Rajitha Dissanayake’s newest play ‘Hithala Gaththu Theeranayak’, (A well-made decision), premiers at the Lionel Wendt Theatre tomorrow (Friday) and on Saturday 10th November, at 7.00 pm. This is Dissanayake’s 11th full-length play, and it promises to be a high-quality drama that addresses current socio-political issues. Dissanayake’s plays have won critical review, popular support and notable awards. Some of his well-loved plays are ‘Weeraya Merila’, ‘Sihina Horu Arang’, ‘Apahu Harenna Ba’, ‘Aadara Wasthuwa’ and ‘Nethuwa Bari Minhek’. Dissanayake spoke to Daily Mirror on several wide-ranging issues, including art, politics, and the current socio-political environment in Sri Lanka.
- The economic pressures felt by society are being felt very seriously by artists as well
- As a citizen I feel the way the recent change of government happened is completely unacceptable
- Political leaders are supposed to represent the interests of the people
- The challenge for us is to maintain standards in the spaces where we still wield some influence and control
Q It’s been two years since you produced your last play. What can audiences expect from your new play ‘Hithala Gaththu Theeranayak’ ?
The play explores how people make so called ‘well-made decisions’ in life, and in love, and how they react when such decisions go wrong. Such situations can spiral out of control, and go from bad to worse. In contrast, there can be hastily made decisions that turn out good. I attempt to hold a mirror to society, to ourselves, to examine different elements of human nature and their impact on human relationships.
The story takes place in contemporary society, and the characters we see are familiar to us. So the play is very much bound to the current socio-political context of the country, especially with regards to how power complicates all human relationships. We cannot escape the current corrupt socio-political situation engulfing us. So ‘Hithala Gaththu Theeranayak’ is a sort of extension of my previous plays.
Q Your plays usually draw a line between the personal and the political. Does your new play also attempt this?
I try to tell stories through my characters and the various situations they confront. I use dialogue and the characters’ behavioural traits to achieve this. But the play does not limit itself to the characters actions. It also examines the wider society they inhabit.
We have yet to see a government that takes principled decisions for the betterment of society
Q What kind of understanding or insight will the audience gain from watching this play at this particular political juncture?
The play has no direct connection to the current political games being played out. But it’s not completely disconnected from them either. The play focuses on the human condition, and ultimately the actions of individual characters are meant to transcend the stage and impact the audience.
So I hope this will compel audiences to reflect on themselves, as well as on the current political moment we are all experiencing.
Q How important is it for your audience to reflect on this current political moment ?
The current political moment we’re experiencing demands deep introspection from us all. We need to examine how we behave in different relationships. How do relationships change when agreements are broken, or when someone betrays us? How do people react when there’s a breakdown of trust? How do we react when we lose love, or when we want to be loved? What kind of a pain does all this elicit? And how do we cope with that pain? Actually, the play addresses these conflicts in a more civilised manner than what we are seeing in society today. If such conflicts are not handled in a civilised manner, a society can face a major crisis. In our politics the act of gaining power and losing power is not handled in a civilised manner. In society we see actors who cannot control their pain. But in the play we see characters who cope much better with their pain. So the action outside the play is, in many ways, more dramatic than the play itself.
Q Can you elaborate on that?
The happenings in the outside world are more absurd than the situations depicted in the play. If I had incorporated into the script some of the scenarios happening outside, audiences may well have found them unbelievable. That’s because these happenings are quite unbelievable. In more developed societies governance happens within an accepted framework of laws and norms. These determine crucial matters such as the transfer of power, the changing of governments, appointments made to state institutions, policies regarding public health and education, and other important issues that affect the people. There’s a system in place, and an accepted method is followed. The situation here is more serious. In fact, it’s unacceptable. It’s also unbelievable. We, as a society, are witnessing the unbelievable. It’s both incomprehensible and absurd.
Q What do you find significant about the current happenings in the political arena?
What I find significant about this current political moment is the complete breakdown of trust between people. We see leaders signing affidavits and pledging allegiance to one side on one day, and then crossing over to the other side the next day. In doing so they are violating their contract with their voters who backed them to uphold certain policies and programmes. As a citizen I feel the way the recent change of government happened is completely unacceptable. It was done flouting all democratic norms and standards. There’s a way power should change hands. That’s either through an election,or through the defeat of the budget in parliament. It’s only after the composition of parliament changes that other changes can be made. But right now, attempts are being made to change the composition of parliament by forcibly taking over the state media, state institutions, the police and other state bodies. This is neither civilised, nor virtuous. But while we condemn such actions, there are certain intellectuals and lawyers who condone them, and call them constitutional. Then there’s another group of academics and lawyers who call it illegal. Who are the people to believe?
Q What do you believe?
I believe that what happened was immoral and unethical. It happened in a secretive and blatantly conspiratorial manner. But regrettably, these acts are accepted by some people, and even have the blessings of religious leaders. Are these religious leaders following their religious teachings? Are they speaking on behalf of their devotees? Or are they furthering the political and power interests of politicians? Religious leaders have failed to alert the people to the dangers of such political manoeuvrings. Meanwhile, intellectuals and lawyers are justifying both sides. Political leaders are supposed to represent the interests of the people. But they only care about their own power, their own interests and their own safety.
People have run out of options to ease their pain. So they find various outlets and methods to express their despair. They are living under tremendous economic pressure. Consumerism is making more and more demands on our lives
Q But there’s a section of the population that endorses such acts.
