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Sci-fi action with deeper themes of racism and prejudice

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Screamfest Best Short Film – ‘Vikaari’

By Sajitha Prematunge

The Sri Lankan produced short film ‘Vikaari’ won the Best Short Film award at the 20th annual Screamfest Horror Film Festival held in Hollywood, California, from October 6 to 15. WatchWorthy went behind the scenes of ‘Vikaari’ with Co-Writer, Producer and Director Sandun Seneviratne.

Known as the Sundance of horror, Screamfest is the largest and longest running horror film festival in the United States. Considered one of the best genre festivals in the world, it entertains horror, sci-fi and thriller films and screenplays. Cult classics such as ‘The Grudge’ and ‘Paranormal Activity’ premiered at Screamfest. This year’s Screamfest was a drive-in affair, showcasing the works of 91 independent filmmakers in the course of its 10-day series, including 83 short film directors, 67 short film producers, 11 feature film directors, and 13 feature film producers. Top movies, filmmakers, actors and screenplays for the year 2020 were awarded during the festival’s closing night on Thursday, October 15.

‘Vikaari’ was the first ever Sri Lankan produced movie accepted for screening at the festival and the award was a pleasant bonus for Co-Writer, Producer and Director Sandun Seneviratne. It clinched the Best Short Film award, beating 62 other, mostly US and European short films. Sandun Seneviratne explained that although there are many festivals in the circuit, it’s difficult to get selected for screening at a top-rated festival, let alone win an award. “I consider it not just a personal achievement, but one for the country,” said Seneviratne. ‘Vikaari’ has been selected for screening at the Lund International Fantastic Film Festival, in Sweden, at the end of the month.

The story of ‘Vikaari’ was conceived some 20 years ago. “In fact it was my first script,” said Seneviratne. The screenplay was co-written with Charlie Bray, his classmate from London Film Academy, adapted to the current context. The duo attended London Film Academy from 2006 to 2009.

Seneviratne describes ‘Vikaari’ as not ‘horror’ per se, but a sci-fi action-drama. He admitted that sci-fi is his forte and most of his previous projects are also of the sci-fi action drama genre. He was exposed to science fiction at an early age, when he was introduced to the works of Sir Arthur C. Clarke in his father’s library. Other than Clarke, Seneviratne was inspired by Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert, whose ‘Dune’, the movie adaptation of which will be out soon, made quite an impression on Seneviratne.

Hollywood mutant movie franchises no doubt influenced the film’s makers to favour the title ‘Vikaari’, derived from the Sanskrit meaning of the word: ‘change’ or ‘an entity that can change. The film revolves around the births of a new generation of children with a similar set of disabilities, bordering on the supernatural, in countries devastated by war. Although the phenomenon sparks worldwide panic, ‘Vikaari’ focuses on the political and cultural turmoil brought on by the advent of the Vikaari in Sri Lanka, pushing the nation towards the brink of another violent conflict, just after the end of a three-decade long war. Some want to eliminate the ‘Vikaari’ while others have ulterior motives for wanting to keep them.

True to the genre, the kaleidoscope of visuals imbues the ‘Vikaari’ trailer with a ‘Blair Witch Project’-kind of eeriness. The soundtrack, reminiscent of the menacing ping in ‘Life’ and one that precedes the calm before all hell breaks lose in ‘Annihilation’, firmly establishes it in the sci-fi genre, while Robert Dee Richards’ very convincing Prof. David Hameroff provides it a documentary-style credibility. However, ‘Vikaari’ is not mere science fantasy. It deals with more socially relevant subject matter and deeper underlying themes such as racism and the cost of prejudice.

Most of ‘Vikaari’ was shot in Sri Lanka, while some sequences were shot in the UK. Written and directed by Seneviratne and Charlie Bray the film and stars Ashan Dias, Bimsara Premaratne and British actor Robert Dee Richards in leading roles along with a host of other Sri Lankan actors. Most of the movie is in English with some of the Sinhala dialogue accompanied by English subtitles.

Seneviratne has been making short films for nearly two decades and has a bank of stories he hopes to make into movies. His big breakthrough was Sri Lanka’s first big budget sci-fi web series ‘Seer: Death sight’. The 2007 short film revolved around a psychic hit man, in an apocalyptic future, who was trained to treat everything between him and his target as collateral. But his life is turned topsy-turvy when he meets a little girl. Seer: Death sight, in short film form was screened at many prestigious genre film festivals including The Phoenix Comic Con film festival, Intl Sci-FI and Fantasy Film Festival of Athens and Fantastic Planet: Sydney.

