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Cops, criminals, and cultural contours

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By Uditha Devapriya

In Michael Mann’s Heat, one of the best heist thrillers ever made, the protagonist is a cop called Hanna, played by Al Pacino. The other character, a thief called McCauley, is played by Robert de Niro. Hanna and McCauley meet for the first time at the end of the first half of the movie. Hanna, who works for the LAPD, has been investigating a series of high-profile crimes for days. He guesses McCauley is the culprit, but has no real proof.

Convinced that he is the man they are looking for, Hanna tails him one night and gets him to pull over. Instead of arresting him, though, he offers to buy McCauley coffee. They then go over to a diner, where the two of them sit in front of each other.

What unfolds thereafter is not a conversation, but a charade. The detective and the thief start talking at cross-purposes. Weary, numbed, and tempered by the weight of their work, they engage in casual banter. Like countless conversations from a Jean-Luc Godard film, this doesn’t make sense; they ramble on and on, and then suddenly stop.

It is when we step back and reflect on these two that we realise what the scene is trying to tell us: the detective has come to a point in his career where he depends on the thieves he tails. It’s the same story with the other guy: he’s been involved in so many crimes that he’s almost relieved to talk to a man of the law. Their meeting is thus marked out less by hostility than by empathy. It’s a meeting of the minds.

The face-off is intriguing to me because it reminds me of a similar conversation from a film made 25 years earlier, in Sri Lanka. D. B. Nihalsinghe’s Welikathara also pits a police-officer against a criminal, this time a drug kingpin. In the scene I am talking about, that officer, like Al Pacino’s detective, encounters the kingpin in full form at his office. By this point each of them has realised what the other wants: like the lawyer and his ex-client in Cape Fear, each knows only too well that the other is seeking the upper hand.

The sequence at the police station establishes this relationship. As one salty witticism gives way to another, we sense the revulsion underlying the conversation; the two are talking at cross-purposes, only barely concealing their contempt for each other.

Yet while the scene serves a different function from the diner episode in Heat – whereas the latter sequence shows how dependent the cop has become on the thief, here it reveals the hostility between the two men – it stands out almost like the other does. That has much to do, I think, with the acting: neither Al Pacino nor Robert de Niro had made much of a name for themselves when Welikathara came out, but seeing Gamini Fonseka play the cop and Joe Abeywickrama the criminal, you do tend to compare. To make such a comparison is to acknowledge that Welikathara represented a high point for our cinema.

Welikathara

may well be the most Americanised Sinhala film ever made. Whereas most Sinhala films had been distinctly continental until then, hardly any director had ventured into Hollywood territory. What makes Nihalsinghe’s film fascinating, in that sense, is how far he conceived its story along the lines of a typical American thriller.

My interest in the movie as a critic, however, has less to do with its cinematic merit than the spotlight it throws on an era when such cosmopolitan objets d’art were more the norm than the exception. Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of Nihalsinghe’s film, I felt it apt to ponder why, from achieving such heights then, we have slid down so badly now.

Perhaps it’s best that we restate the problem: how could the kind of acting exemplified in a movie like Heat become the norm there today, whereas the sort exemplified in Welikathara has turned out to be the dismal exception here? I am not just suggesting that our art forms have deteriorated in quality – though this is exactly what has happened – but that there are many reasons that can explain such a decline. Where have our arts gone? Why hasn’t it still realised its potential? What can revive it? Who can revive it?

The importance of these questions cannot be emphasised enough. A society’s popular culture is a fairly accurate gauge of its intellectual achievements. It is true that this remains a function of economic position; hence rich countries have more potential for high cultural achievements, whereas poorer countries do not. Yet that is not necessarily the case all the time: the Indian film industry, to give one example, is considerably more diverse, and much richer, than its counterparts in countries like Singapore.

India is a case in point for the view that the greater the size of the population, the more sophisticated a country’s popular culture will be. But that also is not always the case: as the recent resurgence in African cinema shows, a big population does not in itself contribute to the upliftment of a culture to the exclusion of more pertinent factors.

