St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, Colombo.

At these places of reverence the usually restricted adherence to a single religious belief or faith is easily transcended by worshippers as apparently part of a personal or collective coping strategy to deal with multiple personal and societal pressures. ‘Kataragama Pada Yatra – Pilgrimaging with ethnic “others” ‘ by Anton Piyaratne and ‘Religious innovation in the pilgrimage industry – Hindu bodhisattva worship and Tamil Buddhistness’ by Alexander McKinley are just two papers in the collection that deal insightfully with this aspect of worshippers’ abilities to comfortably manage multiple religious identities and spaces. These habits of the average Sri Lankan devotee highlight the potentiality of religiosity, among other things, to be a bridge-builder among communities.

For instance, Mckinley sets out in his exposition: ‘Religious innovation at shared sacred sites can thus blur or sharpen the dominant ethno-religious divisions of ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ and ‘Tamil Hindu’ in Sri Lanka. Saman devotion can simultaneously be interpreted as a sincere form of highland Hindu religiosity, a strategic innovation by Tamil workers to appease Sinhala pilgrims, as well as an opening for Sinhalas to either convert Tamils into Buddhists, or to cooperate with them towards common goals, such as environmental conservation’.

A conspicuous and continuing theme of the collection is the wide-ranging and often damaging impact of the Sri Lankan government’s 30-year anti-LTTE war. Quite a number of the researchers, thus, deal with its adverse impact on women, and quite rightly, because the war revealed as perhaps never before the marked vulnerabilities of Sri Lankan women in conflict situations. ‘Of Meditation, Militarization and Grease Yakas’ by Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake and ‘Vijaya and Kuweni retold’ by Neena Mahadev deal quite elaborately on this subject and throw valuable light on the multi-dimensional impact the Northern war has had on women, besides focusing on the resourceful ways in which religion is used by women to cope with social and political issues.

‘Emerging innovative religiosities and what they signify’ by Selvy Thiruchandran continues with the focus on women and religiosity but introduces a wider societal dimension by bringing into the discourse the phenomenon of New Religious Movements (NRM). The researcher points to the immense popularity among mainly middle class women of two of these movements, the Satya Sai Baba cult and the growing interest in Brahma Kumaris Yoga centres, and elaborates on the roles they play in enabling women to deal with personal and societal pressures.

However, Thruchandran arrives at the thought-provoking conclusion at the end of her wide-ranging research that, ‘The old religion and the new so-called innovation that is sought in the new religions can be summarized in a well-known cliché – old wine in new bottles.’ That is, these New Religions are mainly forms of escapism. We have here a fresh perspective on issues relating to the liberation of women that calls for deep consideration. Moreover, these New Religious Movements do not help in any substantive way to change the fundamental and perennial reality of male domination over women; for, we are given to understand that some men actively discourage their wives from joining the Brahma Kumaris movement.

The role of Sri Lanka’s Christian Left in giving religion a progressive and socially emancipatory orientation in recent decades is the subject of Harini Amarasuriya’s paper titled, ‘Beards, cloth bags, and sandals – Reflections on the Christian left in Sri Lanka’. The researcher’s prime focus is on an institution of mainly Left political activism established by a Christian clergyman, Sevaka Yohan, in Ibbagamuwa, Kurunegala in the seventies decade by the name Devasaranaramaya. Besides committing itself to robust Left political activism, the latter centre possessed an indigenous cultural ethos and sought to unite the country’s cultures and religions. In other words, the institution aimed at being a shared space where religions comingled on the basis of shared values.

Accordingly, the publication of ‘Multi-Religiosity in Contemporary Sri Lanka…’, is a welcome development. The book sheds invaluable light on the subject of local religiosity, which is a relatively unexplored but vital area of knowledge that has important implications for nation-building in Sri Lanka. Besides the papers discussed above, there are numerous other learned and insightful research papers on religiosity in this collection that call for urgent reading. Collectively the papers constitute a treasury of knowledge that those pursuing Sri Lankan Studies could ill-afford to by-pass.

