“To me, Sri Lanka’s national story is one with so much hope” – Cairo Smith
By Jennifer Anandanayagam
Sri Lanka is portrayed as many things in works of art – movies, songs, poems, and prose – but it’s relatively challenging to find creations or creators who want to depict our island through the binoculars of hope.
So when Cairo Smith told me that his current project – a film titled ‘The Heart of Sri Katava’ – was a story about unity, independence, optimism, and building one’s own identity, it’s safe to say I was intrigued.
The Heart of Sri Katava follows the life of protagonist Victor Jayasinghe, a fifteen year old boy living in Colombo with his mother and sisters. The teenager is obsessed with making an action-adventure film. “Think along the lines of Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn,” shared Smith. The year is 1936. Together with his friends, Jayasinghe “borrows” a 16mm camera from his civil service position and goes out into the wilderness to film his movie. When they get there, they realise that the ancient Sri Lankan myths and creatures they’re writing about are coming to life around them.
The Heart of Sri Katava made it to the list of 11 finalists that the South Asian talent incubator, 1497 selected out of 382 submissions for its inaugural Writers Lab.
We caught up with Smith to find out more.
Tell me about The Heart of Sri Katava.
In the film, Victor Jayasinghe, works as a film archive assistant in the civil service, but dreams of writing and directing Sri Lanka’s first feature length action-adventure film. He’s joined on this journey by his friend James Dissanayake, a scrappy longshoreman, who brings on two dancers from the local fine arts secondary school, Lilavati Nandasiri and Ernest Pathiraja, as Princess Sita and Prince Rama. On their journey, they are joined by firebrand Youth Leagues activist Sunthari Arunachalam, as well as runaway colonial teenager Clara Saintclair. In the mythical jungles, the six battle against the demonic army of King Ravana, while also evading the crooked colonial forces of British administrator Lord Scarborough as they attempt to finish their movie in time for the 1936 Commonwealth Film Festival.
There’s also a lot of personal drama, coming-of-age, first loves and corrupt colonial officials and those sorts of things to deal with. It’s a very fun story, very joyful, and I really tried to blend a classic adventure tale with a mythology and lore which would be totally fresh to most viewers worldwide.
Why is Sri Lanka the setting in your feature film?
I’m Sri Lankan on my mother’s side. My mother’s maiden name is Wijesinghe. I was born in Berkeley, California and spent my early childhood there in a house with my mother and grandfather. My grandfather — Henry Wijesinghe — died when I was young, and I never got to know him the way I wish I could have. When I started writing this film, I was inspired by his stories of life growing up in 1930s Colombo as a young man. The more my research grew, the closer I felt to him. I interviewed family members and read hundreds of pages of history about ancient and medieval pre-colonial Sri Lanka.
To me, Sri Lanka’s national story is one with so much hope and potential. I wrote this film to connect with that feeling of hope, to better understand Sri Lanka’s mythology and history, and to share both of those with the world on a broader scale.
Tell me about yourself.
I grew up split between a lot of different worlds. My mother has both Sinhalese and Middle Eastern ancestry, while my father is of English heritage with deep American roots — so I had a lot of different identities at play in my childhood. My father is an actor, and my mother is a writer and costume designer, so I lived in a very artistically engaged household growing up. I’m grateful to both of them for showing me that a career in the arts is possible and ‘normal.’ I think for a lot of people it’s something that feels intimidating or distant. Even when my parents divorced, I still had a lot of exposure to the creative arts through both of them, even if it was very different from each. With my mother, it was more Moby Dick and Jane Eyre, and with my father it was more Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. They do both love Shakespeare, though.
I currently live in Los Angeles, in a sweltering bowl of heat and movie studios called the San Fernando Valley. I recently graduated from the Screenwriting BA programme at California State University Northridge, a fine school with a strong film programme. I currently work as an executive assistant in entertainment marketing, while also pursuing my writing and directing career.
You shared that your research process for the film made you feel closer to your grandfather. Care to elaborate?
There is a sense of life that you can get from personal accounts which could never come across in historical records. As much as I learned about the completion dates of various railways or roads from official documents, I could never have built as much of a full understanding of childhood as a young boy in 1930s Colombo without my family’s stories. Interviewing my mother last year, she told me a story about how my grandfather had to walk a few miles down a fairly rural road in order to get to school. This road was alleged to have panthers nearby, and my grandfather would frequently return home in the late morning — claiming he could not make it to school as a panther was stalking the path. Pretty quickly, his mother realised this was nonsense, and inevitably the day came when Henry really did see a panther stalking the path — and knew, of course, that his mother would never believe him. So, I’m pretty sure he just moved as quickly as he could and walked to school regardless.
Looking back at that story, I realise I’m probably not the only one in my family who had a resistance to school. I think about that kid, with so much time and freedom and opportunity ahead of him, and I wish so much that I could meet him and share an afternoon. So, that feels like closeness, to me. I understand his ambition and his optimism, and I feel it in myself as well.
I find it interesting that the narrative you are choosing to tell of Sri Lanka has the themes of unity, hope and potential, somewhat of a rarity with people of Sri Lankan roots living in distant shores.