This is not to say that issues of economic development or population are secondary to those other factors. Affluent countries can afford superior works of art, while poorer countries (of which India is a prime example) are able to do so with a public that patronises commercial works of art, which helps subsidise more serious ventures. In that sense, the US enjoys the twin advantage of a powerful economy and a large audience.

But to acknowledge these points is not to deny the relevance of other reasons for the growth or decline of artistic standards. In Sri Lanka’s case, any attempt at diagnosing the problems of its culture must hence start from an appraisal of the post-1980 decline in the arts: a phenomenon reducible to neither economics nor demographics.

Three schools of thought have attempted to explain this decline. The first school views 1956 as the reason: by empowering everyone to enter our schools and universities, so their logic goes, cultural and artistic standards were compromised. That is another way of saying that if schools and universities remained shut to poorer classes, those standards would have been protected and fostered by an elite minority.

The second school argues that with the advent of economic liberalisation in 1978, the government’s hold over artistic quality was loosened, thereby debasing cultural yardsticks, transforming lowbrow into middlebrow art, and raising the latter to the status of highbrow art. To invert Marx’s dictum, what was once profane now became sacred.

I personally think this argument holds more water than the first – not least because the first school tries to frame 1956 as avoidable, which it was not, and fails to distinguish between its progressive and regressive aspects, which should not be done – but it does not explain a point the third school dwells on: the debasement of our education system because of, and paradoxically in spite of, various reforms enacted after 1956.

This is where the line between the progressive and regressive aspects of what transpired that year must be drawn: though there was a need to democratise schools and universities and they were democratised, barring crucial reforms in the second Sirimavo Bandaranaike government (pioneered by a set of brilliant educationists and scholars like Neil Kuruppu and Douglas Walatara) no attempts were made to maintain quality in them.

The results are there for all to see today: while certain schools and universities produce better thinkers than others, one does not come across such thinkers as often as one would want. That these trends have spilled over to the performing arts is a no-brainer: we don’t produce original artists too often either. “Manike Mage Hithe” offers the promise of what Sri Lanka’s popular culture should be, but such ventures are rare.

The third school consolidates the arguments of the first and the second: it acknowledges concerns over the negative aftershocks of 1956, as the first school does, while tracing the trajectory of cultural decline to the period after 1980, when the abandonment of the United Front education reforms multiplied those aftershocks, as the second school does.

Any critique of the country’s less than brilliant cultural scene today should take into account these factors when proposing viable solutions. In particular, it should identify exactly quality has come down and how best we can go about improving it.

It is fashionable to say that Sri Lanka’s cultural standards remained high until 1956. To me though, this is a deeply fallacious argument: a comprador society, which is what prevailed before 1956, does not produce a genuine culture. A culture must dig deep in search of roots. The problem is not that such a search stunted artistic development in the country, as those who idealise the pre-1956 status quo think, but rather that it did not go deep enough. That paved way for a massive flaw in our education system: the delinking of the performing arts from their literary roots, slowly since 1956 and more rapidly since 1980.

What I am arguing here is that as actors, directors, and even scriptwriters, we don’t read as much as we used to. In saying that, I am not denying there are other problems we have to look into with respect to Sri Lanka’s popular culture. But as the central issue, this problem requires immediate resolution. The sooner we realise our priorities there, the sooner we will be able to address a deplorable, though no less reversible, decline in artistic standards. All it takes to confirm the reality of such a decline, of course, is to see Welikathara, see Heat, and then ask why we used to have it so good, and how far back we have fallen today.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Dominances, hegemonies and diversities

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by Nicola Perera

What spaces exist for students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities, within the university? Do students and staff in these groups have the liberty and security to openly identify themselves, claim their identities, be visible? Do either university structures and policies or the culture and attitudes within the university community, ensure a lack of discrimination, with the same rights, privileges and opportunities, for such persons to live, work, and study in an environment of acceptance, without hostility or marginalisation? I speak of the ethos of majoritarianism, located in a university of the south, which is predominantly the normative of education in the country.

