“It must be seen today, by the young of today,” Ranjith Rubasinghe told me over lunch. He was talking about Sagara Jalaya, Sumitra Peries’s fifth film, which I think is one of the three or four most perfectly constructed films ever made here, and which I believe is Sumitra’s masterpiece. Those who watch it today are often overwhelmed by the intermingling of opposites in it – of beauty and pathos, of love and hate, of reconciliation and vengefulness – which explains that sense of unpredictability which never lets go until the last scene. That it could be made with so much precision, back when movies had deteriorated in quality and worse, become debased, tells a lot about the cast and crew. I saw it twice: once when I was 10, again when I was 24. That gap, of almost 15 years, can open you up to facets of the plot you had never discerned before; the beauty of Sagara Jalaya is that even when you ignore those facets, it still seems to have been made for its time, for all time, and for everyone.
Simon Nawagaththegama, who wrote Ohu Mala Giya Pasu, in my opinion the best story from his collection Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuva Oba Sanda (from which the scriptwriter of the film, Lester James Peries, took the title), never reveals his characters, or their flaws, in gushes and torrents. Even in a middle period work as Suddilage Kathawa, published seven years after Sagara Jalaya, there’s never that kind of in-your-face apparentness that you sense in, say, Martin Wickramasinghe’s Koggala Trilogy. Part of the reason for that was that Nawagaththegama, who was of a different literary temperament, sought to transcend the limits of realism that the 20th century had imposed on the Sinhalese novel. But when set against this parameter, Ohu Mala Giya Pasu is an intensely poignant tale, with a kind of clarity of vision that only barely comes out in his other work, even the other stories in Sagara Jalaya.
As with much of his oeuvre, Ohu Mala Giya Pasu takes place in the dry zone of the Wanni region, near Medawachchiya, where people pray and also swear by Aiyanayaka Deviyo and where the harsh sun becomes a reality you have to get used to. In Nawagaththegama’s work the smallest tension, the tiniest ripple on the surface, will charge an otherwise unimportant scene with unbearable tension, and his characters will go on and on, spitting out frenzy, hate, inexplicable madness. Never for one moment are those characters gentle, not because they lack empathy, but because that is what their world has compelled them to become. Whoever said that writers operate on universals, and that critics operate on those universals when assessing the work of those writers, was stating only half the story; the truth is that some of the greatest writers went for the milieus they grew up in. Nawagaththegama, in this sense, did through the Wanni area he had known, since childhood, what Martin Wickramasinghe had done through Koggala: depict life as it was lived.
In the original story, which Lester and Sumitra read in translation by Ranjini Obeyesekere, the sexual tensions the adaptation only subtly unearths are there, for all to see, while the child figure, Bindu, doesn’t occupy our attention the way he does onscreen. It’s a cruel world that these characters inhabit, but not as cruel and pathos-ridden as that of Suddilage Kathawa, which many consider to have been a spiritual successor of sorts to Ohu Mala Giya Pasu (those familiar with both would notice the similarities: the woman, left without a husband and without an income, preying on the sexual proclivities of a man she can never have), because of the scriptwriter’s affirmation of humanism. You don’t come across the uncontrollable savagery which Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s adaptation of Suddilage Kathawa oozes out.
In that sense Sumitra’s film is easier to wade through, no matter how young or old you are; as a 10-year-old, I would not have noticed the relationship between the mudalali (Ravindra Randeniya) and Heen Kella, but that did not take my interest away because I was focusing on the relationship between Heen Kella and Bindu, her son. 15 years later, when our comprehension of marriage matured, cynically, we discerned at once the source of the hatred between Heen Kella and the mudalali’s wife, her cousin, so much so that we can’t pass over it. That’s why I think, it its own way, that it was a film made for all time, and for everyone: not everything in it would have appealed to those who saw it, but the emotional texture, the humanism in it that is never repudiated, is what makes it a movie-for-all-to-see at the end of the day.
But while many people have seen, and appreciated, Suddilage Kathawa, very few people have seen, much less appreciated, Sagara Jalaya. If you peruse Sumitra’s career this can be said of pretty much her other films: they all were received warmly by critics, and to a considerable extent by popular audiences too, but the momentum that they rode on when they were first released fizzed out, owing to certain unfortunate reasons outside the control of the director.
Because those who have seen and waxed eloquent over Suddilage Kathawa (and those other films which had Swarna as the central tormented figure: Hansa Vilak, Dadayama, Kadapathaka Chaya) have never “seen” Sagara Jalaya, the latter remains inexorably fresh every time it’s telecast on television, which I think is part of its charm. Sumitra was primarily an editor, and a disciplined editor at that, and that comes through Sagara Jalaya almost spotlessly; music and movement are intertwined so effortlessly that I sometimes wonder how the crew and cast managed to parse the production together (“We had to delay shooting by a whole year when the rains came,” she told me when we talked about the film one day) until the very end. It’s beautifully sustained, and owing to that, the turbulence and the oscillations of behaviour which come out, however uncontained they can get, never really rupture the gentleness and innocence at the heart of the story.
And in the end, it is those two children who salvage the story from the ambiguities of the plot (with respect to the relationship between Heen Kella and the mudalali). Neither the girl nor the boy had been exposed to the cinema back then; that was a different time, when children were not transformed into superstars. “They lose their childhoods early on,” Sumitra told me, talking about the tendency of the popular culture to overhype the young when they become popular in that culture. What gets lost in this transformation is that rare ability to be yourself: the children are forced by the scriptwriter to be younger and louder than they are. They can’t express themselves without resorting to the loudspeaker. A girl once told me (in jest, of course) that I behave like a 50-year-old who speaks like a 20-year-old who thinks he’s a 30-year-old; roughly the same anachronism exists with respect to our onscreen children: they act below their years, but in reality project the fantasies and idealisations of them that directors and writers throw up.
The greatness of Sagara Jalaya, or Maya, is that the child actors in them never followed up on their performances and carved out careers of their own: the tendency of our film industry to throw up wannabe Shirley Temples is recent, because children always returned to their normal lives, back then, when the production wrapped up. They were never idiotic: they thought beyond their years even though they never showed it. That was true and very much so of the two actors in Sagara Jalaya, Rasika Kumari Wickramasingha (Midiya) and Susith Chaminda de Silva (Bindu). (Where are they today?) Bindu’s voiceover at the end, for instance, is insanely poignant, because Susith brings together the opposites at the heart of the story: pathos and beauty, innocence and ferocity. Most child actors I’ve seen bring about that poignancy without uttering too many words (think of Vasanthi Chathurani at the end of Gehenu Lamayi); Susith does it by spelling out an entire letter to the audience.
Which is why I think what Ranjith Rubasinghe told me still holds valid, after all these years. Sumitra’s film should be seen today, by the young of today, not only because I think it’s a “family picture” (and a good one at that), but also because it takes us back to a time when honesty and sincerity mattered; when the need to entertain, while certainly not the be-all and end-all of a film, was acknowledged and not forcibly repressed in the name of art. Those who believe in life and the affirmation of life in the movies should thus get out of their theories, their academised notions of art, and watch Sagara Jalaya.