Laleen Jayamanne, in The Island, 20 & 27 July 2022 where the title runs thus: “Teargas cinema and Rukmani Devi”
“I have never found anything to excite the people in quite the way this language issue does”–– Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike to a journalist.
If true, this observation attributed to Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, is quite chilling in its cynicism. ‘Excitement’ is a political emotion here and SWRD appears to take a distance from it, observing somewhat clinically, how ‘this language issue’ stirs up ‘the people’. Politicians are especially crafty, cunning, when they know how to excite people with ideas that they themselves may or may not truly believe in.
A protester covering the eyes of the Bandaranaike statue at Galle Face
Born an Anglican, at first privately home-schooled and then at S. Thomas’ College, culminating with an Oxford education (Classics and Law), a debater with political ambitions, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike knew how to arouse excitement around the Sinhala language which had been (over nearly five centuries of colonialism), devalued and repressed. The post-colonial UNP governments also continued favouring the westernized elite and English as the medium of governance, social mobility and power.
SWRD well understood that the legitimate grievances and aspirations of the large majority of Sinhala people had to be addressed. But with electoral advantage uppermost, the racially polarizing manner in which he addressed grievances and desires in his key campaign promise of making Sinhala the sole official language, demoting Tamil, encouraged and indeed incited interracial hatred and violence against the Tamils. This SWRD tactic of playing the ‘race-card’ became the bedrock of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist, nationalist politics, from then on followed by JR Jayewardene (in his infamous march to the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, protesting against all concessions made to the Tamils) and the Rajapaksa governments as well.
India was in a different situation. At independence, India with its large number of languages and so without much fuss, astutely made English a ‘link language’ and as such it has become one of the many Indian languages. Thereby Indian English has also been able to vitalize English as the global lingua franca and contribute brilliantly to creative writing in English as well.
The politics of performance, the political excitement it creates, appears to be an integral part of the GOTAGOGAMA ‘uprising’ across the country. Though not centralized, it has largely been focused on the happenings at Galle Face as an open-air theatre of sorts, with the sky and the Indian Ocean as backdrops. Especially the young, but also people across various ages, groups, classes, ethnicities and religious faiths and no doubt political persuasions also, have been discovering a new kind of political ‘excitement’, open and generous in spirit, importantly peaceful (until the attack by the thugs), unlike the one SWRD aroused which led to his unexpected violent tragic death at the hands of a Buddhist monk. Groups from distant parts of the country, including the east have also paid visits to the Galle Face. I will present a selection of their views on the uprising at the end of this piece.
BLINDFOLDING THE STATUE
In the early days of the current uprising, a young man scaled the monumental bronze statue of SWRD (made by Lev Kerbel as a gift from the Soviet Union), near the old Parliament house and tied a black piece of cloth across the eyes. It’s a quiet, conceptually powerful theatrical gesture (unlike the toppling of statues seen elsewhere), of recognizing the violence encoded in his ‘Sinhala Only’ vision for the country. It was a ‘strike for the truth’, a sathya-graha gesture in its Gandhian spirit of non-violence. At the time, while politicians espoused ‘Sinhala Only,’ they made quite sure that their children were educated in English and even sent abroad for tertiary study by using scarce foreign exchange reserves. Many generations of Sinhala intellectuals and scholars have noted with regret how deeply deskilling the loss of the knowledge of English as a second language has been to them and their students.
The pivotal role that the Maha Sangha played in promulgating the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist ideology was highlighted by the violently dramatic event when the monk Thalduwa Somarama Thera shot SWRD in his own home in 1959 when he went over to speak to him. The immediate trigger for that action was SWRDB’s effort to compromise on the exclusive language bill by offering some concessions to the Tamil Federal party in the form of ‘Sinhala Only but Tamil Also.’
