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The preface of Raj Rajaratnam’s book: Why I fought the good fight

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In October 2009 I was arrested and charged with insider trading. I chose to fight the charges against me because I was innocent.

The prosecutors alleged that 0.01% of my trades between 2005 and 2009 were illegal.

I understood that in the US there is a 97% conviction rate (similar to China and Russia) and a punitive trial penalty for those who dare to go to trial. Empirical studies have shown that the trial penalty is just about double that handed to those who plead guilty. If a defendant agrees to become a cooperating witness, helping the government with testimony — irrespective of the truth — to convict another defendant, the co-operating witness gets a much-reduced sentence and in many cases just parole.

I understood the stakes. I chose to go to trial. Why? It’s a question I’ve since been asked hundreds of times. Why. Why jeopardize everything. Because to my core I believed I would get a fair hearing. And with a fair hearing and a rational exposition of the facts, the truth would have prevailed. Until my arrest I had the highest regard for the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). I believed that most Americans felt that way in 2009. Since then, of course, the American public has become jaded about the sanctity of these institutions with multiple examples of overreach and excess.

Certain DOJ and FBI sections operate, each attempting to further its own agenda without regard for Constitutional checks and balances. The terms “fake news,” the “Dark State” are now bandied about with almost wild abandon, humor, and satire. The public now assumes the existence of “fake news” alongside “authentic” news with little effort towards journalistic integrity. During the time of my arrest and trial, information from the media, DOJ, and FBI was absorbed as unquestioned “Trust,” although some would argue that the dark state has existed for many years. While I still believe that the vast majority of those who work for the DOJ and the FBI are people of integrity, this book is an attempt to shed light on the corrupt few who act with impunity and destroy lives and families to further their career ambitions.

From the moment of my arrest, the narrative of my story was recast with a precise agenda, shaped to direct public attention away from the stark horror of the 2007-2008 financial crisis while promoting media idolatry of the publicity hungry and ambitious rookie US Attorney, Preet Bharara, who became a demi-God, the “Sheriff of Wall Street” riding into battle against myself, relentlessly personified as evil incarnate on the front pages of major newspapers around the world. Wanton disregard for the law, recognized by the judge at my trial, allowed a corrupt element within the FBI, Agent Kang, to falsify documents leading to my arrest and falsify testimony leading to my conviction.

I faced prosecutorial misconduct at its finest. The overzealous media, feasting on a human story they could sell every day, also profoundly prejudiced any hope of gathering an impartial jury by the time of the trial. These three institutions, ostensibly guardians of the public interest, charged with impartiality and integrity, bore down in a concerted campaign to make me the face of the financial crisis. My arrest and subsequent trial, a two-year process, deflected attention from a glaring fact: Not one major banker was held accountable for the 2008 global meltdown. No arrests. No searing prosecution. No jail time.

In the midst of a financial crisis which brought a multi-trillion-dollar world economy to its knees, these three institutions, independently and collectively, targeted a tiny slice of the US financial industry, hedge funds; honed in on a single hedge fund, Galleon; isolated only me, its CEO, who had recently become one of the few immigrants on Wall Street to be identified as a billionaire; and built a fabulous and intricate tale of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” to entertain the public and build their own reputations. Their two-year reality series was successful beyond measure.

Preet Bharara, the then-US attorney for the Southern District of New York, used my prosecution to launch an unprecedented press campaign to promote himself. Bharara ran roughshod over the truth, standard Department of Justice protocols, and the office’s own dignity in his extraordinary zeal to convict me. Time Magazine put Bharara on its cover, their headline proclaiming “this man is busting Wall-Street.” It was Preet’s finest moment. Bharara did not touch the real perpetrators of the 2008 financial crisis – Wall Street’s top bankers. In a rare moment of public acknowledgement, both Preet and the influential New York Magazine observed in 2014 that Bharara was almost sheepish about the insider cases — “they made our careers, but they (didn’t) change the world.”

Bharara’s impotent and poisoned approach to the non-prosecution of criminal activity on Wall Street — ranging from the mortgage bankers who precipitated the financial crisis (Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers), the money-laundering of drug cartels (HSBC), and the encouraging of tax evasion by US citizens (UBS, CSFB) — would become the defining legacy of his tenure. Each of these firms settled civil charges by paying billions of dollars in fines using shareholder money, but no single person was criminally charged or individually fined. Every one of the insider trader prosecutions was criminal. The towering hypocrisy remains startling.

