10th  August,  2003  Volume 10, Issue 4

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Reflecting back on post colonial Sri Lanka

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Forget that proud civilisation sustained by the villager for centuries. Forget the tank, the village and the temple and be part of a consumer culture that begets immediate wealth. In this sense, Sudu Kaluwara is a most tragic tale than one that deals with the evolution of our society into its present fragmented state.

Sudath Rohana's Sudu Kaluwara is a little more than a mere film in its very concept. It begs answers for many issues. Like the so called development that came in with the conversion of fertile fields into coconut plantations owed by a handful of whites and a few locals who benefited from their colonial masters. The shared common wealth like the village natural forest, mukalana soon came under the sole ownership of Wilson Herald who paved the way for a similar class in postcolonial Sri Lanka. The village has been certainly intruded upon.

The film speaks of the socio-cultural darkness that descended upon and came to grip the once self-sufficient society consequent to British colonisation.

Socio-political dilemma

At a time when history is no longer taught in school and slogans are being credited as artistic expressions of the present day socio-political dilemma, Sudu Kaluwara nudges you to take a look back, and reflect on a sub culture created by the social upheaval that stemmed from colonisation.

The film also marks the graduation of its director Sudath Rohana from tele drama director to filmmaker. His tele films Avidu Andura, Niranandaya, Beddegedara show the reflective streak, his desire to gather seeds from history and to deal with colonial and post colonial themes with an adult flavour.

" The intrusive presence of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British has made this society one lacking an identity. Today we have only a confused idea and hence the lack of nationalistic thinking. I wanted to discuss how an independent nation became such slaves to a sub culture thrust upon us," says Rohana. Hence the English title given to the film, " Intruders".

The film shows the mosaic of Sinhala society, its many linkages, its strengths and the complexity of human feeling. This social fabric was torn asunder with the imposition of Western values and a consumer culture, which recognised only those who climbed the social ladder, no matter what the means of climbing was. It made landowners tenants on their own land, rendered the self sufficient landless and raped a culture that took pride in non-competition and supported each other. In this sub culture, the old Sinhala traditions were quickly forgotten.

For example, adults would not consume liquor in front of their off spring. The hesitation of Maddu Nilame (Buddhadasa Withanachchi) to have a drink in front of his son Dingiri Banda (Palitha Silva) in the early frames of the film has drastically changed towards the middle. Here, the father actually has a drink with the son-seated next to him.

Also, the film seeks to mark the evolution of the rural economy. The transition of a self-sufficient agricultural society into that of a consumer culture where money is the deciding factor and the conferor of status is aptly demonstrated in Sudu Kaluwara.

" When I first read N.T. Karunathilleke's  Ulugedara Arachchi  I immediately felt a surge of emotion. I realised that I had something to say, visually when it came to this story. It spoke of the dramatic and drastic evolution of the rural society, alteration of values and the creation of a new business class people", notes Sudath.

It is this novue riche class that gets represented in the film by Seemon (Sanath Gunathilake) who plundered the wealth of villagers, made quick money by hoodwinking unsuspecting villagers and eventually exploited them, both economically and sexually.

"Those who flourished under the new system were those subservient to the colonial masters. Seemon was truly the epitome of a shrewd vendor. And Dingiri Banda (Palitha Silva) replaces the outgoing Archchila all because he has a thriving friendship with the colonial masters. But is it the same associations, the same people who eventually plunder his own ancestral wealth and denies him that, renders his relatives poor and destroys the culture of which he is a creation."

This is why, Sudath believes that even today, the beneficiaries of this system would rather not condemn colonisation. The arrival of Wilson Herald, a planter who transforms a natural forest, fondly called the mukalana by the villagers signified was used, he says to signify the transition. The entire village is soon portrayed as being in the firm grip of Wilson and Seemon.

"Their ways are seemingly different. But the end result is the exploitation of all sorts," urges Sudath.

And he does try to portray that amidst the social upheaval, what does not change or what is able to transcend cultural barriers is love. This is where the film takes a sympathetic view of the white man who has been otherwise portrayed as the ruthless acquirer and plunderer of a village's natural resources.

Sexual exploitation

"I also wanted to discuss the political nuances of the introduction of the Wastelands Act. It provided for the acquisition of uncultivated land but led to the acquisition of drought- affected hence uncultivated land, the cultivated and even the natural forests," says the director.

Nevertheless, Sudath is careful to manipulate the characters. The viewer would feel more sympathetic to Wilson and dislike Seemon, the local. " It is the human fraility that I wanted to depict. Sometimes, the real beneficiaries were a handful of locals like him who found the social transition a good backdrop to climb the ladder".

The sexual exploitation of the villager hence, happens when Seemon keeps a village woman, Lamie as his mistress and shrewdly manipulates her to grab her land. Wilson in contrast loves the innocent village damsel, Heen Menike and wishes to marry her though the cultural differences are often bought out to justify the denial of such a union.

Her pregnancy precipitates events in the village, marking the complete revolution of a culture. Her mother drowns herself and her uncle Podi Nilame, now indebted to Seemon becomes a tenant cultivator on his own land turns his gun on the white man in rage.

The tanks bear silent testimony to a village that has undergone a sea change and come to a tragic end. Hence, it is the story of the fragmentation of a society that continues to date.

As Sudath says, part of the tragedy is the lack of understating of history as culture. It is the golden string that bound the society together.

"I still feel that we were more just self-sufficient, contained and prosperous in many ways. This quality remains robbed from us even today. That is why we are still seekers of an identity, 55 years after independence" says a reflective Sudath.

And he believes that the film also signals the end of the sex, scandal and crude jokes era of the silver screen. "Our comedies are tragedies because they don't inspire wit and humour. They are unbearably crude. I needed to prove that we still can strive for better things," asserts Rohana.

However, his creation sometimes begged for adult scenes, or a hint of it. For instance, Wilson and Heen Menike are seen in the open fields, often talking to each other. And then comes the shocking revelation of her pregnancy without a hint of the development of their relationship to a physical level which causes a slight credibility crisis.

" I am still learning too, specially this being my first movie. I think a hint of proximity should have been added to ensure more credibility. But I wanted to preserve it as a 'family film' so that the youngsters would not be denied access to it. Otherwise, its educational thrust would have been lost. I actually made this for the new generation that has been deprived of their lessons in history," adds Sudath.

He is quick to point out that the open fields and the young lovers in picturesque backdrops were not included for mere aesthetics. " It was a look at a society that was open. Also, the availability of space before these restrictive impositions were thrust upon us. The entire village enjoyed the benefits of the muklana, it sustained the people and a culture both until it was owned by an individual."

For maiden effort, Sudath has gripped the theme well and done himself proud. Yet, at times, there was no fluidity in the film where there was so much of dialogue and not artistic connectivity to keep the creation bound like a string of pearls. Sudu Kaluwara however would prove a beneficial cinematic experience to the vast majority and urge the viewer to think and make him take a pensive look at what has been lost to him.

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