Arun the rare artiste | Sunday Observer

Arun the rare artiste

23 June, 2019
Pic: Shan Rambukwella
Pic: Shan Rambukwella

Arun Welandawe-Prematileke, is the fifth playwright to win the most prestigious literary award of the year, Gratiaen Prize 2018 for his original, mind-blowing play-script, The one who loves you so.

Identifying himself as a member of LGBTQ+ community whose rights have been marginalized and ignored by the norms of the heterosexual socio-political discourses of society, Arun’s writing was admired by the judges for his ability and bravery to discover and exploit life’s experiences and its sophistication, which they described as a successful piece of writing in one of the hardest genres in literature.

Actor, writer and director, Arun is a graduate in Drama and Theatre Arts at Goldsmiths College, London, and his previous work, ‘Paraya’ could filch the attention of its audiences a few years ago, and similarly when The One Who Loves You So hit the stage for the first time last year for a limited audience at the Namel Malini Punchi Theatre, critics claimed ‘the play was a brazen boundary breaker, the staging of which was an outright attack on Sri Lanka’s conservatism.’ (Dilshan Boange –Sunday Observer)

On a gloomy Thursday morning, we caught up with Arun at one of his favourite coffee spots in Colombo. It is said that every human being has hundreds of separate individuals living under his skin. Although many lack the ability to give them their separate identities and personalities and have them relate to the other characters living inside them, there are some rare individuals who have the innate ability to carry multiple identities with consummate ease. Arun Welandawe-Prematileke is one such rare artiste with all three characters as writer, director and actor in one self.

As Arun says, of these three characters, being an actor and director is what he enjoys most and finds it more energizing. Being an actor is something natural to him. “For me the character of writer, director and actor are all inter-connected. However, I enjoy being an actor and director the most. The actual process of writing I find boring and do not enjoy,” he says. When Arun was very young he had the idea of becoming a screenwriter. However, he is reluctant to consider himself as a writer particularly as one who sits at the table for hours to write. “I can’t see myself doing that.”

Although he couldn’t match himself with the characteristics of a typical writer, he realized that he has been doing something similar in his previous works Paraya, Only Soldier and a few others.

He says he is more into devised theatre methodology, a collective creation where the script originates from collaborative, improvised work by the performing ensemble. “It took me three years to realize that I too am a writer, although my writing process is different.” When Arun started The one who loves you so he wanted to explore a more traditional form of writing and through it to touch upon his utmost personal experiences in life. He wanted to be specific about his expression and did not want it to be a shared imagination.

With each successive production, Arun has taken ownership to the writing process more and more. “Besides, I enjoy improvisatory work, it is challenging and sometimes hectic as you need to have a good understanding and empathy with the team. When I hit upon the idea of The one who loves you so, I wanted to own the story as it is my own expression.”

I find that narrative art forms are the best communicator which give the most enriching experience and have the extra-ordinary capacity to create empathy with the people, allowing them to have different perspectives.

The process of writing is unique from one person to another, and one project to another. It’s again similar to acting. Although you’ve been taught strict methodologies and structures you may hit upon the perfect ideas in the most unexpected way. “For me it depends on the project. I like to research and talk to people and read what other writers have written about the subject matter. All these help define what you have to say in your art piece,” says Arun.

Likewise, Arun spent three months to read and research on queer literature by other writers before his first draft of The one who loves you so. “I didn’t have to do much research on other areas as it was mainly about my own experience,”he said.

Once he did the ground work and research, it took him only two days to complete the first draft of The one who loves you so. Although it was supposed to be staged within a few months, Arun says it took him more than one and a half years to complete the final production.

“It was a chaotic process. There were twenty different versions. It’s about being vigilant about yourself and being able to create what you really wanted to do. The one who loves you so is a departure for me as it was the first time that I brought myself into my artwork,” Arun says.

Born in the heart of Colombo, into a privileged family and in a community where the primary interactions are in English language, classism is the connected thread of almost all of Arun’s work.

In his plays he is concerned about how the class factor plays into relationships, interacts with each other, plays into politics, and so on. Through his creations Arun tries to decipher the hypocrisies of that particular community. “This is the community I’ve been born into and brought up in. They are the people I know and dealt with. This is the community that I talk about in a more communal manner and indeed I too am part of it,” he says. Although Arun represents the LGBTQ+ community whose rights have been marginalized and ignored by the mainstream politics of society, he admits that he is extremely privileged, being an English speaking, upper middle class, cis gendered and Sinhala-Buddhist man. “I walk with my head held high. With all that I have a feeling of fear of being rejected and it took me a long time to grapple with my sexuality and find out who I really am.

Arun claims it is usually an upper class elitist’s idea that there are certain issues they think are unique to them. “For example, people think The one who loves you so is unique to the residents in Colombo. But it’s not.” For him it’s such an upper class closed door mentality to believe that people from lower classes do not have these complex feelings and emotions.

“There are times I felt I’m an outsider to my own people”. Arun believes irrespective of the language and its scope, theatre by nature caters to a segment in society. It could be mainly due to its unique characteristic. It exists for a moment and then it’s gone and would be there only in the spectator’s mind. Theatre doesn’t have one tone.

It is continuously reevaluated every time it is staged and changes from one performance to another. Arun is against the idea of evaluating any art by its reach of popularity. He thinks it’s an elitist idea to have what is being produced in Colombo, to be translated and brought up to the North or the South.

“I work in specifics. When I create a production, I know the specific audience I would get. That particular creation may not be able to be shared with thousands of others and could be irrelevant. The one who loves you so was written because I’m a queer man living in this city, in this place and time. If I were still in London, I wouldn’t be writing such a play because its interests are irrelevant to the context. I don’t believe a piece of art can be empowered just by being seen by many people,” he says.

Arun does not see himself as one consistently trying to find the truth about him as he thinks that type of exploration is futile. “Every single person’s psyche is locked in their thirteen year old sub-conscience and operates from that.

The volatile emotional person they were at that age is who they are and the psyche frozen in that moment. Although it’s not easy, empathizing with our surrounding is the only thing we have to do in life.”

Arun is not that ‘typical’ kind even in appearance. At first sight none can miss the different shapes of tattoos he has on his hands and his funky nose ring. For him it seems the body is another form of art that he uses for his expression.

“I don’t want them to have a meaning. However, what excites me is that which reminds me of people, times, incidents and places of my life. I don’t think the human body is something precious and you have to protect it. For me tattoos are another form of expression like we do with our clothes, hair and everything else.”

“Some mornings when I wake up and look at one of them I think ‘oh.. I don’t like it anymore, but the very next day I feel otherwise. I don’t regret any such feelings though. It’s part and parcel of life,” says Arun.

The One Who Loves You So will be staged in October. For those who missed it now is your chance to catch it.