Some critical reflections on Sinhala historical films | Sunday Observer

Some critical reflections on Sinhala historical films

12 March, 2023

Watching Gaadi for the second time last Wednesday, I realised how deficient Sri Lankan historical films generally are. Gaadi is a refreshing contrast, but it is also an exception to the dismally predictable rule.

I am tempted to call it the finest Sinhala historical film since Maharaja Gemunu, and in fact I did just that to my friend who accompanied me to the hall. Yet this would be doing Prasanna Vithanage’s film a gross injustice. To say it is as good as, if not better than, Jayantha Chandrasiri’s foray into the Dutugemunu-Elara story is to rank Gaadi alongside the long, arduous cycle of historical films that we have been seeing since at least 2009. That it is not should be clear to all who have seen it.

Of course, Chandrasiri’s film had its own charms, and it was, all in all, a very exceptional piece of work. The Dutugemunu-Elara conflict, like the conflict between the Nayakkars of Kandy and their headmen, particularly the likes of Ehelepola Adigar, has been reworked so many times that the history behind it has almost totally been neglected. What Chandrasiri did in Maharaja Gemunu was to turn this on its head, while more or less adhering to the populist reinterpretation of the main story.

The Dutugemunu we see in his film is moody and tempestuous: he is aware of a destiny greater than himself beckoning him on, just as his arch-rival Elara is. Elara, moreover, is not depicted as a mercenary or an overlord, but rather an outcaste from his home country, a naval merchant and an adventurer who sees Sri Lanka as his salvation, his one shot at fame, his only chance at redemption.

On the other hand, Chandrasiri did not completely do away with the populist accretions that have built over the years, decades, centuries, and millennia around the main storyline. Thus, for instance, we are reminded frequently that as the king-figure, Dutugemunu wants to combat Elara not for the love of shedding blood, but rather to unify the sasanaya. This is somewhat different from what the author of the Mahavamsa has him say, namely that he does what he does not for the sovereignty of the State, but for the unity of the Buddhist clergy.

I am not aware of any other similar differences between Chandrasiri’s reading of the story and the Mahavamsist and other historical or literary accounts of it, but the film makes it clear that, playboy though Dutugemunu is – something that crops up prominently in the middle-section, when he chooses to live in a village as an ordinary commoner – he gradually will become king. And why? Because it is his destiny.

In conceding all this, I am denying the film’s cinematic value. Maharaja Gemunu bears the imprint of the person who made Guerrilla Marketing: it is theatrical to a fault and derives its action from the unpredictability of the behaviour of its characters and the political and social conditions underlying that behaviour. Whether or not he intended it, Chandrasiri also slips in a political subtext: Dutugemunu’s father, Kavantissa, is presented as a dove on the question of Chola suzerainty over a part of the country, while the son is depicted as a hawk, a ruthless nationalist who wants to unify the country.

I am not sure whether Dutugemunu’s mercenary instincts, and the film’s constant emphasis on territorial conquest and recapture, are in line with his benign aim of unifying the sasanaya: half the time it seems as though he wants to unify the State rather than the Buddhist clergy, and that through Elara’s defeat. But the intrigues in the palace, Gemunu’s tussle with his brother Saddhatissa, and Gemunu’s brief sojourn in a distant village, are all finely presented.

Yet at the end of the day – and this is where Gaadi succeeds remarkably well – Maharaja Gemunu suffers from the same basic contradiction that adorns even the most pedestrian Sinhala historical film. This contradiction is hard to describe, still less explain. It has to do with the fact that in most of these films, particularly with regard to popular historical stories like that of Dutugemunu, Vattagamini Abhaya, or even Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe, the main protagonist has no real agency. He is a hero in the conventional mould, and he claims his heroic status by slaying his rivals and unifying the country. But in the larger scheme of things, he ends up becoming an instrument of the forces which lead him to his triumph.

The telos of the Sinhala historical film, after all, is the victory of light over darkness: literally, Aloko Udapadi. That is represented more than anything else by the triumph of a certain ethno-religious collective over another. Against this backdrop the characters in these films are forced to become instruments of the plot: since their heroism is anyway foretold by countless historical chronicles, they become mere cogs in the machine.

One can argue that the very nature of historical films precludes these characters from being anyone other than who history ordains them to be. But the history from which we learn about these characters is more literary than archaeological, and thus subject to countless revisions and retellings. The Mahavamsa is a historical chronicle, just like the Thupavamsa. Both these documents feature Dutugemunu.

Yet even though both share certain motifs in the retelling of such stories, there are some subtle differences between them. Given these differences, should the creative artiste allow himself to be circumscribed by such sources and chronicles? One can cite countless examples from the West, including such classics as The Lion in Winter and The Madness of King George, to show how history, even the most rudimentary history, can be creatively reconfigured without being falsified.

Gaadi, as I wrote in my column last week, is Prasanna Vithanage’s finest work. It suffers from a few flaws and limitations – most notably its subtitles, which I frankly felt were not befitting a film of such high calibre – but it breaks new ground. More than anything else, it drives home the point that historical films need not always be films about history, that they can be about ordinary people whose lives play out against the currents of real events and incidents.

Vithanage’s film, to be sure, is not historical in the sense of being accurate in all aspects. But it captures what life may have been in the last period of the Kandyan Kingdom and how ordinary people conducted themselves, against a backdrop of political intrigue and the threat of British colonisation. On that count, it would not be right to rank it alongside Maharaja Gemunu, though the latter is itself an exceptional work. The truth is that Gaadi offers its own benchmark, standard, and criterion, against which all historical films here will doubtless be judged and appraised – and rightly so.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at [email protected].