The films of H.D. Premaratne present an interesting conundrum: how does the social cohabit with the personal in a work of art? Particularly, it can be added, in a country where the social has transcended the personal since the seventies? The movies have always tackled critics over this debate. Premaratne’s films are even more interesting here in that the debate in them takes on a new dimension: is there box office potential in presenting, or representing, the social alongside the personal? As I implied in my article on Vasantha Obeyesekere last week, this can best be answered or resolved by looking at the evolution of the director through various career phases.
In Premaratne’s case, there were three phases. The first began with Sikuruliya and ended with Apeksha: a space of two films. The third, his last, began with Mandakini and ended with his finale, Kinihiriya Mal: again, a space of two films. Between these two there was his ‘Middle Period,’ a total of 11 films: Parithyagaya, Deveni Gamana, Adara Hasuna, Mangala Thagga, Saharawe Sihinaya, Palama Yata, Kulageya, Uda Sulanga, Saptha Kanya, Seilama, Visidela. I wish here to examine these 11 works, because in them we see the evolution of the film director from an artiste committed to the cinema as a populist and at the same time middle of the road art to one who had to grapple with a polity that could no longer ignore the political potential of the medium.
Premaratne’s films are even more interesting here in that the debate in them takes on a new dimension: is there box office potential in presenting, or representing, the social alongside the personal?
H.D. Premaratne was not an artiste who divorced the social from the personal even in his first two movies. Apeksha was in that regard a felt, sincere work of art, and in the rift between its two heroes, the poor boy and the rich heiress, we saw a comment, no matter how subtle or offhanded it may have been, on the backdrop it was set against, amidst the JVP insurrection and the problems of youth unemployment.
When Nimal passes off as Samson, the boyfriend to Niranjala, we discern a clash of social class realities underscored by a fairy tale motif: the peasant who, for an instant at least, becomes a prince who wins his princess: a male Cinderella. It is not difficult to discern a variation on this motif even in Sikuruliya, particularly in the parable-like transformation of the protagonist, from a delicate village lass to a hardy urban woman. This refraction, if you can put it that way, of class realities through fantasy was a theme that distinguished the early Premaratne from his contemporaries.
Parithyagaya took from where Apeksha left, with the same leading actor but with a different, more specific theme: not class rifts per se, but the issue of dowries among the village peasantry. In here, I notice a similarity with Obeyesekere’s Palagetiyo in how the director views the rich and the poor, on (almost) equally sympathetic terms. The iskole mahaththaya’s family, for instance, are not presented as greedy landowners who refuse to let the man marry the girl of his dreams unless her family scrounges up a decent dowry, and the girl’s family are not represented as innocents either, though they are certainly more worthy of empathy than them. When the iskole mahaththaya (Tony Ranasinghe) tells the protagonist, the girl’s brother (Amarasiri Kalansuriya), that while he loves her, he understands at the same time the feelings of his relations because of how they suffered to raise him as a child, we come across class relations more complicated than the fairy tale undertones of Sikuruliya and Apeksha.
Deveni Gamana and Adara Hasuna were works which immediately predated the second JVP insurrection. They are more personal than Parithyagaya, yet they try with searing honesty to depict the ways in which certain realities grapple with the dreams, the hopes, and the longings of individuals.
Deveni Gamana is about the theme of virginity, which is what elevates it to the plane of both the social and the personal: the social, because it represents the clash between tradition and modernity, and represents how modernity itself can be used to sustain the old order (an example: the mother of the protagonist, played by Irangani Serasinghe, trying to get legal backing for a separation between him and his lover, only to be told by his brother, played by Ravindra Randeniya, that the law can’t be used to meddle into and interfere with his life); and the personal, because it depicts, in an arduous way (the plot takes forever to resolve itself), the triumph of love over everything else. It is in the final sequence, set in slow motion, of the two lovers embracing one another, that the commercial tendencies of the plot takes over.
