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Looking back: “Hansa Vilak”

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By Uditha Devapriya

After more than 40 years, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s Hansa Vilak reopened in theatres last Wednesday. Has it really been that long? My father was studying for his A Levels when it first came out; he remembers seeing it at the Lido theatre, in Borella. Hansa Vilak is one of possibly four or five films that can be described as epochal, or near-epochal, in the context of the Sinhala cinema. That it effected a transformation in the industry may be an exaggeration, though one believed by those who have seen it and liked it. But that it had an impact on my father’s generation is not.

This is not the first time a restored version of Bandaranayake’s work is being shown to local audiences. It was screened at a festival dedicated to Swarna Mallawarachchi in 2017, and again that year at another festival dedicated to Premasiri Khemadasa. Not entirely coincidental, to have been shown at these events: if it isn’t remembered for anything else, Hansa Vilak will be remembered for Mallawarachchi’s acting and Khemadasa’s music. The associations the film had with the latter particularly have, for all intents and purposes, survived the memory of the film itself: even those who have not seen it will remember the music. In that sense Hansa Vilak has enjoyed or suffered (depending on how you see it) the fate of other classics, most prominently Golu Hadawatha and Hanthane Kathawa (both of which happened to be scored by Khemadasa). But that is not, nor should it be, all there is to these works; it certainly shouldn’t be all there is to Bandaranayake’s work.

To the unwary critic and viewer, Hansa Vilak appears almost strewn with symbolic references. At times, these references take on a theatrical character, as witness the scene, which we never return to thereafter, of Douglas and his daughter carrying a coffin (presumably bearing his wife Miranda’s body) to some undisclosed spot in an undisclosed estate. Yet the impact of these sequences is immediate, if not really self-explanatory: they do not stand out from the story but become very much a part of it, particularly so because they are not, as would be the case with a typical avant-garde picture, a representation of the director’s own fantasies, but rather a projection of the protagonist’s wild, irrational delirium. Is that really Douglas carrying the coffin of the woman who left him for another man, or is the latter dreaming it up?

More problematic than these episodes, however, is the issue of who gets the blame and who does not for what takes place in the film. In the absence of “good” or “bad” characters, the narrative can only be judged in terms of shades of grey. The fate that ultimately befalls the protagonist thus seems, by the direction of his moral compass, almost cruel: he must not only kill the woman he loved, he must also face the shame and ignominy of a twice separated man, first from his lawful wife and then from this other woman who threatens to leave him for her husband. From the conflict the man has to resolve between familial obligation and personal happiness, he can only escape by sacrificing both: by leaving his wife, and by waiting helplessly as the other woman, for whom he gave up his wife, hints that she will abandon him.

This is obviously not the kind of conflict we get to see in the popular cinema, where good triumphs over bad and love triumphs over hate. What is even more interesting about Hansa Vilak is that while refusing to cave into those simplistic binaries, it also refuses to resolve the impasse the protagonist, Nissanka, begins to face when he finds his feelings for Samanthi reawakened by his brother-in-law’s intervention and his feelings for Miranda fading away by her return to her ex-husband. Bandaranayake shows us this two-pronged conflict – between the moral quandary the protagonist faces and the lack of any resolution for that quandary – by means of a division, which he blurs as the story progresses, between external reality and subjective perceptions. I believe any discussion of how the director maintains this dichotomy throughout the story must begin with by contrasting it with two other films that played on the trope of personal feeling versus social reality.

Lester James Peries’s Golu Hadawatha and Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Palagetiyo are, in terms of the discussion, not inapt reference points. Hansa Vilak differs from and also bears a likeness to both works. Like Golu Hadawatha, the love story at the heart of Hansa Vilak does not suffer from convulsions of class. Nissanka is no different in his economic position to Miranda; both are members of an urban lower middle-class, just as much as Sugath and Damayanthi from Peries’s film are members of a rural petty bourgeoisie.

