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Struggle to localise Sri Lankan Film Inc

The filmdom faces a 3-pronged assault from Hollywood, Bollywood, Mollywood, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Oct 17, 2006 13:58 IST

Sri Lanka's indigenous film and TV artistes and technicians have been waging a long struggle, and a seemingly unending one, against the domination of the local film and television scene by foreign productions.

The issue has come up at least three times since the 1960s.

Earlier, the victim was the film industry, which was facing a three-pronged assault from Hollywood, Bollywood and Mollywood (Madras).

With the advent of TV in the early 1980s, the new breed of TV artistes and technicians also began to feel the pinch.

Today, with film and TV closely interwoven in Sri Lanka, artistes from the two streams are putting up a common front against the foreign juggernaut.

The accent now is on TV because it has become the main outlet for even filmmakers, following the economic decline of the Sri Lankan cinema industry.

Partly inspired by the rise of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, widely recognised as a "Man of the People" and a "true Sinhalaya", local film and TV artistes and producers recently took up the cudgels against the swamping of the two visual media by imported programmes.

Leading artistes like Sangeetha Weeraratne and Ravindra Randeniya joined hands with others and got the government to slap heavy taxes on imported films and foreign made advertisements.

As per the new regulations, a TV station will have to cough up Sri Lankan Rupees 90,000 ($883) for every 30 minutes of a dubbed foreign film or teledrama, and SLRs 70,000 ($687) for a non-dubbed one.

Educational films and Tamil films and teledramas have, however, been exempted.

It is stipulated that the proceeds of the levy will be used to improve local TV and film production.

Tamil films and teledramas have been let off the hook because there is no local Tamil film industry or TV programming to protect.

Defending the decision, actress Sangeetha Weeraratne said: "Foreign serials have been depriving us of opportunities. By re-structuring we can assure creative outlets for the younger generation of creators."

Actor Mahendra Perera, who has a school to train actors, said that foreign TV dramas had pushed local productions to the second place.

"Our teledramas are far better than these," he told the weekly Nation.

In panel discussion in a local TV channel, some artistes said that Sri Lankan culture was an endangered species, because the youth, addicted to Hindi films, were beginning to ape Indian film heroes.

Popular Sri Lankan magazines not only write a lot about Indian stars and lift material from Indian film magazines but use the pictures of Indian film stars to illustrate local love stories.

One leading male actor-politician even went to the extent of saying that film and TV were being used by India to culturally subjugate its small neighbours.

He said that this had resulted in these countries taking steps against the influx of Indian stuff.

It was even said that within India too, there were restrictions to protect local film industries from the dominant Hindi film industry based in Bollywood.

Ashoka Serasinghe of the National Film Corporation told Daily Mirror that there was no control on the incoming foreign productions in Sri Lanka.

There were nearly 340 Sri Lankan teledramas waiting to be shown in the state-owned TV network Rupavahini because of the non-availability of air time, he said. 

Serasinghe argued that the new levies were affordable, because the TV stations earned SLRs 3 million ($30,000) per half hour from advertisements alone.

Lester James Peries: Looking at larger perspectives

Visual media and national identity

The internationally acclaimed Sri Lankan filmmaker, Lester James Peries, sees the struggle in a larger perspective.

Looking at the visual media as a whole, he says that without some control over foreign inputs, Sri Lanka will lose its cultural and national identity.

Stressing the importance of having control over a nation's image, Peries says that a country's identity is determined by the images it projects.

"If the country's image is to be protected, there should be control over the visual image it is projecting," he told Hindustan Times.

French President Francois Mitterrand had said: " If a county does not control the images that are projected by it, and if the images are foreign, it becomes a slave state."

The report of the Presidential Committee of Inquiry Concerning the Film Industry in Sri Lanka published in June 1985 says: "Excessive and continued exposure to outside influences (mostly imported from developed, highly industrialised countries) hasten the dilution of the smaller cultural entities."

