Cops, Criminals & Cultural Contours
By Uditha Devapriya
In Michael Mann’s Heat, one of the best heist thrillers ever made, the protagonist is a cop called Hanna, played by Al Pacino. The other character, a thief called McCauley, is played by Robert de Niro.
Hanna and McCauley meet for the first time at the end of the first half of the movie. Hanna, who works for the LAPD, has been investigating a series of highprofile crimes for days.
He guesses McCauley is the culprit, but has no real proof. Convinced that he is the man they are looking for, Hanna tails him one night and gets him to pull over. Instead of arresting him, though, he offers to buy McCauley coffee. They then go over to a diner, where the two of them sit in front of each other. What unfolds thereafter is not a conversation, but a charade. The detective and the thief start talking at cross-purposes.
Weary, numbed, and tempered by the weight of their work, they engage in casual banter. Like countless conversations from a Michael Mann film, this doesn’t make sense; they ramble on and on, and then suddenly stop.
It is when we step back and reflect on these two that we realise what the scene is trying to tell us: the detective has come to a point in his career where he depends on the thieves he tails. It’s the same story with the other guy: he’s been involved in so many crimes that he’s almost relieved to talk to a man of the law. Their meeting is thus marked out less by hostility than by empathy. It’s a meeting of the minds.
The face-off is intriguing, to me, because it reminds me of a similar conversation from a film made 25 years earlier, in Sri Lanka. D. B. Nihalsinghe’s Welikathara also pits a Police-officer against a criminal, this time a drug kingpin. In the scene I am talking about, that officer, like Al Pacino’s detective, encounters the kingpin in full form at his office.
By this point each of them has realised what the other wants: like the lawyer and his ex-client in Martin Scorsese’ Cape Fear, each knows only too well that the other is seeking the upper hand.
The sequence at the Police station establishes this relationship. As one salty witticism gives way to another, we sense the revulsion underlying the conversation; the two are talking at cross-purposes, only barely concealing their contempt for each other.
Yet while the scene serves a different function from its counterpart in Heat – whereas the diner sequence shows how dependent the cop has become on the thief, here it reveals the hostility between the two men – it stands out almost like the other does.
That has much to do, I think, with the acting: neither Al Pacino nor Robert de Niro had made much of a name for themselves when Welikathara came out, but seeing Gamini Fonseka play the cop and Joe Abeywickrama the criminal, you do tend to compare. To make such a comparison is to acknowledge that Welikathara represented a high point for our cinema.
Welikathara may well be the most Americanised Sinhala film ever made. Whereas most Sinhala films had been distinctly continental until then, hardly any director had ventured into Hollywood territory.
What makes Nihalsinghe’s film fascinating, in that sense, is how far he conceived its story along the lines of a typical American thriller. My interest in the movie as a critic, however, has less to do with its cinematic merit than the spotlight it throws on an era when such cosmopolitan objets d’art were more the norm than the exception.
Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of Nihalsinghe’s film, I felt it apt to ponder why, from achieving such heights then, we have slid down so badly now. It would be apt to restate the question: how could the kind of acting exemplified in a movie like Heat become the norm there today, whereas the sort exemplified in Welikathara has turned out to be the dismal exception here? I am not just suggesting that our art forms have deteriorated in quality – though this is exactly what has happened – but that there are many reasons that can explain such a decline? Where have our arts gone? Why has it not realised its potential? What can revive it? Who can revive it? The importance of these questions cannot be emphasised enough.
A society’s popular culture is a fairly accurate gauge of its intellectual achievements. It is true that this remains a function of economic position; hence, rich countries have more potential for high cultural achievements, whereas poorer countries do not.
Yet that is not necessarily the case all the time: the Indian film industry, to give one example, is considerably more diverse, and much richer, than its counterparts in countries like Singapore. India is a case in point for the view that the greater the size of the population, the more sophisticated a country’s popular culture will be.
But that also is not always the case: as the recent resurgence in African cinema shows, a big population does not in itself contribute to the uplift of a culture to the exclusion of more pertinent factors. This is not to say that issues of economic development or population are secondary to those other factors. Affluent countries can afford superior works of art, while poorer countries (of which India is a prime example) are able to do so with a public that patronises commercial works of art, which helps subsidise more serious ventures.
In that sense, the US enjoys the twin advantage of a powerful economy and a large audience. But to acknowledge these points is not to deny the relevance of other reasons for the growth or decline of artistic standards. In Sri Lanka’s case, any attempt at diagnosing the problems of its culture must hence start from an appraisal of the post-1980 decline in the arts: a phenomenon reducible to neither economics nor demographics.
Three schools of thought
Three schools of thought have attempted to explain this decline. The first school views 1956 as the reason: by empowering everyone to enter our schools and universities, so their logic goes, cultural and artistic standards were compromised. That is another way of saying that if schools and universities remained shut to poorer classes, those standards would have been protected and fostered by an elite minority.
The second school argues that with the advent of economic liberalisation in 1978, the government’s hold over artistic quality was loosened, thereby debasing cultural yardsticks, transforming lowbrow into middlebrow art, and raising the latter to the status of highbrow art. To invert Marx’s dictum, what was once profane now became sacred.
I personally think this argument holds more water than the first – not least because the first school tries to frame 1956 as avoidable, which it was not, and fails to distinguish between its progressive and regressive aspects, which should not be done – but it does not explain a point the third school dwells on: the debasement of our education system because of, and paradoxically in spite of, various reforms enacted after 1956.
This is where the line between the progressive and regressive aspects of what transpired that year must be drawn: though there was a need to democratise schools and universities and they were democratised, barring crucial reforms in the second Sirimavo Bandaranaike government (pioneered by a set of brilliant educationists and scholars like Neil Kuruppu and Douglas Walatara) no attempts were made to maintain quality in them.
The results are there for all to see today: while certain schools and universities produce better thinkers than others, one does not come across such thinkers as often as one would want. That these trends have spilled over to the performing arts is a no-brainer: we don’t produce original artists too often either.
“Manike Mage Hithe” offers the promise of what Sri Lanka’s popular culture should be, but such ventures are rare. The third school consolidates the arguments of the first and the second: it acknowledges concerns over the negative aftershocks of 1956, as the first school does, while tracing the trajectory of cultural decline to the period after 1980, when the abandonment of the United Front education reforms multiplied those aftershocks, as the second school does. Any critique of the country’s less than brilliant cultural scene today should take into account these factors when proposing viable solutions. In particular, it should identify exactly quality has come down and how best we can go about improving it.
It is fashionable to say that Sri Lanka’s cultural standards remained high until 1956. To me though, this is a deeply fallacious argument: a comprador society, which is what prevailed before 1956, does not produce a genuine culture. A culture must dig deep in search of roots. The problem is not that such a search stunted artistic development in the country, as those who idealise the pre1956 status quo think, but rather that it did not go deep enough.
That paved way for a massive flaw in our education system: the delinking of the performing arts from their literary roots, slowly since 1956 and more rapidly since 1980. What I am arguing here is that as actors, directors, and even scriptwriters, we don’t read as much as we used to. In saying that, I am not denying there are other problems we have to look into with respect to Sri Lanka’s popular culture. But as the central issue, this problem requires immediate resolution.
The sooner we realise our priorities there, the sooner we will be able to address a deplorable, though no less reversible, decline in artistic standards. All it takes to confirm the reality of such a decline, of course, is to see Welikathara, see Heat, and then ask why we used to have it so good, and how far back we have fallen today.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected])