Monday, February 22, 2016

Resurrecting Vijaya Kumaratunga

I am not a political writer. I doubt that the worth of a man, ANY man, can be reduced to his political merits. Legacies are framed by the larger than life, that is whatever injects a superhuman, supra-mundane quality into the lives being assessed. Politicians and individuals tend to come and go, but even among them you find names which remain cherished long after death, although the cause for that cherishment may not be (and I say this bluntly) because of their political signature.

Vijaya Kumaratunga would have been 70 today, were he alive. Like all magnetic personalities, he remains loved even by those who continue to question his political positions. That he was shot and killed didn’t mar his image. Not by a long shot. Why?

Vijaya was “one of us”, for one thing. He was not the kind of actor who “strayed”. He had his notions of acting and my guess is that not everyone favoured them. He had his highs and lows, moments when he perched up high and moments when the films he was in seemed to deteriorate badly. There’s a gap between “Thushara” and “Baddegama”, after all, both of which featured him. It’s to Vijaya’s credit, however, that he didn’t seem to care. He came, he acted, and he won crowds. Even when he was down, he courted audiences. Few actors can claim to such an achievement. Very few.

I admit I don’t know much about acting. Where’s the line to be drawn between artifice and honesty, between performances that pulsate with life and those which seem cut off from reality? It’s hard to measure, harder to conclude. With what I’ve seen, however, I can say this much about Vijaya: even in his worst performances, he was down to earth. And in his best performances – in “Hanthane Kathawa”, “Diyamanthi”, and of course the films of Dharmasena Pathiraja – he was hardy and formidable. To the hilt.

What else was there to this remarkable man? He didn’t pretend. He didn’t exaggerate, he didn’t flaunt (although he could), and he kept himself restrained enough for us to blend in with whatever character he played. Dharmasena Pathiraja used him well in this regard, not because he was a “star” who could refine his stories but because he could relate to the milieu Pathiraja went for: the urbanised and dispossessed, cut off from familial bonds and awaiting an uncertain future. It seemed that with Vijaya, every nuance and shade of emotion that the unemployed and dispossessed faced was captured. Excellently.

He failed, I think, when he tried to play characters set against a different milieu. He wasn’t convincing in Tissa Abeysekera’s “Karumakkarayo”, even less so as Babun in “Baddegama”. Vijaya was born in Ja-Ela, near the coastal belt. He could only have been at home with the community he grew up with, not surprisingly.

But wherever he was, he needed to be the hero. That was important. If he couldn’t save the day, if he couldn’t turn back and smile or frown at the closing chapter of every story he was in, we wouldn’t have relished that story.

Directors knew this. That’s why they featured him as the "saviour". Always.

There was another thing: his voice. He sang and sang well, and every time he performed, he broke out with a voice that exemplified suffering and patience. No wonder these songs captured our hearts so well, even when they were politically coloured.

Of his political career there’s little I can say. Whether he could have split the opposition vote in the 1988 election is a question not even prophets can answer, but that probably would have happened with or without Vijaya. He kept to his positions, he articulated them sleekly, and he courted enough and more fans who loved the man even if they didn’t vote for him. Whether this was enough, and more pertinently whether he would have injected into his presidency the same charisma and exuberance which epitomised his acting career, hence, are questions I’m not fit to answer.

On February 16, 1988, he was shot and killed outside his own residence. By that time he had taken part in a film which played him out as a villain, a rapist who seduces his own sister-in-law. I haven’t seen Vasantha Obeyesekere’s “Kadapathaka Chaya” in a long time, and I have been told that it took some time for audiences to adjust to this character, but I remember seeing a distasteful, yet suave and urbane, villain in him. He could have diversified his career and become more versatile, perhaps.

We’ll never know, of course. We can only guess.

Since his death we’ve been seeing stars take to politics. Almost all of them have succeeded, and some of them survive thanks to the films and TV series they’re in. None of them can claim to Vijaya Kumaratunga’s fame, though, of this I’m certain. Maybe it’s because Vijaya was the first real "political star" we had. Yes, we had Gamini Fonseka before him, but Fonseka was of a different mould, allied to a totally different political ideology. Besides, by the time Fonseka had become a statesman-like actor Vijaya had garnered fame. That fame was unparalleled.

I know of people who love him and hate his politics. I know of people who celebrate him, even though they are diametrically opposed to his ideology. That’s a given. The best stars, after all, aren’t marred by their personal predilections. The best stars survive despite them. In Vijaya we lost that kind of star, and since that day in 1988 I know the rest of the country, of my generation and generations that came before it, feel the same way. Telling, I should think.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, February 21 2016