Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Dimpled Star

She has acted in over 40 films. Her signature is evident in them all, to the extent that we sense her presence even before she enters a scene or sequence. That's class. That's Sangeetha Weeraratne. Yes, she was part of my growing up, figuring in those movies and TV shows I saw.

But there is something in her I can't forget or fathom. Something to do with her style of acting, which is at once vibrant and reserved. That's a rare quality I agree, and in Sangeetha I see an actress capable of much more than what she does today.

All this peripheral, however.

Sangeetha didn't take to movies as a child. She had apparently liked maths (and dancing) more. Her interest in the cinema began when her father, the famed cinematographer and director Timothy Weeraratne, entered the second phase of his career, in the late 1980s. Her family had been business-oriented, and she admits that she was more interested in the financial aspect of movie-making: "I had a flair for accounts."

Time passed. She took part in her first film, Roy de Silva's It's a Matter of Time, when she was just 16. It's an irony of fate perhaps, but she found herself paired with an actor she would meet over and over again throughout her career. "I acted opposite Kamal Addararachchi. In hindsight, this benefited me tremendously, because he taught me much about acting."

I ask her whether she found it difficult to get used to films and acting at this stage, and she admits that while acting wasn't a priority for her yet, cinema was in her blood. "Every time my father would get a new camera, for example, I would pose in front of him. I would be the camera's 'guinea pig'," she says, indicating just how much her interest in films had been widened during those early, tender years.

But if It's a Matter of Time was a mainstream debut for Sangeetha, the films that followed would test her potential completely. In a way, this had to do with how she understood the cinema as the years went by. She had initially been a fan of on-the-beaten-track, mainstream films; as time passed and she matured, she took to more serious cinema.

Gamini Fonseka's Nomiyena Minisun had Sangeetha in her very first serious role. Talking about Fonseka, she says that he knew actors so well that he could grind out whatever he wanted from them. "As you know, I was new to films at the time. One of my biggest challenges was continuity. How does one maintain the same face and emotion in a sequence that is shot in two different days?"

She remembers one sequence that illustrates this well. "I had to play out a pregnant woman who learns that her boyfriend is dead. That's tough. I was 17 then, in my teens. Let alone pregnancy, I didn't even know what it was like to have a boyfriend!" Nonetheless, she managed to perform convincingly at the first take. "To this day, I don't know how I managed to act that out."

This wasn't all. "As I told you, continuity was my biggest challenge then, especially when we had to continue this sequence two weeks later. I think Mr Fonseka knew this. Or maybe not. In any case, what happened was that while I was there on the set, wondering what I had to do, he came up-to me, opened my eyes, and burst a can of glycerin into them."

Just a little bit of that stuff, I have to admit, is enough to make you tear. Sangeetha would have been in hellish pain at the time: "It certainly was painful," she says, understating what she went through, "But at the end of the day, Mr Fonseka got what he wanted. I cried."

Both Kamal and Fonseka had been strong role models. I would have to agree. Both were highly individualistic, stubborn enough to realise that the way they acted and made films suited their styles, no matter how harsh the critics were. "Kamal was especially firm," Sangeetha tells me, "He knows how best he can act." I put it to her that some people see him as flamboyant and vivacious, and she agrees. "He has enough and more potential, a vast reserve of talent."

She remembers other names. Other directors. She remembers H. D. Premaratne with immense gratitude. "I got to act with Kamal in two of his films. Looking back, I must say that working with him was enjoyable in every way." Saptha Kanya, which showed Premaratne at the peak of his career, had Sangeetha as a pickpocket who befriends Kamal. Almost as in a fairy-tale, the two of them fall in love, and the story teeters and totters along with its share of subplots, climaxes, and melodrama. "It earned quite a lot for its time," she admits. Not surprising.

There was also Vasantha Obeysekara, a director as far removed from Premaratne's style as anyone could be. "Premaratne was very reserved. He was quite friendly with us, but never betrayed emotion while on the director's chair. Vasantha, on the other hand, gets very emotionally involved with his films." This would have meant that he would have got involved with his actors too. Sangeetha agrees with me here. "He was almost a father-figure to us actually. And like a father-figure, he would berate us down or praise us to the skies as he saw us."

It's arguable whether Sangeetha's greatest talent has been seen in Obeysekara's films. We saw her firstly in Maruthaya, as the daughter of a deceased politician, whose downfall the director observes clinically but reflectively. We also saw her in Dorakada Marawa, undoubtedly her most powerful role, as the troubled fiancée of Sanath Gunathilake. There was also Salelu Warama and Sewwandi, the latter being the first film she financed and produced.

I put it to her that we remember these roles because they were all based on true stories, which gave them an authentic edge, and she agrees. "I concede that a film like Salelu Warama is quite different from Saptha Kanya. Both are love stories, and both have Kamal. But Vasantha's film is more nuanced, more engaged. It delves into class consciousness, into emotion, and asks a question from the audience: would you kill for love? Inevitably, I had to perform more authentically and convincingly there."

Her story doesn't end here. She is remembered for other roles. She was there in Premaratne's last film, Kinihiriya Mal. Given how negatively certain critics reviewed it, I ask her whether she found working in that film strange. "Not really," she replies, "The film had a fairy-tale edge to it, as do almost all of Premaratne's films."

This must have been so because the film showed him at his bitterest, at odds with the optimist that came out in his other films. We see this reflected at the end of the story too, where, after we imagine that everything will be alright for the heroine (a garment worker turned prostitute), a figure from her past comes back and kills her. Just like that. "There is a line between real-life and fiction in that story, but the reality explored in that film is not make-believe."

It's certainly beyond my task to go into a role-by-role analysis of Sangeetha's career. That will do for some other time. "We have so much potential that we can take from our actors," she says by way of wrapping up our discussion, "Personally, I would love it if our filmmakers delved into issues our women and children face. We don't see that happening. What we see are films that copy Bollywood and Hollywood, that leave nothing for us to digest. That's sad."

Perhaps it's a testament to her fortitude that Sangeetha has rarely deteriorated into histrionics or glamour in her serious roles. That's talent. But then again, I am talking with a rare actress. A rare human being, too. And at the end of the day, as her career moves along, she will be remembered for that. All the way. No mean feat, you must admit.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, January 25 2015