If I were to ask students, staff, or administrators how persons of ethnic and religious minorities are treated in the university, I suspect they would immediately point to the existence of cultural groups that have long been established in university culture. Most universities and faculties will have a Tamil Society, a Hindu Students’ Society, a Muslim Majlis, various Christian groupings, and so on. Each will organise various cultural festivals, such as carols for Christmas, Ifthar, etc. At first glance, there appears to be representation and accommodation of ethnic and religious minorities, and this is institutionalised within the university.

But this accommodation is superficial and tokenistic. Against the existence of these various groups, consider the Student Union itself, which formally represents the entire student body. Who do they actually represent? The Student Union in the Faculty of Arts organises Buddhist festivals, pinkamas, and all-night piriths at the beginning of the year, as well as inviting Buddhist monks for Poyas, like Vesak and Poson. The major event of the year for the Student Union is the Sahithya Ulela, for which the Union goes all out: portraits of the greats of Sinhala literature adorn the pillars of the Faculty, together with quotations from their works. The drama festival is a huge part of the Sahithya Ulela, during which hugely popular Sinhala plays are performed.

This is the way things have always been in the university’s framework of majority default and minority tolerance. There are religious and cultural student societies to represent and take care of non-Buddhist and non-Sinhala students, representing deviations from the norm, while the Student Union itself, regardless of its political/ideological tendency, firmly represents and centres Sinhala-Buddhist religious and cultural concerns instead of the diverse student body as a whole. The majority culture is dominant to the point where it is the ubiquitous default, and all minority positions are tokenised into tolerated representations. It is a system and space that privileges my ethnic background, where my presence goes unquestioned, unremarked upon and unmarked.

On the other hand, what discriminations, aggressions, and microaggressions do students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities face in and outside class? What could they tell us, if we could only assure them of the security to openly talk about such things without fear of retaliation? What is our role as academic staff, regardless of discipline, to initiate difficult conversations about inclusion, acceptance, to challenge the biases, prejudices, absences? What microaggressions, hostilities, subtle or overt othering do we as staff and administrators perpetrate? What is the culture that we create in university?

What of the class of Muslim students who were told that they can keep their cultural identity but should wear colourful abayas and hijabs, instead of the dark colours they preferred? What of the Muslim staff member who was requested to come and speak to these students, to present herself as a role model who chose to wear colourful shalwars while covering her head? Is it in any way relevant that these requests were made by a staff member clad in Kandyan sari? Of course, it is: the representation of Sinhala Buddhist culture as the university’s default makes its aesthetics and preferences the standard, which apparently Sinhala individual staff members feel empowered to enforce.

What of the Muslim women students who were stopped at the entrance of the university after the Easter bombings? The security guards told them to wear their hijabs in such a way as to show their ears. Is the university capable of recognising this harassment as harassment? Was this an officially-sanctioned policy that required the security guards to act this way? Or were they merely empowered to perform this harassment in that moment by the long-established practice of treating Sinhala culture, dress, and presentation as normal and default, with all marked minority cultures as suspicious deviations? Would the existence of the Muslim Majlis be sufficient to let these students agree with the common perspective that the university – by policy or practice – does not discriminate on the basis of religious/ethnic grounds? Could these students have gotten away with showing impatience, even a touch of hauteur (as I did when I produced my ID card for inspection) at the guards’ power to remark on their ethnicity, police their attire – in myriad small ways to let them know that their presence in the university space was under surveillance, at the majority’s sufferance?

It is not enough for the university to complacently point at tokenistic student groups as evidence of non-discrimination. Even the simple representation of diversity, at which the university is already failing, would still not be enough: including Tamil-language plays at the Sahithya Ulela and making sure to include the portraits of Tamil and Muslim writers as well is necessary, but far from sufficient. What we need is active anti-discrimination, in both word and deed, to identify these situations and contexts in which staff and students of religious and ethnic minorities in our universities are harassed, othered, and discriminated against every day, and to figure out ways to end those practices and prevent them from recurring, through policy, through education, and through our own efforts as the people who uphold and perpetuate university culture.

