Monday, September 14, 2015

On and off the road with Irangani Serasinghe

Thomas Gray and Shakespeare probably knew more about the human condition than (m)any of their counterparts back in the day. They attacked the larger than life and championed the essence of humanity, bringing it down to that much sought after but hard to find quality, solitude. Gray thus exemplified in his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” what Shakespeare wrote in Henry V, that “in peace there's nothing so becomes a man / As modest stillness and humility”.

Now solitude and stillness aren’t hard to find in celebrities, but thanks to crass materialism they don’t overflow with them either. Irangani Serasinghe, mother, daughter, thespian, film and television actress, conservationist, and subject of a much awaited biography, is the exception. Happily.

Last Saturday, there was a gathering. A group of icons, their sons and daughters, representatives of the media, and writers convened at Expographic Bookstore in Pelawatta. Kumar de Silva was host and Irangani Serasinghe his guest. Irangani, as told to Kumar de Silva, published two years ago, had been translated by playwright, commentator, and satirist Udayasiri Wickramaratne. It was launched at the gathering, but that wasn’t all what it was about.

There were people who came and spoke. Sumitra Peries, long-time collaborator and friend to Irangani, waxed eloquent about her involvement with the cinema, her performances in E. F. C. Ludowyk's Antigone and Chitrasena’s Rama, Ravana, and Sita, and the famous Ivan Peries portrait done of her, hung at the Petit Palais in Paris and a personal “highlight” for Sumitra during her student-days there.

Lester was missing, but Sumitra had brought a message from him as compensation: “I put her on the road”. The audience laughed. Predictably. It was one of his “Lesterisms”, after all, a pun and twist considering that her first performance for him was as an errant driver in a documentary (Be Safe or Be Sorry).

Next came Dharmasiri Bandaranayake. Having identified his generation of artists and playwrights as the “children of ‘56” and thereby differentiating it from Irangani’s, he went on to heap praise upon her. He spoke in particular about his first performance onscreen, that of the naive and 17-year old Premadasa from Dayananda Gunawardena’s Bakmaha Deege.

“I didn’t know the implications of that character then,” he admitted, “I do now though, particularly when I hear laughter every Avurudhu when Bakmaha Deege is shown on TV. ‘They’re laughing at me,’ I realise. Seeing myself in it today, I can imagine why.” He chortled. So did his listeners.

He sobered then. “I am thankful to Gunawardena. He introduced me to Mrs Serasinghe. Through her, I met her husband Winston. I had him in my Thunveni Yamaya. He was the dragon in Makarakshaya and I was his adversary Lancelot.” There he related an interesting anecdote, one which had escaped publicity but which he came out with, “since our days aren’t that long.”

It happened somewhere in the ‘80s. Winston was facing a crucial standoff with Lancelot in the play. He had to read a line: “තමුසෙ දන්නවද මේ ජනපතියා පිස්සෙක් වගේ හැසිරෙන්නේ ඇයි කියල?” For some reason or the other though, he had got it wrong: “තමුසෙ දන්නවද මේ ජනාධිපතියා පිස්සෙක් විදියට හැසිරෙන්නේ මොකද කියල?” Now for purposes of translation there’s hardly any difference between the two, but in terms of nuance and subtlety they were miles apart. Naturally enough, especially during a politically volatile period, Serasinghe’s mistake could have irked authorities. But that’s not what happened.

What happened was that Serasinghe resigned, vowing never to act again. A distraught Bandaranayake, urging him to offer his reasons and trying to discourage him, got this reply: “Laurence Olivier was my guru. He told me the day that I get a single line wrong is the day I should get out. That day has come.”

Reflecting on this, Bandaranayake concluded: “He was a shining example, Mrs Serasinghe. Always was. The likes of him cannot be found today, and for good reason. Back when the arts were left alone, when theatre wasn’t prostituted for the sake of politicking, he was not uncommon. He is now. As are you.” There was silence all around. Everyone clapped.

There was more.

Kumar had planned a surprise for his guest. Well, a get-together to be exact. Nilmini Tennakoon, Deepani Silva, Veena Jayakody, Kelum Wijesuriya, and Chandani Senevirathne, along with Yashoda Wimaladharma (who acted as interlocutor to Kumar as announcer), read excerpts from Udayasiri’s translation, got on the stage, sat on a couch, and “embraced” Irangani. For those from and even after their generation, the get-together was symbolic.

They had all been her children, grandchildren, and neighbours. They had all been with her on board Nalan Mendis’ Doo Daruwo, considered by many to be Sri Lanka’s first real soap opera, running into hundreds of episodes and (in Irangani’s own words) one which “was so well received.” She was crying, not surprisingly. So were some of those who had gathered. They were all moved, even more so considering those who had been absented (the late Henry Jayasena in particular as “Sudu Seeya” was missed, as was Neil Alles who was ill and others who had more crucial engagements elsewhere).


The last to speak was Nalan Mendis himself, as voluminous and full of detail as his soap operas. He praised Irangani, commended her as an actress, and stated that working with her has yielded fruit in the truest sense of that term.

Irangani is humility embodied, those who know her will tell you. She was and will always be ever ready to offer anecdote, colour it with nostalgia, and yet not lose grip with the present. Rare, yes, but perhaps not for her generation, a point she reflects on throughout Kumar’s book. She’s too humble to offer herself as an example there though, something else she highlights in her introduction to it.

Events like this have to end, but how? There were people who had torn themselves from their schedules, to spare some time on a desultory Saturday evening and that outside Colombo. But Expographic Bookstore is not your typical bookstore and Ranjith Samaranayake, its proprietor and publisher of the biography, knows his trade well and passionately so. Fittingly then, Kumar began with a bang and ended with a whimper.

Irangani will be treasured. Kumar credits François Truffaut’s landmark book on Hitchcock as his inspiration for this and Lester by Lester. Maybe, but none of Truffaut’s prognostications featured in THAT book (which even Satyajit Ray noted and criticised) is there in Irangani. It is neither coffee table nor dissertation and hence hovers in-between. Tantalisingly. I have not completely read Udayasiri's translation so far but I am sure it's the same story there.

The last word should belong to the host. Here’s Kumar on his effort: “I had three icons in my life. I wanted to write on them, and I have done with two so far, Lester and Irangani. There’s one more remaining. Mrs Sumitra Peries, I promise I will finish my book on you next year, June to be exact.”

Irangani, as told to Kumar de Silva is done. We can only thank Kumar and Udayasiri and wait till next June. With baited breath. Clichéd, yes. But there’s no other way of putting it.