Friday, September 5, 2014

Ravindra Randeniya: No Room for a Narrow Corner

“Actors are actors – neither men nor women.” Orson Welles, that rebel of Hollywood, spoke those words once upon a time. I do not doubt them. The greatest tribute to be paid to actors is, perhaps, that they are never limited, never parochial, never completely here or there – at least, once upon a time. The better actor, like the better filmmaker or painter, never strays in one field only. It is true that, occasionally, we’ve had that unfortunate artist who, by virtue of his own strengths, was forced into a narrow corner.

But narrow corners are never for the versatile and eclectic. Ravindra Randeniya is both these things. A narrow corner could never have been for him. To have been so would be to fit a square peg in a round whole. Conversing with him on a leisurely Thursday morning, I am left with a deep sense of awe and admiration, not just for him, but for his profession too. I hope that I may have made at least a passing attempt to be faithful to what he shared with me in what I write of him. I pray that it be so. Here goes.

We begin in 1945. That was when Randeniya was born, in Dalugama, Kelaniya. Randeniya’s father, a self-made businessman, put him in the church-run St. Francis School nearby. Two years later, he went to St. Benedict’s College, a school which he regards with the deepest, but most rational, nostalgia. It was there, he tells me, that his interest in the arts was established.

This was in the 1950s, a most turbulent decade in our country. Flings at the unconventional – in the cinema, the theatre, and music – would be attempted by various artistes, and Randeniya, caught in this era, found himself addicted to literature. “At a time when everyone indulged in pulp fiction, I was reading Martin Wickremasinghe, Tolstoi, Chekhov and Gorky with immense pleasure. I remember being teased about it,” the avid reader tells me, half-smiling. Surely, with his enthusiasm over the arts and letters at this stage (one of his contributions to the college magazine won him a Best Short Story award), there would have been at least a passing interest in his profession to come, right?

Wrong. “I was never interested in acting,” he tells me. Acting to him was, in college, limited to one major performance – in a fifth standard production of Sigiri Kashyapa, in which he was Kashyapa. His main interest, he insists, was in literature, not in the performing arts. Even today, he cannot quite explain what drove him to his career. “It’s unfathomable,” he half-jokingly observes. Not that he detested it, but, at a time when infinite pleasures were to be had from Gorki’s and Wickremasinghe’s writings, acting simply would not have been in his scheme of things.

The “unfathomable” began to unravel itself in 1969. That was when Randeniya joined the Lionel Wendt Theatre Workshop. Dhamma Jagoda, enfant-terrible of the acting trade, who was seeking to move it from the stylized form it had grown accustomed to, had inaugurated it. Randeniya remembers his years at Wendt in almost a reverie. For him, all he could learn about acting, and indeed about the arts, was taught there. “Jagoda had gone to America on a scholarship, and had learnt all he could about the acting fads current there at the time.” Bursting with new ideas, Jagoda had returned with an almost feverish intent to preach his gospel.

A gospel yet to reach Randeniya, who, however, did not concern himself with acting initially. “I went for the screenwriting, directing and stage décor lessons at Lionel Wendt.” Through some quirk of fate, however, he was destined otherwise. “Somehow or the other, I found myself in the acting class.” A class that was to open to him the textbook which would prove essential in the years to come.

Then came his first role, as the younger brother in Gunasena Galappaththy’s Muhudu Putthu. His first film role, in Kalu Diya Dahara, came in 1970. Lester James Peries came to him with Desa Nisa one year later. But the real turning point was to come with Siripala saha Ranmenika, in 1977. Here, more than with any of the films preceding it, he was compelled to absorb his experiences at Lionel Wendt. “I had once acted as Samson, the Sinhalized version of Stanley Kowalski, in Ves Muhunu, an adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. I feel that this character’s near-bestial savageness was transplanted into my performance in the film. It was a landmark for me.” From then on, it was a mere climb up the hill.

Randeniya’s acting career, looking back in retrospect, is not easy to sum up. There have been wildly diverging roles from one film to the next. None of them fits into a round whole, so to speak. But one thing brings them together – the intense dedication he put into them all. In part, Randeniya tells me, he owes this to all those “Wendt years” he spent, for another reason. “After classes would be over at nine in the night, we would ‘rub shoulders’ with our country’s cultural elite. We reveled in it.” No doubt this mingling inculcated in him a reverence for his profession, and a deeply-rooted devotion to it.

It is from this point that one can assess his performances, all of which, at least in the serious films, demanded enormous reserves of dedication. Jagoda championed the Method, a style of acting which called for just such dedication. And Randeniya, the chela to Jagoda’s guru, has nothing but praise for it. Think of Daniel Day-Lewis’ notorious “selectivity” when it comes to his roles, and you can imagine just how well Randeniya pushed himself to his performances. “I can never understand all this talk about ‘alienating’ oneself from one’s acting,” he tells me. For him, the highest potential an actor can reach is in his ability to blend in with his role – but not, he tells me, to the point of “complete immersion.” In striking a balance between the need to be oneself and one’s role, Randeniya seems to have struck a chord.

In any case, one is left with the thought that no other actor could have played his characters with as much painstaking intensity. Think of Maya (1984), where he invests his depiction of an unwitting but desperate murderer with solidity; of Janelaya (1987), where for a full 40-odd minutes he is a mute murderer intent on silencing the only witness to his crime; and of Siri Medura (1989), where he is a cripple unable to move or talk. No other actor could have played them, and for good reason too. They all demanded a shying away from melodrama and sensationalism, two fatally easy traits to have attributed to them.

If one couples them with his most shocking role, that of the “most hateful villain in our cinema” (his own words) in Vasantha Obeysekera’s Dadayama (1984), one can guess how much inbred dedication needed to be there even with the minutest emotion, sensitivity and gesture in them all. Viewers tend to consider them trifles, the easiest things in the world. The truth is, and I have his own reminiscences to support it, that the hardest job for an actor is to play out without words or speech.

Think of Chaplin the silent Tramp, bumping his way with the deepest subtleties from one street-corner to another; and of Chaplin the witty murderer in Monsieur Verdoux, making up for his lack of movement with metaphysical abstractions. Randeniya’s intensely felt dedication is to be seen in the former, not the latter. This explains his admiration for Marlon Brando. It need not be added that Brando once played Stanley Kowalski, a role Randeniya had once adapted successfully to a Sinhala setting.

It has been more than 40 years since Randeniya’s schooling under Dhamma Jagoda began, and a lot has happened since. The acting profession is certainly a noble one. It may have languished a little in today’s culture of specialisation. But for Randeniya, there can be “no regrets,” looking back at his career. Indeed. A sentiment shared by all his peers, no doubt: his partners in a trade that, in its heyday, left no room for a narrow corner.