Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Iconising Richard de Zoysa

25 years ago, a man was killed. He was among 60,000 people who were slaughtered in the bloodiest two years of our post-independence history, 1989 and 1990. His murder came at the tail-end of what became known as the bheeshanaya.

In the bitter political divide that marked much of that decade, this man took sides. Unconditionally. He condemned. Protested. Criticised. And lampooned. He was killed for it, of course. But that's peripheral. What's important is that the man killed 25 years ago is celebrated. But by whom?

Richard de Zoysa didn't live long enough. He didn't attain the "icon" status most others in his profession did. Apart from a few films and plays, his artistic career was minimal and was overshadowed by his political career. This doesn't mean that he isn't missed, of course. We all are a poorer tribe for his loss.

I first saw him in Yuganthaya. I couldn't have thought of a better person to portray Malin Kabilana. Ironic, because I couldn't have thought of a better person to portray Simon Kabilana (Malin's conservative father) than Gamini Fonseka. Years later, when I read up on their biographies, I realised how true to their political roots both were. They were both educated at the same school. But they came from different worlds. Gamini, then in the last phase of his career, was threatened by a new acting order and a new political order. Richard represented both.

There was something to Richard de Zoysa, I figured.

But his wasn't the only name among the dead. There were 59,999 others. They died more or less the same way he had. They were tortured, taunted, maimed, blinded, and in the end, shot. That's how Zoysa met his end. When they found him on a beach in Moratuwa, his jaw was broken and his head shot. Very much like the others. But we remember him. And forget the rest. Why?

Was it because of his talent? If he were to live, I suppose he would have reached heights. His artistic life might have even overshadowed his politics. I don't know. The truth is that we remember him. But not really for his career. We remember him not because he was another Victor Jara or Pablo Neruda. We remember him not because he was a hero or a nationalist. We remember him because he was Richard de Zoysa. That's it.

Was he exceptional? I wish I knew. I am not in a position to judge. Based on what I have seen and read, I can only say this much. Richard came from a bilingual world that tilted, as the years went by, towards English. At St Thomas', he had studied both English and Sinhala theatre. It didn't take long to realise that his preferences, unabashedly and unconditionally, were for the former. I haven't seen his renditions of Shakespeare, but have been told by a friend that a greater Shakespearean actor would be hard to find here. Maybe.

In Sri Lanka, however, that isn't enough. There is a reason, after all, why other Shakespearean actors (like Bandula Vithanage) are commemorated everyday and he isn't. He talked, performed, and played in English. All the way. Whether this was enough to win heart and not just from the English-speaking, Lionel Wendt crowd is another matter. But I'm sure of this: had he lived longer, and had he moved on to the Sinhala stage, he would have been celebrated. More than he is now.

This doesn't erase what he did. As Rajiva Wijesinha has pointed out, it was Richard's death that led to the end of the bheeshanaya, when it ended the era of immunity for government-sponsored death squads. There were other people who were killed, of course. In the end, the powers that had sanctioned these murders succumbed to what they had unleashed. And they died. Meanwhile, one name, one lifeless body, tried to speak for them all. He succeeded, but to an extent.

The thing is, names are remembered. But this doesn't necessarily make them the icons some cut them out to be today. Richard de Zoysa lived a life. He left it in his prime. Yes, we are all a poorer tribe for his loss. But there are other names. They died too. They lived closer to home, they didn't and couldn't hobnob with the crowd at Lionel Wendt, and they couldn't create a name for themselves that survived death. Richard's murder, which came towards the end of the JVP insurrection, signaled an end. He is celebrated today for this reason.

But we commemorate him. And while I can't agree that he was a cultural icon on par with, say, Dayananda Gunawardena or Ediriweera Sarachchandra, I must admit that he had talent. Enough and more. That is why he is missed today.

He breathed fresh life to Shakespeare. He tried to reinvent the Bard. I don't know how far Sri Lanka is from Stratford-upon-Avon. I know one thing though. De Zoysa was comfortable at Avon. He could have brought it to Sri Lanka. Whether we wanted that is another story. But had that happened, things could have been different.

25 years ago, we lost an icon. He could have carved an alternate path for our theatre. But we also won. His murder signaled an end. At a time when rivers overflowed with blood and streets overflowed with charred bodies, that's what we wanted. That's what he gave. To us. We remember him today. And with him, we also remember those other people who were killed. The rest of the 60,000.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, February 18 2015