A still from the tele series Deveni Inima
It’s happening at last; people are lining up on the streets and sitting in front of their television sets expecting a story that makes sense, flows, and rings true. They are tired of the perpetually elongated plot-lines, the exaggerated, facile acting, the false sense of expectation they get from the typical mega-series. Why should they feel otherwise? The world has got smaller, busier, more hectic, while schoolboys, schoolgirls and teenagers are being bombarded by an onslaught of impossible deadlines and syllabi and classes, one after another. Obviously they don’t want to feel left out by the art they purvey. They want movies, TV serials and plays that actually move them. In this sense, art has got closer to advertising; audiences don’t want to feel that they’ve been cheated.
In advertising, that is the best kind of advertising, you don’t bother to read the copy; you get carried away by the visuals, the best of which communicate the ideas that have been briefed on to be delivered. If this is the true function of advertising, I don’t see any problem in bringing it closer to art, particularly since art, by its very definition at the hands of self-proclaimed auteurs today, seem to have been contorted to mean any object that requires a separate frame of reference (like a brochure) for its meaning to be clear. To these auteurs, ‘technique’ is the magic word that’ll make up for every and any flaw that besets their work, which is why so much of what they make is depressingly self-conscious, or makes them aware of their own self-touted greatness. The movies they shoot are hollow. But that’s the elephant in the room and what their supporters in the press want to hide.
If movies thrive on a culture of facile symbolism then television thrives on a culture of childish idiocy. Serials like Deveni Inima are an offshoot of the theme, overdrawn and hackneyed though it is, of young, naive love
People say it’s tough to film a serious idea or stage a play about serious ideas. I’d beg to differ, if by serious ideas you mean themes that engulf a story to such an extent that human beings are presented as types rather than fleshed out individuals. At the end of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, for instance, the dispossessed hero, bereft of any piece of evidence with which he can prove a murder that (he thinks) only he saw, plays imaginary tennis with a mime. The idea this was supposed to bring out (pick your favourite; the emptiness and sterility of contemporary society, the un-knowability of truth and reality, the agony of catharsis – so many, in fact) is there, laid down in clear-cut terms. But this expressionism, this in-your-face attack on modern, bourgeois life (which Blow Up spends a lot of time mincing and roasting, by the way) seems to say so much without saying nothing worthwhile. When the directors have nothing to say, they naturally resort to the easiest way of saying it: through the use of symbols.
When artistes resort to these symbols, they aren’t really being inventive or for that matter expressive. They are merely making use of the meanings that audiences give to them. Asoka Handagama’s Channa Kinnari, one of the most indecently beautiful movies I’ve ever seen, suffers from this impediment in its portrayal of the boss (Tony Ranasinghe) and suffers even more after its first half, when that boss and the protagonist (Swarna Mallawarachchi) meet at the funeral of the latter’s husband. Even in an otherwise visionary and ambitious work like Thani Thatuwen Piyabanna, which is greater in every respect than that recent paean to sexual identity and liberation, Frangipani, the use of symbols, especially that last sequence where, after our protagonist is led away by the police, a little girl provocatively sports a moustache, is (for the lack of a better way of putting it) so obtrusively symbolic that we lose the larger meaning the story tried to highlight. (Need I mention the pacifier-sucking doctor, played by W. Jayasiri?) We are so captivated by the in-your-face apparentness of this tiny detail that we are led to forget the rest of the narrative. Unfortunately, that is not a strength.
If movies thrive on a culture of facile symbolism then television thrives on a culture of childish idiocy. Serials like Deveni Inima are an offshoot of the theme, overdrawn and hackneyed though it is, of young, naive love. It’s a theme that’s been treated elsewhere, with more intelligence, by other writers and directors, but as with all such themes it’s been bogged down and simplified over the decades in a very crude way. When trends are set down by scriptwriters, other scriptwriters and directors are quick to follow them; not just Deveni Inima, but also Sidu (what episode would we see next, and what plot-line it would delve into before casually moving away from it?), which revolved around the little monk Soratha despite the fact that it has nothing to do with the little monk, because his popularity proved to be so unavoidable, as time went by, that the writers had to change the plot to focus on him; this split over to the television remake of Handaya, which also has a little monk-figure (that the film did not have). It’s condescension at one level; television producers assume our preferences, then dish them out one after the other hoping to get higher ratings, through us.
