The Sunday TimesPlus

12th May 1996



A rare rose

By Dharshini Seneviratne

Asoka Handagama's latest television series "Diya Keta Pahana" shows there is yet hope for local tele-dramas as art. The drama, with its acute sensitivity, a healthy lack of moral judgment, witty dialogue and double entendre reveals talent that is rare in local television and cinema.

To subvert the familiar expression, Asoka Handagama's new tele-drama "Diya Keta Pahana"(water gauge), to be telecast soon, is a rose among the thorns of Sri Lanka's recent spate of tele-dramas. A preview of the 14 episodes of the drama at the Sausiripaya in seven almost unbroken hours of screening, failed to bore the audience, itself a sign of its success. Handagama, with award winning theatre productions such as "Maghatha" and tele dramas such as "Dunhinda Addara" to his credit, has proved himself again.

This story of the drought-stricken village waiting for rain and government assistance captures poignantly the varying shades of village life from the intensity of teenage romance to the disillusionment of adulthood. There is acute sensitivity, a healthy lack of moralistic judgment, witty dialogue and double entendre that is rarely seen in modern Sri Lankan television and cinema.

Handagama's theatre techniques have obviously made its mark on the drama, particularly his use of "alienation" for candid self-expression: a Nuga tree with sturdy roots in an isolated village clearing is the characters' confessional. It is here that they expose their feelings of love, fear, hope, shame and cynicism. The tree is also a symbol of "rootedness" as opposed to the characters' "uprootedness"/"rootlessness" as in the case of the main character Deepthi. It is the centre from which the characters speak to the audience. "Shame on you, looking into my life without a licence" says Deepthi to the audience towards the beginning. He then walks off and urinates in the middle of the road.

This signals the wit of the drama as well as the non-conformist nature of Deepthi (Raju Bandara) who, after a stint at a job in Colombo, feels uprooted from the village. It also signals a feature to be seen throughout the movie of how Handagama (who has written the script himself) portrays through language the hybridity of the village.

Speaking of hybridity, there is, much to one's relief, a conspicuous absence of the evil vs. good relationship between city and village in Diya Keta Pahana. Here, the mixture is expressed in a more "neutral" way. Deepthi's mixed heritage, then, is symbolized through his denim jeans, neither a "good" nor a "bad" symbol. Those in the village, like his girlfriend Nimali (played by Anoma Handagama) and the teenager Ruwan (Rukmal Nirosh) are envious of his denim jeans. But what it means has also created confusion within Deepthi.

The women are also different. There is a refreshing absence of the lachrymose and helpless "fairer sex" and a rare portrayal of the hardworking rural woman with no financial remuneration that could make her independent. Nimali, whose father is dead, and whose mother is blind, is a physically and mentally strong woman who brings home the cows, and the water. But her lot is different from a man's: for all her hard work is merely "housework". There is no money in it for her.

This lack of financial security and the use of their sexuality as the only form of power they possess is sensitively portrayed through two women in the film: the wife of the illegal poacher Wimale, (Kaushalya Fernando), has to sleep with the grama sevaka (Hemasiri Liyanage) to prevent her husband going to prison, and Nimali, as a final resort, sleeps with Wimale to get money to open her shop.

But the women don't come off as "sluts" because the incidents are built around their hardships. Both are energetic, hard-working women. Both are attempting to make ends meet. In a patriarchal system that refuses to see women's work as "work", they have no economic power, and sexuality becomes their only tool. And for Wimale's wife and Nimali, importantly, the use of this tool is literally a matter of life and death.

These portrayals are lessons to makers of films like Ayoma, where the audience sees the main female character as nothing more than "promiscuous" because the director fails to feed in the background. The patronizing male viewpoint here which tacitly conveys an "oh-poor-things" image of women, is utterly absent in Diya Keta Pahana. The women in the drama can, instead, be sometimes admired, sometimes empathised with. Handagama shows unusual sensitivity in this.

The tele-drama is also about government short-sightedness in the wake of severe drought in the village, and about the grama sevaka who doesn't bother about effective action. Here again, Handagama manages to portray a grama sevaka who is devoid of caricature. He is not the avaricious and corrupt government official, but a person, like many, who is unsuited for his job, who desperately tries to conform with government policy, rather than heed the villagers about taking radical action about the village tank to change their lot.

