Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne's film Kusa Paba, now running in local cinemas is the latest endeavour by this veteran director to take on a well known Buddhist Jataka story (Buddhist birth stories) in which the screen play has been done by the late Tissa Abeysekara another veteran in the Sinhala cinema. The experienced cast, consisting of Ravindra Randeniya, Veena Jayakody, Jackson Anthony, Kusum Renu, Palitha Silva and others contribute positively to the film. Special mention must be made of Puja Uma Shankar who adds to the exquisiteness of the film. All in all, Kusa Paba is a film that is a more than average Sinhala film and a bold attempt by some of the best available artists and it is a film, as commonly claimed, "for the entire family". This Jataka story is one of the well-liked stories of the Pansiya Panas Jataka Buddhist tales. Every Sri Lankan Buddhist gets to know this story in their childhood about King Kusa, who was born with a warped nose whose love for Pabawathi, the stunning princess who despise the very sight of him. It is a story close to the hearts of most Sri Lankans.
Having seen the film at Savoy, where the sound is so painfully high to the normal ear, my thoughts about Kusa Paba in its entirety were not as satisfied as some films which had brought me better satisfaction as an average film goer. I feel that it lacks the poignancy and audience involvement unlike many good epic films I have seen in the past. May be my bias is because of the number of such Hollywood and Bollywood films I have seen over the years. It's a costume drama lacking in any attempt to convey forcefully the human aspects of the story true to original Jataka story.
The effort that has gone in to this film, such as elaborate film sets; depicting ancient Indian kingdoms, elegant costumes, grand jewellry etc. makes one to presume that the director 's objective was to make an epic. Epics are films that depict human drama in a grand scale. Epics are larger in scale than other categories of film. Epics mostly take religious, historical or legendary stories with extravagant, stunning settings and lavish costumes. Some of the most common subjects are biblical or other religious stories, ancient royalty, great military men and other historical heroic figures. These films are most expensive to make and thousands of cast have been used in some such films. These films have been able to be successful in spite of the high costs involved because of worldwide distribution or large markets in countries such as the U.S and India.
When talking of religious epics the films that come to one's mind are, Quo Wadis, The Ten Commandments, and Ben Hur all three films made in the 1950’s starring Charlton Heston, Yul Bryner, Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr. Ben Hur was awarded 11 Oscars which is among the highest number of Oscars won by a film. Only three other films have won the same number of awards. The peak of the historical and religious epics was in the 1960’s. Epics are still being sporadically done with the aid of computer effects at comparatively a lesser cost but the emphasis is on science fiction and other adventures. The Titanic, Avatar, and Star Wars and Harry Potter are such films that have broken all records in revenue. Indian films such as Laggan and Raavan are two such modern day films. Indian epic films are now released in the U.K and the U.S simultaneously and still Raavan directed by the famous Mani Ratnam is a flop in box office.
Epic film production has been done for over 50 years in India. Mughal-E-Azam (1960) starring Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Prithviraj Kapoor directed by K. Asif took nine years to produce at U.S $ two million cost and it broke all box office record for a film till 1973. The 1957 Mehboob Khan Film Mother India starring Nargis, Sunil Dutt and Raaj Kumar and Rajendra Kumar is a melodrama about what it means to be an Indian woman who is compelled to kill her own criminal son for the moral good of society.
It is notable that though there are 550 Buddhist Jataka stories, only a few have been transformed into films. Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne has done an earlier film on a Buddhist theme Uthpalawanna starring Sangitha Weeraratne. Only Vessanthara Jatahakaya (Vesathuru Siritha) and Seri Vanija Jathakaya (Bangali Walalu) has been made into Sinhala films while Anguli Mala was a Hindi film dubbed in Sinhala starring Bharat Bhushan. That evergreen song sung by non Buddhist Mohideen Baig, Buddang Saranag Gachchami, is from this film. This song is the only song played regularly during the Vesak festival even today. It is so captivating.
The late L.M. Perera who basically was a comedian went in to film production by touching on Buddhist themes and his first 1952 film Hathara Peraliya broke box office records just by showing some of the sacred Buddhist sites in India on film for the first time. Rural folk who could not afford to do the pilgrimage flocked to cinemas to see the film. He later made other such films on Buddhist themes which drew immense crowds to local cinemas. He knew how to cater to the religious emotions of local audiences though his films had no quality or depth.
Out of all Sri Lankan films made on Buddhist themes so far it is Ran Salu (Yellow robes) made in 1967 by Dr. Lester James Peiris can be called the best film artistically done. It represented the Asian Buddhist film festival in 1994.
The attempt by Jackson Anthony to make his film Aba, an epic expecting it to be taken up by the foreign audiences in foreign countries did not succeed. It was not a success even locally despite the hype created to market it. One who expects to make epics based on local historical or religious themes should be mindful that the costs involved do not justify the limited local market. The alternative is to penetrate the foreign markets such as India and the west.
Considering the large capital required and quality and skills necessary Sri Lanka cannot match the epics done in Hollywood and Bollywood even three decades ago. It should also be noted that local audiences are now exposed to so called Block Busters through DVD and T.V. Therefore they will naturally evaluate films such as Kusa Paba on this background. I feel the way forward is to go into foreign collaboration where skills, and technology, are available. I do not mean to undermine the effort to make Kusa Paba which I feel is a good film. But it is inevitable that it will not receive the extensive response from the local audiences on account of their exposure to international cinema. Prof Sunil Ariyaratne is an outstanding creative mind who has given us films such as Sudu Kaluwara. He looks more comfortable and capable in making such indepth human analysis than epics.
Courtesy - The Island By UPALI COORAY