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The Road from Kokkmotte

           There is an argument that’s been made recently, by several Sri Lankan artists and critics, that ‘realism’ as a mode of aesthetic expression is dead, and should be buried, and further that we need to embrace magic realism or some else like it, as some thing that is ‘ours.’ I don’t quite get this, and I want enter the lists of the debate, gingerly.

Now first of all, there is nothing postcolonial or Southern or South Asian or Sri Lankan about ‘magic realism’; the term was coined in the mid 1920s by the German art critic Franz Roh to describe what might well have, in other words, been called expressionist paintings. We shouldn’t forget that, when we hear the much more recent invocations of the term, by a Marquez or a Rushdie – and more so, by young and old Sri Lankan critics, who seem desperately looking for ‘some thing new.’ But they are wrong; if a style already has a name, and an old, well worn one at that, then it can’t be new. Let me put it another way. We don’t need to fit our feet into someone else’s old shoes, we need to re-think the relationship of footwear to our feet.
Artists, it seems to me, play with other people’s notion of reality. Impressionism or Cubism might be one mode, magic realism might be another. Attempting to dissolve narrative, might be another kind of play. But the work would be original, only if the ‘play’ with and of the real, creates a new effect. Now that would be magic.

Lets take example of realist film making, Prasanna Vithanage’s subtle and accomplished film, Ira Madiyama, which has already been widely reviewed every where. To outline it briefly, again, it juxtaposes three different narratives of loss, longing and pain, to produce the effect of the fractured, uncertainly unstable whole, that is our country.

One narrative stays with a Sinhala Air Force ‘wife’ who partners with a expatriate Sinhala journalist to locate her missing pilot ‘husband,’ who may be an LTTE prisoner. Another narrative follows the travails of a Muslim family, that’s evicted, with hundreds of others from Mannar, by the LTTE, one fateful and infamous day. In the third, a Sinhala soldier, while on a R&R from the front lines, sees his sister working in a brothel he visits.

That much is already quite well known, I think – What I’d like to comment on in this column concerns the texture of Vithanage’s genre. He works with what might be called a ‘realist’ genre which means on the face of it, that there is a reflection or invocation of the ‘real’ or the ‘lived’ world in his cinematic narrative. But of course, that’s just on the ‘face of it.’ Invoking reality is quite complicated, it’s a slippery work, that plays with our given understanding of things. And if you consider Vithanage’s film more closely, you realize he is well up to that complicated play.

Each narrative of his film, operates ‘reality’ in a different way, each invoking a realist genre that a located Sri Lankan viewer recognizes. The Air force Pilots common-law wife’s story, evokes the videography of the contemporary Sinhala teledrama, with its deliberate, almost underlined dialogue, and tight, close up face shots. The cinematic technique that frames the tale of the Muslims of Mannar, is a contrast to this. Those sequences are shot in a documentary style that records, quietly — the characters themselves (despite the heart rending pathos of the abandoned dog, Rexi) remain in the background of the narrative. The soldier’s story has yet a different visual feel; incredibly subtle, understated, with minimalist dialogue, it harks back it seems, to the very beginnings of Sinhala cinema; and has scenes that can be well compared with those of Peiris’ celebrated Gamperaliya.

The juxtaposition of three modes of ‘realism’ in one aesthetic work simply emphasizes the complex, layered way that ‘reality’ can be invoked in a ‘realist’ genre, and further the ‘contrast effect’ between them generating for the viewer a regulated, structured unmaking of the nation. Looked at from the point of view of cinematic genre then, Ira Madiyama, should be seen as a celebration of the complexity of the realist genre, and its multi-faceted possibilities.

Nihal de Silva’s The Road from Elephant Pass, is another classic of the realist genre. His eye was sharp as Vitanage’s but his modes of representation less subtle and polished. But at the heart of the book is a narrative, of two people, one Sinhala, the other Tamil, journeying from a place of the great battle that shook our country, to another place. There is constant play with our sense of reality, of who is who, and what is what, and where they are going. But it certainly isn’t surreal or magic realist. It is just good fiction.

But of course now, there is a lot more to be said. And its rather difficult to say. What I find, ultimately so deeply distressing about de Silva’s death, is that he died in the park he loved so much. I’m not sure why this is, because horrible violent death always distresses me, where ever it happens. The feeling are more intense, if I know the person killed, but I did not know Nihal de Silva well at all. But regardless, the shock and horror I felt was enormous. Upon reflection, I would say that my response had to do with realism of de Silva’s first novel. Much of The Road from Elephant Pass is set in Wilpattu, and after a visit last January, I had picked up the book again, and flipped through the pages, savoring the descriptions. They are often straightforward, just simply very real. It was this exploding envelope of reality that shook me to the core, I think, when I heard of that terrible bomb. I found it almost incomprehensibly grotesque, that he who tried to imagine a way back from the abyss of Elephant Pass was killed on the road from Kokkmotte.

I do not think we need worry about representational styles that might dice up the reality of life in Sri Lanka in new and fancy ways. Our reality will do that for us.


(First published in the Nation on Sunday, 30th June, 2006.)

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