By Carlo Fonseka - The Island
Despise my aesthetic judgment if you will, but the truth is that I am writing this review just after seeing Somaratne Dissanayake’s blockbuster film Siri Parakum a second time. I went to see it again because I wanted to puzzle out for myself why seeing this mythopoetic, fairytale of a film so pleased me the first time I saw it. The clue to the unraveling of my puzzle came at the second viewing from the delighted and spontaneous laughter of the children in the cinema. You should have heard how the kids laughed from time to time throughout the film! The first time I saw it was at its ceremonial launch when it was watched mainly by the reverends, the honorables, the respectables and the presbyopics like me. On that occasion there was some subdued laughter only when the inspired royal elephant searching for the rightful inheritor to the throne of ancient Lanka, directed its dung and urine at pretenders to the throne. On the second occasion the cinema was full of children who manifestly loved the film. They loved the film because it delighted them. Implicitly therefore they loved its creator Somaratne Dissanayake. SD has a way with children which no other filmmaker in Sri Lanka has or ever had. Dr. Lester James, it is true, played two charming children in his groundbreaking, maiden film Rekawa; but Iranganie Serasinghe as mother of one of them (shame on her!) stole the limelight from her son, Sena. Children are like putty in Somaratne’s hands and as if by magic he transmutes them into gold, literally and metaphorically. Children dominate his world of film. Just think of Saroja (2000), Suriya Arana (2004) and now Siri Parakum for standing proof of his Midas touch.
As Siri Parakum amply demonstrates SD can evoke spontaneous laughter in children and heaven knows it is not easy to make children laugh. They are innocent and honest and they will laugh if and only if they are genuinely amused. When they grow up they will learn to laugh (hypocritically and politely) even when their spontaneous impulse is to cry. (As a public entertainer of sorts myself, every time I have tried to make children laugh, they have cried.) Parodying the words of Jesus Christ, SD can say, "suffer the little children to come unto me; forbid them not; for of such is the popularity of my films built." Somaratne told me that when he advertised for a little boy to cast in the role of Siri Parakum’s early childhood, it caused him terrible suffering to choose the right one from the veritable flood of parents who came to parade their gifted sons (over 7000) before him. As always Somaratne has unerringly picked a winner in Pramuditha Udayakumara. And Pramuditha has hit the jackpot for Somaratne Mama. We rejoice in their surpassing success.
To come now to the 64,000 - dollar question: What is the magic formula for the resounding entertainment value, discreet charm and commercial success of Siri Parakum? For the kids the film is like a fairytale which all children universally love. It seems to me that the film has elements of Aesop’s fables and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales. When watching Siri Parakum, Cinderella comes to mind. However inappropriately so does The Ugly Duckling. I say inappropriately because the kid (Pramuditha) who eventually blossoms into the handsome swan (Akila Dhanuddara) is cute, cuddly and lovely from the word go. Unknown to all, in the early stages the royal prince grows up as a laundering woman’s (redi nanda’s) child. She entrusts the little boy to the care of a rustic farmer. (The laundering woman’s role is played by Chandani Senevirathne with breathtaking power and maturity).
In broad outline the story of Siri Parakum is the fictionalized history of Parakrama Bahu II, who was the eldest son of Vijaya Bahu III. In the 13th century A.C. Parakrama Bahu II was king from 1236 - 1271. When he was still a very small child his father was deposed and to save Siri Parakum’s life he had to be brought up incognito as an ordinary boy. According to modern genetics, the effect of genes are greater than the effect of being raised in the same family. The film provides confirming evidence of this scientific truth. In it the little boy is brought up in a rustic farmer’s household. The farmer has one wife and two young daughters. In due course the boy blossoms into the real royal Prince Charming that he is by genetic inheritance. The role is played to perfection by Akila Dhanuddara Anthony. (Genetically, Akila is an even more evolved version of his legendary father Jakson Anthony.) The farmer plots (unsuccessfully) with his wife to marry off both their daughters to Prince Charming. This is an eminently pardonable parental aspiration because Siri Parakum incognito has become an extraordinarily virile young man who proves that he can vanquish even a huge crocodile in a straight fight. The kids watching Siri Parakum devour all this with gleeful enjoyment. They are delighted. If their delight does not lead to wisdom, they are none the worse for is.
But what does SD offer parents and (grandparents) who accompany their kids to see Siri Parakum? Potent psychological nourishment for their nationalistic pride is the answer. SD implicitly reminds them that they are the inheritors of a proud tradition of over two millennia, sustained by a philosophy and religion taught by the Compassionate Buddha. Their ancient kings were not only skilled in the martial arts and Machiavellian state-craft, but were philosophers and scholars and physicians often rolled into one. King Parakrama Bahu II himself happens to be the author of the greatest work of poetry — Kavsilumina — in the Sinhala language. Somaratne seeks to induce in us the feeling that in this world we ought to walk tall with our heads held high in the air. We have no disabilities to plead. All you have to do to enjoy all this is willingly to suspend disbelief.
In the film everything happens like in a fairytale. In the end Siri Parakum is identified by the royal elephant as the rightful heir to the throne of the country. As a boy Siri Parakum played with this elephant in the royal palace before his father was deposed. The animal’s elephantine memory instinctively remembers the boy when the time comes for him to ascend the throne. All this mixture of history and myth and legend and imagination is impressively communicated in 13th century Sinhala for our serene joy and emotion. For adults Siri Parakum provides a species of historical instruction in the Mahavansa tradition. Is the overt aim of Siri Parakum, then, to provide historical edification or simply to please those who watch it? If it is edification, then by definition, it is not art. The film in fact does both. It instructs the parents and pleases the kids. So now I know why Siri Parakum pleased me so much when I saw it the first time. At age 80 I am in my second childhood. Q.E.D.