In Ran Diya Dahara, Udayakantha Warnasuriya alludes to his advertising career: he gets a graphic designer to crop Geetha Kumarasinghe on a photo of Kamal Addaraarachchi, to make it appear as though the two of them were secretly married. Kamal, a crippled soldier, can’t talk, and in the first few sequences of these two together he is as confused as we are. His parents, played by Anula Karunatilake and Henry Jayasinghe (in a rare outing, since neither of them took to the cinema that often after the eighties), are on the other hand convinced of Geetha’s feelings of tenderness and empathy, and they readily accept her for who she passes herself to be. In reality, though, she’s married to a lowlife scumbag (Jackson Anthony) who swears vengeance on her when he discovers her whereabouts; it’s a terse encounter that ends with the soldier revealing his affections for her by chasing the lowlife with his crutches, and this ending, though less than satisfactorily edited, nevertheless embodies the Udayakantha Warnasuriya package: an unashamed, almost spontaneous, tongue-in-cheek combination of art and entertainment.
Udayakantha, in film after film, turns cripples, robbers, and even low-lives into the heroes that we want them to be. Sometimes, as with Le Kiri Kandulu, he turns towards the middle class and declares his sympathies for them, committed as they are to a life of ease, love, and comfort. Le Kiri Kandulu, however, is too short to be the film it tries to be: it ends abruptly, though movingly, and it never takes Nilmini Tennakoon’s anger towards the man who crashes into her car and causes her to give birth to a still born child beyond a few sequences that dwell on a technicality we already know (that the foetus is not considered as a live human being by the law) and a reconciliation between her, her husband, and that elderly man by the beach. But then it pokes fun at the middle class (which is why we are hinted at a possible affair on the part of the man’s son-in-law, played by Sanath Gunatilake), which is another typical Warnasuriya trademark: his ability to be irreverent without the usual blasts of emotions that precede it. While many of his movies leave much to be desired on this count, therefore, I genuinely like them.
Because we aren’t really a big country (we aren’t even a SMALL country: England is, and so is the Maldives; in that sense we are vague and indefinable), the gap between the storytellers and the serious artists remains impossibly hard to bridge
Because we aren’t really a big country (we aren’t even a SMALL country: England is, and so is the Maldives; in that sense we are vague and indefinable), the gap between the storytellers and the serious artists remains impossibly hard to bridge, especially in the movies. At one level this means that the entertainers call the shots. At another level this also means that the artist has to do with being part of a small, esoteric circle, so he becomes a minoritarian the same way the entertainers become majoritarians: the one rebels against the conventional wisdom, the latter accepts it for what he thinks it to be. The fact that, decades after Parithyagaya and Deveni Gamana and Visidela, we still insist on terming H. D. Premaratne as a middle-of-the-road director speaks volumes about whether we want to continue with this pathetic rift. (For the record, we do want to.)
A few of these entertainers have, by extraordinary resolve, tried to reach the ranks of the masters, but they have failed. In the early days, Robin Tampoe tried his hand at the serious and the unfunny with Sudo Sudu. It was a financial flop. K. A.W. Perera’s first few forays into the industry tried to channel serious plotlines (especially with Senasuma Kothenada) before he moved into adaptations of T. B. Ilangaratne (Nadayo) and puerile love stories (Wasana, Lasanda, Duleeka, Janaka Saha Manju) that transformed the unreality of their experiences into the hysterics they compelled from popular audiences (one of my neighbours swears by Janaka Saha Manju even now, and apparently it still makes him and his mother cry). It’s tough placing Udayakantha among these past veterans, as tough as placing him in the mould of H. D. Premaratne, because he fits into neither category. The truth is that Warnasuriya is much more than a comparison with such veterans. He entertains, yes, but neither yields nor defies the artificiality of his stories and characters. He teeters between two worlds. And he succeeds, in part.
When I asked Chandran Rutnam as to what he thought constituted a good film, he gave the following reply: “Three words. A. Good. Story.” Udayakantha’s films don’t lack stories. They don’t even lack plotlines (at one point I struggled to make sense of the multiple plotlines in Ran Diya Dahara and Ran Kevita and Bahuboothayo). They sometimes, if not often, lack the cohesion that would have kept them together (like in Bahuboothayo, which for the first 20 minutes presents an interesting premise – what if your local temple houses a she-devil? – but then deteriorates to a series of altercations with random bystanders: Srinath Maddumage, the local busybody, and Vijaya Nandasiri, the cowardly god), and this at the end of the day becomes their descent. He tries to make up for what he lacks in this respect with emotional outbursts – which is why, despite my confusion, people laugh at even the most crudely conceived sequences in Ran Kevita and Ran Kevita 2 – but he never properly succeeds, because those outbursts, while appealing to our instincts, are nevertheless edited so jerkily that they stand apart, on their own, outside the narrative. These are the titbits that keep the movie alive to those instincts, but they aren’t as convincing as the storylines and characters we have been following.
Directors love taking chances; those chances make up the sequences that seem almost accidentally conceived to us. But Udayakantha doesn’t quite work like that. His films, and their storylines, even the most arbitrarily inserted and edited ones, are never random affairs: they are always carefully calculated, shot to evoke a specific response from his audience. If the sequence of the two boys in Ran Kevita conjecturing as to whether the kevita they have will bring to life the statue of the Buddha seems rather puerile and primitive, it’s because Udayakantha the film maker becomes, for a few seconds, Udayakantha the moralist, daring his audience into believing the unbelievable until the heresies this may compel (try telling children that a kevita can materialise religious figures and then looking at their parents’ shocked faces!) are defied: we never question as to how blasphemous he is. So he’s won it on both counts, entrancing the wonderers in us and the zealots in our elders. The responses he evokes, thus, try to keep everyone happy.
The man is a magician but then magicians are illusionists, and are as careful and efficient as the believers in reason and science. The entertainers in this country thus work from the premise that audiences are gullible enough to believe anything. Some of Sunil Soma Peiris’s films are so hastily put together that I wonder who in their right minds would go watch Tennyson Cooray fighting the digitalised lion from George of the Jungle in Wada Bari Tarzan. (Peiris, like those other entertainers, work with recycled parody, as I pointed out in this newspaper many months ago.) But then there are people who want to escape the banality of tomorrow, and to escape that banality they need to be convinced by directors that artists can convince them of anything. How else would the Tennyson Cooray and Bandu Samarasinghe vehicles rake up rupees at the box office? That’s why Udayakantha is so special: while he seems to work from the same premise of audiences-being-gullible, he trumps his own expectations of them by testing their intelligence. What if Kamal in Ran Diya Dahara really loves Geetha? What if the two boys in Ran Kevita leave their frolicking and listen to Vijaya Nandasiri and recite the multiplication table properly? What if Rodney Warnasuriya in Gindari chooses to marry the she-devil?
How does he succeed with these scenes? The entertainers who give us Wada Bari Tarzan and Doctor Nawariyan confuse visual slapstick for visual diarrhoea in much the same way that art house director confuse visual profundity for visual constipation (that is, the one works with excess and the other with economy). Udayakantha neither sacrifices nor privileges the image this way. Simple to a fault, salty at times, the dialogues and monologues in his films are never the insult to audiences that dialogues and monologues from those other mainstream movies are. They don’t condescend to audiences, despite the manifest failings of their plotlines; they celebrate our act of condescending to them.
In the end that may be Udayakantha’s secret formula. Does it work?