Are Sri Lankan filmmakers of the alternative stream gradually giving up their ideals and embracing the mainstream in the face of growing censorship and public opinion which seems to be gradually turning censorial? Recent developments seem to affirm that sentiment. Ashoka Handagama came out with Vidu, which is a hit among teachers and school children under 13, and Enoka Sathyangani announced a few weeks back that her next film will be titled Cinderella, a romance.
Sathyangani made a name for herself in the early 2000s with her debut feature film Sulang Kirilli, which dealt with the lives of garment workers at the Free Trade Zone, and abortion. The 2002 film won 22 international awards but was met with scepticism and censorship back home. With the discontinuation of the National Film Development Fund and growing concerns of censorship the director kept a low profile.
And now she is back with a romance, with song and dance. What has led to this transformation? A few years ago, no one would have thought Enoka Sathyangani would make a film starring Akalanka Ganegoda — of Dancing Stars fame and Upeksha Swarnamali, lead actress in Pabha.
Sulang Kirilli won a large number of awards, the highest number of international awards by a Sri Lankan film, but it was not what you would call a commercial hit. “We live in a country which does not have a cinema culture, and in a situation we cannot make commercially successfully films while continuing as experimental filmmakers,” she said.
In addition, the current Sri Lankan political and social context does not permit an artiste to touch upon any social issue of his/her preference. The end of the 30-year-old conflict has brought out a number of social/cultural/economic issues which have been hidden by the war and governments are far from happy when artistes talk about these issues. Faced with such a situation, an artiste has two choices — conform or remain silent.
“Today Sri Lanka is in a transitional period after the end of a 30-year-old war. And in such a situation a government is not very keen about artistes making productions on social issues. After a war it is normal that economic issues which were hitherto hidden come up, and the cost of living and other social and economic issues become more apparent. The present government is facing that and they tend to support films that help them remain/maintain their power …”
The real challenge before her was to carry on while attempting not to make too much of a compromise. At present what sells, or at least what investors are willing to contribute are films which deal with historic sagas and films based on war — or at least war movies which adheres to the government’s view.
“You can see films like that all over the place; businessmen are spending millions on films on historic sagas and on war movies. At such a juncture, I am not in a position to take up a subject that’s close to my heart. There was always the possibility of censorship and there are no investors willing to take such a risk”
Although Sri Lankan investors were never too keen on putting money on artistic cinema, the Sri Lankan government had funded talented film makers through their National Film Development Fund. This fund helped film makers take up Left field ideas from the 1970s and fuelled Sri Lankan cinema till the early 2000s. Sulang Kirilli was among the last batch of films funded by the state.
“I would not have been able to do Sulang Kirilli without the National Film Development Fund; it is only because of state funding that I had the freedom to select a
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