When a war ends, it is a time for rebuilding, and a time for reflection, both for the victorious and the defeated. A time to take stock of what has been won and lost in terms of economy, life, opportunity, and even culture. The effect of the 25-year war on the psyche of the population is obviously noticeable; a general aversion towards long-term plans, a breakdown of respect for law and order, and lately, refuge in a newfound nationalism.
Is this also apparent among Sri Lanka’s creative thinkers — the writers, film makers, and artists? Wars often spark a surge in creativity, a catharsis that often invades popular culture and occasionally reaches an audience untouched by the original war and its passions. The films, books, and music that retold the Vietnam War created emotions for a global generation that hadn’t even been born in the ’60s. Sri Lankan culture certainly hasn’t a comparable reach, but what is interesting is that such an influence is hardly noticeable even within the country.
There have only been two mainstream Sinhalese “war” films on the subject — both directed by, and starring, the late Gamini Fonseka. Both depicted a popularized (if naive) view of the war, and were extremely successful locally. The nineties saw some Sinhalese movies dealing with the war; art house productions that received mixed reactions from Sri Lankan audiences. Some, by directors such as Prasanna Vithanage and Cannes Film Festival winner Vimukthi Jayasundara, have been banned for content that was seen as either culturally objectionable, critical of the armed forces, or just generally unpatriotic.
Sri Lanka has no English film industry, and the tiny Tamil one has steered clear of the war. Sinhalese teledramas or “soaps” are extremely popular in Sri Lanka, but again the themes chosen have been ‘safe’.
Sinhalese writing also hardly touches on the war as a literary subject, and the majority of Sri Lankans would be hard pressed to come up with the title of a novel that dealt with the conflict.
The country has a vibrant if tiny circle of English writers and readers and perhaps unsurprisingly, it is here that literature on the war is most visible. These writers have taken varying stands on the war, but the fact that English has such a small middle-class audience in the country is probably the reason why there has been so much tolerance of their views — most of the country hasn’t heard them.
In general, the war has had little or no effect on the core of Sri Lanka’s literature and arts. As in most countries, literature and the arts remain in the hands of the elite and a rapidly shrinking urban middle class. However, unlike in World War Two and Vietnam, Sri Lanka’s middle class isn’t going to war. There is no Hemmingway or Oliver Stone, with their own traumatic wartime experiences. And the soldiers aren’t writing or making movies. The literati, then, suffer from a dearth of war experience.
And this gap between Sri Lanka’s creative thinkers and their audience shows. The only real accessible creative form to engage the war — film — has met heavy opposition from the country’s rural masses and the government that represents them. Sri Lanka’s educated writers and film directors don’t reflect the viewpoint of their audience when talking about the war. Perhaps this does not matter. So while there’s a marked lack of influence by the war on literature and the arts, it doesn’t mean that the creative thinkers of Sri Lanka are not influenced. They are, but they have so far been unable to express this influenced thinking to the wider population.
Perhaps, the war’s most visible effect on Sri Lankan literature and art is the opposition to literature itself. A Sinhalese population that saw itself increasingly besieged by an uncaring world appears to have found solace in a resurgent nationalism that brooks no dissent. There is no real nationalist literature in modern Sri Lanka either, the way it exists in India or the United States, and therefore if most anti-nationalist feeling is represented through literature, there will be a natural instinct to reject literature and create a new culture embedded in the nationalist ethos.
The war in Sri Lanka has frozen many things, and even suppressed them — industry, education, development, and creativity. It will take many years to be able to really gauge the effects of war on the country’s creative thinkers. Perhaps as the war winds down, these thinkers will be able to find a voice that will express their views, and that those voices will be allowed to speak. For Sri Lanka, this war isn’t over, and in our collective psyche, it will be fought long after the last shot is fired.