Wednesday, 29 September 2004  
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Film review:

Suriya Arana

Documentary on wildlife with crude stroryline

by Jayantha Anandappa in Australia

A scene from Suriya Arana

In this electronic age, pure art in cinema is becoming a dying and vanishing craft. It is being overrun by a genre of technologically excellent mediocre feature films made to appease the average filmgoer.

Although it may be a commercial reality, we must not mistake this form as art film. There is no better example than Somarathne Disanayake's latest film Suriya Arana to illustrate my point.

Despite the use of state of the art technology notably in the areas of sound and photography, Suriya Arana does not qualify as a serious work of cinematic art. To put it in a nutshell, Suriya Arana is a hollow and crude work by a clever commercial filmmaker (or a skilled entrepreneur) who knows how to customise his product to the box office and the mentality of the average Sri Lankan.

The film's artistic failure is largely attributable to the insensitive manner in which the plot and the story have been developed to realize its central theme and the inept way the characters have been portrayed, or manipulated. The film is too one dimensional, thin, superficial and lacking in realism to the point of being false.

Instead of trying to use the landscape as the backdrop to the story, the film looked as if an exquisitely shot documentary on wildlife in the picturesque settings of Sri Lanka with a trite storyline thrown in as the backdrop to the documentary to provide some relief to the viewer.

Once you leave the cinema, you take practically nothing with you, as you have been just a passive onlooker gazing for two hours at the wide screen with full sound effects and no involvement with the fate of the characters. The beauty of the landscape alone will never appeal to the serious filmgoer either, unless it is integrated with the story.

Though technologically Suriya Arana is a giant leap and an important milestone in our cinema, artistically it is even inferior to Dissanayakes maiden effort, the powerful but artistically false Saroja (in this film whilst demonising the LTTE, Dissanayake had the audacity to condone the brutalities of the Sri Lankan Army thereby showing partiality- a cardinal sin any artist could ill afford to commit).

In his latest fictional drama, Suriya Arana Dissanayake abandons the troublesome contemporary life and goes back to the nineteenth century. This time his theme is: It is a sin to kill animals. To realize this theme, the filmmaker attempts to depict the conflict between a compassionate elder Buddhist priest and an uncompromising savage hunter- their paths crossing when the Bhikkhu makes a cave in the jungle his abode with his young disciple: a Samanera.

The obvious protagonist (hero) of the film is the Bhikkhu and the villain the hunter. The two try to share the same jungle habitat for existence- the former seeking tranquillity for meditation in his vana arana and the latter utterly dependent on the habitat for existence- not only for himself, but for his family and a mistress and the child by his mistress.


The cause of the conflict is the Bhikkhu's insistence that the hunter should refrain from killing animals. The conflict unfolds somewhere where there is abundance of perennial waterfalls, rivers, sprouts, rugged fertile land, wildlife, flora and breathtaking landscape and scenery.

Interwoven with the central conflict between the protagonist and the villain, is the friendship that develops between the young Samanera (Sumeda) and Tikira, the hunter's son of same age and how they frolic in the vast expanse of land.

In the end the hunter is punished for the cruelties to the animals (and probably for the way he harassed the Bhikkhu) as he loses his leg- shot by his own trap gun while being chased by the angry villagers in a dramatic climax to the hunter's hardline attitude.

In the final scene of the film we are shown how the hunter, reduced to the state of partial immobility has to now depend on the charity of the Bhikkhu for his bread and butter and how he had resigned to his fate and seeks refuge in the aranya. He has not come alone, but joined by his son who also becomes a samanera following the footsteps of his playmate Sumeda for whatever the reasons best known only to the filmmaker.

How the hunter initially contrives to drive away the Bhikkhu from his territory and the ensuing conflict had been generally portrayed by a series of clumsily constructed episodes. In a country where there is a strong Buddhist culture and reverence for Buddhist priests, it is unimaginable how almost an entire village would mistake a Buddhist priest and a Samanera (dressed with the characteristic yellow robes) to be ghosts or devils and pelt them with stones.

The allegorical masks used to cover the face of the priests to make them appear as ghosts or devils (to the villagers) is an outdated inferior crude technique, and is a clear indication of the bankruptcy of the artist.

There is also a poorly constructed early scene where the hunter goes to the extent of disguising himself in a yellow robe and raping a woman (his mistress) probably with the intention of hoodwinking the people to transfer the responsibility of the hideous act to the Bhikkhu.

Confrontation between the hunter and Bhikkhu intensifies when the latter forcibly retains the hunter's gun, denying him of his major weapon for hunting, the means for his survival. When everything that the hunter contrives fails or is successfully abated by the Bhikkhu, the hunter resorts to intolerable lies in an attempt to discredit or drive away the monk.

Dissanayake now shows how resourceful and tough his compassionate Bhikkhu could be. Here is not an ordinary Bhikkhu. By pressing a sensitive spot on the shoulder of the human body with his forefinger and the middle finger (perhaps for a few minutes), the Bhikkhu can cause the recipient's body to be benumbed and partially paralysed- with the effect calculated to last precisely half-a-day or a full day depending on how long the Bhikkhu wants the punishment to last! (reminiscent of that second rate soap opera Dandu Basnamanaya).

