Our children and our cinema

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By 2017-11-19

By Uditha Devapriya

Two months ago, while I was on my way home, I ran into a storm that threatened to turn the city I was in into a merciless, never-ending river. The driver of the van I was in was frustrated, the traffic outside looked interminable, and the rain didn't stop: it kept on coming down. We took a detour and drove through a shortcut into a road that was, unfortunately, so small that every other driver and vehicle that had decided to drive into it found themselves in a veritable procession of cars, vans, and irate motorcyclists. We were stuck, helpless, with nothing to do but look at the streams that were opening up and the way everyone on our route had to slow down and patiently, agonisingly, cross them.

The road cut into several lanes, all of them quite small but nevertheless resident to several houses, the occupants of which did not come out. No one would have of course, but then out of the blue I saw someone, umbrella in hand, walk towards us. The storm had calmed down a little, enough for me to discern that this was not an adult, but a schoolboy.

He would have been no more than 12 or 13. He had come out to look at the rain, and he was looking at the drivers who were frustrated and the passengers who were bewildered if not irritated, with interest. The expression on his face, barely visible though it was, reminded me of the young prodigals from the stories of Saki: amused, excited, yet somehow contained. It's the kind of sensibility we think children ought not to have, that operates on an inchoate but refreshing mixture of happiness and indifference. And yet, it was exactly that sensibility which made me forget the rain, forget my driver, forget my fellow passengers, and reflect on the kind of movies our directors make for our children today. That schoolboy, incidentally, had by now disappeared, probably to his house. If he reads this essay, let it be known that he might as well have been its co-writer.

In most countries, there is a difference between movies for children and movies about children. In Sri Lanka the confusion between the two has been, for some reason, sustained so much that we can no longer differentiate between them. Nearly half the films we recall watching as children, which we thought were about them and, naturally, about us, weren't; they were slick exercises in commercialism, because by inserting the kind of stories we like to listen to in them, the directors of those films were able to market them as family pictures.

One such film I saw had an altercation on a bridge between a monk and a "savage" (yes, you know what film I'm talking about here) that ends with the latter throwing his axe out of fear at the other. But this confusion or conflation between two paradigmatically different genres has served to intensify the debate over any film with children in it. For the truth is that, unfortunately and in both genres, our directors have so far failed to identify the sensibilities and the emotions of their target market. Our children are, according to these movies, rich, poor; spoilt, brash; naive, honest; fat, thin. They are conceived by our directors as the products and

extrapolations of the tropes that operate in our popular cinema. In most cases the rich prodigal is terribly spoilt, so much so that he can't be salvaged: the film either tosses him aside or destroys him. And in three cases out of four or five the poor child will be honest-to-god sincere, naive, adaptable, and heroic. Producers prey on these dichotomies and tropes because they are what got them the rupees at the box-office when they were churning out movies for the masses; the adults. By condensing those tropes, by approximating them to our children, they are on their way to marketing bigger pictures, this time not for adults but for entire families. Let's face it: who doesn't like entertainment with kids thrown in, anyway?

The boy I saw that day inculcated the sort of sensibility those producers and their directors purposely leave out when they attempt family entertainment, the sort that displays a casual disregard for rich/poor dichotomies. Such dichotomies are hard to sustain, because while the rich are considered despicable and the poor virtuous it isn't difficult to ascertain that the rich aren't always that despicable and the poor aren't always that virtuous. Privileged children suffer from onscreen apathy: they are forced by our scriptwriters to be sickly, weak, and spoilt, as Heena Hoyana Samanallu makes it obvious. To make these qualities more apparent to us, they are also forced to overact, to be unrealistically brittle when they are rich and endowed, and to be ungodly positive (exceeding even Pollyanna's standards of optimism) when they are poor, destitute, when the truth may be different. Our children don't flourish in want, nor do they suffer in wealth. It's actually the other way around, though our directors don't want to admit that.

If you survey most of the children's pictures these directors have made, whether marketed for families or not, you will find the main quality that brings them together is their attitude of condescension towards their (ostensible) subject-matter. Everything is staccato, careful, slow, gradual, yet sloppily edited. The children in question are loud, jerkily depicted and conceived, and the director appears to be cautious or daunted about letting them breathe, or even letting them be themselves. Every burst of emotion that's compelled from them is spelt out in clear, straightforward terms, perhaps because the cast and crew are afraid of relaxing what I frequently see as a perfectly constrained, and hence lifeless, movie.

Somaratne Dissanayake's early works don't suffer from this limitation (especially Saroja) but his later works, particularly from Bindu onwards, do. They are less children, in fact, than messengers of their directors and scriptwriters and other adults. No one bothers about them; the truth is no one has to, because it's a family picture, and these kids have become what the writers want them to be: loud, expressive, and virtually incapable of subtlety. They are anything but, especially in their adolescent years.

A film like Siri Raja Siri works in this sense because, while the script virtually oozes bursts of emotion (always calculated, never spontaneous) from its child actors, we don't doubt for a moment that these are children: they are loud, but they are young enough to be as brash and naive as they are. It's a different story with a film like Heena Hoyana Samanallu or Daruwane, which forcefully transposes the childhood "necessity" of being wide-eyed expressive about everything into their child actors, boys or girls.

There's a sequence in Siri Raja Siri where our hero, Sirimal, and the bully almost get to be on speaking terms with each other in the classroom. We know by this time that Sirimal has been chosen to play the king in an upcoming school production and the antagonist is to play the prisoner (a stark reversal of fortune: the poor will now order the execution of the rich prodigal, onstage); we know the antagonist doesn't like this; yet it seems almost as though he's forgiven it all and moved on. But then, just as the director is about to force this unrealistic piece of feel-good kitsch on us, he doesn't move ON, he moves AWAY: those friendly overtures by our bully are revealed as overtures to a tentative "deal" to steal Sirimal's role for himself. Sirimal refuses, only to have our antagonist mock him and leave. The disjuncture in the mood during and after this encounter was, I think, one of the saving virtues of that film. (The other saving virtue was that hilarious moment where our hero, now forced to be the condemned villain, weeps so hysterically at his fate, and wins the Best Actor Award; this sequence, featuring cameos of the likes of Rohana Baddage, H. A. Perera, and Charitha Priyadarshani, had me laughing right until the end).

Such flashes of reality, tempered down to suit our kids, win us when they are based on either confrontation or comedy, as Siri Raja Siri proves. They cannot be based on feel-good kitsch that directors throw at us in the name of morality and sincerity. But then this truism isn't understood by everyone, not even by those who stick to it in their other work. Now I understood the rift between savagery and enlightenment in Sooriya Arana (also by Somaratne Dissanayake) and I even enjoyed it, but I could relate more to the sequences of freewheeling friendship between Sumedha ("Podi Hamuduruwo") and Tikira than the altogether baffling and incongruous scenes of violent altercations between them and their elders. Once you entrap your audience, most of whom happen to be kids, with this kind of incongruity, you bewilder them; it's almost as though the song-and-dance sequences ("Iren Handen" was the best song I'd heard back then in a long, long time) were directed by one person, for the kids, while the rest of the Sansaranyaye Dadayakkara - inspired tracts about savagery and being at peace with the wild, about the monk rebelling against the Veddah and vice-versa, were directed by another, for the adults. Which brings me to my earlier point: sugar-coated cheerfulness makes sense where family pictures are concerned, but so does violence, because the former appeals to youngsters, the latter to elders and bringing both to the halls brings in more money to the producers.

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