In hindsight, I was wrong to review Prageeth Ratnayake’s ‘Adareyi Mang’ the way I did. Because the film had a story that I’ve seen countless times before and because I knew how that story would end, I focused instead on the techniques the director had employed to help us see beyond it, and though this was a good criterion with which the merits of the film could be discussed, it was hardly the only or even the main one. My mistake was to let this particular criterion cloud my judgment, because form and technique, no matter how pivotal they may be to a work of art, are hardly the crux of an art. If that were so, Hitchcock would be occupying a higher pedestal than Satyajit Ray and Yasujiro Ozu. As it turns out, however, he is not. This is thus an attempt at trying to glean what it was in Prageeth’s movie that was so different and so unique, despite its facilely overworked, overused plot.
I began my review by comparing the opening sequence to a sequence from Brian De Palma’s Body Double. Part of the charm of ‘Adareyi Mang’ is that, like De Palma’s film; it does not let us off its hook and here’s something to be upset about, something to be ruffled by. But De Palma’s movies are preoccupied with style (over substance), and what was true for his work is true also of Prageeth’s work; as I noted, its first half is full of sequences that look as though they were conceived mechanically, as though they were afraid of loosening up, as though slackening up was, in his [Prageeth’s] opinion, antithetical to the meticulousness of his editing. I am far from suggesting that these two directors can be compared, but I do admit that there is a problem common to both: that for the first hour at least, the technique dictates the material.
Prageeth is at his strongest in ‘Adareyi Mang’ where the material dominates the technique. There are many sequences which never seem to end:
Prageeth is at his strongest in ‘Adareyi Mang’ where the material dominates the technique. There are many sequences which never seem to end: when Pawan runs after Malmi, having chased her away from the Montessori; when Pawan waits at the bus stand for her to arrive with her friend; when Pawan tries again and again to win her love in a bus; when Pawan finally does win her love and breaks up in a frenzy of song and dance along Galle Road. These are hackneyed, yes, but compared with those sequences where the emotions seem to be contrived, they breathe in an inexorably fresh way. I pointed this out in my review as well when I argued that the second half, and the song and dance sequences therein, were more sincerely felt than (those of) the first half. And yet, I failed to justify my contention with a valid point of comparison. What could such a point of comparison be?
Overworked plot and finale
Simply, this: that despite an overworked plot that ends in an overworked finale (with a rather overworked twist: Malmi as a person is more beautiful for Pawan than her long, lustrous hair), ‘Adareyi Mang’ occupies a territory very different to that of most other love stories we’ve seen on the silver screen here, from ‘Anjalike’ to ‘Rosa Kale’ to ‘Asayi Mang Piyabanna’. To understand why, we need to look at what drives Prageeth in his film, and where his influences lie.
The Sinhala cinema was always associated with its technically more proficient counterpart in Mumbai and Madras. I remember coming across a review of Kadawunu Poronduwa which stated that Rukmani Devi and the Jayamanne brothers had added Sinhala to the 12 languages of the South Indian cinema. Given that popular Indian films were melodramatic romances which ended with the hero being reconciled to his lover, it made sense for producers here to try and reap dividends from that genre. In the end, that is what they did.
Without overtly delving into this process of cultural assimilation (or imitation?), it is enough to know that in one point the plot lines in these romances changed over the decades: while earlier the boy was poor and the girl rich, by the eighties and nineties the boy had become rich and the girl poor. This had to do with a shift in the genre brought about, not by the Indian cinema, rather by the American cinema, specifically Love Story, which gave birth to that timeless and hackneyed motif of the rich boy, cast aside by his family, trying to save his poor lover (whom he has now married) from a fatal illness (which was almost always leukaemia). Such a trope had been evident even before, as witness the films of Douglas Sirk, but with Love Story, the protagonist, who had been poor all this while and had to fight for the girl from a respectable household, now became rich.
The Sinhala cinema was always associated with its technically more proficient counterpart in Mumbai and Madras
The Sinhala cinema, for obvious reasons, reflected this shift. Gamini Fonseka, in 1972, had acted as a poor, but talented painter in J. Selvaratnam’s ‘Sahanaya’ opposite Malini Fonseka, who was the rich heiress; three years later, in Lenin Moraes’s ‘Awa Soya Adare’, the roles had changed: Fonseka was the rich heir, Malini the well-meaning servant’s daughter. If I can’t think of a single mainstream film after this in which the woman was rich and the man poor, it’s because by then, the trend had changed, and the tone of melodramatic romances had shifted.
