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Versatile Filmmaker Vasantha Obeysekera’s “Dadayama” (The Hunt)

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In a creative career that spanned nearly five decades, Vasantha made thirteen feature films and several documentaries. Most of his creations were commercial successes too – satisfying both the connoisseur as well as the common Rasikaya

Vasantha Obeysekera was at one time a journalist at ‘Lake House,’ covering the crime beat and writing human interest stories. Many of the stories he filmed had their genesis in true incidents of life

Though Vasantha was very much interested in the story of Adeline Vitharana’s murder and the trial of Jayalal Anandagoda, the script he wrote for ‘Dadayama’ was not based entirely on that

Some wanted ‘Dadayama’ to be filmed as a crime thriller with steamy love scenes. Vasantha refused to compromise in any way and waited hopefully for a producer or financier on the same wavelength as himself on ‘Dadayama’

“Obeysekera’s use of music is very different from the conventional employment of it as ‘background’. There are probably only about ten minutes of music in the entire film, and the music serves a specific purpose

 

By
D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Devoting the first Saturday article of each month to a film, film personality or film-related topic is a practice being followed by this column in recent times. This week’s article therefore will focus on versatile filmmaker Vasantha Obeysekera’s milestone movie “Dadayama” (the Hunt).  I have written about the film and filmmaker before and will re-visit those earlier writings. “Dadayama” released in May 1983 won numerous Presidential and “Sarasaviya” awards for Vasantha and other artistes and technicians involved in the venture. Vasantha, born on December 29, 1937, was 79 years of age when he passed away peacefully in Colombo on April 8, 2017.


There are many who regard “Dadayama” as the finest film made by Vasantha. It was selected by the Government as one of the ten best Sinhala films made during the 50-year period between 1947-1997. The film was an artistic triumph and commercial success. However, there is another sentimental reason also for me to write about Vasantha’s ‘Dadayama’.  

 

A scene from the movie 'Dadayama'

Vasantha Obeysekera
 

 Of all the film directors I knew in Sri Lanka, Vasantha Obeysekera was the one I was closest to. There was a warm friendship between us during the years 1983 to 1988. Our friendship began in 1983 when I first met him and continued until 1988 when I left Lanka for North America. We lost touch thereafter. By a quirk of fate, our friendship began in 1983 due to the film ‘Dadayama’ and my friend and fellow journalist on ‘The Island,’ Ajith Samaranayake. 
What happened then was that Vasantha Obeysekera’s masterpiece ‘Dadayama’ had been released in 1983 a few months before ‘Black July’ and was running to packed houses. Ajith and I went to see it one evening after engaging in a hunt of our own at the ‘Spotted Deer’ in Fort. When we went to the Regal Theatre, the show had already started running to a full house. Furthermore, tickets to the next show were also sold out. There were long lineups of ticket holders waiting to see the next show of the film. The chances of seeing the film that evening or night were extremely remote.

 


Meeting the Director
Suddenly Ajith had a bright idea. “If we can’t see the film, then let’s go and see the Director!” he said. Ajith Samaranayake, who wrote insightful film reviews, had met Vasantha Obeysekera after ‘Palangetiyo’ and both had become firm friends. So, acting upon a whimsical impulse, Ajith and I went to see the director at his Lauries Road residence which was being used as an office then.


Vasantha was pleasantly surprised to see us and gleefully delighted when we told him, “We came to see the Director because the theatre was house full and we couldn’t see the film.” I was made most welcome by Vasantha who told me that he read my column ‘Behind the Cadjan Curtain’ in the ‘Sunday Island’ regularly and was looking forward to a discussion on the ethnic issue.


I still remember Vasantha telephoning home and saying he would be late because he was going to discuss some serious issues with two journalists from ‘The Island’. We then went to the Bamba junction and procured solids and liquids necessary to nourish and enliven a spirited discussion. The conversation continued into the wee hours of the morning.


At one stage Vasantha said the mood in the country was bad and that anti-Tamil violence on a large scale could be unleashed if a major incident happened in the north. This was some weeks before July 1983. Seeing the expression on my face, Vasantha leaned over and in a silent, sensitive gesture exuding empathy put his arm around my shoulder. I was touched and warmed by him instantly. Vasantha and I became close friends thereafter. It is against this backdrop that I write about ‘Dadayama’.

