Review : Bank Hero | Sunday Observer

Review : Bank Hero

Robert Frost, America’s most popular 20th century poet laureate once famously stated, Poetry begins with delight and ends in wisdom. Although it is a stage drama, this undeniable truth is highly relevant to the veteran playwright, journalist, script writer, director and the acclaimed author Kapila Kumara Kalinga’s latest theatrical excursion Banku Weeraya (Bank Hero).

Spanning for over a couple of hours during which the spectators are drifted into a literal reverie to contemplate on their own unfulfilled life expectations marred by social discrepancies, Banku Weeraya brings forth a fantasy embedded in surrealism cum contemporary economic and social tragedies that keep gripping the whole nation. Only that we may not dare walk in this fantasy no matter how dire our need is. Though this might sound contradictory, maestro Kapila Kumara Kalinga effectively and uncannily weaves through these social pathos while brilliantly handling the crescendo into chaos.

It definitely is not for the lighthearted, hollow minded hoi polloi who are willing to please themselves with the readily available inferior adaptations of so called ‘comedies’ which Kapila Kumara Kalinga, categorically defines as ‘Carnival Dramas’. Banku Weeraya stands high among such contemporaries as a creation that in essence is true to its values and qualities expected from an absolute stage drama, while retaining the signature hallmark of its veteran creator.

Having taken an extended break from theatre after being in the field for over four decades, this celebrated thespian lately marked his return to the arena by embarking on yet another theatrical adventure. And interestingly, Banku Weeraya could not have made its entry at a better time. At a time the country is grappled with notorious financial crimes and bank frauds, Banku Weeraya’s entry marks such an artistically sarcastic coincidence which even the perpetrators couldn’t have denied.

It all begins with a young man (the-would-be-bank robber) gaining access to a suburban bank accompanied by a friend. This uninterrupted, easy and straight forward access into a bank on a public holiday even without the need of a disguise or a minimum form of violence itself implies the inefficiency and incompetency as reasons for the whole banking sector being baffled by such hideous crimes. Despite this initial success the bandits, one of which is seeking money to fund a kidney transplant while the other is in need of migrating abroad, fail miserably.

Although the heist was planned to be completed within several minutes, the protagonist Kalansooriya is forced to spend an extended period inside the bank during which he holds the employees as hostages, appears live on television, becomes a hero of the destitute and the public and befriends the bank staff to the extent of receiving their testimonial support in case of a future trial against him.

Real life

To add insult to injury posed on the entire social system, the robber even manages to negotiate with the police for a helicopter, in order to ensure his safe passage out of the country itself. Sounds like a fantasy from someone’s imagination? But isn’t that the fantasy that rules nearly almost everyone who is battling hard to eke out a living in this consumerist society? No matter how unrealistic it may sound in real life, there has always been a fascination with the adrenaline pumped process of going into a bank, threatening workers and patrons and making off with a big ‘score’.

It definitely is not only fascinating but also appears to be the easiest way to get hold of a large cache of money. And that is why the would-be bank robber ‘Kalan’, an unemployed youth from a lower middle class family, rents a gun and breaks into ‘Express Bank’.

But, amid various distractions this eventually becomes a botched attempt while the drama moves deftly from farce to a philosophical tragedy paired with a catastrophic end, depicted by the untimely death of the Bank Manager and the protagonists going insane. The surrealistic build up towards the point of a fantasy ends up in a contrastingly devastating manner implying the futility and impermanence of this full throttle chase behind money.

Tiresome

Having become enslaved by a money dominant consumerist society, people are trapped in an unending marathon, complete with a multitude of unfulfilled ambitions. However tiresome and exhausting though, they chase these wild ambitions with such gusto and desperation that it has consequently resulted in frustration.

Since almost all these ambitions are unattainable without ‘money’ it has become the supreme master who rules this consumerist society with an iron fist.

Even social values and humanity are identified with money. In a society where money has got into the saddle and reining in, people are hardly in a position to satisfy their avarice. Not even when they have got money worth a bank. When Kalansooriya breaks into a bank he most notably represents not only the avarice of the wealthy, but also the destitute working class, dumped by this unjust social system to rot in poverty.

Having become momentarily retrospective, he inadvertently reveals how his life’s ambition to become a banker has been thwarted by that ruthless hypocritical social system, driven not by the principle of meritocracy but by nepotism.

In turn, he mocks and makes amends for this very same injustice by overtaking the manager’s authority during the hostage drama. Frustration, disappointment and delinquency rendered by unemployment among the suburban youth are effectively represented by Kalansooriya, who voluntarily risks his own future for the sake of a much ‘better life’.

When he confesses to the police inspector that his vision of life has been, straining himself as a mule to survive as a man, he stands up for the majority of this society who are being deceived, obfuscated and trampled upon over and over by the prevailing unlawful evil ruling administration. This bitter, yet undeniable truth is brought forth and emphasized throughout the drama in various satirical contexts. Kalansooriya’s remarks about the reason behind the brain drain could be the best of all such.

