Burma’s Father of Political Cinema
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Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Burma’s Father of Political Cinema



Businessman, filmmaker, patriot—“Parrot” U Sonny made a profound mark on Burma’s early film industry

In Burma’s modern history, there have been many artists who have taken great risks to tackle such challenging themes as nationalism, religion and social injustice. Some confronted the authorities of the day to produce works of art that reflected their political views, while others faced financial ruin to remain true to their convictions.

Among the many artistic risk-takers who have had a major impact on Burmese culture, one name stands out from all the rest: the acclaimed filmmaker U Sunny, whose company, Parrot Film Productions, was a pioneer in the field of politically inspired cinema, producing 92 films from 1931 to 1957.

“Parrot” U Sunny, as he was generally known, was an unlikely proponent of art for politics’ sake. In the 1920s, he managed a taxi company owned by an Englishman named Major Parrot, who later retired and sold the business to him for half of what it was worth. The company was extremely successful for a number of years, but began to run into financial trouble as the economy worsened in the 1930s. It was then that U Sunny, after seeing a crowd of filmgoers pouring out of a packed cinema, struck upon the idea of making movies as a way of riding out the Great Depression.

Film production in the early days of Burmese cinema.

In the early days of the Burmese film industry, didactic themes were often the most popular. The first Burmese feature film, for instance, was a 1920 silent movie titled “Myitta Nit Thuyar” (“Love and Liquor”), about a man whose life was ruined by alcohol. The first film by Parrot Film Productions was in a similar vein: titled “36 Kaung” (“36 Animals”), it dealt with the social scourge of gambling.

But from the beginning, U Sunny’s movies were more than just cinematic morality tales. His first film earned the ire of the censors for exposing the role of police corruption in perpetuating illegal gambling activities. Like many later Parrot films, “36 Kaung” was banned for its unflattering portrayal of British colonial rule.

In some ways, U Sunny’s decision to thumb his nose at the colonial authorities could be seen as shrewd marketing. Burma’s film industry emerged at a time of intense nationalist fervor, and as an entrepreneur, he would have been well aware of the tastes of his target audience. But for his colleagues and contemporaries, there was never any doubt that U Sunny was motivated more by patriotism than the pursuit of profit.

As director and film critic Dagon U Ba Tin noted in his book on the early days of Burmese cinema, “Kyundaw ne Myanmar Yokeshin Lawka” (“The World of Burmese Film and I”), U Sunny saw movies first and foremost as weapons of mass communication:

“He guessed that there were around one million Burmese people who read newspapers everyday in the early 1930s, and he believed that there would be about three million who went to the movies. So he established Parrot Film Productions in the belief that film would be an even more effective weapon against the government than newspapers.”

After the underground success of his first movie, U Sunny went on to produce a series of even more provocative titles, including “Doh Doung Lan” (“Our Peacock Flag”), a call to arms aimed at raising political awareness, and “Alantaung” (“Flag Hill”), a tribute to the martyrs of the 1930 peasant revolt led by the monk Saya San.

Concerning the latter film, which won immense critical and public acclaim, he spoke movingly of his desire to honor those who had fallen in the fight against injustice:

“Many good men lost their lives in that uprising, hanged by the brutal government, whereas making this movie cost us only the price of film—a small price to pay to keep their memory, and their dream of independence, alive.”

Sometimes, even U Sunny’s closest colleagues were amazed at how daring his movies could be. Hantharwaddy U Ba Yin, a scriptwriter for Parrot Film Productions, recalled that “U Sunny had no fear of the authorities. Sometimes I was shocked by his defiant attitude.”

Parrot Film Productions’ best-remembered titles were those from the period of the struggle for independence.

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