Pandukabhaya signifies The founding of the great hela dynasty


We encounter in international arena a myriad cinematic creations based on epics, myths and great legends. In a country with 2500 years history and in which many fear to handle such a daunting task, with his latest creation ABA, Jackson successfully confronts the enormous challenge of dealing with a grand cinematic creation. In this interview, Jackson talks about many aspects of ABA which marks a distinctive high point in his long journey of creative endeavor.

Tell us something by way of introducing ABA

ABA is based on the story of Prince Pandukabhaya. It deals with a series of events that took place about 2400 years ago in the Panduvasadeva palace in the City of Upatissa. Information and data for this story come from archeological sources, folklore and legends. Also there are controversies among the historians about Pandukabhaya on many issues. It is quite reasonable to treat Pandukabhaya as the foundation of the Great Hela Dynasty in the country. Mahavansa mentions of a nation founded by Prince Vijaya, but neither the archeological evidence available to us nor the history of the Ruhuna Dynasty supports that claim. Even our stone inscriptions mention of a royal dynasty founded by Aba. Therefore, there is reason to believe that Pandukabhaya was the first sovereign king of the country.

Vijaya was an Indian immigrant and following his arrival in the country, there was a succession of migrations especially from India. Consequently, there was a time when the political power of the country was in the hands of the Sinha clan that came from India. This land was governed by Sinha clan from Vijaya, to his nephew Panduvasadeva and his son Abhaya. Original inhabitants of this land, the Yakshas, staged revolt after revolt to drive out the alien rulers and regain their rightful legacy. The time of Pandukabhaya’s birth marks a crucial phase in this conflict. I make the conflict between these two parties the focal point in my story. This is not a clash between two ethnic groups—it is a conflict between two clans; two tribes. It is Pandukabhaya who brings the conflict to a successful conclusion. After Pandukabhaya, there were no clashes between Sinha clan, Yakshas, or Nagas. Pandukabhaya was the hero who ended it all.

This creation should be valued not only for its story with its incredibly ornate tapestry; it also gives us a perspective of our rich history. Not only does he finish off the incessant power struggles for the reign among the clans and tribes, Pandukabhaya also builds the City of Anuradhapura as a symbol of political stability. King Mutasiva was Pandukabhaya’s son and Devanampiya Tissa was Mutasiva’s son. Mahinda Thera arrives in Sri Lanka during Devanampiya Tissa’s time and it was during this period that this country experienced an unprecedented cultural resurgence.

In the movie Doramandalawa, the village where ABA grows up, has been constructed with stunning magnificence.

ABA is Unmada Chitra’s son. He was born in the shadow of death. According to Chitra’s horoscope, this child was destined to secure the political power after slaying all his ten uncles—Chithra’s brothers. Fearing that this prophesy would come true, uncles plot to kill both Chithra and her son. It was because of the intervention of Bhadda-kachchayana, Chithra’s mother, this assassination attempt was thwarted. Bhadda-kachchayana was Pandu Sakya’s daughter and was, therefore, a relation of Prince Siddhartha, who later achieved Buddhahood. In order to assure the safety of the child, she secretly dispatched him to the village known as Doramandalawa.

In fact, Doramandalawa was a very prosperous community; one that was self-sufficient in every way. It was not a pre-historic village where people lived in rock caverns. Members of that community produced all they needed for their sustenance. It was a village of glory and I tried to recreate this magnificence with intense vibrancy.

We believe that your movie contains the largest set ever constructed after the Sandesaya (fortress).

It is not only the sets that make this movie a gigantic enterprise. Everything about ABA is gigantic. Past is more gargantuan than the present and, therefore, recreating such a past in visual terms is in itself a gargantuan enterprise. The importance of the background in these visuals cannot be overstressed; not even a blade of grass from today’s environs can creep into a background that existed thousands of years ago. I had to go to great lengths to maintain the integrity of these compelling visuals.

How difficult was it to discover the location for this background?

I spent almost two years on this task. Udeni Subodhi Kumara, the Art Director of this movie, helped me tirelessly during this entire period. We traveled length and breadth of the country looking for the most appropriate spot for this background. We walked day and night in places such as Kudumbigala, Bambaragastenna, Kotadamupola, in the Eastern province but, sadly, couldn’t use any of these locations due to security reasons. Finally I chose locations such as Rajanganaya, Nochchiyagama, and Kala Oya, situated to the south of Anuradhapura. I wanted a location to build a royal palace. Ancient kings went in search of lands of triumph, so to speak, to build their palaces. I also did the same. I wanted a land with a colossal and sprawling rock. Security of the king was a major factor, a key consideration, in ancient palace architecture. I find such a location in Rajanganaya which is an archeologically significant region—one built by King Parakramabahu under southern rule.

For the village, I had in mind a vast area surrounded by the jungle and sheltered and speckled by the canopy of the tree cover. Thus I find the Ittikulama tank. When we found it, the tank had run bone dry. In the midst of the dried out tank was a massive grouping of kumbuk trees. We decided to build the Doramandalawa village on that location and that is where much of the action takes place.

We know that an army of actors, thousands of them, play roles in this movie. Casting for the movie must have been a nightmare experience.

Given the nature of the story we had to find real people to cast in the movie; real sons and daughters of the soil - strong, sun-scorched and conditioned by natural elements - and engaged in agricultural and other productive endeavors. We needed about 570 such people and we traveled for long periods of time looking for them and photographing them. In addition to that, I use almost 2,000 more people as extras.