Yet the clash between emotion and social fetters, which in Golu Hadawatha erupts because of the burdens of tradition (Damayanthi must marry her cousin in deference to her mother’s wishes), is in Bandaranayake’s film much more pronounced, for the simple reason that it is not as restricted to personal quirks as the doomed love affair between Damayanthi and Sugath is.

In that sense Bandaranayake’s film shares as much with Golu Hadawatha as it does with Palagetiyo. The idealistic overtones of the love affair between rich girl and poor boy in the latter film are upturned, as events confirm, by the unbearable heaviness of class realities: the rich girl finds it as hard to fit into the world of her poor lover as the poor lover finds it hard to make his way into the world of her rich father. Here the role played by social constraints is more pronounced than it is in Golu Hadawatha, while the ending, a semi-fantasy sequence in which the poor boy tells us that the two of them spent every cent they had on a trip to some mountain spot, refuses to give us the sort of resolution that Sugath had the benefit of in Peries’s film.

I’d like to take the ending in Palagetiyo as a point of departure for my discussion of Golu Hadawatha. While in Peries’s film Sugath’s fantasies about Damayanthi are at first crushed, and then resolved, by encounters with the object of his affections, in Obeyesekere’s film the two lovers can rid themselves of social-class constraints only by pretending those constraints do not exist. Notice the difference: in the one, the rift between fantasy and reality is resolved by a return to the latter, while in the other, it is resolved by a retreat to the former. To me this points at the specific contexts from which each story unfolds: the one within a particular social class, the other within a conflict between two classes. To put that in perspective, while Peries’s film tries to avoid the relevance of class conflict in personal relations, the latter, more so than any other Sinhala film I have seen until now, highlights its relevance.

Hansa Vilak differs from both Golu Hadawatha and Palagetiyo in how it depicts the conflict between personal feeling and social constraint. As far as Nissanka, Miranda, Douglas, and Samanthi are concerned, class does not really enter that conflict (except perhaps in how these four characters define themselves against other groups). What distaste Samanthi’s family (especially the brother) has for Miranda is rooted, I think, in a difference in cultural conditioning between the two families: Samanthi’s brother hints at the infidelity of women like Miranda, and in the absence of a class rift per se between the two families I am forced to conclude that he is talking about her cultural upbringing, something Miranda herself brings up when she talks of redemption and sin (in the Catholic sense) when responding to Nissanka’s harangues.

Bandaranayake does his best to balance the relevance of social reality with the world of personal feeling when depicting the deterioration of relations between Nissanka and Miranda, and to his credit, the effect the fallout between these two lovers on the audience is almost Bergmanesque; Henry Jayasena, who played Miranda’s husband, confirmed as much for Bandaranayake himself when he told the latter, after shooting had wrapped up, that the film’s style reminded him of the Swedish director.

However, to be fair by Bandaranayake, the lofty goals he set for Hansa Vilak, which attempted to relate the quandary of the protagonist – personal feeling versus familial obligation – to the two spheres within which the film operates – inner consciousness versus social reality – tends to keel, founder, and capsize as the story reaches its end. It is what it is, and it should be discussed as the kind of failing one must expect from an auteur who chose to burden himself with the dual roles of director and actor, and that in a first-time effort which ended up winning every award, and even became (as he remembered for me in an interview) a minor hit at the box-office.

Part of the film’s failing should be attributed to an almost theatrical sentimentality that pervades certain sequences, noticeably in the first quarter when Miranda and Nissanka face the wrath of Douglas and Samanthi at the court. Yet by themselves, the theatricality of these sequences is not enough to explain that failing.

Kamalika Pieris was correct, in my opinion, when she observed that the film gathered momentum “without sufficient explanation.” To be sure, one should not demand an A-Z explanation of events in a work of art. But I’m sure Pieris was not making such a demand in the first place; to her, there seemed to be a contradiction between the immense weight and profundity of the narrative and the efforts made by the director to explain why it was weighty and profound. As with even some of Bergman’s work, this had the effect of depriving the story of a crucial naturalism of style.

