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Entries in Sri Lankan Cinema (1)



One of Sri Lanka’s most adored stars, Mahendra Perera has been a box office draw for over three decades. But his latest work, Prasanna Jayakody’s 28, is a challenging social drama that refuses to pander to the mainstream; it follows three working class men as they transport a murdered woman across mountain roads for a hometown burial. As Abasiri, Perera loses himself in one of the most complex screen characters of his long career; the performance earned the veteran star a Best Actor nomination at the 2014 Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA). With his writer/director by his side (for whom the actor kindly provided translation), Perera spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about the career-defining role, the establishment’s reaction to the non-conformist narrative, and the fearlessness being embraced by Sri Lanka’s new wave of talent… 

"When I first read the script, I was a little confused,” admits Perera, star of such regional blockbusters as Walls Within (1997), Flying with One Wing (2002), Boungiorno Italia (2004) and Machan (2008). “I did not form too many ideas. It took a dialogue with Prasanna (pictured, below), and many discussions afterwards, for me to form a picture of this man.” His character is unaware until the day of the long journey that his cargo is to be his late ex-wife, Suddhi (Semini Iddamalgoda). “Finally, I was able to understand his emotional side and bring that out. The inconsistent nature of his behaviour, the ways in which he confronted the situations he found himself facing…well, it proved a challenge to get to the core of this complex character but somehow we did it.”

The inspiration for 28 (the title representing the morgue drawer in which Suddhi’s body is kept) was, as they say, ripped from today’s headlines. Writer/director Jayakody (Sankara, 2007; Karma, 2011) had become disillusioned by the violence that had become increasingly endemic to his homeland and wrote the script as a means by which to interpret this dark shift in the population’s psyche. “In the past few years in Sri Lanka, the newpapers have been full of horrible accounts of violent crimes, especially sexual crimes against women,” says the softly spoken auteur. “Sex is a beautiful, natural thing and it is always disturbing when human desires lead to horrible acts. It is destructive to our society, to any society.”

Wavering between pitch-black character comedy, a searing indictment of patriarchal brutality and open-road travelogue, the film is at its most daring when Suddhi breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience from beyond the grave. Jayakody acknowledges the bravery required for his leading lady (pictured, left) to take on such an artistically and culturally challenging part. “Semini was required to do some extraordinary things, perform in a way that she had never been called upon to do in her other movies,” he says. “Her character is a portrayal of so many Sri Lankan women and hopefully conveys so much of what the women of Sri Lanka must endure. Sri Lankan women can’t speak the truth when they are alive; it is only possible for a dead woman to speak the truth.”

A revelation as the everyman Abasiri, Perera establishes a rich chemistry with his male co-stars Sarath Kothawala and Rukmal Nirosh (pictured, below). But it is likely that a single scene, in which the identity of the woman dawns upon Abasiri and grief and memory overwhelm him, impacted most upon the APSA judging panel. “My studies in the Stanislavsky method of acting were called upon in that scene,” the actor recalls. “I sought out friends who had suffered through a similar grief and drew upon them for guidance, to spark that emotion deep within myself. I was determined not to act, but to try and find that truth within myself, as if that was my wife. It was very difficult, because we shot that scene many times, to get the precise emotion.”

28 has emerged as one of the ‘new wave’ Sri Lankan works, steeped in both high-end artistry and strong social commentary. For Perera, the period represents a rebirth-of-sorts for the local sector. “After 30 years of war and terrorism, it is finding a new shape,” he says. “We still have problems, and there are still those for whom films like 28 will be too disturbing, but we have new, young filmmakers who are willing to work with very challenging concepts. And we have a huge audience in Sri Lanka for this movie, for any movie that comes with new ideas or new themes that can be discussed.”

The national cinema of Sri Lanka faces a number of uphill battles to retain its potency. The exhibition sector is dire; prior to the outbreak of war, 400 cinemas serviced the population. Today, 120 operate; only half of those screen locally made product (it is expected that the region will be fully upgraded to DCP technology in 2017). More worryingly, cinema is often overseen by conservative governing bodies, which monitor content and distribution channels. Says Perera, “There are these political and philosophical officials, who think that these films do damage to our country, but these are unique subjects that need to be addressed in our cinema. As the films begin to get recognition at international events like APSA, a new respect forms.”