17th October, 2004  Volume 11, Issue 14

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    


Capturing space

By Kumudu Amarasingham 

Define space. Is it that endless infinity that possesses all the answers? Is it the dream that is always just beyond reach? Is it every heartache ever faced? Is it all the confusion and sorrow and joy? Is it the mind's tunnel that hides so much? Is it the best or worst that we are? Is it all? Or is it nothing?

Space in/on/within/between was the theme of this year's Artlink workshop and exhibition sponsored by The British Council, Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institute, Vibhavi Academy and co-sponsored by the Lunuganga Trust and Hotel Serendib.

Participants involved in various fields of art and design from the UK, France, Germany and Sri Lanka took part in this year's workshop. The project aimed to attract young, innovative, amateur designers and visual artists looking to cross boundaries between art, architecture and design.

This workshop was held at the late Geoffrey Bawa's Lunuganga residence situated in Bentota. A sprawling and beautiful piece of property, the artists were encouraged to use raw materials from the land for their work.

Participants were divided into three groups, 'Spicy', 'CG Play G' and 'Untitled' and encouraged to explore their surroundings, their reactions to the environment and to each other.

The results, judging from the exhibition last Sunday, were quite interesting to say the least. Confusion, restriction, shame, freedom were just some of the subjects that had been dealt with. Twine and barbed wire, wood and string, trees and human bodies, all came together to form a collage of matter, grippingly twisted away from their common purpose into an exercise for the imagination.

Said Semini of the group Spicy: "It was an opportunity for me to know who I am. I felt a need to break all barriers." Ruwini in the meantime was ecstatic about the opportunity to exchange ideas and work with people from different cultures. Michael, from the UK was pleased with what he had seen and said it was a great experience. Buddhika, a third year furniture-designing student from the University of Moratuwa said his wire frame creation was a reaction to the surroundings of Lunuganga.

An exhibition of the work was held at The British Council from Saturday October 9 - 16. It was scheduled to be held at the Alliance Francaise and Goethe Institute thereafter.

 Mille Soya or Boungiorno Italia

Paradise is greener from the other side 

Mille Soya or Boungiorno Italia is about Sri Lankans forced by poverty, lawlessness and uncertainty to seek El Dorado overseas, and the privations they have to undergo to achieve it, only to find the past never leaves them, and the affluent West, like every other paradise on earth, is greener from the other side.

But if one were to say this and hold his peace, he would be doing great injustice to Boodee Kirthisena, writer/director of Mille Soya. For, within the fairly conventional storyline described above, Keerthisena has created a masterpiece that brings out in fascinating detail what it is to live in deprivation and the lengths it pushes those in such circumstances to break free of their lot.

The film, in Sinhala, (with snatches of Italian when the location shifts to Italy) and sub-titled in English, starts in a Sinhala-speaking, coastal village. Pradeep (Mahendra Perera), an amateur musician - the type you find along the semi-urban, Roman Catholic areas on the south-western coast - and Princy (Sangeetha Weeraratne) are among a group of friends from the village who decide they will not endure such deprivation any more but seek their fortune in Italy.

However, there is an insurmountable problem. Asians and other coloured foreigners coming to Italy for employment are hated by the natives as intruders on the hunt for cheap jobs, and shunned by immigration authorities that see them as lawless troublemakers. Therefore this band takes what has become a beaten track. They pay an employment agent a hefty sum of money to smuggle them without papers to their destination. However, the employment agent (Ravindra Randeniya) disappears mid way, leaving them stranded in Bulgaria.

Faced by such odds they use native wit, which includes negotiating with a man in Bulgaria, to take them across to Italy. Their ordeal includes climbing treacherous mountain terrain girt in snow and losing some of their comrades to the police and to asphyxiation by travelling in a coach's airless baggage compartment.

Once in Italy, they find the reception is not as warm as they expect. Jealousy, infidelity and friction arising from living in a community on the downside of society, makes life as cheerless as what they had lived in Sri Lanka. Life for Pradeep is dreary but endurable. However, ghosts from his past in Sri Lanka are not easily banished. They haunt him throughout and compel him to make the single-most important decision he has to take when overseas - to return.

The film delineates starkly the consequences of modernisation and the debilitating effect it has on human beings. It is a statement on all Sri Lankans, but especially on the underprivileged, which, thanks to the open economy and the invasion of all types of influences and gadgets are told of the myriad opportunities available to them, but barred by cruel circumstances from using those.