“I love this country. But this country does not love me.” It is this unrequited and unreciprocated love that forces the poverty stricken majority of commoners to loath their own country. In this country where corruption is strife, none, not even the decently employed category (except the elite) is spared from thriving poverty. Poverty may well not be an issue in popular culture, but it is so in a corruption and injustice stricken social context like ours. This stark reality is portrayed towards the end of the drama, when Kalansooriya gets arrested by the CID for an attempted bank robbery of which the prime motive was poverty.

In Nirupani’s case it may not essentially be poverty but her desire for a better life (which of course cannot be attained without money) that provokes her to pledge allegiance to the would-be bank robber. And this yearning for a better living is so overwhelmingly powerful that it overrides her intimate relationship with her fiancé to a point of break up. Something as austere as true love could hardly survive in such money minded avaricious society.

Kalan, a defiant symbol of unemployed, impulsive and frustrated youth of modern era, despite all the mishaps succeeds in procuring the sympathy of the bank staff, especially, of the clerk, Guneratne.

A typical trade unionist with mutinous character traits, who naturally identifies the motives of the would-be bank robber in the perspective of his own personal woes, hastens to stand in solidarity with the robber, by providing him with vital clues for a hidden cache of money let alone disparaging the entire bank staff as ‘dignified beggars’.

Stashed cash

Although his leftist views for a socialist culture where everyone could enjoy equal privileges are received with some antagonism among his contemporaries, this Marxist outlook helps develop a comradeship between him and Kalan. This comradeship reaches its ultimatum when Guneratne betrays his colleagues to the robber by revealing to him the whereabouts of the stashed cash, a guarded secret which the entire staff has been protecting all along.

The irony that keeps gripping the audience lies within Kalan’s repeated proclamation that he is not a rogue. This in a way reveals a powerful truth regarding human nature which originally refuses to become the culprit by admitting to any wrongdoing. On the other hand, this self-denial urges the audience to ponder over the protagonist’s motives behind this heist and in turn provokes them to justify the bespoke motives on a humanitarian ground.

The play takes on a dramatic turn when the police and media crew storm the surrounding area of the bank, not to mention jeering ‘Kalan enthusiasts’ and local kibitzers who razz the cops. Money, which has been introduced all this time as a ‘can’t-do-without’, loses its prominence when it gets thrown and scattered about by Kalan. Even the dogs get a chance to taste it. And similarly, it is not just money that meets such a downfall. Kalan and Nirupani too follow suit.

Ardent artistic

Their fall from grace is symbolically denoted in a way, by the perpetrators being unknowingly cartered into police custody. Their utopian fantasies being shattered, Kalan and Nirupani start realizing the futility of their money minded, far-fetched dreams with a sense of insanity. If we can let ourselves laugh at desperation that has turned seriously lunatic, the play could be funny, but mostly it is dazzlingly efficient and vivid in conveying the futility of this full throttle chase behind money. In a consumerist society money could be essential but it should not be allowed to govern humanity or surpass logical thinking of the human mind.

Kapila Kumara Kalinga, an ardent artistic advocate against social injustice, oppression and corruption, skillfully incorporates these misdemeanors into a masterpiece of theatrical adventure enhanced with a philosophical view of existentialism.

The yearning and seeking for a superficially enlightened prosperous life of luxuries as portrayed by Nirupani is a mode of defining such philosophies advocated by the renowned German philosopher Martin Heidelberg, who argues that being in this material world (best understood as survival) depends on such quest. But tragically it is this quest that leads them to their downfall and insanity towards the end. Kapila Kumara Kalinga deftly weaves through this sequence with such mastery that the audience find it increasingly hard not to identify themselves as part of it.

Although superficially in many aspects it bears a striking resemblance to ‘Sydney Lumets’ 1970’s movie ‘Dog’s Day Afternoon’, in essence it is a genuinely authentic creation of its own identity adorned with the dramatic signature of Kapila Kumara Kalinga. He might have been inspired by Lumet’s movie for the structural buildup of the drama, but Banku Weeraya has been quintessentially developed with a satirical theme which invokes the cultural melee gripping the contemporary local society. Surely, it is strictly not for the lighthearted entertainment, nor for the narrow minded audience who enjoy following the bandwagon of sub standard carnival dramas with no in depth meaning. It is a drama of its own right, which glamorizes heroism born out from a frustrated youth in the face of disappointment, who once aspired to end up in a prestigious white collar job.

Although the hypocritical society would tend to view the protagonist as a villain, the story unravels him as a hero and a representative of the oppressed public ridden with debts and austerity measures of the ruling class. The title ‘Banku Weeraya’ (Bank Hero) simply denotes this.

The law may well condemn Kalansooriya for his crime, but he would definitely find justice in the hands of the jury of his peers, who are convinced enough to dismiss his charges in the name of their duty as the oppressed. This alone would be a feat in which resides the crowning glory of Kapila Kumara Kalinga’s social critique BankuWeeraya, an enthralling,a ‘must-see’ theatrical chef-d’oeuvre.

- Ruklanthi Perera 

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