The prosecution under Bharara’s watch advanced a theory of trading to prosecute me and several others which the second circuit appeals court subsequently overruled, criticizing it for “doctrine novelty.” Soon after my trial in May 2011, the then-SEC commissioner Mary Shapiro gloated that “the beauty of insider trading laws is the flexibility in interpreting them.” The lead prosecutor in my case, Jonathan Streeter said in December 2012, “Insider Trading cases are confusing to investment professionals.” He went on to add, “There is incredible confusion on what is illegal and it’s a real problem. The law is very complicated and the lines are a bit murky.” A US Attorney, the prosecution in my trial, and the head of the SEC, all acknowledged their reservations about a “murky” set of laws but had no “murky” reservations using them liberally in my case and at my trial.

The FBI agent overseeing my case Special Agent BJ Kang lied on his sworn affidavit to obtain wiretap authorization of my phone. Recognizing there had been government misconduct, Judge Richard Holwell who presided over my trial case, issued a searing criticism of the wiretap application used by Agent Kang, reprimanding him for “reckless disregard for the truth with respect to both probable cause and necessity.” The Judge went on to add that “false and misleading statements and omissions pervaded the affidavit (submitted by Special Agent Kang) so extensively that it was impossible for the authorizing judge to have the constitutionally required determination for the issuance of the wiretap…rather than provide a full and complete statement as required by the law, the wiretap affidavit made full and complete omissions and included literally false information.”

Kang did not stop at blowing through truth on paper. He menaced and threatened my family and employees with prosecution, frightened away crucial defense witnesses, and routinely leaked false information to the media churning up an unabated feeding frenzy that shredded me in the court of public opinion. Kang took his cues from the playbook of the publicly reviled former FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. I was tried, convicted, and sentenced in the press even before I fully understood the charges against me. The atmosphere was so toxic that my lead counsel, veteran defense lawyer John Dowd said “the prejudicial publicity orchestrated by the USA was so palpable in the courtroom…It was the most toxic atmosphere of any case I ever tried.”

My defense team led by John Dowd, along with expert testimony from a former SEC legal counsel, repeatedly highlighted that all the information discussed in the wiretaps was already in the public domain. Every bit of information was in the public domain. It did not matter. No amount of truth could overcome the false testimony trained into the co-operating witnesses by Streeter, his team of prosecutors, and Bharara, who sat on the sidelines, waiting in eager anticipation for any opportunity for a press conference. Each of the cooperating witnesses had committed his own set of crimes, unrelated to Galleon. Yet each chose to testify against me as an opportunity to reduce their probable sentences. That they were perjuring themselves was irrelevant; the government coerced them into an immediate mandate to take me down. Even the government’s star witness, Anil Kumar, offered damning testimony under oath in my case only to recant the very same sworn testimony three years later during the trial of my brother. My brother was subsequently acquitted as a result of the revised and opposite version of Anil Kumar’s testimony. A few newspapers picked up on this gross disparity, but that was it. The fact of perjury had no consequence. The cycle was vicious. “Innocent until proven guilty,” the cornerstone philosophy of the American judicial system was proving to be a farce.

I was convicted by a jury, sentenced to 11 years in jail, and paid fines of over $150 million. The irony is that even in setting the fines, the prosecutors working in tandem with the media kept up the unceasing drumbeat of punishment for the financial crisis. Never mind that I did not personally make any money from the alleged trades. And never mind that not one single investor sued me. Galleon went through an orderly process of closing down the firm and returned all the funds with a gain of 22%. Not a single investor lost money. Most important to me, personally, was that not one single investor sued me.

In July 2019, I was released after serving 7.5 years of my 11-year sentence under the First Step Act.

I wrote this book entirely in prison and by hand. I began by writing about an hour a day. Soon that increased to two hours. Then three. I am choosing to publish the book for two specific reasons: First, I want my peers, professionals who understand the nuances of managing money, to hear the facts of my case. I want them to judge me. It is my assertion that I was entrapped, framed, unlawfully wiretapped, surveilled, and then made to endure a brutal and very public media lynching.

Secondly and more importantly, I want to begin a public discussion by creating awareness of how certain corrupt prosecutors and FBI agents are allowed to get away with criminal behavior. There are no checks and balances in our Justice system. Recently there has been a lot of discussion as to whether the President should be above the law. The President is so closely scrutinized that doing anything against the law would ring alarms bells the world over. Instead, my assertion is that the focus should be on the corruption within the American judicial system, on a handful of corrupt US attorneys who live their lives exempt from the law by which they control the lives of others and the rest of the country. In this book I will show how ambitious prosecutors actively take advantage of murky laws and coerce testimony from government witnesses to obtain wrongful convictions. Winning at all costs, regardless of the truth appears at every level to be an operative mantra. I realize there is only one book I can write to set the record straight. This is it.

