By Uditha Devapriya
The films of Prasanna Vithanage come back to you long after you’ve seen them. They move you, chasten you, sometimes make you angry, and frequently make you question life. The characters in them are usually ordinary people: It’s the situations they are placed in that are extraordinary. As with the crusader in The Seventh Seal and the priest in Diary of a Country Priest, they encounter a moral dilemma that ends up testing their very souls.
Vithanage’s characters often fail these tests, though sometimes they win. Yet the payoff in these films comes from seeing not how they win or lose, but from how the world at large responds to their moral dilemmas. In Anantha Rathriya, to give just one example, Suvisal ends his friendships, even with the girl he intended to marry. He does so not just because he wants redemption for the sin of violating his servant, but also because everyone disagrees with his resolve to go out into the open and seek forgiveness.
Nimmi Harasamaga’s character in Ira Mediyama also refuses to believe official accounts about her husband. Unlike the old man in Purahanda Kaluwara, the journey she undertakes to find out what happened to him is both physical and metaphoric. Suvisal informs us at the very beginning of Anantha Rathriya that he is going back to the past: Again, both physically and metaphorically. This is the fate that typically awaits Vithanage’s protagonists: They have to go back to their pasts to confront their sins. For Suvisal, the attempt is a failure; for the old man in Purahanda Kaluwara, it is not; for Nimmi Harasgama, it goes both ways.
But any hopes he may have had about reconciling with that servant, dissipates when she walks away from him. Vithanage does not give us a heroic ending. The simple truth is that his world has no room for heroes; as Suvisal’s girlfriend tells him, he wants to confess what he did not because of any remorse for his crime, but because of his desire to free himself from the memory of his rape. Defiant and angry, she tells him that he can never escape his past. To this Suvisal says nothing; he merely frowns at her.
Such dilemmas seem so convincing not because of the people who wind up facing them, but because of their impact on them. Not until the very last quarter of Anantha Rathriya, for instance, does Suvisal realise the full weight of his crime. When he does, he tries to release himself from the memory of his sin. The protagonist in Purahanda Kaluwara is desperate to know what happened to his son; like Nita Fernando’s Baba Nona from Paangshu, he refuses to believe the official record. His catharsis is considerably different from Suvisal’s: He goes to a water hole and stares at a group of children frolicking in a lake nearby. Blind and a little hard of hearing, he nevertheless smiles: Perhaps at the children, but more likely at having confirmed his suspicions, and at the hope that his son may be alive.
Yet the specificity of these locations belies a universality that transcends time and space. Hence Anantha Rathriya, though taking place during the second JVP insurrection, feels and looks contemporary. There is hardly any sense of time or place in Purahanda Kaluwara: The only object that offers a clue is the Grama Niladhari’s motorbike. Even then we are not sure when or where the story is taking place: The war seems a distant reality, its impact felt in the village only through the death of Vannihamy’s soldier-son.
At one level, Vithanage’s stories play out in specific locations: A drought-ridden village in the North-Central Province in Purahanda Kaluwara; Batticaloa and Colombo in Ira Madiyama; Bogawantalawa in Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka. Vithanage frequently turns hills and mountains into metaphors; in his debut, Sisila Gini Gani, the mists and mountains form a crucial part of the story, and play a large part in the tragedy it centres on.
The very first shot of Anantha Rathriya shows us a misty hilltop. Interposed with the sound of beating drums, it ominously foretells what is to come. In roughly the same vein, the coldness of the romance in Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka, between the pawnbroker and his wife, is echoed in the coldness of their surroundings. From misty mountains, Vithanage turns to sun-baked expanses as well, particularly in Purahanda Kaluwara and Ira Madiyama. He works with contrasts of atmosphere and weather: Misty or sun-baked, these places evoke the tensions of his characters, situating them in their surroundings.
In Ira Madiyama, Colombo and the Eastern Province conjure two different worlds.
