by Prof. Rohan Samarajiva
The most interesting thing about writing about film at this time is that the writing is about absence. The lack of films worth watching; the absence of places worth watching even worthless films in.
Images are everywhere; I am awash in stories. But no good Sri Lankan stories, not those told in pictures and sound; not in Technicolor and Dolby Sound. How odd for one who grew up on movies? The 9:30 show at the Wales even if one had to walk back to campus.
The debates over the political message of ‘Kalu Diya Dahara’; the moral content of ‘Duhulu Malak’; the oeuvre of Vasantha Obeysekera; was Vijaya acting or just playing himself?
Cinema is a sensory experience. I remember buying balcony tickets at the Odeon in Kandy in the 1970s, simply to enjoy the view from the balcony bar during the interval. In early 2002 I went with my son, then 19 years old and on vacation from his Canadian university, to another Odeon, this time the one in Mount Lavinia, to see a Handagama movie.
We went to the balcony, not for the view, but because the balcony ticket was small change. It was a time of rolling blackouts. Right in the middle of the showing everything stopped: the movie, the fans, the lights.
We stepped out for fresh air and to wait for something to restart. And my son looks at me incredulously and asks: “and you and Amma seriously thought of bringing us up here?”
He had heard the stories of how we did not want to leave back in 1987 when he was five years old; but had to leave because no one would give me a job and because the university that his mother was teaching at was closed most of the time.
It was a time of hope, after the annus horribilis of 2001. The new Government had asked me to work on economic reforms and the Ceasefire was about to be signed, so the question of returning to Sri Lanka was on everyone’s minds. But the enormity of the original decision to leave this country in 1987 really hit my son (and me, when he asked the question) only on that sweaty afternoon (not) watching a bad movie in a decrepit theatre in the midst of a power cut.
That was perhaps evidence of the importance of this particular form of storytelling to me, to my wife and by extension to my children. My wife and I were religious in attending Soca, the weekly film society showings at Peradeniya: Ray and Wajda and Godard. We used to take the last bus to Maharagama after the 9:30 show at the Regal in the first years of our marriage.
Just before my son, our first child, was born in Vancouver, Canada, we overdosed on strange and wonderful movies at the Pacific Cinematheque in expectation that life would change with his birth (it did). So he grew up watching movies from inside the womb, more or less.
He spent two years in Sri Lanka as child, but spent his formative years in Columbus, Ohio, from age five.
The American ritual of movie going. The art houses with the vintage posters and trendy bistros nearby that we’d go to, leaving the kids with a baby sitter. The multiplexes awash in the aroma of pop corn that we’d go with them to watch movies like ‘Witches’ (from a Roald Dahl book they had read) or even ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ who I thought was a good role model for my girls.
And then it got even better. By the mid 1990s, by the time they could go to normal movies, there was a burst of upgrading of theatres, now with sharply sloped seating where none could block the view and fantastic sound that had rocket ships coming at you from all directions. And seats that were to die for. Plush and contoured and with arm rests. Captain’s chairs, they called them. Always reminded me of the captain’s chair from Star Trek.
Now you begin to understand the significance of the sweaty afternoon at the Mount Lavinia Odeon. This was no dream palace. It was unworthy even for a nightmare. A tired, dirty, miserable place that had been chewed over by Government controls and regurgitated. And this was what passed for entertainment in this sorry time and place… And without the question, I too would have accepted it as the way things were/are/should be, like all the other frogs slowly simmering on the stove.
It is not that I have not gone to movie theatres in Sri Lanka since; I have gone, once or twice a year, under duress. My wife still thinks there may be movies worth watching. Many a times we do not last past the intermission. But even with a few exceptions such as ‘Akasa Kusum’ and ‘Machang,’ a good Lankan story told well by a foreigner, the act of watching has ceased to be pleasurable since the bubble got punctured at the Odeon. courtesy: Financial Times