My story is also about greed. In all its forms, greed boils down to avarice, hunger, power, money, ambition. All of these are readily available and identifiable in the financial industry, by definition. In fact, I would say that in the financial industry, greed is effectively a cliché with fear being on the flip side of a pair trade. Fear and greed are easy to communicate, and the media hones in on these aspects of Wall Street. But what I would like to do in this book is to hone in on the excess and greed in the judicial system. Ambition in the judicial system also translates to power and money, a far more insidious and dangerous consequence to society because it goes unchecked. After I was convicted, the press had a field day speculating whether the “new sheriff” of Wall Street, Preet Bharara, was actually in line to succeed Eric Holder as the next US Attorney General when Holder stepped down. While Bharara was at first coy about his intentions, he eventually made clear his goal to secure the job based on his work prosecuting Wall Street. He may have wanted the job but did not get it.

The same ambitions were true for the three government prosecutors in my case – all three left government shortly after closing out my case for higher paying jobs as partners in leading law firms. They and their new employers spent considerable effort drumming up business on the heels of the skills honed during their time as former prosecutors to future defendants accused of insider trading. They had no problem making the transition from denouncing apparent “greed” in the financial markets to defending that same greed, switching sides in an effective demonstration of greed. As partners at leading law firms they would be highly compensated. The “protectors from greed” sold themselves to the highest bidder, all under the trusting gaze of an unaware public. The door meant to separate and maintain a balance between the public and the private sectors revolves efficiently and profitably.

It is important to understand context of the time and the prevailing mood of the country in October 2009 when I was arrested.  In 2008 we had seen the near collapse of the financial system and the wiping out of trillions of dollars of home equity and life savings of the American middle class. The government was forced to bail out the major banks. Mortgages that were bundled up or securitized and sold by banks had contributed to the crisis. Millions of American homes went into foreclosure.  Institutions such as Lehman Brother, Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, AIG and Freddie Mac either filed for bankruptcy or lost over 90% of their market value. An estimated $7 trillion in US household assets were wiped out. And to add to the catastrophe, in late 2008, Bernie Maddoff admitted to running the largest Ponzi scheme under the very eyes of the regulators. Politicians and the public placed the blame squarely on Wall Street. The pubic was clamoring for blood and there was no blood forthcoming. From anywhere.

I had nothing to do with the housing crisis. I was an easy target for politicians, for prosecutors, for pundits, and for Bharara who had just been handed leadership of the Southern District of NY including a mandate for bringing Wall Street under control. I was a successful and expendable hedge fund manager who employed just 250 people. We obtained an overwhelming amount of information on a daily basis and my trading was 100% consistent with the written recommendations of my analysts. In ALL cases, I had a pre-existing position in the stock before allegedly receiving the “tip.”  In 2009 and even today, insider trading laws are murky at best and often (intentionally) misinterpreted by prosecutors. The government painted our systematic, well-researched investing as being criminal. Theirs was an overreach of enormous proportions to show that “Wall Street fat cats” were being brought to justice. If I am guilty, then the entire investment business should be declared illegal.

As the Wall Street Journal noted insightfully, “Under standard rhetoric, the public is somehow cheated by all this, but the standard rhetoric is nonsense. The public isn’t damaged because another party wants to sell or buy (and most hedge funds strive to make sure their trading doesn’t affect prices anyway).  But a cynic might note one thing: insider-trading law provides a bottomless reservoir of (supposed) financial ‘crime’ for Washington to investigate whenever it needs a Wall Street prosecution to flounce in front of the press.”  [Endnote 1]

As a child, having gone to boarding school in a foreign country at the age of eleven, I learned quickly and early to be a fighter, a scrapper. This is a blessing and a curse. Over the years, I have learned that you don’t always have to fight. The kindness of many people has defanged and disarmed me to a large extent. However, when people try to take advantage of me, I have to respond. I don’t back down. And I am fortunate to have been blessed with the mental fortitude and financial resources to fight for my innocence. Too many people do not. They plead guilty to indictments they cannot challenge.  In my experience about 10% of the inmates at the prison in which I spent seven-and-a-half years were innocent.

When I was researching the Justice Department while in prison, I came across a paragraph that struck a chord in me. Unfortunately, I did not write down the name of the author or the source. “Criminal punishment is the greatest power that governments use and wield against their own people. When employed justly and appropriately, it is vital to any safe and productive society.  But when employed aggressively based on vague laws and personal agendas the criminal justice system unnecessarily destroys lives, livelihoods, and families.”

Oddly, my experience of the law has left me without rage or a sense of victimhood. While I would never say I am grateful for the experience, I can say with confidence that I like myself better because of it. When I finally broke through the wall of despair, I realized I had gained a sense of peace and awareness that had opened me up and cracked me free.  I realized how incredibly strong the human mind is and that nothing can beat a person who refuses to be beaten.