In Akasa Kusum, this rift turns inward: Sandya Kumari loses her sense of time as she retreats to the past, fantasising about her stardom after a scandal puts her into the spotlight. Like Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard, Malini Fonseka epitomises Sandya’s schizoid imaginings. When all romantic illusions are shattered in Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka, similarly, the woman retreats to her fantasies. Betrayed by her husband’s secrets, she kills herself.
Curiously enough, in only two instances do these characters choose death or are pushed into it: The boy in Sisila Gini Gani and the woman in Oba Nathuwa Oba Ekka. The first death sets in motion the events of the film, while the second ends it. Vithanage tries to avoid this fate for his characters as much as he can. Thus, even on the verge of suicide, Nita Fernando retreats to a clandestine affair from the past in Pawuru Walalu. Like Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire, she is saved by the kindness of strangers.
The tension between social reality and moral complexity is what determines the course of these stories. Vithanage’s characters resolve this tension in different ways: Most of them push themselves into the thick of things, while others try as much as they can to avoid them. Suvisal, for instance, takes up the advice his friend, a lawyer, gives him, and refrains from revealing himself. His prospects are too dear for him to lose.
Not until much later do we realise what he has staked until now: His wealth, his career, and his marriage. When he lets go, everyone he knows leaves him. That is what makes the final scene so searing, yet so fitting: Despite everything he gave up for the woman he raped, nothing can or will wash away the crime or his guilt. Like the hero (or antihero) of Tolstoy’s Resurrection on whom Suvisal’s character is based, he does everything, not for the love of this woman, but to atone himself. In Tolstoy’s novel the protagonist’s pursuit of atonement turns our attention to the sordid conditions of Tsarist Russia’s prisons and penal colonies. In Vithanage’s film, it turns the focus inward, to Suvisal’s conscience.
Enveloped by their desires, these characters evoke both pity and loathing. This is a quality few Sinhala films, among them those of Lester James and Sumitra Peries, possess; almost every work of Vithanage contains it. At once culturally specific and broadly humanist, they enrapture us in ways none of his contemporaries have been able to match.
The concept of sin and atonement looms large in Vithanage’s world. That has a great deal to do with his childhood and teenage experiences; as he recounted to the authors of Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema, while he grew up in a predominantly Buddhist and Sinhala atmosphere in Panadura, his neighbours happened to be Catholic. Waking up to the sound of hymns and sermons, he would invariably imbibe their world.
Later on, when he became enamoured of the cinema while still at school, he would return home, take a train back to Colombo, and make the acquaintance of Father Ernest Poruthota. There is thus something distinctly Catholic about his work, not just in the religious sense, but in the secular too: The catholicity of a perceptive and deeply sensitive artist.
Somewhere between Anantha Rathriya and Akasa Kusum, I grew up. These were formative years for Sri Lankan cinema. Difficult years, too: In the midst of a never-ending conflict, it almost went down under. Looking back, I can’t say I’m entirely satisfied with the trajectory of our cinema during the last decade of the war. Many daring films have come out, as have many daring directors. Yet not a few of them seem content in recycling the same motifs and themes, the same narratives and stereotypes, to the point of tedium.
My fascination with Prasanna Vithanage’s oeuvre, in that sense, stems from a recognition of the fact that more than any of his peers, he has stuck to his guns and given us some highly original films. Not all of them can claim to be as good as his best, and yet, the best he’s given us so far convinces me that he’s the best our cinema has got. With another highly ambitious project, a tragic romance set in the twilight of the Kandyan kingdom, yet to come, I can only hope that he continues giving us more of the best, and more of the same.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dangerous rail travel by tourists: Why not create an opportunity?
Before the Covid Pandemic hit Sri Lanka, there was some debate and concern voiced about tourists standing at the door ways of trains and even hanging out, while the train is moving. Some pictures of a young couple hanging out of an upcountry train, while clutching on to the side rails, went viral, on social media, with debates of the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ reaching fever pitch. While certainly this is a dangerous practice, not to be condoned, If we ‘think out of the box’ could there be a way to make this seemingly popular, though dangerous pastime among some tourists, into an opportunity to be exploited. This paper aims to explore these options pragmatically.
