‘Nembambara kalikala sahithya sarvagna – Nena pirunu maha kivindu pandidun
Dambadeniya raja dahana siri laka ma raja kirula – Hisa pelandi raja de wana perakum’
Blessed by the Gods, beloved by his people, famed for his versatility in the field of arts as much as for his valor in the battlefield, renowned for his inordinate generosity, the 13th century Sinhala King Parakrama Bahu II comes alive once again, 800 years later, in Dr Somaratne Dissanayake’s Siri Perakum.
Making his debut in the cinema is leading actor Akhila Dhanuddara as the eponymous Siri Perakum, along with his childhood representations, also new discoveries. Yet, their professionalism is on par with the veteran actors’, who themselves, excel themselves. This goes for the other new faces as well; Senali Fonseka and Sinethi Lansakkara, along with their two sets of childhood counterparts, as Sirimal Ethana and Kalu Ethana, respectively. Even the child actors in smaller roles like the children of the blacksmith have done a commendable job. To make a film of this stature with the two lead roles portrayed by novices is a daring task, but Akhila and Senali have carried it well. Akhila has said that being compared to his father (actor Jackson Anthony) is a challenge. But I think his real challenge now, is keeping up the name he has created for himself, in any future roles.
In the recent past, the Sri Lankan cinema showed a distinctive turn in the usual themes. There was a series of historical and religious stories screened one after the other. While there have been such films earlier [Asokamala (1947), Sandeśahya (1960), Pataćara (1964), God King (1975)], they did not occur in the same quick succession as these films. A few years after Abha (2008), there came Mahindagamanaya (2011), followed by Kusa-Pabha (2012), and Vijaya-Kuveni (2012), then Sri Siddhartha Gautama (2013), and now, Siri Perakum (2013), while another, Siri Dalada Gamanaya (2013), is in line.
King Vijaya Bahu III goes to war leaving little Parakrama Bahu, his motherless son, in the care of Pathiraja, a senior army official. During the king’s absence, the queen, his second wife, conspires to kill Parakrama Bahu, so that the kingdom may be secured for her newborn son, Prince Vathhimi. The plan is foiled, and Parakama Bahu is given over to the care of the palace laundress, who takes him to her village, where he is adopted by the headman. There he grows up with the headman’s two daughters, unaware of his inheritance. How he is eventually restored his birthright, is what the film goes on to show.
The original story in the Mahawamsa says very little about the childhood of the future ruler of Dambadeniya, except that he grew up away from the palace, under the guardianship of a priest. The film maker has made good use of history and folklore to create an interesting storyline without being unfair to either the Mahawamsa or Sri Lanka’s history in general. In an otherwise marvelously created plot, the only drawback I see is the instance where King Vathhimi is killed through a conspiracy in collaboration with the priesthood.
While conceding that such a conspiracy is not entirely unlikely, given other historical incidents, the fact that it occurred during a pirith ceremony may jar on Buddhist sensibilities, and how such an incident may be received on the international plane in regard to the image of Buddhism is questionable. On the other hand, this incident reinforces the Buddhist concept of ditthadhammavedaneeya karma, in that it harks back to an earlier incident where the queen conspires to kill little Parakrama Bahu, in an elaborate plan where getting the women of the harem to throw themselves from the historical Belum Gala is a part. One may discern a pattern in this incident when the queen’s son, on whose behalf she attempts the murder of her step-son, after attaining the kingship rightfully Parakrama Bahu’s, falls down that very same rock.
Songs cohere well
Dr Rohana Weerasinghe’s music, coupled with Dr Dissanayake’s lyrics, to the voice of Harshana Dissanayake, blends with the story. While the songs cohere well with the background scenes (in ‘wasanthe’ we have the words ‘bingum bamana wasanthe’ to the scene of the youthful threesome, Appuva (alias Prince Parakrama Bahu), Kalu Ethana and Sirimal Ethana in the water, where Appuva twirls a jala-bambara), they are also a means by which the story itself progresses, thus saving valuable time, the scenes in the songs either reinforcing already understood matters, or indicating hidden explanations: the laundress’s concern for the boy she is taking away from the palace, is exemplified in several scenes during the song ‘pipi kusuma…’ both overtly in instances like the time they cross the bridge and he is out of her sight for a moment, but more subtly, as well, in the spilt second where we see the child with a scarf wrapped around his head; Pathiraja’s contempt for the queen which is manifest throughout, is best seen in the scene where he brushes her away when picking up Prince Parakrama Bahu off Kandula, in the same song.
That all along, Sirimal Ethana is the one whom Appuva favors, and that this is felt by Kalu Ethana, is indicated in the scenes of ‘aetha maetha’ and ‘wasanthe’, and indicates an explanation beyond mere class prejudice when she rejects marriage to him, later. (In ‘wasanthe’, the hard-drawn water handed over to Appuva by Kalu Ethana, he generously sprinkles on Sirimal Ethana; while we constantly see Appuva with the sisters on either side, note that in the scene where he is carrying the calf, its face is towards Sirimal Ethana, and its back, to Kalu Ethana; when the three dance holding hands, the youth’s face is invariably turned towards the younger girl. The final scene in the song shows Appuva with only Sirimal Ethana, walking towards the sunset.)
Though Kalu Ethana’s words are that she would rather remain unmarried than be married off to the redi nanda’s boy (as he is rumored to be), her tone is a little too shrill to hide the fact that she knows that, were she to be married to him, she would be the ‘second wife’, though the senior. The six songs, set to a music one can associate with that time period, show every promise of becoming hits, even among today’s pop culture.
The historical significance of Siri Perakum to the Sinhala cinema is that it helped dispel the theory that the industry is now at a stage of crisis. The revolution brought about by the rule of the king parallels the revolution wrought on the Sinhala silver screen by the film; just as the king endeared himself to his people, so, too, today’s viewers flock around this film. The king’s well-known generosity is reflected by the film itself being shown free of charge in all the cinema halls at the first screening. This film showed that the Sinhala cinema can still hold its own among a television-oriented public, and that the general public, in turn, contrary to some critics, is a discerning body capable of appreciating a good film, and that the genres of ‘good’ and ‘popular’ need not always and necessarily be mutually exclusive.
In ancient times, when an artiste created a masterpiece, he was known to have deliberately left an omission, or a mark, in the belief that perfection aroused the jealousy of the Gods. Here, too, in an otherwise ‘perfect’ work, we still come across slight flaws. That is in the area of dialogue: The use of the san n aka form that characterizes the dialect of the villagers, slips, when Appuva, in one instance, uses the word balannaή (‘n,kakx’) (Standard Sinhala dialect), in contrast to other places where he uses the san n aka form [‘karan n aή’ (‘lr[a[x’) etc. ] For some time, it has been the habit to describe a better-than-average Sinhala film as proof that the ‘arrival’ of the Sinhala film industry is at hand - Siri Perakum heralds that arrival. (The writer is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Ruhuna)