Finally, I want to say that despite what happened to me as a result of a corrupt prosecutor, I love this country just as much as I did before I went to prison. I feel truly blessed to be one of the 5% of the world population who live in America. I do not see people lined up to emigrate to China, Russia, or Japan, for example.

As I reflect on my circumstances and my past, if God had arrived at my doorstep when I was 11 – with a crystal ball — and told me, “Raj, I will give you the wife and children you see here, these friends, and ensure that both your parents live long and happily and give you also the ability to help the less fortunate — But you need to sacrifice about seven years of your life,” I would have taken that deal in a New York second.

I feel very fortunate.

I am very fortunate.

Raj Rajaratnam

February 2021



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Features

National Day and news from across the oceans

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Cassandra has groused, groaned and suffered, yes suffered both emotionally and in mere existence by the stubbornness with which the National Day parade and all that will take place tomorrow. She is joined by almost the entire population of Sri Lanka. We are greatly angered by the expense of 200 million rupees on a pointless, useless, far too extravagant celebration with no feeling of freedom or democracy enjoyed. This grand show is on (almost solely for Ranil’s W R’s benefit) while officials circumvent the globe with the begging bowl; us Ordinaries suffer privations; and many almost starve in this land which is bountiful and kind but for the craft, corruption and sheer incompetence of government leaders down the years.

Cass never fails to watch the February 4th celebration at Galle Face Green, Independence Square or in front of Parliament by the Diyawanna. She is involved emotionally: impressed by the dignified splendour of the event; bursting with pride when the Lion Flag is hoisted, getting all teary at the sight of the young girls and boys in three types of national dress singing the Country Anthem, Jayamangala Gatha and the blessing. During the Yahapalana era, tears were doubled in her eyes, compounded with the sense of justice and non-racialism that was evident when the National Anthem was sung both in Sinhala and Tamil. This year only two events to earn reluctant kudos: singing the N Anthem is two languages, which is hoped will be the order of the day, and garlanding the Father of the Nation. This last has a canker in the flowers; its stupendous cost was questioned by the President. So, the native cunning must have crept in the quotation with money slipping into private pockets and not only to the florist.

A letter writer to the Editor of this newspaper classified Ranil W. as a deaf, unseeing, uncaring, stubborn President; also vain. Cass endorses this characterisation; many of the traits thought originally to be alien to this man of good family, good school, good education and good principles –THEN.

It’s Wednesday as Cass writes this Cry and so far she has not heard the practicing jet planes fly past overhead. Has that been cancelled as a compromise to protests? Jolly good if it has as that part of celebration is a fuel guzzler and thus adding tremendously to the cost. Also, doubly unfair as Capt Elmo Jayawardena pointed out in an article last Sunday in the sister paper that “The F7 fighter jets in this aero-ballet burn 40 litres of fuel a minute at low level. And we minions of Paradise loiter in snaking queues down below with our QR codes to get 20 liters for one week.” Do hope at least this crit was taken.

If I were Prez – my speech

An appropriate, non-insulting, above-board video clip is making its rounds. Dr Rohan Pethiyagoda with excellent inunciation of British English gave voice to the speech he would have made if he were President of this country. Cass adds here that zoologist par excellence, knowledgeable scientist with pragmatism and sincere humane being that Rohan P is, he should thank his stars he is not the Prez of present day Siri Lanka – vilified and thought so little of by the general public and puppet-stringed by a person who should live in his adopted country, not here.

Rohan, speaking as a pretend politician, addressing his Fellow Citizens, traced the history of Sri Lanka succinctly from the prosperous Polonnaruwa period -16th C, through colonialism to Independence Day February 4, 1948, when Ceylon was the most prosperous country in Asia and definitely of S Asia. India before colonialism was at its apex of prosperity; export oriented with manageable population. Over here post-independence, in 16 years from living amicably multi-racially and multi-religiously, we were fractured. First the Burghers migrated, then Tamils and now Sinhalese and all Sri Lankans where possible. While in 1955 we had a surplus of rice and a dollar cost less than Rs 50.00, things changed for the far worse. The pretend Prez Rohan blamed politicians but “you, the citizens” more for the rapid downfall. There were the pluses: free education, free health services, free rice, but then the minuses: the Diyaw Diyaw demand of the populace and elections becoming a lottery – biggest bidder and greatest giver winning votes. Hence nationalisation and giving pensionable jobs to most. Gotabaya comes along and destroys agriculture; many in power are thugs, criminals and morons. Again, the politico blames us the people and tells us to look in the mirror to see the bigger faulters.