By Srilal Miththapala
Social media, and even some of the more conventional media, were all a-buzz before the CoVid crisis, when some pictures of a young tourist couple appeared, hanging out of a Sri Lankan upcountry train in gay abandon, savouring the exciting moment. There were hot debates about this form of ‘promotion of Sri Lanka’, with many people talking about the dangers of such a practice, and that it would bring negative publicity for Sri Lanka if something dangerous were to happen. This part of the train ride, along the upcountry route, is arguably one of the most scenic train routes in the world.
And quite rightly so, I guess. I myself was one who joined the chorus who vehemently spoke against this.
However thinking out of the box, I got thinking – Can we create an opportunity here ?
The ‘new’, experience and thrill seeking tourist of today
There is no doubt that there is a new segment of discerning, younger, experience and adventure seeking tourists, emerging and travelling all over the world. They are very internet and social media savvy, seeking more adventurous and exciting experiences, and are usually very environmentally conscious. They are most often seen exploring ‘off-the-beaten-track’ holidays, planned out individually according to their needs and wants.
Through the ages, mankind has been pushing the limits of exploration: We have conquered land, sea and space. We have discovered many hitherto unknown wonders of our planet with our unabated thirst for knowledge.
Tourists are no different. To get away from their daily stressful life, they seek something different, even venturing into hostile or dangerous places to experience the excitement of discovery and the feeling of adventure. No longer is a clean hotel room with a range of facilities, good food and some sunshine good enough to a tourist.
According to booking.com, the yearning for experiences, over material possessions, continues to drive travellers’ desire for more incredible and memorable trips: 45% of travellers have a bucket list in mind. Most likely to appear on a bucket list are thrill seekers wanting to visit a world famous theme park, travellers looking to go on an epic rail journey or visiting a remote or challenging location. ()
Drive-reduction theory in psychology postulates that one is never in a state of complete fulfilment, and thus, there are always drives that need to be satisfied. Humans and other animals voluntarily increase tension by exploring their unknown environments, self-inducing stress and moving out of their comfort zones. This gives them a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction. ()
Therefore, unknown thrills, adventures and the ‘adrenaline rush’ does attract travellers.
What have other countries done ?
As mentioned many countries are developing unique , memorable and thrilling experiences into their product offering.
A few are described below
Walk along Sydney Harbour Bridge
Walk along Sydney Harbour Bridge
Small groups are taken on a walk along the massive, arched steel structured Sydney Harbour Bridge . The dramatic 360 deg. view from the bridge, 135 meters above ground, of the harbour, and the nearby Sydney Opera house, while being completely exposed to the elements, is, indeed, a rare and thrilling experience.
Coiling Dragon Cliff skywalk, Zhangjiajie, China
In the northwest of China’s Hunan province, visitors can take a leisurely stroll along the walkway attached to Tianmen Mountain — 4,700 feet above the ground.
The glass-bottomed walkway is more than 300 feet long and only about five feet wide, providing an experience that is said to be exhilarating and frightening .
The CN tower Edge walk, Canada
The tallest attraction in Toronto lets people stand right at the edge of the CN tower and lean over. It is the world’s highest full circle, hands-free walk on a 1.5 m wide ledge encircling the top of the Tower’s main pod, 356m , 116 storeys above the ground. EdgeWalk is a Canadian Signature Experience and an Ontario Signature Experience.
A variety of unique trekking opportunities, in Rwanda and Uganda, allow you trek into the jungle to gaze into the eyes of the Gorillas in their natural habitat. It’s a completely unique African safari experience. This moment leaves a lasting and unforgettable impression, coming so close to this majestic wild animal.
These are just a few. So there are already a range of unique, visitor attractions that thrill tourists the world over.