Nicola Perera is attached to the Department of English Language Teaching, University of Colombo.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Prevent growth of extremism through stronger institutions

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Priyantha Kumara, who was lynched in Pakistan

By Jehan Perera

The killing of a Sri Lankan, in Pakistan, by a frenzied mob, who accused him of committing an act of blasphemy, serves as a grim reminder of the ever-present danger of pent-up emotion exploding in society. Over the eons, religion has served to humanize the more primitive nature, lurking within human beings.  “Be kind to the stranger in your midst, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” is the biblical injunction too often ignored by the very people who profess to follow its teachings. It is not only in Pakistan that such inhuman acts have occurred, especially when there has been a failure of national leadership to instill a higher ethos of morality in the people, too often for the sake of electoral gain.

Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan has been accused of defending Pakistan’s blasphemy law and promoting Islamic fundamentalism to come to power and now to shore up support for his government that is failing to solve the problems of the people.  A clause of the constitution mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Holy Prophet.  Presently Pakistan faces economic sanctions by the EU, as does Sri Lanka, due to its adherence to this law and other human rights issues.   The EU has raised issues related to the protection of journalists, religious extremism, misuse of blasphemy laws, and forced conversion in some parts of the country. A compromised political environment in which there is impunity leads people to take the law into their own hands according to their notions of what is right and wrong.

Mobilising the emotions of people, whether by religion or ethnic nationalism, to gain and retain power, is like sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other members of the Sri Lankan government have expressed their strong condemnation of the heinous crime against its citizens and demanded justice.  Prime Minister Khan has pledged justice and referred to the “day of shame” for Pakistan.  More than a hundred alleged participants in the crime have been arrested. There have also been images of Pakistani civil society groups saying sorry for what has happened.  Likewise, Sri Lankan civil society will also recall the support that Pakistan gave to Sri Lanka during the years of war and, diplomatically, on the issues of human rights violations raised by sections of the international community.

DANGEROUS MIX

It is also necessary for Sri Lankans to be mindful about what has happened within Sri Lanka itself during the JVP insurrection, the 1983 riots, and, more recently, in Aluthgama, Digana and Kurunegala.  In all of these instances, there was a measure of state complicity, or inaction, which is worse than the savage deeds of a mob as the state represents the civilization of the country.  This state failure has been on account of the over-politicisation of the state machinery to the point where senior officers of the state, most of whom have joined the state for idealistic reasons, cannot and do not perform their duties due to political interference.  In a manner similar to Prime Minister Khan, President Rajapaksa, and the current government, won elections by catering to the nationalism and fears of the ethnic majority, with some of its allies spewing hatred towards the ethnic and religious minorities.

There are disturbing signs that the situation of state failure is growing more serious in Sri Lanka.  The release of former Governor Azath Salley after he had been in remand jail for eight months on charges that the court said were not sustainable. All charges against him by the Attorney General were dismissed as they lacked merit.  The injustice done to him and his family, the loss of eight months of his life and his reputation, require reparations which may be forthcoming as he is a person of stature.  There will be countless others who are less able to fight their cases, like the former Governor did.  In addition, there have been several killings in police custody of prisoners who are alleged to have tried to escape when taken to find their store of weapons or in cross fire or by suicide.  Making matters worse is that in some of these cases the families and lawyers of the imprisoned persons have given advance warning that those held in custody are scheduled to be killed, but nothing is done and the deaths take place.

