Aba - the mega Sinhala movie
Aba, the mega Sinhala movie directed by the versatile filmmaker Jackson Anthony, constitutes an impressive cinematic adventure for both its creators and its audiences. The film is a historical epic based on an independent and informed reconstruction of the Pandukabhaya story found in The Great Chronicle (the Mahavansa) of the Sinhalese. While providing a valuable opportunity for a delightful engagement of the aesthetic sense of the many local and foreign cinema-goers that it is sure to attract, it will boost the morale of the Sri Lankan people by dramatizing a most plausible explanation of their truly heroic origins, controversial though this may prove.
However, I personally believe that Jackson Anthony is as much concerned with maintaining a reasonable balance between the commercial success of his film and its artistic excellence as with ensuring, within permissible limits, the historical accuracy and verisimilitude of the details presented, and that, if this is truly the case, there is nothing blameworthy about it.
Aba can legitimately claim the status of epic cinema. Dealing with the childhood and adolescence (the early years of life from birth to the age of sixteen) of the title hero the film presents human drama on a magnificent scale. Its production costs are a staggering (for a developing country like ours) 60 million rupees. The filmmaker has gone to great lengths in his attempt to choose the right location for shooting his epic venture, and to construct the appropriate sets so as to create the feel and atmosphere of the 5th century BCE Lanka. The historical setting is rendered further captivating by the addition of rich fantasy. The drama that is acted out against this backdrop is an imperial conflict (because it concerns a matter of royal succession) that determines the course of the history of a whole country and its people. This central conflict is between Pandu Aba, the royal prince condemned to death even before his birth, and his murderous challengers who are none other than his own uncles. (In media releases before the launch of the film Jackson Anthony was careful to stress the fact that this conflict was not between two ethnic groups, but between two clans or tribes for supremacy.) To create an authentic representation of the progress of events resulting from this discord the filmmaker uses a very large cast of ordinary people in supporting roles with the main cast comprising well over ten actors of established fame. These epic features of the film are complemented by an enchanting musical score by a reputed musician and fascinating dance sequences by an acclaimed choreographer.
Drama in this case involves the precarious survival of Aba the young prince in the face of repeated attempts made on his life by his uncles hell-bent on murdering him in order to thwart the course of destiny predicted for their nephew that he would, on coming of age, kill all of them to become king; but the protection afforded by his natural and supernatural guardians makes possible the successful completion of his education and military training under the Brahmin tutor Pandula.
The clash that occupies the whole film is that between Pandu Aba who represents the dominant native tribe the Yakkhas and his uncles the brothers of his mother who are actually considered as foreign invaders. Pandu Aba’s miraculous escape and his triumphal emergence out of a dangerous childhood into promising adulthood as a patriotic warrior in the end mark the resolution of the central conflict. Historically, the real struggle between the uncles and the nephew starts only after this and is outside the scope of the film Aba. However, the events covered in the film determine the direction of the nation’s history, which confirms the epic character of Aba the movie.
For most non-Sri Lankans the film’s appeal may be almost entirely due to its high cinematic quality, its magical fantasy, spectacle, music, and pageantry. Local audiences, however, will find something strongly inspiring in it in addition to its unmistakable art. The excellent quality of the film results from the effortless assimilation of its central message into the complex art that it bodies forth. It is because of this that they walk out of the cinemas after the show with their minds imbued with a sense of pride in being native to this country.
It is ennobling for us to realize that we have a far more heroic, honourable ancestry than the traditionally claimed ‘Aryan’ roots (though the ‘Hela’ language most probably acquired its Indo-European character as a result of north Indian influence including conquest). The founders of our nation stood up to foreign invaders from India and prevailed. Pandukabhaya (Pandu Aba) was the heroic warrior prince who saved the country from continued foreign domination and brought the various tribes together to forge a single nation.
This, of course, runs counter to the Mahavansa tradition according to which Prince Vijaya from north India was the progenitor of the Sinhalese race. What Jackson Anthony has in effect done is a kind of ‘deconstructing’ (to use the term in an informal sense) of the Pandukabhaya account of the Mahavansa.
There cannot be any doubt in the minds of those who have done even a cursory reading of the Mahavansa that its author Thera Mahanama meant it to be a record of what was then popularly believed to be the history of the island from the arrival of the north Indian conqueror to the 5th century CE when the book was composed in fulfillment of a royal commission given by King Dhatusena. It is true that it could be regarded as a work of literature: a poem in the Pali language conforming to the rules of a specific literary genre that originated in India; it can also be described as a historical religious poem that enumerates the services of the pious monarchs of Lanka to the Buddhist church.
