Golu Hadawatha, the first of three films that Lester James Peries directed for Ceylon Theatres, was also the greatest love story ever conceived onscreen here. The country’s largest and oldest importer, distributor, and exhibitor of films, Ceylon Theatres (established on September 29, 1928) had extended an offer that would not be equalled by any other producer or financier: he would be given unconditional control over the story, the script, the music, and the editing, while much of the crew had to be taken from the studio.
For the first time, Lester had got the best of both worlds: artistic freedom and financial security. That he would opt for an unconventional love story, which in his own words went “against the grain” of his previous work, was only to be expected: he needed a source material that was safe. Not for nothing, after all, had his producer given him everything a filmmaker of his calibre needed at that point. By giving him everything, they were expecting something in return. Something big.
Karunasena Jayalath’s prose sweeps off his pages, often at once. Much of his emotional tenor, his romanticised outlook, came out from his dialogues. That’s where his package was and that’s where he got the success he clamoured after. Regi Siriwardena once said somewhere that the man bridged the gap between Martin Wickramasinghe and pulp fiction. The pulpy, populist immediacy you sense in his conversations comes out from his stints as a journalist, though he also owed that to his schoolboy experiences. The two part structure in Golu Hadawatha was born out of this quality: it was there to ensure that you never felt the anger you usually felt towards an unrequited love, since, in the words of Jean Renoir, “Everyone has their reasons.”
Siriwardena wrote the script for Golu Hadawatha overnight, retaining the dialogues as they were and playing around with that two part structure, which had become a must-have in movies that delved into the unknowability of another’s perspective. That sense of unknowability pervades the first part, where Sugath (and us, the audience) is put off by Dammi’s rebuffs which are mysteriously followed by suggestively gentler overtures. Formally this structure was innovative, but our cinema, even then, never fell back on into nonlinear, lopsided narratives that the directors of the eighties would indulge in. Lester was still a classicist, and would remain so until his very last movie.
Behind the success of Golu Hadawatha, Siriwardena wrote in his foreword to Philip Cooray’s The Lonely Artist, lay “perhaps many social forces – notably, free education.” With his sixth film Lester had intruded into new territory: the children of 1956, who had aspired to be the heroes and the villains of an art form which had depicted them as set pieces or bit players. They had been either the jesters or the maids and servants until then, belying which was another relevant point.
Golu Hadawatha was and is discernibly different from the love stories that adorn our television screens and theatres today, for the simple reason that now the tension between love and the inability to fulfil it comes from an easy source: the rift between the rich and the poor. But the lovers in a movie like Golu Hadawatha, or even Dahasak Sithuvili and Hanthane Kathawa (both of which were released around the same time, in 1968 and 1969), were spurred on by a different kind of conflict, which was more or less an offshoot of their social conditioning. These lovers were the sort who wasted away knowing they had the luxury of a (largely) bourgeois life and the option of returning to it, once they decided that wasting away was no longer feasible.
While he did move away from the milieu of Delovak Athara and Ran Salu, Lester James Peries’ overwhelming sympathy for the elite nevertheless tempered Golu Hadawatha’s central conflict. Both Dammi and Sugath were the next generation of the children of 1956. Their parents would have even brought to power S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. They were of a different time, different certainly to Lester’s own background, and Regi’s assertion about those “many social forces” was true considering their way of life in the film. Coeducation and mixed schools, love letters (the literary equivalent of today’s text message), and the twilight-ness of their homes, between the rusticity of the village and the sophistication of the city, reflected it amply, and in turn reflected their distinct personality. Over time they would become the single biggest audience in the Sinhala cinema. Golu Hadawatha acknowledged that, and in acknowledging that, it no longer shrugged them off as set pieces and props: they had finally become the heroes of their own stories, their own films.
Douglas Ranasinghe once told me in an interview that in his day the likes of Sugath were considered as parajithayo, the defeated, whom we identified with through their sense of hopelessness. Back then we were content in seeing them accept that defeat and return to their families, their benefactors, because they had both: as much as they were torn down and wasted away by their harsh experiences, they had the money and the power to sustain their anguish. Today, with all the murders and suicides and with the democratisation of correspondence through the mobile phone, love has become more common, more “proletarian” if you may, amply echoed in the choice of milieus our scriptwriters and directors continue to go for in love story after love story.
