Suriya Arana
A mandatory pilgrimage

Reviewed by Prabath Sahabandu
eaving the cinema greatly moved to pen a review and a tribute to a director is a rare experience particularly after viewing a Sinhala film.

Somaratne Dissanayake, a filmmaker who exudes a disposition to controversy, departs from the beaten track and ventures into a terrain, which is a veritable minefield in the context of today’s religious sensitivities and attendant tension.

He chooses as his main characters an elderly Buddhist monk, a Samanera, a hunter and his son. He pits the monks and the hunter against each other thus producing a clash, which in the end resolves itself in what could be described as a superb cinematic treat.

The film begins with the ‘intrusion’ of the two monks into a hamlet and the story revolves round the efforts that Sediris the hunter (Jackson Anthony), who feels threatened by the monks trying to rekindle Buddhism, which has no place for his livelihood, makes to oust them. He does everything short of training his gun on them to get shot of them. Other characters are adroitly woven into a smoothly flowing narrative.

Suriya Arana, mutatis mutandis, smacks of the Buddha’s Alawaka Damanaya or how the Buddha defeated Alawaka the devil. The Buddhist Jathaka stories appear to have had their influence on the director who is also scriptwriter.

While narrating a story which is highly entertaining, Somaratne discusses a number of issues most of which pertain to Buddhism and environment.

His portrayal of monks is realistic. The elderly monk (Jayalath Manoratne) is shorthaired and sports a beard. He even resorts to ‘reasonable force’ to make his adversaries fall in line - on the hunter first to grab his gun to prevent it from being used on animals, and later to obtain a confession from him when he tries to fix the monk as a poacher by having surreptitiously introduced some hides into the Arannya and bringing the Arachchi (G. R. Perera) there. He uses the same method against a henchman of the Arachchi to save the hunter from being whipped.

The monk also wears a talisman and flaunts it in the first encounter with the hunter who boasts of the powers of his own. This is not the kind of monk some may like to see in a movie but the fact remains that there are such monks among us.

The monk of Suriya Arana leads a pious life protecting and guiding Sumedha, the Samanera (Dasun Madusanka) with fatherly care.

The manner in which he looks after the Samanera belies the claims of critics of Buddhism that Samaneras are denied their childhood. He displays a liberal attitude towards the little monk tolerating as he does minor breaches of discipline on the part of the novice. He even lets his pupil retain a Gal Dunna (a device with which pebbles are pelted), which the hunter’s son, Tikira (Sajitha Anuththara) has gifted to him. The only condition he lays down is that it must never be used on animals.

While the hunter goes hell for leather to drive the monks away Tikira sides with the monks out of conviction. Wearing a saffron robe and using a mask, Sediris frightens villagers in a bid to mislead them into belief that monks are devils in disguise, so as to make the gullible rise against them. Some of the villagers begin to believe the hunter.

The use of masks on the monks to enable the viewer to see them through the ‘rustic’ eyes bears testimony to the director’s resourcefulness and his preparedness to challenge convention even at the risk of opprobrium from some sections of the Buddhist community. He even lets a frightened villager throw an axe at the senior monk, who sustains injury in the forehead. The attacker falls into the river he is crossing, and is drowning when the injured monk rescues him with the help of his robe in a fine display of compassion.

This scene is of great import at a time when anti Buddhist campaigners including a section of the western media are trying to paint Buddhist monks with cleft hooves under saffron robes.

In another scene, the little monk while frolicking with Tikira in a river flees to escape a herd of wild elephants. An elephant grabs his robe and puts it into the rushing water, which carries it downstream. The duo runs away naked. The Samanera covering nudity with a lotus leaf tries to steal his way into the Arannya only to be detected by his vigilant guru.

This scene has provoked much controversy. Those who had watched only trailers hurled brickbats at Somaratne. The vivisection of the film was so severe that he had to invite a group of senior monks to a preview of the film and to obtain a nihil obstat of sorts.

Why anyone should have taken umbrage over such a scene defies comprehension. Somaratne does Buddhism no harm. Instead he does it immense good by bringing to light the essence of it. Suriya Arana, the writer believes, is a cinematic bana preaching.

In these scenes he only succumbs to creative impulses like any other good director desirous of broadening the bounds of his freedom. This is pardonable.

The writer is reminded of a scene in Mr. English, in which Mr. Bean, who plays the main role, exposes the posterior of the Archbishop of Canterbury - coram populo! – mistaking him for an imposter (he has seen previously elsewhere) with an anti-Christ tattoo on his derriere. Many an Anglican may have fallen into a swoon on seeing this but it has been taken in good spirit.

Film trailers are usually deceptive. And to draw hasty conclusions on the basis of a few scenes taken out of context is tantamount to letting one’s prejudices get the better of one’s critical judgment. Some have already made this bad mistake.

