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Taking the arts seriously

It was reported that at the meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers held on 15 November, the Cabinet had granted approval to a joint proposal submitted by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in his capacity as the Buddhasasana, Religious, and Cultural Affairs Minister, and Industries Minister Wimal Weerawansa, to register the cinema field as an industry, as the first step in promoting and gaining international recognition for Sri Lankan cinema.

This proposal comes in a context where the industry remains crippled, both due to the Covid-19 pandemic and prior to that, the neglect of it by successive governments, despite its potential to become an industry that can bring in massive revenue and despite having produced several internationally acclaimed films over the past two or three decades. While the decision to recognise cinema as an industry has been taken, as it has not been gazetted, it will have no legal validity, and therefore it is hoped that the legislative process will follow this decision in a timely manner.

In Sri Lanka, the arts field, including painting, music, the theatre, and of course the cinema, has long been an afterthought for the general public, who are usually coping with financial and social problems on a daily basis and have little time for any refined artistic entertainment. This has also resulted in politicians considering the arts only as a source of entertainment and relaxation, without providing it any policy-level attention or formulating long-term plans for its development. Of these fields it is music that is in the most financially secure position thanks to social media platforms like YouTube and the increasing availability of smartphones. However, that too is unfortunately operating below its potential for a myriad of reasons. The magnitude of this potential was recently shown by a cover song done by Yohani de Silva, which went viral in an unprecedented manner, paving the way for Sri Lankan music to become an internationally recognised industry as well as opportunities of huge monetary and professional value.

However, compared to music, financially supporting the cinema is a far more expensive and time-consuming process which increases the risk of losses. The time and effort needed to produce a film also deters potential filmmakers who may not be willing to risk so much with little guarantee of favourable returns. This is precisely why efforts to revive the cinema should not be delayed or be in the planning phase for years like other projects; for the arts industry to become a major revenue generator in a couple of years, we have to start now.

South Korea – a country known for its arts industry through songs such as Gangnam Style by Psy, music groups such as Bangtan Boys (BTS), movies such as Parasite, and television series such as the recently wildly popular Squid Game – is one country that has proven that proper guidance and investment in the artistic industry can contribute immensely to the national economy. One of the remarkable steps that have helped develop the Korean arts industry to produce the said record-breaking work is the establishment of a Cultural Industry Policy in the 1990s, which involved, among other things, investing in music, movies, teledramas, and literature. In 2019, the export of South Korean cultural products, including Korean pop (K-pop) and movies, generated an export revenue of $ 12.3 billion.

Closer to home, a report published by the Indian Music Industry (IMI), the body that represents the recorded music industry of that country, identified that the Indian music industry is losing approximately Indian Rs. 20-30 billion annually owing to policy gaps and outdated rules and regulations, and said that that country’s music industry would be able to compete with the European music industry in a decade, with the right policy-level support. This complaint comes despite India being one of the artistic centres of the world being home to the largest film industry in the world, referred to as Bollywood, where nearly all films include a soundtrack, most of which become hit songs.

In the case of Sri Lanka, while miniscule compared to India, the same problems are present, among other problems. The authorities need to reach out to upcoming and individual artists, more than those at the higher levels of this industry’s hierarchy, in order to ensure that talented persons receive assistance directly, and to prevent some of the menaces that have plagued the industry such as nepotism, bribery, and the exploitation of labour, from hindering this process. The authorities also need to get rid of the mindset that all revenue gained by rising artists should be government revenue. The authorities should formulate policies to exempt them from or lessen taxes that may be applicable to income generated through the internet, such as online advertisement-generated income.

There is also a need for attitudinal change, to bring about policy changes and in this regard, one method to take into consideration is to focus more on the arts, through decisions such as making cinema an industry, to ensure the general public and most importantly, investors, consider it a serious business instead of simply a form of ancillary entertainment. The legitimacy provided by the Government’s attention would encourage artists to think bigger and investors to support them in their artistic endeavours knowing that there is opportunity for a reasonable return on investment. However, the Government’s attention must be on the right things like maintaining the quality of productions and regulating the industry for greater professionalism, and not on unnecessary censorship and using the industry as a propaganda vehicle.

Therefore, while the decision to recognise cinema as an industry is most welcome, the decision needs to be implemented at the earliest, and the above-mentioned follow-up measures must follow soon after, to ensure the cinema field does not die a natural death. It has lost enough time, and can’t afford to lose much more.