“The language of film-making is very easy, you shoot, get a few close-ups and piece them together and you have a movie. What’s difficult is making a good film,” said Seneviratne, which, according to him, took him a lifetime of study, experience and experimentation. Seneviratne hopes to locally produce Hollywood-inspired feature films that can compete in the international market in terms of production value and storytelling. “But it’s difficult to find resources for and finance them in Sri Lanka,” said Seneviratne, when asked why he has not yet made a feature-length film.

He finances his own films and many in the ‘Vikaari’ team was very understanding and supportive. The Vikaari child actors Nethuli Adihetti, Nithila Goonetilleke and Thinuga Adihetti also gave the audiences a run for their money. “Of course you can’t live off film-making in Sri Lanka,” said Seneviratne who runs his own business. He is the Director of Louvre International School in Nugegoda and Pannipitiya. “It’s difficult to maintain a large film industry in Sri Lanka, considering the small population, but the local film industry is doing the best it can, specially in the art house genre, although we’re lagging behind on commercial movies of international calibre.” Seneviratne hopes that upcoming young local film-makers can change that.

When asked what obstacles there are for a Sri Lankan to break into the international film industry, Seneviratne said, “It just never been done before.” But he explained that with platforms such as YouTube and internet usage being amongst the highest in the region, reaching audiences has ceased to be a challenge. Not to mention that such social media platforms take bureaucratic red tape, of getting a full-length movie approved, out of the equation. “Technology is improving and movie-making is becoming cheaper by the day. You can make a movie on your phone, which I did during the lockdown.” He pointed out that even visual effects are getting cheaper. But are they on par with that of Hollywood? “Yes, they are getting there.” in fact some of the visual effects for ‘Vikaari’ were done by a Sri Lankan company called ApexDfx.

However, will Sri Lankan artists, who’ve been heavily influenced by Indian cinema and soap opera, notorious for over-acting, hype and melodrama, be disciplined enough to pull off a Hollywood-level movie? “There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by different film cultures. It’s what you want to do that matters.” However, he explained that the art house film culture in Sri Lanka is very much influenced by Russian cinema. “Tarkovsky type of very abstract art house film-making, in particular,” pointed out Seneviratne.

“Besides, it’s not really a matter of discipline. It’s a matter of talent.” Seneviratne explained that such an acting style is encouraged in the way that Sri Lankan artistes are trained. “Our way of acting is different to that of Hollywood. It’s just a matter of bridging the two styles. It’s not like our actors are not talented and as long as you’re working with talented people, you can talk to them and mould them into what you want.”

But would Sri Lankan audiences, whose taste have been shaped by such influences accept such movies made by Sri Lankans, when there is already a proliferation of Hollywood originals in the market? He said that although he hopes that the movie would have a global reach, he also hopes that it will be embraced by Sri Lankan audiences. His idea of film is truly international, employing both eastern and western characters, set mainly in the Asian region. “People watched films like ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ irrespective of location they were set in and who was acting. As long as it’s a good entertaining story, it will sell. He cited ‘Parasite’ as a good example for an Asian movie that was able to tap into the international market. “Besides science fantasy like superhero movies are in vogue, it’s hard to believe that somebody even in a remote corner of India or an island like Sri Lanka would not be able to identify with them.”

He said that sci-fi and action translate well across borders because one does not need to be able to understand the language in an action movie to be able to make sense of it and enjoy it. Although he opined that sci-fi and action share a universal language, few local science fiction have, in either book or movie form, gained international or even regional recognition. Seneviratne begged to differ, pointing out that Sri Lankan science fiction is gradually gaining momentum. “Amanda Jay for example, won the 2017 Fairway National Literary Award for her ‘The Other One'” Seneviratne identified Navin Weeraratne and Yudanjaya Wijeratne as two other promising science fiction writers. “Local sci-fi movies have not gained global or regional recognition, but that’s not a dilemma specific to Sri Lanka. In fact, only Hollywood can pull it off. It can’t be the huge budgets, because the budgets of Chinese movies are almost equal to those of Hollywood movies and their box office is likely to overtake Hollywood within five years, but they are virtually unheard of outside their country.”

He explained that the same applies to Bollywood films. “They are a multi-billion dollar industry, a close second to Hollywood. But again they are not very popular outside the Asian region.” Seneviratne opined that it’s all in the story telling. “There’s something in the way that Hollywood tells a story that appeals to mass audiences. If you master that art of story-telling, that’s half the battle.

 

 



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Religious nationalism suffers notable setback in India

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People casting their votes in the recent Lok Sabha poll in India

Democratic opinion the world over could take heart from the fact that secularism is alive and well in India; the South Asian region’s most successful democracy. While it is indeed remarkable for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to win a third consecutive term as head of government in India’s recent Lok Sabha election, what is of greater significance is the fact that the polls featured a resounding defeat for religious nationalism.

