Monday, January 12, 2015

Kamal Addararachchi: Reflections on a Career

He is known, probably more than anything else, for his flamboyance. He depicts his characters so well and exuberantly that we forget the divide between actor and character. That’s Kamal Addararachchi. I first saw him in Ridi Rayak about 10 years ago. He performed a song there: “Sathuta Vilai Sapatha Malai”. He performed it so colourfully that to this day I am convinced that song exemplified life itself. Actors are like that, I suppose: they breathe life into what otherwise would remain colourless.

As usual, I begin with his childhood. According to him, he was vivacious and mischievous as a child, perfectly in keeping with his later career. He was educated at Wesley College; by his own confession, while he did take part in various concerts there, he never really thought of acting as a profession. I ask him whether his school inculcated a love for acting. He tells me that by the time he got to Fifth Grade, he began acting in dialogue-driven, serious plays.

The turning point came when he was in Grade Nine. That's when he met his first figure of destiny: Gamini Samarakoon, who taught him drama. “He taught us miming, my first encounter with serious acting,” he tells me. Somehow or the other, miming became so popular at school that it was featured in a concert he took part in. And it wasn't just acting. He also became the drummer in a five-piece band at school (by name "Cat's Eye"), leaving it eventually to take to the stage.

There are other memories. Other names. He remembers them all: Nimal Fernando (who taught him in Grade Five), Shelton Weerasinghe (Wesley College Principal, who helped him tremendously during these years), and Dr Salamon Fonseka (the first Sri Lankan to have a PhD in drama and theatre). He remembers one other name in particular as well. This is Heig Karunaratne, who taught music and drama. "He admired my talent very much," Kamal remembers, "and at one point, told me to apply for an acting course. It was apparently conducted by a German professor, Dr Norbert J. Mayar. I accepted his request and applied for it."

The course, organised by the International Theatre for Children and Youth (ITCY), spanned three months and some workshops. It would prove crucial to his later career. During this time, he tells me, he learnt much. “I was with a group of young actors who were trained for an improvised play,” he tells me, adding that Jayantha Chandrasiri and Sriyantha Mendis were with him.

What Mayar gave young Kamal was a theoretical (and professional) background to acting. It was this theoretical background he would absorb when he carved out a career of his own. In the meantime, the play, Ane Ablick, was staged in Colombo in 1978. It marked Kamal's first real encounter with the public theatre.

Something else happened. Someone had seen him that day. A film producer. He had seen him and had been impressed by his performance. So impressed that he promptly took him to his fourth figure of destiny (after Karunaratne and Mayar): Gamini Fonseka. Kamal remembers what happened next:

“I was barely 18 at the time I acted in Sagarayak Meda. That was Gamini Fonseka’s fourth film. I wasn’t very interested in cinema, even then. Personally, I found the theatre much more of a challenge than films. Maybe that’s why I tended to prefer the stage to anything else. After all, you must realise that in the theatre, you are in live communion with your audience. You must perform well and nothing short of that. In films, on the other hand, you can afford to loosen up a bit, given that you can always fall back on a second or third take.”

In any case, Sagarayak Meda was an eye-opener. Kamal’s parents had not been very approving of his involvement with the stage. “I had to lie in order to act in the film,” he says. By the time he was caught (“red-handed”), he had done his part. The film, released in 1981, was acclaimed everywhere for its sharp, if not melodramatic, indictment on the political culture of the day. As the leftwing radical son of a well-meaning doctor, Kamal moved us to sympathy without really absolving his less than brilliant political choices.

Kamal Addararachchi has acted in more than 25 films. We’re talking about more than 25 years here. During this time, his roles have teetered between commercial and critically acclaimed films. While we remember him for those brilliant performances in such classics as H. D. Premaratne’s Saptha Kanya or Jayantha Chandrasiri’s Guerrilla Marketing (separated by about 10 years and in my view his two most memorable performances), we also remember him for his roles in those mainstream, on-the-beaten-track films.