No truer words were said. No blacker can our mood be; no streaks of light in the bleak future. For how long will this dark spell last, we ask?

Blots overcome by tennis’ No. I

It was an excellent diversion from our sea of troubles and darkness of tunnel we travel through with no glimmer of redeeming light at its end, to watch the Australian Open tennis. Relief was great when Novak Djokovic won the finals in a nail biting three sets. Cass invariably reprimands herself for getting worked up over a match played by, to her, unknown persons, but she does get stressed watching the finals.

She missed seeing Djokovic’s wife and kids who are normally in the area of seats allocated to him. This time noticeably absent. He mentioned, after the semis win, his ten-year-old son as playing good tennis with him and hoped one day he’d compete in the men’s double as a team of father and son. Cass googled to see whether the family is together. They are. Maybe the children’s schooling or whatever kept them away.

A minor upset was his father being banned from witnessing the men’s semifinals because Djokovic had been seen in a video with Vladimir Putin fans on the tennis grounds in Melbourne and Russia is now anathema to the Australians and many others. In fact, the Russian flag was banned from the meet such that against Daniil Medvedev’s name on the score board, there was a blank space where the country flag would be displayed. However, Craig Tiley, manager of the AO – lifted the ban on him for the finals and permitted attending the finals in the Rod Laver court. He absented himself. These would have been troubling Novak who is very family oriented but he won his 10th title in Australia beating Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas and equalling Nadal’s number of wins.

See you after the celebration of independence and nationalism, hoping there will not be massive walkouts of workers protesting the tax hikes.

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Why Neighbours (AsalWasiyo) should be considered an exemplary piece of Sri Lankan drama

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By Charith Gamage and Gem Taylor

With the doorbell ring echoing through the house, Mrs. Josephine, living in the suburbs with her three unmarried daughters, gets excited as she realises someone has come to inspect her vacant annexe house. In the next scene, the face of the sturdy woman (wearing an old patched dress) soon disappoints after seeing her potential rental tenant – a married couple! They have fulfilled all the typical qualifications, such as financials, and are okay with higher rent, but Mrs Josephine turns them down without much consideration. Although Mrs Josephine should only be concerned about receiving a smooth higher rent – all she needs as a landlord – it is not necessarily her expectation through renting out her annexure house.

The answer to the strange behaviour of Mrs Josephine lies in the thirteen dramatic episodes of AsalWasiyo First aired in 1989 in Rupavahini and directed by the veteran director Bandula Vithanage (with assistant direction by Wimalarathna Adikari), the format of the drama can be considered as something that single-handedly challenged the face of Sri Lankan teledrama in the 1980s. Many Sri Lankan viewers still love the drama, proving that it also stood the test of time to become a timeless art piece that can exemplify a quality drama. Although it talks about profound themes and socio-economic issues in that period of Sri Lanka – a mother’s sacrifices, the housing crisis, and even dowry – the director preserves the dramatic quality rather than giving an explicit socio-economic or socio-political tone. In addition, among other reasons, the drama’s unpredictable nature, high-quality comedic elements, realistic acting, and music also make it stand out and intriguing to watch.

As the drama unfolds, it shows Josephine’s circumventing strategy in searching for marriage partners for her daughters. She rents out her annexe house to people whom she thinks have affluent backgrounds so that her daughters build relationships with them. The middle-aged widower Paul, who is going through a housing issue, meets Josephine after seeing her newspaper advertisement. Paul’s family, with his two unmarried sons, seemingly matches Josephine’s dream tenant perfectly, except that he only boasts about himself and his sons without having the qualifications Josephine is looking for. Despite not having the desired qualifications, Paul who just worked for a lawyer for some time introduces himself to Mrs Josephine as a lawyer. Meantime, his younger son is introduced as an Engineer when he is a casual employee at a motor garage.

As Paul’s family lives in their false identity about their status, drama develops with subsequent clashes from Josephine’s family entertaining revenge when their true identities are revealed. Although one may classify it as a comedy, from a socio-economic standpoint, the drama also depicts a segmental view of the lower-middle-class and middle-class life of Sri Lanka at that time. It shows how hopes of solving one problem can lead to a bigger problem, bringing them back to square one.

What does the drama structure tell us?

AsalWasiyo has a simple but rich storyline, making it an excellent blueprint for those who want to study quintessential family dramas which depict wider Sri Lankan society. The show follows a climactic plot structure similar to as laid out in Fig 1, which offers plenty for viewers to analyse. In drama, a climactic plot structure is a term used for when we witness a rise in action throughout the storyline before we eventually witness a dramatic climax and subsequent fallout. The drama initially shows Paul searching for accommodation, while at the same time, Josephine is desperately searching for wealthy tenants to match her taste and needs. As their lives – and the lives of their various children – intertwine, the show’s writer (Somaweera Senanayake) and director bring multiple (character-wise) storylines together, which leads to a dramatic and humorous climax.

