Colombo, Media and Communications, Post-War

Freedom to create, censorship and the future of Sri Lankan cinema: an anecdote

NB: The following is a brief (and therefore rather incomplete) note on the censorship and state-control imposed on present-day Sri Lankan cinema, where filmmakers are forced to be conscious of the prevalent political discourse on artistic expression. Hiding behind a so-called (‘Victorian-inherited’) culture and blocking creative energy being an act of sheer hara-kiri on artistic expression, it is sincerely hoped that this note would lead to a more consistent dialogue among GV readers on artistic expression, especially in terms of Sri Lankan cinema.

It is deeply hoped that someone attached to the current regime in a policymaking capacity would come across what follows. If one takes a look at Sri Lankan video websites like col3neg and srilankantube largely meant for the Sinhala-speaking expatriate community, one can get a glimpse of the contemporary Sri Lankan television and film industries. Such websites also demonstrate prejudices largely subscribed to by many Sri Lankans. For example, pictures of the recently concluded Rainbow Runway fashion show appeared in one such website with the Sinhalese heading Lankavata giya kalak. This shows that very few people are capable of viewing such events as essential and of understanding the necessity of supporting the work of those trying to make Lanka a more tolerant and open-minded place. The manner in which the media and creative arts are managed in present-day Sri Lanka is simply appalling. Let’s start off from the television industry. While the state-owned television networks have gone thoroughly uncritical and unquestioningly pro-governmental, this does not come across as a surprise. The pro-governmental stance of state-owned media institutions has been a continuous feature in Sri Lanka for years. In order to make the state-run media more impartial and objective, a sea change of political culture is required, and this could only happen over an extremely long period of time.

The fundamental problem in television journalism lies in the government’s rigid approach to this sector. When a film is telecast, all scenes with people smoking and drinking alcohol are censored. As Asoka Handagama, the man who can undoubtedly be called contemporary Sri Lanka’s best filmmaker, recently remarked during an interview with Young Asia Television, when this regulation is applied to a film like Boodi Keerthisena’s Milla Soya, there is simply nothing left in the film to be watched. The government’s objective of reducing alcohol and smoking is indeed positive, but blocking artistic expression in this manner is extremely shameless, hilarious and worthless. It is an act of gross injustice to the works in question. This is the same with regards to sexually explicit scenes. Sexuality being part and parcel of life, it needs to be portrayed in works of art. In terms of the film industry, regulations of this nature inevitably result in discouraging talented filmmakers who are capable of high quality creations. It appears that Handagama has been considerably discouraged since the thoroughly pointless row over Aksharaya, which, without the slightest doubt, is among the best of cinematic creations in modern Sri Lankan cinema. One commentator recently noted in a critical reading of Vidu, Handagama’s newest film, that his creativity seems to have been negatively affected by the prevalent culture of senseless censorship (this article, available at, provides worthy food for thought to anyone interested in Sri Lankan cinema). Nor does one hear much about Vimukthi Jayasundera, yet another young filmmaker who demonstrated what he is capable of in his maiden film (which won an award at the Cannes Film Festival). Despite the new creative energy he brings in to Sinhala cinema, his work has received next to no recognition inside Sri Lanka. He also had to leave the country to save his life….

The only people who benefit from the Rajapakse administration’s rigid policy on controlling the creative arts are individuals who capitalise on the predominant Sinhala nationalist discourse. Making a film about well-known legends of Sri Lankan (read ‘Sinhalese’) history that highlights patriotism, heroism and anything else that adds a plus to dominant Sinhala nationalist ideas, remain a possibility, and Aba stands as a telling example. What if someone attempts to make a film that reads Sri Lankan history in a more critical perspective, questioning widely prevalent assumptions? What about films that openly and unforgivingly question existing norms and idées recues about sexuality, relationships, the ‘war’, politics and more? Not only will they face tremendous criticism and challenges right from the outset…it is extremely unlikely that such projects will be allowed to be developed.

The most pathetic part of the story stems from a number of top-level Sri Lankan film personalities, including filmmakers and film stars who supported ‘The Incumbent’ at the last presidential polls. The best in that field all rallied around him, appreciated his contribution to ‘end’ separatist terrorism, and brought up many arguments as to why they should support him. The Incumbent’s eldest son was apt at putting up a promotional advertisement on television where young film stars (and cricketers and all and sundry with the slightest claim to fame) came on TV asking viewers to make a wise choice at the presidential election. Now, a few months after the (re-)election, followed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, one wonders where these filmmakers, film stars and other personalities in the creative arts stand with regards to the culture of senseless censorship…

This writer wishes to note crystal-clearly that he does not mean to reproach the said personalities for supporting The Incumbent at the election. One is indeed entitled to one’s political views, guided by motivating factors of any sort. What needs to be highlighted is their apparent hypocrisy, and the blind eye they seem to turn at the way in which good filmmakers are discouraged, the quality of artistic creations is going down the drain, making the creative arts, and especially the film industry, virtually barren. If this process continues, expressions of Sinhala nationalism and Kollywood-style commercial films à deux balles will be all what Sri Lankan cinema will be left with.

The prevalent censorship, in all its forms, has only one, single objective: gaining as much political mileage as possible among the wider Sinhalese masses. How far can thinking Sri Lankans (especially Sinhalese) tolerate this situation is a worthy question. If the Rajapakse administration sincerely wishes to make Sri Lanka a better place in the post-war phase, thoroughly pointless regulations of this nature need to be categorically taken off, and people in the creative arts should be given the fullest freedom to determine what they want to talk about/show in their works. Bragging about a Lester Peiris and a Grand Lady of Sinhala cinema who currently sits in parliament alone do not help the film industry in any way. These individuals (chapeau to their contribution to Sri Lankan cinema) now belong to the past, and every effort should be taken to make things conducive for the next generation, to emerging young talent, and to new waves of creative energy that Sri Lankan cinema (and other creative arts) have not yet seen.