Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Swineetha Weerasinghe opens her heart

Actors are often remembered for whatever image they conjure up for themselves in film after film. Sometimes this image is hackneyed and overused, to the point where they are venerated as sacred cows and where their real merits (if any) are brushed aside. What happens thereafter is both tragic and inevitable: others in the profession, despite their higher claims to talent and genius, are marginalised.

Fortunately, this has not been the case for the most in our country, though it is true that the conventional acting "discourse", if you will, has privileged stars and popularity over merit. Suwineetha Weerasinghe will no doubt agree.

Some actors are reluctant to offer a biographical sketch. Suwineetha, fortunately, is an exception to that rule. She's ever willing to delve into her past, talk about her present, and “predict” her future. Regarding the latter, she puts it to me at once: on many counts she has (justifiably) mixed feelings about her past, but that doesn't prevent her from looking forward to more films and roles.

Suwineetha wasn't born with a silver spoon. Both her father (an ex-gunman at the Army) and her mother had been from Dehiwela. That's where she was raised, educated at Buddhist Girls College in Mount Lavinia (until Fifth Standard) and later at Dehiwela Madya Maha Vidyalaya. I ask her whether she achieved anything by way of acting during these years, and she admits that she was passionate about the arts. "I liked singing and dancing in particular."

Young Suwineetha was also an avid athlete and a strong netball shooter. And these weren't her only achievements: she managed to complete all three stages of Kandyan dancing while at school. Did any of these things reflect her later career? "Not really," she admits, "because I never really was interested in acting. Certainly not as a profession."

She instead enrolled herself at the Indigenous Medical College for a four-year course. Medicine had been her first calling apparently, but even that hadn't been enough to subvert her fate. Even though she passed her entrance exam and went on to study the course, she had to drop out while in her third year after seeing an advertisement in a newspaper. "It called out for actresses to take part in a new film. Acting was never in my mind, but I decided to take a shot at it." She is adamant on her last point, moreover: she highlights that not even at that time did she entertain acting as a career. "It might have been at the back of my mind, of course," she says, eyes twinkling.

Her parents apparently had mixed feelings about her decision. "My mother was more conservative. She objected to the idea. My father however knew my talent at acting, especially at school. He gave his stamp of approval." In the end the father won the argument: she went for the interview, and was chosen. Naturally, she cut off a potential career in medicine.

For her entry to cinema however, she had to count on two figures of destiny. The first had been the inimitable Robin Tampoe, who cast her in three films: Sudu Sande Kalu Wala (1963, her first); Samajaye Api Okkoma Ekayi (1964); and Sudo Sudu (1965). These films were emblematic of the popular cinema here at the time: largely imitative of Indian films, they made ample use of her talent at singing and dancing.

The second figure of destiny had seen her in Sudo Sudu, and had actually met her after the screening to propose something. "He wanted me to take part in his next film," Suwineetha remembers, "and he told me straight away that this was to be different in outlook: there'd be no village damsels crooning for the lover, no good guy versus bad guy fights, and definitely no saturated melodrama. It was to be sophisticated and aimed more at the intellectual crowd, which means that it would steer away from the popular films I'd indulged myself in at that time. The serious actress in me, I realise in hindsight, wanted an opportunity like this. So I grabbed at it."

The figure of destiny had a name: Lester James Peries. The film was Delovak Athara. Looking back at it now, Suwineetha has this to say: "I haven't regretted taking part in it. Not now. Not ever."

Delovak Athara was a "first". It was unconventional for its time and was a commercial failure. But the director had done something for Suwineetha. He had opened a whole new career for her. "Until then, I had taken part in mainstream films. Delovak Athara was different. In terms of mood, plot, characterisation, it was unique. Yes, it failed at the box-office, but through it, I managed to learn much about serious acting."