The climax in the drama comes when it is revealed that not only is Paul’s son not an Engineer – but he also loses his garage job for using clients’ vehicles to maintain his status. Similarly, as a father, Paul considers himself a master planner throughout the show – and he insists on the annexe house as a dowry to approve the marriage between his son and Josephine’s second daughter. However, his plans fail when he and his sons are exposed. Lastly, viewers watch as Josephine and her daughters go through the full circle of making friends with Paul and his family, building relationships with them initially, and trusting them in their lives and home – only to learn that they were being deceived the whole time. Overall, the climactic plot structure allows audiences to enjoy the tension of these two mismatched families coming together and trying to impress each other – as well as the drama of their secrets being exposed in the climactic finale.

How much Shakespearean influence have helped?

Before directing AsalWasiyo, Vthanage had significant exposure to Shakespearean theatre, particularly through Merchant of Venice in 1980. Shakespeare is undoubtedly a formative force in theatre for blending tragedy and comedy, presenting a powerful genre in his plays. In addition, Shakespearean comedies sometimes end with marriage or reuniting. In AsalWasiyo, Shakespeare’s trait of combining tragedy and comedy is visible, except that the drama does not insist on a marriage or reunion. The elements of Shakespearean comedy, such as mistaken identity, reason versus emotion, and idyllic settings, can still be seen in this drama. Paul’s impersonation of a higher-status professional depicts a mistaken identity. In addition, Josephine’s second daughter, led by emotion rather than reason, is similar to A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s Hermia, who disobeys her father, and chooses to pursue a romance with Paul’s second son. She insists on the romance even after he is exposed, regardless of Josephine’s approval. Finally, idyllic settings are common in Shakespearean dramas like the mysterious island of Illyria in Twelfth Night. Idyllic settings depict perfection, like having a house when there is a housing crisis for others and having a professional bachelor in the family when there is a demand from middle-class mothers as prospective husbands for their unmarried daughters.

How have characters been used, and how has their acting helped?

Characters and actors in a play as primary communicators help the director to interconnect and deliver the intended plot to the audience. It starts with Elan Silvester, who keeps the motion of the story going through her portrayal of the protagonist, Josephine. Although Josephine seems humorous, she is tough inside, suppressing all her agonies. Elan’s quick facial changes and ability to shift from amusing to serious emotions are remarkable on this front. On the other hand, Paul (portrayed by Hemasiri Liyanage) thinks about his image and likes to show off. The character’s use of mixed Sinhalese-English dialogues, which boosts his perceived identity by thinly veiling the true one, is a significant feature in the drama. The scenes, such as his English dialogues with an innocent lady who supplied them with dinner at the beginning and knowing she had no idea what he was talking about, are examples. This character (Paul) shows less emotion than Josephine and blends well with Josephine’s psychological expectations of a wealthy potential in-law, as he cannot meet their expectations in his real identity.

Besides the leading characters, other characters also show more realistic passion, improving the drama’s quality that could grab the audience’s attention. Priya Ranasinghe, Samantha Epasinghe and Thamali Peiris play Josephine’s first, second, and youngest daughters, depicting their distinct personalities in the drama. Samantha gives life to Josephine’s second daughter and realistically contributes to more funny and dynamic scenes. Her performance contributes considerably to the drama in filler scenes, from hiding under a bed to evade Josephine, getting attacked by a curry in a pot by the eldest sister in defending her boyfriend, and a series of beatings by her mother for passing Paul’s message of dowry requirement.

On the other hand, how the youngest daughter’s character is architected in the drama shows similarities to how such characters can be used in successful productions. Like Zazu from The Lion King and Ron from Harry Potter, she is knowledgeable, diplomatic, and usually a sidekick of the main character. In addition, she does not shy away from expressing brutally honest opinions with humour, even if the recipient is offended. Quotations such as “Now, do we put this rental ad in the rental section of the newspaper or the marriage proposals section?” in response to the mother’s draft, and “They won’t stay here for long if they have to eat what you [eldest sister] cook.” are examples. She also shows characteristics of “Ingénue characters”, the female characters with a virtuous and adorable appeal that make them immediately inspire great affection in the viewers. In addition, Suminda Sirisena and Sriyantha Mendis, who played Paul’s two sons, are also notable for building up the drama with their contrasting character traits under the influence of their father. Overall the drama has carefully selected those elements and coordinated them to get the audience to connect with the plot.

