Lankan film stars shy away from poll campaign
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Lankan film stars shy away from poll campaign

Violence is a major deterrent to the denizens of Colombo's tinsel world, writes PK Balachanddran.

india Updated: Mar 30, 2004 14:28 IST

In sharp contrast to India, where Bollywood stars are merrily jumping on to the bandwagons of one political party or the other, in Sri Lanka, film stars are shying away from election campaigns.

Violence in elections seems to be a major deterrent to the denizens of Colombo's tinsel world. Elections in India are a colourful tamasha and Bollywood's glamour girls and sex symbols fit into the format easily and add gloss to it. But elections in Sri Lanka are a dour and serious business. And the possibility of violence is ever present. No wonder then, that cine stars here are reluctant to exchange grease paint for war paint.

But politics has not been totally alien to the island's cine world. Some very popular stars have risen to great heights in politics, such as President Chandrika Kumaratunga's husband, the late Vijaya Kumaratunga. Vijaya was a very popular singing star in the 1970s. But he was also the founder-leader of the (now defunct) Sri Lanka Mahajana Paksha (SLMP). He was assassinated by his political rivals in the late eighties.

Vijaya's younger brother, Jeewan Kumaratunga, a B Grade movie star to this day, is also a politician. He was a minister in the government of Mrs Kumaratunga and is now a candidate from Moratuwa. Thespian, Gamini Fonseka, is non-political but he was, till some years ago, Governor of the North Eastern Province.

Today, celluloid heroes like Ravindra Randeniya and Sanath Goonetileke move in the top echelons of the country's political structure. Randeniya is the Election Spokesman of the United National Party (UNP) and a former MP. Sanath Goonethileke has been the media manager for President Chandrika Kumaratunga for long and was said to be a member of her kitchen cabinet.

But most cine artistes are wary of politics, though the Sri Lankan film industry is greatly in need of political and governmental support. In the current election campaign, film stars are conspicuous by their absence.

President Kumaratunga did try to rope them into the campaign of her United Peoples' Freedom Alliance (UPFA).But the tea party she threw for them was of no avail. She even got some flak from the press for it. "Artists should not muddy their hands with dirty politics," was the line.

Only Sangeetha Weeraratne got involved and that too very marginally. She put in an appearance at the inauguration of Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse's website. Rajapakse was apparently "safe" to be identified with, as he is known as a mild and "decent" politician in a world of "thugs".

Not a world of glamour

For one thing, Sri Lankan stars are not glamour dolls or sex symbols unlike their Bollywood counterparts.There are no Shahrukh Khans and Kareena Kapoors here, who can give gloss to a political platform. Lankan stars are more like the Smita Patils and the Naseeruddin Shahs of India. Sri Lankan cinema is essentially art cinema, much like the ones in West Bengal and Kerala. The public in the island go crazy over Bollywood icons and not their own stars. Political parties, therefore, have no great need to take them.

But stars are media personalities all the same. They have an all-island reach and are known in every home, especially because they are featured in teledramas which are on the air night after night. Some of the younger stars are glamorous too. And in a tight political situation like the one prevailing now, when the elections could result in a hung parliament,

political parties have had to look for additional fire power. And stars have been in some demand.

Fear of violence

But the stars are inhibited by the fear of violence, which looms large in every election in Sri Lanka. Elections and violence go together in the minds of Sri Lankans, though this fear is exaggerated. To an Indian, Sri Lankan elections are certainly less violent than elections in Bihar, parts of Eastern UP or Andhra Pradesh.

But there is a greater use of firearms in Sri Lanka than in India. This gives violence here a distinct and dangerous dimension. Sri Lankan political thugs favour the T-56 assault rifle, dispensed by deserters from the Security Forces. And they shoot to kill. The gun culture owes its existence to the 20 year civil war and two Maoist insurrections.

One thought that the current election was the most peaceful in recent times, but late last week, a former Tamil minister, T Maheswaran and a Tamil candidate, Shankaran, were shot at in Colombo, both in public view. In Batticalao, the Government Agent (like the Indian district Collector) was shot at and grievously wounded.

House burnt down

Some artistes have had personal experiences of political violence. The ancestral house of actress Anoja Weerasinghe, who had won the Golden Peacock for Best Actress at the New Delhi International Film Festival in 1987, was burnt down.

"In 2000, I had campaigned for just three or four days for the opposition United National Party. And for this, my ancestral house in Monaragala was burnt down by a gang of thugs sent by the ruling Peoples' Alliance. With the house went a priceless collection of photographs and clippings relating to my 22-year career. The beginnings of a cinematic and theatrical museum also went up in smoke." Anoja told Hindustan Times.

Fortunately she herself was not there in the house at that time. "Had I not listened to my daughter and gone away to Lucknow in India, anything could have happened to me," she said. Anoja was a student of Hindustani classical music at the famous Bhatkhande School of Music in Lucknow.

After her house was burnt down, there were threats to her anti-war stage play "Trojan Women".The theme had incurred the wrath of the Peoples' Alliance government which was then engaged in a seemingly endless "War for Peace".

Anoja was not the only one to be attacked by political hoodlums. The singing pair, Rukantha Goonethileka and Chandralekha Perera, who were performing on UNP election platforms were attacked in their Mettegoda residence by ten thugs wielding T-56s. The thugs seized Rukantha and forcibly shaved his head. " I was so scared that I urinated in my sarong," he told the press later.

Other artistes who were injured in attacks in that period were Mercy Edirisinghe, Chandi Rasika, Kapila Sigera and Sureni Senarath. Despite the bad experiences in 2000, Anoja worked for the UNP in the December 2001 parliamentary elections. "I felt that Ranil Wickremesinghe would be able to end the violence and that he would care for art and artistes," she explained.

But Anoja was disappointed. "I got no compensation for the damages I suffered," she said. " Perhaps mine was a small matter and government had many other important things to attend to," she reasoned helpfully.

Anoja said that she was not looking for government posts, which were indeed offered. She wanted government support for the struggling Sri Lankan film industry, and its artistes." I was not interested in becoming the head of a corporation or something like that. I wanted government to foster art and support artistes in this country," she explained.

When this was not forthcoming, Anoja decided not to campaign for any party in the current elections.

Fear psychosis

Apart from actual incidents of violence, there is also a deliberately created fear psychosis in regard to elections in Sri Lanka. Foreign-funded NGOs, the media and the political parties, all start talking about violence the moment an election announced. With funds provided by the West, the NGOs start collecting data on "violent incidents" and give them wide publicity through the media on a daily basis. A closer look at the list of incidents will show that many of them are small time offences, like scuffles between party activists, which will be ignored in any other South Asian country.

Political parties compete with each other in sending complaints to the NGO monitors, often needlessly swelling the numbers.

Though the current parliamentary elections have been quite peaceful, the NGOs monitoring violence have kept dishing out frightening data on "violent" incidents. This gives the impression that Sri Lankan elections are particularly violent, forcing a lot of peace loving people to keep away from active campaigning. Not surprisingly, sensitive folk like film stars and artistes are among these.

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First Published: Mar 29, 2004 09:39 IST