The trapped elephant dying by the river becomes another symbol of government hypocrisy. The actions of those like Wimale, the illegal poacher, though not excused, are shown as a revolt against this kind of benevolence to animals at the expense of government benevolence to human beings. As Wimale tells his friend Deepthi, "They are feeding that dying elephant pipes of glucose to keep it alive, but there's nothing for us when we are suffering without water". The elephants, furthermore, have harmed villagers, including Nimali's father who was killed by one. It is a plea to environmentalists to look at animal rights from a human rights perspective.

What disappoints me in the drama is its inability to explore the villagers' potential for social change. For there is a sense of barrenness in the central revolt that is Deepthi. He prefers building tree houses to addressing what he is so fond of criticizing. So Deepthi the heretic is also, most of the time, an escapist. And his escapism means that even though the problems are referred to in the drama, they are not really shown as being addressed at a practical, institutional level. And finally, when Deepthi does try to do something, there is no support from the villagers, and insanity creeps in. And all the while, Deepthi is portrayed as somewhat of a "hero".

Perhaps this is a personal quirk, but I would have liked the "collective effort" to have worked in the end. There is, eventually, an indication of a lack of hope in the young, or hope in one "heroic" personality whose worth is ultimately shattered by the traditional connection in narratives of wisdom with near-insanity. Hope dies, it seems, with the old. And potential for village action suggested by people like the energetic Nimali is never explored. Without the male "hero", there is nothing.

Where narrative has become a powerful tool through which to express the power of collectivity, and particularly with Handagama's own leftist background, I wish the director had considered a different approach to the village's water problem, which at least acknowledged a collective will to change - not necessarily a solution. (Even Nimali's grandfather, the story goes, had built the tank single-handedly, no village participation is indicated.)

But the plot can hardly be called derivative, and it handles issues that are topical to Sri Lankan village life. These issues are also brought out in the most poignant events and dialogue. The photography follows the style of Dunhinda Addara, portraying village scenes and emotions beautifully.

The casting is well orchestrated in most cases, particularly of Raju Bandara and Kaushalya Fernando. Bandara, a singer by profession, gives a convincing performance as the disillusioned and enigmatic heretic in his debut acting effort, and Kaushalya Fernando, true to form, gives an excellent performance as the desperate wife who first seduces the grama sevaka to keep her family going, and then receives the many shocks of her husband's offences and infidelities. Anoma Handagama as Nimali also gives an admirable performance as the family's saviour with so much suppressed emotion. Malcom Machado and Malkanthi Jayasena play two school teachers in love, and provides a platform for the discussion of materialism vs. non-materialism.

All in all, the production was impressive. It is good news for cinema fans that Handagama's first film Channa Kinneri will be released in the near future. Directors like Handagama should spend more time on cinema, where there is a greater chance of their talent being appreciated both locally and internationally, and where there is little good happening.

Now it's time for off-season locals

By Tharuka Dissanaike

Although Sri Lanka was long famed as a paradise for tourists, it was no secret that the hotel industry in the country was never overly warm towards Local tourists. Hotels and resorts that dotted the coastline and certain prime locations inland, mainly catered to an European tourist market- usually for arranged tour groups travelling across the country on a package or those who came to laze their winter away on a hot, golden beach. It was only during the very lean months between tourist seasons that hotels paid some attention to local customers. But suddenly, in the past few months, with tourist arrivals nose-diving, the entire industry has been wooing the local clientele .

Come early April and the newspapers were full of advertisements offering special concessions and weekend packages to holidaying locals. Much attention was focused on accommodating children along with adults. These special offers are expected to continue through the summer season all the way to October- some even predict they might continue through December if tourists arrivals drop further this year. Tourist arrivals which had just been picking up last year, dropped steeply after continuous terrorist attacks on Colombo last year. This January, arrivals fell as much as 32 percent compared to January 1995 . In February, the drop was 30 percent compared to last February. These two months are the peak months of the winter season.

Despite this unhealthy downward trend in tourism, investment in infrastructure in the tourism industry has continuously being growing and the industry expanding.

New hotels and resorts were being built all round the country , new sites were being exploited, industry moving into exciting themes like wildlife and outdoor camping, trekking, rafting etc. While all hoteliers seem to be praying for peacetime, they are also cooking up various means of surviving through the present lean period. One such method is attracting local clients.

