Conflicted Minds – Sri Lanka’s War & its Creative Thinkers

'War' by Xhui9
'War' by Xhui9

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.

This piece was written for the Sunday edition of the Times of India and appeared on 1st February 2009.

31 thoughts on “Conflicted Minds – Sri Lanka’s War & its Creative Thinkers

  1. Brilliant thoughts David.
    You are one of the lucky few who have experienced war and is able to share that experience through literature, so God speed your efforts to fill that gap.
    I see the lack of access to the warzone for writers and reporters as a significant hindrence to the expression of such experiences in literature because many writers want to experience war before they could consider themselves worthy in their own concience to write about it with substance, but joining the military just to get a taste of war for their writing is not an option for many writers… but they would willingly brave the dangers to spend time with soldiers in the battlefront and with civilians affected by war to grasp what war really is and write about it. presonally that’s where i am.

  2. Interestingly, the first JVP insurrection in 1971 was the subject for so many books, movies, poems and dramas. Few even in English (Sarachchandra’s ‘Curfew and the Full moon’, Punyakanthi Wijenayake’s ‘The Rebel’). This never happened with the war in North & East. Or it happened but without an impact (You forgot Lester’s ‘war movie’ ‘Ammavarune’ – hardly worth talking about)


    Ours is a closed society. People narrate their firsthand experiences rather than venturing in to new areas – even if that is just across the legendary ‘thal-veta’. Sumitra Rahubadhdha’s ‘Sura Asura’ was an exception. There are also few story stories which usually go unnoticed. (Dayasena Gunasinghe’s ‘Maruvage Horava’ and ‘Yakshayage Rathriya’)

  3. Thanks for the comments, all.

    Citizenlk – I think journalists or anyone else interested in talking about the war need to try harder. The only independent combat footage I’ve seen is on Al Jazeera.

    Ajith – I know the article just scratches the surface. I was strictly held to an 800-word limit by the Times of India, so couldn’t really go deeper or even mention titles. I disagree that there’s no attempt to narrate second-hand — film makers have tried, as I said, though unsuccessfully. FYI, there is some writing coming out of the Tamil diaspora, where the middle classes are involved in the fighting.

  4. @David, Yes, I agree. I have overlooked films. Just remembered the movie ‘Prabhakaran’ – just plain stuff though.

    There was also a great tele-drama losely based on the life of Rajini Thiranagama. Name slips me.

    Needless saying most looked from the angle of the Sinhalese. Including Prasanna Withanage and Ashoka Handagama. Not a single movie seriously depicted the Tamil side of it – either impact or rootcause. On the contrary, the post-1971 works took a sympathetic toward rebels.

  5. Can we look at why Oliver Stone’s movies were so successful?

    Largely because he was saying what the public wanted to hear. The dark side of a war where the opponent was not an enemy of the American public. Stone’s skill at his craft definitely helped the quality of the end result.

    War is not a pleasant experience and all movies on Vietnam War reminds us what a horrible mistake it was. There are a few movies I have seen on the Iraq War and we are likely to see a lot more, all telling us it is a war not worth fighting.

    In SL situation is quite different. Gamini Fonseka’s first work on the ethnic conflict(not the war) was “Sarungale”, which was quite good. “Nomiyena Minissu” did not impress me. In fact I did not even watch the whole movie.

    I believe there will be many movie productions of the “war” if/when it is over. There will not be a big fuss about the moral of the valiant troops. Even though I believe in freedom of expression, any artwork that would demoralise the troops in any way is unlikely to get the nod from the government of the day.

    However, I do not forsee too many new movies representing the Tamil view. Movies are funded by a producer who want’s a return for his investment, and is likely to favour the majority.

  6. The Rajini Thiranagama documentary is called No More Tears, Sister. It might have been influenced by the author living around a lot of Tamils in Toronto, but it’s the product of white Canadian people, not Sri Lankans/the diaspora. Link here:

    You can watch it, for free I believe, at the National Film Board if you’re ever in Toronto.

    There was also Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist, which is based around the Sri Lankan conflict. It deals with the individual experience of a fighter, rather than taking on the larger issues involved (directly, anyway).

    Again, though, made by someone outside of the conflict. Link:

    Anyway, thanks for the article, David.

  7. any updates.. is you are new book ready? i men i have read the last one 100’s of times i have memorized some passages. so plzz write the book. i have started writing my own work. this is the first time so i’m putting up few chapters in my facebook page and hoping for the best.. anyway thanx 4 d brilliant aricle

  8. Captain – I agree with most of what you’ve said. While there’s no doubt of Oliver Stone’s talent, remember he’s talking largely to an audience with no experience of the Vietnam War. Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July weren’t quite so well received by veterans of the war. Nevertheless, his own experiences gave the movies an authenticity that has eluded SL film makers.

    On the other hand, Spielberg had no experience of WW2, but Saving Private Ryan apparently got the thumb’s up from veteran soldiers. The same went for his HBO series Band of Brothers.

    So distance from the event can help negate controversy.

    Asparagus – while the Tamil film makers you’ve mentioned may not have been personally involved, they are at least able to tap the source, unlike their Sinhalese counterparts. So we might see a lot more from that direction.

    Mahesh – I’ve just started working on a second book, so it might take awhile. Glad to hear you enjoyed the first.

