The first time I watched Welikathara several years ago, I was stunned. The acting, the dialogues, the boldness of the editing, and the sheer confidence of the camerawork all seemed to come together. It seemed to be one of those rare movies that highlighted what they borrowed from and were inspired by without beating around the bush. How else could you explain its technical achievements, at once bold and overwhelming? Here was a real swinger, a real taker and box-office seducer. Here was a story that could keep everyone, or almost everyone, blissfully unaware of its own limitations.
To talk about Welikathara, an inspiringly restored copy of which has been screened at the Regal since last Friday, though, is to talk about many things; what it took from, the trend it set for our film industry, and how relevant it was for its time.
America was the birthplace of the myths of the 20th century, of gangsters who were invincible and of detectives who were even more invincible. “I can’t think of gangsters without thinking about The Godfather,” Pauline Kael said, and she was correct, It was in France that the cinema was born, but it was in the USA that it was nurtured, popularising the myths that the world’s youngest democracy had created for itself. Hollywood was born from the peepshow, vaudeville, and music hall; it was destined to belong to the Chaplins and the Bogarts, the Chandlers and the Puzos.
Welikathara takes us back to those days when audiences went to the movies not for art, but for the sheer pleasure of watching a story that parsed. This was roughly the same kind of audience that patronised Hollywood in its heyday, and by that I mean the Hollywood of Raoul Walsh and John Ford and Howard Hawks and all those other directors who didn’t conceive of the cinema as an art, but as a narrative device that kept you (as Chandran Rutnam told me) from going to the bathroom because the story was so damn good. Someone told me that its restoration cost around six million rupees. It shows, aptly; the truth is that only a restoration that costly could do justice to such a disciplined, but underrated film (underrated today, that is).
Diongu Badaturuge Nihalsinghe, who would have turned 78 last May, was not born to a film background. His father was a newspaper mogul and a firm nationalist. At his school, Ananda College, he wound up as Head Prefect and Cadet Sergeant and dallied with the idea of joining the Army. All those youthful dreams were tossed out, however, when he began watching the movies. This was in the 1950s, when the Hollywood epics and Cinemascope invaded our theatres. A 16mm Bolex camera, gifted by his father, was all it took for him to turn to documentaries. Almost five years later, he was a cameraman, with Sath Samudura and Dahasak Sithuvili as his first two projects. Soon afterwards he was directing his debut, Welikathara.
That sense of hierarchy and discipline he encountered in his youth comes out in Welikathara. It’s a man of force, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, who takes centre-stage. He’s spurred into action, weakened by an almost Cape Fear-esque plotline (an old enemy harbouring a dark secret from his past turns out to be the ringleader operating in the area to which he’s assigned), and then spurred into action after his wife scorns his manhood. Welikathara reeks of masculinity and manhood. It’s driven by an almost right-wing devotion to authority, one of the many elements influenced by the American thriller of the forties and the fifties.
Quite apart from its technical achievement (as the first Cinemascope film in South Asia), what accentuated this aspect to the narrative was the acting. I have rarely seen a more ravishing performance from Gamini Fonseka, for instance. To watch him today is to appreciate how well he could embody the best of popular and serious acting. He’s so self-assured, so confident and cocky, that you can only root for him.
When, in that opening flashback sequence, a colleague of his (played by G. W. Surendra) ends the valedictory for his character, Wickrema Randeniya (influenced by alcohol, we suspect, as he rambles on about Caesar and Calpurnia), everyone claps and Gamini, before turning away, smiles rather contemptuously at him. He is amused, even faintly condescending, implying that only he has the prerogative to praise and celebrate himself properly. That was Gamini at his best; a little proud perhaps, but never lacking confidence, never unsure, never betraying his doubts.
Which perhaps is what riles us up when he does end up being compromised and questioned, as the story progresses. His wife Geetha, Swineetha Weerasinghe (then Abeysekara) lacks confidence and is turbulent. She loves him, but expects him to be devoted to the values his profession stands for. That is enough for her to dig up old dirt when his old enemy, Goring Mudalali, intrudes and goes away unchallenged. Her role is to catapult an already tense conflict into a debate over his integrity. Is Randeniya really that good, that virile, that manly? “You earned a degree, you earned an ASP title to cap it all, but you still weren’t able to clean up this bloody mess!” she shouts at him, forcing him to do what we knew Gamini, at that point in his career, could do; slap her, then have his guilt revive that virility he had repressed.