Advertising special packages for locals during the months between the winter season was customary for many hotels but at present the canvassing for local clientele is done with such vigour, it has taken the public by surprise. Hotel rates and weekend packages were going at astoundingly cheap rates- some hotels slashing rates down to Rs. 200/ 300 per room, that it was difficult to make a choice between hotels and locations . Holiday makers had a wide choice of beach, up-country , tank-bank or wildlife park locations, all at comparatively affordable rates especially during the recent long weekends,

some hotels even offering to accommodate children ( of certain age limits) free of charge.

The marketing manger of Aitken Spence Hotels which is a chain of 14 hotels and resorts in Sri Lanka and the Maldives said that they are offering special rates for local visitors during the summer season. At all our local hotels, except for Triton at Ahungalle, we are offering reduced rtes. But, he said these rates will be valid only up to the beginning of the next winter season which begins in October. It is a lot more profitable to accommodate tourists than locals, after all we are a business and exist to make profits

Mani Sugathapala, Manager- marketing and sales at John Keells Hotel Management Services said that they would continue to lure local clientele since there is a potentially good market here. He said that locals now travel more and when they do they also are more lavish in their spending than tourists are. We would certainly consider keeping on these special rates into the season

At Citadel- Kandy, Habarana Lodge, Hotel Ceysands, Bentota Beach , Beach Hotel Bayroo, and Coral Gardens Hikkaduwa (all in the Keells chain) the group is offering a rate of Rs. 1500 per person full board, twin sharing basis. 10 percent BTT is charged but no service charge. Children under 10 are not charged. The rest of the groups hotels are going at Rs. 1000 per person full board. The hotels also offer beverages at 30 percent less. Guests at any Keels Hotel is entitled to very discounted rates at the group's sports resort, Club Intersport.

International Enterprises , which runs several star-class hotels has also introduced special rates. Tangalle Bay hotel, Hikkaduwa Beach Hotel, Induruwa Beach Resort and Villa Ocean View are all priced between 1700-3000 full board per person, depending on the star rating. Many extras are offered like free welcome drinks, elephant rides and multiple sports facilities. Visitors staying on for more than one day are promised additional discounts.

Jetwing Hotels, another prominent resort group even introduced group picnics and safari tours for the long weekends. Samanthi Olagama of Jetwing Hotels Ltd. said, The group tours were a big success. We had more bookings than we ever expected. Even the Safari- which was for 50 pax as very quickly booked

While the groups normal charged varied between 2500- 3000 per night per couple, this season the rates were slashed to Rs1800-2000 per couple full board. The same prices apply for resident expatriates. Ò We always have our gates open to local customers Ms. Oladgama said. Ò I personally like to promote local visitors because they actually end up spending more than tourists do. Ò

Lasantha Perera of Tangerine Hotels, managing the Tangerine Beach Hotel and Grand Hotel Nuwara Eliya said that their offers are valid until October. Ò We enter into contracts with tour operators therefore we cannot afford to block our rooms during the season. But if rooms are available we will always offer them to locals Right now Grand Hotel is selling at a grandly reduced rate of Rs. 1250 nett full board per person and Tangerine is selling at the same price. Kids under 5 years are admitted free. Special package tours for six pax with transport from Colombo could be arranged.

Asoka Pathirana of a deluxe resort in Hambantota, which is under construction said that he is optimistic of the industry picking up , if there is stability in the country. Ò But at present it is very wise to market among locals. They are good, high- spending group. Tourists come mostly on package tours and were reluctant to spend a lot on beverages and liquor- locals have no such inhibitions and they like to spend when they are on holiday Pathirana said.

These are only a very small indication of the way fierce competition has pushed prices down this off- season . It is very difficult today to find a hotel which does not offer cheap rates to locals. This interest in local clientele has also seen a reversal of attitudes in the hotel industry. While once they designed and functioned to suit the needs of tourists exclusively, today they welcome locals with open arms. While once they turned up their noses at noisy groups of kids, or rice-and-curry loving locals who insisted on eating with the fingers, today they are seen admitting kids free of charge and delivering finger bowls whenever required. Only a handful of places are still harbouring colonial views and practising a local brand of apartheid by not permitting Sri Lankans to enter their clubs or hotels.

So, all in all, the trend is good. At long last, Sri Lankans are getting their share of the famed, much advertised Sri Lankan hospitality.

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