We have grown to either love or hate the Pusswedilla franchise. Most relish it as high (even low) entertainment with the added thrill of political parody. Some dismiss it as poor satire. I propose to do no such thing—simply because Pusswedilla only masquerades as satire. It is the Trojan horse of Sri Lankan theatre.

Why the political establishment has supported this franchise has puzzled me for some time. There are some obvious theories. We might say Sri Lankans, including Sri Lankan politicians, ‘enjoy a good laugh’, even at their own expense. We might think that the government wants to showcase freedom of expression, and a relatively harmless political satire serves the purpose. We might even speculate that there is added pressure to appease Pusswedilla fans, as the franchise has grown so popular. These explanations have merit. Yet, the question continued to vex me.

The audience

A typical Pusswedilla audience does not naturally gravitate towards political commentary. If ‘apolitical’ is too strong a description, perhaps ‘indifferent’ might be appropriate. Over time, the Pusswedilla writers have discovered this audience and have worked out a winning formula. They know they must be faithful to this formula to keep their audience faithful to the franchise. They are right. And no one should question the economics of it.

Why then is Pusswedilla so dangerous?

An antidote and morphine

Apologists may argue that Pusswedilla provides a rare opportunity for the politically indifferent to reflect on the country’s political culture. Of course, this is precisely what satire should do. We already know that Pusswedilla does not always succeed in this venture. Yet we credit it for trying. There is, however, a delicate difference between satire and the Pusswedilla franchise.

A satire is like an experimental antidote. It attempts to encourage some form of resistance. It aims to make audiences less comfortable with their poison—their reality. Bakamoona Veedi Basi is a classic example of satire. It uses an allegorical platform to convey a message about the cost of societal compromises. The play makes audiences uncomfortable with the price they may have paid for peace. A good satire therefore leaves its audience entertained, yet disturbed and contemplating change. Many who witnessed AnandaDrama’s outstanding Grease Yaka or Sashane Perera’s powerful version of Men without Shadows will know precisely this feeling. I would not grudge Pusswedilla if it tries and fails in such a pursuit. But Pusswedilla does precisely the opposite of satire.

Pusswedilla is like a dose of morphine. Audiences are offered a coping mechanism—some comic respite from an otherwise distasteful political reality. But Pusswedilla avoids subtlety. It immerses its audiences directly into a very obvious imitation of their reality. As pointed out by Hafeel Farisz in an excellent review of the most recent edition of Pusswedilla, it is like watching Mervyn Silva on a rampage. The trouble is, Mervyn Silva is a real politician. If art imitates life too accurately, and without an accompanying critique, we are only left with a version of reality repackaged for easier consumption. Audiences then leave the theatre a little less outraged by reality—a little less prone to change. There is another word for this type of expression.

If we can laugh with him, we can live with him

Hints of something insidious are most evident in the characterisation of the main protagonist—a thinly disguised avatar of the President. Pusswedilla himself is dubiously endearing; it helps to cast the uniquely brilliant Dominic Kellar in the role. Amidst the comical incompetence and depravity around him, he stands out as sensible and strangely appealing. He routinely outwits his friends and foes (obvious avatars of government and opposition politicians), and reaffirms why he is the best of the bad lot—in his own words, ‘the only ace in a pack of jokers’. We never quite laugh at him—only with him. In a painfully unsubtle rendition of the actual Pusswedilla censorship episode, the character even defends so-called satire. He cheekily reminds us who defended the franchise when a humourless censorship board momentarily shut it down. In the process, Pusswedilla ceases to be critical of the current political dispensation—it credits its very existence to the powers that be.

Good politicians usually have good instincts when it comes to knowing what to permit and what to censor. It is clear that Pusswedilla serves purposes that proponents of the status quo deem useful. Amongst the obvious purposes lies a more insidious aim—keeping the politically indifferent in their place. For without them, the rabble-rousers are too few to matter.

Discomfort precedes change

Pusswedilla offers its audiences a chance to laugh at the state of politics from the comfort of their grammatically correct, perfectly pronounced, English-speaking high horses. But the only steed at a Pusswedilla show is a Trojan. For laughter is not the only medicine being peddled. To recall a sharp metaphor used in Mind Adventures’ political satire Paraya, Pusswedilla also administers Upekka, the compliance-inducing drug.

Perhaps unbeknown to the cast and audience, Pusswedilla is damaging our political culture even further. Instead of compelling audiences to question the absurdity of their reality, Pusswedilla encourages them to accept the current political dispensation as the best on offer. This is dangerous because there can be no change without discomfort. Pusswedilla is no longer failed satire. It is cleverly packaged propaganda.

  • David Blacker

    excellent observations. everyone thinks Pusswedilla is the theatrical version of a political cartoon, when it is so clearly not.

    • Fitzpatrick

      It can be many things to many people, let them pick what they will from it. It is not up to you to determine what they should take from the play.

      • David Blacker

        then why read a review?

        • Fitzpatrick

          To see what other people are saying on it. You views can be different from the writer but its good to know other people’s views.

          Read my comment again, the play can be many things to many people, they are free to choose what position they wish to choose.

          You think it is NOT a “theatrical version of a political cartoon” but others may choose to think IT IS a “theatrical version of a political cartoon”.

          All I am saying is,let them think so if they wish.
          This isn’t the army or the Sri Lankan government who does not tolerate other alternate views.

          • David Blacker

            i have given my opinion. i haven’t told anyone not to have an opinion, nor have i determined what others may or may not think. perhaps you should look up English comprehension before trying to read drama reviews. it is in fact you who is arguing with me and my opinion having, as usual, no opinion of your own, like most trolls.

  • JRC

    Criticism without suggesting a solution is cynicism!!

    • David Blacker

      a solution to a bad play?

  • Amanda

    A very insightful article. Much respect.

  • Sunshine

    Thank you! Finally someone published what i had been thinking for a long time. Laughing at something is the first step towards accepting it, and acceptance of the current political climate can only lead to the death of the soul of our nation. Many compare this to Yes, Minister/Prime Minister franchise but completely forget that the British political climate was freer, more dynamically democratic and the satirical aspects touched on matters that did not involve white-van kidnappings or mass-scale manipulation of stock markets and unimaginable corruption. I came away from my one-time only viewing of this show thinking about Richard De Soyza, who was killed when i was a teen. He stands for sri lankan satire that was willing to pay the price – Puswedilla is so very very very far short.

  • jagrr

    Interesting perspective. Not necessarily a fact. Might be giving the protagonists too much credit. I would be surprised if this much of thought has gone into the propagation of this franchise.

  • Lankan Thinker

    It is great entertainment but as Gehan says, the glorification of the Apex means that from a political perspective it is literally a ‘puswedilla’ – a damp squib!

  • Appreciate your opinion.
    However this play is titled “Puss” Wedilla not Wedilla. Also the writer/s claim that it was a mistake. One should question why certain newspapers are eager to give this play unwanted publicity. Its was given a lot of Help right from the beginning. I think it is unfair to be overtly critical about a play that publicly claims to be a mistake.

    • Jayalath

      Kindly could you inform that how would you say it publicly claims to be a mistake . I would like to know the contents of evidence . Thank you