Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Gamini Fonseka: Between love notes and fistfights

There are stars who fade and those who don’t. There are also those whose names are so etched in our collective memory, that to lose them from our “caress” (so to speak) would be nothing less than a travesty, a momentary lapse, on our part. We owe it to these men and women, these icons who came and enriched our lives and experiences, to never forget and always keep to heart, and for one simple reason: so as to bequeath them to generations that followed them and generations that will follow us. If we forget them, we forget everything.

Gamini Fonseka can’t be written about. Not that easily. There have been, to the best of my knowledge, books and essays and tributes running by the dozen, all attempting to present the man and his career in the best way possible. The problem with him however is that everyone has his or her way of describing him, and it takes a while to establish a point of congruence between them. For this man wasn’t just a fighter in the scripts he was in: he was also a lover, a moralist, someone who spoke for justice and fair play the way he thought he could. I saw him in Parasathumal and I saw him in Sarungale, and to me the two were (almost) one and the same.

That was Gamini. At his best.

There were, of course, those usual, less than memorable roles. We remembered the fisticuffs in them, the lovers crooning by bushes, the hero dashing his way to save the heroine. That hero was always Gamini. Even in his less than conventional performances – in Koti Valigaya and in Parasathumal – he couldn’t quite get rid of his bravado, that sense of daring and mischief which won him everyone in his country. “He was an icon” is at best, I feel, a clichéd and overused way of describing this, for the simple reason that he went beyond being just an icon. He became a symbol. And like all symbols, he ended up using the same trademarks. Again and again.

No, writers haven’t really done justice to the man. There were those who referred to him as a “Method Actor”, a man who emulated Marlon Brando and that in a way which was at best imitative, at worst crass. He was not Brando, that much is clear. He had his affiliations, his devotion to various stars held as sacrosanct in his day (including Paul Muni, the Austrian actor). But to call them imitative and hence regard them as rubbish would be to do a grave injustice to this man.

For the simple fact of the matter was, Gamini Fonseka knew his people. I remember watching an interview of him conducted by the inimitable Nuwan Nawayanjith Kumara sometime back. Gamini was, if memory serves me right, asked about his background and roots. Having recounted his past for a few minutes, he detoured and made a point which probably summed him up better than anything else could. “Just because I was brought up in Dehiwela,” he said, “and just because I was educated in Mount Lavinia, that didn’t mean I forgot my roots. We were from the village too, you must remember. We knew how to live with our community. We were hence never detached.”

He spoke with such conviction that I’m sure he was being honest with himself. And anyway, even in his less than serious performances you saw this pretty well. He was unparalleled in Chandiya and Yakadaya, two films which had him play out the hard-bitten antihero. Perhaps that accounts for how he could blend into other characters as well: he was repulsively empathetic opposite Vasanthi Chathurani in Amal Biso, and quietly poignant (not to mention convincing) in Sarungale. The latter film, incidentally, brought out and exemplified Gamini the lyricist (“Bambarindu Bambarindu” remains, for me, a haunting tribute to the crisis featured in that remarkable film, which at once personalises what Gamini, as the caste-conscious but gentle Nadarajah, grapples with).

He was also not a populist. Observe the films he directed. True, they were all concerned with the common man, but for Gamini what struck a chord in them all was his personal, intense preoccupation with justice and fair play. This could at times be a weakness, of course: it almost robbed Sagarayak Meda, which lampooned a dictatorial minister in a fictional government, of human density, for instance. His themes were all black and white, with no shades of grey. His world was occupied by the good and the bad, and in the end, the good triumphed, even if that moment of triumph could be bitter.

Towards the end of his career, his roles became less sympathetic. He infused sensitivity remarkably into his depiction of Simon Kabilana in Lester James Peries’ Yuganthaya, who was at once authoritarian and unsure (Sarath Amunugama, in a speech on Lester some years ago, once compared the final close-up shot of a distraught Simon to those harrowing close-up shots in Eisenstein’s landmark film Battleship Potemkin, of people so uncertain and afraid of the future), but he was repulsive as the mudalali in Sumitra Peries’ Loku Duwa. I have been told that he modelled himself on a real-life mudalali when he was acting in that film. I am sure it was that conviction which came through. At once.

Actors sometimes tend to play themselves. They do this so well that at times we forget the distinction between performer and performance. Gamini was like that. In one sense Parasathumal and Sarungale are clean different. But in another sense – taking into account his performances – they were virtually the same, because both had Gamini as Gamini. This is not a crude simplification but a spontaneous reflection on the man’s talent. In the end he won us. All those awards and titles he received, though rightly deserving, were peripheral. What mattered was how the people viewed him. What matter was how his name became his performance.

He was towering, this man. He knew when to step in a script and how to contort gesture and feeling. He was quiet in Gamperaliya but could be brash. He was authoritarian in Yuganthaya but could be forlorn (and he was, as Getawarayo showed). Together with Joe Abeywickrama, the man who made you laugh, and Tony Ranasinghe, the man who filled you with empathy for him from the word go, he formed the trinity of actors who continue(d) to enrich our collective unconscious. If that isn’t reason enough to celebrate him, I don’t know what would be.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, March 30 2016

Friday, March 25, 2016

'Deadpool': Reflections on 100 minutes

Deadpool was marketed as a “Valentine’s Day Movie”. It’s not (and I’m not revealing a spoiler here), but that’s not what perturbs me. The simple fact of the matter is, it’s superbly crafted, keeps to a terse, tight plotline, and obviously has a sense of self-amusement that I haven’t come across in any other superhero movie. There’s genuine enjoyment here, the sort of enjoyment only the most spontaneous movie can get out of you. On that count, this movie wins. Big time.

What disturbs me is how easily audiences can confuse genuine self-amusement with genuine wit. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two are clean different, that a movie which pits its own universe against the fourth wall (and thereby breaking it) isn’t necessarily witty. This confusion is (to my mind) pivotal to the success of Deadpool, and because of this, for better or for worse, it’s being touted as the Most Ironic Superhero Movie Out There. It’s not, and once again, by writing that I’m not revealing a spoiler.

First, the actors. Good god, they were awesome. Ryan Reynolds was born to play this role. He at once embodies the Deadpool those who grew up reading him (and those who didn’t) thought him as. His dialogues are as biting, acerbic, bordering on puns, and quick as the pace of the entire story. That’s always a good sign, after all. Suffice it to say therefore that Reynolds was spot on. There were, admittedly, sequences where I felt his wit seemed to outreach itself, but then again – this is Reynolds! This guy can (and I have seen his other performances) make us WANT to believe he’s overdoing it before going back just on time.

As for the others, I liked Morena Baccarin (Vanessa, girlfriend to Wade Wilson, AKA Deadpool) and Ed Skrein (as Francis Freeman, AKA Ajax). Skrein played out Ajax (Deadpool’s nemesis) the way any super-villain of his sort should: to the point, with no frill, and certainly with no fireworks. At times this was confusing – are we supposed to accept this guy’s a SUPER-villain? – but then again he didn’t need fireworks. He has undergone the same procedure that Wilson and Wolverine have (a mutation program that obviously went wrong for the latter two) and is capable of superhuman powers that, in a villain, don’t need a costume to make them seem more awe-inspiring.

From what I’ve heard and read, there are two main complaints making the rounds with both critics and audiences. One, there was lack of exposition and plot development. Two, the trailer summed the movie up so nicely it summed up the entire story. Of these Complaint Number Two is the most valid, because a perusal of the trailer reveals 1) the story involves a girl, 2) she figures in his decision to go into a medication procedure that turns him into a mutant-superhero, and 3) the entire story’s going to be based on how he gets at the person responsible for his disfigurement. Call me cruel, but the trailer (as my friend Kavindu Indatissa said) “literally gave everything away”.

Complaint Number One is different. True, there was a noticeable lack of character development, and as Brian Tallerico (www.rogerebert.com) implied in his review this helps the film’s attempt at presenting its story in a purposefully shallow way. In terms of plot development many felt there was much to be desired, but I disagree on one point: that this deprived the movie of any vitality. Why? Because unlike most superhero movies, this one doesn’t play on shades of grey (which Spiderman, Batman, heck even Superman does!) but instead sustains a black/white dichotomy from beginning to end. Because of this the plot needed to be terse, and the characters needed to be at their most outward selves.

Which brings me to another issue: all that blood and gore. I found it a little too much, even for a superhero like Deadpool, but for the life of me I can’t really find fault with this. I doubt this has as many scenes of dismemberment, disembowelment, and what-not as, say, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, but even though I felt (and feel) that Deadpool almost tried to imitate Tarantino’s bizarre blood-and-gore fest I didn’t feel perturbed by it. Wade Wilson is Wade Wilson, and to consider his actions as the result of his insanity (after being mutilated and transformed) is to miss the point: Deadpool isn’t the Joker. He lives, exists, and plans out his daily schedule with an end in sight, and whether or not the way he moves about is at odds with how the X Men (curiously only two of them are featured with our hero) want him to “behave” is irrelevant. He is amused at his own motives and how he sets about realising them. And we are as amused as he is.