There was also the question of how Bandaranayake employed the techniques of film to explicate the themes of this plot. To what extent was he being “profoundly new and original” (Regi Siriwardena) and to what extent was he being “confusing” (Pieris) and “lazy impressionistic” (H. A. Seneviratne)? It is not up to me or any critic to offer an answer to this; that must come from the conclusions the audience reaches on its own. However, a few concluding remarks on that count are called for.

It is unfair by Bandaranayake, given that this was, after all, his debut, to require of it the standard one could expect from a more technically polished later work like Bhava Duka. Yet it would also be unfair to ignore that there is a point, especially in the last third of the story, where the crisscrossing between fantasy and reality becomes a cat’s cradle of tangled wires (borrowing a phrase from Dayan Jayatilleka). To pinpoint just when and where the one becomes the other would, however, be futile; one simply has to sit through the film to register it, particularly in the last half-hour.

Even more unfair would be to ignore the great achievement that is there for all to see in Bandaranayake’s film. To critique or point out the subtle nuances of Hansa Vilak is not to deny its standing as a courageous, daring objet d’art. More so then than now, adultery was considered taboo material, even for a popular medium like film. Duhulu Malak was, as far as I can make it out, the only other film to talk about the theme, yet as anyone who has watched it will testify, it eventually resolves the rift between the imperatives of personal feeling and the strictures of suburban middle-class marriage life in favour of the former. No such resolution exists in Bandaranayake’s film; that is what makes it so unique, so much a landmark, and so much a classic.

 

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Sat Mag

When a wonderful human being crosses the great divide

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Sarasaviya took this picture of Punya and Milroy at their home after the “Abhimani” Legendary Award was conferred on Punya, during their last visit to Sri Lanka to attend the Sarasaviya Festival in 2016.

“There are friends,
There is family,
And then there are friends
That become family”

Such a friend was Milroy, whose passing away a few days ago, we learnt with heavy hearts and deep sorrow.

To those who didn’t know him, he was the husband of Punya Heendeniya, the actress who captivated the hearts and minds of a nation by her portrayal of Nanda in the film classic “Gamperaliya”; Nanda was the quintessential Sinhala upper class village maiden who valued tradition over love.

To MBS (Siri) he was a lifelong friend “who stayed forever, beyond word, beyond distance, beyond time”.

To me (Kumar Gunawardane) who came to know him through Siri and also through his brothers, he was a pleasant companion, and good friend.

PUNYA:

“He loved music, sing songs and kalawaa (art) in all its forms. That is why he married me. He went out of his way to help the needy in whatever way he could. He did everything for me and the children.

“In the last year or two he took to understanding what real Buddha Dharma was.

“May he attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana!”

SIRI:

“We met on the very first day in the “Block”; alphabetically we were next to each other, Milroy de Silva and MBS de Silva. That day, wearing our white jackets and ties back to front, we had to march to the Anatomy laboratory, jeered by serried ranks of haughty seniors. The naked bodies lying on marble slabs was nauseating. I was directed to the appropriate cadaver by a tutor and paired with a brilliant student JBC De Silva, to dissect the upper limb. Confused and bewildered I could only gaze at the colleague carving the other arm. He looked equally nonplussed wielding a scalpel nonchalantly, while another student recited the instructions from Cunningham’s manual of Anatomy. Our eyes met and that was the start of a beautiful friendship; a coming together of the high-spirited and full of joie de vivre. We immediately downed tools and scampered to the canteen to revive ourselves with a cup of tea, laced with condensed milk, and the cheapest available cigarette ‘Peacock’. Our interests were similar; studies took a back seat, larking around taking precedence. The friendship was sealed further when we joined Bloemfontein the formidable male medical student hostel alternatively feared and lauded.

“I remember our first Block dance at the King George’s hall. He was smartly dressed in black tuxedo pants and a cream jacket; only missing element was a lady companion. I, who wore a black shirt and a white tie, had a beautiful girl on my arm. I asked Milroy where he came by his tuxedo and he disdainfully replied I have two brothers who are doctors and one tuxedo for the whole family and now it is my turn to have it!!