Consequently, India’s secular credentials remain intact. Secularism, which eschews identity politics of all kinds, including religious nationalism is, after all, a cornerstone of democracy and secularism has been a chief strength of India. The defeat of religious nationalism, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, is a triumph for not only the democratic forces of India but for their counterparts the world over.

It was plain to see that the Bharathiya Janata Party under P.M. Modi was going the extra mile to placate Hindu nationalist opinion in Uttar Pradesh and outside through the construction of an eye-catching Ram temple in the state, for example, but the vote-catching strategy has visible failed as the polls results in the state indicate. For, the number of seats won by the BJP in the state has shrunk dramatically. In fact, the BJP was resoundingly defeated in the very constituency where the temple was constructed.

Constructive criticism of religious nationalism should not be considered an indictment of the religions concerned. Hinduism is one of the world’s most profound religions and it would sustain itself and thrive regardless of whether vote-hungry political parties champion its cause or otherwise. However, the deployment of any religion in the acquiring and aggrandizement of power by political forces calls for criticism since it amounts to a gross abuse of religion. Religious nationalism is an example of such abuse and warrants decrying in democratic states.

Unfortunately, religious nationalism is rampant in South Asia and it is most alive and well in Sri Lanka. And to the degree to which religious nationalism thrives in Sri Lanka, to the same extent could Sri Lanka be considered as deviating from the cardinal principles and values of democratic governance. It is obligatory on the part of those posing as Sri Lanka’s national leaders to reject religious nationalism and take the country along the path of secularism, which essentially denotes the separation of politics and religion. Thus far, Sri Lanka’s political class has fought shy of taking up this challenge and by doing so they have exposed the country as a ‘facade democracy’.

Religion per se, though, is not to be rejected, for, all great religions preach personal and societal goodness and progress. However, when religious identities are abused by political actors and forces for the acquiring and consolidation of power, religious nationalism comes to the fore and the latter is more destructive than constructive in its impact on societies. It is for these reasons that it is best to constitutionally separate religion from politics. Accordingly, secularism emerges as essential for the practise of democracy, correctly conceived.

The recent Indian Lok Sabha poll was also notable for the role economic factors played in the determining of its final results. Once again, Uttar Pradesh was instructive. It is reported that the high cost of living and unemployment, for instance, were working to the detriment of the ruling BJP. That is, ‘Bread’ or economic forces were proving decisive in voter preferences. In other words, economics was driving politics. Appeals to religion were proving futile.

Besides, it was reported that the opposition alliance hit on the shrewd strategy of projecting a bleaker future for depressed communities if the BJP ‘juggernaut’ was allowed to bulldoze its way onward without being checked. For, in the event of it being allowed to do so, the concessions and benefits of positive discrimination, for instance, being enjoyed by the weak would be rolled back in favour of the majority community. Thus, was the popular vote swung in the direction of the opposition alliance.

Accordingly, the position could be taken that economic forces are the principal shaping influences of polities. Likewise, if social stability is to be arrived at redistributive justice needs to be ushered in by governments to the extent possible. Religious nationalism and other species of identity politics could help populist political parties in particular to come to power but what would ensure any government’s staying power is re-distributive justice; that is, the even distribution of ‘Bread’ and land. In the absence of the latter factors, even populism’s influence would be short lived.

The recent Indian Lok Sabha elections could be said to have underscored India’s standing as a principal democracy. Democracy in India should be seen as having emerged stronger than ever as a result of the poll because if there were apprehensions in any quarter that BJP rule would go unchallenged indefinitely those fears have been proved to be baseless.

‘One party rule’ of any kind is most injurious to democracy and democratic forces in India and outside now have the assurance that India would continue to be a commodious and accommodative democracy that could keep democratic institutions and values ticking soundly.

Besides the above considerations, by assuring the region that it would continue with its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, India has underscored her ‘Swing State’ status. That is, she would take on a leadership role in South Asia and endeavor to be an inspirational guide in the region, particularly in respect of democratic development.

As for Sri Lanka, she has no choice but to be on the best of terms with India. Going forward, Sri Lanka would need to take deeply into consideration India’s foreign policy sensitivities. If there is to be an ‘all weather friend’ for Sri Lanka it has to be India because besides being Sri Lanka’s closest neighour it is India that has come to Sri Lanka’s assistance most swiftly in the region in the latter’s hour of need. History also establishes that there are least conflicts and points of friction among democracies.

