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Sunday, September 21, 2008

‘Aba’ – first Sri Lankan epic film?

‘Aba’ – first Sri Lankan epic film?

An epic film is "a genre of film which places emphasis on human drama on a grand scale. It is more ambitious in scope than other genres such as period pieces and adventure films." Epic films entail huge production costs, have sweeping musical scores by acknowledged music composers and "an ensemble cast of bankable stars placing the film among the most expensive productions." The term epic to categorize such films is derived from the very large body of heroic poetry which is termed epic poetry where the main aspects of epic conventions are preserved: the centrality of a hero, sometimes semi-divine; and the theme being of moral, national or religious importance. They are synonymous with big budget films, where even the ideas and vision are extra large.

According to Wikipedia, epic films fall into five main categories: religious, romantic, historical, war, and ‘sword and sandal’ epics. They run for more than two hours, always.

Well known Hollywood epics

Best remembered by me, at least, of the historical epic films is Lawrence of Arabia and Godfather, also The King and I and Ben Hur starring Charlton Heston.

The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and produced by Cecile B DeMille in the 1960s falls into the category of religious epic, along with the Indian production The Mahabaratha. The most recent of this genre is The Passion of Christ directed by Mel Gibson which raised a storm of controversy and debate.

Romantic epics are varied and numerous. Best remembered are Gone with the Wind (1939), Cleopatra (1963), Dr Zhivago (1965) and Titanic (1997). It surprised me that the Wikipedia article listed Ryan’s Daughter (1970), Out of Africa and English Patient as romantic epic films. They were absolutely remarkable films but to classify them as epics rather surprised me. Maybe cost of production and stellar casts would have propelled these into the romantic epic category.

War epics count such as Longest Day (1960s?), Platoon (1986), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). Bridge over the River Kwai was not listed, surprisingly.

Sword and sandals epics are mostly of the Roman Empire as you would have rightly guessed. Ben Hur again and of course the last of the great epics - The Gladiator with Russell Crowe. This film was a surprise in many ways, taking off on an unfinished script; and starring Crowe - man of few words and unproven up until then in ability to grip an audience. Another surprise was its takings at the Academy Awards where it received twelve nominations and had Crowe winning best actor award, beating many leading men including Tom Hanks.

All these mentioned films and other epics were box office successes with large takings. Titanic grossed 600 million domestically and 1.8 billion worldwide. GWTW holds the record still as the highest earning film, 1.3 billion in the US alone. Maybe it counts more than one screening, years apart.

The epic features of the film Aba

All that written earlier is because from the moment the film Aba got going at the Savoy with me in the audience, I got the urge to compare it with epic films I had seen.

Many reviews of Aba have appeared in the print media. I’ve read most of them. One questioned the historical authenticity of the story of Aba. I felt you could not question Jackson Anthony on this score since he presents a history-based TV program that is excellent and scores high on the historical correctness of what he says.

The film story runs true to the story (legend?) as it appears in print in the translation of the Mahavamsa by Wilhelm Geiger. I read the story of King Pandukabhaya and his uncles in the 1993 edition of the Mahavamsa or the Great Chronicle of Ceylon translated by Geiger and published in New Delhi by Asian Educational Services and found the film ran true to the facts in the historical tome.

On that score, even if Jackson Anthony’s film script deviated slightly from the story as it is narrated in the Mahavamsa, Aba is an epic film. It deals with a historical narration, legend though it may be, of an ancient bit of documented Sri Lankan history revolving around one princely hero. And thus Aba falls into the category of historical epic.

As to the actors, the film can be classed an epic film. A stellar cast has been rounded up by Jackson Anthony to take the principal roles. Princess Unmaada Chitra is played by Sabitha Perera; the Queen Mother excellently by Malini Fonseka; Brahmin Pandula by Ravindra Randeniya in flowing white hair; Neil Alles as King Panduvasudeva and Saumya Liyanage as the idiotic seeming villager, Habara, who protects with his life the young prince, son of Princess Unmaada Chitra. Jackson Anthony’s son plays the important role of Prince Pandukabhaya alias Aba. Newcomer to pivotal roles in the big screen,
Dulani Anuradha plays the multifaceted, responsible-minded, dancing and flirtatious Gumbaka Butha with verve and vivacity. She comes across full of the fun of life when teasing Habara and even when carrying, in a wicker basket, the infant prince to hiding in the village - Doramandalawa.

Of these and other well known actors who took the part of the princes and the paramour of Princess Chitra and his loyal servant, Saumya Liyanage stands out really living the role of the brave, seemingly foolish, emotionally capricious Habara, who executes many intricate dance steps. Was he the dancer that was silhouetted in various postures and dancing poses as backdrop to the listing of credit titles? If he is not nominated for a local Oscar and does not win it, we could deduce something is wrong in the judging film world of Sri Lanka. Saumya popped his big eyes, pouted his full lips, opened his large mouth and lithely twisted his body to perfection – the cunning fool, more clever and sincere than foolish.

Jackson Anthony’s son Sajitha Anutthara plays the title role, that of the young prince, the film narrative starting from the time he was born to the sister of seven princes and exchanged for the girl child born to a handmaiden. The infant is brought up at Doramandalawa as the twin son of the headman whose wife gives birth to a boy just as the young prince is delivered to them by Habara and Gumbaka Butha. The film ends with Aba, a teenager vowing to avenge his uncles’ cruelty to their sister (his mother) and their attempts to murder him.

Some interesting facets of the culture of that time were shown such as when in the house of the headman the birth of his child was delayed so that the villagers could be shown a pair of twins as having been born, the woman is made to pound paddy in a pestle while in labour!

The language spoken by the characters was excellent, quaint yet forceful. One missed much if one went by the subtitling in English.

The music was stunning and the sound track advanced so that one was assailed by sounds emerging from the front of the cinema and the two sides. Nadeeka Guruge gets the kudos for the music, while Chandana Weerasinghe for the choreography.

The film, mercifully did not take too long – around 2 hours. The true Hollywood epic is now cutting down its time of screening. Thus we need not question the film Aba’s entry into the genre of epic film though it did not run for three hours. Thank goodness for that! Even the best must not prolong itself.

Epic films produced by Hollywood and Bollywood have cost immense amounts. We can be sure Jackson Anthony’s film too cost much more than the average Sinhala film. But the expense was justified and we are equally sure he will recoup the cost and more at the box office. A month into the screening of the film, tickets were all sold out at every show, particularly at the weekends.

One is tempted to compare Jodhaa Akbhar to Aba for the simple reason that the heroes in both stories ruled by the sword. In the former film, the young Akbhar initiates his career as the all powerful Moghul prince and then king, while in Aba the very last scene has the young prince bravely holding a sword aloft with the background intonation that he would defeat his uncles and unite the country under his sovereignity. This semblance is acknowledged, but to weigh the two films on the one weighing scale would be unfair. How on earth could a Sri Lankan production equal or surpass a Bollywood epic produced with billions being spent. But what could be said is that Aba is an excellent attempt at bringing an epic film to the Sinhala screen and for this all thanks go to Jackson Anthony.

He is a proven historian and high-rated TV presenter and film star. He has now proven himself to be a successful director/producer of epics for the large screen. We thank him for his film which has raised Sinhala cinema from the doldrums it had sunk to. We wish him well with future productions.

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