Friday, October 10, 2014

A Conversation with Tony Ranasinghe

Like a meteor do the name and fame of Tony Ranasinghe arise in the annals of our film history. An actor with a vast career behind his years, he is also a thespian, Shakespeare translator, and scriptwriter. At a time when dance-driven, music-ridden stage plays and films ruled the day, Ranasinghe was part of a movement that sought to free both from the artifice to which they had grown accustomed. 

Conversing with him during the leisurely hours of a Monday morning, it felt as though I were reliving his past, as he recounted it to me, frame by frame. At the end of his reminiscences, not only am I convinced that he is among our artistic world’s biggest anchors, but also among its most eclectic and widely read. Hours turn to minutes, minutes to seconds, as we go back in time. The task of a painter is made all the more difficult by the image he seeks to depict. The same goes for the task of a “pen-painter”, who seeks to draw up an intimate portrait of the man he is interviewing. I can only hope that what I pen down here shall not be considered irrelevant.

His memories begin in 1937, when he was born. Raised in Modara, Ranasinghe studied there as well. His education, which lasted only until the G.C.E. Ordinary Level, was done partly at De La Salle College, partly at St. Anne’s College, Wattala. It was a time when, after the terrors of a World War and the chaos of independence, people were beginning their search for a solid cultural identity of their own. The moorings of their cultural backdrop, in film and on stage, largely were with song-and-dance driven melodrama, and a folk-tradition in the theatre was up-and-coming. It was in this atmosphere that Ranasinghe began working at the Government Electrical Department, which he joined in 1957. That was the year in which Lester James Peries had gone to Cannes, with his debut feature, Rekava, sending ripples across our cultural firmament. For Ranasinghe, no time could have been riper for his career to come.

His acting career commenced in 1962. He became part of a stage group that was seeking an even more austere, realistic form of drama for Sri Lanka. Led by Sugathapala de Silva, the group, “Apé Kattiya”, produced down-to-earth, kitchen-sink realistic plays, which were largely dialogue-driven. Boarding Karayo was Ranasinghe’s debut. Then came 1964. Lester James Peries was making Gamperaliya. Three roles were to be filled by three actors from “Apé Kattiya”. Ranasinghe played one of them, the village lad Baladasa, whose character is more extensively depicted in Martin Wickramasinghe’s novel, but which was, as with the other two, pruned down for its screen adaptation. All three actors – G. W. Surendra, Wickrema Bogoda, and himself – would go onto commendable film careers of their own in the years to come.

From then on, it was a climb up the summit for all three, and for Ranasinghe it would be the biggest climb of them all. With Lester James Peries alone, he made several films within the next decade or so. “As an actor, I did not seek to dedicate my abilities solely to serious, un-commercial films,” he says. But in his share of such serious movies, the roles he played would all, at this stage, centre on contemplative, inward-looking characters. This was true of Delovak Athara (1966), which launched him to immediate fame, so much so that one Indian critic had this to write of his performance in it: “[it] makes one shudder in retrospect at our local breed of tear-shedding, song-singing, namby-pamby leading love boys”. No doubt about it, Ranasinghe had carved a niche for himself. His fragile-looking, inverted personality distinguished him from the defiant rebelliousness typified by Gamini Fonseka.

Having worked with different directors with different temperaments, Tony Ranasinghe describes Peries as a filmmaker who was “always very particular in what he wanted of the actor, and never authoritarian”, and Sumitra Peries as “giving more leeway to the individual actor”. Having worked as both actor and scriptwriter (his first screenplay, for 1986’s Koti Valigaya, was acclaimed), he is also no dogmatist. On the future of our acting industry, he warns against the alarming tendency towards improvisation, a technique that he feels should be used only very rarely.

He is also not against a commercial film climate either, although he would like to see a robust one, wholly different from what the present here offers. “We need a solid infrastructure of good commercial films,” he tells me very seriously. What he counts above all for an actor, it would seem, is his fidelity to life and to himself. “I was once offered the leading role in a remake of a Tamil film,” he says, “and was asked by the director to act like Sivaji Ganesan, then the heartthrob of South Indian cinema. Very politely, I told him that I could not act anyone other than myself, least of all Ganesan. Well, two other actors were then taken to replace me and my co-star, and the film, when released later, became a flop”. An act of faith, it seems, which vindicated his belief that the truest model an actor can find is in himself.

Also top among his priorities is his suspicion over fads in acting. Not that he is an arch-conservative when it comes to acting technique. But he is equally not all too embracive of current trends either. This explains his attitude to Marlon Brando, hailed today as having brought a remarkable level of realism to the acting profession in his day, criticised by Ranasinghe because of his inability to play “anyone beyond himself” at a certain stage in his career. Looking at Brando’s performances in retrospect, this view seems quite justifiable. Brando was a purveyor of “The Method”, an acting style which required its members to immerse themselves fully in the roles they were playing. Daniel Day-Lewis, who has won three Best Actor Oscars, is the most faithful exponent of this method in our time.

What Ranasinghe warns against is not the Method per se, but against being drawn to its superficialities without grasping its roots (which is the fault, he remarks, of many young actors today). This explains his admiration for Shakespearean actors of yore – Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, and Kenneth Branagh. “Olivier made Henry V back in 1944, while Branagh filmed it again in 1989. Both were top-notch,” he says. These were actors able to take on a wide-encompassing array of roles, without being limited to one in particular. Indeed, a deeply rooted distaste for typecasting with an admiration for actors who were wide in their range of performances seems to make up Ranasinghe’s outlook on acting.

This is not to say that he is against actors being associated with one particular image – something, incidentally, which can be said of several of his performances as well – but it is equally true that he is not a fan of extreme typecasting, where the actor is pushed into a certain, narrow image he has built for himself. It is significant that the American actors he quotes as being those he cherished the most in his day – Gregory Peck, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart – were, while having built a lasting image of themselves in their own peculiar way, never pegged to one particular type of role. I think this can equally and validly be said of Ranasinghe’s career too.

Perhaps this is what the acting profession is in need today. I know one thing for sure, however – Tony Ranasinghe is among that rarest breed of actors, who are wide-minded enough to appreciate all and degrade none. He bloomed at a time when professionals were not limited to their domains, when an actor could philosophise and poetise and contemplate on every possible thing without the least bit of snobbery or pretension. I know this, because I have talked with one from among this rare breed.

Perhaps, at a time when specialisation has become the order of the day, the lack of this breed is inevitable. It is this fact of it being inevitable that makes everything all the more saddening. Tony Ranasinghe is one of the last vestiges of a passing order, which may have prevailed, had our minds, instead of being allured by current fads, been set on it. This is what was not inevitable, and it is the fact of it not being inevitable that makes everything all the more depressing.