Dream-catchers of local cinema | Sunday Observer
Dakala purudu kenek is back on board at PVR cinema, One Galle Face

Dream-catchers of local cinema

6 September, 2020
Scene from Dakala purudu kenek
Scene from Dakala purudu kenek

Dakala purudu kenek (Strange Familiar) by Malith Hagoda, a representation of the new generation of Sri Lankan cinema was deemed to be one of the most outspoken cinematic expressions by its audiences and critics both locally and internationally in the recent past.

Dakala purudu kenek is back on board at PVR cinema, One Galle Face for limited screenings. In a discussion the Sunday Observer had with Malith Hagoda (director), and Boopathi Nalin Wickramage ( script writer), of the film spoke of their journey as first time filmmakers and their perception of the future of Sri Lankan cinema.

Minimalist cinematic approach

Watching Dakala purudu kenek was pure contemplation that leads the viewer to understand the complex nature of human relationships. The narration driven, minimalist cinematic approach could precisely bring out the character tensions and complexities of the middle-class relationships in contemporary society. Speaking about the intention behind the selection of the plot Malith said, “I think this is a different plot compared to trends in Sri Lankan cinema.

Although it is unfamiliar to Sri Lankan cinema, in Europe or in other parts of the world and also for the local audiences who have had the exposure to foreign trends in cinema, it is a quite familiar theme.

I personally chose film as my medium of expression because it gives us the opportunity to understand an invisible aspect of our own selves. I try to understand things in my normal daily life that I do not understand, through cinema. That’s how the initial plot of Dakala purudu kenek seeded in both our minds,”

Malith had a great passion for cinema from his childhood. Before Dakala purudu kenek Malith had produced two short films which unfortunately he couldn’t complete. However, in the process he realised that his understanding of cinema is not adequate and mature enough to make a film. Boopathi being his bosom friend for many decades, they never missed out on any film forum, discussion or foreign film screenings in Colombo.

They grew up together developing their knowledge and skills in cinema and when they decided to do their debut film, they had nothing but the informal knowledge they accumulated by reading, watching and discussing the cinema that they appreciate.

Sri Lankan cinema and its crisis

When considering cinema as an industry in any country, several basic aspects can be observed. It is the production, distribution, exhibition and import of films.

Making a film and releasing it are two different things. Although in other parts of the world, where cinema is developed as an industry, film distribution is taken care of separately and it is surely not the filmmakers’ burden. However, sadly, here in Sri Lanka releasing a film has become a filmmaker’s nightmare. Although it is such an exasperating process to release a film, Malith and Boopathi are quite positive and hopeful about their cinematic journey as first time filmmakers.

They had to wait in the queue for five years after the completion of the film and there was only a 15,000 viewership as it was a gap release and in which they couldn’t even cover half of the production cost of the film.

Although that is the fatal destiny of theatre release in the art house cinema in Sri Lanka, due to the expansion of other film screening mediums, the production budget of the film can be recovered. Recalling the strenuous process that they had to go through once the film has been produced, Malith said that, “it was quite frustrating as there’s no proper distribution mechanism in Sri Lanka”.

“However, right now, the local cinema industry is in a transitional period. The five distribution bodies which were available before have been reduced to three recently and they operate under the Government circular issued in 1997.

Although there are many private film screenings coming up based in shopping malls and luxury apartments, those screenings will operate under the rules and regulations of the BOI. In the Film Act of Sri Lanka it is specifically mentioned that the film theatres which are coming under the BOI Act are not entitled to the benefits of the Film Act.

Therefore, these film screenings have the luxury of operating according to its owner’s choice but not according to a national mission,”said Boopathi.

Explaining the constant antagonistic connection between the artistic purpose of cinema and the market in Sri Lanka as well as in the world throughout history, Boopathi said, “It goes without saying that cinema, which has a more crucial connection with capital than any other art form, is therefore in constant contact with the state.

However, Sri Lanka has a history of direct involvement in drafting circulars related to films by various government-appointed committees, in which the distribution companies are directly involved and only push for amendments to suit their purpose based on the complex relationship between politics and capital”

New mediums of film screening

Globally, however, the new medium of cinema’s expansion is becoming increasingly complex. In the 70’s and 80’s, the world’s binary opposition to the world film industry was whether it’s television screen or silver screen.

But by the second decade of the new millennium, cinema was gradually transforming into a multi-faceted industry among new media such as VOD, the Internet, mobile TV and Cable TV.

For example, a company, such as Netflix has had a tremendous impact on mainstream popular cinema as well as art cinema over the past few years.

Moreover, it is questionable whether such production companies will continue to produce films for the silver screen, which is the heart of traditional cinema. However, Boopathi does not agree with the fact that these new mediums of screenings would be a reason to downsize the traditional cinema screenings in the world. As he points out, even today in the capitalist countries, the number of cinemas is gradually increasing.

“Considering China in particular, the number of cinemas has expanded from 25,000 to nearly 43,000 within the past five years.

Even in India, parallel to the new media expansion, the creation of cinema screenings with the latest cinema technology, including the cluster cinema system, can still be seen,” he said. He also acknowledged the fact that, on the other hand, cinema is expanding beyond traditional theatres around the world, and cinemas are expanding its audiences.

Cinema: Isolated social activity

Like all arts in Sri Lanka, the cinema is too maintained as an artificial and isolated social activity with no organic connection to the cultural life of the people in the country. Although we mistakenly identify the 1970s’ as the golden era of Sri Lankan cinema, it can be said that the reason for the popularity of cinema was merely due to the limited entertainment options at that time.

Although, with a population of over 22 million, Sri Lanka has very limited number of people who continuously engaged with local cinema.

Among the various reasons why local cinema may thus be isolated from the public, it seems that the artistic language of the cinema, which was a legacy of European modernity, had not been adequately localised, translated or transformed by the filmmakers to address the local communities.

“Right now, there’s no national cinema which speaks to the pulse of local audiences and we also hardly see our representation in the international film fraternity either,” said Malith.

For this reason for the past few decades, the Sri Lankan cinema industry or rather the film theatre owners are highly dependent on Hollywood and Bollywood blockbusters and although the Film Act of Sri Lanka has secured the local cinema industry by decreeing a mandatory fifty percent screening quota of the films have to be local productions, these foreign films have stolen the prime time of film screenings and the entire industry has survived on these foreign films.

“Although these foreign films have island wide large audiences, the main reason behind the collapse of the local cinema is due to the mismanagement and dormancy of the National Film Corporation” said Malith.

Need of state-centric regulation

The artiste duo stressed the need of state-centric regulation with private sector involvement for cinema despite the current situation, in which it is becoming increasingly difficult for the industry to dream of a future for Sri Lankan cinema.

“For example, with the current geopolitical interest in Sri Lanka, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine a state-centric regulation of the film industry in the context of the construction and substantial expansion of apartment complexes and shopping malls through foreign investment. With the complex transformations taking place in the city of Colombo in particular, the potential for the re-creation of a cultural market for bourgeois consumerism relevant to the upper middle class and lower middle class has been created,” Boopathi said.

He also said that on the contrary, the alternative proposed by artistes and policymakers who have no complex understanding of the political economy is to take the cinema back to a welfare state model which is not practical in the long run.

“Also the rising trend of film screenings based in luxury shopping malls and apartment complexes will bring crises to local filmmakers and local producers. However, whether we like it or not, apparently the next turning point in the Sri Lankan film industry is nothing but multinational capital. It can be said at present that it is only inevitable that cinema will have unknown consequences in a future we do not know,” Boopathi said.