Pusswedilla is the closest thing to a politically agnostic satire that I’ve seen. For this Gehan Gunatilleke calls it a Trojan Horse, not sufficiently rebellious enough and ‘damaging [to] our political culture’. I’d venture that not rebelling to Gehan’s satisfaction is not the point. I say agnostic because I think Puss, as a piece of theatre, manages to send up all sides and yet leave all sides laughing. If you’re getting worked up then the joke might be on you.
I saw Pusswedilla a few days ago and it is, above all things, entertainment. It is closer to Andare than harsh political satire that actively tries to shame and blame. Pusswedilla is the modern court jester for Sri Lanka. Telling the truth, but in such a way that you can laugh at it and, if you feel like it, ignore the obvious conclusion. Honestly, people in power ignore obvious conclusions all the time so this isn’t something you can blame on Puss. You can be thankful that it at least lets you laugh in the meantime. If you want to thin there’s plenty of information in there, but if you don’t want to think they’re not beating you over the head with it. I think that’s OK.
Gehan says that Puss is bad satire, but, well, what is satire? Satire can be expose social evils in a harsh way or it can gently expose social folly. I know this only from reading Wikipedia just now, but that would be Juvenalian and Horatian satire, respectively. I think Pusswedilla falls squarely in the camp of Horatian satire, it ‘playfully criticizes some social vice through gentle, mild, and light-hearted humour’. It may not be the type of satire Gehan likes or wants, but it is satire. Of that type, I’d say it’s pretty good.
The fact is that Pusswedilla is the only time I’ve heard anyone talk about the sheer number of suspects that die in police custody as something wrong. In the mainstream news they simply publish that X suspect drowned in handcuffs without question. Pusswedilla (the character) doesn’t care about it, but he acknowledges it as reality, which is a novelty in Sri Lankan media. The audience is also able to collectively acknowledge how messed up and absurd this is, which I think is something.
The play also quite publicly criticizes of all the wasted airports, ports etc. You could say that laughing at these subjects trivializes or helps people accept them, but you could also be missing the point. Whether people accept this waste or not is their business and I don’t think it’s the playwright’s job to compel them to believe one thing or another. Feroze Kamardeen simply encourages you to think about it.
What’s perhaps more important is that he encourages us to think about it together, in public. Nobody else can really get both sides of our divided polity in the same room, let alone reality. The nature of Pusswedilla is that people who vote for and against the President (still roughly 50/50) can both watch it and enjoy themselves. Which is quite a feat. It also manages to insert and balance commercial interests (it’s full of embedded advertisements, which are actually really good) and sell out seat after seat.
Is it censored or self-censored? Yes. It goes through the censor board (why do we have this?) and there are countless pressures on it from every direction. Through it all I think Feroze Kamardeen (the playwright) manages to strike an amazing balance. It is damn hard to organize a play, it is near impossible to make it profitable, and throwing politics in there is like adding gunpowder to a souffle. He pulls it off and, on a purely technical level, props to that.
On a social level, if this play isn’t compelling people to think what you think, then the jokes on you. Literally, sanctimonious English-speaking elites are one group Puss sends up, along with Israelis, Americans, Ministers, the Opposition, etc. As I said, this is the closest I’ve seen to political agnostic commentary, it doesn’t believe in anything except entertainment. This isn’t a donor-funded play where someone in Europe is like ‘talk about human rights”, it’s a commercial and, by now, market-driven product. It’s not trying to prove a point, and it doesn’t have an agenda. Puss is quite honestly agnostic about all that crap and it tries above all to be funny, to be profitable and to sell seats. It’s connected to people, not preaching to them, and in that way it ends up being an honest reflection of what Sri Lankan politics is. A ridiculous mess with no clear good guys and a lot of losers.
If you don’t like what you see then you’re missing the point. The point is that Pusswedilla is connecting with a mass audience in a way that a scolding, scalding satire couldn’t. What people chose to do with that information is actually up to them. Which is how it should be.