Sunday, March 1, 2015

From Actor to Director

I first saw him on television. I didn't really know him at the time. That was a time when knowing a person meant appreciating everything and anything he stood for. Sanath Gunathilake, however, impressed me. He impressed me while depicting a character I thought no film could ever do justice to. Why?

It was Gunathilake, more than any other actor, who really taught me that while a character in one art medium can't be transposed to another, there is still a basic essence in him/her that can be represented whatever the work of art. Yes, the film was Viragaya, and the character Aravinda Jayasena.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself here.

For someone who has acted in more than a hundred films, Sanath remains "young" in the truest sense of that word. If the recent past is anything to go by, I think it's safe to say that "retirement" remains an absolute last option for him. He has not only acted, but has also dabbled in direction and script-writing. Ever ready to explore new terrains without being limited to his core career, he readily opens his life story for me.

As usual, I begin at the beginning.

Sanath was born in Kandy. He tells me that as a kid, he was heavily interested in films. His father, who was a lawyer, had shared that interest, and once every fortnight the two of them would go to the cinema hall. His mother, on the other hand, did not share his craze for movies. By way of explaining this, he tells me that this wasn't because she despised the cinema, but because films were generally looked down upon at the time. "My mother was a schoolteacher. Schoolteachers think that films corrupt children; that's why she didn't take to them the way my father and I did."

The films he saw during this time influenced him heavily, it must be said. "I saw mostly commercial films, because my father was a huge fan of Gamini Fonseka and Vijaya Kumaratunge." His mother on the other hand preferred more arty films like Delovak Athara, Saravita, and Vesathuru Siritha. Sanath idolised Gamini Fonseka, watching such hits as Satha Panaha, Chandiya, and Sudo Sudu.

Sanath tells me here that while he was an avid film enthusiast, he didn't want to get into acting as a profession. At Kingswood College, where he was educated, he had taken part in one or two plays. Apparently he had got through his Ordinary Level exams well ("I got the best results at school that year"), but for some reason failed to repeat this feat with his Advanced Levels.

Sanath explains that while he got through the exams, he couldn't get into University because under the District Rank system (which was similar to the Z-score system today), he failed to pass the required mark in the area where he sat for the exam. "Those who got lower results than me managed to enter the University," he says.

Fate works in different ways. After his results came, Sanath applied for jobs at various agencies and companies, but never quite got through the interviews and entrance exams. In a way, he thinks this had to do with the way destiny worked for him. "There may have been people with lesser qualifications than me who got those jobs," he speculates.

Even at this time, however, he didn't let go of his fascination with the cinema. He got to watch such landmarks as Sath Samudura and Nidhanaya. From the 1960s to the 1970s, while the cinema culture in our country changed, Sanath found his outlook on films changing, as he matured and as he got to appreciate "parallel cinema". In other words, he began appreciating not just highbrow films, but films which paved the way for a middle cinema here.

Sanath went for various interviews, hoping that he would get a job at a company. In the midst of all this, he spotted an advertisement in a newspaper. The ad called out for would-be actors who were more than five feet and six inches. What appealed to him, however, was the fact that the ad specifically stated that the candidate's educational qualifications would be considered. "That was a point I took at once," he says, "It was for a film by Vijaya Dharma Sri. I had seen his Duhulu Malak before, and thought that the new film would be as good." Hoping that he would be selected for the job, he went for the interview. He was chosen.

The film was Situ Kumariyo. Sanath tells me here that while he was working in the film, he had hopes of being selected for another job. "I never wanted to be an actor. Getting a job at a company was always at the back of my mind. But I thought that working in a film would increase my chances of passing the job interview. Things didn't work out the way I thought, because the interviewer would say that since I was acting, I was under probation and hence was automatically disqualified from working at that company."

In a way, this was a blessing in disguise, because it enabled Sanath to learn more about the field he had entered. "Realising what I had got myself into, I decided to stay in the film industry," he tells me. From then on, he went on to act in more than a hundred films. Some of them are remembered, some forgotten, and some held and regarded as landmarks in Sinhala cinema.

This is where we begin to talk about his career. "I was always interested in the cinema. Because of that, I never gave up on acting. Whenever and wherever I could, I studied about my career. I read books. Talked with people. Learnt. I was also lucky enough to go to several film festivals just a few years after I began acting." He went to the Cairo International Film Festival in 1981, where H. D. Premaratne's Deveni Gamana was screened. While there, he met Omar Sharif: "I was probably the only Sri Lankan actor to have met him. A real honour for me."

This wasn't all. He also managed to participate at the Manila Film Festival, where he met up and talked with Ben Kingsley. "He had taken everyone by storm that year with his performance in Gandhi," Sanath remembers. In a way, this was to prove instrumental for Sanath personally, because one of the films he got to act in during this time was Tissa Abeysekara's Viragaya.

Considered unfilmable, Martin Wickramasinghe's seminal novel had perhaps the least easy to define character in the history of Sinhala fiction. As Sanath tells me here, it was after seeing Kingsley's performance that he found it easier to portray Aravinda Jayasena. "I listened attentively when Kingsley talked about how he acted out the Mahatma's character. Subconsciously perhaps, I digested what he said that day. I took it to heart when I was depicting Aravinda's character." As an afterthought, he adds wryly: "This is not to say that I'm as great as Sir Ben Kingsley, of course."

Like every ambitious actor, Sanath never limited himself. "I always did my homework, seeking advice and befriending technicians, art-directors, cameramen, and scriptwriters." One of his figures of destiny was Tissa Abeysekera, who used to tell him frequently about his experiences with scriptwriting and directing. "It was Abeysekara who inspired me into directing."

Sanath has directed two films so far. The first, Ekamath Eka Rateka, was released in 2009 and was based on an Émile Zola short story. I remember Professor Carlo Fonseka commenting in his review just how true to the human and biological condition the film was. The second, Sinahawa Atharin, I am yet to see. He doesn't reveal much about it, but hints that while everyone is thinking that it's heavily commercialised, it clearly is a different kind of film. "I encourage people to think that it's a mainstream film, because that way they'll realise just how radically different it is when they see it."

As a final note, Sanath admits that the film industry is lagging behind today. However, he doesn't regret anything. "I am happy and am open to new experiences readily. I enjoy it whenever I get to work with youngsters, because I want to encourage them to take over from us." His final message? "I can only hope for the best." Indeed. In a way, I suppose that's our final message too. Sanath Gunathilake, in the final analysis, is well and truly deserving of what he has done and what he hopes to do. All the way.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, March 1 2015