However, identity politics are bound to continually cast their long shadow over South Asia. For smaller states this would prove a vexatious problem. It is to the extent to which democratic development is seen by countries of the South as the best means of defusing intra-state conflicts born of identity politics that the threat of identity politics could be defused and managed best.

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AKD’s Speech on Rule of Law: Merits and Demerits?

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Anura Kumara

by Dr Laksiri Fernando

Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s (AKD) speech as the Leader of the National People’s Power (NPP) at the National Convention organised by the Retired Police Officers Collective on 9 June 2024 is quite promising in terms of establishing or reestablishing rule of law in the country. They have been talking about a ‘system change’ now for some time, and various independent critics and observers were asking the details of this promise, without merely depending on the slogan.

I was fortunate to listen to this speech online and live, through Horawa News, and one weakness or wrong that I immediately observed was its leading phrase ‘Malimawa shows its police power.’ I have no idea about who runs the Horawa but that was not what AKD was quite obviously advocating. “Power’ is not a good word to use in democracy, worst still is the ‘police power.’

State of the State

After an introduction, AKD ventured to explain the ‘state of the State,’ particularly during the last two three years, characterising it as a failed state with inability to pay back loans, to supply necessary medicine to hospitals, and failing to give children a proper education, and when they grow up, proper employment. He strongly characterised the State as in the grips of crooks and criminals (dushithayan saha aparadakaruwan), and the whole society being affected by this situation. He said, “this must be changed, and this to be changed like in all other changes. Sri Lanka should be a State based on rule of law.” Thereafter his speech focused, in detail, on the questions of rule of law. There were several principles that he enunciated.

First, equality before the law. All citizens in the country should be equal before the law. All citizens in the country should be able to go before the law against any discrimination by the implementation of law. He asked, “are we all equal before the law? No. Rich people have one law, and people who have political power have another law. At present, the Department of Police, the Attorney General’s Department and even the Judiciary have become a laughing stock. Let me ask you a question that I have asked once before. “

“Who knew best that Diana Gamage didn’t have citizenship? First, Diana. She knew that she came to the country on a tourist visa and even that visa had expired. Knowing all that, she came to Parliament. Knowing that, she also acted as a state minister. How did she do that? She knew that because of her political power that the law would not apply to her. An ordinary person even will not ride a bicycle without a license. Where is our law?”

“The second person who knew well was Ranil. But he protected her. This type of country cannot go forward. We need a state system which is entirely based on rule of law. I will give you an assurance. I personally or our movement do not have any financial fraudsters or criminals to protect. No underworld, no drug dealers, no rapists, no financial fraudsters, and no criminals to protect. If the existing powers given to the police to curtail these crimes are not enough, under our government, we will create circumstances to strengthen the police.”

Political Interference

AKD outlined some of the crimes and murders which were investigated, and the perpetrators were properly punished within the system. Those included the murder of the Manager of Noori Estate, Hokandara family killing, Killing of Sarath Ambepitiya, etc.

On the other hand, he emphasised the cases like Lasantha Wickrematunge, Eknaligoda murder, assault of journalists like Keith Noyar, Poddalla Jayantha and others that dragged on without a conclusion. Why? His correct answer was political interference. He praised the police but emphasised political interferences that hamper their tasks.

One of the aspects that he neglected was the ethnic bias in criminal investigations and other police matters. Will this be addressed by the NPP? That is my question. For example, I have known J. S. Tissanayagam as a student at Peradeniya who later became a prominent Tamil Journalist. He was abducted, beaten up and charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. There are so many similar cases that were neglected by AKD, and I hope he will rectify his neglect in the coming future. I also failed to identify any Tamil participation in the crowd.

AKD was correct in emphasising that the police have a major role in maintaining stability in society. “If there were no police, no one would be able to pass the Borella junction peacefully” he said. He emphasised correctly, that these premises were established after a long struggle in building up rule of law in society internationally. “These were not there in tribal societies,’ he pointed out. “The leader of the tribe (Rehe nayakeya) did all together,” he said. ‘It was through struggles that separation of powers was established between Parliament to legislate, elected Presidents to execute, and the Judiciary to rule on justice,’ he continued.

“What we can see today is a tendency to go back to tribal society. We need a civilised society. Especially the department of police, criminal investigation and the attorney genera’s department should work independently, efficiently and correctly. It is our task under an NPP government to create these civilised conditions. Today the police department is in a mess due to political interferences.” He gave examples.

“Do we have a proper procedure in recruiting and promoting police officers? No. I know that there are some officers who are constables at recruitment, and also when they retire. We will establish a proper procedure in recruitment and promotions. At present, when change of governments occur, the police officers are punished or promoted. The main task of the police officers is people’s security. However, what they are supposed to do today is patrician (prabhu) security.” He mentioned that he has been an MP since the year 2000 and never sought any police security. He emotionally mentioned the difficulties that police security undergoes with so many difficulties.

