The old president has fled, the new one is just as unpopular, and a state of emergency is in place as Sri Lanka weathers the worst economic crisis in its history.
The island nation known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean — where films like “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Tarzan, the Ape Man” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” were shot on location — has been through some extraordinary times in recent weeks.
In the last year, the government’s economic mismanagement has precipitated a foreign currency and agricultural crisis that has led to shortages of medicine, fuel and basic food staples amid a 50% rise in inflation. The country declared bankruptcy earlier this month. While the impact to local film and TV production isn’t high on the priority list amid a looming famine, Sri Lankan industry insiders say it will take years for the creative sector to recover.
“It’s impossible to even fathom a timeline for the country to return to normal — or the survival of the film and TV industry during that time. Economists predict it’ll be at least three to four years before the country can breathe easy. It’s beyond anyone’s comprehension how much of the industry will survive until that moment,” explains Kalpana Ariyawansa, co-director of “Dirty, Yellow, Darkness” (2015).
For the moment, inflation and the depreciation of the Sri Lankan rupee has increased production costs tenfold.
Costs for catering, lodging and equipment rentals have risen massively from pre-pandemic days, and with a dearth of foreign currency, imports have been limited to essential items. Meanwhile, a massive shortage of fuel, cooking gas and prolonged power cuts have also hit the industry hard.
The precarious economic situation prompted mass anti-government protests that ultimately led to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa being toppled last week. He fled to the Maldives and then to Singapore. On Wednesday, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe — whose home was set on fire by protestors just weeks ago — was elected president. Observers say the election of Wickremesinghe, who has served as the country’s prime minister six times already, could lead to more protests as he is considered close to the Rajapaksa family, whom the general public hold squarely responsible for Sri Lanka’s current woes.
The nation isn’t new to crisis as it was ravaged by a civil war from 1983 to 2009. During this period, the film industry declined as people stayed away from cinemas and television viewership rose. There was a recovery of sorts as the war drew to a close, with a new generation of filmmakers earning international acclaim, including Vimukthi Jayasundara, whose “The Forsaken Land” (2005) won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. After the war, film production marginally improved with 30-40 films being produced annually, but with the twin blows of COVID-19 and the economic crisis, this slowed to around 10.
“The industry was merely surviving: just hanging by a thread,” says Jayasundara, who adds that the sector has also suffered from insufficient investment into a digital infrastructure. “The National Film Corporation has a monopoly on the distribution of films. It has not been privatized, like the other sectors of the country.”
The Sri Lankan film industry hasn’t had a national policy since 1956, despite cinema dictating the entertainment market, adds the director. The popularization of television from the 1980s, he argues, has seen the gradual “downfall of the film industry.”
“Although Sri Lanka has an open economy, our cinema is ‘closed’ due to outdated policies and lack of attractions for new investments: Sri Lanka has no special treaty or co-production agreements with any other countries,” adds Jayasundara.
Ariyawansa agrees that Sri Lankan cinema has been on a steady decline for more than 20 years, and with an ever-shrinking theater count, return on investment for big-budgeted movies is a long shot. As a result, mini- and micro-budgeted films with no real production values have mushroomed and are released in their dozens, without making a significant run at the box office.
Concurrently, international films such as Tamil-language titles from neighboring India and Hollywood blockbusters have begun to enjoy better theatrical runs than local releases, despite being released in a limited number of theaters, Ariyawansa adds.
“Though the pandemic put a substantial dent to the industry, it’s fair to say it wasn’t beating expectations before,” says Ariyawansa.
Despite the mordant local industry, high profile international productions have continued to use Sri Lanka as a location. Recent projects include Michael Winterbottom’s “Greed,” Deepa Mehta’s “Funny Boy,” Tiger Aspect/ITV series “The Good Karma Hospital” and Indian drama “800,” a biopic of Sri Lankan cricketer Muthiah Muralidaran. However, it’s unlikely that international productions will return soon and local productions are stalled as well.
Actor Nimmi Harasgama, who is also a writer and producer, starred in both “The Good Karma Hospital” and “Funny Boy,” and won awards for Prasanna Vithanage’s “Flowers in the Sky” and “August Sun.” She’s had no work in Sri Lanka this year.
“A number of productions have either been canceled, come to a standstill, or are waiting to see how the situation develops before making decisions on whether to film here,” Harasgama says. Her projects in Sri Lanka are focused on raising awareness about the current situation. She’s also fundraising for a short film she’s written, while rehearsing a monologue that will be released online.
After the box office success of his last film “Little Miss Puppet,” Ariyawansa was due to start his new film in September, but has now shelved the project. Similarly, Jayasundara was due to begin shooting his Sri Lanka-France co-production “Turtle’s Gaze on Spying Stars” in August but has indefinitely postponed the film. Meanwhile, “Funny Boy” lead Rehan Mudannayake has also struggled with disrupted Sri Lankan projects.
“As an actor, many of the Sri Lankan films I’ve been cast in have been shelved with no start date in sight,” he says. “The remainder of my acting and directing work has been U.K.-based, and has not been affected by the crisis.”
Mudannayake wrote and directed the British-Sri Lankan short film “So Long, Farewell,” which provides a glimpse into the South Asian diaspora experience.
While there was once hope for the industry emerging from the pandemic, the extent of the economic crisis is throwing doubt on a recovery anytime soon.
“We had many discussions with the hope of rebooting the film industry,” says Jayasundara, “but now, under the present circumstances, we find the implementation of those solutions quite problematic as we do not know whether those plans are practically possible anymore.”
An all but absent cinema industry amid the backdrop of political and economic bankruptcy makes it “difficult to use the term ‘normal,’” adds the director, “because we don’t know when things will return back to ‘normal’ anymore. At the moment, our ‘new normal’ is ‘uncertainty’ because at this juncture, no one is sure whether new investments are possible or not.”
While a renewed streaming drive could have once served as an avenue for cinema, even under trying conditions, it’s unclear where the financial support for such ventures will come from. “Who is going to do it? Who’s going to take it? There is no indication,” says Raj Kajendra, who produced the Tamil-language Sri Lankan film “Mann.”
“The understanding is that the current constitution has failed the people,” says Harasgama.
“Once a new constitution is in place, it would be a good time to also reassess the unrealized potential that exists in the film and TV industry,” Harasgama adds. “Tax incentives and tax breaks in line with those provided by other countries would assist filmmakers and production companies when pitching international productions. The film and TV industry is a valuable, viable economic asset that only needs a little assistance in order to take off.”
Mudannayake also suggests funding schemes for fledgling directors, which would be “a definite game changer” for the industry.
“Attracting more international productions, too, is key, but for this to be successful, we have to cut out the red tape,” says the actor-director. “A system of tax rebates, whereby Sri Lanka offers a percentage return on the film being made, regardless of profits, is essential.”
Ariyawansa adds: “History clearly shows that, though humans were never good at prevention, they were always good at adaptation. That’s what keeping me optimistic despite everything that already happened and will happen, because the film and TV industry will also adapt to whatever the future may bring, and find a recovery path.”