A true artiste never dies... | Sunday Observer
Dharmasena Pathiraja’s cinematic ontology:

A true artiste never dies...

Plot summary of Bambaru Avith (The Wasps are Here)

The film is set in a fishing village. Anton Aiya is an exploiter who outwardly resembles and acts like a regular fisherman. He feeds off the other fishermen. Into this setting arrive members of the urban entrepreneurial youth. They have adapted to western culture, attired as westerners and preferring western music.

Conflict arises between Anton Aiya and Baby Mahattaya (Victor), a representative of the urban youth. A middle-class leftist Weerasena is also of this group. The arrival of these youths has clearly caused a social crisis requiring a solution and all Weerasena can do is stand on a platform and deliver a speech that no one listens to. He finally leaves for the city.

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Dharmasena Pathiraja, an artiste known for his rebellious approach of creativity in cinema who stepped in to the realm of Sinhala cinema in his debut Ahas Gauwa (A League of Sky) in 1974, with the intention of creating a new cinema that is counter-discourse to the bourgeois artistic cinema and the stereotyped popular cinema of that time.

It was a time where the left-wing film criticism was at its peak and Pathiraja’s cinematic ontology has been baptised as ‘the left bank of Sri Lanka’s cinema’ by the left-wing cinema critics in the country and Pathiraja’s continuous ideological approach in cinema was able to lead the second revolution in Sri Lankan film making while the first revolution happened with the great Lester James Peiris in 1956.

Born in 1943, Pathiraja graduated from the University of Colombo with a degree in Sinhala and Western Classical Culture and later obtained a PhD in Bengali cinema from Monash University, Australia.

He always generously acknowledged that he learnt the language of cinema from the late Lester James Peiris and other ancestors in the world of cinema. However, contrary to Lester’s cinema which was almost restricted to the bourgeois class, he didn’t want to limit his socio-political landscape he touched upon in his cinema to the said class. Also it was the time the socio-political landscape in the country was heading for a period of deep chaos.

Therefore, in his cinema he always wanted to bring the story of the oppressed. His cinematic language and his progressive ideological motifs were knitted in a complex yet fascinating manner.

He was obsessed with radical activists such as, Jean-Luc Godard, the work of ‘third Cinema film makers’ Fernando Solanas and Glauber Rocha and Asians such as, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak.

Bambaru Avith (The Wasps are Here) at Cannes Classics 2020

It is said that a true artiste never dies. Proving it, engraving his imprints in gold in the world’s ‘A’ grade film festival arena, Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Bambaru Avith (The Wasps are Here 1978) widely considered as Pathiraja's masterpiece, has been selected for the 17th edition of Cannes Classics. Cannes Classics is a popular sidebar dedicated to restored heritage movies and documentaries that form part of the Official Selection. It is indeed a delightful moment for every filmgoer in the country, especially in an era where the Sinhala cinema has no priority in the entertainment industry any more.

However, undoubtedly this marks a remarkable milestone and an extremely noteworthy moment in the Sinhala cinema as this old treasure of Sinhala cinema will be aligned in spotlight with rare films such as Peter Wollen’s ‘Friendship’s Death’ in which Tilda Swinton delivered a breakthrough performance in 1987, and ‘The Story of a Three-Day Pass,’ Melvin Van Peebles’s feature debut. Documentaries included in the roster include ‘Wim Wenders, Desperado’ by Eric Friedler and Andreas Frege; ‘Charlie Chaplin, The Genius of Liberty’ by François Aymé and Yves Jeuland; Bao Nguyen’s ‘Be Water’ about Bruce Lee; R.J. Cutler’s ‘Belushi’ about ‘Blues Brothers’ star John Belushi.

