Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Malini Fonseka: a Queen for them all

I wasn’t a very big fan of Sinhala films as a child. This isn’t because I was a snob, but because not many of them went on TV for me to see. Perhaps owing to this, the few films that were aired stayed with me. I don’t remember much. I do however remember faces. And songs. I remember these words: “හඳුනාගත්තොත් ඔබ මා... ("If you can recognise me…”). I also remember the face that went with them. And just the other day, I came across it again, this time a little more up-close. Hasn’t changed. Not that much anyway. The gentleness is still there. Maybe that’s what can best define Malini Fonseka, still a “Queen” in her own right: her gentleness.

As usual I begin with a brief biographical sketch to start things off, and she relents. I wonder whether such a thing is needed in the first place. After all, her life story has been published on countless occasions and has become just as well known as her career. But I go with it nonetheless, starting with her childhood.

She tells me that her love for the cinema was developed when she was quite young, though she didn’t get to see many films. Hers had been a very large family. She remembers however the actors she doted on, in particular Punya Heendeniya. The stage had been her real first love, moreover, and this had been the case at Gurukula Vidyalaya in Kelaniya, where she was educated.

“Gurukula bordered on Vidyalankara University (now the University of Kelaniya). Vidyalankara used to stage plays frequently. One such play however needed a female lead. This was a problem, because the campus didn’t have any women at the time, only boys and monks.” Apparently the dancing teacher at Gurukula had been asked to look for a suitable actress from his students to take up the role, and Malini had been his ultimate choice. But, she tells me, she didn’t accept it then and there: “My parents were very strict when it came to my taking part in these activities, so I had to first ask for their permission.”

Happily for her, they agreed. The play was Noratha Ratha, produced and directed by H. D. Weerasiri. This was the first time young Malini acted outside her school, and was followed by roles in other plays, including S. Karu’s Guttila. Around this time, a cinema culture had been established in the country, though Malini tells me that she didn’t really have any outward desire to take part in films.

Things started to change in 1965. That year, she acted in a play called Akal Wessa, which would later win a Best Actress Award for her. Among the crowd that had come to see it at Lumbini was a director who was looking for an actress for his next film. This was Tissa Liyanasuriya, who had made two films before, and who wanted a “new face” for his upcoming feature. Both he and Joe Abeywickrama (who was to be the male lead in it) immediately felt that Malini should take this role. The film, Punchi Baba, was later released to great acclaim, and, owing to its being a commercial success, established Malini as a promising young newcomer.

I ask her whether it was all “beds and roses” with her debut. She tells me that not many had the level of confidence which both Liyanasuriya and Abeywickrama had in her. I remember Liyanasuriya telling me about her once: “I didn’t order her around. She was fully aware and involved with what she did, and liked the script, story, and role. Joe and I were adamant: we wanted a newcomer, and she was our ideal choice.” Not everyone agreed with him, however, and she believes some of them had actually wanted an established star as opposed to a novice. In any case, this hadn’t been a problem for her; that same year, she took part in G. D. L. Perera’s Dahasak Sithuvili, where she played the sister to Henry Jayasena.

Most actors develop a liking for certain roles and filmmakers. Malini Fonseka hasn’t. Perhaps this is owing to how modest she is, but she tells me that none of the directors she worked with ever troubled her. They all were quite respectful of what she was capable of. Meanwhile, she became an overnight sensation. Most cinemagoers in her time will no doubt remember her for those commercial flicks she took part it, which paired her with the leading men of the day, Gamini Fonseka and Vijaya Kumaratunge included. But to see just how diverse her roles and performances can be, I think we should look at her performances in the more serious films. It would be useless to delve into this, however, without bringing one particular director in here.

Akkara Paha
Malini remembers Lester James Peries with unmistakable gratitude. Her first real role for him was in Akkara Paha, where as the main character Sena’s sister she stole half the show. Back then she wasn’t yet a superstar. At the time of her next film for Peries, however, she found managing time a little difficult due to how much she was in demand. Nidhanaya was of course an entirely different story, and would probably fill an entire chapter’s worth of sketches and reminiscences. I put it to her, however, that what caught my attention to her in that film was the three minute waltz sequence with Gamini Fonseka, beautifully captured by cameraman M. S. Anandan. She tells me that they had to practise over and over again just for those three minutes, something made all the more difficult with their being shot dancing slowly in real time!

There were other films, both commercial and “arty”. Most followers of serious cinema would remember her for her collaboration with the foremost exponent of “socially engaged” films here, Dharmasena Pathiraja. From a minor role in his debut Ahas Gawwa, she became part of his repertoire of actors, alongside Vijaya Kumaratunge, Amarasiri Kalansuriya, Cyril Wickramage, and Wimal Kumar da Costa (who had been at Gurukula with her). She remembers two films in particular. Eya Dan Loku Lamayek, the first, was a world away from Pathiraja’s next film, Bambaru Avith. The former won her a Diploma at the Moscow Film Festival. Bambaru Avith, like Nidhanaya, would need an entire chapter to itself, but she tells me just how enjoyable she found working in Kalpitiya, where the film was shot.

From her other films made during this time, I suppose Amaranath Jayathilake’s Siripala saha Ranmenika stands out. It went to New Delhi, where Malini met Satyajit Ray. “He couldn’t reconcile the character in that film to the real me!” she jokingly tells me here, showing just how forcefully she played the role of the wife to perhaps the most infamous criminal in Sri Lankan history. I remember Ravindra Randeniya, who played Siripala, telling me just how much force and conviction he had to put in while playing his part. Maybe this was true even of Malini’s performance. In any case, it was quite atypical of the type of characters she got at this stage, even when considering the next film for Pathiraja she took part in, Soldadu Unnahe (where she played a prostitute).

Malini tells me here that the 1980s was her most fruitful decade. This may well be true, given the rise of colour and commercial films which followed the “open economy” policies enacted in our film industry after 1977. Aradhana figures in among her favourites. It won her Best Actress at the Presidential Film Awards ceremony in 1981. Moreover, her first directorial effort, Sasara Chethana, a Western-styled action thriller, was made during this period, in 1984. She also directed three other films: Ahinsa, Sthree, and Sandamadala.

As the years went by, her roles became more austere. She took part in quite a number of “mother” roles, even on television. Lester James Peries’ last two films, Wekanda Walawwa and Ammawarune, both had her as distraught mothers. It is Prasanna Vithanage’s Akasa Kusum, however, which grabs my interest from this period in her career. In here, more than in any of her previous performances, Malini cuts down any tendency to overact, to the point where she appears to be underplaying her part. As a fading film star forced to eke out a living by “renting” her house to young actors (to fulfil their extramarital affairs), probably no other actor could have performed more convincingly. Perhaps this is what her entire career was building up to. I think I can safely say that her winning the Silver Peacock Award in India, for this role, was a fitting culmination to all those years of hard work and experience.

Perhaps Gamini Fonseka’s assessment is better than anything I can say about her. It was said in his last public speech. “David Lean,” he remarked there, “was once asked about an actor. He was asked what his talent was exactly. Lean explained the best way he could. But the other person wasn’t satisfied: ‘What was so special about that talent?’ ‘That extra something which I cannot explain,’ Lean replied. Well, let me tell you all that this lady here has that ‘extra something’ in her, which none of us can explain. That’s the secret to her success.” 

Malini Fonseka, truly then, has a secret which no one will ever know. I can safely say that as long as films are treasured by us, she will be remembered. The answer to the lament “හඳුනාගත්තොත් ඔබ මා...”, hence, will not be hard to find at all, wherever she may be.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, November 19 2014