Monday, February 9, 2015

Inimitable Suvineetha

I first saw her about 10 years ago, Not in a film, though. It took some time, given that I wasn't really a fan of Sinhala cinema, for me to appreciate her properly. She seemed to understand the roles she played and directors she worked with. To the dot. That caught me. At once.

The truth is that some of her films are treasured while some are not. But wherever she is, whatever she has acted in, one thing stands out. She's willing to go to any lengths to ensure that she performs well enough to win acclaim.

I remember talking about her with a critic once. He told me that while she hasn't acted in a great many films, she is best remembered for having matured within a remarkably short time. That's true.

Suvineetha Weerasinghe has moved on. She has come to understand that while learning anything and everything about your career is impossible, what you grasp is what redeems you at the end of the day. Perhaps that's what she has echoed in her performances.

Suvineetha didn't come from a privileged background. She wasn't born with a silver spoon. Her father, an ex-gunman at the British Army, and her mother both had been from Dehiwela. That's where she was raised, educated at Buddhist Girls College in Mount Lavinia (until Fifth Standard) and later at Dehiwela Madya Maha Vidyalaya. I ask her whether she achieved anything by way of acting during these years, and she admits that she was passionate about the arts. "I liked singing and dancing in particular," she explains.

Young Suvineetha was also an avid athlete and a strong netball shooter. And these weren't her only achievements: she managed to complete all three stages of Kandyan dancing while at school. I ask her whether all these in any way reflected her career. "Not really," she admits, "because I never really was interested in acting. Certainly not as a career."

She instead took to an unusual field: medicine. She passed the entrance exam to study and become an indigenous doctor. While in her third year at the Indigenous Medical College (it was a four year course), she spotted an advertisement in a newspaper. It called out for budding actresses to take part in a new film. Suvineetha didn't exactly want to answer it, but the advertisement provoked her. Acting had never been in her mind. Until now. "It might have been lingering at the back of my mind," she reflects. This may have prompted her to apply.

Not everyone agreed with her on this, though. Her mother objected, while her father encouraged her. Happily though, she was selected for the film, which ended her stint at medicine.

There were two people who figured in Suvineetha's early career. They were crucial to her later career. The first was Robin Tampoe, who effectively "baptised" her career with three films (Sudu Sande Kalu Wala, Samajaye Api Okkoma Ekayi, and Sudo Sudu). "I was paired with Gamini Fonseka in the third," she says, "That was when I first associated with him. We would be paired frequently in later films." It was through Tampoe, moreover, that she would meet her second "figure of destiny".

Among those who came to watch Sudo Sudu was one unassuming figure. Not many had noticed him. He had come there for a purpose. He was looking for an actress, for his next film. The problem was that his next film wasn't "mainstream". It had no song-and-dance sequences, no village damsels, and no love stories. Echoing the new cinema that had sprung up in Europe, it was to be shot in a sophisticated and never-before-seen way, which meant that the director had to take care with the cast. Selecting an actress, hence, wasn't going to be easy.

And then he saw Suvineetha. He took to her. At once. "He came around and asked after me. We sat down, he told me what he wanted, and I agreed to take part in his film."

Delovak Athara took us by storm, particularly because of its off-the-beaten-track style. It was unconventional for its time, and hence a commercial failure. But the director, Lester James Peries, had done something for Suvineetha. He had opened a whole new career for her. "Until then, I had taken part in mainstream films. Delovak Athara was different. All the way. In terms of mood, plot, characterisation, it was unique. Yes, it failed at the box-office, but through it, I managed to learn much about serious acting."

From then on, she began to look forward to acting in more arty films. D. B. Nihalsinghe's Welikathara comes to mind at this point. The first film shot in CinemaScope here, Nihalsinghe's debut proved a turning point for almost everyone who took part in it, Suvineetha included.

I put it to Suvineetha that we remember the film mainly because of the cat-and-mouse game played by Gamini Fonseka (as an assistant superintendent of police) and Joe Abeywickrama (as the unforgettable Goring Mudalali), and that her role (as the ASP's wife) aggravated this conflict to the point where the entire story resembled a Hollywood thriller. She agrees.

"That film took me to the Film Festival at Tashkent. I met Simi Garewal, Sunil Dutt, Nargis, and Shabana Azmi there." From Tashkent to Poland (at the Krakow Film Festival), Germany, and Czechoslovakia, Suvineetha says just how awed she was at seeing Europe's finest film studios and industries.

There were other films, of course. Like H. D. Premaratne's Sikuruliya. That caught us unawares, because while other directors developed a "signature" after two or three films, Premaratne's style became apparent with his first. This was partly owing to how Suvineetha acted. "Although I played the role of one woman in that film, in reality I was playing three," she tells me.

This is true. As a village girl in love with an unemployed graduate, a "lady" married to an aristocrat, and a freewheeling girl who elopes with her husband's driver, she manages to win sympathy from us. Not that this absolves her completely, but flawed though her character is, we are with her every step of the way, so much so that the director manages to make her a heroine-like figure towards the end.

She lists her other films here: Hulavali (which took her to Tehran, where she met Satyajit Ray), Malata Noena BambaruYuganthaya, Janelaya, and Ira Handa Yata. There were also roles in television: Dharmasena Pathiraja's adaptation of Chekhov's "Lady with the Little Dog", H. D. Premaratne's Sandun Gira Gini Ganee, and Sakisanda Eliyas (which is where I first saw her).

For Suvineetha, acting is a hands down job. "We learnt about our careers on our own. That's because we didn't have acting schools then. We still don't. It was by reading up on the cinema and learning about actors that we educated ourselves. I had my icons in my younger days. I looked up-to them. This isn't to say that I imitated them, but they certainly influenced me." The list unfolds here: Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani, Julie Christie, Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Chaplin.

"They were formidable actresses," she adds, "Take Glenda. She's a Member of Parliament. There was a quality in them and particularly in her that moved me. They were strong women, in films and in real life." Perhaps it is this quality that comes out in Suvineetha's more unusual, dark performances, to be seen in the sequences of her lashing at Fonseka in Welikathara and her taunting Joe Abeywickrama in Malata Noena Bambaru.

Now, however, Suvineetha has retired. I ask her why. "We lived in a different time and place," she replies, "Things have changed today, for the worse mostly." I ask her to specify what she means. "Take TV interviews, for example," she says, "Back in my time, we were asked about our careers. Not anymore. Interviewers ask the most ridiculous questions today. They are more interested in gossip and your personal life than in your career."

There's more. "It's true that we learnt on our own. But we also had people we could look up-to. We had time on our hands. Everything was different back then. You didn't perform only for the director (or producer), but for the camera as well. In fact you grew up to love the camera." She points out something else to me here: "Your generation will never enjoy what we did. Pity."

I can't help agreeing. She's right. Sadly.

We remember Suvineetha and all her films for this reason, perhaps. We remember Chitra from Delovak Athara, Geetha from Welikathara, and Subha from Hulavali. There are other roles, of course. Other films. We remember them all. Even today. There's a reason for that. They are timeless. Classical. At a time when everything comes and passes off quickly, they will remain that way. Always.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, February 8 2015