The gulf between opportunity and achievement leads to lassitude, ceaseless planning and daydreaming, which are well portrayed by Pradeep and his friends. But the effects of the global economy do not stop at making healthy, able-bodied young men sit around unemployed, drinking and smoking pot. It strikes at the very heart of living, on a society's sense of community and cohesiveness.

Mille Soya explores this theme in two related ways - through the portrayal of unremitting and violent conflict, and by what would, in conventional terms, be regarded as lawlessness.

Conflict is seen at different levels. Violence at an interpersonal level is seen between Pradeep and his brother (played by Lakshman Mendis). His brother believes Pradeep is ne'er-do-well who spends his time doing the unproductive work of a musician.

When Pradeep compounds this by brushing with the law, his brother has had enough. He assaults Pradeep and throws him out of the house. Interpersonal conflict creates unpleasantness between those crossing to Italy when adversity overtakes them. It mars relationships in Italy too when Pradeep's love for Princy upsets the friendship between him and her brother (played by Kamal Addararachchi), leading to fisticuffs.

Conflict is also explored in terms of political violence. Factionalism during electioneering breeds, conflict between different groups in the village, climaxing in a death that makes Pradeep decide to return home. Politics cannot be removed from sleaze, corruption and violence that go to make people like Anton (Anthony Surendra) rich on ill-gotten wealth.

Third, the film brings out the ethnic and religious conflicts in our midst. Though the village is not set in the war zone, there are constant references to the war. One is by the sailor friend of Pradeep's. However, the references are matter-of-fact and not with the emotion that stereotyped members of the armed forces speak about their dedication to fight to save the motherland. But the war is palpable enough when a bomb explodes, killing people and rendering surrounding buildings smouldering wreckages.

Religious conflict in Sri Lanka, on the other hand, is not treated in the same matter-of-fact way. Princy's brother opposes her relationship with Pradeep because she is a Christian and Pradeep, Buddhist. The director brings out the irony of the situation because Princy's brother and Pradeep are good friends and they both come from a village where there is religious harmony.

However, in Italy, when it comes to a love affair between Pradeep and Princy, her brother - who, by the way, is very unchristian in all what he does - opposes the relationship. It goes to show how puritanical, intolerant and xenophobic diasporic communities become. 

The conflict is not only seen, it is also heard. The language Keerthisena uses in the dialogue is terse, violent and littered with obscenities. In fact most of the time it is spat out rather than clearly enunciated.

Finally there is conflict associated in the trade the villagers ply for a living. It is here that violent conflict meshes with lawlessness, a factor mentioned above as a consequence arising from the disintegrating communal ties brought about by modernisation. Pradeep's mother (played by Veena Jayakody) survives by distilling moonshine. So do other families. Moonshine leads to constant skirmishes with the law.

What is lawlessness? Why do people get on the wrong side of the law? Right through the film Keerthisena keeps probing the question. It is not that those who indulge in lawlessness are evil men and women. It is that the villagers have to sell moonshine to live. Unless a risky operation by boat is undertaken to transport hooch in defiance of the police, home fires will not burn. To the policemen, the villagers are indulging in an illegal act, but that is how the community survives in a world where everything has its price.

The unsustainable nature of our conventional ideas of law and order is questioned further en route to Italy. Pradeep, Princy and their friends cannot enter Italy legally; they have to avoid border guards, drive concealed in baggage compartments and constantly be on the watch for the police who might ask them for papers.

The way one's status in society - especially when an illegal immigrant - determines one's relations with the law is also portrayed with force in the film Dirty, Pretty Things. But the two films show different treatments of the subject. Whereas Dirty, Pretty Things is about how persons who are deemed illegal immigrants use illegal means to overcomes evil in society, Mille Soya shows the web formal institutions weave around the individual on the underside of society, whether in Sri Lanka or Italy.

Keerthisena treats the twin aspects of violence and lawlessness with great sensitivity. The brawls are brutal and revolting, but not unrealistic as they are in stereotypical action movies made both in the West and South Asia or sadistic and meaningless as in The Passion Of The Christ that is now running in some of our local theatres.

Similarly, lawlessness is portrayed in a completely matter-of-fact way and totally without sentiment. Unlike in the conventional Sinhala film, there are, mercifully, no sermons.

The film relies greatly on realism to get its message across. Mahendra Perera gives a very realistic performance of an artiste/musician who is also street smart enough to survive. His casting is perfect: Pradeep's stature, his long hair and a slight but perceptible diffidence in manner bring out the artiste in him. But at the same time he is no softie.

He is tough enough to survive the rigours of the journey to Italy as well as Princy's bullying brother. The naturalness of the performance is seen in the other characters as well, such as smooth talking job agent (Randeniya) and Pradeep's mother (Jayakody).

