ONUR radio dramas, authors under fire despite lack of religious references in creative works | Sunday Observer

ONUR radio dramas, authors under fire despite lack of religious references in creative works

Saman Athaudahetti, Malaka Dewapriya & Prasanna Vithanage
Saman Athaudahetti, Malaka Dewapriya & Prasanna Vithanage

The furore about ONUR radio dramas being erroneously billed as ‘anti-Buddhist’ and the decision by the Cultural Affairs Minister to order the police to investigate an author of a book titled ‘Budunge Rastiyaduwa’ have sparked fears of religious policing and censorship in the country

In 2001 internationally acclaimed film ‘Purahanda Kaluwara’ by award-winning director Prasanna Vithanage was banned by the then government. The rationale for this at the time, fuelled by racist elements was that its release would lower the morale of the Sri Lankan Army despite the film merely attempting to reveal the devastating impact of the country’s conflict on Sinhalese villagers.

It was just one example of censorship faced by Sri Lankan artists over time. Many creative works prior to the film, and following its eventual screening have faced censorship. According to artists in the local industry, censorship and cultural policing in its many forms continue to exist as evidenced by a barrage of criticisms being levelled against several creative works, recently.

Speaking at an event in Embilipitiya recently, the former General Secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, Omalpe Sobitha Thera expressed his displeasure at certain titles being used for several radio teledrama episodes sponsored by the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) headed by Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunge. The monk labelled the show as Anti-Buddhist and an insult to the religion.

The phrases offending him were ‘Tharuwan Saranai’ and ‘Nihon Sapa Labewa’ which was the creator’s twist on the regularly used Buddhist and Pali phrases ‘Theruwan Saranai’ and Niwan Sapa Labewa in a bid to elicit satire. The criticism even moved the Minister of Higher Education and Cultural Affairs, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe to publicly claim that a Public Performance Board (PPB) should be introduced to monitor television and radio networks as well.

Also in the firing line was the latest Sinhala novel Budunge Rasthiyaduwa authored by K.K Srinath for its controversial title along with the stage play Mama Kelin Minihek directed by Asanka Sayakkara for its allegedly offensive dialogues. The allegation against all three creators was that the trio had insulted religion and the cultural values of the country through their work.

According to the creator of the Radio teledramas, Malaka Dewapriya, the phrases used for the titles were in no way an insult to Buddhism while the contents of the dramas were far from religious.

The episode ‘Tharuwan Saranai’ speaks of public obsession with superstars and reality shows while ‘Nihon Sapa Labewa’ is a take on consistent attempts by Lankan youth to emigrate to Japan in search of greener pastures. “Ideas cannot be formed by merely looking at the titles of the work,” he said, adding that he invites anyone who has taken offence, to an open discussion provided they listen to the dramas prior to the dialogue.

Srinath and Sayakkara both claim there was no religious content in either work, nor did they have an intention to insult any religion.

But the public condemnation of the creative work by various politicians, clergy and hardline religious organisations has taken its toll. Releasing a statement, ONUR, while clarifying that the radio dramas have not been banned said, however, a decision has been taken to amend the titles of several episodes. Some artists are also now refusing to take part in recordings due to the social pressures, Dewapriya revealed.

While the performing certificate awarded for Sayakkara’s play was revoked by the PPB temporarily, it was once again awarded clearing it for performance after several offending dialogues in it were changed.

But, having to cancel several shows, Sayakkara says, he has suffered serious financial losses as a result, while several organisers are now refusing to commence scheduled shows due to being labelled as ‘Anti-Buddhist’.

But perhaps, Dewapriya and Sayakkara got off lightly.

Minister of Higher Education and Cultural Affairs Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has ordered the Inspector General of Police to commence investigations and file charges against K.K Srinath for his novel and its publisher, popular author Upul Shantha Sannasgala. Speaking to the Sunday Observer Police Spokesman SP Ruwan Gunasekara confirmed that investigations have now commenced in this regard by DIG Crime and Organised Crime Kamal Silva.

Bookstores have also received threatening calls from clergy demanding that they refuse to sell the novel in their stores while social media threats have been made against those involved in its publication.

Taking the recent incidents as a threat to their artistic freedom, a large number of industry stalwarts and artists called for a media briefing in Colombo recently. Many of them questioned Minister Rajapakshe’s understanding of art forms such as, satire and possible motives for the recent attempts at censorship by labelling work as ‘Anti-Buddhist’.

Others found fault with the PPB while pointing out that the Government in its policy statement had promised its disbandment. The artists also claimed that various extremist groups through their actions are attempting to terrorize artists into self-censorship.

“Sometimes, censorship takes place due to pressures of extremist groups, especially, in South Asian countries,” veteran filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage said, adding that now decisions to censor or ban are being made without even knowing the content of the artwork. He also reminded that films such as, ‘Aksharaya’ were banned by similar political meddling as now, and not by the PPB. However, the artists also called for the complete scrapping of the PPB during the briefing.

According to the Chairman of the PPB, Saman Athaudahetti the current board has been liberal and not banned any artwork to date. “We even gave permission for films that had been shelved due to censors previously,” he said.

Explaining its decision to revoke the performance certificate of ‘Mama Kelin Minihek’ the PPB Chairman said, additional dialogues had been added to the script which was not in the original one presented to them, while also airing adults only sections to the public at large.

He also explained, the Government is now looking to introduce a Performance Classification Board to replace the PPB, as promised.

Speaking in Parliament recently, Minister of Finance and Mass Media Mangala Samaraweera also expressed his dismay at the attempts to censor artists and urged the Minister of Cultural Affairs to make such decisions carefully.

In his speech, Samaraweera added that he had personally looked into the scripts of ONUR radio dramas which are under fire.

“But there was no insult to any religions. None of these radio dramas talk about religions. They only talk about social issues’” the Minister said implying that he could not fathom the rationale behind this ban.

Samaraweera claimed there was an attempt to create an image of the Government as ‘Anti-Buddhist’ through these efforts.

The artistes say, they are beginning to wonder about the same thing. Dewapriya even said the uproar being created was a political project of sorts.

However, the artists are now demanding they be given a free licence in creating their work, leaving the right to choose with the public rather than various censors, official or otherwise.

“Criticism and review were always welcome, said acclaimed director Prasanna Vithanage, “But we will not entertain censorship or political meddling in any form.”