Vasantha Obeyesekere was honoured at last year’s Derana Film Awards ceremony. About time too, I think, although recognition-tokens are nothing if justice hasn’t been done to the true worth of those to whom they’ve been dished out.
To my mind and until now however, Obeyesekere hasn’t had a book written on his career, nor has there been any substantive essay written on his films (there are exceptions, but I have my reservations). As a cine-phile I am of course thankful to Derana, but I persist: to be fair by him, one must be fair by his work. Biographical sketches and superficial observations will get you only that far. I hence hope this essay, primitive though it is, will provoke others to follow.
Regi Siriwardena once wrote that popular cinema, far from yielding to myths and fantasies, could at times “subvert socially enforced discourses” . As example he pointed at Dadayama. To class Dadayama under a category of films that dabbled in socio-political commentary while retaining elements of popular cinema is to say everything about Vasantha Obeyesekere in one go. That distils the man. Succinctly.
Popular cinema was always considered as an instrument of propaganda and unabashed myth-making. That is why, when a serious cinema emerged in Sri Lanka, directors tried not just to refrain from inserting any trace of commercial films but to do away with them to the extent where their films needed a new conception of the medium to be appreciated in their entirety.
What Vasantha Obeyesekere realised in his career was that the tropes rampant in mainstream cinema could be used to question both tradition and modernity. It is correct to consider his work unprecedented in this respect. Any discussion of his career must hence be centred on this: that is what distinguishes his films from those of other filmmakers.
But I am getting a little ahead of myself here.
Personal relations figure prominently in Obeyesekere’s work. They do not survive for long: the idealism that marks them out at first are shattered, as time goes by, by external forces. These forces aren’t always political, but they exist and persist. That doesn’t just differentiate his work from his contemporaries, it also distinguishes his earlier and middle phases from his later phase (I will explore this shortly).
This came out very forcefully in his middle phase. Kusum in Palagetiyo is in love with Sarath, despite their obvious social gap (Sarath works for her father, a mudalali at a printing press). When he elopes with her to his house, Kusum’s idealisation of marriage begins to crumble. Sarath’s family do not take kindly to her high-bred notions of marriage life. When she realises the painful reality of what she’s bought herself into, the film begins to take us into its tragic but inevitable finale.
Palagetiyo is not Obeyesekere’s greatest film – that credit should be jointly shared by Dadayama and Kadapathaka Chaya – but it was nonetheless a landmark for its time. There’s no better way of identifying both director and film than by contrasting him against both the “bourgeois idealists” and “bourgeois realists”  among his contemporaries. That not only justifies the point that he wasn’t overly concerned with the political. It also exemplifies him as an artist who never confused the personal with the political but knew how well the two could blend together.
Part of this must be attributed to Obeyesekere’s approach to filmmaking. He scripted his own films, which allowed him to exercise near-complete control. Listen to some of the speeches in his films, and you’ll come across sequences which temptingly indulge in melodrama, only to withdraw in time. They crop up again and again, one of the many motifs that bind his work together. These motifs could have only been birthed by the level of control he was able to impose on his films.
There are more subtle ways of identifying his agility in this regard. Take his dialogues and a sequence from one of his films to illustrate this. When Peter Gunawardena from Dorakada Marawa meets Priyantha, the man who’s engaged to marry the woman Peter once loved, he states he has an important matter to discuss with him. “මොනව ගැනද?” (“What about?”) Priyantha asks, to which Peter replies: “About Subashini”. Both question and reply objectify Subashini, and from that point on that is how every other character views her: as an object to ridicule and slander. That one line presages her crisis, but it’s so subtle that it can be missed. Easily. Obeyesekere’s genius was that he was adept at obtaining nuance of expression in his dialogues, and this comes through even in his weakest work.
When he ventured into the political while trying to illuminate personal relations though, Obeyesekere lost his touch. Here I’ll look at one of his most politically coloured films, Maruthaya.
I can’t really agree that Maruthaya showed an “uncanny ability to recapture onscreen the density of social specification” . That is how Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema puts it. By “density” what’s probably being described is the way the film concentrates within itself the personal and socioeconomic crisis that its three protagonists face. There’s “specification” here alright, enough and more.
But what I can’t fathom or credit is how that crisis progresses from then on. Obeyesekere’s penchant for eschewing narrative-chronology is apparent here as well, but that doesn’t help untangle the ideological web it ensnares itself into. Neither the literally stagey scenes (where the three protagonists are illumined in a dark room, met by friends and acquaintances who abandon them then and there) nor the intensity of the dialogues and cutting helps, and in the end we’re left with a void where metaphor and ideology collide so much that they almost become obtrusive. The formal “density” offers very little compensation for this.
