Aba, the first mega Sinhala movie is to be released shortly. It will surely be another turning point in Sri Lankan movie history.
I congratulate director Jackson Anthony for this bold step – a less experienced might not have taken such a huge risk. This is an even bigger risk than what was taken by Lester James Pieris in creating Rekhava in 1956, moving out of the mold of popular Indian cinema of the day.
With Aba, Sri Lankan cinema will enter another dimension. So far local Sinhala/Tamil movies aimed only the limited Sri Lankan market. Thus even the most popular ones had an audience of less than one million. The blockbusters made money from the repeated audience. Aba will break those boundaries. A high quality movie that aims both local and international audience, Aba is sure to define new standards for Sinhala movies.
This is not a review of Aba. It will come once I see it. This is to pose a different question.
Aba is often promoted as a ‘historical’ movie. Is that correct? How accurate the story of Pandukabhaya as we read it in Mahavamsa – now translated to cinematic form?
There is no doubt that Mahavamsa was primarily a work of literature – not history. If it were done in 5th century AD by Mahanama Thero, Maurya Prince Dhatusena’s guardian and mentor (= what Kautilya was to Chandra Gupta Maurya), he obviously had a political agenda. The country was under the threat of Chola invaders. So the Bhikkus, often treated to be guardians of the Sinhalese nation, thought it was necessary to boost the morale of their warriors. So Mahavamsa chronicler brought non-existents to life, generously absorbed material from elsewhere with no attempts to verify them, and of course exaggerated beyond imagination. Cannot blame him. He never called his work ‘history’ and he sincerely admitted doing some of the above (including exaggerations).
Prof. G. C. Mendis finds it difficult to differentiate the early sections of Mahavamsa from popular legends. This part, which includes the story of Pandukabhaya, is full of mythical characters. Written after nearly thousand years after they claimed to have happened, the accuracy of that chain of events are highly questionable.
There is a new school of history that seriously questions the validity of Pandukabhaya story. What vamsa katha says, they point out, is full of loop holes. Did Pandukabhaya rule for 70 years? (The average of a person of the time was 30-40 years) His father Diga Gamini was said to have come from a nearby kingdom. But where was this kingdom, which has never been referred before or after that in any literature? Did Pandukabhaya actually build the Anuradhapura city as he said to have? (Excavations done by Dr. Shiran Deraniyagala reveals the city of Anuradhapura goes back to pre-historic times so apparently could not have been built by him, even if he existed)
Common belief is Bhikku Mahanama (or whoever the Mahavamsa chronicler) had a strong political reason to link Buddha Parinirvana to the advent of Vijaya (for claiming ‘Buddhist’ heritage of the land). This needed a bit of ‘touching’.
Take King Devanampiya Tissa for example. According to Mahavamsa he had nine brothers – some of them ruling after him. These are the assumed periods they ruled:
Devanampiya Tissa (307 – 267 BC) – 40 years
Uttiya (267 – 257 BC) – 10 years
Maha Siva (257 – 247 BC) – 10 years
Suratissa (247 – 237 BC) 10 years
Interim period by ‘Tamil’ (=Damila) traders Sena and Guttika for 22 years
Asela (215 – 205 BC) 10 years
So if we assume Asela to be 10 years when his elder brother Devanampiya Tissa assumed throne, he was 112 years old when ultimately defeated by Elara. Is this possible? Mind you, this was the king who ultimately defeated Sena and Guttika. Could a hundred year old king do such a feat? (Also note that every brother ruled for the round ten years, which is mathematically not too probable)
This is only one ambiguity of Mahavamsa. The most probable reason is the times have been artificially expanded so that Vijaya could land in Lanka, on the same moment of Buddha Parinirvana.
The story of Pandukabhaya is another question mark. It can more be a popular legend than real history. Unfortunately there is no other evidence of this period (like rock inscriptions) either to confirm or deny the chronicles. This is far ahead the times of proper scripts. All we have is literature done at least 1,000 years later. Given the tradition of keeping records by heart, transformed from generation to generation, how much of that is accurate? Nobody knows.
There is nothing wrong doing movies based on legends or partial history. Biblical stories were the basis for many movies including the famous ‘The Ten Commandments’ by Cecil B. De Mille, where Moses parts the Red Sea. (In the pre-digital age this was treated as one of the best camera tricks) Does that make you believe it really happened?
Jackson Anthony’s Aba too should be taken with the same spirit. It should be reviewed for its artistic value and not for historical facts. Trying to claim it history is an injustice both to the movie and history.
(Images from www.aba.lk)