Interview with Prasanna Vithanage

This is from an article I wrote for TimeOut Delhi which appears in their latest issue. The photograph was taken by Deshan Tennekoon. Since leaving the cushy corporate job last month to pursue things like writing, advertising, and teaching economics, which interest me more, I have been pleased with the number of assignments I have been getting. I realise that going free lance is no easy task, but the initial signs are encouraging.

Prasanna Vithanage is one of the most controversial and outspoken film directors in Sri Lanka today. His subject matter usually succeeds in irritating the sensibilities of the prudish Sri Lankan establishment by exploring facets of society that are traditionally kept locked in the almirah.

Vithanage has rare credentials: he is one of few Sri Lankan artistes, if not the only one, to successfully battle a minister and the National Film Corporation and win his right to freedom of expression. In 2001 (?) he managed to convince the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka to overturn a ministerial ban on his Purahanda Kaluwara (Darkness on a Full Moon Day, 1997). However, in spite of his boldness, he has achieved recognition for the sensitive and introspective quality of his films by winning awards on the international film festival circuit in Amiens, Singapore, Fribourg, Las Palmas and Makati.

Pavuru Walalu (1990 / 105mins), or Walls Within as it is referred to in English, will be featured at the Sri Lankan Film Festival – Commemorating 60 Years of Indo-Sri Lankan Diplomatic Relations at the end of March. It is a tale which portrays extramarital love, infidelity and abortion – taboo subjects in a country still failing to agree on its post colonial moral identity. Two lovers, separated by World War II, meet twenty years later. The conflict between personal and familial ties results in upheaval, guilt, and loss in a forceful and stark depiction of social reality.

Time Out met Prasanna Vithanage in Colombo one evening last week to ask him about his work, the industry and its struggles. He was punctual, wearing a polo shirt and looking a tad tired, but enthusiastic, after a long day of editing his next film, Akasa Kusum. He asked us to call him by his first name.

TO: Critics have identified “reflectivity” as the primary virtue of your work. What do they mean?

PV: All my films have been an inside-outside process. I have tried to capture what is happening inside the character, unlike say, in action films. They are personal films, when a filmmaker tries to capture human life and society through himself: through his contradictions, memories, and opinions. I have used my films as a kind of self expression.

TO: You are also a theatre director. What was your first love?

PV: Film making was my first love, although I love to work with good actors and theatre has given me a base to find and work with them. I love working with actors, blocking and understanding the character, even in film, but it is different. In theatre you get that live experience.

TO: Why do you think that theatre actors are better than film actors?

PV: In this country, either we have theatre actors or teledrama actors. Our teledramas lack subtext, whereas in a play the most important thing is the subtext. You feel it when good actors and actresses are acting what is going on inside them, but in teledramas always they are talking about the issue and about the emotion. Teledramas have become a launching pad for bad actors.

TO: In your opinion what is the biggest challenge that Sri Lankan directors face?

PV: The biggest challenge to any artist, especially in a polarized country, is to capture the lie. I feel we are losing the middle ground, even the slightest thing like, lets say, depicting a soldier visiting a brothel. The film maker may be interested in the soldier’s loneliness, but the present ethnic war will have a big share in the way the situation is interpreted. The various groups who are thriving on polarization will come against the film maker on their grounds, because they wish to see the soldier as something else, and the war as something else.

Maybe the filmmaker’s intention was to capture the war, or how the present situation has affected our human relationships. It has changed us over the past twenty-five years, but if I show it in a film, maybe the state and its apertures will not like it. So that is the biggest challenge: to be truthful to what you see, and to reach the public in a society where the people are in a kind of fear psychosis.

TO: What is the present state of censorship in Sri Lanka?

PV: The state does not like filmmakers portraying the war in a negative light. The present situation has given a red light to the artist that you have to talk according to the government line, the government values. They have not proclaimed these values, but they mean the old values, our traditional cultural values. Because of the war and the resulting polarization of society along ethnic and religious lines in our country, and the effect of globalization, nationalist feelings have erupted. And, the censor board is a symbol of this.

TO: Leaving the content of their propaganda aside, do you have any admiration for the way the government is using the media to control the population?

PV: [indignantly] No, I don’t have any admiration. I think an artist creates something because he disagrees with the norms or the society or the establishment. And if he becomes a part of the establishment, I think he ceases to become an artist.

TO: Will Sri Lankan directors let their content be influenced by this situation we are in?

PV: I think for me, all the restrictions, in one way will make the expression of the artist more subtle and the work better and when a film becomes more subtle it will make audiences more intelligent.


So that’s the TimeOut article. Incidentally, Prasanna is currently finishing up a production with the producer of The Full Monty, called Machang, about a bogus Sri Lankan handball team that goes missing in London. It is written by Ruwanthie De Chickera and stars her brother and my friend, Gihan De Chickera. Prasanna is also working on Akasa Kusum, about a faded movie star coming to grips with a new world and her own demons, starring Malani Fonseka.

After talking to Prasanna, I feel very interested in his work. I am going to buy his box set from Torana.


4 thoughts on “Interview with Prasanna Vithanage

  1. interesting Ravana. I’m not an avid movie but reading this has made me want to watch his movies.

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