Before anyone starts jumping into conclusions just after seeing the title, the fact that this article wants to highlight is how the present influences the reconstructions of the past or in other words, how the presentness embodies in the reconstructions of the past. In this regard, I will analyze the reconstruction of the past in the movie, Aloko Udapadi, which is currently screening in Sri Lankan movie theaters.
There has been a wave of movies on historical events and themes in Sri Lanka which began from the movie titled Aba in 2008. The end of war between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, provided a political space for a number of movies depicted historical themes to attract more people to movie theaters. As it seems, the movie Aloko Udapadi will be the final movie of this historical movie wave in Sri Lanka. With an overwhelming victory by the Sri Lankan state military over LTTE which lost its entire top level leadership as well as its military capabilities, the Rajapaksa government became immensely popular among the Sinhala Buddhist community in the southern part of the country. In this context, the Rajapaksa government used this war victory for its popularity by connecting President Rajapaksa with ancient kings. Especially, he was considered as one of the few rulers from ancient past to present who has been able to bring the whole island under one government. In the nationalist discourse under the Rajapaksa government, the war between the Sri Lankan state and LTTE has been generalized as similar to the war between the great King Dutugamunu, the hero of Sinhala Buddhist nationalist imagination, and King Elara, the Tamil invader from India.
This imagination of connecting the present with the past is clearly visible in these historical movies. However, it is not clear that these movie makers were conscious about this connection. Here, one can argue that most of these movie makers used the political space during the Rajapaksa period for their profit by making a sellable movie and maintaining a good relationship with the government.
Aloko Udapadi, in this regard, can be illustrated as a perfect example for the reconstruction of the past which is influenced by the present political context. As in other historical movies, Aloko Udapadi has two black and white characters. The good character speaks Sinhala (the language of the Sinhala Buddhist) and the bad character speaks Tamil (the language of the invader). This illustrates that the good character represents the natives or in other words, Sinhala Buddhists and the bad character represents invaders or foreigners to the island of Sri Lanka. Interestingly, the bad character speaks Tamil and it gives the meaning that Tamils do not belong to this island. This characterization supports the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist claim of the supremacy of Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka. In the present Sinhala Buddhist nationalistic discourse, Sinhala Buddhists are considered as natives which attributes the present identity of the Sinhala Buddhist to a 2500 years old history. In other words, the present identity of the Sinhala Buddhist is a derivation of the identity of the community which lived 2500 years ago. This discourse strengthens the rejection of LTTE’s claim of a separate state within the boundary of Sri Lanka because since Tamils are outsiders, they do not have a right to self-determination (or no right at all).
These black and white characterizations then lead to black and white events. The constant reminder of violence over innocent civilians by the invader reminds the audience of the war between the Sri Lankan state and LTTE. For instance, the invader has been illustrated in the movie as a person who resorts to violence as a means of acquiring and maintaining power. The invader plunders the wealth of civilians and Buddhist monasteries and massacres innocent unarmed civilians and Buddhist monks. Interestingly, these events resemble the crimes committed by LTTE against the civilians in the South. For example, there were ample examples of sending suicide bombers to public spaces and massacring civilians in border villages in the North and the East. As a result, the military campaign leads by the Sinhala king or the leader of the native people represents a just war. In other words, a better term for the war depicted in the movie is ‘humanitarian war’. This is the label the Rajapaksa government gave to its military campaign against LTTE. According to the Rajapaksa government, the ‘humanitarian’ war against LTTE was to free people from the brutal power of LTTE. The portrait of war as a just war or a humanitarian war has helped the government to receive public support against the allegations of committing war crimes by the state military.
Finally, the King Walagamba, the hero of Aloko Udapadi, resembles President Mahinda Rajapaksa. For instance, some famous statements made by President Rajapaksa have been restated by King Walagamba. Most notable example here is King Walagamba’s constant reminder that he is not the owner but the protector or the guardian of the country. According to historical sources, there has been no such statement that can be attributed to King Walagamba. Instead, it was President Rajapaksa who stated this idea in number of occasions in order to gain public support. Therefore, the film makers of Aloko Udapadi have used President Rajapaksa as the model to recreate the persona of an ancient king. However, it was extremely difficult for filmmakers who were not trained on historiographical methods to understand the influence of contemporaneity on the past, to escape from the political scenario created by Rajapaksa era when making historical movies. As stated above, President Rajapaksa was widely understood among his supporters as a derivation of ancient ruling lineage. One supporter went further by connecting President Rajapaksa lineage to Buddha in a finale of a state sponsored reality television show while President Rajapaksa was in the audience. As a result, depicting ancient rulers who have waged wars against invaders as ‘just rulers’ and at the same time, connecting these rulers with President Rajapaksa who too waged a successful military campaign against LTTE give the idea that under President Rajapaksa, people are ruled by a ‘just king’ as in glorious ancient past.
How can we understand the impact of influencing the present on the past in these historical movies? Many scholars have argued that the nation state building process in South Asia has been an utter failure. The use of history, in this regard, plays a crucial role because, in the nation building process, history has been used as a charter of justification for the superiority of one ethnic group over the rest. In this context, we can use Stuart Hall’s observation on cultural identity in order to understand this issue and find a possible solution.
As Stuart Hall points out, there are two ways of imagining cultural identities (Hall 1989). The first approach which is the most common in the South Asian context is to have ‘a shared identity’. In this regard, the cultural identity reflects “the common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us, as ‘one people’, with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning, beneath the shifting divisions and vicissitudes of our actual history” (Hall 1989: 69). As we have seen in the South Asian context, creating ‘one’ identity has left over other identities. The wave of historical movies in Sri Lanka including Aloko Udapadi illustrates this ‘oneness’ in its organic form. As described earlier, the movie makers have not taken to consideration the intercultural relationship among different religions, languages and ethnic groups in the Sri Lankan past. Instead, these movies have excluded non-Sinhala Buddhist communities as outsiders or foreigners who have been attempting to destroy the Sinhala Buddhist community, the native community of the island, since ancient times.
Contrary to this perspective of cultural identity, Stuart Hall brings out another cultural identity perspective. The second position “recognizes that, as well as the many points of similarity, there are also critical points of deep and significant difference which constitute ‘what we really are’…” (1989:70). After looking at the post-colonial South Asian history, it is evident that this approach of cultural identity which appreciates the extremely complicated cultural identities in South Asia has been neglected by mainstream representations of the past. In order to create historical movies which accommodate identity complexities of the South Asian society, the movie makers should go beyond the present context which envision homogeneous identities and embrace the differences and complexities of the South Asian past.
In conclusion, this article analyses how the present influences the past in the recent wave of historical movies in Sri Lanka. In this regard, the article used Aloko Udapadi which is currently screening in movie theaters and can be considered as the last movie of the historical movie wave which began in late 2000s. As pointed out, these historical movies have been highly influenced by the presentness over the movie’s reconstruction of the past. Following the contemporary nationalist discourse, depicting one identity as the superior or native and the other identities as inferior or foreign has a huge impact on creative national identities in South Asia because it excludes a larger portion of the society from the national identity. Therefore, by using Stuart Hall’s second perspective on cultural identity, South Asian movie makers should embrace the differences and complexities of the past and should be conscious of how their reconstruction of the past can be influenced by the present.
Hall, Stuart. 1989. ‘Cultural Identity and Cinematic Representation’, Framework, 36, viewed 15 March 2017
Samal Vimukthi Hemachandra is currently a Research Officer at Regional Center for Strategic Studies. The views expressed in this post are his own, and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre.