Challenging Sri Lankan Cinema - ABA
The Story of Prince Pandukhabaya is a recent cinematic release which has blazed a new trail for Sri Lankan cinema with its epic story and international production techniques and standards. But ABA is also a business venture, perhaps the first of its kind, which places emphasis on cinema as a viable business investment. Manori Wijesekera met Jackson Anthony, the Director and force behind ABA and Ravindra Guruge who edited this film, to find out how they achieved what many had thought was impossible in Sri Lankan cinema.
The Story of Prince Pandukhabaya is a compelling and evocative tale, and was identified by Jackson Anthony almost two decades ago for its screenplay potential. He then embarked on a 20-year journey of research, with the last few years being focussed on planning and developing this production, and drawing in the necessary investment.
ABA was released on the 8th of August 2008, and has been screened to packed audiences around the country ever since. The early box office success seems to indicate that Anthony and his producers made the right decision, and right investment.
In what way is ABA breaking boundaries in Sri Lankan cinema?
Anthony: Cinema is an international field. It is a technical field, and the technique is a recognised international technique. If you take some other field, such as agriculture, for example, it will differ in each country due to cultural, climatic or soil conditions.
But cinema is a technique that has been developed over the years and everything feeds into one international cinema technique - this can be techniques relating to filming, directing, editing, sound recording and many other aspects. But this combined technique forms one international cinema technique.
Unfortunately, this international cinema technique has not been picked up in Sri Lanka. Our attitude has been that we are a poor, developing country so how can we do it? We look at international productions and think, "wow, that's great but here's our production, this is all we can do".
But the present generation doesn't see cinema as ‘local' and ‘international'. The development of communications means that everything is global, we expect the same from everything. And Sri Lankan cinema can't get away from this fact. Our audience now demands more.
What drove you to embark on producing this epic cinematic tale?
Anthony: Behind this film lies a research of over 20 years into Sri Lankan cinema. The result of my research into the industry resulted in this film.
My main question in trying to understand Sri Lankan cinema was, why has the audience declined? I found that in 1979, we had a cinema audience of 74.4 million in that year alone. In 2007, this had dropped to 7 million. This is a drop of ten times, and that means the industry loses income ten-fold, and this loss means that there is ten times less money invested in a new film. And if you invest 10 times less in a film, then the quality of the film drops ten-fold too.
So if we are to catch up to the standards of international cinema, then we have to make a huge jump. While our industry declined ten-fold in the last 30 years, the international cinema has moved ahead 20 or 30 times over. So we not only have to catch up with our own loss, but we also have to bridge the gap that has grown between Sri Lankan cinema and international cinema in the last three decades.
So I asked myself, what will bring back our audience? The simple answer is, if we make a film like ‘Harry Potter.' So why don't we make a film like Harry Potter? Because there is no investment. Why is there poor investment? Because there is no income from local cinema. So this keeps going around in a vicious cycle, a cycle that has taken our industry backward.
This cycle had to be broken. The starting point was to draw more investment, and to do that we developed a detailed film budget with projections and estimated returns. We calculated everything, and showed how it was possible to have a return on investment from a really good film.
The producers of my film, Justin Belagamage and Rajindra Jayasinghe of Mandakini Creations, are chartered accountants by profession and their investment of Rs 85 mn is based on research.
What drove you to select this story, and why did you want to create an epic tale of such magnitude, rather than, say, produce a romantic comedy, which could also have box office potential?
Anthony: Looking at the state of current cinema, it was clear to me that we needed a massive theme, an epic film to turn things around. I had also been involved in educational initiatives to promote the further study of Sri Lankan history.
So I thought, let's make history popular. I want to start a trend, a trend to make all Sri Lankans proud of being a Sri Lankan. I spent almost two decades in researching this story - the story is not mine, because it is a historical story, and belongs to all Sri Lankans. Because I was basing the screenplay on a historical chronicle, I had to be very careful and pay a lot of attention to the facts.
