Is local cinema really dying? | Sunday Observer

Is local cinema really dying?

27 September, 2020
Scene from the Bahuchithawadiya
Scene from the Bahuchithawadiya

Malaka Dewapriya is an aspiring filmmaker, award winning radio play-writer and visual artist who has had ample exposure locally and internationally. His debut cinematic endeavour

Malaka  Dewapriya

Undecided (Bahuchithawadiya) which is yet to be screened, is a promising debut effort which clearly demonstrated his mature understanding of cinema aesthetics as a new generation filmmaker. Although it is becoming uncomfortably clear that this new generation of cinema is yet to strike a chord with the mainstream movie going local public, Malaka tries to take his stance with his audience with great effort.

The second episode of Dream-catchers of local cinema is done with Malaka to discuss his experience of making his debut film Undecided (Bahuchithawadiya) and his future prospects as a filmmaker.

Q: The theme of Bahuchithawadiya is about the undecided mindsets of youth who have been born and bred in the time of social media, which is quite unique and contemporary. Tell us about the inspiration behind the theme of Bahuchithawadiya?

A. It was the first quarter of the last decade, when social media has invaded society and the concept came to my mind at the same time. It is a certain type of reflection on social life and the young contemporary Sri Lankan generation who has a default mode of mind. In the Sinhala language Bahu means multiple and Chitha means thoughts.

Bahuchithawadiya simply means ‘one of many minds’ or ‘one who lacks single-mindedness’. In other words, ‘an undecided mind’. The term Bahuchithawadiya signifies the nature of middle-class youth in Sri Lankan contemporary society. The theme of the film gravitates around a young man and his cynical and violent destiny in life. It is a representation of the collapse of contemporary Sri Lankan society, victimising the life of the young generation who suffer from the frenzied mentality of going abroad to earn money, looking for easy livelihoods due to the lack of job opportunities and formal education.

For the past ten years, there has been a great improvement in modes of social media and telecommunication compared to the time that I wrote the script. Skype has been replaced by various other much more developed apps such as Whats App, Viber, Zoom, Imo, Messenger and many others. Although, some who watched the film had mixed ideas about the uniqueness of the theme. Because they argued that due to this change of telecommunication modes, the film may look out dated which I don’t agree with. Bahuchithawadiya is not about the progress of telecommunication but it is about what youth do with these most updated versions of telecommunication and how it has affected contemporary life and its relationships.

Q: Although Bahuchithawadiya was made a few years ago, it has not yet hit the big screen. Is there anything that delays the release of the film?

A. I started this project in 2011 and completed it in 2017. It took so many years to complete due to many production and producer issues that we had to deal with in the process, which is the unfortunate fate of the local cinema mainly due to lack of resources and funding. However, in 2017, the film had been selected for a few local and international film festivals and had a few screenings for selected international and local audiences where I think was able to create a dialogue about the film internationally and locally.

It is a strenuous process that I have been going through from the beginning of making the film and the battle is yet to be accomplished.

However, as a first time filmmaker I learnt so much throughout the process which I don’t think anyone would be able to learn or experience from any of the leading cinema schools in the world. I hope to share my knowledge for the benefit of young filmmakers in future.

It was with a leading film company that I started producing this film but unfortunately, they gave up the project halfway due to their various internal issues. As the director and the script writer of the film, I had no choice but to buy the film from the company and complete the project. With the help of my friends, I managed to secure the funds to buy the film and complete the production with the generous contribution of forty people. Ultimately, I had to become the producer of the film too even without knowing a thing about producing.

That is the key issue behind the delay of releasing the film. However, I hope to release the film as soon as possible.

Q: During the pandemic, people are inclined to look into things differently and as a result different viewpoints and suggestions appeared on social media networks regarding the future of cinema in the new normal world and many argued that this will be the end of the traditional cinema theatre culture. What is your opinion in this regard?

A. This kind of argument came along at the time when photography, radio, cinema and TV had been introduced. When photography was introduced people thought that would be the end of paintings. When television was introduced people argued that it will be the end of cinema. But were any of these industries eradicated due to the rise of another medium? Absolutely not! So, today people are arguing that due to the pandemic and the rise of online platforms will mark the end of the cinema.

This is absolutely a myth. It is true that the digital online platform culture is invading the globe and due to the pandemic the usage of digital platforms have skyrocketed over night but the magical experience one can have from cinema cannot be replaced by the digital platform.

Also we shouldn’t forget the fact that the affordability of these digital platforms is quite low in Sri Lanka. Although these new mediums may be popular among urban communities, it is not going to be an easy task to make it popular or available island wide considering the economical and technical factors of the country. In 2018, a study by the Learn Asia Institute showed that only 46 per cent of the 5.5 million households in Sri Lanka can afford a smartphone.

The Department of Census and Statistics shows that computer literacy in Sri Lanka is only 23 per cent. It is true that the Corona pandemic estranged the public much more from cinema. In order to win the situation, new health care measures should be introduced. The Government should cooperate with the owners of the film halls to avoid setbacks.

A few months ago the Independent Cinema Forum had an online discussion with the participation of veterans of Sri Lankan cinema to discuss the crisis in cinema due to the pandemic. At the discussion, very important views and ideas were revealed by participants such as Prasanna Vithanage, Anuradha Rakawa and Anura Jasenthuliyana.

However, from time to time all Governments in power have changed the policies related to the cinema industry. In 1999, Dr. Tissa Abeysekara took an appropriate measure to distribute films under a private mechanism and he took this decision in good faith for the betterment of the film industry in the country. However, we have seen how the private sector has been working for the past 20 years considering only the fact of profit maximisation. It is paramount to have formal government regulations by understanding the importance of both commercial and artistic cinema.

Q: On the other hand filmmakers also have been accused of making films forgetting the local audience and without proper understanding of the industrial values and that caused the crisis of local cinema. What is your opinion?

A. That is a baseless argument. The crisis in the local cinema is not because of the filmmakers making films without considering the needs of the audiences but there’s no proper mechanism to screen and publicise films. In any country does the public request what kind of cinema they want to see? No; but different genres of films are available for them to choose and there is a proper mechanism set by the private as well as the government sector.

Any society can be influenced by any art if there is a proper publicity mechanism available. Cinema is a form of art that depends on experimental works of different structures, narrative styles and approaches. No professional person is able to recreate things as a casting model. Every film is different to the other. There should be a mechanism and infrastructure developed to bring both commercial and art house cinema for its audiences.

Q: Considering the alternative platforms which are available in the film industry in the outside world, what are the changes that you expect for the development of the local cinema?

A. We need a huge cultural change and we must admit the fact that we don’t have a cinema culture in the country. Cinema has never been part of our cultural events. It has been appreciated by a very limited audience. The situation is quite contrary in the other parts of the world.

There are so many opportunities for filmmakers to make films for various platforms. There are many film production companies and funds which are sponsoring young artists to create short films, documentaries, feature films as well as there are thousands of film festivals out there to encourage filmmakers and facilitate them to get involved with the industry regularly. There are many other alternative platforms that provide the opportunities to the public to watch films by displaying films in buses, trains, planes, supermarkets and common public places. However, although there are so many alternative modes to engage with cinema has never demoralise the cinema theatre culture as well.

However, here in Sri Lanka although we talk about seven decades of Sinhala cinema history, we don’t even have a formal mechanism for the restoration of films. The late Dr Dharmasena Pathiraja once tabled a film restoration proposal and the then Chairman of the National Film Corporation declared that there would be no use in reserving a separate place for the protection of films and the authorities paid no attention. It is quite ironic to appoint such senseless people for decision making positions because no progress can be expected for the cinema from them. The right people with industrial knowledge who have a vision for the progress of the cinema should be appointed as authorities and huge reforms need to be taken for the betterment of the cinema industry in the country.