Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Cyril Wickramage’s reflections on life and work

Some actors flaunt. Some are “stars”. Some (very few, I must say) get to be engraved for posterity upon death. The rest remain at most famous, who come and go and exhibit to their hearts’ content, but pass away. In this regard, those who are humble, down to earth, and free from that insufferable ailment called “arrogance” are the most able to claim posterity. They have years and decades behind them, awards and statuettes to give them enough reason to brag around. They choose not to, though. Ever ready to talk substance instead of frill, they have aged maturely, with experience as their biggest teacher. They remain in our hearts. Always.

I don’t remember watching many Sinhala films as a child, not on TV and not in the cinema hall. I wasn’t too enamoured of them because I felt they were (and I believe this somewhat even now) a little polarised: the good were great and the bad were terrible. In a way this was reflected in the actors I saw too: the same actors who shone in the great were clearly miscast in the terrible. There were exceptions, yes. Cyril Wickramage figured in among them, as far away from the world of popular “masala” cinema as Gregory Peck was from John Wayne and Daniel Day-Lewis is from Sylvester Stallone.

Cyril Wickramage was born in Kohilagedara in the Kurunegala District. He was born of the village and continued to move with it, a point he emphasises for me. He was 15 when the Jayamanne Brothers made Kadawunu Poronduwa. The Sinhala cinema was born with that film, although it’d take several years for it to mature properly.

Wickramage, in the meantime, grew up on a diet of Sokari, Nurti, and Nadagam, patronising them as they came along from Negombo to Kurunegala. “It was a treat for us to watch them. During Avurudhu we’d look forward to seeing Nurti plays in particular. We never wanted to act as a career, but my friends and I made these outings a pastime. We went and watched for the fun of it, and in the end that formed an integral part of our childhood.”

These plays, of course, were supplemented by the films Wickramage and his friends would watch at the Imperial Theatre in Kurunegala. “We didn’t see English movies, only Sinhala and Tamil ones. We doted on Jayalalitha, I remember. When Kadawunu Poronduwa came we saw it as well.” No doubt the symbiotic relationship these films had with the Nurti and Nadagam tradition would have appealed to him, buttressed by the fact that he didn’t get to experience the Western cinema.

Wickramage’s career began as a teacher, having qualified from the Peradeniya Training College after a two-year studentship. Thereafter he taught at various schools, including the Ratmalana Deaf School and Wesley College, Colombo. “I must have been at seven schools actually,” he admits. He was however not just drawn into teaching, but used his career as the base on which he began following other interests, including music (he learnt to master the violin) and dancing.

It was acting, however, which appealed most to him. At Wesley he had various flings at the stage. One of these flings got him into contact with Ananda Samarakoon, who had come to watch a play and later had beckoned Wickaramage to join the theatre. “That roused me, I confess,” he smiles as he recollects it today. More was to follow, not surprisingly.

Wickramage’s first film role was in Kingsley Rajapakshe’s Handapana in 1965, opposite Vijitha Mallika. It was admittedly a minor role, but it won him praise on account of its popularity. About a year later, moreover, he found himself playing a role which solidified his career: as Gunadasa, the love-struck and jilted fisherman in Siri Gunasinghe’s landmark film, Sath Samudura. I have seen Sath Samudura and I have always been genuinely moved by his performance, if at all because he lends such an earthy authenticity to it. Curiously, however, though the film bagged eight awards at the 1968 Sarasavi Awards, Wickramage wasn’t recognised.

I wrote before that Sath Samudura solidified his career. It also placed him in the kind of role he’d exemplify in the coming decade, signifying the restlessness and political polarisation of the youth of the country. In this respect he matured under the direction of two visionaries: Vasantha Obeyesekere and Dharmasena Pathiraja. Obeyesekere had him in Wes Gaththo (which I have not seen) and Walmath Uwo (which I have). I remember watching Wickramage perform a Nadagam song in the latter film, no doubt a tribute to the plays he had seen in his childhood.

