Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Brief Tribute to Irangani Serasinghe

It is difficult to devote one book, let alone one essay, to someone of Irangani Serasinghe’s calibre. This isn’t a clichéd statement. She truly cannot be summarised. For one thing, one is forced to wonder whether she was typecast for the better part of her career. If this is indeed the case, a second question is provoked: would she have fared better if she were selected for other more versatile roles?

This is of course a controversial question, and it is not the aim of this article to delve into controversy. To stay on the safe side, therefore, I will say this by way of introducing you to her: she’s had her share of other roles, and even a cursory, random look at her so-called typecast performances will make you appreciate the diversity she has embraced them with. I got to realise this strikingly when I sat down with her for an interview, several years back.

Irangani’s career was first and foremost in the stage, not cinema. Her “debut” as such had happened while at Girls’ High School, Kandy, where she took part in a production of Shaw’s Pygmalion. I asked her whether that first encounter with the stage left her with the inevitable stage-fright, and she confirmed it, adding as an afterthought that she still has it. She went to the University of Ceylon in Peradeniya, which at the time boasted of the well recognised “Dramsoc”.

She was then chosen for the leading female role in Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. A production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone followed in 1950. This version, adapted by Lyn Ludowyk, was praised by the critic Regi Siriwardena for keeping more in line with the message and theme of the original than with the first English translation of it, done in 1942 by Lewis Galantiere. Siriwardena had this to write about Irangani’s performance: “Except, I felt, for occasional moments in the first Act, she showed remarkable flexibility, control, and sensitiveness. It was the most moving performance I have yet seen on the Ceylon stage.”

I asked her whether acting was considered a viable option or profession by her peers, and she said that “it was never a profession then, except maybe in the Sinhala theatre, although at that time the golden era of the Tower Hall plays was coming to an end. What happened then was that the English theatre became amateurish.” No doubt the lacuna created in this period, partly owing to the identity we as a nation were still seeking, was to be filled by the cinema. Irangani, meanwhile, left for England, where at the request of Professor Ludowyk she studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and where she befriended several key thespians, including the formidable Flora Robeson.

Irangani admitted to me that more than American stars at the time, she admired continental actors, both in the theatre and in the cinema. She offered a list for me: Simone Signoret, Vivien Leigh, Yves Montand, and Laurence Olivier (the former two, incidentally, were married to the latter two). She also admitted that the acting style which had by that time become the vogue across the Atlantic, “The Method”, didn’t quite catch on her: “I did read Stanislavski’s books, but wasn’t very much taken in by his theory.”

We moved on to the cinema then. It was Lester James Peries who got her hooked into film, with her brother, Ivan, having painted a portrait of her many years back. Her first encounter with Peries was in his short feature Be Safe or Be Sorry, where she played an errant driver to comical heights. This was in 1955.

Rekava was a different story. The enormous reserves of dedication, strength, and fortitude that marked out the production of that film, she told me, were reflected in the cast and crew as well.

“You must remember that we were living in a fantasyland back then, with the films we were making. Sri Lanka had so much natural beauty, so many nuances of gesture and feeling registered in our people. Our filmmakers, I felt, weren’t making use of them. That is why I looked very much forward to Rekava. That was different, as we all know. I can’t even imagine what went inside the minds of some directors when they decided to paint foliage in their sets. We definitely don’t lack flora or fauna in this country. And even the actors were to blame for this: overacting had become the order of the day. This was reflected in some of Rekava’s cast too.”

At this point, she told me that while Rekava did get her into the mother-figure she’s known and has become popular for today, it afforded no cause for dissatisfaction on her part. “If you look at my motherly performances now, to be honest, you’ll appreciate that I play each part different to the other.”

I remember these motherly performances very well even now: overbearing in Delovak Athara, urbane and conservative in Ran Salu, passive in The God King, adamant, hostile, and tradition-bound in Deveni Gamana, and long suffering in Awaragira. They all testify to what she told me next: “No two mothers are the same, not on cinema and not in real life.”

Every actor has his or her “other side”, which sometimes can be dark and largely atypical. Irangani Serasinghe has had her share of this type of roles, two of which in particular intrigue me even today. When I set about discussing them with her, she agreed that they were quite unbecoming of her usual niche.

The first was in Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Dadayama. That film was an atypical thriller, atypical because, throughout the story, there can be found traces of melodrama and romanticism which, towards the end (and in that violent encounter at Wilpattu in the final sequence) are completely done away with. The entire film’s experience, that is the interplay between naive melodrama and gritty, near-shock-value realism, was reflected in its cast as well. I put across to Irangani that her performance in Dadayama put us completely on tenterhooks as to where that film was leading to. As you will remember, she is a brothel owner in the film, but she comes to Swarna Mallawaarachchi, the protagonist (and victim), as her fiancée’s mother.

Irangani herself agreed with me when I observed that her image of the “idealised mother” was what immediately made us identify with her would-be portrayal of the antagonist’s mother. Later on, as we realise who she really is, our idealised notions of her are shattered, perfectly in keeping with the anti-romantic spirit of the narrative. She noted that the role earned her both praise and vitriol: “I remember getting some correspondences which lambasted me for my choice of role. I told them that my character and I are two completely different people. There is no conjunction between us, nothing mutual about us.”

H. D. Premaratne’s Kinihiriya Mal was an entirely different kettle of fish, however. In there too, she was a brothel-owner, albeit more caricatured and stark than in Dadayama. There is a reason for this, of course, but now’s not the time to delve into that. Suffice it to say that Irangani received quite a lot of criticism for her performance: “I think I got many correspondences enlightening me on why I should not have taken that role,” she wittily put it to me. Again, her attitude remains the same: acting is acting, and there is a divorce between actor and character.

To sum things up, I believe Irangani Serasinghe has approached cinema from a strictly fresh perspective. I am thinking mainly of her initial few roles here, of course, but one can just as validly think of her later performances. In them, one can find a deeply felt approach to the cinema, with no frills and unnecessary shows or displays of emotion.

Sometimes, as with Delovak Athara, Ran Salu, and Deveni Gamana, she asserts herself. Sometimes she doesn’t. And sometimes, in her less than typical performances in Bakmaha Deege and Sagarayak Meda, although we take time to adjust to her characters, we begin to realise that this mother of all cinematic mothers in the Sinhala film can just as validly move into other roles. That, in the final analysis, may be a testament to her continuing presence in our collective mind. She is to the mother-figure, in other words, what Chaplin is to his irrepressible Tramp.

We as a nation are thankful and happy, I am sure.