I researched this story using three main sources: the published, written history available in texts from Sri Lanka and India, including the Deepavamsa, Mahavamsa and the Wansaththappakasini and also the Sri Lankan folklore. The third source took me even deeper into research - I had to visualise how people lived in Sri Lanka over 2,400 years ago, before the Anuradhapura period. So I studied the writings and the recorded tales of people from around the world, from the 5th century BC to AD 1, and what they had to say about Sri Lanka. From the writings of Aristotle, the historical writings of Pliny and the notes he took of his discussions with seafarers about Taprobane, the maps and research of Ptolemy, the writings of Onesicritus who travelled with Alexander the Great to Asia and who visited the island and wrote of it and Anius Placamus who spent months exploring the island while his ship was being repaired in Mannar, among others.
What impact do you wish to create with this film?
Anthony: There are two impacts I want to create. One is to create a technically perfect film, one that takes the cinema techniques in Sri Lanka to a higher level. The second impact is to give a message that is positive, a message of hope - we can have heroes, we can have hope. But I wanted to do this through reality, not fantasy. I didn't want to create a fantasy hero like Superman or Spiderman. Our history has so many heroes, in fact we have a surplus of heroes!
I believe that there are many other directors who will now come through this cultural gate that I have opened. I have proven that you can create a historical epic and be commercially successful too. I hope that others will now follow, and take Sri Lankan cinema into many new paths.
The film has superb editing and excellent graphics work, on par certainly with international films. How did you achieve this massive leap from what we've seen so far in Sri Lankan cinema?
Anthony: I carefully planned the post-production process, to create a technically perfect film, with a group of editors and directors long before I had to start the post-production process. You can't achieve high technical standards by dreaming about it, or by simply wanting to achieve it. It needs a practical, pragmatic approach.
I know that Ravindra [Guruge] struggled to bring digital film technology to Sri Lanka and I knew that I could count on excellent post-production services from his company, The Video Team.
It was a great advantage to do the post-production work in Sri Lanka, rather than go to India as many Sri Lankan filmmakers do. In fact, I used Sri Lankan expertise in almost all aspects of the film. I only had to turn to Indian professionals for the digital colour grading and sound engineering skills.
There is a lot of graphics in the film, much of the cinematic excellence of this film depends on editing and it was the skill of the editor, and not just the technology, that resulted in this well edited film.
How did you achieve this international standard of cinematic editing that has not really been seen before in other Sri Lankan films?
Guruge: The digital cinema technology was brought to Sri Lanka in 2001. From that time, I had a dream to edit a film that would fully use the potential of digital editing, an epic film that could really exploit the potential of what is available through digital technology.
I had to get new 2D and 3D animation and graphics machines just for this film. The graphics workstation I used was an Apple Mac Pro with a 2 Terabyte internal hard drive and 512MB Nvidia Two Dual Link graphics card. I used a combination of graphics applications on both Mac Operating System (Shake 4.1) and Windows Operating System 64 bit platforms. I think this is the first time this kind of professional 2D and 3D animation and graphics workstation has been used in Sri Lanka. For editing, I used a Power Mac with Xserve RAID External Storage of 4 Terabyte and edited on Final Cut Studio complete editing for cinema.
I also researched and brushed up my own knowledge in order to fully exploit the potential of the digital technology. This film calls for great graphics; it calls for these amazing sound tracks; it calls for technically perfect edit - the story, the epic tale, calls for this high level in everything.
How do you gauge the excellence of editing in a film? How do you know that you have achieved what you set out to do in editing this film?
Guruge: I think excellent editing is achieved when the audience can't understand how we did it, but they respond and they react to what they see on screen. And that's the reaction we want. The techniques we have used are not seen, and I think that's the real success of the editing.
How did you manage to recreate the amazing sets, and to bring alive this little-known period of Sri Lanka's history?
Anthony: In the screenplay, in the sets, in the costumes, there is a huge research. Because this is not a fantasy, this is history. It is not entirely my creation. Behind this film lies a large amount of research.
This is the pre-historical era. Take for example, Upathissanuwara - there isn't a single stone column standing from this place. One reason is that they probably didn't build with stone columns, as these cities were temporary fortresses. Historians and archaeologists tell us that the building of great cities, with large stone palaces and gardens, began during the reign of King Pandukhabaya. But in the film, we needed to recreate how he lived before he became king, before cities as we know it were built. So we had to do a great amount of research to come as close as possible to the truth.