 


  Thirteen Feature Films
In a creative career that spanned nearly five decades, Vasantha made thirteen feature films and several documentaries. Most of his creations were commercial successes too – satisfying both the connoisseur as well as the common Rasikaya. His films possessed distinctive hallmarks indicative of his unique directorial style. The movies made by Vasantha Obeysekera in chronological order are ‘Vesgaththo’ (Masked Men), ‘Valmathuwo’ (Lost Ones), ‘Diyamanthi’ (Diamonds), ‘Palangetiyo’ (Grass Hoppers), ‘Dadayama’ (The Hunt), ‘Kedapathaka Chaya’ (Reflections in a Mirror), ‘Maruthaya’ (The Storm), ‘Dorakada Marawa’ (Death at the Doorstep), ‘Theertha Yathra’ (Pilgrimage), ‘Salelu Warama’ (Web of Love), ‘Asani Warsha’ (Wrath & Rain), ‘Sewwandi’ (Chrysanthemum) and ‘Aganthukaya’ (The Outcast).


 Vasantha Obeysekera was at one time a journalist at ‘Lake House,’ covering the crime beat and writing human interest stories. Many of the stories he filmed had their genesis in true incidents of life. These true tales inspired or influenced Vasantha to weave wonderful film scripts out of them. The screenplay and dialogues in their final form would be completely different from that of the original incident. 


What inspired Vasantha Obeysekera to make ‘Dadayama’ and how he set about it is a fascinating tale. I heard it from the horse’s mouth itself while chatting with the Director at his Lauries Road abode but am able to recollect only snatches now. 

 


 Body of a Young Woman
Vasantha’s ‘Dadayama’ story was inspired by a murder that happened in 1959. On the night of March 14, 1959, the body of a young woman was found lying at Thimbiriwewa close to the Wilpattu National Park near the 27th milepost on the stretch of road between Puttalam and Anuradhapura. The post-mortem was conducted by the forensic analysis expert, Dr. W.D.L. Fernando, who was the Colombo JMO at that time. After a careful examination conducted on March 16, 1959, Dr. Fernando concluded that the victim had been killed due to injuries caused by a motor vehicle. 


However, Dr. Fernando opined that while the injuries on the woman’s body were consistent with her being run over by a motor vehicle, there were also serious injuries on her head that were not caused by a motor vehicle. The post-mortem also revealed that the woman was between 20 to 25 years of age and was about seven months pregnant at the time of death. Subsequently, the victim was identified as
Adeline Vitharana.


A wealthy schoolmaster named Jayalal Anandagoda. was found to be acquainted with Adeline Vitharana and arrested on suspicion. While being interrogated by the Police on March 22, 1959, Anandagoda admitted to having killed Adeline Vitharana by beating her unconscious and placing her body on the road, and then running over her body twice in a car to make it appear that she was the victim of a motor accident. He was aided and abetted by two others. Both were also arrested.


Anandagoda and the other two were charged with the murder and conspiracy to murder Adeline Vitharana. It was a murder most foul and Jayalal Anandagoda was convicted after trial in 1960 in what became infamous as the Wilpattu murder case. Subsequently, Jayalal Anandagoda appealed against the conviction all the way up to the Privy Council. The Privy Council dismissed the appeal in 1962.

 


 Wilpattu Murder Trial Clippings
Vasantha was an undergrad at Peradeniya when the murder trial went on. He was very much interested and followed details of the proceedings published in newspapers. Later while working at Lake House, Vasantha obtained typed copies of many newspaper clippings of the Wilpattu murder trial. He had those copies with him at Bambalapitiya even after ‘Dadayama’ was released. Vasantha let me read some of the English newspaper reports. Most of them were written by veteran scribe William de Alwis, the son of legendary journalist R.E. de Alwis.