"Not only does the bulky presence of imported programming undermine the very basis of indigenous cultures, it also breeds mental habits of dependence and promotes the uncritical acceptance of values and attitudes that are essentially alien to the soil."

"Some of the values propagated by the imported films are neither wholesome nor desirable."

"The end result of the diffusion of such values will be the dilution of the integrity of national culture and the ultimate loss of authenticity in what passes as indigenous or native to the people of the country."

Why cinema is special

The report explains why cinema has to be nurtured and protected specially, and what is there in cinema, which makes it special in comparison with TV.

"In the age of TV, cinema acquires greater importance as a vehicle for the imaginative exploration of social and cultural conflicts and for the realistic articulation of experiences and thematic concerns that public broadcast media tend to shut out."

"Unlike television, cinema is universally acknowledged to be an authentic art form which has the capacity to produce works of lasting worth and significance," it says.

"Paucity of achievement should not obscure cinema's true potential in the realm of wholesome entertainment and meaningful art," the report pleads.

By its very nature, TV is more popular than cinema, because it is at home, right there in every sitting room across the island. It is on for many hours of the day, if not 24 hours, 365 days of the year.

To   attract and keep an audience, it has to have popular programmes. Therefore, TV cannot experiment much, nor can it be a stickler for cultural purity and quality.

It is only cinema, which can cater to the artistically discerning and set standards in entertainment and culture.

But this cannot be done without state support.

Peries points out that there is a lot of state control in France to ensure that French cinema and TV project French images and use the French language.

"Every cinema and TV channel in France has to give 65 per cent of its time to French productions or productions using the French language. American films are alright, provided they are dubbed in French," he says.

TV stations in France are expected to make films also. "Licenses are issued to French channels on the condition that they produce some films," Peries says.

Every country in Europe supports its film industry and keeps it going in the face of the American onslaught, he points out.

According to Thomas H Guback, author of The International Film Industry (Indiana University Press, 1969) American films had captured 95 per cent British market and 70 per cent of the French market by 1925.

From this time onwards all Western European governments have been involved directly or indirectly in the destinies of their national film industries.

Germany erected import barriers in 1925, Britain in 1927 and France followed suit.

Legitimising the role of the state, Guback says that the state is responsible for the maintenance and perpetuation of national heritage and culture.

It is the only institution of national heritage and culture. It is the only institution representative of the people and their traditions. 

French aid for small countries  

The French state has not only helped its own artistes, but those of other countries too, Peries points out.

"The South Fund in France promotes films in Asian countries. It has helped make 380 films. Akshraya, the Sri Lankan film made by Asoka Hendagama, was funded by the French government."

"My own film Wekanda Walawa (House by the Lake) was marketed by France's number one television channel," he says.

Ironically, "Wekanda Walawa" was released in Sri Lanka two years after it was produced, and was in the theatres here only for a month!

"The visual industry in Sri Lanka should give up importing things just because they are cheaper.

And the government must say that this issue has nothing to do with money," he submits.

Hindi and Tamil film's onslaught

The Bollywood film was a major threat to the Sri Lankan film industry in the 1960s.

A throttled local industry appealed to the government for help and the Regie Siriwardene committee was set up to look into the matter in 1965.

"Typically, the Hindi film is a high gloss product, rich in tinsel and glitter, proficient in craftsmanship but notoriously void at the core," said the 1985 Presidential Committee.

The report had recommended continuation of the 1977 ban on the import of Hindi films, and suggested that they be allowed to be screened in theatres only after the Sri Lankan film industry had been given a fair chance to get back on its own feet with the support of the state and the film goer.         

But now the National Film Corporation (NFC) has ceased to be the sole importer. In fact, import licenses had been sold to private parties during the regime of President JR Jayewardene in the 1980s itself.

Currently, private importers are having a field day and making hay with the increase in TV channels. Indian films are back with a bang, not in the theatres, but on TV screens.