Arun Welendewa Premathilake

For someone who won the 2018 Gratien award for his bold play ‘The one who loves you so’, Arun Welendewa Premathilake, is surprisingly regular. Apart from the fact that the first few moments of our conversation were interspersed by him blowing kisses to the people in the café he knew, something many Sri Lankan men would be uncomfortable doing. But Arun, who also wrote and directed ‘Paraya’ and ‘Blowhards’ amongst numerous others, says that being able to stage his play and going on to be recognized for it, has given him the freedom to be himself. Unapologetically so.

By Thushanthi Ponweera

Arun strongly believes that universality in theatre or film can be achieved through specificity. “It was why I didn’t downplay the script at all, or make the experiences more generic. In fact, looking back I wish I had made it even more specific. If a gay person across the world with a different background saw this, and could see themselves in it- well that means I’ve accomplished what I wanted to”.

Arun is well versed in philosophy, theories and concepts. He sprinkles them in almost each sentence he spouts. However, his talent lies in translating these into easily understandable and impactful dialogue and relatable human interactions. His characters, although complex, are endearing. As he seems to be. He owes this mostly to his liberal parents.

“I was lucky to have grown up in an environment that encouraged me to constantly question authority and to never take anything for what it is. Even when I ‘came out’ (he proceeds to explain to me why he thinks this is something that heterosexual people are fascinated by, but is in fact a deeply personal experience), my parents never assumed they ‘always knew’ or ‘never knew’. They understood that it’s not about them, or what they did or didn’t do. It was just who I am”. This comfort and self-acceptance definitely shines through his personality.

Armed with a First class BA in Drama and Theatre Arts from the prestigious Goldsmiths University in London, but still constantly striving to learn as much as he can about his chosen field(s), Arun says that you can never know enough. “You need to think you are the dumbest person in the room. It is only then that you become more receptive to knowledge”.

He says all his work is a response to things happening around him that pose a question. “In a way, my plays are how I figure out an answer. If I had to pick a style of theatre and film I’m drawn to, I would say it would be the ones that show you a unique point of view. It’s what I try to do through my work as well- portray my point of view. If you don’t agree or like it, you’re entitled to that. But you’re not entitled to tell me I should have another perspective”.  This isn’t arrogance though. It just means he won’t change how he does something to pander to the audience. Staying authentic is more important than pleasing the viewer.

How does he make progress then, I ask? “Insight and maturity are good teachers. I think back to my past productions and realise how I should maybe have done things differently. But then again, if I was in that place in my life once again, it would probably be the same result”. He also relies heavily on a close network of trusted friends whose creative opinions he trusts. “I get regular feedback from them as I’m writing. I also spend a lot of time before commencing a new project just researching the subject as thoroughly as possible. This results in me being confident about the final product, and less affected by public opinion.”

“Of course, if someone I know is likely to recognize themselves in my plays, I feel it’s courtesy to run the script past them first. You need to take ownership when you intertwine someone else’s story into your own. It’s disingenuous not to”, he says. “You can always find an alternate way to communicate the message if you want to”.

When asked how he gets funding, he says so far, no corporate entities have come forward to fund any of his productions, which doesn’t surprise him. “Sadly, no corporates are this progressive. For them, sponsoring art is about how many people see their brand logo. It’s hardly ever about actually wanting the artistes to succeed, or making way for a statement to be made. Luckily, I have a loyal set of institutions and businesses who support us, not to mention some amazing individuals who do it privately”

In the future, he hopes to walk down the path of film making, which has always been his dream, although he says he takes it step by step. “I just focus on what I’m going to do right after this, and am not fixated on a grand plan. I’d like to see where life takes me”. Currently, he is coordinating location services for a foreign movie being filmed in Sri Lanka through his production company, Scout, while also preparing for the rerun of ‘The one who loves you so’ which is set to go on stage in January 2020 (“Funding is welcome!”). Audiences can look forward to seeing him in the role of actor once again as well, in an upcoming international production.

I ask him if, in a society that loves to label in order to understand, he minds being pigeon-holed as the ‘gay playwright’. “Not at all. I love that I’m seen as a representative of the gay community- it allows me to challenge society’s ideals of what is valued and what isn’t. It gives me the power to say ‘this is my experience, and it is just as valid as yours’”.

Printed copies of Arun’s award-winning play ‘The one who loves you so’ is now available at all leading bookstores in the country.

Appeared in Pulse Magazine, Sep/Oct 2019 issue

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(Featured image courtesy Ruvin de Silva)