With his Sinhala Only policy, SWRD was able to astutely mobilize what was called the ‘pancha maha balavegaya,’ (the great five-fold power block). It consisted of Buddhist monks (Sangha), teachers (Guru), practitioners of indigenous medicine (Veda), farmers (Govi), and workers (Kamkaru), as an electoral force. They were the vast majority of people belonging to the Sinhala educated lower-middle class and the working class as well as the peasantry, all groups of people who had been excluded from the political processes and social prestige and mobility. Though they belonged to quite different social classes, they formed a nationalist power block on the basis of a common language and religion, which were devalued in favour of Christianity and English during the long colonial era.
A source of the immense discontent was also because even after Independence the small westernized Ceylonese elite, who ruled post-independent Ceylon from 1948-56, continued the discriminating practices. While SWRD’s regime did create an important Sinhala cultural renaissance, its anti Tamil policies and legislation created deep divisions within the country based on an exclusive Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism that eventually, through many twists and turns, led to a 26 year civil war.
The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact offering some minimal concessions to the Tamils was unacceptable to the sangha so that in a theatrical gesture, SWRD tore up the document (on his front lawn), in their presence, duly photographed. Clearly he could not control the Sinhala-Buddhist forces he himself had mobilized so astutely.
HARTAL (1953) at Galle Face
The Galle Face is a historical site where the LSSP and the CP first organised a protest meeting against Prime Minister Dudley Senanayaka government’s plan to cut the rice subsidy and other vital social welfare programmes, including a mid-day meal for schoolchildren, which led to the Haratal of 1953, resulting in the latter’s resignation. Though SWRD spoke against the welfare cuts at this meeting he didn’t join in the Haratal. The Haratal, a wider protest than a general strike also included people who were not the traditional working class, was the first post-independence protest movement against a government. Unlike in India, in the absence of a strong independence movement in colonial Ceylon, this must have been the first post-colonial intimation of the power of ‘the people’ to determine political change outside of elections. When some at the meeting tried to enter parliament they were teargassed and there was countrywide protests which led to property damage as well.
SATHYAGRAHA (1956) at Galle Face
There is a history lesson I am teaching myself about the very ground of Galle Face as a site of peaceful protest. In 1956, SJV Chelvanayakam and others of the Federal Party staged a sathyagraha (a Gandhian non-violent protest), against the passing of the Sinhala Only Bill, which made it the sole national language, demoting Tamil to a second class status. Chelvanayakam and members of his party walked out of the Parliament and went over to the nearby Galle Face, which was then very green, and sat down together on the ground in silent protest, while the Sinhala MP’s passed the momentous bill.
The police were instructed to keep a watch but not to interfere when a mob attacked and beat up the Tamil members of Parliament who were seated quietly in protest. The few black and white photographs of the incident mirror what happened on May 9 2022 when excited mobs, at the behest of the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, attacked the peaceful protestors and the GOTAGOGAMA (GGG) village they had created in Galle Face, while the police, again, turned a blind eye.
In 1956, the violence spread across the country creating the first of the two anti-Tamil pogroms during SWRDB’s short term of office from 1956-59 both directly connected to the Sinhala Only bill. This time round, the May counter attacks appeared to be precisely targeted at the property of the Rajapaksha clan and associates alone, as retribution. The two anti-Tamil pograms during the SWRD regime were more widespread leading to a large number of deaths and destruction of Tamil owned property and businesses and also included random attacks on people suspected of being Tamil. I was 11 years old in ‘58 and remember vividly the tarred Tamil Street signs, school closures and curfew and the “Sri controversy”, the Sinhala letter on the car number plates which acted as a provocation in the Tamil areas. These pogroms also set a pattern for future racially motivated violence against the Tamils and more recently the post-war attacks on Muslims as well.