On the other hand, ours is a country where 32 Buddhist monks including Samaneras were once lined up and shot dead (by the LTTE at Arantalawe in 1987). The 1987-89 period saw many Buddhist monks being not only stripped of their robes but also subjected to torture and violent death. Remember the barbaric form of torture called ‘Dhamma Chakka’ which monks were subjected to? Before that in 1971, many monks had been done to death in the cruellest manner.

But Buddhists continue to vote those who held key posts in those governments and former terrorists responsible for these heinous crimes, to power!

So, why should there be so much hullabaloo over a mere scene in a film - and an excellent film at that?

Be that as it may, the film also focuses on the question of temporalities, which have become the subject of public discussion. Somaratne’s monk abides by the teachings of the Buddha. He readily parts with what he gets by way of alms for the benefit of the family of the hunter when he languishes in Dandu Kanda (a kind of pillory) at the Arachchi’s place and later when he gets his leg blasted by his own trap gun and loses it below the knee. This certainly sends a strong message to the wealthy Buddhist temples at a time when monks are trying to ward off evangelists engaged in dosh-induced conversions.

The monk also confronts the Aarachchi scolds him for having grabbed Sediris’ land and asks him to give him a parcel of land for a chena (slash and burn cultivation) if he is to be weaned away from hunting. Although his words are not heeded, what is expected of a true Buddhist monk finds expression in this scene. He stands up to those in authority whenever they are at fault and thwarts an attempt by the Aarachchi to fell trees in the forest under the pretext of building a road to the Arannya which is now drawing crowds and to ingratiate himself with the power elite by inviting them to a religious ceremony.

The director maintains his critical detachment throughout the film as manifest in his portrayal of the hunter. He does not try to paint him raven black. The hunter kills only to meet his basic needs. When Sediris’ son aims his gun at a deer with a calf, he yells, "If you kill that animal, who is going to feed the little one, your mother?" He again loses his temper when the son who is learning to shoot, says he is trying to kill more than one animal with one shot. "Only one at a time!" he says.

In another scene he pounces on the son, who shoots a parrot with the Gal Dunna. He picks the bird, sprinkles water on it and sets it free. His fury knows no bounds when he sees a tusker gunned down by the Government Agent, who is a white man. He goes into tantrums and pleads with gods of the forest to punish the white man and his local cahoots.

Paradoxically, the same man tries to drive the monks away by trapping wild animals and releasing them into the cave where the monks live. He finally blocks the entrance to the cave with logs and twigs and sets them on fire. The monks have a narrow escape. Ditta Dhamma Vedeniya Karma takes effect; he has to pay for his sins immediately. While fleeing from Arachchi’s men, Sederis gets shot by his own trap gun.

The hunter’s violent reaction when his interests are threatened is typically human. In this country hardly a day passes without a murder being committed over a land dispute. He derives sustenance from the forest and therefore evinces a proprietary interest in it. Hence his frantic efforts to stave off those he perceives to be intruders.

The monk on the other hand insists that the forest belongs to all beings. What he says runs still deeper: The earth belongs to all beings, human or otherwise and therefore we all must learn to live in harmony with one another. He is repeating what the Enlightened One preached over two thousand and five hundred years ago.

The film ends with a moving scene: The hunter’s son enters the order. Dhamma has triumphed over the evil.

Jayalath Manoratne and Jackson Anthony, as usual, bring their roles to life with astonishing ingenuity. Their acting is so natural. A great part of the director’s success ought to be attributed to these master actors. The two children, Dasun and Sajitha, too, deserve praise for their contribution to the success of the film. They at times come very close to overshadowing Mano and Jackson. Given more exposure, guidance and encouragement, they will one day come to adorn the Sinhala cinema.

Rohana Weerasinghe has done justice to the film. His music blends soothingly with the rhythm of the film and the scenes such as the one where the hunter plays devil to scare villagers would have lacked the dramatic effect that they have but for Rohana’s music. Harshana Dissanayake’s singing has a kind of aural impact that enhances the visual beauty of the film.

Channa Deshapriya’s camera does a wonderful job without causing eyestrain, which usually is the result of the over use of techniques. He efficiently conveys what his director wants and thus facilitates communication. Ebert Wijesinghe (Make up) and Heenatigala Premadasa (Art direction) have identified the thematic needs and given them an artistic touch, which adds to elegance of the film.

Shyaman Premasundara has demonstrated his ability to do professional editing and the film runs without hiccups. It is to his credit that an hour-and-thirty-eight-minute film manages to deal with so complex a subject.

Giriraj Kaushalya, D. D. Gangodathenna, Dulika Marapane, Jayane Senanayake et al breathe life into their roles bolstering the thematic thrust of the film.

Last but not least, wellwishers of the Sinhala cinema ought to be grateful to Renuka for her investment in another good production.

The film, scene after scene, unfolds against the backdrop of a verdant forest refreshing the weary eyes of city dwellers. Wild animals, trees, streams and the awe-inspiring scenes of the wilderness enthrall children and adults alike.

All in all, Suriya Arana is a great film, which proves Sinhala cinema is far from dying.

It is a mandatory pilgrimage for every family.