“Our bonds strengthened during our intern year. Milroy returned to his roots in Galle and I joined him a few months later at Mahamodara, the hospital by the sea. It was a year of back breaking work, but also a year of fun and frolic.

“Milroy was then posted as chief (District Medical Officer) of the Moneragala hospital. But “I was left high and dry, Milroy, thoughtful as ever arranged for me to work with his brother Dr A.S.H De Silva, who had a thriving general practice just down the road from the hospital. Three months later, I got a posting to Buttala, which was then a mostly elephant and serpent infested jungle. It was classed as a ‘punishment’ station by the Health Department. The attractions however were the proximity to Milroy, and also the predecessors who included medical giants such as Professor Rajasooriya and the distinguished surgeons Dr Bartholomeuz, and R. L. Spittel the Surgeon of the Wilderness. In this pastoral outpost Milroy was bowled over by the image of Punya. He was at a loss to reach her. I advised him to write and he did so with panache. She invited him to visit them at Mirigama, her hometown to meet her folk. They teamed up in Punya’s own words for 52 years seven months and 22 days; a match made in heaven.

“As a dutiful father, he wanted to give his son and daughter the best education available and so it was that he and Punya migrated to Zambia. It was here that they demonstrated hidden strengths of character which helped them overcome adversities and even threats to their lives and move over to England. Milroy re-invented himself and rose to top of the ladder to become a consultant psychiatrist. His two children also became consultants in the NHS, the son a gastroenterologist and daughter an endocrinologist. He acknowledged freely Punya’s role not only in all his triumphs, but also in the hazards and misfortunes in their paths.

“Yet, more than all this was his humanity and humility, generosity to those less well endowed especially relatives and also to those medical graduates at the threshold of their careers. They were gracious hosts; Punya was an accomplished cook and less well known, a euphonious singer. I and my good friend Karu had the good fortune to enjoy their hospitality on many occasions in London.

“Milroy my friend, “To live in the hearts of those we love is never to die”

“May your journey in Samsara be short and my you attain the Supreme bliss of Nibbana!”

 

KUMAR:

I first got to know Milroy at Bloemfontein, the medical student’s hostel adjoining Carey College. He was a dapper figure, stylishly dressed with an unceasing gentle smile on his face. His chums, Siri, Gerry, Wicky and others were always friendly with us juniors and never intimidating. Their banter and capers in the dining room and the spacious portico were invariably hilarious.

My friendship with Siri was cemented in the hurly-burly of the Galle hospital, where I too did my internship. When I was unemployed after its completion it was Siri who arranged for me to work with Dr ASH, Milroy’s brother. ASH and Kingsley, another brother became my friends and mentors.

“Punya was a heartthrob of many young bucks of our era. But only one, Milroy, could win her hand and her heart. What a splendid partnership it was.

The Buddha Dhamma teaches that death is natural and inevitable. Yet it is sorrowful and we pray for you and your family’s peace and comfort. Their sadness is soothed by the beauty of your life, a life well lived. As the Buddha said death has no fear to those who fashioned life as a garland of beautiful deeds.

May you attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!

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Sat Mag

A New Arrival at the Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre

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A newly hatched blue and gold macaw bred at the Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre being attended to by a staff member Sisira Kumara.

The Pathfinder Wildlife Preservation Centre has a comprehensive collection of rare macaws, cockatoos, lorikeets, and parrots from Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The collection also includes a range of Arowana fish. This unique collection was originally presented to the Centre by Nimal Jayawardena, a leading business person, lawyer, and wildlife expert.

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Sat Mag

Imagining Malinda Seneviratne

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By Uditha Devapriya

I’d like to begin this tribute with a memory. I wasn’t always an avid reader of newspapers. My father, on the other hand, was. Somewhere in middle school, in Grade Eight I believe, I began picking them up once he had done with them, poring over the columns.