  9. @asparagus,

    No more tears was not what I referred to. There was a Sinhala tele-drama some time back.


    I thought there is an 80 mil Tamil population worldwide against 15 mil Sinhalese. 🙂

  10. Ajith,
    80 mil tamil population…..

    Aren’t we discussing about Sri Lanka’s war and “ït’s” creative thinkers? Have a nice day!

  11. Captain, it doesn’t mean that Tamil writers or film makers in SL or the diaspora won’t have a market within the 80 mil worldwide Tamil population. After all, we all watch American war movies.

  12. I would like to put a simple point before David to explain, that is why he has not mentioned Jean Arasanayagam in his article in spite of evident shadow of war hovering over her writing everywhere. Is she not trying to bring about a socio-political transformation in the society even in her nationalist discourse? She is a writer of marginalized conciousness but I feel she has been searching for peace within the ‘so-called’ inevitable war.She has described the sufferings caused of war where everyone is loosing something.What do you think David?

  13. Rajesh – I agree with you about Ms Arasanayagam. As I mentioned earlier, my article was strictly limited to 800 words by the Times of India, and so I couldn’t name individual writers or books. I did point out that it was mostly SL English literature that was dealing with the war, but as English readership in the country is miniscule, its effect on the largely Sinhalese and Tamil population was insignificant.

  14. My point is simple. People make movies in this day and age to make money. Not because they love art. Somebody must come up with the cash and he/she would like to see a return for his/her investment.
    As far as the tamil population is concerned the war is a lost cause. From a movie producers view it’s like trying to make a movie on how we lost the 2007 cricket final, right? So close yet so far…
    Movies like “Schindler’s List” did portray a lot of misery, but that is what the public world over wanted.
    That is why I think there will not be a great influx of movies reprenting the tamil view. There were no Jew’s who could replace Hitler, but Lakshman Kadirgarmar could have been the PM of Sri Lanka.

    Having said that “Cry Freedom”was a great success. It carried a powerful message. If LTTE will/can come up with a similar stratergy remains to be seen.

    For the moment they are sparring with M.I.A and DeLon Jayasinghe. Meanwhile I will continue to enjoy my beers and watch it from a sideline!

  15. Not sure I agree with you, Captain. The Vietnam War was lost by the US, but there was a lot of demand for literature and film on the war, at first by Americans, but also by the world. Similarly, it’s not unlikely that Tamils worldwide would like to have an explanation of what went wrong, whether that is a glamorized Tamil Rambo or a critical Platoon. I don’t think victory or defeat makes a difference, but how people deal with either is important.

  16. David,
    It is not a question of what went wrong, but it did go wrong. As for sensationalism of war, that does not work. If you read the blogs of the diaspora they are talking about the next step after the guns failed to deliver.

    What do you think any tamil film producer will portray? More misery? So that there will be no chance for future recruitment?

    On “Transcurrents” Mr. DBSJ

  17. Captain, I think you’re presuming too much. Not sure what you mean by sensationalism not working. Does Rambo “work”? Does it matter? The point is the film exists. And to presume that the Tamils will not want to read/watch accounts of the war is a bit unrealistic. Once more I’ll point to the Vietnam War. The only thing people agree on was that it was a traumatic time for the US. But people still want to experience it vicariously, or be entertained by it. It’s the same with any war. Are the Arabs and Palestinians uninterested in their recent struggles? I don’t see why the Tamils should be any different.

  18. You did the right thing David.Art/literature is a mirror of life – it shows life as it is, not the way we wish it to be.
    Artificial or tailored reflections are distoted and horrible images.Literature must be impartial without bothering for how the populists take it up.Carry on! Everbody must have a share on what You present.Don’t get prejudiced at anybody’s behest.The sufferers also wish to watch their sufferings, loosers also wish to watch- to know why and how they lost.

  19. Nice article David. I totally agree with you. We need literature which are more nationalist. This is one thing that I was trying to understand for a long time. You are right on the money.

  20. One thing I never figured out: why is there is no Sinhala Rock music (apart from one song by Prasanna Abeysekara in the movie Duhulu Malak)? I don’t mean ethnic Sinhalese musicians playing rock, but musicians singing in Sinhala…

    And what does that absence say?

  21. Please forgive my ignorance. Can you please shed a bit more light on this particular song in “Duhulu Malak”?
    I was an ODC boy in the late seventies. Never thought of setting myself on fire if I missed the “first day first show”.
    Still I prided myself in thinking that I knew everything one needs to know about sinhala cinema in the 70’s to 80’s.
    I missed watching “Bambaru Avith” at a theater but saw it on tv, just once in 1979. I can narrate every frame to this day, including the flaws.
    Those were the glory days of sinhala cinema. When Dharmasena Pathiraja unleashed so many socio-politic-economy tales of that time.
    However, what you are saying is new Dayan, sinhala rock music? Let’s hear it!!!!

  22. hi david, I am writing to you because I think your blog is great. And also is because I am doing an online the exhibition on the place we call home, Sri Lanka. I no longer live there. I am in Montreal. Anyway the show is entitled Sri Lanka pt. 1 its at I want to curate part 2, would you be interested in contributing.

    Sorry would of wrote this in an email but couldnt find it on the site. Good writing and hope to be in touch.

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