Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Edna Sugathapala: Scripting humility into life

Photos by Sandra Mack

She is known for her acting, particularly during a time when film as is known here and today was at its peak. She has her associations, her acquaintances, those she met and befriended on and off the set. To limit her to cinema however would be doing her an injustice, something she implies early on in the interview. Yes, you saw her paired in film after film with some of the "top stars" of our cinema. Yes, they all won her praise and unruffled success.

But Edna Sugathapala is not just an actress. One doubts whether she wants to or can be pigeonholed into that profession alone. For that matter, one doubts whether she CAN be pigeonholed into ANY profession at all. She has done what she has done with utmost sincerity. No pigeonholing possible there.

She can play the piano and play it well, for one thing. She has mastered three other instruments as well. She has released a CD and DVD chronicling her love for the piano, and states unequivocally that she doesn't want to stop it at that. As she delves into her biography, full of interesting anecdotes but never obese on frill, she makes one thing clear: she hasn't stopped at anything at any point in her life.

Edna was born in 1946. She was educated at Good Shepherd Convent in her hometown Panadura, and later at Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya. She describes herself during all her school years as "studious and quite prone towards books", which set her apart from her friends and worked its charm on her mother. Music, it seems, had fascinated her a lot, and so at the age of six her mother had not only bought her a piano, but through it got her to take (and pass) the Higher Local Exam. "Back then it was foreigners who came and judged for that exam," she remembers, "I remember the comment they made on my recital: 'brilliant touch'."

The piano didn't stop intensifying her love for music, by the way. While at the church choir she learnt to master the organ, while elsewhere she got to handle the accordion and guitar. Nor did this stop her from pursuing her other interests: she loved dressmaking, for one thing, and in the end enrolled in the Kathleen School of Dressmaking in her hometown.

She had learnt to value time and efficiency. With more than one interest to pursue and being musically inclined, she never forgot to fine-tune her skills, often waking up at three in the morning to practise before heading to school. Her mother, whom she recalls fondly, was a strict woman, "and more pertinently a strict Catholic woman", who while never severe on young Edna had nonetheless had her way with her obedient, studious daughter.

Inadvertently however, she had got involved with a field of work the mother had learnt to scorn. This was astrology. The mother being a devout Catholic had despised the looking up of horoscopes, but through an uncle had been persuaded to look up her own via a prominent astrologer in Nugegoda. The astrologer, Daniel Gamariya gurunnanse, was known throughout the country then. Sceptically, she had paid him a visit with Edna.

The daughter explains what happened next. "My mother was quite the critic. She stopped the gurunnanse when he was reciting her horoscope. She told him that his interpretation was wrong. He did not stop. He asked as to when she was born and questioned whether the clock which recorded that time was pitch-perfect. 'Maybe not,' she confessed. The astrologer then changed her planet from Mercury to Venus, and began revising her horoscope. Lo and behold, he converted my mother and with her me that day by reading almost every portion of her life correctly and to the point. 'Now am I wrong, madam?' was his parting shot at her. 'No,' she stammered."

Along the way back to Panadura, young Edna had openly professed an interest in astrology. The mother, knowing how studious the daughter was ("I was always first in class," she recounts now, with justifiable pride) let her have her way for once, and took her to another astrologer, H. H. Premaratne gurunnanse.

The gurunnanse had initially been wary of teaching Edna, complaining that "girls from prim, proper Colombo schools cannot be taught the art of reading the future". Thanks to her mother's overtures however, in the end he relaxed his position and offered to impart to Edna the secrets of his trade. She was 13 at the time.

More than 50 years on, she still reads horoscopes, predicts the future, and publishes some of her "anavaki" in various newspapers. As she browses through old newspaper clippings, she herself comes across some of the more profound ones: to do with presidential elections and deaths of famous stars. She in fact predicted Gamini Fonseka's death two years before it happened, December 2002 to be specific. There are of course other predictions too numerous to mention here, but suffice it to say that they all have come true in one form or another.

So in this context how did she take to films? Again, through her mother. She had been a film producer, and had financed Daskon, an expensive historical epic. She was about 12 at the time when she saw Daskon, "a financial failure" as she recalls now. It was her first encounter with the Sinhala cinema, as well as with two people she'd meet again and again in the career to come, Rukmani Devi and Fonseka himself.

