Saturday, August 1, 2015

Yashoda Wimaladharma: Beyond Naturalism

She’s always composed. She rarely breaks apart. When she does, she’s subtle about it. Doesn’t make a fuss. Her roles have varied, moreover. Some of them are remembered. Others are not. Not surprisingly, she’s celebrated for what she’s remembered for the most. Explains how she's become part and parcel of our cultural unconscious. No, this isn’t an extrapolation. This is a point. One that sums up Yashoda Wimaladharma. Pithily.

Yashoda doesn’t have a big filmography to her name. Four plays don’t add up to much. Her TV credits are greater. More expansive. But even here she’s been selective. This isn't because she keeps a busy schedule. This is because she knows that quantity, no matter how popular it can get, can and will never duplicate quality. That’s her motif. Her trademark.

Acting didn’t come to her at once. She had to be taken in. During her A/Levels years, her uncle Bandula Vithanage had chosen her for the lead role in his adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, Hiru Dahasa. “I won the Best Actress Award at that year’s State Drama Festival,” she remembers, “which I never expected.” More than award or accolade however, what she remembers about that brush with the theatre was how it got her into acting.

“I learnt about acting. I read up on technique. I furnished and polished myself as much as I could within six months. People were most helpful towards me, and I got to hobnob with several veterans. But after Hiru Dahasa was over, I felt the urge to go beyond what I had gained. I wanted to learn more, a problem given that we didn’t have acting schools back then. Nonetheless my father, who knew my interests well, took me to the only man who could teach me: Jayantha Chandrasiri.”

When asked how long she was tutored by him, she smiles. “I still am his student,” she admits, “Although my initial ‘training period’ went on for a few years, I’m always on the go and ready to take in any new technique. In that sense he taught me the basics of what I needed to know. That widened my interests.”

From Makarakshaya
She's always been fascinated by acting. To be specific, she’s always been fascinated by how to fit in and blend in with whatever role she's got. Chandrasiri himself had encouraged this in her, and that coupled with the books and films she read and saw meant that she began following Method Acting. "That's when I began reading up on Stanislavski."

Coming back to her stage career, she mentions that she’s not been in a great many plays, but for her the theatre has always been more satisfying than the cinema. “It’s pretty basic, really: when you’re acting onstage you never get more than one take. With films it's different. You can make mistakes, at least to a reasonable level. But with plays you’re in live communion with the audience.” She adds furthermore that while this can be strenuous, the praise given freely by spectators is worth the effort. "That's always gratifying."

There’s a gap that divides Andromache (from Trojan Kanthawo) and Elisa (from Makarakshaya). But there’s something that bridges it. “That’s the Method,” she says, “Trojan Kanthawo by nature is more poetic. More stylised. Makarakshaya is realistic by comparison. But I took in those two roles of Andromache and Elisa the same way as I do with pretty much every other character.”

And in a way, her film credits reflect this as well. Between Theertha Yathra and Agnidahaya and between Agnidahaya and Guerilla Marketing, there’s a rift which separates what’s real from what’s stylised. In both instances however, she has rarely gone beyond immersing herself in her characters. "It's all about being consciously unconscious. All about being naturalistic."

There’s an exception though. “That’s Samanala Sandhwaniya.”

She explains. “Jayantha Chandrasiri was quite particular about the script. He asked me to go beyond naturalism. He wanted me to forget all about myself, to come back and absorb the role of Punya with a fresh mind. Which is to say that when I was playing her, I should abandon myself so completely that I wouldn’t be Yashoda any longer. I’d be Punya. That would create an illusion of reality.”

Not surprisingly, she considers it a landmark. So do we.

Films are by nature populist. She’s had her share of popular roles. For the most however, she claims that with films like Samanala Sandhwaniya she aims at something more than mere appeal. “I’m very particular about and read into scripts,” she explains, adding moreover that when it comes to popularity, TV has been always her preferred medium.

“I got to act under Nalan Mendis and other reputed directors. Some of the characters I played on TV became indistinguishable from me. That’s why, when I go to remote areas, people still address me with the names of my roles.” She smiles at this, naturally enough.

There’s just so much a 30-minute interview can cover. Yashoda Wimaladharma is a book waiting to be written, one suspects. She’s meticulous as always and prefers (especially in the theatre and cinema) quality over limelight. Explains her appeal. And following. That’s what counts, after all. And what helps.