The same inability or unwillingness to ensure accountability can be seen at multiple levels, be it in relation to the manner in which the three-decade long war ended, or the Easter Sunday bombings, or the Central Bank bond scandal, or the sugar tax scandal, the Yugadanavi Power Plant issue and, most recently, the explosion of large numbers of cooking gas cylinders which have led to deaths and burning down of people’s homes.  In none of these cases has investigations led to the masterminds being found and meted out justice. With time, the cases might be forgotten and the wrongdoers get away with their crimes. Perhaps it is in apprehension of the potential crisis situation in the country that the Supreme Court has written a strong judgement in a case that is representative of the people’s sense of compassion and care for all living beings as directed by the sacred religious texts.   This was with regard to whether elephants captured from the wild and taken to homes and temples as objects of social prestige should be returned to their supposed owners or released to the wild or sent to protected sanctuaries.

GOOD GOVERNANCE

In a decision that can have far reaching ramifications for the rule of law, and for the system of checks and balances, and wisely in a case that is less politically controversial, the Court cited a famous judgement by Lord Denning in the English Courts where he said, “It is settled in our constitutional law that in matters that concern the public at large the Attorney General is the guardian of the public interest.  Although he is a member of the government of the day, it is his duty to represent the public interest with complete objectivity and detachment.  He must act independently of any external pressure for whatever quarter it may come.”  The Court said that “these observations aptly apply to the role of the Attorney General of Sri Lanka.”  Notably the respondents in this case were the Prime Minister and Minister of Wildlife.

If positions, such as the Attorney General, are to be filled with persons who will make decisions in line with the Court judgement above, it is necessary that they should be persons with integrity and competence.  They also need the space to be able to do their work without political interference.  It was to achieve this objective that two different governments, headed by two different political leaders from two different political parties took steps to ensure the passage of the 17th and 19th amendments in 2001 and 2015 respectively.  These two amendments had the common feature of reducing the President’s powers and seeking to increase the independence of state institutions from political interference.  A police force that is independent of political influencers, who act behind the scenes, is more likely to act with integrity in dealing with the impunity that is growing in the country.

The government’s pledge of a new draft constitution, before the end of the year, provides an opportunity to reform the system of governance and put an end to the multifarious violations and weaknesses in it that breeds impunity and resentment which is the fuel for extremism of all sorts. The political space should be kept secular, unlike in the case of Pakistan with its religious law, and kept free from religious or ethnic nationalist biases. The reintroduction of the scheme of appointment of higher officials of state, through a multi-partisan constitutional council consisting of members of government, Opposition and civil society, would lead to better appointments than the President alone making the appointments.  The members of the constitutional council would together select the most appropriate persons to high offices of state and to insulate them from politically-motivated interference.  This is particularly important in the case of the higher judiciary, the last bastion of freedom in a democracy that is going wrong.  The present deterioration in the integrity and quality of decision-making at multiple levels and in multiple institutions highlights the need for a strong system of government, based on checks and balances–real good governance.

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Action…in the coming weeks

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At the Irish Pub tomorrow night

The lead up to Christmas, and the New Year, certainly doesn’t look ‘blue,’ in any way.

Initially, I was thinking of Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ – what with the pandemic, and the new variant, creating chaos…everywhere.

But…yes, the showbiz scene here seems to have changed, for the better.

On December 8th (that’s tomorrow), ‘The Legends of Ceylon’ is the title of a musical evening, that will take place, from 7.00 pm onwards, at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, featuring Geoffrey Fernando, Mignonne, Noeline, Sohan, Dalrene, and Manilal, backed by the group Mirage.

Sohan & The X-Periments, a name associated with sing-along events, will be involved in two sing-alongs this month – on December 12th at The Grand Kandyan Hotel, and on December 17th at the BMICH Banquet Hall.

The Christmas Sing-Along, in Kandy, commencing at 7.00 pm, will have, in the vocal spotlight, Corrine, Clifford Richard, Sohan, and Trishelle, along with The X-Periments.

The 17th event, at the BMICH, from 7.30 pm onwards, will also feature Corrine, Clifford Richard, Sohan, and Trishelle, with guest stars Falan Andrea and Radika.

Sohan indicated to us that the festive scene seems to be brightening up, a bit, and that he and his band do have work coming their way,

“We are going to be pretty busy for the next few weeks.”

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