Though Vasantha was very much interested in the story of Adeline Vitharana’s murder and the trial of Jayalal Anandagoda, the script he wrote for ‘Dadayama’ was not based entirely on that. The trial inspired Vasantha to write a brilliant screenplay that was differed in many respects from the true-life incident. Of course, there was a common rudimentary basis as well as superficial similarities between both but the film narrative had the unique imprimatur of Vasantha Obeysekera written all over it. In fact, when the film was being made Vasantha cautioned artistes not to read the book written by former Judge A.C. Alles about the Wilpattu murder trial saying his film was different from the book and that he did not want his actors to be influenced by the book.

 


 First Draft of Film Script
Vasantha Obeysekera inspired by the Adeline Vitharana murder wrote the first draft of a film script for ‘Dadayama’ before he made ‘Diyamanthi’ in 1978 but revised and polished it after ‘Palangetiyo’ was released in 1979. ‘Palangetiyo’ won national and international acclaim. Vasantha Obeysekera had arrived! He now wanted to make a film in colour for the first time and thought ‘Dadayama’ would be suitable. 


He got the film script approved by the National film Corporation as required at that time and began seeking finances for production. Many were ready to finance a film but they wanted a typical formula film or masala movie that would draw huge crowds. Some wanted ‘Dadayama’ to be filmed as a crime thriller with steamy love scenes. Vasantha refused to compromise in any way and waited hopefully for a producer or financier on the same wavelength as himself on ‘Dadayama’. After a long wait, a would-be producer turned up. His name was Rabin Chandrasiri.

 


 Rabin Chandrasiri
Rabin Chandrasiri was an old student of Dharmasoka College in Ambalangoda and had been a surveyor in Government service. He had left Government service and gone to Saudi Arabia where he worked for some years as a Survey party chief. He returned home in 1981. Chandrasiri was a film buff from childhood. It was his lifelong ambition to produce a film. While in Saudi Arabia he had written a story and script for a film of his own. Chandrasiri was highly impressed by ‘Palangetiyo’. He contacted Vasantha Obeysekera to seek his advice and help in producing a film of his own. 


While conversing Vasantha told him about ‘Dadayama’ and that it had already been approved by the Film Corporation. Rabin read the script and loved it. He was ready to produce ‘Dadayama’ for his production company, Canfo Films, and let Vasantha have a completely free hand in directing it. Chandrasiri’s bold investment in ‘Dadayama’ paid huge dividends when the film did well at the box office while winning many awards. The Producer himself was the proud recipient of the Best Picture Trophy at the 1984 Presidential Film Awards. The co-producers of Dadayama were, Sunil Jayasiri and P.A. Somadasa.  

 


Two Shocking Surprises
Thus Vasantha Obeysekera got the green light from Rabin Chandrasiri to go ahead with ‘Dadayama’. He selected the artistes and technicians and scouted around for locations. Ravindra Randeniya and Swarna Mallawarachchi were selected as the lead pair. Among other artistes were Iranganie Serasinghe, Somy Rathnayake, Rathnawali Kekunawela, Shirani Kaushalya and J. H. Jayawardena. There were two shocking surprises in the casting. One was Ravindra Randeniya with his goody-goody lover screen image enacting the role of a charming seducer cum ruthless murderer. The other was the portrayal of a brothel keeper by Iranganie Serasinghe whose screen persona is that of a maternal saint.


Donald Karunaratne was the cinematographer. Khemadasa master composed the music. Stanley De Alwis was the editor while K.P.K. Balasingham was in charge of Sound. Since producer Chandrasiri hailed from the Ruhunu, the bulk of the shooting was done in the Southern Province, particularly Ambalangoda. The climax scene was shot in Hambantota.  

 


Dadayama’s Climax Scene
Dadayama’s climax scene - a final clash between the hunted and hunter - is very powerful. Ravindra Randeniya playing Jayanath driving his flashy red car knocks down Rathmalie played by Swarna Mallawarachchi. It is the same vehicle he utilizes to woo and seduce her earlier. The hunted Rathmalie does not go down without a fight. She hits out with a stick smashing the windscreen. The scene was filmed with director Vasantha and Cinematographer Donald standing near Swarna. Two other cameras were placed far off. There was a fourth hidden camera within the car. It was a replay of how in real life Adeline was killed by Jayalal at Wilpattu, presented differently in dramatically from director Obeysekera’s cinematic perspective.