The plot of Adara Hasuna (a variation on the Little Mermaid motif, with the cast aside princess who meets the prince of her dreams), which was like Deveni Gamana a box office hit, is in that sense more convoluted, a return to the Premaratne of the Apeksha years, and for that reason, it can’t be seen as a prelude to the insurrection years. But Mangala Thagga, which its theme of murder, suspicion, and betrayal, Palama Yata, with its indictment on the cycle of poverty, and Saptha Kanya, with its theme of young love set against the Colombo mafia, depicted darker, stranger milieus.
In these films, Premaratne tries to come to terms with himself, and perhaps for that reason, there are spontaneous outbursts, which try to relate their saccharine-coated plotlines to the societies in which they are set. It’s a rift he tried to bridge, and to a considerable extent did bridge, in Seilama and Visidela.
Seilama is as political as Siri Medura, also scripted by Simon Nawagaththegama, which is to say that it is political to the extent that one sees. There are those familiar tropes from Nawagaththegama: the abstruse sexual encounter (in a forest, between the farmer and his wife), the beedi-smoking hunter, the intrusion on the village world by the city (“Seilama” is another word for “town”), the resultant clash between the one and the other, and the rape, both literal and metaphoric, by the one of the other. The erotic streak that cuts across the film is fascinating and repelling, and there are times, as with the rape of the woman (Anoja Weerasinghe), when the inexplicable takes over the real, and when reality gets bogged down.
Premaratne’s overarching motif in nearly all his films, whatever the themes they took on, was that of female agency and individuality
Nawagaththegama wrote and Premaratne directed Seilama when the former was at the height of his career (as a scriptwriter). It was also around the time of the publication of his Sansaranyaye cycle of novels. The intermingling of the mystical with the carnal is for this reason poignant, and in the end, when the woman gets carted off by a bunch of city folk, and the protagonist (Ravindra Randeniya) collapses in a heap of despair at what she has done, the social content of the plot comes out quite vividly. In Seilama, moreover, the political does not mix freely with the personal. It comes out slowly but surely, and in both worlds - village and city - the personal is shown as dependent on the political, be it the relationship between the farmer’s family and their overlord, or the relationship between the lorry driving protagonist and his superiors.
Premaratne’s overarching motif in nearly all his films, whatever the themes they took on, was that of female agency and individuality. They may be submissive (Sujatha in Deveni Gamana) and they may be quiet but assertive (Deepthi in Saptha Kanya) and they may be harsh and uncharacteristically hostile, only to realise the folly of their anger later on (the woman in Seilama). Because of this, the political and the social content of the plots of these films comes out from and is reflected in the plight of its female protagonists, from Sikuruliya to Kinihiriya Mal. Premaratne’s films were at their weakest, again because of this, when those protagonists were not properly defined, or when the director’s characterisation of them was weak.
This was what “undid” Visidela. While visually lovely, while reeking of the political in its depiction of the intrusion of the city in the form of both the JVP insurrectionists and the police, it seemed to me a confused mess, a point I highlighted in my article on Premaratne in this paper last year.
There is nothing substantive to connect the decision of the protagonist to join the police with the rape of the village, metaphoric and literal (that is, the rape of the hero’s sister by her uncle), apart from the contrived entry of the hero’s colleagues (who end up shooting him) at the end.
The personal and the social do not, for this reason, cohabit as sleekly as they did in a work like Seilama (which was anyway not a political film), and part of that reason, in fact one of the main reasons I can point out for it, was the way Anosha Sonali played her part. Certainly no village damsel the way that Swineetha Weerasinghe was in Sikuruliya, Anosha jolted me the first time I saw Visidela. The same could have been said, incidentally, of Sangeetha Weerarathne’s performance in Kinihiriya Mal, a film which deserves a more extensive treatment in this paper, at another time.
In the end, Premaratne’s films, whether on the social or personal plane, depended on his actress. If she gave in, the entire film, as Visidela proved, would give in too.