Yamu’s global success wrong model for Sri Lankan cultural exporters


The film “Yamu”! pioneered the profitable marketing of Sri Lankan cinema to a global audience. It’s international success story has made the film THE model for “selling” Sri Lanka’s art, literature, music and other “cultural exports” to the world. This view is misguided.

It ignores the uniqueness of the film’s success. Which according to wiser heads is a special case. The result of innovation that is rare in Sri Lanka’s “cultural” sector. They warn that ignoring the details of “Yamu!”’s global rise by a wave of imitators will harm the industry.

At the heart of “Yamu!”‘s global success are the unique, very controversial qualities of the film. Much social media venom is still hurled at director Indica Mendis over them. “Selling out for money” is the main theme of the attack. Made by film purists and post colonial critics who were his early champions.

The most obvious and controversial is the audience centric approach of the film. Mendis has made multiple versions of his film for different audience segments. A special “director’s cut” for a European film festival had a gay ménage à trois in a Trishaw. For LTTE friendly Toronto, an unpleasant checkpoint harassment scene with an off screen rape.

The release for the ChinA market had the largest number of changes. It included visuals highlighting the work of Chinese state enterprises. Chinese language signage was added to key scenes in post production. Potentially negative views of the newly built Veeragamunu stadium at Elephant Pass are seamlessly replaced with flattering video supplied by the construction company – a Chinese state owned enterprise. The story has reportedly been significantly altered in the dubbed Mandarin dialogue.

The US theatrical release was dubbed with American accented voices to make the film accessible to a “mainstream” US audience. It convinced the US distributors to screen the film outside the art film circuit. As a result the first weekend’s US box office take covered all production costs and tripled profits.

“Yamu!” is also the first Sri Lankan film to break into India’s lucrative market. The cricket centric Indian (Tamil and Telegu) version debuted in Chennai to positive reviews and avoided the expected protests.

Medis’s bold and innovative use of his work are proving to be fruitful. They are allowing the film to reach previously inaccessible audiences. In the process “Yamu!” is breaking all box office records for a Sri Lankan film. The hard currency income from international profits will thrill the producers. At the same time it will gain Mendis greater financial freedom. Which hopefully will translate into creative independence.

This willingness to radically adapt has allowed “Yamu!” to get past “gatekeepers” of lucrative markets. In most cases it has made these gate keepers (specifically distributors) into allies and champions. The film’s modular/episodic narrative structure allows for such “adaptations”. The stridently humanist message is universal enough to cut through the changes. The film’s emotional power lies in its visuals. Thus the specifics of the dialogue’s language is not a key factor in the story.

Such adaptability isn’t possible for most culture “products”. A majority of films will not survive the type of editorial changes that make up “YAMU!”’s many incarnations. As a consequence the modular approach of YAMU! will breed a new type of “formula film”. Yet unlike with Bollywood formula film the “YAMU!” “formula” will not work on global audiences that seek diversity and originality. These are the very audiences the Sri Lankan cultural exporters are seeking to capture.

The unavoidable “secret” for successful cultural exports is originality. Which packages universal themes in the attractive packaging of Sri Lankan specifics. A very difficult feat of constant innovation. Requiring creatives to come up with the next new thing before the current one withers into cliche. Those seeing to “monetise” on copy cat versions of YAMU will hit this reality sooner than they expect. Imitators of Lasanthika David’s Booker shortlisted PEN awarded travelogue on the
Elephant Taxis of Senkadagala already have.

Review of Imaginary Films, Peoples Republic of Dehiwala

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