Sinhaya from Sinhabahu
It would appear that at least some Sinhala participants of GGG uprising and those sympathetic to it across the country have at last realized the historical dead end of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, espoused and elaborated by the Rajapaksa regime for nearly 15 years, which they had themselves supported enthusiastically. That regime made political capital out of the Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist ideology and linked it to a powerful militarized state to win the war and maintain their power in the post-war era and amass immense wealth for the family, which has led to the current economic and political crisis. It is the current state of extreme material deprivation and political instability that has made some Sinhala folk realize the violence of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist ideology and myths first mobilized, politically, by SWRD, with the Tamil people, and their language identified as the main historical enemy.
Sinhala folk with their newfound commonality with Tamil and Muslim people marked the 18th of May (which is the anniversary of the end of the civil war), as a day of mourning and remembrance of the victims of the war – Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala. At GGG, as elsewhere, multi-ethnic religious groups lit lamps and gathered together in a quiet act of remembrance. The Rajapaksa victory day celebration of war heroes appeared to be a thing of the past. Heartening as these symbolic acts of reconciliation are, one wonders about the conspicuous presence of the national flag, with its emblematic lion holding a sword, at GGG and the street marches. Is this a way of telling the Rajapaksas and their followers that they can no longer control the narrative of the Lankan, multi-ethnic nation? But the lyrics of an Aragalaya song, sung with a lot of gusto by a group of men, found on YouTube, made me wonder what their politics are: “Sinhayanmen ekwi sitimu…” (Let us stay united like lions)! I thought a word like Sinhaya would be used with some care in crafting a song, especially for the Aragalaya. In terms of both gender and ethnicity, the lyrics of the song are at best thoughtless, at worst ominous.
Besides, are lions pack animals or loners? But the lion on the flag is an emblem of the myth of origin of the Sinhala folk, though, according to Professor Gananath Obeysekere, it was in fact taken from a Dutch emblem! So much for Aryan purity! Also a reporter on an Aram video (15/5) affixed a small Lankan flag on his shirt and continued his commentary in Tamil, at GGG, and interviewed people in all three languages. So, the national flag which gives us Sinhala folk the ‘lion’s share,’ does at least acknowledge the Tamil and Muslim citizens, as well as other minority groups, through its colour coding. But, during the Rajapaksa regime, in the TV framing of the flag for national occasions, it has been carefully folded so that nothing but the lion and the sword are visible.
GroundViews has done a brilliant visual analysis of this with illustrations and made the point that the flag manufacturers are having roaring sales, thanks to the Aragalaya. But when I glimpsed a shot of an actor dressed as the lion in Sinhabahu, wearing his wonderful headdress, but bare bodied and in shorts, brandishing a toy sword, I knew there were actors there who had a greater sense of irony and play than the singers of the ‘Lion song’ drumming up the mythical idea of the powerful lion-race with their noble Sinha-ley (blood of the lion). The overwhelmingly masculinist ideology of the song was undercut by the actor, with his lovely sense of humour.
TEAR-GASS CINEMA GALLE FACE
The Tear-Gas Cinema, erected at Galle Face, is a wildly creative idea, responding to the violent attack (on the GGG Village by the Rajapaksa mob), with an extraordinarily imaginative displacement of it. Instead of hitting back, people erected a cinema (soon after the 9th of May attack), to share a collective art form, such as film, which belongs to all. The eyes of the Gas mask (its emblem), are two celluloid film reels. So the violence of the mob is registered visually and deflected by screening a Ken Loach film and Chaplin’s the Great Dictator.
In the 1940s, it was mockingly noted that Hitler copied Chaplin’s mustache and now it’s clear that Mahinda Rajapaksa copied both, with history returning as grotesque farce played out in the Parliament! The Tear Gas project at GGG has also encouraged young filmmakers to make short films, based on the uprising, I gather. Hitler hated Chaplin and called him ‘that Jewish clown!’ Chaplin was a great epic actor; he played both the little Jewish Barber and also Hynkel, the dictator, in his film The Great Dictator (1940). He was the very first globally famous and loved film star who created the little tramp as a modern Everyman. He also visited Ceylon during his world tour in 1932.