This had been compounded by the films she had seen at that point in time. In fact what distinguishes her on this count is how willing she's been in learning about her craft. "I read books. I watched films. The actors I appreciated, like Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Chaplin, and Rita Tushingham, innovated on the kind of performances that actresses opted for back in the day. Needless to say, that spilled over to my career. I am grateful."

From Delovak Athara she moved onto other serious roles. She remembers D. B. Nihalsinghe's Welikathara and H. D. Premaratne's Sikuruliya. Regarding the former, I put it to Suwineetha that we remember it mainly because of the cat-and-mouse game played by Gamini Fonseka (as an ASP) and Joe Abeywickrama (as the unforgettable Goring Mudalali), and that her role (as the ASP's wife) aggravated this conflict to a point where the entire story resembled a Hollywood thriller. She agrees.

"Welikathara took me to Tashkent. I met Simi Garewal, Sunil Dutt, Nargis, and Shabana Azmi there." From Tashkent to Poland (at the Krakow Film Festival), Germany, and Czechoslovakia, Suwineetha says just how awed she was at seeing Europe's finest film studios and industries.

Sikuruliya was of course a different kettle of fish altogether. Suwineetha admits she had to play not one but three women, all tied to the same basic identity but still differentiated by how they adapt to their setting. "Initially I'm an innocent village damsel. Next I'm a wife of a brutal but dwarfish aristocrat. Then I'm a hardy urban woman. You see ‘me’ in them all, but that's not true. Premaratne wanted me to portray three females." I put to her that she succeeded, and that without it the message the director wanted to put across would have been lost on us. She smiles.

There were other films, of course. Hulavali paired her with Gamini Fonseka and Tony Ranasinghe. It took her to the 1976 Tehran Film Festival, where she met Rita Tushingham, the Shah of Iran, and (on his last day before departure) Satyajit Ray. There was also Yuganthaya, which saw her as Simon Kabilana's wife. And there was Malata Noena Bambaru, which saw her play out a frustrated wife to a homosexual aristocrat, played by Joe Abeywickrama.

Meanwhile, television came. She proceeded to take part in Dharmasena Pathiraja’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s "Lady with the Little Dog" and in H. D. Premaratne’s Sandun Gira Gini Ganee. She was there in television even after 2000. Her most recent film, Ira Handa Yata, was released in 2010.

Five years is not a long time for a comeback, and Suwineetha's still at it. Her latest film Bandanaya is slated for release next year. Directed by the often underrated but brilliant Udayakantha Warnasuriya, it promises to delve into the supernatural and horror in ways too difficult to do justice to in writing. Suwineetha herself prefers not to spill any beans about the production. She tells me some details about it, but I prefer to keep them to myself until you've seen the film.

Suffice it to say that it depicts a conflict over property between two sections of the same family, and that one family uses black magic to topple the other. "It's a first for our cinema, I think, and for Udayakantha himself." With a cast that includes Cyril Wickramage, Leonie Weerasinghe, Nethali Nanayakkara, Wilmon Sirimanne, Ravindra Yasas, Dulani Anuradha, and Hemal Ranasinghe, and with a cameraman like K. D. Dayananda, the film will hopefully be a success, especially with critics.

Time doesn't permit these reflections to take their intended course, so I'll have to finish them now. But how so? With a few points to ponder from Suwineetha herself, which are not all that optimistic.

"I worry because we have sacrificed everything to money. Our generation are not being given the respect they deserve. We are not being brought out and asked the right questions. Interviewers are more concerned with the personal than the aesthetic. To make matters worse, those they fawn on as sacred cows have devoted a fraction of their lives to the careers we devoted ourselves to completely. With a situation like this, how can we even think of venerating the past as a means of anchoring it for the future of our film and TV industry?"

Pertinent observations from a person who persists in a career she carved out for herself decades ago. Still. It would do well to take them in, I think. We as a nation and as a community that craves for art and the aesthetic will profit by them. For now and forever.

Photo by: Dushani Pushpika