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Reflecting on Swineetha Weerasinghe

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By Uditha Devapriya

One of the clearest memories I have of Welikathara is Gamini Fonseka lavishing his love and later his anger on his wife. Welikathara is the closest to a Hollywood thriller (in the classic mould) ever made in Sri Lanka, and this aspect comes through even in its depiction of the romance between the two leads. By then Fonseka had established himself as more than just a primus inter pares of the Sinhalese cinema: he had become its king. Cast opposite him, the equally great Joe Abeywickrema, along with all other cast members, could only quail before Fonseka. That was why Abeywickrema’s Goring Mudalali had to go off like a dog at the end: because no other fate would have done for anyone playing Fonseka’s foil.

There is, however, one sequence where Fonseka’s supremacy is put into question. It comes towards the end, right after Goring Mudalali makes his big revelation about Fonseka’s past. Confronted with the fact of her husband’s infidelities, his wife taunts him, asking him why he is so afraid of Goring and why he doesn’t do anything about him. Ever gentle to his wife, he refuses to say anything. This only aggravates the situation, sparking off a fuse: in an ever rising crescendo, his wife goes on to ridicule him, reminding him of the difficulties of their marriage. She then questions his manhood. That hits him badly: getting up from his bed in a fit of anger, he slaps her harshly, then dons his police uniform to go after Goring.

Cutting between close-ups of Gamini Fonseka’s and the wife’s face, the sequence plays out beautifully: it reminds you of the café sequence in Juan Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist, where the characters’ faces betray unspoken and desperate dreams and desires. In Welikathara Nihalsinghe gives us the most Americanised film to hit Sri Lankan theatres; the dialogues, written by the great Tissa Abeysekara, take you back to the films of Billy Wilder. The first encounter between Goring and the wife, and the later confrontation with Fonseka, unveil with so much tension that we feel tense watching them ourselves. Much of that has to do with the acting of its three leads. And in her encounters with the two male leads, Swineetha Weerasinghe winds up with one of the finest performances in her career.

Swineetha Weerasinghe is an enigma, an ineffable mystery. She hasn’t been in too many films. By the standard which one may use on, say, a Malini Fonseka or a Sandya Kumari, her career hasn’t been prodigious. She herself has told me that she has been selective, that she has been careful about the scripts that came her way. Perhaps. But this is just half the story. Swineetha’s life, as with her career, has certainly been colourful. I doubt she’s failed to get the recognition she deserves. Yet seeing the plaudits lavished on her peers, that recognition came rather belatedly. It came around the time I first met her, in 2014, the year she opened her life and story to writers, just before she got featured in the only programme which could have done justice to someone like her, Rupavahini’s Alakamandawa.

Swineetha hailed from a middle-class Sinhala Buddhist family. Her father, a retired Army gunman, and her mother had both hailed from Dehiwela. She was raised there, educated initially at Buddhist Girls’ College in Mount Lavinia and later at the Dehiwela Madya Maha Vidyalaya. “I liked singing and dancing,” she told me, when I asked her whether she “took to the arts” at that age. She had also played netball and had been an avid athlete, managing to complete all three stages of Kandyan dancing while at school. Yet she refuses to believe that these had a large say in her career: “I never considered any of these seriously, certainly not as my career.” She felt her vocation lay elsewhere: in medicine.

With this in mind, she eventually enrolled for a four-year course at the Indigenous Medical College. Three years into that course, however, Swineetha came across an advertisement in a newspaper. “It was for an upcoming film, and it called for aspiring actresses. Acting never figured in my scheme of things, but I decided to take a shot at it.” In my interview she noted and emphasised that last point rather strongly: “Making it out at the movies may have been at the back of my mind, but I never considered it more than a passing interest.” Her parents, for their part, had mixed feelings: her mother objected to the idea, but her less conservative father managed to convince her that it was in their daughter’s best interests.