Dr Farah Mihlar has written an important article, “Representation of the North and East is Critical for a Genuinely Transformative Aragalaya,” in The Daily Financial Times (3/6/22) that should be widely read, in my opinion. While she is appreciative of GGG Aragalaya and has visited Galle Face (she teaches human rights issues at Exeter University), she cautions against the forgetting of the victims of the war in the North and East and their continuing demands for Justice.
With this history in mind, it would be well worth screening a local independent film by Sumathy Sivamohan’s, Putu Saha Piyavaru (Sons and Fathers, 2016), on an interracial marriage and interracial artistic collaboration within the Lankan film industry. It is perhaps the only film that has dealt with the ’83 pogrom against the Tamils and also memorialises the murder of Venkat, the Lankan Tamil film director of Sinhala films. Young Lankan filmmakers and cinephiles should know that he was burnt alive, by a Sinhala racist mob, in his car. An understanding of that history is important for Lankan cinephiles even as they enjoy the latest international films. And that the film is in Sinhala, and directed by Professor Sivamohan, a Tamil, makes it most unusual on several counts within the local industry.
Sivamohan’s recent short documentary, Amidst the Villus (2022), has a lot to teach us about the sudden expulsion of 90,000, Muslims of the North by the LTTE during the civil war in 1990 and the numerous difficulties they have encountered with the State and ecologists as well, in recent efforts to return to their homelands. All effort should be expended to learn by teaching ourselves the history of the struggles that have left Lankans more divided and ready to kill each other than work and live together. I have always found it easier to first learn about history from films.
Dharmasena Pathiraja’s documentary film In Search of a Road (2006), made during the civil war, is an informative film to show the interweaving of Tamil and Sinhala lives through the image/motif of the famous Colombo-Jaffna railway line, opened in 1905, and destroyed by the LTTE during the war. It interweaves documentary footage and dramatized vignettes to bring out a multiplicity of stories of interethnic relations under duress. The voice-over narration, written by Sivamohan and spoken by Tissa Abeyesekera, gives the film an overarching narrative coherence linked to the various policies of the Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalist State. It would have taken a lot of courage and hope to make this film during the war, with no end in sight.
Film can be a great mentor in this process of understanding our recent past. GGG village on Galle Face will fold sooner or later and now the President, too, has gone. But films will no doubt linger on in our memory with its promise of happiness, as ‘Democracy’s Theatre’, the great ‘Art of The People’, the utopian art form of the 20th Century. Given that Buddhist monks, Christian priests and nuns and Muslim imams have also marched together, has added another rare image of inter-religious harmony. The Tear Gas Cinema should take this opportunity to encourage a historical understanding of our cinema and its exceptional multi-ethnic composition at all levels of production, distribution, exhibition, technical personnel and most significantly, musicians and actors.
Screening a film by Rukmani Devi, a Tamil, and the leading star of the early Lankan cinema, could also be a way of discussing race and ethnicity and cultural production in our popular cinema in its first two decades. Besides, it would have been wonderful to hear Rukmani Devi’s incomparable voice reverberate in Galle Face under a starry sky, to the echo of waves. “Mavila penevi rupe hade…”, she sang, a renewed vision of a multi-ethnic Lanka. Rukmani Devi, or Daisy Daniels, could not read Sinhala. She read her Sinhala scripts and lyrics of songs written in what’s called the ‘Roman alphabet’, used for English. But she certainly would have passed that diabolical test if asked (by an excited racist mob), to pronounce the Sinhala word for bucket, ‘baldiya’.
