Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Some gaps can never be filled

Gamini Fonseka died 10 years ago. I remember tributes flowing in plenty. A show or two on television. A radio program. Colleagues, personal friends, those who knew him offhandedly but still well enough to warrant comment, eulogised him. They went to great lengths to summarise the man in words and verse. They did his memory proud. Gamini Fonseka left us that day in September leaving behind a void in our cultural firmament unfilled or un-fillable by anyone else. There were those who claimed and vouched for him a “giant”, “icon” status. Inimitable by anyone else. Right they were. Right all the way.

As for me, I grew up with the cinema. In general, though, my first love in a film was for the actors in it. There was a time, back in my naive days, when I thought the director dispensable. Erroneous though this view was, it left me room to adulate and dote on the “stars”. One by one, they would come, alighting on the screen and frequenting the films I watched, so much so that I simply couldn’t fail to take note of their trademark, individual characteristics.

There was Joe Abeywickrema, for instance, with his unparalleled ability at teetering between pathos and seriousness in a medium that had seen lesser comedians take to the fatally easy path of overacting. Then there was Henry Jayasena, attributing to his performances a degree of charm and quiet dignity which, considering the low-key nuanced breadth of his film roles, seemed erroneously incongruent with his more high-powered, intense theatrical life.

And then, perhaps rising above anyone else, there was Gamini Fonseka. The man had grit. A lot. At a time when acting, in the West that is, was being stripped of all its theatrical accretions, at a time when there was an increase of acting schools emphasising heavily on natural acting, he stood out from the rest of the crowd here by deciding to topple the stage-based style our actors had grown accustomed to.

I have read somewhere that Dilip Kumar (still among us) popularised this fad in Asia. National icons are not made through imitation of this fad or the other. Dilip Kumar knew this. He wisely, then, went to synthesise what he had learnt with what his land of birth, India, demanded of him in the films he took part in.

Fonseka was no different. I remember watching those films which had him when I was little. The list, of course, would be endless in a way and quite unnecessary to include in its entirety here. I had my favourite performance, of course. Without a doubt, it was that of Willie Abeynayake, that brooding, impassive, but scheming aristocrat who marries Malini Fonseka’s character to offer her as a sacrifice in Dr. Lester James Peries’ Nidhanaya.

I have been told, a long time back, that the amount of dedication he put into getting his performance right showed on-set and off-set in that remarkable film. No-one who has seen Nidhanaya – who has seen Willie’s epileptic fit, the hypnotic spasms he invokes within himself while praying to the gods before sacrificing his wife, to name just two scenes – can deny that what the man was reputed for in his profession, he could put in with a film which demanded potential and nothing less. Sinhala cinema didn’t produce any more Nidhanayas. That’s sad, not just for the director, but for the actor too.

I know I can’t go beyond this in my little tribute. Gamini Fonseka really was a “sakvithi” (emperor) in our cinema. Across the Atlantic, a new breed of actors and filmmakers was coming up. The age of the Western, of cowboys and gangsters, and the celluloid world of good-vs.-evil where good triumphed, were soon to be over. Out went the Golden Age of Hollywood. In came the freewheeling world of Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino. Fonseka had triumphed at a time when acting had come to a twilight world – when every trace of the epic, the larger-than-life, and the pretentious was being spurned and shrugged off.

At this point, he had arrived. Aptly. No other time could have been riper.

Perhaps, however, I should stop here. I am not qualified to continue and indeed wouldn’t want anyone to think otherwise. Where should I end, though? The sad truth, as we all know it, is that Gamini Fonseka left a void. He had his political life, as susceptible to praise and blame as had been his acting. Ideologically, though, he was committed. Very much. Both Sagarayak Meda and Nomiyena Minisun bear testament to that. Perhaps those two films, more than anything else, showed him at his best, representing a fusion of everything he had cherished and stood for.

Fonseka as actor, as director, as political man, and, in the final analysis, as man himself. That’s a lot of places to fill. He has his legacy. We continue it. And it remains, even after 10 years, a chasm and an empty shell waiting, indeed shrieking, to be filled. It cannot, of this I’m sure. Maybe that’s the biggest tribute we can all pay him. After all, some gaps just can never be filled.