The CN tower Edge walk, Canada
Safety – the one overriding condition
All these thrill seeking, and seemingly dangerous tourist attractions have one common denominator that is never ever compromised – Safety.
Safety is of paramount importance in all these activities and are subject to stringent checks and review, periodically. All personnel who guide and instruct these thrill seeking tourists are well trained and disciplined.
Any equipment that is used for safety, such as harnesses and safety belts, are designed to the highest standards and are periodically tested. Nothing is left to chance and if there is the slightest semblance of danger, due to any unforeseen environmental conditions, the attraction is closed down temporarily. ( e.g when there are strong winds the Sydney Harbour bridge walk is suspended).
Such safety measures are an imperative necessity, because any unforeseen accident can lead to serious and grave consequences of litigation and even closing down of the attraction.
So what about our train ride ?
The attraction of the Sri Lankan upcountry train ride (most often between Nanu Oya and Ella – the most scenic section) is the fact that a tourist can stand ‘on the footboard’ of the open train carriageway door, and feel the cool breeze against their faces while absorbing the beautiful hill country and tea plantations. This is something most western tourists cannot do back home, where all train carriageway doors are automatically shut when the train starts moving.
In fact I am told that some Tour Agents in Australia are specifically asked by tourists to arrange this ‘experience’ for them, when booking their tour.
So why not be creative and make a proper attraction out of this ?
Cannot we modify one carriage to have an open ‘balcony’ along the side where a person can stand ‘outside’ and ‘feel the open environment’? It could be fitted with proper safety rails and each person can be anchored to the carriage with a harness (like what is used in other attractions where the interaction is open to the elements). A special charge can be levied for this experience.
One factor that favours the safety aspect is that during traversing this stretch, due to the steep gradient, the train travels at a ‘snail’s pace’, unlike in foreign countries where speeds could reach 80-100 kms per hour.
This attraction could be used as an income generator for the Railway Department as tourists wanting to experience this ‘thrill’ can be charged a fee, for a specific time period that they could use the facility.
Although this may seem simplistic, in reality there may be several logistical issues that need to be addressed.
But, if there is a will, and the different departments involved can all see the opportunity, and get on to the same ‘wavelength’, cutting through the inordinate bureaucracy that usually prevails, then surely it would not be at all difficult.
But the overall point in this entire treatise, is that we have to ‘think out of the box’ and grasp at all possible opportunities that are available, especially as we gradually open up for tourists after the pandemic. We are quite used to ranting and raving about all the shortfalls that prevail.. But there’s so much that still can be done if there are a few motivated and dedicated people who can get together.
Tourism after all is really ‘show businesses’ and without creativity, panache, actors and showmanship, what is show business?
Remebering Prophet Muhammad’s legacy – ECOLOGICAL WELFARE
By Dr M Haris Deen
COVID-19 came and as yet remains, at the same time the world is plagued with another serious issue, that of global warming and other ecological disturbances. While remembering the birth of Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) let us recall the contributions he made towards the applying Islamic principles of Islamic welfare towards protection of the environment.
The Prophet of Islam (May peace be upon him) advocated during his lifetime the stringent application of Islamic principles in respect of ecological welfare. Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) taught his followers to live on less, neither to be extravagant nor to be miserly and to protect animal and plant life and to worship the Creator by being merciful to His creations. He forbade the killing of any animal unless out of necessity to feed the people. Al Albani reports that the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “If the Hou r (meaning the day of Resurrection) is about to be established and one of you was holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it”. Imam Bukhari reported the Prophet (Peace be on him) as having said that “if a Muslim plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, it is regarded as a charitable gift (sadaqah) for him”. It is also reported in Ibn Majah that once the Prophet (peace be upon him) happened to pass by his companion Sa’ad (May God be pleased with him) and found him performing ablution (wudu) next to a river and questioned him “Sa;ad what is this squandering? And when Sa’ad asked in return “can there be an idea if squandering (israf) in ablution?’ the Prophet replied “yes, even if you are by the side of a flowing river”.
