Dharmasena Pathiraja: A legacy unparalleled

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By 2018-02-14

By Ravi Ladduwahetty
Veteran filmmaker

Dr. Dharmasena Pathiraja's trailblazing career in Sri Lankan cinema marks one of the most decisive stages in the evolution of the Sri Lankan cinema. His cinematic practice was revolutionary in many ways in his lifetime which ended recently.

Revolutionary filmmaker

He would be remembered best for not only being a revolutionary and pioneering filmmaker, who virtually redefined the political cinema of the country but also as an activist and patriarch who unreservedly helped the newcomers. Dr. Dharmasena Pathiraja (28 March 1943 – 28 January 2018) was, perhaps, the best known exponent of the Left Bank Cinema and can justifiably be called as the last of the Mohicans of the Left Bank Cinema in Sri Lanka.

The term 'Left Bank' was used to identify a stream of cinema that was pioneered by a group of filmmakers in the history of European Cinema. One of the cardinal reasons for this was that their movies tended to be not just aesthetically demanding but also challenge the political and intellectual practices of the mainstream cinema of the day.

It was against this backdrop that his contribution should be looked at and analyzed. When he entered the field, the Sri Lankan cinema was caught up in the whirlwind of diverse genres such as romanticism and propagandist political cinema. Pathiraja's singular contribution was to recognize the heartbeat of the masses and to redefine the form and content of cinema in such a manner that it would codify authentic Sri Lankan life and life experiences.

Footprints in alternative cinemas

Pathiraja not only left his footprint on the mainstream cinema but also on the alternative cinema as well as television. One of his pioneering contributions to television was his attempt to redefine soap opera (teledrama) as a medium of art which is capable of dealing with vital themes such as economic history of the nation and the painful transition of social order from landed gentry to capitalism, as depicted in teledramas like 'Kadulla' (The Hurdle).

From his cinematic debut title 'Sathuro' (Enemies) to his last film 'Swarupa' in 2017, a film adapted from Kafka's metamorphosis, it is obvious that Pathiraja, over the years had developed a rich cinematic diction which is at one level truly Sri Lankan, capable of expressing authentic Sri Lankan life experiences, while at another level so universal that it is capable of addressing an international and cosmopolitan audience. His pervasive influence on the contemporary filmmakers is a well-acknowledged fact that is often reaffirmed by veteran filmmakers like Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, Vasantha Obeysekera, Boodee Keerthisena and Asoka Handagama.

Pathiraja was a multi-faceted artiste who excelled in diverse areas as a veteran film director, dramatist, producer, screen writer, lyricist, translator and short story author.

An alumnus of Dharmaraja College, Kandy, he entered the University of Peradeniya and obtained his degree (with honours) in Sinhala and Western Classical Culture in 1967.

Doctorate in Bengali Cinema

Later he commenced his career as a lecturer in Drama and Performance Arts and later obtained a Ph.D. in Bengali Cinema from Monash University, Australia. Perhaps, in keeping with his political ideology, he did his Ph.D. thesis on The Dialectic of Region and Nation in the Films of Bengali Independents: Ghatak, Ray and Sen (2001).

He came under the influence of master filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, Third Cinema filmmakers like Fernando Solanas and Glauber Rocha, and Asia's pioneer filmmakers like Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak.

Perhaps, the most remembered film by Pathiraja was 'Bambaru Avith' (1978) which is considered as his masterpiece. The movie represented Sri Lanka at the 10th Moscow International Film Festival and was also screened at the Venice and Los Angeles Film Festivals. It brought accolades to Pathiraja as it was awarded both Best Director and Best Film awards at the first Presidential Film Awards and the OCIC Awards. The movie was named as the fourth best Sri Lankan film of all-time.

Pathiraja's first film was a short 10-minute film named 'Saturo' in 1970. However, his first feature film with which he was identified, 'Ahas Gauwa,' was screened in 1974. 'Ahas Gauwa' deals with the urban lower middle class life which was, then, the mainstay of most of the commercial movies.

Despite the common subject and being a commercial movie, 'Ahas Gauwa' was critically acclaimed, wining the FCJAC Awards as the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. It also won the Office Catholique Internationale Du Cinema (Sri Lanka) awards for Best Film and Best Director.

Another popular film by Pathiraja was 'Eya Dan Loku Lamayek' (1975) which became Sri Lanka's entry at the Ninth Moscow International Film Festival and won a Special Diploma for Female Performance in 1976. It also won the Special Award from the Peace Council of the USSR and was screened at the 18th Venice Film Festival in Bergamo, Italy in 1975.

Dharmasena Pathiraja was the first Sinhalese filmmaker who made a Tamil movie. His movie 'Ponmani' was screened at the International Film Festival in India. By producing the movie 'Para Dige' (In Search of Road in 1980), Pathiraja demonstrated how a filmmaker could incorporate characteristics of a feature film into a documentary that deals with a theme of profound importance. The movie was screened at UCLA in the Third World Cinema Program and in France and Melbourne.

Among Sri Lankan filmmakers, Pathiraja is marked for his street shooting with graphic details. Sometimes he turned roads into potent metaphors as he did in his movie 'In Search of a Road'.

Apart from being a pioneer in cinema, Pathiraja was also a gifted dramatist. Among his best known dramas were 'Kora Saha Andaya' (The Lame and the Blind, 1971) produced by veteran dramatist Dhamma Jagoda and 'Putu' (The Chairs of Eugène Ionesco).

Some of his famous movies are 'Sakkarang,' Metamorphosis (Swaroopa), Some Day In The Future (Mathu Yam Davasa), Whirl Wind (Vasuli), Old Soldier (Soldadu Unnehe), On The Run (Paradige), The Wasps Are Here (Bambaru Avith), Ponmani, How to Be an Adult (Eya Den Loku Lamayek) and One League Of Sky (Ahas Gawwa).

He made a large number of Television dramas (series) which include Kampithavil, Durganthaya (An adaptation of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights), Nandunana Puttu (Unknown Sons), Suba Anagathyak (An Adaptation of Charles Dickens' 'Great Expectations' for National TV), Kadulla (The Hurdle), Pura Sakmana, Sudubandelage Kathawa (Story of Sudu Banda), Wanni Hamilage Kathawa (Story Of Wannihamy) , Ella Langa Walawwa (The Mansion by the Waterfall), Maaya Mandira (Mansion of Maya) and Gangulen Egodata (Crossing the Stream).

In the field of cinema, Pathiraja leaves a void that cannot be filled – and a legacy unparalleled.

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