Monday, November 10, 2014

A Tribute to Mercy Edirisinghe

Mercy Edirisinghe was among our most beloved cultural icons. Like Joe Abeywickrama, comedy was her forte. She passed away earlier this year. We still miss her. We still long for her. This is a piece I wrote on her. As a eulogy.

To most of us, I suppose, the name “Mercy Edirisinghe” immediately conjures up an image of a caustic and “posh” lady figure: the role she was most famous for playing. Many of us who lived through the advent of television in this country will know her as the voice of Bianca Castafiore, that irrepressibly talkative soprano, in the Rupavahini-dubbed version of Herge’s Tintin. Still many others will know her as that whimsical lady from Lucien Bulathsinhala’s Tharavo Igilethi – a little on that later.

And of course there were her roles – too many to number here – in various radio plays and sitcoms that sprang up and won our hearts in the pre-television era. It is a pity that such reverence as was due to these memories was not paid to the actual woman behind them all, who died earlier this week from a prolonged illness at age 68. Generations grew up with her: generations more will grow without her. From those of us who grew up hearing that unique drawl of hers, one part of our cultural subconscious has been cruelly taken away. I am sure that those who will grow up without hearing her voice will feel the same.

Edirisinghe was born on December 18, 1946 in Ambepussa. Her father, Don Lorenzo Elvin, worked at the Department of Examinations. She was the third in a family of nine children – “the most stubborn”, she would later recount. She remembered her mother as a “pious, devout woman”, whose devotion to God and Christ was “incomparable”. Sent to a mixed school in her hometown, she later became one of the many actors from among the post-war generation to dominate our stage. Her husband, Lalith Kotelawala, a Buddhist hailing from Kalutara, predeceased her; they had no children.

Her first role was in 1966’s Ugurata Hora Beheth, directed by Welikala Rathna. She had first entered the arts world two years earlier, at a contest organised by Radio Ceylon. From then on the barrage of plays in which she took part – Ran Kanda, Seelavathi, Vishwa Sundari – was unstoppable. She performed with equal versatility in both comedy and drama: her panache for the former was as yet faintly present, and in these years, it could be said, she came to realise her biggest potential. This was her voice: her gateway to success in later years.

She was not limited to the stage, however, and unlike some of her colleagues she took up to the cinema. Her first role was in M. V. Balan’s Hitha Hodha Minihek (1975), a barely noticeable one. It was Vasantha Obeysekara who got her immersed in films. She acted as the killer's wife in his second feature, the lighthearted thriller Diyamanthi (1976). Walmath Vuvoo (1976) and Palagetiyo (1979) followed: both by Obeysekara, both exploring her dramatic range skilfully (Palagetiyo in particular had her play the darkest, most atypical role she would ever get). She acted in 15 films overall: the last was 1997’s Puthuni Mata Vasana.

Meanwhile the era of television had arrived. Vinodha Samaya, that sitcom an entire generation had grown to love on radio, was adapted to the small screen, with Mercy playing the main female part to Berty Gunathilake, Annesley Dias, Gemunu Wijeysuriya, and Samuel Rodrigo. This was when her voice – invective in some instances, strung-up in others – won her a wide following. No other comic actress before or after her had been so capable of conjuring up a drawl unique to her personality as she had.

Even in the dubbed programs she took part in – as Bianca Castafiore in Tintin in the 1990s, and, more than a decade later, in the Sinhalised version of Jewel in the Palace (“Sujatha Diyaniya”) – she got to voice the roles of quirky women. These characters were more often than not – as with Castafiore – oblivious to anything other than their own vanities. A stark contrast to the humble, down-to-earth woman who once acted in a play after her marriage and during the honeymoon just to please her fans!

Arguably, however, her most memorable role was in Tharavo Igilethi. Even those who haven’t seen the play will remember these words – “Madé Lagina Tharavan Navannada Mang?” – the song she plays out while primly wielding an umbrella. It may not have been her apogee, but with it she was permanently established in the minds of many a theatregoer. As children we used to play around with the lyrics of that unforgettable song with each other: only later as we grew up did we get to know the woman who sang it, and when we did, we were not surprised – there was scarcely another woman who could achieve the right level of sarcasm and wit while performing it as Mercy.

She was a class by herself, a promise of what true humour could be: all the more relevant at a time when “humour” has become a byword for exaggerated gestures and movements. Graceful but alive, exaggerated but restrained – she occupied a twilight world on stage and onscreen. For me the most fitting tribute to her would be this: just as Chaplin won our hearts and minds with that top hat, those baggy trousers and that toothbrush moustache in nearly all his films, Mercy Edirisinghe won us through all that tart and wit common to almost every role she played. And with this, she rightly became the prima donna of Sinhala comedy.

It is no slight thing that a group of concerned fans organised a musical show in February to raise funds for her: she had not gone unnoticed, even on her deathbed. Sugathapala de Silva, the eminent playwright, was right: her prowess was not only a school in itself for aspiring artists, but, more importantly, had been a source of great happiness for millions of fans who, like myself, grew up with that sharp voice of hers. A voice that has now been silenced, except in the memory of all those who had the fortune of hearing it.