We built our sets to stay true to these historical facts. I sketched each one of the sets, as I imagined it, based on the historical facts we had unearthed. Then these were further developed by the set designer.
This was also my approach to the costumes. I first sketched these, based on research and my imagination, and they were further developed by others.
I paid a lot of attention to authenticity and high standards in the sets and costumes because I believe that these are two areas which we have badly wronged in the past. I think this is because in the history of cinema and theatre in Sri Lanka, there is very little research that goes into developing sets and costumes. We had dozens of dress rehearsals until we got the costumes just right. We spent about a year in pre-production. The sets took about three months to build.
It was also quite a challenge finding the locations, because ideally you had to find locations which had indigenous trees and not the kind of areas that had a lot of introduced species.
It took us about 73 days for the location filming, post production took about three months. From the day we started filming on the 1st of August 2007, it took us one year to complete this film.
In a historical film, it's difficult to know where does history end and the filmmaker's creativity begin. I believe this is a question that your audience will also ask themselves, as they watch ABA. How would you describe this separation of historical fact and your creative imagination?
Anthony: This is something that many artists, who want to do a creative work based on history or historical fact, grapple with. Aristotle commented that "art is more philosophical than history." History is a documentation, it's full of facts, a list of events or occurrences. But art is an emotional and philosophical process. There are no emotions in history, but through our creativity, we can bring out those emotions.
For example, the historical facts about Prince Pandukabhaya's early life are that he was born and his mother smuggled him away, and when he was around 15 years he returned to slay his uncles and gain the throne. That's all we know through history. But through creativity, we can bring out the emotions of the mother at having to give away her firstborn son, the young prince yearning for his mother's love, the experiences that must have moulded the young prince as he grew up and so on.
While ABA has raised the standard of Sri Lankan cinema through its cinematic excellence, the pragmatic business approach you took to this film is also a first for Sri Lankan cinema. What makes you look at cinema as a business venture?
Anthony: We are living and working in a market-oriented society. So any product must do well in the market. In the Sri Lankan cinema industry, we had a mistaken notion that low-quality, meaningless material will be popular and, hence, marketable. We had a culture of producing "commercial films" and "artistic films". This demarcation is not found anywhere else in the world - a cinematic production is made to include both artistic merit and commercial potential.
So I disagree with the current demarcation of films in Sri Lanka. Internationally the only demarcation in cinema is good films and not-good films. We need to make artistic films, films of quality, in a way that they will also have commercial success, become box office hits. We need to add quality to the marketplace, and that's the basis of my venture into this production.
The story of Prince Pandukhabaya is full of mystery and suspense. The Mahavamsa records that following the death of Prince Vijaya (an outlawed prince from India who set up a kingdom in Sri Lanka), Panduvasdeva became the king. Bhaddakachchana, a Shakya Princess from India, was his queen consort and they had ten sons and one daughter. The daughter was called Ummada Chitra, and is said to have been very beautiful. Soothsayers foretold that the son of Princess Chitra would destroy his uncles and wrest the kingdom for himself. Therefore, the brothers decided to kill their sister, but the elder brother, Abhaya, persuaded them to keep her in a chamber built upon a single tower (called an ‘ektam geya') which was accessible only through a door from the king's bedchamber. In the meantime Bhaddakachchana's brothers established settlements around the island.
Dighagamini, the son of Digayu, one of these brothers was appointed to serve the court of the king at Upatissagama. Dighagamini heard of Chitra and fell in love with her, and he visited her in her prison chamber. It was soon revealed that Chitra had conceived a child, and her brothers decided to kill the child if he were to be male. But Princess Chitra determined to save her child, and immediately after her son was born she exchanged babies with another woman who had given birth to a daughter.
Princess Chitra's son, Pandukabhaya (also called Pandu Aba), grew up in a village called Doramandalawa (Dwaramandala). When he was seven, his uncles discovered the boy's existence and began to kill all the boys of his age across the kingdom. He escaped death and grew up under the tutelage of a Brahmin named Pandula. Having reached his teens, at around 15 years of age, he began to wage war on his uncles, and killed them all except Abhaya whom he spared for having spared his mother's life. Prince Aba went on to gather all tribes of Sri Lanka under him and became the first King of Anuradhapura, and ruled for 70 years.