From his career, we move on to his views on the state of the cinema and theatre. He begins to expound them with a point. “If you want to see how developed we are, look at the Maldives. No Sri Lankan can afford to live there,” he says, “But they don’t have a real cinema. The only real asset they have is tourism and of course beaches. And yet, see how far they’ve developed! See how far behind them we are, even though we can boast of a theatre and cinema of our own.”

I ask him whether this problem has anything to do with a human resource gap in our country, and he disagrees. “Our people can be trained well. It’s not a HR problem. It’s an institutional problem. It’s also a productivity problem. If the Maldives could harness their tourism industry out of their beaches, why can’t we harness our potential in the theatre using a top-to-bottom, integrated strategy? That’s the real issue here.”

He then criticises what he sees as the superficial quality of the theatre today. “We’ve gone for surface-allure. This is true even of English plays. The trend there is to go for political satire, for political humour. What this does is to institutionalise complacency in the audience. That’s not how satire works. It’s not supposed to cushion you, to make you smug about the political culture. It’s supposed to awaken you, to disenchant you. We don’t see that happening here.”

According to Kamal, the situation isn’t any better in the Sinhala theatre. “The trend there is to go for comedy, again bordering on political satire. These plays make us complacent too. They are nothing more than painkillers, to be honest.”

The situation, he tells me, is no different in our film industry. “There’s a huge time-gap between the time a film is shot and the time it’s released. Take Sagarayak Meda, for instance: shot in 1978, released in 1981. That’s three years. And it’s not just the time-gap. Films are delayed for other reasons. There’s money involved in making them, after all, and banks consider them high-risk. During my time, in the 1980s, banks even used to complain about how filmmakers and producers were late in repaying loans. One can’t blame either party.

“There’s a story that illustrates my point well. I don’t know whether it’s true. The then president had been asked how best this problem could be handled. He gave his answer at once: ‘Choose the best and burn the rest’. That’s it.”

That statement, according to Kamal, echoes a fundamental problem in our film industry. “You can go for either of two extremes. You can make hundreds of low-budget rubbish parading as films. That’ll make money for you. You can also make one or two high-budget, artistic films. They’ll have merit and they’ll be applause-worthy alright, but in the end they’ll cost you.” At the end of the day, what’s burnt are those arty films; what’s left are the rest.

I remember Friedrich Engels writing once that the artist’s aim was not to resolve every conflict and problem on a silver platter. True, but this doesn’t mean that the artist must cushion those same conflicts for the audience to handle easily. I believe this is what Kamal means when he says that art is all about “making us aware and stimulating new perspectives.” Films and plays, after all, have been used as tools of social change, even in the unlikeliest ways. Brecht, to give one example, went for satire in his plays. We remember them not for their humour, but for how well and deftly they criticised contemporary society.

Perhaps this opens up another conflict here. Kamal talks about a gap between commercial and critically acclaimed works of art. The way I see it, however, the real gap is between aestheticism and social commitment. Brecht, after all, was very much involved with working class activities. It is because filmmakers and playwrights distance themselves from the same society they depict in their works that they seem so polished, refined, and hence out of touch with contemporary realities.

I am a writer. I can’t offer solutions. But then again, no individual artist can do that either. What is needed, Kamal implies, is a top-to-bottom integrated approach. That’s what is lacking, woefully so, here. In any case, he says as a final note, he will return to acting one day. “Acting is in me. It won’t leave. I realise that. But the present state of affairs is less than happy for me. There needs to be change. That much we know.”

All this is peripheral to the man I'm writing about, of course. But it does have a bearing on his career. That's 25 films. Over 25 years. Kamal Addararachchi clearly has seen the best years of his life doing what he always meant to do. He is a firm exponent of colourful acting and improvisation, which might make comparisons with Brando, Jack Nicholson, and Johnny Depp entirely warranted. He certainly has won heart. Mine and yours. He has won heart with pretty much every role he has acted out and every film he has brilliantly shone in. That, in the final analysis, may be the best and the only way I can hope to sum him up.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, December 11 2015