- Golu Hadawatha was and is discernibly different from the love stories that adorn our television screens and theatres today, for the simple reason that now the tension between love and the inability to fulfil it comes from an easy source: the rift between the rich and the poor
The lovers of the past in our movies could endure their torment because they came from backgrounds that, as with Sugath, subsisted on plantations and estates (and occasionally, caste). The lovers of today are poor and frugal on the one hand and rich and depraved on the other, with the tension between the two being exacerbated by the refusal of the rich lover’s (usually the woman) family to acknowledge the poor lover when he tries to convince them that he’s educated or at least on his way to being an educated man. Sugath could deteriorate and still cling to a comfortable lifestyle. Not these lovers. I believe that’s what came out most discernibly in Golu Hadawatha, and the string of imitative films (both popular and serious) which briefly followed it.
Lester’s three films for Ceylon Theatre continue to fascinate me because of the vastly different social backgrounds of their characters. In his first film he had opted for the rural bourgeoisie, while in the third, Nidhanaya, he returned to the fading feudal aristocracy. (As with Renoir, Lester was most sincere at portraying this aristocracy, right down to Kaliyugaya, Yuganthaya, and Wekanda Walawwa.)
In Akkara Paha he moves into a setting which he would not, at least until Baddegama, return to: the fading village peasantry, cut off from their own roots and homes. In Lester’s films, the fear of being uprooted is very much pervasive. It’s a fear that is both externalised (the threat of homelessness) and internalised (the threat of being denied the fulfilment of one’s desires and hopes).
Akkara Paha depicts both these: in the first instance, through Sena’s family moving into a government scheme in Minipe once they sell their property, and in the second instance, through his ambivalent reactions to his lover, Sandawathi, and the girl who ends up as his destroyer, Theresa.
Lester was at his best, as I said before, when depicting the lives of the decaying elite. Most critics and commentators today would argue that he was at his weakest at the other end of the spectrum: when he was depicting the poor
Lester was at his best, as I said before, when depicting the lives of the decaying elite. Most critics and commentators today would argue that he was at his weakest at the other end of the spectrum: when he was depicting the poor, the landless. Part of the reason for this, I think, was that even in a film like Akkara Paha that overwhelming sense of poverty comes out from expectation, from ellipsis, never fully realised.
Once he rejects his family and Theresa, once he rejects his scholarship and goes for menial employment, the film cuts to Sena fainting at the lumber yard he runs away to and then waking up at the hospital. In probably the most bittersweet ending Lester James Peries ever conceived in any film, we see Sena writing in English the invitation to his sister’s wedding. “I don’t think anyone in our family will understand this,” he tells the sister, to which she replies, “Father was adamant. He wanted you to write in English.” The scene cuts to the wedding, the two newlyweds ride away in their car, and Sanda and Sena, now reconciled, run away to catch sight of and wave to them. They slowly walk away, Amaradeva’s dirge on separation and reconciliation plays out, and the camera pans out until these two are no more than faint spots.
It’s rather elliptical, in a way incomplete, which is probably why those commentators were quick to castigate him when he returned to that milieu in whatever form later on. To some he was a humanist; to his detractors, that humanism was a sign of noncommittal complacency. The final reconciliation between Sena and Sanda is obviously a prelude to a life of misfortune and discomfort we will never see: the futility and pathos of it is derived from its sense of incompleteness and expectation. We don’t see them any agency at work, because they are subservient to their fates, and are ready to yield to it. The politically committed cinema of the seventies would have denigrated this as inadequate, unsatisfying, and evasive.
Compared with Golu Hadawatha, Akkara Paha was not surprisingly given a more lukewarm reception here. Partly because of its political undertones (its allusion to the government’s resettlement policy was misconceived as propagandist), it was more widely acclaimed abroad, receiving a world premiere at the Museum of Modern Art (where all his other five films were also screened) courtesy of Donald Richie.
Compared with Golu Hadawatha, Akkara Paha was not surprisingly given a more lukewarm reception here. Partly because of its political undertones, it was more widely acclaimed abroad, receiving a world premiere at the Museum of Modern Art
And as with all his work, he had shown with it that he preferred the microcosm of the world to the world itself; that the “minutest changes in sensibility” were more engrossing to him than either the plot or “overt action”. He had engaged in a different social setting, and the result, which wasn’t to everyone’s liking, obviously, was the most searing, bittersweet, and elegiac tribute to the inevitability of accepting misfortune he could come up with. Ironically, what was so real and heartfelt about this was also what was alienating and repugnant, at least for the politically committed, symbol hunting critic. In depicting the landed and the landless in quick succession, he had hence proven to his audiences just how divisive the lonely artist could be.