An Equation for Success
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
Sasika Herath is no novice to the Sri Lankan filmmaking industry, being a part of it for around a decade now, and working with many exceptional talents. After honing his wide array of skills, he now has all the variables locked on for his directorial debut, Sihina Sameekarana.
The movie will follow the story of a promising young man from a rural village, talented in mathematics who overcomes tremendous adversity when trying to pursue an education. He also deals with the many pressures and temptations of student life in the big city of Colombo. Sihina Sameekarana hopes to shine the spotlight on many societal issues in Sri Lanka that are rarely talked about, yet experienced by many youths of the country.
Ceylon Today reached out to Sasika to learn more about his project and the state of Sri Lanka’s cinema industry in a world taken over by COVID-19.
Taking the reins
Entering the industry after gaining his skills from a course conducted by the Maharagama National Youth Services Council, Sasika has worked with many leading professionals in the country such as Lakshman Pushpakumara, Anuruddha Jayasinghe and Jayalath Manoratne in his career of up to ten years. After taking on the role of assistant director on many occasions, Sihina Sameekarana is Sasika Herath’s debut as a full-fledged director, fully taking the reins into his hands and steering the project according to his creative vision.
Ceylon Today learnt more about Sihina Sameekarana’s creative journey from the man himself.
“The inspiration for the movie came from its producers, Dr. Charith Jayathilaka and Dhammika Geekiyanage who are both instructors in physics; Jayathilaka being a university lecturer as well. Both of them have experiences of talented, bright students coming to Colombo from their villages to prepare for the Advanced Level examinations but ultimately destroy their futures because of being exposed to drugs and other vices,” he explained.
Getting to work
With this grim reality in Sri Lanka as a source for inspiration, Sasika set out to create what would become Sihina Sameekarana. However, he first needed to take this inspiration and use it to come up with a compelling narrative and screenplay. For that, he incorporated the talent of Darshana Vidya Aravinda who is an already talented scriptwriter.
“He and I worked on the script for almost a year,” Sasika narrated. “We came up with a lot of interesting ideas and themes to add to the narrative. Taking our time, we carefully crafted the movie’s narrative and came up with a screenplay that both of us were proud of.”
After successfully coming up with a plot, the task was now to find the right talent to breathe life to the characters in film as well as to gather a creative team to make his vision a reality.
The crew and cast
Sihina Sameekarana is a movie made with an impressive team of creative talent to support Sasika in his project. Movers and shakers of the industry such as Indika Dharmathilaka (Assistant Director), Chinthaka Jayakody (Music Director), Piyathissa Akuramboda (Art and Costume), Ajith Ramanayake (Editing) and many others contribute their creative abilities to the movie.
Of course, a creative team can only bring out the best of their capabilities if there is a talented cast of characters.
Sasika had much to share about his cast and the motivations behind selecting them.
“When choosing a cast for the movie, I didn’t want to show audiences the same faces we see in many movies over and over again. Sri Lanka is home to many new, talented actors and I wanted to feature them, bringing them to the big screen,” he said.
The movie will star Sajitha Anthony and many other talented actors who represent a new generation of actors such as Kasuni Kavindi (from Thanamalwila Kollek), Rebecca Dilrukshi, Randhika Gunathilaka and many others. While both Sajitha and Kasuni have some experience in front of the camera, many of the actors cast for Sasika’s movie haven’t become household names in the cinema industry, with some such as Rebecca even making their debut in the art form.
“Many of the faces you will see in Sihina Sameekarana are talented stage actors who have made a name for themselves in the art form. Even though it would have been a safer choice to bring in talent already reputed in the cinema industry, I was very confident in those we cast after seeing their capacity and latent talent. We wanted to take on the challenge of featuring new talent and create a new generation of actors for the industry.
“I wanted to find a cast that can bring the full spectrum of each character, bringing depth to the dialogue we have in the screenplay. The talent we found could bring that to the big screen and we are confident that audiences will find their performances convincing.”
Sasika shared with us his admiration for the cast and their firm commitment to the filming of the movie. He spoke of Kasuni especially who rose to the occasion and showed exemplary dedication in learning new skills to help fulfil her role in the short period of time before filming began.
We learnt from him that the movie was filmed in primarily three main locations. Welikanda, which is a tiny village situated between Kalkudah and Polonnaruwa, Colombo and Pallekele. Sasika had many stories to tell about his experiences filming the movie.
