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The state of the art: Our cinema

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By Uditha Devapriya

(With input from Dhananjaya Samarakoon)

In 1965 the Sri Lankan government published the findings of a Commission of Inquiry into the Film Industry. Filled with proposals and representations from prominent players in the Ceylonese cinema, the Commission made several recommendations. The most important of these was the establishment of a National Film Corporation. Though this would not come to pass until six years later, with the election of a socialist regime committed to a level playing field in the industry, the need for such an institution was frequently underscored.

Among those who made representations to the Commission was Ceylon Theatres. Admitting to the problems of the local cinema, the organisation contended that whether financed by the State or by private players, the film producer “cannot escape the limitations imposed by his audience.” Distinguishing between the cinema and the other arts, it added that while painters, playwrights, novelists, and sculptors could create without paying much regard for the reactions of the masses, the producer remained “the slave of his audience.”

Perhaps the most important point the Commission made was the link between the fortunes of the cinema and the country’s economic problems. Advocating greater intervention in the sector, the centre-left administration which took office in 1970 recognised the problems of allowing a few private players “to virtually control the local film industry.” To that end the new government sought to reduce the influence of monopolistic elements in the market, by regulating the production, distribution, and exhibition of films. Seeking superior production values and greater local output, it tried to give the cinema a new lease of life.

In 1977 the controls enforced by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike administration were loosened. The most immediate result of the new policy was, on the one hand, “ever increasing access to American and Hong Kong productions” and, on the other, the removal of “impediments for newcomers to enter the field.” In other words, from a level playing field, the industry transformed into a business venture. The introduction of television had a considerable say in the reduction of audience numbers that followed, though commentators are divided on the extent to which it led to a fall in cinema hall attendance.

Any examination of the problems and dilemmas of the Sri Lankan cinema must consider these historical developments and shifts. Rather belatedly recognising what should have been acknowledged a long time ago, the Sri Lankan State officially categorised the cinema as an industry late last year. Though this comes too little, too late, it nevertheless behoves us to consider and reflect upon the issues facing the field now, from both administrative and creative standpoints. As always, of course, the link between these issues and the country’s economic problems remains relevant, as much as it did in 1965.

Glancing through the history of the Sri Lankan cinema, from its inception in 1947, we note that the deterioration of creative standards has been rather sharp and dismal. What’s ironic is that despite such a descent, there’s no end to the courses being offered on filmmaking, acting, scriptwriting, and cinematography in the country today. We can conclude that the main contradiction here lies between an ever-fertile reserve of talent and a woeful lack of opportunity for such talent. In other words, we have enough and more talented people. But they lack the money, agency, and access to make full use of their talent.

Part of the reason, which hardly, if at all, gets mentioned by the local commentariat on the cinema, is the absence of an industrial base in the sector. It comes to no surprise that the peak of the Sri Lankan cinema should have been the 1960s and 1970s: these were years in which a flourishing artistic renaissance coincided a not insignificant industrial presence in the film sector. While State intervention became more pronounced under the United Front administration, the existence of a thriving commercial base in the industry ensured a steady stream of not just mainstream, but also artistic productions.

It’s entirely fitting, then, that the cultural revolution heralded by the general election of 1956, which saw a centre-left alliance touting the values of local art forms come to power, should face its peak in these two decades. It’s also fitting that the undisputed doyen of the Sri Lankan cinema, Lester James Peries, should not just make two masterpieces in a row – the highly literate Gamperaliya (1964) and the highly experimental Delovak Athara (1966) – but then follow them up with three further masterpieces, all done for a commercial player, Ceylon Theatres – Golu Hadawatha (1968), Akkara Paha (1969), and Nidhanaya (1970) – in this period. These were years of cultural experimentation, experimentation that benefitted from cultural sectors, especially film, being linked to an industrial framework.