Such is the power of this two finger treatment that causes the hunter to urinate in pain and fear. Worse is when we are shown how the hunter's hapless son, Tikira being subjected to the same treatment, this time by his friend, the Samanera. Suriya Arana being fiction, I grant that the filmmaker has the right to contrive whatever devices he wants as long as it is tastefully and artistically done with a purpose.

The scenes, virtual trash- reduces the venerable Bhikkhu to a celluloid champion and were probably included to gratify the mentality of the populace to make the monk look a hero (or to borrow a popular cheap Sinhala idiom from the street, to make the Bhikkhu look like a wedakaraya).

The fundamental but a much more serious deficiency that I see in these episodes is that it grossly violates the noble Buddhist philosophy that advocates temperance, maithri and restraint from violence- the culprit being none other than the so-called compassionate Bhikkhu, the protagonist.

Human continuum

As the eminent critic Pauline Kael once wrote (of Satyajith Ray), we like to see characters in a film not in terms of good and bad, but as we see ourselves, in terms of failures and weaknesses and strength and above all, as part of a human continuum. This is why subtlety of characterization, sympathy to the fate of the characters, impartiality towards the characters all become important in a feature film.

These are some essential ingredients of an art film. This impartiality and the subtlety are totally lacking in Suriya Arana. The filmmaker has been more concerned about documenting the scenic beauty of the film locations than exploring and capturing the trials and tribulations of his characters. He simply did not bother to even touch on the fate of the women in the story- not even briefly.

The hunter's (Sediris) character should have been drawn with more sympathy, given that the drama unfolds in the nineteenth century where hunting must have been part and parcel of the lifestyle of a remote village. It is noted that the filmmaker had inserted some episodes to show that Sediris was not the normal rogue or the average ignorant na He did not want his family/ families to starve. He was also being exploited by the headman. We are also shown Sediris's soft side when he tries to save injured wildlife). Dissanayake (who wrote the story and the script) had not handled this material with objectivity or realism. It does not help us to appreciate the hunter's predicament or sympathize with him.

How closely did that grocery shop (kade) in the middle of the jungle with glass bottles containing eatables on display, represent a 19th century kade- I am not sure? It looked incongruous, but as a place to barter the goods, the idea of creating a kade in the middle of the jungle probably was justified.

A novelty of the film is that it surely must be the first time that the nudity of a Buddhist priest (the Samanera) is shown in a Sinhala film. I do not have particularly strong views about showing (adult) nudity on film provided that it is necessary and is driven by the artistic demands. I had the impression that showing the nudity of the two boys, particularly flashes of genitals (of the Samanera) was a box office gimmick.

Given that the boys (the two actors) must be around 10 years, at least showing the genitals on the screen should have been spared. I am not trying to be a moralist, but I could only feel sorry for the two young actors; who are still minors. The Samanera entering the cave using a habarala leaf to cover his nudity was done tastefully which also provided a moment of good humour.

Excessively dramatic

In a recent interview the director Dissanayake did mention that animals are the best actors because they are their natural selves when facing the camera.

In the case of the Suriya Arana cast nothing can be truer. Jackson Anthony, an actor with the tendency to play theatrical, was excessively dramatic and overacting as Sediris. He was impossibly boring as the filmmaker's mouthpiece. Jayalath Manoratne performed adequately but within himself the much less demanding role of the Bhikkhu. GR Perera as the headman was as usual impressive with a character tailor made for him.

The women had nothing to act, apart from having to occasionally gaze at the camera or say a few lines. Much has been said about the acting of the two kids. Sajitha Anuththara (understandably a son of Jackson Anthony) looked somewhat stiff as Tikira while Dasun Madushanka played the role of the Samanera quite well and refreshingly (overall their performance was inferior to the acting of the two girls in Saroja).

Rohana Weerasinghe's musical score adds little to the film, but this is excusable given the type of the film and its hollowness. Importantly Weerasinghe had used a young boy (Harshana Dissanayake) for the solo male voice in the film's only song Iren Handen which was used as a background piece of music when the two children frolic in the vast expanse of land. This was refreshing and was certainly one of the better lighter moments of the film.

The soundtrack with the Digital Dolby Surround added immensely to the technological excellence of the film. Channa Deshapriya's photography had captured the beauty of the landscape and the wildlife in vivid detail, but being extrinsic, this adds absolutely nothing to the artistic quality of the film.

Credit should go to the filmmaker for not resorting to library shots; a common ploy used by many a filmmaker (when filming wildlife) to cut costs and for convenience that would invariably have disastrous effects on the screen.

Under the guise of depicting a Buddhist theme, Dissanayake has given a psychological candy to the Sinhala masses that seem to be utterly confused on practically all contemporary social, political and religious issues, and art.

In spite of its technological superiority, the film cannot be taken as art. It is apt to describe the film as a good documentary on landscape and wildlife with a very poorly constructed crude storyline. Suriya Arana is a film that I watched with the least emotional involvement.

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