Recreating costumes, jewelry etc., relating to the 4th century B.C. would not have been easy either?

Vasantha Srinath had already sketched all these things on drawing paper. It was hard labor for him to do it as I envisioned them. I had been on a quest of an epoch and a culture where people were dressed in the glory of the colors of the rainbow. Nilhan Seneviratna is a highly creative dress designer in the country. It is he who traveled across India for weeks on end, searching for costumes, fabrics, jewelry etc., that would do justice to our project, and I highly value his contribution in this regard. The skilled hair stylist by the name of Lalith Dharmawardene did the same in search of wigs to fit a people who had let their hair grow long rather than cut them. All these people used the prototypes developed by Vasantha and sketched on paper. Vasantha Vittachchi, our make-up artist also got all he needed for his trade from India. Even the dances in the movie are contemporaneous to the period they portray. Chandana Wickramasinghe is the creative choreographer who handled this difficult task. His free-flowing style succeeded in finding a synthesis, a fusion, with my thinking and my research in this regard. I must also mention about the fighting in the movie. Our traditional martial art form is known as ‘Angam.’ For this I sought the services of Guru P Karunapala who is an ace in this art form. He is quite acquainted with the elementary form of his trade. Mostly, I used his talent and skills to train Sajitha Anuttara, who is playing the role of Aba, and Saumya who is playing Habara, and also Dulani Anuradha, my new-found, who is playing a main role in the movie. I guided all these players in fighting as well as dancing.

Renowned international directors and also some prominent directors in the local scene, use story boards in planning their work. It is believed that story boarding was used extensively in making ABA as well.

This creation is one with a strict and exact grammar. In the movie, I am exploiting much of the inventive techniques and grammar that have been found so far anywhere in the world in movie making. I chose this arduous course for a good reason; even a slight slip-up would become a massive blooper in a gigantic movie of this nature. I drew all the story boards myself. When I went on the set, it was never my intent to just shoot ‘something’. I always had a definite and precise objective in my mind. Suminda Weerasinghe, my cinematographer, brilliantly came off in capturing on film what I already had ‘filmed’ in my mind.

You used computer technology in making this movie?

That’s right. My editor is Ravindra Guruge. He imported some dedicated computer equipment to do the special effects of this movie. All the 3-D and graphics of ABA is done in Sri Lanka in his TVT lab. This movie is a one hundred percent Sri Lankan creation. We seek Indian support only for printing and sound mixing. From all this I expect to produce a first-rate Sri Lankan movie that will be unqualifiedly acceptable to the international audience. My expectation is to gain access to the international market. This was my objective even before I first sat down at the table to write the first sentence in the script.

Earlier you told me that there were interesting experiences while making this movie.

Yes. The first thing I did was to visit Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura with the script in hand. Together with Mr. Belagamage and Ms. Jayasinghe, my two producers, I dedicated it to the Bodhi. During the dedication process, I requested the monk who performed the ritual to give me a leaf from the bo tree. He said that he would give me one after we had finished the ceremony. But lo and behold, at that very moment, a leaf from the Bodhi falls right in front of us. In any case, I am one who has great reverence for Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi and the Sacred Tooth Relic. I even start my shootings after the chanting of Pirith. Ittikulama tank where we built the Doramandalawa village is notorious for going under water even after a slight rain. We built the set on the dried out tank and started to shoot when the heavens above began to gather ominous dark clouds and threatened to flood the village. I had no alternative but to seek the help of the monk in the village Buddhist temple. He took me straight away to the shrine room of the temple where he chanted Pirith and blessed the project. He also took me to the Vishnu temple and made a plea. It may sound rather bizarre but believe me, when I came out of the temple, all the signs of a deadly downpour that existed before, had disappeared altogether with the sun smiling down again.

This is not all. Torrential rains started coming down on the Ittikulama tank just after we had completed the last scene on the last day on that location. By that time we had loaded all our stuff on to the trucks to move out. In no time the tank went under water. It was so bad that we had to pull the trucks out of water using tractors. If one wants now to see where the Doramandalawa village once existed, it is not there any more. It disappeared completely with the deluge.

Shooting. How long did it take?

73 days, to be exact. Ashok, the technician who worked as the assistant cameraman for the Hindi movie ‘Ashok’ did not believe we could pull it through in such a short period. Ashok came from Prasad Labs in Chennai who hired us the cameras. His estimated that a movie of this magnitude needed at least 110 days to complete. But he congratulated me when I finished the movie in 73 days. Ashok was the person who worked with us as the person responsible for the camera equipment we got down from India and also as assistant to Suminda Weerasinghe, our cinematographer.

I must also remember with utmost gratitude, the contribution made by people who have not been mentioned here; skilled and prominent artistes such as Malini Fonseka, Sabita Perera, and Ravindra Randeniya. These people gave their magnanimous best under very trying circumstances lending their talent, energy, and reputation to make ABA a great Sri Lankan movie. I thank them profusely for this.

Also, I have launched the web site in order to transact with the international. It contains much of the information you wish to know about the movie. This is an attempt to take to the international arena the pride of our history, our nation. Heroes in ABA are not inept and inconsequential ‘heroes’ one customarily meets in the contemporary cinema across the world. These are real full-blooded heroes who laid down their lives to build this nation of ours.

And it is in this context, more than anything else, that ABA qualifies to be a movie of true epic proportions.

Interviewed by Udesha Sanjiva Gamage for Sunday Divaina,
April 06, 2008