What does the overall evaluation tell us?

The play is a solid effort on the dramatic front, even with the paucity of technology breakthroughs and resources at the time. Times have changed with the formats of Sri Lankan dramas and technology, but the basics of this drama remain valid for present and future drama enthusiasts. These include careful use of direction and script writing to build up characters; employing natural vocal intonation that matches the acting; and good use of music in supporting character emotions and plotlines. In particular, the music by Premasiri Kemadasa helps build the director’s desired atmosphere while setting up the next scene. Efforts made by the camera relative to the 80s to preserve cinematography are also helpful on this front. Finally, William A. Ward once said (paraphrased) the well-developed sense of humour is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope in achieving your goals. The drama depicts a tragedy, but its use of comedic overlay is very effective as a refresher, keeping the audience’s interest (possibly making the scenes memorable) and carrying them to the director’s desired destination effortlessly with the intended message passed. With everything explained, the drama shows the characteristics of a timeless creation, with elements that can still be used as a stencil for young Sri Lankan enthusiasts in drama.

Charith is an Assistant Lecturer attached to Monash University, Australia. Gem is a UK-born theatrical artist (actress) from Atlanta, USA, with a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) focused on theatre. Authors would like to thank Wimalarathna Adikari for helping for the article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. Email: charith.gamage@monash.edu

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Features

Reflecting on Cyril wickramage

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By Uditha Devapriya

\Although the Colombo Film Society would become Asia’s oldest such group, Colombo lay a world or two away from the rest of Sri Lanka. The urban middle-classes encountered the best of regional and Western cinema before their counterparts in Bombay and Calcutta did, but they remained cut off from a vast multitude who never as much as came across English films. The rural middle-classes, on the other hand, had a somewhat different conception of the cinema. The idea of a film theatre was alien to them: they were familiar with travelling cinemas and drama troupes instead. It was later, when they migrated to Colombo, that they came across the world beyond the Madras studio and the Nurti drama.

Cyril Wickramage hailed from this milieu. Born in Kohilagedara in Kurunegala on January 26, 1932, Wickramage grew up on a diet of Sokari, Nadagam, and Nurti. Kohilagedara lay less than 75 kilometres from Negombo, and drama troupes from there would visit his village, enthralling him and his friends. The villagers grew to love these shows so much that they became the centrepiece of Avurudu festivities: “When April came, we would look forward to yet another Nurti drama.” Although neither he nor his friends wanted to act, they turned these encounters into an integral part of their common experience. Elsewhere in Lellopitiya in Ratnapura, Joe Abeywickrema was indulging in such encounters too.

Like Abeywickrema, Wickramage did not get to see many films in his early years. The closest movie theatre, the Imperial, was in Kurunegala town, and that lay 12 kilometres away from Kohilagedara. Yet he would not infrequently get together with his friends, and sometimes family, and just go there. “Back then we didn’t see many English films. Most of them were in Sinhala or Tamil.” Wickramage was about 15 when the Minerva Players released Kadawunu Poronduwa. He did not readily admit it to me, but perhaps the symbiotic link between the early Sinhala films and Nurti and Nadagam drama appealed to him. In any case, it wasn’t just Sinhala films that he liked: he remembered doting on Jayalalitha also.

Wickramage’s first love was the army. Having flirted with the idea of joining the military, however, he let it go in favour of a career in teaching. Having left school, he enrolled at the Peradeniya Training College for a two-year course. Thereafter he was employed as a teacher at a total of seven schools: they included the Ratmalana Deaf and Blind School and Wesley College in Colombo. These stints not only helped him get deep into a career he had grown to love, they also enabled him to pursue his love for music, drama, and dancing. More than any other institution, it was Wesley that got him thinking about the performing arts. Run by the very able and competent Shelton Wirasinha, Wesley College was seeing its peak years, a veritable flourishing of the arts. Wickramage could not escape this.

Participating in a school play, Wickramage made the acquaintance of Ananda Samarakoon. Samarakoon, whose talents were just as attuned to music as they were to the performing arts, encouraged the young teacher to try his hand at the theatre. While the muse beckoned him on, however, it was the cinema that would officially initiate him to the world of the performing arts. In 1965 Wickramage got his first role, opposite Vijitha Mallika in Kingsley Rajapakse’s Handapane. Though a minor role, it got him much praise from those who knew him. The connections he had set up during these years turned to his advantage when, a few months later, he was contacted by Siri Gunasinghe. Gunasinghe would doubtless have seen the man’s talent for playing introspective characters and he cast him in the role of the tragic protagonist in his first and only film, Sath Samudura, in 1966.