My eyes rested on certain topics more than others. They’d invariably centre on the war. How were we fighting the enemy? How was that enemy fighting back? What new conspiracies had been unearthed? Who had unearthed them? Who was next on the enemy’s kill list? The peace process, dead as a dodo long before it died, had floundered. Officially, we were back at war. As intriguing as that would have been, it was also disconcerting.

Even more disconcerting was the ambivalent stand of the English language press on the war. Not that the editorials called for a cessation of hostilities, much less a return to the peace process. But beneath the fine print, one could discern an almost confused pacifism, an almost abstruse neutralism.

This conformed to the same pattern: an acknowledgement of the heroism of the armed forces followed by a critique of government policy. Ultimately it all boiled down to, not whether the government was conducting the war properly, but whether the war had to be conducted at all. Even there the editors remained indecisive: they concluded that the LTTE had to be defeated, yet refused to endorse the war being waged to achieve that end.

None of that felt frustrating, of course. Cut off from the fears of a war next door, one could only revel in the delicatessen of wartime journalism. Yet it was clear the scales tilted to a side: very few writing in English advocated a military solution to the world’s longest running ongoing ethnic conflict. What explained their hesitation?

I didn’t bother finding out, but given the preponderance of those who wrote against the war, I was transfixed by those who wrote in support of it. Of them, one in particular caught my attention. Seven years later I met him: a coincidence I ponder over even now.

I have known Malinda Seneviratne in his many forms: writer, poet, translator, activist, editor, citizen, father, husband, and teacher. Yet I can’t recall why I wanted to meet him. Was it the eloquent prose, sharp as nails even at its most polemical? The equally eloquent poetry, haiku-like and evocative of both Neruda and Galeano? Or the activism, unabashedly nationalist in a country whose Westernised intelligentsia abhors such “tribalist” sentiments?

Malinda’s political education began with the Left, first with his father Gamini, then with a batch-mate of his father, Nanda Wickramasinghe (attached to the Revolutionary Communist League at the University of Peradeniya), and finally with Vijaya Kumaratunga and Ossie Abeygunasekera (until the latter’s defection to the UNP). The Ratawesi Peramuna, precursor to the Sihala Urumaya, came later.

His activism in (and for) the Ratawesi Peramuna followed his return from Harvard (where he completed his Bachelor’s in Sociology) in 1991. It was while in this group that he deepened his friendship with two of his biggest influences, Patali Champika Ranawaka and Athuraliye Rathana Thera. It was also his activities there that landed him in trouble; the police swooped on a meeting organised in 1992 at Wadduwa, following an exhibition of LTTE, IPKF, and JVP human rights abuses held in Matara, was intercepted by the police, who proceeded to arrest 15 members, including Ranawaka, Rathana Thera, and Malinda.

Held for three weeks, and tortured on the orders of a drunken OIC, they filed a fundamental rights case at the Supreme Court. Upholding their case, the Court, which acknowledged that the RP did not constitute a threat to national security and did not warrant the treatment meted out to its members, ordered the State to pay Rs 5,000 for each applicant. The Human Rights Library of the University of Minnesota later archived the case, “Channa Pieris and Others v. Attorney General and Others.” In the meantime, the Ratawesi Peramuna turned into Janatha Mithuro, a green socialist/nationalist outfit preaching the gospel of alternative development paradigms (what Ranakawa called the “third chapter of development”).

Malinda ended his political associations once he started out on his journalistic (and writing) career in the 2000s. By then he had gone through Janatha Mithuro, Sihala Urumaya, and the National Movement Against Terrorism (2006-7). These are, no doubt, colourful affiliations, befitting a colourful memoir. Yet, despite his activism, it’s hard to put a finger on his convictions: he just can’t be categorised in the same way his opponents, or for that matter his allies, can.