Since the Cannes Film Festival cancelled its physical edition due to the Coronavirus pandemic, this year’s selection of Cannes Classics will be showcased at the Lumière Festival in Lyon which will run Oct. 10-18, and at the Rencontres Cinématographiques of Cannes, set to take place Nov. 23-26. The film will be screened in 4K and sound restoration was carried out by L’Immagine Ritrovata using the sole-surviving 35mm film positive.

Pathiraja’s humanist cinematic path set a trend in Sinhala cinema and have embraced and been heavily influenced by film makers like Asoka Handagama and Prasanna Vithanage. In his modest, mature approach, Pathiraja generously appreciated the new generation’s cinematic work and was never reluctant to mark it as the third wave of Sri Lankan cinema.

The Sunday Observer spoke to a few artistes who have been in close contact with Pathiraja and his cinema and they recalled the memorable, insightful impact made by the maestro of cinema in their respective lives.

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Asoka Handagama

Pathiraja has made the biggest impact in my cinematic career. He gave us courage to do what we appreciate in cinema. And to get selected in his masterpiece Bambaru Awith for the Cannes Classics is a great achievement in Sinhala cinema. I hope the Sri Lankan film authorities will consider this occasion to understand the importance of restoring Sinhala old films. The Sri Lankan Film Corporation still doesn’t have any restoration mechanism for films, which is quite ironical,”

Indira Jonklass

Pathi, as we affectionately called him, was an honest and unassuming person to work with. It’s 40 years ago, but I recall his directions were always clear, nevertheless, allowing the actors to go with his leadings and suggestions which is an ideal situation in my opinion.

Being with him off set was as interesting as working with him, as he always had some unique and often hilarious observation of daily, commonplace incidents to share, which revealed his view of life.

I was extremely privileged to have worked with him in Paaradige and though I never worked with him again - as I lived for a very long time outside Sri Lanka - saw that he perfected his potential and craft in films such as Swaroopa.

I salute Pathi as one of Sri Lanka’s foremost cinema directors.”

A comment relevant to the current topic would be:

“I am delighted that ‘Bambaru Avith’ has been restored and that Pathi is finally receiving the high international honour both he and the film deserve.”

W Jayasiri

Pathi was always a true artiste and true friend. He had a political vision and his films in the early stage of his career, were made to project his progressive ideology in line with this vision.

Being part of his masterpiece which has been appreciated in Cannes Classics after many decades, I’m truly happy to be alive to witness it, and extremely sad that Pathi is no more to celebrate the joy. Although Pathi’s cinema was mostly about marginalised, average people of the country and although it was the golden era for Sinhala cinema, Pathi’s films have not been embraced by the audiences and very much ill-treated by the authorities. However, he was a trendsetter and was able to create cinema of his likes which has been appreciated even after decades. And that is the beauty of Pathi’s cinema.

Prasanna Vithanage

I have repeatedly said on many occasions that Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Ahas Gauwa has changed my life entirely. It made me want to become a filmmaker. I’m extremely delighted that his masterpiece Bambaru Awith has been selected for Cannes Classics 2020. I’m equally happy that Asian film academy has taken the initiative to restore the film in 4K technology and as far as I know none of Pathiraja’s films have been restored yet.

I got the opportunity to be at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005 with him and that year made history in Sinhala cinema as Vimukthi Jayasundara won the Cannes Camera d’Or award for his debut Sulanga Enu Pinisa.

Pathiraja’s Ponmani was screened at the festival and he enjoyed the festival, having Scotch, watching movies and hanging around with filmmakers around the world and cinema enthusiasts. For me Dharmasena Pathiraja is a more “genuine” depiction of Sinhala cinema.

Vimukthi Jayasundara

Pathiraja was the catalyst for the second-generation filmmakers in Sri Lanka. All of us in our generation were influenced by his work; especially to use cinema for a political discourse. We tried to take his discourse forward from where he stopped. Our topics were even more radical and politically sensitive. He had been with us all the way till his death. He fought with us for the freedom of cinematic expression.

The rational and cinematic wisdom that he added suffice for him to be remembered.

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