Our cinema – The island
By Uditha Devapriya
(With contributions from Dhananjaya Samarakoon)
In 1965, the Sri Lankan government published the findings of a commission of inquiry into the film industry. Filled with proposals and performances from prominent players in Ceylonese cinema, the Commission came up with several recommendations. The most important of these was the creation of a National Film Corporation. Although this would not happen until six years later, with the election of a socialist regime committed to a level playing field in industry, the need for such an institution has often been stressed.
Among those who made representations to the Commission were Ceylon Theatres. Admitting the problems of local cinema, the organization argued that whether funded by the state or by private players, the film producer “cannot escape the limits imposed by its audience”. Distinguishing cinema from other arts, he adds that if painters, playwrights, novelists and sculptors can create without worrying too much about the reactions of the masses, the producer remains “the slave of his public”.
Perhaps the most important point raised by the Commission was the link between the fortunes of the cinema and the economic problems of the country. Advocating greater intervention in the sector, the centre-left administration that took power in 1970 recognized the problems of allowing a few private players “virtually to control the local film industry”. To this end, the new government sought to reduce the influence of monopolistic elements in the market by regulating the production, distribution and exhibition of films. In search of higher production values and greater local production, she tries to breathe new life into cinema.
In 1977, the controls imposed by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike administration were relaxed. The most immediate result of the new policy was, on the one hand, “increasing access to American and Hong Kong productions” and, on the other hand, the removal of “barriers preventing newcomers from entering the domain”. In other words, from a level playing field, the industry has transformed into a commercial enterprise. The introduction of television had a huge impact on the subsequent reduction in viewership, although commentators are divided on the extent to which it led to a drop in cinema attendance.
Any examination of the problems and dilemmas of Sri Lankan cinema must take into account these historical developments and changes. A bit belatedly recognizing what should have been a long time ago, the Sri Lankan state officially categorized cinema as an industry late last year. Although it happens too little, too late, it is nevertheless our responsibility to examine and reflect on the problems currently facing the field, both administratively and creatively. As always, of course, the link between these issues and the country’s economic problems remains as relevant as it was in 1965.
Looking through the history of Sri Lankan cinema, since its inception in 1947, one finds that the deterioration of creative standards has been rather brutal and lamentable. What is ironic is that despite such a descent, there is no end to the courses offered on film, acting, screenwriting and cinematography in the country today. We can conclude that the main contradiction here lies between a still fertile pool of talents and a severe lack of opportunities for such talents. In other words, we have enough more talented people. But they lack the money, the agency, and the access to take full advantage of their talent.
Part of the reason, which is barely, if at all, mentioned by local film commentators, is the lack of an industrial base in the sector. It is not surprising that the heyday of Sri Lankan cinema was the 1960s and 1970s: these were years when a flourishing artistic renaissance coincided with a significant industrial presence in the film sector. As state intervention increased under the United Front administration, the existence of a thriving business base in the industry ensured a steady flow of not only mainstream, but artistic productions as well.
It is therefore quite normal that the cultural revolution heralded by the general elections of 1956, which saw the coming to power of a center-left alliance extolling the values of local art forms, reached its peak during of these two decades. He also agrees that the undisputed doyen of Sri Lankan cinema, Lester James Peries, isn’t content with making two masterpieces in a row – the highly literate Gamperalia (1964) and the highly experimental Delovak Athara (1966) – but then followed them with three more masterpieces, all made for commercial actor, Ceylon Theaters – Golu Hadawata (1968), Akkara Paha (1969), and Nidhanaya (1970) – at that time. These were years of cultural experimentation, experimentation which benefited from the cultural sectors, notably cinematographic, linked to an industrial framework.
Conversely, the deterioration of cinema can be attributed to the deterioration of this industrial framework in the country. On the advice of the World Bank, writes Shiran Ilanperuma, the country’s first government “recklessly squandered foreign exchange reserves while avoiding major industrial investments”. Ilanperuma writes that by the 1960s the terms of trade had begun to change irrevocably, “because the export of primary products and raw materials could not support the country’s consumption of imported manufactured goods”. This had a significant impact on cinema: by the end of the 1960s, it was becoming clear that if the state did not intervene, Ceylonese cinema, long dependent on an oligopoly of production companies, would collapse. This is the question that the National Film Corporation attempted to answer when it was founded in 1971, as it did in subsequent years.
The implementation of swabasha, despite its obvious limitations, also had an impact on the trajectory of cinema after the 1950s. Although reviled by the English-speaking elite, the empowerment of a Sinhala middle class gave rise to a bilingual intelligentsia, opening pave the way for a bilingual cultural community. It is from this community that people like Dayananda Gunawardena, who gave us the finest adaptation of a French play ever made into a Sinhalese film, Bakmaha Deege, greeted. While one must admit the deterioration of creative and intellectual standards among the population, there is no doubt that at its peak, Sri Lankan cinema benefited from a thriving middle class.
Today, unfortunately, despite the existence of an aspiring and predominantly Sinhalese middle class, the prospects no longer seem good for local cinema. In any country, it is the middle classes that produce and reproduce its cultural elites. In Sri Lanka, however, this community has, however, regressed on so many levels, mainly due to a declining economic situation. One can note the decline of standards in film and television production today, not so much in acting as in screenwriting and camera work. One can also note a hopeless lack of imagination in films and television series: from predictable plots to endless dialogue, we have foundered miserably on so many fronts.
I think the problem comes from the fact that we no longer explore new themes and issues through cinema. If we do, we invariably create trends that are imitated and replicated by a hundred other filmmakers and screenwriters. Ho Gana Pokuna was a brilliant and very exceptional film, but it set a precedent for the stories of poor village schools and idealistic teachers that continue to be filmed even now. Aloko Udapadi audiences and sensationalized critics alike, but since its release five years ago, we’ve made million-rupee budget historical epics that look and feel hopelessly predictable.
Admittedly, these are hardly problems specific to the cinema alone. When was the last time a cover song didn’t make the rounds online, giving the cover artist a temporary spotlight while popularizing the original song? When hasn’t a mainstream TV series, which seems to be inundated these days, tried to cut costs through static camera frames and endless explanatory dialogue? Art exhibitions, especially in Colombo, seem reserved for an intellectual upper stratum who can afford the rental fees in the city and whose work seems not only cut off from the world around it, but also downright indifferent to the -this.
We have to recognize that there is no way out for cinema here if our cultural industries are not linked to an appropriate industrial framework. In the 1960s, the last peak decade of the big three production companies, Sri Lanka faced an acute terms of trade crisis and a structural crisis against which the state protected cinema by creating a film company and setting high artistic and administrative standards. Granted, it didn’t always work out well, but it kept cinema at bay during those difficult days of the 1970s. One can hardly be prudish about the liberalization of the industry after 1977, but the fact is that sluggish growth , then the decline, of the cinema remains closely linked to the economic and structural impasses in which we have stumbled ever since.
The truth is that without a proper industrial policy and industrial base, no country’s cinema can last long. Whether from a creative or administrative point of view, Sri Lankan cinema deserves much more than it has suffered. But where are the policymakers and the experts who can prescribe radical solutions, who can recommend an industrialization plan that can help our cinema take off? In the United States, China and India, these problems have been and are being fought. In Sri Lanka, this does not seem to be the case. It is regrettable, deeply and sincerely.