 


Regi Siriwardena’s Review
Well-known writer and critic Regi Siriwardena wrote an incisive review in the “Lanka Guardian” shortly after the film was released. He compared Vasantha’s “Palangetiyo” and “Dadayama calling them “fundamentally anti-romantic films exemplifying Obeysekera’s gift for transforming what might have been in other hands the material of popular melodrama into serious and meaningful cinema” Let me conclude this article about “Dadayama” with relevant excerpts of
Regi’s review- 
“Dadayama  is a rich and complex work; overwhelmingly immediate in its emotional and sheet physical force even on a first viewing (and I believe it will be so for popular audiences as well) it grows and deepens in meaning with further viewing and reflection, and demands to be seen and pondered so, for a full apprehension of the subtleties of its texture.”


“Dadayama centres its plot on a single relationship between two people.  Yet this structure means that the film gains in concentration and energy, while at the same time Obeysekera has been able with great insight and penetration (he is his own script-writer) to focus within the central relationship of the film meanings which go to the heart of our social life.  Essentially, Dadayama is a film about woman - woman as victim and rebel.” 

 


Swarna and Ravindra
“Obeysekera has here in the lead an actress of enormous range, sensitivity, and power (surely this performance will confirm the fact that there is no finer woman player on our screen today than Swarna Mallawarachchi), supported by a solid if less complex character-portrait by Ravindra Randeniya.”


“Obeysekera’s use of music is very different from the conventional employment of it as ‘background’. There are probably only about ten minutes of music in the entire film, and the music serves a specific purpose: it is used throughout to represent the illusory and the falsely romantic. This is evident for instance, in the sequence leading up to the seduction. The sequence, in its visual images and its romantic mood - music, is again a critical parody of the conventions of popular Sinhala cinema: since this is a flashback, and we already know the girl has been deserted, it is charged with irony; and what it leads up to is the shot in which Ravindra opens the door of the rest house room, says to Swarna. ‘Come in’, and shuts the door.  The music abruptly stops: the dream has ended.” 


“Another and highly innovative element in the style of Dadayama is the dissociation, in some sequences, of dialogue from image - that is, where the dialogue is heard over a particular sequence of images taken from another context than that to which the images belong, making possible sharp effects of contrasts, irony or foreboding.”
“Dadayama borrows its basic situation from a real story of a quarter-century ago, but Obeysekera has transposed it into the present time, setting it in the more highly competitive and consumerist society of today. The characters are drawn from this social context: she, a village baker’s daughter, educated and ambitious; he, a schoolteacher, and adventurer bent on social climbing. She is dazzled by his flashy car and the atmosphere of affluence that surrounds him, and so, in spite of their original moral qualms, is her family.  The traditional moral norms are seen in Dadayama as eroded by the new values of acquisitiveness and self-advancement, leaving only an empty shell behind.” 

 


Her Hunt Begins. He Begins Hunting Her
“Once he has got what he wants from her, the man disappears, his sights already set on a marriage with a rich girl which will take him further up the social ladder. Yet with a child by him, she cannot let him go; and her hunt begins. At first, she clings to her illusions of love; schooled then by the terrible experiences she suffers, she becomes locked in a deadly hatred and a determination not to let him go free, whatever the cost to herself. He meanwhile has only wanted to cast her off and escape; now cornered and desperate, he turns around and begins hunting her. The action moves to its inevitable and
dreadful denouement.”


“The last scene, created with a mastery of staging and cutting, is almost unbearable in its shocking power. Yet it isn’t just a sensational climax: it concentrates within itself the central meanings of the film.  The natural setting in which it is placed (the Wilpattu sanctuary) makes us think of her as the wild animal at bay - an image that is deepened by the red talons with which she tears his face.  As they face each other in the final confrontation, the car that had been the instrument of her seduction and is now the murderous weapon seems the embodiment of aggressive and predatory class and make power, and when she shatters its windscreen with the stick that is her only defence, she makes her last stand, as a woman and exploited human, against her destroyer.”

 


Dies Protesting and Resisting
 “It is part of the significance of Dadayama that the heroine grows with her experience, that by the end she is no longer the naive romantic of the early scenes, that she is no resigned victim, that she dies protesting and resisting in an assertion of her human dignity.” 


 D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at
dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

 

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