By Utpal Borpujari
Prasanna Vithanage’s looks are very, very deceptive. You will have to strain your ears to catch what he is saying, so soft is his voice. In a crowd, he will prefer to stand totally anonymous, standing in a corner and observing the proceedings. You will never ever be faulted for looking through him, as he prefers to keep away from the limelight unless made to step into it. Vithanage prefers to do the talking through his cinema. Because that is how he speaks his best – in a layered, sensitive, powerful but not overbearing manner. Speeches that you are likely to carry in your mind for a long, long time after they are over, speeches that he makes through his cinema.
Vithanage occupies a special position in the history of Sri Lankan cinema. His themes are pithy comments on the society, and more often than not create a debate. Indeed, he had to seek the help of the country’s Supreme Court to get a ban lifted on his 1997 film Purahanda Kaluwara (Death on a Full Moon Day), imposed by the government who feared that its theme tackling the brutal realities of the Sri Lankan government’s war against the Tamil separatists could create a strong debate in the society. The film, which tells the story of Vannihamy (played brilliantly by Joe Abeywickrama) who refused to sign compensation papers after the Army presents him with the remains of his son as he believes that his son is still alive, is definitely Vithanage’s best and most powerful film till date.
Vithanage’s films, in their use brilliant actors, neo-realistic presentation and societal pathos, show that he belongs to the Satyajit Ray school of filmmaking, and he has more than once acknowledged the influence the master had on him. His vision has been applauded at numerous film festivals globally, and the story has not been different with his latest film Akasa Kusum (Flowers of the Sky) too. With a backdrop of the film industry itself, the film has Vithanage leave the political subtext, instead concentrating on intense human relationships with the focus on womanhood.
The film has an India connection too – this time, Vithanage, going beyond his earlier association with India in the form of post-production work, has partenered with multiple National Award winning editor A Sreekar Prasad to produce the film. Which is why he is eager that the film gets released in India, more so after it has been appreciated by Indian audiences in the 2008 International Film Festival of India (IFFI), where legendary Malini Fonseka even won the Best Actress award for her portrayal of an ageing actress. It has also travelled to the Pusan International Film Festival in Korea, the New York South Asian Film Festival, the 2nd CineASA Guwahati International Film Festival, 2010, and Hong Kong and Mumbai film festivals.
“It has always been a one-way traffic, with Indian film regularly getting released in Sri Lanka, but with films like Akasa Kusum we are trying to break that barrier. It is said this is the age of globalization, but it is actually the globalization of the money, the capital, not of cultures. So it’s one way. Thus, American films dominate 95 per cent of the world, and likewise India dominates the neighbourhood market. Though I don’t accept it, that’s the reality. We are trying to break that barrier with this kind of small efforts. I hope this film gets released in India,” says the veteran director who started off on the stage, an association which he still continues. “I would love to release this film in India as it has a lot of Indian influences. Even in the narrative, you have Sandhya Rani working in a soap opera. The Sri Lankan film industry has been fed by the images and sounds of Indian films. Soap operas of north and south India influence our industry. I would love to release it at least in Chennai,” he says.
Vithanage counts himself among the lucky few Sri Lankan filmmakers, along with Vimukthi Jayasundara and earlier Lester James Peries, whose films have travelled widely. In fact, he has even made a film titled Machan with Italian producer Uberto Passolini, which was a big hit. “I have been lucky in that sense. This film had a budget of just about Rs 65 lakh in Indian currency, which is miniscule by Indian standards. But all my films have been released in Sri Lanka and crossed 50 days, helping me recover around half the cost, while the rest is recovered from international sales. That’s how I have been surviving for past 20 years,” he says.
The director, like his idol Ray, earlier believed that he should concentrate solely on the market he knew, in his case Sri Lanka. “I was influenced by Ray’s famous comment that one should always concentrate on one market. Only for Shatranj Ke Khiladi did he go outside. But with time, things have changed. If not for India, my films would not have reached the international stage. From post-production work to film festivals here, India has been a launching pad for my films. I hope one day I would be able to come to India and make a film,” he says.
Vithanage, whose filmography includes Ira Madiyama (August Sun, 2003), Pawuru Wallalu (Walls Within, 1997), Purahanda Kaluwara (Death on a Full Moon Day, 1997), Anantha Rathriya (Dark Night of The Soul, 1996), and Sisila Gini Gani (Ice on Fire, 1992), says Akasa Kusum has been a challenging work for him as it was set in the industry itself. “It was challenging to be truthful of an industry the insides of which I know so well. It has autobiographical qualities of many actresses. Sri Lanka being a small industry, everybody knows everybody. Keeping the industry in the background, I talk in my film about what’s the meaning of being a woman. When it comes to the film industry, women’s image has been used to get sexual and other attractions. At the same time, with stardom, one tends to forget oneself. Your individual identity gets subsided in the face of your starry identity. That’s a common thing to all stars. I thought why not make a film about finding oneself, a trait common to all, coming to terms to oneself. The film industry is a place where one tends to forget about oneself,” he explains.
The veteran is, however, worried at the state of affairs of the industry back home. “It’s shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. In the 1970s we had a closed economy, so no foreign films were allowed. There was a quota for Indian films. When the economy was opened, all Indian and foreign films came and naturally got the major part of the market. Also, all the subsidies given to the industry have been taken away. There are no buyers, so the producer himself has to release the film. It’s a kind of an unpractical thing. Most of the time producers have not got their money back. Now, Sri Lanka makes just 15-20 productions per year from 50-60 once upon a time. But the good thing is that we still have a middle class audience who still go and watch good films in theatres. That’s how we have been surviving,” he says.