The interview was a success; she was selected. Thereafter she met her first figure of destiny. “Robin Tampoe cast me in three of his films: Sudu Sande Kalu Wala in 1963, Samajaye Api Okkoma Ekayi in 1964, and Sudo Sudu in 1965.” Emblematic of the popular middle cinema of their time, these three films hit it big at the box-office; Sudo Sudu in particular, based on the Sagara Palansuriya poem, in itself based on the Enoch Arden legend that the Jayamanne brothers and Rukmani Devi transposed in Kadawunu Poronduwa years before, revealed and brought out Swineetha’s talents to the world. She quickly set about proving her versatility: as she implied to me, her overarching desire was to show that she could play different types of characters and to show that she didn’t want to be pigeonholed and typecast.

It was at this juncture that she met her second figure of destiny. “At the time I was working at RT Studios. Sudo Sudu was playing in every hall. At one screening I was approached by a gentle, unassuming man, who said he wanted me for his film. By then I had grown tired of playing damsels in distress. He told me that his film would be completely different, in mood and in tenor. There would be no boys chasing after girls, no good guy versus bad guy fights, and certainly no melodrama. It would be more intellectual and sophisticated. I realised that the opportunity was worth taking, and that I had to take it. So I took it.”

That gentle, unassuming man was Lester James Peries, and the film, of course, was Delovak Athara, the most exciting and least conventional Sinhala film to come out by that point. The critic Philip Cooray has called it Peries’s most intellectual work. This is an understatement. In the film’s two-hour duration there’s not a scene or a sequence where we involve ourselves in or identify ourselves with the characters, emotionally. True to Lester’s words, it was to be an intellectual and sophisticated work. And having cast an up-and-coming actress in the role of the protagonist’s university friend, he ensured a decent popular audience for the movie, while providing that actress an opportunity to diversify her career.

Delovak Athara got Swineetha to think more seriously about the cinema. “I read books. I watched films. My favourite actresses back then were people like Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Chaplin, and Rita Tushingham. They innovated on the kind of performances that had been associated with women for a long, long time. Needless to say, they inspired me to push my frontiers, to challenge myself, to take on more challenging roles.” Which is what eventually happened: from Lester Peries she would move on to D. B. Nihalsinghe (Welikathara), H. D. Premaratne (Sikuruliya), and W. A. B. de Silva (Hulavali).

These roles and films took her places, literally. “Welikathara took me to Tashkent. I met Simi Garewal, Sunil Dutt, Nargis, and Shabana Azmi there.” From Tashkent to the Krakow Film Festival in Poland, and from there to Germany and Czechoslovakia, Suwineetha felt awed at seeing Europe’s movie studios and industries. “We were obviously miles behind them, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t catch up with them.” Hulavali took her to a different kind of world: the 1976 Tehran Film Festival in Iran, where she met, among others, the Shah of Iran and Rita Tushingham, and on his last day before departure, Satyajit Ray.

When television arrived in the 1980s, Swineetha poured out her talents there also, from Dharmasena Pathiraja’s adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” to H. D. Premaratne’s Sandun Gira Gini Ganee. Her other film credits include Mille Soya. For a long time after Ira Handa Yata in 2010, some felt that she had retired. She put an end to such rumours with her comeback in Bandanaya, in 2017. Directed by Udayakantha Warnasuriya, Bandanaya is, essentially, The Exorcist set in some southern village in Sri Lanka. Casting has usually been one of Warnasuriya’s stronger points, and in Bandanaya he manages to secure convincing performances from Swineetha and her coplayers.

Glancing through her credits and her performances, I realise just how versatile Swineetha has been. After playing the gentle but morally grounded woman in Delovak Athara and the frustrated wife in Welikathara, Swineetha gave arguably the best performance in her life in Sikuruliya, where, as she told me very convincingly, she plays not one woman, but three. It’s a sad and sordid testament to such talents that they have not been accorded the place they deserve in the pantheon of our cinema. I remain optimistic, however: as we wrapped up our interview, she seemed optimistic too. One thing is certain, though: she’s always been one of our more avid actresses. She’s taken her job seriously. And profited by it, too.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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