Imagined, fantasised juvenile versions
Deveni Inima appeals most discernibly to the demographic that none of its leading players comes from: pubescent or pre-pubescent, predominantly school-going, and more often than not male. In other words, the actors are all playing out their imagined, fantasised juvenile versions of themselves. The changes in mood- from friendliness to confrontation and vengeance- which demarcate the relationships between the male students in it, are so incongruous. Sometimes I wonder whether the story is heading somewhere at all; perhaps all we’re reacting to in a mega-serial like Deveni Inima are the predictable elements and details: the forever unfulfilled girl, the forever cricket-playing boy, and the forever-doomed-to-be-alone-and-bespectacled sidekick. We identify with these characters, who happen to be types rather than individuals, because we want to be like them in real life; in our schools and in our tuition classes and, if we’re lucky enough, with our girlfriends!
If Deveni Inima is said to be corrupting our youth, the same way that, decades ago, a book or film like Golu Hadawatha was, it’s simply not true. Mainstream television shows aren’t corrupting our youth, they’re alienating them and idiot-ising them in more ways than one. They’re profoundly shallow the same way that art house movies are shallowly profound; they play on what audiences expect them to play on, without providing anything substantively new.
One of the most peculiar qualities of the modern sensibility is its habit of treating the young as the adults they are not while considering them as naive and gullible. Deveni Inima puts this quality to (despicably) good use, firstly by casting overgrown actors and then by turning them to undersized, juvenile versions of themselves. This has the effect of jacking up the ratings, since through that crude method both adults and youngsters are lured in, never mind the fact that nothing new comes out of the episodes in the first place. I think the more accurate indictment to throw at these shows, consequently, is the fact that it’s obfuscating to and cheating on the youth. More than 300 episodes on, we are seeing the same characters engaging in the same things, perhaps a little more strongly. The truism that familiarity breeds contempt doesn’t work out in our television industry; that’s why these rehashed, recycled elements and plot-lines still enrapture audiences. The young of today are being tricked, and grossly so.
Deveni Inima appeals most discernibly to the demographic that none of its leading players comes from: pubescent or pre-pubescent, predominantly school-going, and more often than not male
But then there’s that trend I pointed out at the beginning; this demographic clamour for more and don’t want a work of art to upend them and their expectations. If they still indulge in the fantasies of a Deveni Inima (which, by the way, are rather male-centric, since its audience happens to be schoolboys who dream of schoolgirls who in turn dream of schoolboys chasing them), they are indulging in the way those fantasies tend to project their idealised versions of themselves; who can sing perfectly, strum the guitar perfectly, and entrance any girl they want the way they want. The movies, particularly the art house movies, pretend that we don’t know what’s going on in them (so the director has the opportunity to explain everything to us); the mega-series, like what I’ve outlined above, pretend that we know everything that’s going on in them (so the scriptwriters don’t have to add anything new to the narrative). On both counts, it’s a subtle and insidious form of condescension, and on both count, stereotypes and cardboard cut-outs eventually become the norm. The only real difference is that the former are obscurantist and the latter populist. But when accounting for this difference, there’s really nothing that separates one from the other. Audiences are clamouring for more of what these films and shows can’t deliver; an honestly conceived, fleshed out story that neither leaves you in the dark nor makes you feel titillated by the tropes in them that play on your adolescent fantasies. Our youth should ideally be the yardstick by which we measure the popularity or lack thereof of our cinema and television industry. That’s why we should welcome a Ho Gana Pokuna, a Koombiyo, and more recently, a Vaishnavee.
A still from the tele series Deveni Inima