‘Adareyi Mang’ is a continuation of this tradition, so to speak, but with a twist: it takes us back to the seventies, the era where this shift originally transpired, and not to the present, where melodrama has been replaced with fantasy. When you think of ‘Asayi Mang Piyabanna’ and even ‘Rosa Kale’, you think of lover crooning by lakes and rivers and mountainsides about how they want to spend their life together (it was when this cycle of song and dance sequences first came to us somewhere in the late nineties that Nanda Malini and Sunil Ariyaratne came up with “Yanawanam Ane Mang Aran”). It was a fantasy world alright, but very different to the one we had seen in the seventies, when we actually cared about the people we saw in front of us.
Part of the reason why we refused to care about the heroes and their lovers thereafter was, I think, the fact that we began to be more assailed than ever before by colourful saree-pota-song sequences in Indian melodramas, and the fact that the administrators throughout the seventies made it a point to indigenise the industry, which did not continue after the economy was opened. After all, no matter how imitative they were of their Indian counterpart, the films of Lenin Moraes and even Robin Tampoe could never escape this process of cinematic indigenisation.
A film like ‘Asayi Mang Piyabanna’ has more potential at the box office now because audiences today are more in tune with such fantasies. Who doesn’t want to see Pooja Umayashankar as a poor and downtrodden (but incongruously, immaculately dressed) peasant girl in love with Roshan Ranawana? It’s a fantasy land based on and copied from another fantasy land (Sri Lanka from India), and mass audiences, especially teenagers and older women who have nothing much outside their banal lives (at school or at home), love it. Sunil Ariyaratne addressed them only too well:
Pingana aran lunuyi bathuyi kamuko raththaran
Eeta passé Dunhinda langa natamu raththaran
In other words, people want to be titillated by the specifics of this kind of film: the first encounter between the two destined-to-be lovers (always through an accident); the initial warming up of both parents to each other (in ‘Asayi Mang Piyabanna’ the father of the hero, played by Kingsley Loos, asks the girl and her father to pay him a visit in Colombo); the opposition of the one to the other (the rich parents on the basis of keeping up their status, the poor parents on the basis of principles); the clandestine song-and-dance numbers; the final battle between the rich father’s goons and the girl’s cohorts (who by this time include the rich son himself); and the final reconciliation of everyone to everyone else. Reworked a hundred times over, these specifics never fail to milk money at the Regal or the Majestic or the Savoy; they have been so carefully preserved that they have become a mantra to be followed, to the dot.
Without overtly delving into this process of cultural assimilation (or imitation?), it is enough to know that in one point the plot lines in these romances changed over the decades. while earlier the boy was poor and the girl rich, by the eighties and nineties the boy had become rich and the girl poor
The beauty of Adareyi Mang is that it resists the urge to give into those specifics. To be sure, Pawan and Malmi do meet by accident, and to be sure, the parents of both warm up to and then charge against each other. But then these are motifs which, while recognisable, are done away with as soon as possible; neither Pawan nor Malmi cares for the antics of their parents, and the sequences of malice, though jarring, are quickly resolved. One of the main reasons for this is, I feel, the choice of composer, for Victor Ratnayake, over more than five musical numbers, take us back to the seventies, the era of ‘Matharaachchi’ and ‘Rajagedara Paraviyo’ (both of which, incidentally, were directed by Sathischandra Edirisinghe), of ‘Andura Bindinnata’ and ‘Neela Bingu Kela’.
The tragedy of Prageeth’s film is this, therefore: that in belonging to the seventies, and in a good way at that, it (metaphorically speaking) alienates those schoolboys who want to chase schoolgirls and those schoolgirls who want to be chased by all those schoolboys. You need to be intelligent, to be more alive to craftsmanship, to tear yourself away from ‘Asayi Mang Piyabanna’ and savour ‘Adareyi Mang’. We are not intelligent, I am afraid to admit.