I made a particular effort to read and watch Sri Lankan media created by locals to the island when I was developing this project. I’m acutely aware that, writing about Sri Lanka from afar, my work will inevitably have an outsider’s perspective of the country — even if it is a loving one. Because of that, I did not want to create a ‘copy of a copy’ by deriving my influence from works written by other foreigners, be they British visitors or people of Sri Lankan heritage living abroad.
Living in the United States and having a background in journalism, I’m incredibly aware of the ugly bias news organisations have toward publishing horrific or unpleasant stories. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is the sorry motto of a lot of fear-based media organisations, and when it comes to a country like Sri Lanka, it’s easy for the day-to-day life of a nation to slip away, with only the tragedies and conflict receiving press attention.
When I spent time in Finland, a country which is much more successful and developed than the United States by many standards, I became even more aware of that effect. My Finnish friends were very aware of all the terrible news and tragedies coming out of the United States, which of course were real, but their perspective was negatively-warped by the fact that so much of the good news is lost or swept away. Knowing that, and seeing all the good in America despite its flaws, I would never want to fall into the trap of depicting another nation in that way.
Why is the feeling of hope important to you?
I think the world needs a lot of hope right now. I think we always need hope, which is why you see stories of hope as those which have eternal resonance across generations of audiences, but I think during moments of acute global pain, it’s especially important to remember the broader scale of human goodness and human achievement. When you write a story that you truly connect with, you end up living in its world. My last writing project before Sri Katava was an extremely dark, cynical political allegory. I’m very proud of that story, but living in its world had an almost physically draining effect on my spirit. With Sri Katava, I wanted to do the opposite, and remind myself and others of the potential in the world as seen through the eyes of its characters.
You wrote the story to better understand Sri Lanka’s mythology and history. What have you better understood?
It’s fair to say that I had almost no understanding of the scope or nature of Sri Lankan history before I started my research. Across centuries, Sri Lanka has been much of an arena for technological arms races, feats of engineering, court intrigue, and pitched warfare as anywhere in Europe or Japan. I think of Kashyapa, builder of Sigiriya citadel in the late 5th century, who retreated to his fortress after being condemned for entombing his own father alive in the walls of a reservoir. I think of the alliance between the VOC and Kandyan forces in their assault on the Portuguese, and the fact that Kandy remained independent for hundreds of years in the face of coastal colonization.
In reading about the mythology, I was fascinated by the blurred line between folklore, history, myth, and religion. The way Indian mainland texts like the Ramayana are adapted or interpreted, and the way they can take on more secular or dogmatic roles through Buddhist and Hindu lenses, is unlike anything I’d encountered in previous study. There is also a tremendous amount of Sinhalese and Vedda folklore surrounding mythical creatures and demons, such as the Riri Yakka, which is not extensively cataloged in the English-language internet. The fact that these creatures have not been explored on screen in Western cinema provides a wonderful opportunity, especially when audiences are so tired of Western mythological creatures such as vampires and winged horses.
What would you say is the future of the film-industry, in the backdrop of the pandemic and otherwise?
I don’t believe the pandemic will have a significant long-term effect on the entertainment industry. In the short term, you will see more animated content debut in the next few years, as well as more content shot in places like Eastern Europe with looser disease restrictions.
In general, I believe the future of the film industry depends on whether the average price of a ‘view’ of a film can be kept high. We saw what happened in music when streaming replaced CD sales. There is a crisis in the music industry, and not nearly as much money as there used to be. Luckily, I don’t think cinema will suffer the same fate. I think ‘event’ films such as the Marvel movies will consistently draw people into theatres, even at high ticket prices. Currently, those event movies are funded and designed with Chinese audiences in mind. If a cultural or economic firewall is erected between China and the US over the next few decades, I think the calculus that goes into the way those films are made will dramatically shift, even if the core model doesn’t.
I also think that movie studios will use the profits from those movies to fund smaller, more prestigious films in order to raise their brand profile and win awards. Even if mid-budget prestige films fail to win back their budgets, they still fulfill a consumer need and raise the profile of the studio that produced them.
What is your message to the world during these difficult times?
I would say to remember that this will pass, and remember the hardships that were faced by previous generations with great success. Challenges like this serve as reminders that humanity can collectively overcome even severe obstacles. These challenges also find a way of revealing people’s true nature, such as that of incompetent politicians. I think such a forcing of candour can in the end be a gift.
What does the future hold for Cairo?
My goals are to continue writing and directing original feature films across a broad range of genres and subject matter. The thing that impresses me the most about auteur filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick is their ability to direct films in any style, and yet still leave a fingerprint on the work that is entirely their own. Beyond that, I’m looking to gain experience as a staff writer on US television series, and to continue to write novels, comics, and other independent projects for publication.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yes! One of the things I’ve learned over my years of scrappy independent filmmaking is how much can be done with even a small amount of money and trust. At this point in my career, I only have so much to give, but I’m committed to providing that kind of support to young filmmakers of the future. Over the past year, I’ve been looking to establish an annual cash grant to be awarded to one or multiple Sri Lankan independent film projects — especially those at a high school or university level. If you or anyone you know is involved in such circles and interested in helping to set up such a venture, please encourage them to contact me.