The element of realism also comes across in the dialogue, to which reference was made earlier. Not only is it abrasive, it does not dwell on sentiment or suffer long speeches. What is more, the dialogue is peppered with humour and wit and occasional obscenities that make it very natural. The English subtitling too is done very creatively, where the translator has taken liberties but without losing the essence of the original.

Third and most important, the setting of the entire film is in the homes of poor people. Whether they are hovels in a moonshine brewing coastal village in Sri Lanka, in a tiny bed-sitter in Italy or a shed erected for a little-known provincial band to perform, the setting gives no illusion about the fact the film is about the lives of the poor.

There is no attempt to seduce an audience by portraying luxury, thereby helping them escape the hard realities of life. In fact the only portrayal of affluence is an Italian villa where Princy works as a cleaning maid, and the home of Anton, who has built it from ill-gotten gains.

The realism comes out in the deft editing. Ravindra Guruge does a very good job with quick cuts from scene to scene till around the tail end of the film. The pace tends to slow down in last 15 minutes or so, with Pradeep's reminiscences of his amorous dalliances with Princy and his hopes of returning to Italy tending to tire the viewer with long, slow sequences. But then the director has to compromise if he wants his product to be a commercial success!

Mille Soya is a fine film. Its uniqueness does not lie in presenting the trials of those going abroad for a better life. Its unrivalled merit is in exploring why people go overseas braving the obstacles in their path. The film is not about abject poverty and people wallowing in it. It is about poverty and what the human spirit does to master and overcome the limitations of one's circumstances.

Mille Soya is a 'must' for Sri Lanka's middle class. It will give them something to think about before they next exclaim, "Our people go as illegal immigrants to Italy and spoil Sri Lanka's name - and now even decent people like us cannot go there." But then, will it?

- J.S.T.

An insight to a creative mind

By Risidra Mendis  

Chandana Ranaweera is no ordinary painter. A look at his paintings makes one wonder what goes on in this painter's mind. Inspired  by what he saw around him Ranaweera has been successful in painting figures of gods and men. Most of his paintings portray a combination of lines, colours and figures. But for Ranaweera, each of his paintings has a story of its own.

Commenting on the work of Ranaweera, expert and critic of literature, Edwin Ariyadasa says this young artist has his creative roots deep in the soil of this land. "His life is a product of the rural life to which he was born and in which he was raised. His soul, his spiritual being and his inner self are all the result of the cultural forces that stem from his childhood," says Ariyadasa.

According to Ariyadasa, those who take more than a routine interest and are profoundly animated by the pageant eventually grow up into being creative artists, men and women of reflective thought and exceptionally gifted people. "Ranaweera has always been sensitive and is very much the outcome of his rural, cultural heritage," Ariyadasa said.

Ariyadasa says: "Only the vague trace of a personal style can be seen in Ranaweera's early works. But today, Ranaweera has developed into a creative person with a decided perception of his own. He is enriched with an individual vision while his work stands out due to his own motifs of expression."

"Ranaweera's latest work focuses heavily upon themes that are derived from various religions and their practices. His painting titles include 'Abode of Gods,' 'Lonely Gods,' 'The Monks,' 'Vesak Lanterns,' 'Creative God' and 'Stupa Cult,'" says Ariyadasa.

Meanwhile, Prof. Ashley Halpe says: "He spends hours creating idiosyncratic figures of Gods and men, mendicants and guardians, hours on the meticulously laid our backgrounds and inner spaces created with hundreds of thin pen strokes, squiggles and whorls, with pointilliste brushwork with unpredictable and unfashionable splotches of pastel colours."

"But the figures he evokes have been drawn with swift audaciously elegant lines producing whimsical mouths and noses, suddenly staring or weirdly hooded eyes with drapes, accoutrements, tridents and what you will, sketched, sometimes just suggested with marvelous economy and certainty."

According to Prof. Halpe, there are totally unpredictable spaces and inspired collocations in a quirky world that is surely the unique vision of an instinctively original mind despite the deceptively simple identifications in terms of Buddhist themes and tales.

Saree exhibition

An exhibition of traditional Indian sarees and shalwar fabric  will be held by Thangam Mathai of Chennai. Known by the label Mayuri from Chennai, Mathai has for over 20 years upheld a tradition in producing woven, printed, embroided and artistically and creatively designed sarees and fabrics to suit the women of today.

A variety of silk, tussel, crepe, cotton and colourful block printed material will be on sale from Chennai. The exhibition will be held on October 22 and 23 at 49 1/1 Layards Road, Colombo 5.  

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