Vision for Future?

“Under our government, people’s security is the primary task of the police, and not politician or patrician security. During the last 24 years as an MP, I have never called the police for any assistance. But this is not the case with other MPs. However, I have to say that to eliminate criminals and fraudsters, we will give the police the necessary leadership and encouragement. Today, the MPs consider the police as their servants. I have heard some saying ‘my OIC’ (mage OIC). This is not our attitude. We will preserve the dignity of police officers. They are well trained and educated. They should not be the tools of politicians. Their task is to punish criminality, present and past. There are people who believe their past offenses will be forgotten. But we will not forget.” AKD related a story.

“During the election campaign in 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga accused the UNP stealing people’s money and property under their government. Vijayapala Mendis has obtained 75 acres of coconut land for two rupees per acre, altogether for Rs. 150. She promised that these crooks would be brought to the Galle Face Green and would be ‘skinned’. People rejoiced and clapped. However, within 7 years, the same Vijayapala Mendis became a Minister in Chandrika’s Cabinet. There are so many examples like that. Perhaps she had forgotten and even the people had forgotten. Ranil Wickremasinghe who accused [Gotabaya Rajapaksa] as the ‘Mastermind of the Easter Sunday attack’ also became the President based on the same Gotabaya mandate.”

There were several other points connected with the above that AKD ventured into taking about 20 more minutes. All are worth reflecting on and even in my case I have not heard them before from politicians. One of his newest arguments was to consider the rule of law, law and order, and equality before the law as the necessary basis of economic development. However, given the necessary word limitations for this article those may be discussed in a future occasion.

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Raffealla Fernando Face of Sri Lanka for Prerna Gupta

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It’s not only her name that is famous but her face, too, and I’m referring, of course, to Raffealla Fernando – Founder and CEO at Raffealla Fernando Photography, and Fashion Designer and Stylist at Raffealla – who excels in what she does and shines bright wherever she goes.

Raffealla was in India recently and, I’m told, her face did bright up the fashion scene over there. And, guess what! Raffealla is now the face of Sri Lanka for Prerna Gupta as she expands her unique fashion label to take in Sri Lanka, as well.

Prerna Gupta couture is an award-winning Indian fashion house, from Nagpur, and she creates beautiful sustainable outfits and textiles made out of milk, aloe vera and orange peel, and what Raffealla is wearing in the photographs, on this page, are clothes made out of orange peel, aloe vera and milk.

Prerna Gupta has launched and showcased at reputed fashion shows where celebrities like Vicky Kaushal, Rani Mukherjee, Raj Kumar Arao, Evelyn Sharma, Sana Khan, Kailash Kher, Shankar Mahadevan and Bhapi Leheri have visited and adorned her label.

Says Raffealla: “I feel truly honoured and privileged to be working with a brand like this.”

Sri Lanka’s celebrity was also featured in the leading Bangladesh fashion magazine ‘Fashion People’.

“I’m super hyped because it’s the first time FELLA got featured in an international magazine.”

And FELLA is the brand name for Raffealla’s fashion designs.

Talking about her recent trip to India, she said one of the interesting and colourful fashion projects she did in Mumbai (photography and conceptualization) was connected with Kutch – a district of Gujarat state.

Raffealla went on to say that costumes of Kutch are exquisitely stylized and intricately embroidered.

Dazzling with vibrant colours, flooded with striking mirror work and stunning jewellery, it’s one of the most alluring custumes in India, she said.

“The mirror work and embroidery work forms an integral part of Kutch. Although handicrafts, irrespective of the community or ethnic group to which they belong, remain the same, the workmanship differs.

“In fact, the various communities can be identified by the pattern of handicrafts and dress, or costumes, they are in. For instance, the Garacia Jat women wear only red or black chunis, while Rabari women wear black open blouses, or cholis, with odhnis to cover their heads.

“In the rural areas, the women wear Chaniya choli the whole year, Chaniya choli’s are of many designs and fashion. A typical Kutch costume is incomplete without ‘Abha’ or ‘Kanjari’. ‘Abha’ is the name of the typical choli worn by women folk and ‘Kanjari’ is a long blouse, beautifully embroidered and with mirror work.

“Most men in Kutch wear loose trousers, a long-sleeved under-jacket, and a short coat, a plain or silk-bordered cloth. Normally men prefer white clothes except the Muslims who prefer coloured clothes.”

Raffealla is now ready, and excited, to do it for Prerna Gupta.

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