On the ‘national Question’, on the 13th Amendment, on our relations with India, indeed on global politics, he projects a provocative perspective. Thus, for instance, while he supported the Sihala Urumaya’s and Hela Urumaya’s parliamentary aspirations, he critiqued the latter’s decision to field Buddhist monks at elections. Even so, however, he does not oppose the entry of monks on a matter of unyielding principle: for him, they constitute a group having as much a right to parliamentary representation as any other.

In any case, whatever those convictions, the more I read him in my middle school years, the curiouser I got: then as now, what defines Malinda is the contrast, one could say paradox, between his ideological predilections and his poetic instincts. The two do get together, more often than you’d think, in his anthologies (just sample his poems on Geneva). And yet there’s a disjuncture between them. Perhaps this was what made me want to visit him.

Our first meeting went by innocuously enough. Lasting a little more than an hour, it ended on the promise of a second meeting, which transpired a month later – to be followed by another, and then another. The rapport between us grew quickly; by the time of the third meeting, he was asking me to come in and write to the paper he supervised as editor.

I hesitated at first. With characteristic flippancy, though, he shrugged my concerns aside: “When you work for me,” he promised, “you will write on everything.” I thus gave in: as with all 21-year-olds new to the trade, I wanted to write and be read in print. A few months later, in fulfilment of a promise he made before the January 2015 election, I was in.

Malinda taught several lessons as a writer, journalist, and senior. First and foremost among them was the line between writing news and writing features. For no matter what people may say, a good writer does not necessarily make for a good reporter. Pen and paper in hand, you need to record whatever it is that you’re covering is putting out to the public. Cutting through a morass of irrelevant anecdotes, you need to distil what you heard. And of course, you need to separate facts from comment: you can’t editorialise.

This proved to be a difficult exercise for me, far more difficult than the light pieces I ended up submitting to the features section. Suffice it to say, then, that insofar as Malinda taught me anything about journalism, it was that I could never aspire to be a journalist.

The second lesson was simpler: no matter how good (or bad) you may be as a journalist, if your editor doesn’t encourage you, your ink will dry. This applies to other professions also: where would Thomas Wolfe be, for instance, without Max Perkins?

Malinda, of course, was not my first editor. Yet he and I shared interests which immediately bridged the gap between him and me. In the end, I wound up writing on topics I had always wanted to talk about. That could not have been possible without him.

The third lesson, the most important one, was that writing to newspapers is never going to be a stable profession, especially not here. I learnt this lesson the hard way: five months after I got in, his paper closed down. Petrified for days, wondering whether I would ever be able to write again, I eventually came to realise that, as shocking an experience as it may have been to me, for Malinda it did not mean much: he’d been pole-vaulting from one paper to another from the day he left active politics for journalism.

His experience there became my guide: one evening, after the storm clouds of his termination had died down, he told me bluntly, “In this trade, if you’re good enough, you’ll never be out of tenure.” I disputed him. Six years later, having contributed to every paper he wrote to and is writing to, I realise I was wrong to do so.

Having read him and met him, I thus ended up learning under Malinda: a trajectory I am yet to go through a second time with anyone else in his line of work. I can’t really assess him, or do him justice, except maybe to note that, for the little or the lot he taught, he never demanded a payback.

Perhaps that’s just as well. For without taking away anything from what he did, I was hardly the only person he supported this way. Many others, most of them as young as I, all of them endowed with a superior penmanship, also found their way to the pages of the papers he oversaw. I know for a fact that he always insisted on compensating them – in full.

The West Indian international relations scholar Herb Addo once wrote that Andre Gunder Frank, from whom he learnt about the political economy of underdevelopment, “taught me nothing.” For his contemporaries, Addo argued, Frank “taught from a distance”, yet let his students develop as individual, independent intellectuals, in their own right.

By no means do I suggest that Malinda taught me nothing, or that he did so from a distance. But reflecting on how he taught all that one needed to know, and how he dismisses it today as though was just letting me evolve on my own, I wonder: was he, as Frank had been to Addo, a teacher in the Gibran vein, leading me to the threshold of my mind?

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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