Posted on April 2nd, 2020


REVISED  26.6.2020

Before the Eelam wars started there was great competition among senor students in schools to join the army as officer cadets, said Kamal Gunaratne. Those who joined the army as officers during this period were from upper middle class backgrounds. Even the soldiers were from very good family backgrounds and had good qualifications, said Kamal Gunaratne.

But during Eelam war II and III with the battle failures and the huge number of deaths no one wanted to join the infantry. Around 1997, there was hardly any response to the recruitment drive to the army.  They shied away from infantry but were ready to join Commando and Special force regiments, observed Kamal Gunaratne.  Youth from rural villages and lower middle class families came forward to join as officer cadets. They were sent to the battle field immediately after training and died there.

Those who did join the infantry came from very poor families who were destitute and had no other means of livelihood. They came from remote villages.  The army badly needed recruits, so army took people without qualifications and some who were quite illiterate. Some were at the low end of social stratum. They were village outcasts, with uncouth qualities. Even in their own villages they were regarded as inferior without much recognition. So the good name of the soldier got tarnished, said Kamal Gunaratne.

There were many deserters due to the difficulties of the war. After deserting they resorted to wrong doing to survive. Wide publicity was  given  when deserters committed crimes. Media  was ever ready to give publicity to any incident involving a soldier or deserter in their columns. . Also to accuse a soldier whenever there was an incident in a village.

Any illegal activity was blamed on soldiers and it was customary for police to accuse soldiers whenever things happened.    Whenever a village brawl was reported, and a soldier was involved police were quick to take action against the soldier.

Soldiers involved in small disputes were brutally assaulted by the police irrespective of their rank and file. This was meted out even to disabled soldiers. This was mainly at junior level of the police and it was done before the public. When  a soldier was taken into custody on suspicion they were abused, harassed,   sometimes tortured.

When such soldiers were produced in courts, police made sure that they were sent to remand prison for at least 14 days. Soldiers who were treated unjustly would appeal to us for help. But that       worked the   opposite way, said Kamal Gunaratne . Military police  also acted with arrogance and impunity towards soldiers. The military police treated the foot soldier like outcasts. Some treated them shabbily.

The army   had to face Insults, humiliation and ridicule whenever peace talks with LTTE took place.  The worst was during the Ceasefire said Kamal Gunaratne .  This writer thinks that this  may have goaded the soldiers to fight strongly in Eelam war IV.

The negative attitude of the government toward the army was quite apparent to the public  and it rubbed off on them.  The level of acceptance and regard a soldier  got in Sri Lanka was shameful, said Kamal Gunaratne .

Sinhala cinema, very popular in Sri Lanka, was used to present a negative picture of the soldier. This was clearly a part of the externally planned modus operandi to ensure that the LTTE won the Eelam War.

There were several films made about soldiers fighting the Eelam war. The main ones were  ‘Me mage sandai’ (2000) by Asoka Handagama,  ‘Purahanda kaluwara’ (2001) by Prasanna Vithanage,  ‘Sudu  kalu saha alu’  (2005) by Sudath Mahadivulwewa, ‘Ira madiyama’(2005)by Prasanna Vithanage, ‘Sulanga enu pinisa’  (2006)  by Vimukthi Jayasundara,  and ‘Igillena Maaluwo’ (2011)  by Sanjeewa Pushpakumara  . Some of these films were shown on the public film circuit and they were well attended.

Producing anti-war films seems to have become a shortcut to easy project funding from the West, international awards, and recognition. Every anti-war film produced in Sri Lanka has won international awards, said contemptuous local critics . Funding for local productions is an uphill struggle with the securing of bank loans and the like. But Western countries are ever willing to fund anti-war films in Sri Lanka provided they present the military in an unflattering and insulting light. Of the three films this writer (Kamalika Pieris) saw, two were utterly feeble and did not deserve to win international film awards.

In Sulanga, the army detachment is portrayed as a drunken lot. There was a fornicating soldier, another soldier on drugs and talk of torture. Mallika Wanigasundera commenting on ‘Sulanga,’ said the purpose of the film is to cause revulsion against the army. She pointed out that at the time the film was shown, the army had not lost the war. They had managed to contain the LTTE.

She said she can understand how army personnel, who have seen the way the soldiers fight, the suffering of their families, get angry when they see this film. I can well understand the feelings with which they have criticized this‘work of art’.  Sulanga is the work of a history less generation to whom patriotism is a dirty word, added Mallika.

The columnist Nan said the film degrades the rural women, who unlike in the film possess inhibitions.  Facing economic difficulties, and with her men at war, the rural woman will not think of sex, said Nan.

Shamindra Ferdinando said ‘Sudu, kalu saha alu’ was an outright attack on the Sinhalese in general and the Buddhists in particular. The film is on foot soldiers, their families and the Buddhist temple.  The film ridicules the soldiers and also suggests that soldier’s wives sleep with others when their husbands are away at war. The film also implies that the war had disrupted family life and young girls are turned into prostitutes.

The film is intended to undermine the soldiers and discourage village youth from joining the police and armed forces, said Shamindra.  In the film, an army deserter ridicules sovereignty and territorial integrity.  The film suggests that the Eelam issue cannot be settled militarily.

Ira Mediyama depicts the Sinhala soldier as a poverty stricken wretch and conveys the message that the government forces are no match for the enemy. A soldier on leave who visits a brothel in Anuradhapura with some of his colleagues and finds his sister among the prostitutes.

