Again, one is shaken out of a great complacency. Like the ominous black-clad Knight in Ingmar Bergman’s the Seventh Seal, death carried Dharmasena Pathiraja away from us. The complacency was on my part. Not that one expected artistic immortality to extend into the realm of physical existence. Though he had been ailing for some time, he seemed healthy enough for another decade of life when I met him less than six months ago. Suddenly, he was gone at 74, at a time when artistically he was riding his second wind, making Sakkarang and the enigmatic Swaroopa in 2014.
He never compromised in his art and this iron will reflected in his death, too. He wanted the simplest of funerals and got his wish. There were no political speeches and no lobbies vying to hijack his body. True to his secular beliefs, Pathiraja the ‘materialist’ (as he called himself) did not want sermons at his funeral, hence no clergy were invited. It was carried out in such a short time that some of his closest friends missed it.
Pathiraja correctly judged that it’s the body of his work, and not his lifeless cadaver, that would be of any value to posterity. To my mind, Pathiraja’s name ranks alongside that of Lester James Pieris. Both can be called humanists. Lester’s humanism came filtered through the westernised, bourgeois world he inhabited. Patharaja’s political views were radical (Marxist-Trotskyte) but he never wore them on his sleeve. Apart from a brief spell as a university student activist, he remained aloof from political activism, and was never part of JVP radical activity, the natural milieu for many students dreaming of socio-political change in that era. There was nothing radical about his appearance, either, and though he had a doctorate on Bengali cinema, he was ‘Pathi’ to everyone, not Dr. Pathiraja.
His humanist world view was filtered though his own innate sense of humanism springing from lower middle class societal values. Though he disowned Buddhist influences, the gentle non-political Buddhist stream of thought which fashioned the Sri Lankan psyche until it was overwhelmed by its virulently nationalist, militant and politicised alter ego too, would have played a key role in his art, which believes in making strong statements without laying it on too thick. But his humanism was universal and never channelled into the tunnel vision of religious dogma. It strongly influenced his very moderate views on the ethnic issue, though that won him few friends in the world of art or politics, where most people settled for hardline views.
"Pathiraja was always secure in his fundamental beliefs, and about the quality of his art, and time has proved him right. He was also very fortunate that he peaked artistically with the best creative talents in our acting and related fields"
While Pathiraja could not have made Gam Peraliya and Lester could not have made Ahas Gawwa, there is something of Pathiraja’s muted radicalism in Lester’s 1983 film Yuganthaya (about a mercenary industrialist challenged by his own son) and there’s something of Nidhanaya (Lester’s heightened artistic statement about a man whose greed for wealth overwhelms his better nature and capacity for love) in Pathiraja’s Bambaru Ewith and Ahas Gawwa. Unlike Marlon in Yuganthaya, Pathiraja’s jobless young men in Ahas Gawwa have no rich fathers to rebel against. But they wage their own heroic daily struggle against the ‘Big Brother’ of ruthless urban exploitation, and in Bambaru Ewith, the demons who destroy Helen and her love are based on wealth and class. As an artist, Pathiraja achieved something rare anywhere in the world – his Ahas Gawwa came to define an entire generation of desperate young men, in the way that Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises (in a different context) defined a ‘lost generation’ of western youth following WWI.
Pathiraja was a master of the sweetest of ironies. In Soldadu Unnehe, Pemakka (Malani Fonseka) is a sex worker who goes hungry on an independence day as she can’t find a client. Bambaru Ewith was about sexual and class exploitation. At another level, it is a study of the nature of illusion, another example of the filmmaker’s innate sense of Buddhist philosophy merging with his humanist politics. The same sense of karma at work is felt overwhelmingly in his last, ambitious work Swaroopa, based on Frank Kafka’s the Metamorphosis. And his ever present sense of irony looms in it, too, when he takes a gentle dig at the commercial cinema with that unusual shot of a Morris Minor convertible disappearing into those misty hills, as if its occupants are ready to burst into song.
"Patharaja’s political views were radical (Marxist-Trotskyte) but he never wore them on his sleeve. Apart from a brief spell as a university student activist, he remained aloof from political activism, and was never part of JVP radical activity the natural milieu for many students dreaming of socio-political change in that era."
He was the Jean Renoir of Lankan cinema, albeit without any trade unions ready to buy tickets in advance to fund his films. Around 1990, he made a telefilm called Mee Peni Saha Alu for Swarnavahini. It was about the exodus of Muslim refugees caused by LTTE attacks in Kalpitiya. For reasons which are not clear, this film was never released.
Lack of funding meant that he made relatively few films during his lengthy career, but they amount to a significant body of work. Like Lester James Pieris, Pathiraja too, was unaffected by fads and trends from the West which sweep the world of art periodically. He was decidedly unimpressed by the tsunamis of post-modernist thinking which came into vogue here in the 1980s, which may be why he fell out of fashion with a new generation of writers and critics. Well read and a graduate in eastern and western culture, he was a little too much for a generation who seem to have read little else besides Derida and Foucault.
But Pathiraja was always secure in his fundamental beliefs, and about the quality of his art, and time has proved him right. He was also very fortunate (like Lester James Pieris) that he peaked artistically with the best creative talents in our acting and related fields, such as Malani Fonseka, Joe Abeywickrema, Wimal Kumara de Costa, and Premasiri Khemadasa as composer of that haunting score for Bambaru Ewith. This is an artistic combination of a calibre we are unlikely to see for a long, long time.
Much has been written about Dharmasena Pathiraja but ‘Handunagaththoth Oba Ma” (If only you could know me) would likely remain his epitaph. As his films remain unruffled by time, he remained unruffled by swiftly approaching death. If Bergman’s medieval Knight of Death had actually come to meet him in Kandy, one imagines Pathiraja welcoming him with a smile, and getting into a conversation about the nature of life, until it was time to go.