In another Hadith narrated by Ibn Majah, the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “Beware of the three acts that cause you to be cursed: (1) relieving yourself in shaded places (that people utilise), in a walkway or in a watering place”.
The Qur’an in chapter 56 verses 68 to 70 states “consider the water which you drink. Was it you that brought it down from the rain cloud or We? If We had pleased, We could make it bitter”.
Prophet’s companion Abu Dhar Al Ghaffari (May Allah be pleased with him) reported the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “Removing harmful things from the road is an act of charity” and in another Hadith authenticated by Albani, the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “the believer is not he who eats his fill while his neighbour is hungry”. The Prophet further cautioned as reported by Tirmadhi and Ibn Majah that “Nothing is worst than a person who fills his stomach. It should be enough for the son of Adam to have a few bites to satisfy his hunger. If he wishes more, it should be : one third for his food, one third for his liquids and one third for his breath”.
Imam Bukhari reported an amazing story narrated by the Prophet (on whom be peace) that “A man felt very thirsty while he was on the way, there he came across a well. He went down the well, quenched his thirst and came out. Meanwhile, he saw a dog panting and licking mud because of excessive thirst. He said to himself. “This dog is suffering from thirst as I did, “So, he went down the well again, filled his shoe with water, held it in his mouth and watered the dog. Allah appreciated him for that deed and forgave him”. The companions inquired, “O Allah’s Messenger, is there a reward for us in serving the animals?” He replied: “There is a reward for saving any living being”.
Animals have a huge role in the ecological welfare system. The tenets of the Shariah Law towards animal rights make it obligatory for any individual to take care of crippled animals, to rescue strays and to guard birds’ nests of eggs’.
Sal Allahu Ala Muhammad Sal Allahu Alaihi wa Sallam. May Allah Shower His Choicest Blessings on the Soul of Prophet Muhammad.
Of course, I know for sure fans of the Gypsies, and music lovers, in general, not only in Sri Lanka but around the world, as well, would be thrilled to know that this awesome outfit hasn’t called it a day.
After the demise of the legendary Sunil Perera, everyone thought that the Gypsies would disband.
Perhaps that would have been in the minds of even the members, themselves, as Sunil was not only their leader, and frontline vocalist, but also an icon in the music scene – he was special in every way.
Many, if not all, thought that the Gypsies, without Sunil, would find the going tough and that is because they all associated the Gypsies with Sunil Perera.
Sunil receiving The Island Music Award for ‘Showbiz Personality of the Year’ 1990
It generally happens, with certain outfits, where the rest of the members go unnoticed and the spotlight is only on one particular member – the leader of the group.
Some of the names that come to mind are Gabo and The Breakaways (Gabo) Misty (Rajitha), Darktan (Alston Koch), Upekkha (Manilal), Jetliners (Mignonne), Sohan & The X-Periments (Sohan), and the list is quite lengthy….
Yes, the Gypsies will continue, says Piyal Perera, and he mapped out to us what he has in mind.
They will take on a new look, he said, adding that in no way would they try to recreate the era of the Gypsies with Sunil Perera..
“That era is completely gone and we will never ever look to bringing that era into our scene again.
“My brother was a very special individual and his place in the band can never ever be replaced.”
Will Sunil join this scene…at Madame Tussauds!
Piyal went to say that the Gypsies will return to the showbiz scene, in a different setting.
“In all probability, we may have a female vocalist, in the vocal spotlight, and our repertoire will not be the songs generally associated with Sunil and the Gypsies.
“It will be a totally new approach by the new look Gypsies,” said Piyal.
In the meanwhile, Piyal also mentioned that they are working on the possibility of having an image of the late Sunil Perera at the Madame Tussauds wax museum, in London.
He says they have been asked, by the authorities concerned, to submit a PowerPoint presentation of Sunil’s achievements, and that they are working on it.
It’s, indeed, a wonderful way to keep Sunil’s image alive.
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