With Pathiraja, however, he was cast in a different mould. Not surprisingly, he remembers Pathiraja with delight. “No other director tried to weed out the false and romantic from his films as he did, I can tell you that much. He came from the village, like I did, but he was adept at depicting the urban youth. He was in fact fascinated by how the city was being invaded and assailed by the village and how the city in turn tried to assimilate the village to its values. To this end he was faithful in his depictions of both locales. Other directors went for their share of criticism when it came to their films’ settings and backdrops. Not Pathiraja.”

Wickramage played a secondary character in Pathiraja’s debut Ahas Gawwa, which really “cornered” Amarasiri Kalansuriya. But it was in Bambaru Avith that he came out as a leading player. As a hard-bitten, murderous fisherman, his role was miles away from the gentle Gunadasa in Sath Samudura. His characterisation of a fisherman intending to marry the (fatally) beautiful Helen (Malini Fonseka) was unstable and at times uneven. But the script demanded him to be portrayed that way, and it’d be unbecoming of me not to comment that he did justice to it.

Even though the plot doesn’t quite let us in on why he resents the main character, Victor (Vijaya Kumaratunga), it’s clear that he seethes with anger and jealousy when Helen falls in love with him. There’s a sexual subtext to all this, possibly: it may be that Wickramage’s character is unable to reciprocate Helen’s love the way Victor does. Or it may be a classic case of “amour fou” on his part, which blinds and in the end consumes him (we are not made to see whether he does indeed commit suicide, but that is what we are left to assume). His death is the catalyst for the climax: the murder of Victor’s “enemy”, Anton aiya (Joe Abeywickrama), which in turn precipitates and reveals the tragedy of the story.

There were other roles and other directors of course. He was there in many of the tele-series which came to us in the 1980s: Lā Hiru Dahasak (Sri Lanka’s second tele-series after Dimuthu Muthu), Paligu Manike, Sasara Sayuren (which won for him a Best Actor award, courtesy of Wijeya Newspapers), and Menik Nadiya Gala Basi.

For me however, his two most memorable roles on television would have to be the conniving father-in-law in Kande Gedara and Appuhamy in Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Ella Laga Walauwwa. There’s a wide gap between these two, and it is to Wickramage’s credit that he bridged that gap and depicted his characters well. He’s still at it on television, of course.

At this point, he begins to talk about the state and ecology of our TV industry today. “People don’t have that much of enthusiasm in acting, whether it is film or the silver screen. They just come, commit something which goes by the name of ‘acting’, get their salary, and leave. There’s little to no time for productive, constructive work. It’s sad, but we see this happening mainly on television. TV series are not what they were back in our day. Audiences used to relate to both the storyline and characters. Not anymore.”

Then he talks about the state of our cinema: “It seems as though a certain section of our young filmmakers indulge in controversy. I’m forced to conclude that they are doing it for the sake of the novelty of it. That’s bad practice. These people are not really resonant with the audiences they are trying to reach. In other words, they aren’t very being faithful to the same public who will, at the end of the day, vindicate them.”

I ask Wickramage whether he has followed any guiding principle in his career, and he affirms it. Looking back however, I must admit that despite this, he has on no count demonstrated that he dogmatically prefers one acting style to the other. To be fair, he does profess interest in and enthusiasm for Stanislavsky, the Russian guru who revolutionised acting as we know it today. “Method Acting”, for Wickramage, is to be revered validly. “Look at Marlon Brando’s performance in Julius Caesar,” he tells me by way of illustrating this, “You had Shakespearean actors playing other characters in that film, especially James Mason and John Gielgud. But with his power, his intensity, Brando stole the show. That’s something only you can build up within yourself.”

He closes up the interview with an anecdote which resonates even today. “Jean-Paul Sartre, the French philosopher, had publicly asked war conscripts to refuse to serve in Algeria. There was talk of arresting him for having made that declaration. When Charles de Gaulle was asked to comment on the situation, his reply was, ‘Sartre is France!’ I believe that actors and artistes don’t command that sort of respect now. We have gone away from de Gaulle’s time. Sadly.”

All these are reflections, admittedly. But they hold water. Even today. Cyril Wickramage has lived his career. I feel we are yet to fully appreciate the worth of the man and repay the debt which we, as a nation, owe to him. I am not alone in thinking this, of course.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, February 24 2016