However, the Mahavansa cannot be dismissed as mere fiction. It is a sophisticated work that grew out of previous similar works and contemporary oral traditions as the author himself hints at the beginning. When shorn of literary embellishments and other elements of poetic license – determined in part most probably by deliberate design as the work was commissioned by the king in a time of trouble due to external threats to the state, the Mahavansa is revealed to have a solid factual base. With all its shortcomings as history the Mahavansa remains a cherished national monument.
In the opinion of a fair number of authoritative scholars the details of the Pandukabhaya legend in the Mahavansa suggest the likelihood that there was a struggle between the native royals and the successors of the conqueror Vijaya, who were Indian aliens.
In prelaunch comments on Aba in the media Jackson Anthony has made his patriotic goal clear: to serve the country of his birth by providing "a cinematic insight into the perennial question that has plagued the Mahavansa". The question relates to the mystery about the identity of Pandukabhaya’s father.
Jackson Anthony the historian explains for us the genealogy of Dutugemunu, the warrior prince from Ruhuna who rid the country of foreign rule in the 2nd century BCE thus: Dutugemunu’s father was Kavan Tissa, Kavan Tissa’s Gothabhaya, Gothabhaya’s Yathala Tissa, Yathala Tissa’s Mahanaga, Mahanaga’s Mutasiva, and Mutasiva’s Pandukabhaya, and poses the question as to who Pandukabhaya’s father was.
The filmmaker’s self-assigned patriotic mission is, as stated above, to stimulate a creative insight into the question through the medium of cinema. Says Jackson Anthony, "In this endeavour we shall strive to reawaken the origins of the illustrious Royal Dynasty of the Ruhuna, which is shrouded in mystery and has been a subject of great debate and controversy. As is fashionable among some academic and scholarly circles, it is inappropriate to consider as myths, the stories or legends revealing the birth of a nation, be they orally carried or recorded. The enduring historic and human relationship ingrained in those legends, tales or stories, have a timeless and universal value. We are strongly persuaded to believe that our cinematic effort to bring forth this exposition involving an epochal event, (the) birth and the childhood of Pandukabhaya that
occurred about 2300 years ago in the history of this nation – will help instill a great measure of positive thinking into our present-day society whose consciousness has been unremittingly ravaged by centuries of colonial bondage and such other disconcerting experiences".
Although there is a gap of sixteen centuries between the Mahavansa and the film Aba, in terms of topicality in their respective periods they have great affinity with each other. The Mahavansa was composed when the country was facing the threat of foreign invasion. The film Aba has a similar relationship to the current situation in the country embattled with a separatist terrorism. Hence both are of great national significance. In spite or rather because of this there is the possibility of adverse criticism leveled against Jackson Anthony’s attempt as being an exercise in tribalism, as it is usual in Sri Lanka nowadays for any talk of patriotism to be reviled as an advocacy of racism. However, there is nothing in the film that any section of the Sri Lankan community could take exception to, for it speaks for the whole country.
Turning now to the entertainment aspect, the artistes and the technical staff should be commended for a job well done. Malani Fonseka (as Bhaddakachchayana, the Sakyan princess who is brought to Lanka to be consecrated queen to King Panduvasudeva), Ravindra Randeniya (Brahmin Pandula who trains Pandu Aba), Sabitha Perera (Unmaada Chitthra, the last and eleventh child, and the only girl born to Bhaddakachchayana), Kanchana Kodituwakku (Diga Gamini who secretly visits the well-guarded Chitthra), and Neil Alles (Panduvasudeva, the third and youngest son of King Vijaya’s brother Sumitta, sent to Lanka to succeed Vijaya as the latter had no son of his own to be his heir) – all these act with a clear conception of their roles. Bimal Jayakody and Wasantha Moragoda play convincingly the deeply emotional roles of the two apparently very popular Yaksha generals Chitthra Raja and Kalawela put to death by Panduvasudeva for failure to protect Unmaada Chitthra being secret allies of Diga Gamini. The young duo Saumya Liyanage and Dulani Anuradha – obviously well trained in fighting and dancing - bring to life the roles of Habara and Gumbaka Butha who are entrusted the task of conveying the royal baby to Doramandalawa, by putting up a spirited performance. Jackson Anthony’s son Sajitha Anutthara plays with skill the title role of Aba, Pandukabhaya. Music is by Nadeeka Guruge, photography by Suminda Weerasinghe and choreography by Chandana Weerasinghe. The lyrics are by Professor Sunil Ariyaratne.
I wish to reserve special praise for Jackson Anthony for his rare creativity and unmatched versatility. The common English idiom ‘Jack of all trades (master of none)’ usually applied to a person who can do many different jobs, but none of them so well, could be given an absolutely positive twist in the case of our Jackson Anthony thus: ‘A Jack of all trades, and master of many’. He is an actor, a director, a singer, a scholar, a scriptwriter, a novelist, a lyricist, an explorer, a traveler, and a communicator par excellence.
We are lucky to be able to revisit our historical origins in his company.