It’s difficult to imagine Joe Abeywickrama as his adversary, but that’s what Tissa Abeysekara transformed him into. Critics never grow tired of contending how Welikathara unearthed his versatility, but I rather think that his versatility was always there, hidden underneath. He was endowed with certain physical features that would have turned him into a villain long, long before: those thick eyebrows, that rough, uneven face, and a voice which could covey both laughter and pathos. Gamini was a pampered prince in comparison. Joe, on the other hand, took to you spontaneously.
Perhaps that’s why these two were neither pitted against nor coupled with each other again thereafter, the same way, for instance, that Vijaya Kumaratunga and Sanath Gunathilake were during the eighties. Joe’s great achievement in Welikathara was forcing down Gamini to a moral quandary, one that not even a muddled up, hazy final encounter couldn’t do away with. The script was obviously Tissa Abeysekara’s, but about 10 minutes into that encounter we feel that some higher hand was at work, reshaping Goring from an invincible adversary to a pitiful stock villain-gunned-down. (And if that wasn’t incongruous enough, we have that obligatory final standoff where the wounded and dazed villain shoots several times and misses the hero, only to have the hero return the compliment by shooting him down with one bullet.)
It’s rather jarring when the same person who tossed memorable one-liners (“Asiyath ma gawa, buruwath ma gawa, name koleth ma gawa”) with an almost boyish grin and got away with everything could be reduced to such a pathetic figure. But despite whatever transformation he was compelled to undergo to sustain Gamini’s populist image, Randeniya’s moral quandary could never truly be resolved.
So Randeniya does what all men of honour would have done in that situation (he’ll never be reconciled to his wife; she turns away when he visits her in hospital): shoot himself. To have Gamini Fonseka commit suicide, however, would have been too unbearable to audiences back then, so he saved himself the ignominy with another plotted contrivance: his father, the honourable Rate Mahaththaya, fathered the woman he impregnated and then abandoned to the fury of Sudu Bande (Goring Mudalali). That plot-device, however, is really a plot-hole; it leaves many questions unanswered and far from patching up the story, it actually brings out the other plot-holes (like the following; how could someone like Sudu Bande, given his reduced circumstances, rise up to become a powerful ringleader so quickly?).
Despite that, though, I was ready to forgive him because Welikathara wasn’t really meant to be taken seriously. Like the movies of the Walshes and the Wilders of the forties and fifties, there was a sense of self-contempt and irony lurking underneath. I felt it as I waded through that montage sequence chronicling Randeniya’s conquests; it flows like a newsreel, but it’s actually a point of contrast to his later downfall. It’s crazily cynical, so cynical that it reeks of noirishness and even imprisons the audience (most of the arguments are shot from two frames that cut to each other, almost claustrophobically) so much that the final standoff in the long, hot desert isn’t as liberating as you thought it would be: it just makes everything even more cynical. I fervently believe that was Nihalsinghe’s real achievement.
But I also believe that’s what repelled our adherents of art cinema and took them to a completely different terrain. Welikathara was defeatist, but never as defeatist as the Europeans. It was a decade of hopes being shattered, of ideals being questioned. We were moving away from the self-limited realism of the past. Nihalsinghe’s movie, on that count, was a quirk, one which he himself didn’t indulge in, as Ridi Nimnaya, Maldeniye Simion, and even Keli Madala (a lesser work) clearly showed.
Whether we should regret this, of course, is debatable; coupled with the infrastructural issues that troubled our industry in the eighties, the commercial cinema was destined to be estranged from art cinema. Welikathara was the only movie that tried to bring the latter to the audiences which doted on the former. That it succeeded despite everyone moving away from it, I think, speaks a lot about what might have been. Entertainment and art never cohabited in this country, not in the cinema and not in the theatre. That is sad, but I think we were all complicit in it, one way or the other.
NOTE: While meticulously restored, the copy I saw at the Regal was missing certain scenes from what I had watched earlier. In particular, the first few shots of that confrontation between Randeniya and Geetha after Goring intrudes on them and then leaves unchallenged were missing, a pity because they lay down the unforgiving, claustrophobic mood of what unfolds thereafter.