This writer (Kamalika Pieris) saw one of these films, (forget which), at a film festival. It started with a person going to an outside lavatory, on a hillock, carrying a bucket. There were lots of shots of coming and going from this lavatory, but what struck  me most was the scene  where two army tanks were shown,  going forwards and backwards,  butting each other on a narrow path, far away from the battle zone. The scene reminded me of environment films where male animals are shown, butting head to head, fighting for territory or a female. The director of the film, (forget name) who was present at the showing had no explanation to offer for this scene, when we asked him.

The story lines in the anti-war films have become wilder and wilder until the giddy limit was reached in Igillena Maaluwo (Flying Fish) released in 2011 after the war ended. There was a mighty furore over the screening of Igillena Maaluwo at the   annual French Film Festival held in Colombo. It was for invitees only, so the rest of us did not get to see it, but the invitees complained loudly to the public the next day. They were shocked and angry. The festival itself was halted, probably the first time that such a thing happened in Sri Lanka.  

Though these films are set in the time of the Eelam wars, the war is only a backdrop. The LTTE is never shown. No fighting is ever shown. The focus in these films is the soldier and the soldier is shown in a negative light.  In ‘Ira madiyama’,   three soldiers on leave go to a brothel in Anuradhapura. In ‘Sulanga enu pinisa’   the army detachment is portrayed as a drunken lot. They   were taking cannabis,  indulging in fornication   and adultery. They were torturing suspects too.

The stories concentrate on the sex lives of home guards, soldiers and their wives. It is always the sex lives of armed forces personnel and their spouses and other Sinhala villagers that is the main focus, commented critics.  Within the subject of sex, the films focus mainly on fornicating. These films feature a lot of fornicating but no fighting, critics commented.     

All the films have lengthy copulation scenes. The copulation is mainly outdoors and mostly against trees.There is a copulation scene indoors only in Sudu kalu saha alu. In a slight variation, in the last film Flying Fish, copulation is performed standing against a wall (instead of the customary tree).  In every film, copulation is animalistic and frenzied and the wives of armed forces personnel are depicted as nymphomaniacs more aggressive than the fornicating soldiers themselves.

Adultery is another key motif. If the wife of a soldier is shown copulating, it is never with her legal husband. In fact no copulation takes place between married couples in any of these films. Only extra-marital or pre-marital sex is shown, commented critics.

In ‘Me mage sandai’, the pregnant wife of a soldier killed in the war, tries to rape another soldier against a tree just moments after leaving the scene of the still smoldering funeral pyre of her dead husband. She says she conceived the child in her belly under that very tree with her deceased husband.  This means, said the critic that she had been having sex with her husband under trees and not indoors even though they were married.

Admiral Sarath Weerasekera was incensed by these films and worked hard to build public opinion and reverse the damage. In his widely read article in Irida Divaina of September 4, 2005 Sarath Weerasekera had accused the directors of ‘Sulanga”, Sudu” and Ira” of an outright attack on Sinhalese and Buddhists.

He pointed out that the LTTE, in their propaganda, demean the Sinhalese and the Sinhala soldier. The scenes in ‘ Sulanga’ perfectly match what the  LTTE  says , he observed. Weerasekera   was engaged in a single handed struggle against these films.  He was silenced by orders from the  top said Kamal Gunaratne . 

Kamal Gunaratne  also commented on three of these films, ‘Me mage sandai’, ‘Sudu kalu saha alu’, and ‘Sulanga ena pinisa’. He said these films were utterly repulsive and despicable. Soldiers are  depicted as an opportunists, rapists and sexual deviants. Wives who were struggling to bring up children alone while their husbands were fighting the war, were shown as sex hungry  and prostitutes.

We thought there would be some sort of public outcry about these films but there was none.Instead these films helped to make people believe that such things  really  did happen , said Kamal Gunaratne . These films made soldiers feel utterly depressed and dejected, he said.

‘Purahanda Kaluwara’, ‘Me Mage Sandai’ andSulanga Enu Pinisa’  were banned by the government .Purahanda was prohibited by the authorities despite it being given the Certification of Performance by the Public Performances Board as suitable for public exhibition. The authorities claimed that the film would harm the morale of the forces as the country was on a war footing. The director  successfully claimed a denial of his fundamental rights and the film was shown.

Purahanda Kaluwara  confirms that these films  are sponsored  ones. Purahanda was a sponsored film where the   theme and content has been decided well beforehand,   clearly not by Withanage.  Withanage says When I was offered the sponsorship I was determined to make the best film I could direct’”.

He went to Medawachchiya with a completed script that was quite different to the final film. At Medawachchiya he was   shocked  by what he saw there, half-built houses started by the young men who had joined the Army and killed in battle, parents waiting the return of their sons. Many  of the soldiers  who had joined the Army came  from the areas where there had been no rain for cultivation for three years.

 This gave Withanage  a different insight to the situation. the youths I met in Madawachchiya  were victims of both economy and nature, without having jobs and water for cultivation. Their only option was to join the army knowing at least they would get compensation after their deaths and this would help their families”. This heart rending story made an impact on me, Withanage said.

Working with a new script Prasanna started filming what he saw in  locations in and around Anuradhapura. But he was not able to discard the original script completely. This is clear from the observation the script in his hand had to be interlaced with the tragic and pathetic scenes he saw in real life.”

Purahanda is a good film. It is  well  scripted, well acted and well directed. The location is authentic. Problem was that the  film emphasized death on the battlefield at a time when a  civil war was going on.

The dramatic ending where the ageing father digs up the grave  and finds that the coffin  contains, not a corpse, but the trunks of a plantain tree,  could be interpreted by the audience as an indication of how deceitful the army was .The  timing of  this film was certainly  wrong from the point of view of the government , But it was fine from the point of view of the sponsor. (continued)

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