"I wasn't able to make a feature film until 25 years after my first projects"
Lalith Rathnayake is a well-established Sri Lankan director and writer of TV programming. He has been awarded with a Diploma in TV Production form the National Youth Service Council of Sri Lanka, in his training as a creative director, and also completed a Diploma in Writership and Mass Communication Writing at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. Lalith’s whole range of work reflects South Asian cultural values that have been shaped by Buddhist philosophy. His intention is to going against the grain, uncovering deeper meanings in human life, and depicting them to his viewership through his creative eye.
Lalith's debut feature film, The Other Half, won Best Picture at Festigious in July 2019. The lead judge, Shaw Jones, described it as "a powerful film which shines a light on environmental injustice while simultaneously celebrating the human connection and our power to overcome adversity. The cinematography is superb, and Rahnayake weaves this stirring story with stunning direction; I was blown away by the beautiful performances of the stellar cast."
We invited Lalith to join us for an interview. Here's his fascinating story.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get into storytelling and what were some of your first projects? When I was young, I loved to listen to stories so my father used to always tell me bedtime stories. He told me so many stories that eventually he ran out of stories to tell. Soon, he started to make up stories to tell me. My father was a great storyteller. I knew the stories were made-up, but he told them with great enthusiasm. Because of that, I listened to them as if they were real. After some time, like my father, I started telling made-up stories to my friends. They listened to them with rapt attention as if they were real. This is how my storytelling began. A well-established Sri-Lankan writer and director like yourself must have encountered many difficulties throughout your journey. Or... was the road pretty smooth for you so far? My thinking pattern is a little bit different. It took a long time for film producers to understand that difference. A lot of people didn't understand my first work which I made for television. Those days, I was disheartened and thought that I would never be a successful filmmaker. However, many years later, some of those who watched and remembered that production congratulated me, praising it as a great work. After that, I wanted to do more work in film. So I wrote again, but no one came forward to produce it. I saved money from my salary for many years and with the help of my friends, I made a short film. I received an award for that work. After that, people recognized me. Although I came into the film industry because of a personal passion, I wasn't able to make a feature film until 25 years later.
Which films and/or filmmakers influenced your style? It has been about twenty years since this storyline came to my mind. Those days, I didn't have a good understanding of international cinema, and we didn't have the opportunity to watch internationally renowned films. However, I enjoyed watching commercial films made in Sri Lanka. The first time I enjoyed the beauty of art-house films was at a film festival which showed the Indian film "Piravi" directed by Shaji N. Karun. Then, I had the occasional opportunity to watch the works of Indian filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Adoor Gopalakrishnan at film festivals. I think those films influenced me a lot when I made my own movies. Your work reflects South Asian traditional values, that have been shaped by the Buddhist philosophy. Is this intentional, or simply part of who you are? Can you expand about that, and also talk about your involvement with Shraddha Media Network, the non-profit Buddhist television channel? In my work, I have always stayed close to home, making films related to my surroundings. So my work has never included themes alien to me. I write about things known to me: the trees, the environment, the people living there, and their feelings. I am closer to the feelings of the people who live in the Buddhist cultural sphere since I am a part of that environment. It was the adviser of the Shraddha Buddhist Media Network, Ven. Aludeniye Subodhi Thero, who invited me to direct this film. Prior to this, I was not associated with Shraddha; we came together because of this film.
The Other Half delivers a very strong emotional message while also dealing with environmental and social issues. Why did you decide to tell this specific story? This story was formed in my mind based on my experience during my school days. Compared to other children, I was quite poor at mathematics, but the boy who was good at math was esteemed in the community. The children who were less-bright in math were categorically ignored. They didn't consider our other skills. In the educational system at that time, there was no motivation for us to write a drama or a poem, instead, we were afraid and tortured in the dark depths of the math classroom. Even today, in this obsolete, teacher-centered educational system, there is no escape in sight for our country. I didn't try to speak too deeply, but I wanted the audience to feel the suffering I experienced during those days. That's why I chose this theme. Do you, like the character of Ruwansiri in the movie, also find solace in music? Truly, I am Ruwansiri.
The cinematography is really breath-taking. How did you prepare for the shoot, along with the cinematographer? I was well-prepared. Before shooting, I lived in the scenes for a few weeks. At the outset, even during the writing phase, I thought about the best way to capture the scenes on camera. I am quite interested in how the scenes appear on film. My cinematographer also understands me really well. He knows me as well as my wife! His understanding of my mindset helped me a lot and contributed to the success of the film. When we see the final version of the film, it's fantastic! We're sure it was quite difficult to reach this level of perfection. Can you share what were some of the challenges you encountered while filming and how did you overcome them? We had to produce this film on a tight budget. Therefore, we didn't have the chance to experiment during filming. With very good planning, we did only what was necessary. Within the allocated budget, I used the best equipment and technology—suited to the story, that was available in Sri Lanka to produce this film. I made the best out of the opportunity to get the best result. Tell us about your collaboration with producer Ven. Aludeniye Subodhi Thera. How did you first meet each other, and what was it like to work together? It became evident to me when making this movie that to make a good product, both director and producer are important: this is an important saying in the film industry. I believe that the producer must also have a knack for appreciating the art of film. There are some materialistic producers whose main aim is to earn money through filmmaking. There are other producers, however, who love the art of film. The latter kind of producers are very supportive when making films. In this way, Ven. Aludeniye Subodhi Thera didn't trouble me in any way. He was one of the key factors behind the film's success.
The performances are phenomenal, especially Kaushalya Fernando (who won Best Supporting Actress) and Pansilu Wickramarathna (who won Best Young Actor). How did you approach casting for the film, and how did you work with the actors to achieve your vision? The character is a widowed mother in a rural village. I tried to find the right woman to act in the role of such a character. Finally, I was able to find her: Kaushalya Fernando. Her knowledge and experience made things convenient for us to achieve our goal. This is the first time Pansilu has appeared on camera. I went through seventy-six sets of twin boys before selecting Pansilu and his brother. What was important for me was their appearance, not their acting skills. Ultimately, I chose Pansilu and Pankaja. What was your biggest take away from the experience of creating The Other Half? If I can impress upon the audience a sense of the sublime, using my unique style and the subtle human emotions I feel, then I think I have succeeded. That motivates me to create further works. You must be incredibly busy, being an in-demand tv director. What does a typical day in your routine look like? I don't have a fixed schedule. Usually, I stay up past midnight reading a book or watching a movie. I'm not even busy! I like to be free and tranquil.
What is next for the film, and what is next for you? Are you working on new projects? Right now, I am anxious to see "The Other Half" screened in Sri Lanka. It is important for my future to know how the Sri Lankan audience receives this film. These days, I am gathering material for the script of another movie. Is there anyone you wish to thank and/or something you'd like to say? I wish any recognition and respect for the film go to Ven. Aludeniye Subodhi Thera for producing my first movie. I consider it a blessing not just for me but also for our small island to receive the Festigious Best Picture Award. Moreover, I would like to thank the judges and organizers of the Festigious Film Festival. Where can our readers check out more of your work? Before this, even though works I did for television have been published on YouTube by the producers, they are not properly organized. You can watch the tv drama named "Taththa" (Father), which I made recently, on YouTube, but it doesn't have English subtitles.