Dharmasena Pathiraja: A cinematic icon | Sunday Observer

Dharmasena Pathiraja: A cinematic icon

There are two names that spring to mind when one thinks about Sinhala cinema directors, Dr. Lester James Peries and Dharmasena Pathiraja. Both these directors changed the course of Sinhala cinema with their daring depictions of reality, firmly rooted in indigenous culture.

Following the recent death of Pathiraja or Pathi as he was affectionately known, one critic said Dr. Peries was a realist while Pathi was a social realist. Indeed, the films of Pathiraja reveal a drive and desire to portray the lives of ordinary Sri Lankans as realistically and honestly as possible. He also took in the political atmosphere of the day. “I hope we are able to produce courageous filmmakers who are willing to look at contemporary history and the past in the eye and deal with it honestly,” he once said in an interview.

The village was his turf as he hailed from the environs of Kandy, so he had a clear idea of the travails of ordinary people. He was not only a cinema personality though – he was equally at home on the drama stage, television and screenwriting. He was also a prolific song writer.

I had an opportunity to hear Pathi speak about his films at a film festival held at the Tharanganee in Colombo a few months ago.

His main concern which he shared with the audience in a very moving but forceful manner was the lack of any effort to preserve Sinhala movies from posterity. He lamented that many movies including some of his own, could not be restored as the original stock has decayed beyond salvaging. Listening to him, I knew why they called him the ‘rebel with a cause’ in Sinhala cinema.

I cannot remember exactly which of his movies have been affected by this malady of ignorance and apathy, but in any case it is a national tragedy for his films are among the best that Sinhala cinema has seen. Having started with a short movie titled Sathuro (Enemies), his career spanned almost 50 years.

Though firmly rooted in Sri Lanka, his films also reflected an international outlook that resonated with audiences, critics and film juries worldwide. He studied films from other countries, notably India. He was influenced by the creations of Indian filmmakers including Satyajit Ray. In fact, his PhD thesis was titled ‘The Dialectic of Region and Nation in the Films of Bengali Independents’ at Monash University. He also studied the cinema of radical activists like Jean-Luc Godard and Third Cinema filmmakers like Fernando Solanas and Glauber Rocha. Notably, some of his movies were based on international plots or stories adapted to a local setting – Swarupa, one of his last movies, was based on a work by Kafka.

In an era where some film makers wanted to drum up a false sense of patriotism among the majority community through their works, Pathi firmly stood for ethnic harmony. He was one of the few Sinhalese film makers to have taught film studies at the University of Jaffna and directed a Tamil movie.

Titled Ponmani, this movie focused on caste issues within the Northern community. Not many would have touched a subject of this nature, but was not apprehensive about this project.

However, he did not make any films that overtly touched on war (apart from perhaps, Soldadu Unnehe), mainly because he had an aversion to on-screen violence. “If you look at the war film genre in general, these films glorify violence. They are generally xenophobic or ultra nationalist,” he once said.

Some of his films proved to be too much for the censors to handle and never saw the light of day (or rather a projector). But those that did get past the censors will forever be etched in the collective conscience of film lovers and critics. While the latter gushed over his movies appreciating their fine nuances and hidden messages, the ordinary filmgoers easily equated their problem-ridden existence with the lives portrayed on screen.

Ahas Gawwa (One League of Sky) was a landmark in Sinhala cinema, with its stunning portrayal of the lower middle class in Sri Lanka. Here is how he described Ahas Gawwa in his own words: “What intrigued me, and something that continues to haunt my films is the idea of people from the outskirts pouring into the city. In our country, particularly at that time - the ‘60s and ‘70s - Colombo was beginning to form, develop an identity. This identity was given shape by those who were moving in from outside. It was this search of those people that kind of matched mine as well. The characters are individualized enough to act, to have agency. For instance, there is no romance plot in the structure of the film. But there is romance. The overall story is the romantic yearning of the youth to belong within the cityscape.”

Bambaru Avith (The Wasps Are Here) follows the lives of fisher folk affected by the vagaries of capitalism, with an undercurrent of exploitation and sexual hegemony. His seminal work Soldadu Unnehe (Old Soldier) deals with four characters who are distinctly marginalised in society - an old veteran soldier of World War II, a prostitute, a man compelled by circumstantial pressures to end up as an alcoholic , and a pick-pocket.

Eya Den Loku Lamayek (Coming of Age) deals with one of the common social issues. Protagonist Susila lives in a small village with her mother and two brothers. Growing up facing bitter realities of life, her coming of age is delayed.

But once it happens, she instantaneously attracts the attention of the young men in the village. The Gramasevaka (Rathnayaka) who lodges at her house gets interested in her, and so does village lad Siripala. This is a story that is a deep reflection of rural society.

Paara Dige (On the Run) was another masterpiece from Pathi. This is a film about the instabilities of youthful urban life, its search for roots, and its lust for survival. Chandare works for an insurance company that repossesses vehicles from customers who have defaulted on payments. Both, he and his girlfriend are part of a generation of young people who have flooded into the cities in search of work. They are part of the cityscape when the girlfriend discovers she is pregnant. This film narrates a story of life’s uncertainties.

Sakkaran, one of his more recent works based on the book by the same name authored by Chaminda Welagedara, documents the caste issues and the exploitation that were part of the Kandyan dance tradition. Again, no other director could have touched such a sensitive issue.

Mathu Yam Dawasa (Some Day in the Future) also deals with the frustration of youth who seek greener pastures. Dealing with his pet themes of youth, unrest and unemployment, the film follows the lives of Dhammika and Lionel.

Their dream is to escape Sri Lanka and go to Italy. But things do not go their way and they go on a violent crime spree. The film is evocative of the political violence that has engulfed Sri Lankan societies from the mid ‘80 onwards. His 1994 film Vasuli, dealing “with the deleterious effects of tourism and the flourishing trade in child adoption,” has still not been released to Sri Lankan audiences.

Pathi got the best out of his actors, even the novices who then went on to become big-name character actors. Whether it was Amarasiri Kalansuriya, Malini Fonseka, Wimal Kumar de Costa or Vijaya Kumaratunga, Pathi was able to extract the maximum acting talent. Many of them credited their success to Pathi’s directorial methods.

Pathi’s films have been screened in many world capitals. Several international film festivals featured his works. Once, following the screening of Paara Dige at the UCLA in Los Angeles, the Professor of Film Studies came up to him and asked him why he could not send out copies of his film earlier to similar events around the world. His simple answer was that he did not have money for subtitling.

If we really want to honour his legacy, an effort should be made to restore and subtitle all his films and release them to a wider international audience on Blu-ray or DVD through respected independent labels such as, Criterion, BFI, Kino and Arrow. That will ensure a much wider audience for his timeless movies that act as time capsules for particular passages in Sri Lankan society. A few books have been written by film critics on the cinema of Pathiraja including An Incomplete Sentence a NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) publication.

Pathi once described film-making as “an unfinished unresolved passion, romance with a language that contains unknown territory. A quest to master the idiom. In my youth, I fell in love with this language, the idiom of life. It continues…”

Educated at Dharmaraja College, Kandy, Dharmasena Pathiraja graduated from the University of Peradeniya with an honours degree in Sinhala and Western Classical Culture in 1967. Subsequently, he began work as a lecturer in Drama and Performance Arts and later obtained a PhD in Bengali cinema from Monash University. Pathiraja was 74 at the time of his death.