Sunday, May 3, 2015

Looking back with no regret

He was an actor, singer, and teacher. He performed on stage and on screen. Not all his performances were perfect or watchable but a great many are relished even today. His presence lent credence to whatever was being filmed. It rarely took away. That's Daya Alwis' legacy. Perhaps it is this that numbed those who heard of his death. We'll never know, I suspect.

Acting wasn't his only "thing" of course. Music was what first moved him. He also taught. He took to the stage eventually. And like most of his colleagues, he went to the cinema, the point being that it didn't entice him initially. There were other pathways he carved for himself. Other lanes. He didn't stick to one course. The truth perhaps was that he couldn't.

He first came to me with Madol Duwa. That was his role as "Punchi Mahaththaya". A small part no doubt, but it stood out. An add-on that never really jarred. There were other films as the years went by, granted, but "Punchi Mahaththaya" kept coming back. Perhaps that was because he depicted him just the way the novel had. Whatever the reason, he stayed.

Actors and performers have their highs and lows and Alwis was no exception. There were parts in Mahagedara and Viragaya (both by Tissa Abeysekara) which did not stand out. These were supporting roles moreover. They jarred and lagged. Sadly.

That's not to say he didn't "rise". He contributed to whatever he took part in. Few can forget his roles in Valmathuwo, Handaya, and Siribo Aiya, for instance. Few can forget those teledramas he acted in, particularly Bodima. They all caught him at his best: a supporting actor who was capable of going beyond his character and all its self-imposed limits. At other times this could have weakened story and script. Not so in Alwis' case. That's certainly applause-worthy.

There will be tributes and assessments made of him. I haven't seen all his performances and wouldn't want to pretend that I have. I can't offer an in-depth analysis. All I can say is this: he put in effort. Nearly all his performances were dramatic, and even in those films and teledramas which were supposed to provoke humour he could get serious. And even with those films where he seemed to overdramatise - Mahagedara in particular - the fault seemed to be with the script. That hampered Alwis. He jarred in those films because he was not meant to be scripted the way he was in them.

He learnt about acting on his own and got to know those who taught his trade. He knew Ediriweera Sarachchandra and learnt about stylised acting. He moved on to Dhamma Jagoda and away from that stylised idiom, and managed to bridge theatre and cinema. He was eclectic enough to appreciate both, doubtless, and this kept him in touch with whatever medium he took part in. Yes, it was all hands-down. And as he put it in an interview once, "one learns by associating with those who are learned." It was those same learned people who shaped him. In the end, he gave back. We are grateful.

Alwis left too early. But he didn't leave behind footprints that wind and sand could cover. Few people would have gone through his career and looked back with regret. There may have been a "much more" desired somewhere, but this is true of every actor who ever lived and not just here. Few would look at him and care to compare him with anyone. He was Daya Alwis on his own right. That's a rare feat for an actor, particularly in this country.

Not many can appreciate fame's sharper nuances. Alwis didn't know fame the way some of his colleagues did but then again that didn't matter. He knew it for what it was, warts and all. Whatever role he played lent flavour to both character and story. He did overdramatise at times but as I wrote before this was often the fault of the script. Not many knew how to handle him. Maybe he wasn't meant to be handled at all. I wouldn't know. Fame didn't come to him the easy way and he didn't exit the way we wanted him to. A tragedy and an irony, definitely.

For now, we'll salute him. As a giant that passed on. Too prematurely.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, May 3 2015