Watching a screen for inspiration | Daily News

Watching a screen for inspiration

Sri Lankan cricketers celebrating the Asia Cup 2022 victory.
Sri Lankan cricketers celebrating the Asia Cup 2022 victory.

Cricket is the usual salve, and no doubt this time around too — in tumultuous 2022 — when spirits were down, the cricketers gave the country something to be happy about. This was the case in the past as well. The worst moments of war etc., were punctuated by memories of a team that was never short on surprises.

It’s the stuff of lore now. A nation’s collective angst and the exact measure of how a community reacted in good or bad times however are not necessarily recorded through the medium of sport. There is something else that captures mood more accurately — with the delirium, the breast beating, the hope, the spirit of endurance and all of that wrapped into it.

In the 60s there was the Martin Wickremesinghe trilogy of the Gam Peraliya, Yuganthaya, and Kali Yugaya. That was the historical record that defined the times.

In retrospect, that was also the tale of transition that caught the national mood. People queued up to see art-movie fare, which in a different era would be unthinkable. But art speaks to the heart, plainly put, and this is why that era is best recorded by the work of Lester Peiris, and Martin Wickremesinghe.

In contrast the dilettantes and the serious consumer of cinematic work had to settle for Pissu Poosa and Weda Beri Tarzan in the first decade of the 2000s. Critics forecast doom.

This was until Boodhee Keerthisena came up with Mille Soya, and Uberto Pussolini with Machang. If the Lester movies caught the spirit of angst in an era of relative comfort and tolerable transition, the movies of the 2000s were of a less soothing variety. But yet they too were the enduring representations of that period.

These were not war movies. They were works that told a different story of people escaping the gathering storms, or dreams shattered —- not necessarily in Sri Lanka, but in the inhospitable climes of strange lands.

Each era to its own then. The 90s had to be content with fare such as Sergeant Nallathamby but so it had to be. The people never adjusted to the gathering militarization of the war years and Nallathamby served to dilute the terrors. Ironically the actor who played Nallathamby, Nihal Silva died being shot at an army checkpoint when the driver of his car allegedly refused to obey orders to stop. They were hiding no secrets, but Nihal better known as Nallathamby was shot dead anyway.


Some may say that was a sojourn from the sublime to the ridiculous. Nobody can gainsay, however, that the anxieties and expectations of a passing era were not adequately recorded for posterity by the aforementioned titles. The movie-makers of that time were being hit by an avalanche of TV productions that were popular especially in a stay at home era when people would rather watch a teledrama, than risk getting blown to bits in a gelignite blast, at or on the way to a movie theatre.

But yet creators doubled down and tried to preserve what they were told was left of a dying medium. Though there were several movies that could be remembered as attempts at seeing past the surface reality of the long running war, works such as Pura Handa Kaluwara by Prassana Vithanage were exceptional.

If the writer’s recollections are correct, the movie was banned, but the Supreme Court later ruled that the Competent Authority that did the censoring was not properly empowered. There were several other subsequent works that were even more controversial such as Sulanga Enu Pinisa directed by the then relatively unknown — and perhaps even now relatively unknown — Vimukthi Jayasundera.

These were bold representations of the trauma of the times. They were made in the teeth of opposition in various quarters, but in the assessment of the writer, they accurately represented the traumatic nature of events unfolding at a time of grievous bloodletting and mind-numbing violence. The movies were of course almost always assessed along partisan lines, and it is not strange that they came in for serious criticism based on how ‘unpatriotic’ they were supposed to be and how irresponsible the Directors and producers had been.

The fact remains that the movies were representations of an era that is now past us. All that hair-tearing it now appears in hindsight, was unnecessary. Which brings us to the central point of this piece. If culture best represents the travails and hopes of a people of any era, what do we have by way of movies for the record as it were, that would represent the third decade of the 2000s?


The cinematic creators have been dealt a death blow by the twin destroyers of COVID and economic meltdown. Cinemas have been closed for the better part of the last two years. If it means that popular culture is non-existent, probably it is. Someone may say that creativity in the area of Sinhala movies, stage drama etc. is something that has to be resurrected.

If so, the task may be easier than the experience of bringing up something from the dead in the past. The technology is so vastly improved from the 1980s and 90s and it’s that much easier for directors to make movies these days. It is true that expectations are greater as a result as well. Movie-going audiences have seen so many slick productions that are technically far superior to say the average Hollywood films of the 80s and 70s, which is to say much.

But with all those facilities at their disposal, Sri Lankan producers and directors have been stuck in quite a bad place. There was a time teledrama production was seen as the necessary cultural evil.

Now the so-called sitcom and the TV serial are seen as the obligatory offering that rescues the people from sheer boredom at home. That’s horrendous, because most of the time popular television fare in Sri Lanka has nothing to offer, and that’s a fault of the medium as much as it is of those who work within its confines.

So where do we go from here then? While cricket captures the resurgent spirit — mind you there is so much money in the game — is art and culture dying a terribly agonizing death in these times of forced lockdowns followed by lingering economic malaise?

Perhaps there is some opportunity here that people are not willing to come to terms with. Perhaps some of them are scared of the repercussions. Would they be accused of promoting escapism when the nation is faced with a serious crisis? Will they be told that the masses don’t want diversions, when there is a mammoth task of economic revival that everybody necessarily has to be a part of?

That would be ridiculous. History would rather record that the people of the country were distracted by local movie fare rather than two minute Tik Tok blather that came from overseas. But who is going to put his or her shoulder to the wheel in this regard and resuscitate the movie business?


Producers are wary. They aren’t sure that the current very gradual and limping economic recovery would last. It’s a hard fact that they were hit serially — first by COVID stoppages and then from the fallout of the meltdown i.e the lack of movement by ordinary folk, due to fuel shortages etc.

But artistes were never cowed, and if they were not cowed by censorship during the war why should they be restrained by the circumstances of an economy that was tanking? Some may say that the latter is existential. Censorship was something that was enforced externally, but economic turmoil had to be lived with, and it hits where it hurts most — the budget of the producer who had an eye on recouping the costs at least, no matter what art-house movie he wants to be remembered by.

But if there are no arts, there is no real historical record, no matter what the academics may say. It’s why it is hoped that heroes would emerge not just in the fields of cricket, netball and athletics, but in the cinematic arts as well. Heroes that can trump the slump that rudely stilled the action on the silver screen.


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