Encoding an idea of creative resistance, The Tear Gas Cinema of the Lankan uprising ranks with other great political cine-events and cine-manifestos of the 20th Century, even though it will have lasted only for a very short time. Here are some of the essential historical names of cinema as resistance: Kino-Pravda, 1917, Bolshevik Revolution; the Dziga Vertov Group, Godard and Gorin, May ’68, Paris; Third Cinema – Camera as a Gun Shooting 24fps, 1968, Solanas and Getino, Argentina; Aesthetics of Hunger, Glauber Rocha, 1965, Brazil; Towards an Imperfect Cinema, Garcia Espinosa, 1960s, Cuba. In all of these cases, creativity, understanding and collective enjoyment were produced by imaginatively resisting deprivation and political violence.
Voices from the North and the East
It is sobering to hear what two visitors from the North and East have had to say when interviewed at Galle Face at the height of the uprising. The last words, culled from the internet, should be theirs’ for us Sinhala folks to dwell on.
“When asked what positive changes one can take from the protests at Galle Face, Vanie Simon recognizes that people here are for the first time holding the Rajapaksas accountable. For the most part, it is the economic crimes, maybe, but that is still some sort of accountability.
“He was a person that was untouchable for so long. Now, he is being held accountable by the majority, so we have some hope that some of our concerns and demands will be heard amidst all this as well.
“It’s a change that the collectives here, and indeed anyone in the North and East, could not have expected. A change nevertheless, that’s taken with a pinch of salt. We feel like we have no say in GotaGoHome, to be honest, because we never asked him to come in the first place!”
Kamala Vasuki says. “For communities and family back home, it is still too early to say if the protests at Galle Face will effect in bringing changes that are needed in the North and East. Even if this marks the end of the Rajapaksa era in Sri Lanka, much of the injustices perpetrated and weaponized by the regime are systemic and deep rooted. It’s a system that’s been historically against Sri Lanka’s Tamil and Muslim communities.
“It is very different here in Colombo. There is a lot of open anger and insults. People aren’t afraid to voice these out even in front of the police and the military. There is open intimidation in the North and East, so there is a big difference here and the places that we are in. There is a big difference in how the government and even the military is fearful of the people. They are very concerned and afraid of an uprising in the South. They don’t care about that in the North and East. They don’t even consider us as people who are protesting.”
“A Sri Lanka without Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a steady supply of basic commodities and a stable economy may be major demands for many Sri Lankans in the South, yet for a real, lasting and comprehensive change across the board, difficult histories and harsh truths need to be engaged with, reflected upon and be made aware about. These must provide the nucleus of the Sri Lanka we wish to witness.
“What’s to be taken back from visiting the protest site at Galle Face?
“The question elicits some guarded answers. There’s certainly solidarity and hope in the messages that will be conveyed to some (understandably) skeptical communities back home. Yet the memory of fear and repression that Gotabaya Rajapaksa built his name on is still fresh in the mind of Simon”.
“The terminator may have been rescaled and disarmed by the collective spirit that continues to fuel the GotaGoHome movement in the South, but what is to happen outside the reaches of Colombo, in the North and East is still in the unknown. The Bar Association’s lawyers don’t line up and rush to Court to fight injustice after injustice there, where constant repression, surveillance and intimidation are ingrained into a citizen’s mind. It informs the cautious answer Simon leaves us with.
“We never wanted Gota, you are telling him to go home, so we came here to show our solidarity. But what happens after all this, if Gota does not go?
“He will finish us off.”
I wrote this before Gota went, but now that he has fled leaving Lanka in the hands of Ranil, who declared himself to be Grusha, who selflessly saved the baby, the prospects for democracy are not good. A YouTube video is now making the rounds with a montage of Ranil at various state occasions with adoring subjects ready to worship him, accompanied by a mocking song on him becoming king and about to carry, what Boopathy Nalin called, a ‘desapalana malwattiya’ to the temple.
Laleen Jayamanne obtained her BA from the University of Ceylon Peradeniya (1968), an MA in Drama (1973) from New York University and a Ph.D. (1982) from NSW University, on ‘Female Representation in the Lankan Cinema 1947-79’. She taught Cinema Studies at the University of Sydney and enjoys writing on the intersection of art and politics for The Island in her retirement.