To hold Maruthaya superior to Diyamanthi, his only commercially-oriented work, is to my mind erroneous, but that’s essentially what the book concedes ground to. Diyamanthi was coloured by contrivances that were part of our mainstream cinema at the time, yes. But it was a film that was refreshingly aware of its shortcomings, which at one point (after Vijaya Kumaratunga’s character throws his “useless” Bachelor of Arts degree to the dustbin) yielded unapologetically to romanticism. Between this and Maruthaya hence, I prefer the former, if at all because it never tried to overreach itself.
Diyamanthi also precipitated Obeyesekere’s mature phase, while presenting the obverse of the kind of films he’d make from then on. If his later films presented a clash between reality and fantasy to signify political comment, this one did so as cover for a Hitchcockian romantic thriller.
After Palagetiyo we see two films that are his most perfectly conceived. I have unfortunately not seen Kadapathaka Chaya in a long time, so memory fails me. But I have gone to Dadayama again and again, and I am convinced that he intensified his outlook on personal relations in it. The actors he took in for both films must have helped of course, and to my mind no better actress than Swarna Mallawarachchi could have played the protagonists in them.
In both these masterpieces, we see fantasy and reality cohabiting, and not always in obvious ways. Perhaps this is an abstract statement, so let’s examine a sequence from Dadayama, where the antagonist Priyankara Jayanath (Ravindra Randeniya) visits Rathmali (Mallawarachchi) with his “mother” (Irangani Serasinghe). When I interviewed Serasinghe, I put to her that this immediately reinforced in our minds the image of her as the ideal(ised) mother-figure.
Those who have seen the film will no doubt remember what happens next: the “mother” turns out to be a brothel owner, whose role in the film is to trick Rathmali into an embarrassing situation, so as to destroy her credibility should ever she file a case against Jayanath. I told Serasinghe that this in effect ruined her credibility as the ideal mother-figure, which went by way of emphasising the rift between romanticism and realism. She laughed and agreed.
The same can be said of Kadapathaka Chaya. Pairing Mallawarachchi with Vijaya Kumaratunga was ironic: Vijaya’s first onscreen role was as her lover in Hanthane Kathawa. Pairing the two of them with Sanath Gunatilake also offered irony: Gunatilake and Kumaratunga had by that time been paired as comic heroes in a series of popular films, which as Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema aptly suggests were comparable to some Hindi movies that dwelt on comedy and love. It is in here, and not in Maruthaya, that we see real “density”. Multi-layered and ironic. But never obtrusive.
Moreover, with no real intermediary between script and direction, Obeyesekere would’ve been in a position to realise his vision intensely, a point driven home by his almost overwhelming use of quick cutting. Watch (for instance) the sequence of Mercy Edirisinghe’s contortions of face and body juxtaposed with Kusum’s and Sarath’s love-making in Palagetiyo, or the final confrontation between Mallawarachchi and Randeniya in Dadayama, or the sequence of Mallawarachchi killing Kumaratunga in Kadapathaka Chaya.
The first sequence shows the agonised emotions of a woman beset with jealousy, who creates trouble for the couple and provokes their tragedy. The second sequence pits male chauvinism against one woman’s powerful attempt at asserting her dignity. The third sequence is the obverse of this: the woman is able to assert dignity and vengeance, and she does this at the exact moment when the man (who has raped her continuously and is her brother in law) is “impotent” (he is recovering from a leg injury at the hospital). In these, dexterous editing aligning image to sound and emotion bears out Obeyesekere’s savage view of personal relations, at once overwhelming and inevitable in their resolution.
What do we glean from all this? That for him, “the final measure of truth is both moral and social” ? Yes, but I’d like to take out something more: that in the films of Vasantha Obeyesekere, if tradition is stifling, then the forced thwarting of it by modernity leads to total collapse and decay (“leaving only an empty shell behind”  ). One can argue that this reinforces traditionalist values, but it does not. To hold tradition inferior to modernity because of the retrogressive nature of the former is to ignore the acquisitive, ruthless character of the latter.
For me this dualism is best exemplified in Dadayama: it is tradition that condemns Rathmali when she is abandoned pregnant by Jayanath, but it is the same representatives of tradition that egg her on to fall for the surface-allure of his character. In Obeyesekere’s universe the moral and the social are “two sides of the same coin” , and so (it would seem) are tradition and modernity, both resembling one another in terms of their predatory, male-oriented base. That goes a long way in establishing this extraordinary artist in our country as filmmaker and visionary.
 “Visual Media and Mass Media”, 1984 – Regi Siriwardena
 “Conversation with Sri Lankan Director Dharmasena Pathiraja” – Kinema Journal
 Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema – Ashley Ratnabivushana and Wimal Dissanayake, page 49
 “Obeyesekere’s Cinema: from ‘Palagetiyo’ to ‘Dadayama'”, 1983 – Regi Siriwardena