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Prasanna Vithanage: Controversial Cinematic Journey of a Creative Rebel

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by Radhieka Peeris

Prasanna Vithanage’s earliest memories of cinema stem from the time he was five years old. As a little boy he was excited to be treated to the movies by his parents, to watch both Sinhala and Hindi movies.

Almost four decades later, he is able to remember storylines of each and every movie without missing a single scene but also capable of recollecting the entire evening to and from the cinema hall as if it were a part of the same sequence.

Captivated by the silver screen at such a young age, this cinema enthusiast from Panadura – the only child of an Inland Revenue Department examiner father and school teacher mother – has always wanted to make his own movies from the time he can remember.

Pioneering filmmaker

One of the most notable changes that took place in the 90’s in the Sinhala cinema circuit was caused by the arrival of young filmmakers with a vision and dedication. He is recognized today as a pioneer of his generation who put Sri Lanka on the international map.

As a filmmaker who is not afraid to face new challenges, he is every bit a perfectionist who pays equal attention to the aesthetics and technical aspects of moviemaking. As a result, his uncompromising approach to the craft was quickly recognized by many an international fora.

Today, at 50, he has succeeded in defining his own style of moviemaking. Prasanna Vithanage is one of the most celebrated cinematic figures in Sinhala cinema. His signature non-conformist style of cinema is all about pushing boundaries to affect a paradigm shift of thought.

Vithanage has become a cinematic activist of sorts, constantly challenging even his own abilities, his engaging screenwriting abilities along with his belief in letting the storytelling take precedence on the filming techniques, traits that have inspired many a young filmmaker as well as audiences around the world.

What Vithanage has done with each of his films is to open the mind of his audiences to the social realities in life. He does not sugar coat anything when it comes to the portrayal of real life but believes his audience is intelligent enough to engage with the raw emotions and events in their entirety.

He is not an artist who believes in upholding the usual norms and traditions that embroil society; instead his cinematic flair has an innate ability coupled with courage to see through the fine print and make a strict norm-bound society leap up and stand on its head.

Wetting his feet

How does a boy absorbed in movies start his journey to become a moviemaker, one might wonder. Speaking his heart out, he reflects on his early beginnings and lays bare the journey that brought him here.

Like a character in his own movies, Vithanage had his own share of failures before reaching the pinnacle of success.

Vithanage never strayed from his interest in films. He enrolled in a script writing course conducted by Wasantha Obeysekera while still an Advanced Level student. “I started writing my own scripts after the course, of which many have never seen the light of day,” he says with a smile. After leaving school he entered the theatre circuit, first working with Jayalath Manoratne.

He made two productions with Manoratne, which were sadly never seen by any audience. His win at the 1985 State Drama Festival for best translation of Puthra Samagama (for Elder Son – originally written by Alexander Vampilov) was a welcome encouragement.

After a few more stage productions he joined the Mahaweli Ministry as a sub-editor for their magazine Isura. This was when he chanced upon a meeting with actor Sanath Gunathilake who offered Vithanage his directorial debut with Sisila Ginigani, shot in 1989.

Today, eight award-winning films and four theatre productions later, Vithanage explains, “all these films I have done reflect myself and the things I have felt and believed in, at that particular time. My films are me.”

Prasanna Vithanage

Vithanage’s latest film Oba nethuwa oba ekka (With You, Without You) was nominated at the World Film Festival as one of the ‘World Greats’ and was screened to a packed audience on 28 August 2012 in Montreal, Canada.

Of amiable character, he laughs at himself when he says, “I am a lousy actor and that’s why I wanted to direct other actors.” A wise decision one may note, the skills he possesses in film direction is difficult in this day and age of commercialized, popcorn movies.

“Film is like a religion. Be it a particular subject or a situation, it aches me from deep within,” he says with passion flaring in his eyes, “I like to make films with stories that are close to my heart, but other people try to make it seem controversial when it is nothing but the truth I strive to portray,” he says.

This, he quotes, is the reason he feels the need to share what he has discovered with everyone else – by presenting it in the form of film. To him, a filmmaker’s duty is to be able to “excavate the truth and present it to his or her audience, and not preach someone else’s ideology.”

In the face of controversy

Vithanage’s fourth film made in 1997, Pura Handa Kaluwara (Death on a Full Moon Day), won the Grand Prix at the Amiens International Film Festival in France. However, two weeks before its release to Sri Lankan audiences it was banned by the authorities as being “unfit for screening in Sri Lanka due to possible ill-effects on the morale of members of the armed forces and national security.”

Vithanage disclaims this as ‘utter rubbish’, specifying in his fundamental rights petition to the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka that he “focused on highlighting the indomitable human spirit of a father throughout the film.”

After a year-long battle in the apex court, the three-judge bench ruled in his favour, thus allowing Sri Lankan audiences to see for themselves what the state authorities were trying to shield from their vision.

The National Film Corporation Censor Board issued the ‘pass’ certificate for the film long before relevant ministry banned the film, which made the entire episode seem a waste of public time and money. It is for reasons such as these that Vithanage is considered a rebel.

Moving ahead

At present he is planning his first historical film based on the last days of the Kandyan Kingdom for which he has been working on a script since 1993. As a strong believer in social equality and justice, Vithanage will also be releasing his first documentary film next year. He also mentions his longing to return to theatre at some point with his play Debbiddo still doing the rounds in the theatre circuit.

Motion pictures are able to stir profound human emotions like no other form of art can, and this is exactly what Vithanage achieves with each and every frame of his cinematic ventures. In the end, they are stories lived through his eyes.

To affirm his sojourn of self-introspection he quotes from Jane Fonda’s autobiography, “I am ready to die not knowing the whole truth about the universe, but I am not ready to die not knowing the real truth about me.” Courtesy: Ceylon Today

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