Conversely, the deterioration of the cinema can be traceable to the deterioration of that industrial framework in the country. On the advice of the World Bank, Shiran Ilanperuma writes, the country’s first government “recklessly squandered foreign-currency reserves while avoiding major industrial investment.” Ilanperuma writes that by the 1960s, terms of trade had begun to shift irrevocably, “as the export of primary products and raw materials could not sustain the country’s consumption of imported manufactures.” This had a not insignificant impact on the cinema: by the late 1960s, it was becoming clear that unless the State stepped in, the Ceylonese cinema, for long dependent on an oligopoly of production companies, would collapse. This issue was what the National Film Corporation attempted to address upon its establishment in 1971, as it did over the next few years.

The implementation of swabasha, despite its obvious limitations, also had an impact on the trajectory of the cinema after the 1950s. Though reviled by the English-speaking elite, the empowerment of a Sinhalese-speaking middle-class gave rise to a bilingual intelligentsia, in turn paving the way for a bilingual cultural community. It was from this community that the likes of Dayananda Gunawardena, who gave us the finest adaptation of a French play ever turned into a Sinhalese film, Bakmaha Deege, hailed. While the deterioration of creative and intellectual standards within the population should be admitted, there is no doubt that at its heyday, the Sri Lankan cinema benefitted from a flourishing middle-class.

Today, unfortunately, despite the existence of an upward aspiring and largely Sinhalese middle bourgeoisie, prospects no longer seem good for the local cinema. In any country it is the middle-classes that produce, and reproduce, its cultural elites. In Sri Lanka, though, this community has, however one looks at it, regressed on so many levels, owing mainly to a declining economic situation. We can note the decline of standards in film and television production today, not so much in acting as in scriptwriting and camerawork. We can also note a despairing lack of imagination in films and TV serials: from predictable storylines to endless dialogues, we have come down dismally on so many fronts.

I think the problem has to do with the fact that we no longer explore new themes and issues through the cinema. If we do, we invariably create trends that are imitated and reproduced by a hundred or so other filmmakers and scriptwriters. Ho Gana Pokuna was a brilliant and a highly exceptional film, but it set a precedent for stories about impoverished village schools and idealistic teachers that continue to be filmed, even now. Aloko Udapadi sensationalised audiences and critics, but since its release five years ago we have been making million-rupee budget historical epics which look and feel despairingly predictable.

To be sure, these are hardly any problems specific to only the cinema. When was the last time a cover song didn’t make the rounds online, giving a temporary spotlight to the cover artist while popularising the original tune? When did a mainstream TV series, of which seem to be inundated with these days, not try to cut costs by way of static camera frames and endless expository dialogues? Art exhibitions, especially in Colombo, seem limited to an intellectual upper crust who can afford rental costs in the city and whose work seems not merely cut off from the world around them, but also downright indifferent to it.

We need to acknowledge that there can be no way out for the cinema here unless our cultural industries are linked to a proper industrial framework. In the 1960s, the last peak decade of the three big production companies, Sri Lanka faced an acute terms of trade and structural crisis that the State shielded the cinema from by establishing a Film Corporation and setting high artistic and administrative standards. This did not, to be sure, always work out well, but it did keep the cinema at bay during those difficult days of the 1970s. One can hardly be prudish about the liberalisation of the industry after 1977, but the fact is that the sluggish growth, and then decline, of the cinema remains very much linked to the economic and structural impasses we have been stumbling into since then.

The truth of the matter is that without a proper industrial policy and industrial base, no country’s cinema can be sustained for long. Whether from a creative or an administrative standpoint, the Sri Lankan cinema deserves much more than what it has been subjected to. But where are the policymakers and experts who can prescribe radical solutions, who can recommend an industrialisation plan that can help our cinema take off? In the US, in China, and in India, these problems have been, and are being, combated. In Sri Lanka this does not appear to be the case. That is to be regretted, deeply and sincerely.

(Uditha Devapriya can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com, while Dhananjaya Samarakoon can be reached at dhananjayasmrk@gmail.com)

 



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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