“We filmed quite a bit in Welikanda, which is severely affected by the human-elephant conflict. We worked with the Deparment of Wildlife Conservation who provided us with assistance to ensure our protection. Filming was difficult and I’m grateful for the crew and cast who gave it their all and persevered through the difficulties. Each and every one gave it their all.”
According to Sasika, filming in Welikanda was the toughest obstacle the team had to overcome. Travel, logistics and minimising the risk of encountering wild elephants during filming and travel back was tough, but he is very happy with the end result.
An important message for an important audience
Sihina Sameekarana is a movie for youth who have to navigate the many pressures and challenges of life as students today. Sasika explained more.
“I’m sure everyone who experienced life as an O Level or A Level student will find a lot they can relate to as they watch the movie, especially the students who leave their hometowns and villages to prepare for their exams in Colombo.”
Because it conveyed an important message, Sasika shared with us that he and the team wanted to share a story that didn’t follow overused clichés and fantastical moments that would only happen in the big screen. He hopes to show a part of Sri Lankan student life that is seldom shared or focussed about in contemporary media.
“A lot of us related to what transpires in Sihina Sameekarana,” he explained. “Each and every crew member brought a personal touch to the movie and I’m sure you will feel those emotions while watching it on the big-screen.”
A major roadblock; cinema amidst COVID
“We wanted to release Sihina Sameekarana in cinemas by the end of 2020, but ended up facing a major setback due to COVID-19 and the nationwide lockdown that followed. Luckily, we were able to finish all the filming by the end of February so only the post production process needed to be done. Even so, we still had to put everything on hold for several months because of the pandemic.”
Ceylon Today learnt from Sasika that not only them, but the entire cinema industry In Sri Lanka is facing major setbacks due to the ongoing crisis.
“As far as I’m aware of, there were several other movies being produced while we were making Sihina Sameekarana. All of them had to put things on hold,” he informed us.
“There were some great original works that should have been released to audiences by now from local filmmakers, but unfortunately everything has been put on hold.”
In a world plagued by COVID-19, Sri Lankan filmmakers have had to face an unprecedented crisis. The film industry in Sri Lanka has been struggling for quite some time to begin with. Sasika had more to say about this.
“We’ve been hit hard. Although we were struggling as an industry, there had been a small resurgence because of new talent and fresh ideas. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has put a stop to that. The only way forward is for local filmmakers to look for ways to present their movies beyond the cinema hall. We now have to look for alternative platforms such as Netflix to survive as an industry.”
Unfortunately, COVID-19 is only a recent obstacle that the Sri Lankan film industry has had to face. Local cinema has been struggling to stay afloat long before COVID-19- reared its ugly head. Sasika shared his insights on why this has been so for the past years.
“The problem isn’t related to technology or talent. Sri Lankan filmmaking is keeping up to international standards with its use of equipment, technology and skills,” he said.
“The real problem lies in budget. Anyone in the industry will tell you that the biggest struggle filmmakers have to face is covering the cost of creating a movie. Illegal downloading and piracy has devastated the local movie industry.”
Sasika told us more of the vicious cycle that has affected the industry for many years. If movies aren’t making enough profit, fewer people will take up the arduous task it is to film a movie, meaning that innovation and new ideas will be hard to find. Producers also become unwilling to take risks and try new ideas, preferring to stick to what they know will ‘somehow manage’ to cover costs, leading to the industry as a whole stagnating with little improvement or change.
It appears that an audience that is willing to pay for their entertainment, producers who are willing to take risks and filmmakers with fresh ideas are the variables needed to solve Sri Lanka’s struggling cinema industry. Sasika confirms that there are talented individuals with fresh ideas as well as producers willing to take the risk. Meaning most of the responsibility now lies with the people of Sri Lanka and their commitment to supporting local artists.
“Don’t give up on Sri Lankan cinema yet,” is Sasika’s message. “We have the talent and there is a lot of fresh talent and filmmakers who are willing to explore new ideas and concepts.”
As for Sihina Sameekarana, Sasika is confident he has all the variables locked on to solve the equation of a successful movie. A compelling plot, a great creative team and an important message that is rarely shared with Sri Lankan audiences. He hopes to release the movie for audiences early next year, provided that authorities succeed in controlling the ongoing second wave of infections.
(Pix courtesy Sasika Herath)