Gunasinghe’s film was a watershed in many ways. As the title implies, Sath Samudura was set in a fishing community. It was not the first Sinhala film to be set in such a milieu: just the previous year Gamini Fonseka and Joe Abeywickrema had enthralled audiences with their performances in Getawarayo, which wound up as the Best Film at that year’s Sarasavi Awards. Yet Sath Samudura was the first Sinhala film to explore realistically, with no artifice or contrivance, the torments and agonies of the country’s fishing community. While far from being a docudrama, the story rang true in ways that other films based in such settings did not. Wickramage’s performance, as with the other performances – Denawaka Hamine’s and Swarna Mallawarachchi’s – helped make the film more authentic.

These were, by all accounts, exhilarating years for the local cinema. The revolution that Lester Peries unleashed through Rekava (1956) was still being felt everywhere, and by everyone. Following him in his wake were an entirely different generation of cineastes, who owed their careers to him but sought to go beyond his vision. Siri Gunasinghe’s film was a landmark in the Sinhala cinema, yet it did not fundamentally question or challenge Lester’s conception of the medium: it too belonged to the humanist-realist mode. During this time, Wickramage associated with three people who would figure in the next stage in the Sri Lankan cinema: Dr Linus Dissanayake, producer of Sath Samudura, Vasantha Obeyesekere, Gunasinghe’s Assistant Director, and Dharmasena Pathiraja.

Dissanayake helped finance and produce Obeyesekere’s debut film, Wes Gaththo, in 1970. Cast as the protagonist, Wickramage revelled in a role he was to typify in the years to come: the uprooted, wayward urban dweller. Five years later he gave one of his best performances in Obeyesekere’s next film, Walmath Wuwo. Cast opposite the likes of Tony Ranasinghe, the film explores the plight of unemployed university graduates, who seek fairer climes and greener pastures and migrate to the city with much expectation, but instead find a life of perpetual drudgery. It depicts rather accurately the hopes, dreams, wishes, the torments and the agonies, of an assertive but frustrated Sinhala rural petty bourgeoisie. Hailing from such a milieu himself, Wickramage gave a remarkably true to life performance: in one scene he performs a Nadagam song, no doubt going back to his childhood years.

Between Wes Gaththo and Walmath Wuwo Wickramage took part in a great many films and made friends with a great many directors, actors, and other crew members. Among those he befriended very closely were Dharmasena Pathiraja and Daya Tennakoon. Through his films, Pathiraja had brought together a group of actors that, while not formally constituting a repertoire, nevertheless became a regular feature of his films. These included Tennakoon as well as Amarasiri Kalansuriya and Vijaya Kumaratunga. Wickramage made friends with them all, and in doing so went on to epitomise the spirit of a new age: as far away from the 1960s as the 1960s had been from the 1950s. The films made during this time were full of rebellion, and the directors who made their mark at this juncture wanted to break free from the limits of the past. No director symbolised this more fittingly than Pathiraja.

Wickramage’s best performance in a Pathiraja film would have to be in Bambaru Avith (1977). The film is an allegory about the intrusion of capitalism into the lives and ways of a fishing community. Wickramage is affianced to Helen, a beautiful fisherman’s daughter played by Malini Fonseka. The protagonist of the story, Victor (Vijaya Kumaratunga) soon becomes infatuated with her. The film does not explain why exactly Wickramage’s character hates Victor so passionately, but the conflict between Victor and the fishing community exacerbates because of Helen’s relationship with these two men.

When television came to Sri Lanka in the late 1970s Wickramage found a very different niche. While on film he had been content in playing a certain role, on television he played diverse characters from different milieux. Sometimes these characters are sympathetic, often they are not. In Ella Langa Walawwa, for instance, it is Wickramage who holds the narrative together as the servant, and in Kadulla he epitomises – through his death – the conflict between the old order and the new in 19th century colonial society. Both these productions were directed by Pathiraja; they would be followed by other serials, the most memorable of which, from this decade at least, would have to be Ananda Abeynayake’s Kande Gedara. Here, in contrast to his earlier roles, he plays a conman who dreams of going up and exhibits one mannerism after another to pass off as respectable.

Over the next few years and decades, Wickramage would mellow gracefully. Though he does not act as much as he used to, his recent performances depict a more empathetic, world-weary, sagacious side to him. His career resembles that of other supporting actors, like Daya Tennakoon, who never became leading men, but who became indispensable parts of the films they starred in. Today, at 91, Wickramage has become an elder statesman in the world of the Sinhala film. Whether or not his due honours have been paid is debatable. That he is deserving of these honours, of course, there is no doubt.

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

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