For her entry into cinema though, she had to go through the theatre (metaphorically speaking). She was trained and tutored by the famous theatre producer Dick Dias. The year was 1966 when she got to act in her first play ("Gehenu Hatana"). 10 years earlier he had initiated Jeevarani Kurukulasuriya ("Maa Henae Riri Yaka") into acting, and 10 years before that he had done the same for Rukmani ("Janaki Haranaya"). When asked whether this was a prophetic sign, she laughs and lays out Dias' credentials.

"He was a kind man. Not just a theatre producer but one who knew his field well. He was originally an engineer, he began financing these plays, and in the end managed to introduce some of his more incisive actors and actresses into both the stage and cinema. In fact it was Dias who financed the first production of ‘Siri Sangabo’, which was a landmark by all accounts thanks to its final, memorable scene of the altruistic king beheading himself in front of the audience. So yes, I am indebted to him today."

Her initiation into cinema, however, was tougher. Not only had there been calls to get her off-screen, people visibly began commenting on how she was fat, was not photogenic enough, and even didn't augur well for films. Again, it had been an acquaintance of hers who had come to her rescue. "When Das Mohammad thought of auditioning me for Surayangeth Suraya, Gamini Fonseka advised him to take me if I read my lines properly. Remember, Daskon may have been a failure, but Fonseka was popular at the time and it was his first film after Daiwayogaya. He knew my mother had suffered a loss because of that film."

She was taken for Surayangeth Suraya, needless to say. In later years she hobnobbed and got to act with several "stars", so to speak. She rattles off a list here: Joe Abeywickrema, Tony Ranasinghe, Freddie Silva, Denawaka Hamine, Sandya Kumari.

She had other encounters, of course. She met and sang for Karunaratne Abeysekera, both for his famous "Handa Mama" radio program and elsewhere. She wrote a book contemplating life and death with "Sugatha Chintha", which in later years earned praise from Rosy Senanayake and in her time earned a letter as a reply to it from a monk in Denipitiya, Galle. She was a close friend of Lenin Moraes, who had directed her in some of her best known films, and in the end was by his deathbed during his last moments. There are other personalities she has met and befriended too, but spatial constraints restrict recounting them all here. All that one can say about them is that she has come and seen them all, but not to a point where she's wallowed in that fatal trap stars get into, fame. Not to say she hasn't enjoyed fame, but at the same time she's been careful and methodical enough not to let it blind her.

And in a way, this has allowed her to pursue what she considers to be her real interests, in music. Last year she released a CD collection of her piano recitals. She played them all on her instrument: baila, classical music, church music, a kaleidoscope offering virtually everything from Nanda Malini to Keerthi Pasqual. She's played them with a subtle touch, one notes, keeping well to the spirit of every song she's turned into an instrumental. "I enjoyed playing them very much, but was careful enough not to invite every proverbial Tom, Dick, and Harry when I launched them," she recalls, adding that among her guests was Professor Carlo Fonseka, well known for his views on artists and a music lover himself.

The ball didn't and doesn't stop there, of course. For someone of her calibre, being able to play not only one or two but four musical instruments, she should reach for more. And she does. Next year she hopes to release an album of her organ recitals, which she promises will be different to what she's done and released so far. "The organ, mind you, is not like the piano. I'd say the latter is harder to master, but that doesn't trivialise the fact that the organ has a preconceived tempo set into its system nowadays, and you need to keep up with it. So yes, in one way it's hard to master as well." She plays C. T. Fernando's "Bara Bage", remembered and relished by young and old then and now.

When asked why she's doing all this now, she sobers. Noticeably. "For one thing, I will be celebrating my 70th birthday. It is my wish that I do something for that, not with celebration and cheer but with some interest I've loved to follow from my childhood. I've done with the piano on this count, so I guess the organ's next in line for me. This is not a vanity project moreover, because I know fans love my recitals. I feel I should have done this many, many years ago. But I never got the chance to do it. Time hasn't been unkind to me always, and I've never failed to keep myself healthy and rosy. So perhaps it's best that I do it now."

At an age when most actresses would probably contemplate life and bid farewell to pursuing their interests (whatever they may be), Edna Sugathapala is a shining example. For someone who could have grabbed at fame and probably gone beyond Sri Lanka, she has opted to stay away, practise restraint, and instead retire to a life of peace, music, and harmony. She doesn't reek of wealth though, and for this reason her expenses for her earlier album were stifling, overbearing almost. So it is with her next album too, unless someone who appreciates taste and the contribution she's made to our cultural firmament (not only the cinema, please note) comes forward.

Will he or she step forward? That remains to be seen. One small step, if it be taken at all, and certainly one giant leap for her.

Written for: Daily News, November 18 2015