Franklin D. Roosevelt knew how to charm people and that in a way which made those charmed give in to him. Once, when his mother had been reading aloud to him, he was on the floor poring over his stamp collection. She noticed him. “Franklin!” she snapped angrily, “I don’t think there’s any point in my reading to you anymore. You don’t hear me anyway.”
Young Roosevelt’s answer, pithy and in-your-face, made his mother smile: “Mama, I would be ashamed of myself if I couldn’t do at least two things at once.” Whether she let him play with his stamps is another story. What’s important is that reply and how he articulated it to get back into anyone’s good books.
How he’d entered the theater is interesting. He and another friend from Dharmapala, Wickrema Bogoda, had gone to watch the rehearsals of Sugathapala de Silva’s Boarding Karayo. Seeing the rehearsals had convinced Premaranjith that writing plays was both easy and colorful
True, no one’s saying that Roosevelt became popular for doing two things at once when he became president. But his response remains relevant for those endowed with that rare gift called ‘dexterity’, who go through life and realise that for all its pressures, what they have cultivated in their minds will remain. Premaranjith Tilakaratne, playwright, writer, de-mystifier of myths associated with the arts, and raconteur, probably knows this better than most other people. This is his story.
He was born in Ratnapura in 1937 and educated at Sri Palee College in Horana. Later, he had joined Dharmapala Vidyalaya in Pannipitiya.
Schools are usually associated with certain activities and these include ‘playing hooky’. Premaranjith and his friends had cut classes at Sri Palee to pursue his first love; films. Apparently his first school had a unique and altogether inconvenient timetable: Classes ran on Saturday and were halted only on Sundays and Wednesdays, “in keeping with the timetable of Shantiniketan, the school which Rabindranath Tagore, who laid the foundation stone for Sri Palee, started.”
Naturally enough, they were forced to choose between going to school on Saturday and going for the 10:30 show at the theatre. “The choice,” he laughs, “wasn’t hard to make.”
Life had been tough for young Premaranjith though, since his father was a teacher and hence opposed to films. Nevertheless, the son had rebelled against the father, borrowing money from him and biking with friends to watch the latest show in town. “We got caught. But we persisted. That’s how we kept our love for films.”
So how had the shift to Dharmapala been? “We were all taught in English. Our textbooks were published abroad. Above everything though, I remember Dharmapala because of someone I met and befriended there: Tissa Abeysekera. He and I remained friends till his death.”
Though he had opposed films in general, Premaranjith’s father had been a theatre-goer. He had exposed his son to the stage early on, in particular to Nurti plays. When it came to the cinema however, Premaranjith’s taste differed. “Nurti was all about bana and morality plays. The films I saw and relished were different: Quo Vadis, Solomon and Sheba, Ben-Hur, and Hindi hits like Bharat Matha.”
When asked whether the epic decor of these classics reflected his career as a playwright, he quietened a little and admitted that while playwrights are expected to concentrate on dialogues, he went for visuals. “I was never against Western and Hindi cinema. At a time when critics were separating ‘good’ films from ‘bad’, a process which ended up rubbishing Hindi and Western cinema, I enjoyed both.”
His life as a playwright had coincided with his career as a civil servant. “I worked in the government before I embarked on my life as a dramatist.” How he’d entered the theater is interesting. He and another friend from Dharmapala, Wickrema Bogoda, had gone to watch the rehearsals of Sugathapala de Silva’s Boarding Karayo. Seeing the rehearsals had convinced Premaranjith that writing plays was both easy and colorful.
Forty years later, he reflects on this. “My stage career was colourful. But easy? I hardly think so.”
His first play was Vaguru Bima (1963). Back when Sartre, Camus, and Existentialism held sway over our theater, Premaranjith opted for family dramas. “We called ourselves the ‘63 Group’, like Sugathapala’s ‘Ape Kattiya’. Unlike that though, our group had dramatists. Sugathapala’s group consisted of actors.”
His inexperience as an actor helped. “Take Marlon Brando. Superb actor. When he started directing films however, he made sure no one shone over and above the main lead, who almost always was Brando himself. Now I was never interested in acting in my own plays. So I did what other dramatists should have done: I chose and featured the best actors. Always.”
From then on, the list unrolls: Wahalak Nethi Geyak (1964), Thoththa Baba (1965), Ammai Appai (1966), Kontare (1967), Julie (1977), and a novel take on a Nurti tragedy, Sri Wickrema. Fame hadn’t come easily to him and controversy had showered over nearly all his plays. Thoththa Baba, for instance, an adaptation of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, had been banned for its homosexual subtext. Not that awards and accolades hadn’t come: Wahalak Nethi Geyak won awards for script and acting at that year’s State Drama Festival.
More importantly however, critics had been kind. In fact out of the playwrights who emerged during then, the English press had been quite inclined towards Premaranjith. Here’s A. J. Gunawardena on Vaguru Bima: “It possesses a basic requirement of any piece of theatre. That is, the ability to hold the attention of the audience.”
Here’s Tissa Devendra on Wahalak Nethi Geyak: “What is noteworthy is its simple and straightforward treatment of a theme that is both universal and contemporary. These conflicts of age, ideals, and expediency of father and son are of universal validity.”
He wasn’t just a playwright. He wrote. Wahalak Nathi Geyak “became” A House Without a Roof, which won the State Literary Award in 2004. Two of his more political plays, Serade Seetha and Devi, were brought together in Kingdom of Liars.
After all these decades, what has Premaranjith learned about his art? “For one thing, I never shied away from exploring new avenues. During my time there was an almost nationalistic backlash against Hindi films. I wasn’t part of that anti-Hindi bandwagon. There was also a tendency to confuse films with pandals, something which persists to this day. Far from indulging such an illusion, I believed and continue to believe that Buddhism as practised by our people is what’s keeping our culture back.”
Colour is something his plays are full of. For the most, he’s opted for adaptations, ones which have won both praise and blame. “That’s another thing. Getting praise from critics is all fine and well, but if you can’t satisfy your audiences, what’s the use? We’re not ivory towers. We have jobs. We can’t afford to experiment always.” As an example, he points at Kontare, possibly his most colourful work.
Kontare had been an adaptation of West Side Story. Translating it into a Sri Lankan setting is a challenge, but Premaranjith had done it. “In West Side Story the conflict is between immigrants and Americans. In Kontare the conflict is between residents of Colombo and outsiders. That’s experimentation, yes. But more importantly, it becomes relevant to my audience and country.”
There’s so much more to Premaranjith Tilakaratne. His career and beliefs have come together in whatever he has done. The father-son conflict, so beautifully captured in his House without a Roof, is as universal as the trail one finds leading from Oedipus to Sinhabahu. That’s just one example though. He has caught an equilibrium between
life and art few others aspire to. An achievement, certainly.