Yes. And this is very problematic. As a society we have faced some very painful and bitter experiences. Despite this, most people don’t seem to have any strong opinions on freedom. Instead what’s foremost for them is fulfilling their economic needs to cope with the demands of today’s consumerist society. People appear to be watching what’s going on as if it had no impact on them. Maybe if they accepted that all this impacted them directly, they would not be able to cope with the pain that realisation brings. People have run out of options to ease their pain. So they find various outlets and methods to express their despair. They are living under tremendous economic pressure. Consumerism is making more and more demands on our lives. With no solution in sight, people are being fed with large doses of false morals, nationalism and religion. These three intoxicants are used to tame and control people. We are used to teaching lessons, but we don’t seem to learn lessons from our own past experiences. We keep repeating the same mistakes.
Q What is the role of the artist in such a situation?
Artists must try and understand the human condition. We must ask why people respond to certain situations in the way they do. Why are people letting go of norms and values in this country? How has the world overcome such unbecoming impulses? Sri Lanka has a significant population that respects the rule of law, that doesn’t endorse violence and that aspires to a better society. All is not lost. But there’s a tendency for people to endorse everything committed by their own party, and condemn everything from the rival camp. This is a narrow, limited and selfish approach. Leaders switch parties, and say the exact opposite, without an iota of shame. Artists must hold a mirror to society to reflect on and expose such behaviour. We must ask whether this situation can be mended, and if so how? That’s the role of art and artists in this current situation.
Q In addition to being a dramatist, you also work in the media and in the university system. How has the media and the education sector in Sri Lanka contributed to the breakdown of norms and standards you mention?
The media today is dominated by a largely untrained workforce. Media personnel today don’t undergo any rigorous professional training as in the past. Media companies don’t encourage this because they fear a well-trained journalist would be picked up by a rival network. In our universities, especially in the Humanities, we’re seeing fewer and fewer undergraduates who truly love the subjects they are learning. Their focus is more on earning a certificate. So the challenge for us is to maintain standards in the spaces where we still wield some influence and control. We must try and prevent the falling standards in other areas from seeping into our spaces of work and study. After all, there are four important pillars that hold up a society. They are teachers, journalists, artists and religious leaders. If these four pillars are strong,then politicians can be held accountable, and the kind of political decline we are seeing today can be lessened significantly.
Q How has this political decline evolved over your lifetime, since you were a youth in the 1980s, moving on to the 1990s and 2000s, and now the present?
I remember our parents talking about falling norms and standards, and increasing violence and suppression in the 1980s. The change promised in 1994 never really materialised, and the situation degenerated to previous conditions. The continuing war also changed people’s values, especially regarding the value of human life. Even today many people die in tragic and violent circumstances. But this has become normalized. We have yet to see a government that takes principled decisions for the betterment of society. All we have seen are leaders who tighten their grip on power by exploiting resources and flouting the law. So the real problems of the people are not being addressed, and the truth is being shielded from them.
Q Are politicians the only ones to blame?
There’s another category of people, mainly high-ranking public officials, who exploit the political situation to plunder the country’s resources. They operate through various means, even rising through the ranks of trade unions, to gain prestige and status. The state sector has declined because the main criteria for appointments and power within them is political affiliation, not skill or competence. We saw this clearly in the last few days. One group of employees hijacks power, and another group is cast aside. When such selfish and politically motivated people occupy the state sector, more independent and non-partisan workers are silenced, or they maintain a distance from workplace politics.
Sri Lanka has a significant population that respects the rule of law
Q Money changing hands in politics is a major topic these days. There’s talk of bribery, corruption and commissions. What do you make of this nexus between politics and money?
Supporting the two major parties has become a business investment. Most political sponsors have a vested business interest. Very few engage in politics out of a sense of duty or vocation, or based on sound principles. Now politicians themselves engage in business. They use politics for maximum commercial profit. We see this phenomenon from local to national level politics. Leaders may talk about nationalism, but they depend on money to retain power. Money is even used to influence public opinion. Everyone in the party machinery - from ordinary supporters, to sponsors, to members and leaders - they all have a price. So if a larger sum if offered by the opposing camp, they outright switch sides. Portfolios don’t just benefit ministers. They benefit their families, friends and other associates, bestowing them with tremendous privileges. This entire process naturally erodes trust, which I spoke of earlier.
Q This is your eleventh play. Producing a play is a process. As an artist, what changes have you seen in this process over the last couple of decades?
I have been able to sustain my plays over a long period due to the continuing support of a group of artists, both old and new,who love the stage and are committed to this art form. Over the years we have built a good understanding and work ethic. Their support and dedication has been vital to the running of my plays. We also have a dedicated audience that has supported our work over the years. But with time, these situations encounter challenges as well. Although the dedication and commitment of my fellow artists has not diminished, they have grown more fatigued with time. Many go for dubbing after rehearsals, or for shoots before rehearsals. Their capacity to be selective artistically has diminished. Earlier they could refuse offers, and focus on one project. But that is not the case now. The economic pressures felt by society are being felt very seriously by artists as well. But even under such trying circumstances the artists in my play have committed themselves to perfect their craft and put together the best possible production. Even the audience faces economic challenges, but they still gather to watch plays. The winds of decline may have swept away some roofs, from some houses. But there are still some houses with their roofs intact. There is hope, and we must hold on to that hope and reclaim what has been taken from us.
The cast of ‘Hithala Gaththu Theeranayak’ will feature Shyam Fernando, Dharmapriya Dias, Samadhi Laksiri, Tharuni Ashangsa and Anuradha Mallawarachchi. Music is by Kapila Poogalarachchi, the set design is by Anuradha Mallawarachchi, costume design by Nalin Lusena, make-up by Priyantha Dissanayake, lighting design by Ranga Samarakoon and Anuradha Mallawarachchi , and the stage manager is Vijith Nuwan.