This is just one way of looking at the movie, I admit. But that’s exactly how most viewers and audience members, whose reviews I’ve read or with whom I’ve talked, tend to analyse the story: in terms of its deliberate conceit, shallowness, and playfulness. Given the fact that we saw a darker, less comic Deadpool in X Men Origins: Wolverine (also played by Reynolds), we naturally felt disjuncture seeing Wade Wilson act the way he does in here. He is not apologetic but tries to be, he seems insane but is not, and he is in love in the most curiously curious way possible (and of course, he likes “Wham!”).

I liked the movie. I am not a superhero film fan but Deadpool won me, if at all because the main criticism made about it was misconceived and misconstrued in more ways than one. I mentioned at the beginning that audiences confuse self-amusement for wit. Deadpool wasn’t about wit. He was about self-amusement. But I couldn’t have cared less. He was fun, the story was fun, heck even Ajax was fun!

I must admit, however: that last scene was probably the reason why the whole story ended up as a Valentine’s Day Movie. And yes, it was awesome. Just the right kind of ending.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Objectifying taste in the movies

Not too long ago, a friend of mine accused me of trying to objectify taste in movies. We were (as I remember) arguing about the gulf between kitsch (or "rubbish") and art in our cinema, and not surprisingly I was "with" the purists (whom I end up with, somehow or the other). My contention was that inasmuch as money-makers are needed to salvage this industry, what they churn out in the name of earning profits and pleasing audiences are so bad that they do not warrant the “film” tag attached to them.

His argument, which wasn’t easy to counter, was simple: stop trashing the money-makers, leave them be, and go on enjoying the movies I’d grown up loving.

I am of course adamant and stubborn, and my opinion isn’t shared by the majority. My friend Yohan Cooray accused me (in his own special way) of pandering to the phobia that critics in this country display towards those who fulfil what I regard as the most primitive function of art: to entertain. I believe Yohan has a point, I know I might be having that phobia, and so I admit: his take on the impossibility of objectifying taste (in the movies at least) stands to reason. Makes me want to re-examine some hard truths about the cinema, both here and elsewhere.

I suppose the problem of taste-objectification is one of aesthetics: what is art and what is not, we constantly ask ourselves. If 12 Years a Slave is art, does that make Star Wars: The Force Awakens kitsch? Besides, who determines the criterion which differentiates the one from the other? These questions remind me of the age-old debate between critical appeal and commercial success, a debate that still hasn’t been resolved in the movies and one which reflects the distinction between art as decor and art as utilitarian, criticised amply by the inimitable Ananda Coomaraswamy, who, if he were alive today, would have written extensively on the movies.

What works for the unperceived minority (or those whose taste is reserved for esoteric movies) doesn’t work for the majority, everyone knows. This is where my friend made his point, because not only can’t taste be objectified, it also can’t be imposed. One can take to a work of art spontaneously, but just because a particular film, owing to a non-linear narrative or sloppy editing done to deceive the eye of the viewer, escapes the praise of that spontaneous cine-phile it doesn’t mean he or she should be lambasted. In this Yohan is correct and I am wrong.

Where I am not wrong however is this: in the movies, it’s difficult to blur the distinction between art and kitsch. Forget the United States of America. Take Sri Lanka. For every Dadayama there’ll always be more than one Kavuda Raja, and for every Akasa Kusum there’ll always be more than one Gamini. I know there’s no commonality that binds these movies together, except for one point: they are all driven by a personal vision. Only difference is, the director of Aksharaya infused his personal vision more so than the director of, say, Kavuda Raja, whose outlook on the cinema depended on the accumulation of popular tastes and cliches.

Perhaps this is my pessimism at work here, but in Sri Lanka (it being the small country it is), this distinction may continue for quite some time, and until then, the likes of me and Yohan will be destined to fight out with each other.

In the USA this problem virtually doesn’t exist. David Denby, in an article written for the “New Republic” (“Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?”), practically rants and raves by way of attacking the superhero movie genre and Christopher Nolan, but at the end of the day we are left wondering: how is it that the same industry which produces such obviously recycled movies as Iron Man and Captain America (which rarely obtrude on a human experience, inspite of their good-versus-evil storylines) can churn out 12 Years a Slave and a director as obstinate and admirable as Wes Anderson? Makes one want to grill Mr Denby, no doubt.

I doubt most Sri Lankans watch Wes Anderson (even I find his films somewhat obscurantist), but this doesn’t marginalise one salient fact: in the West the fine line between art and kitsch has eroded, in part due to the decline of the studio system (which, admittedly, still dominates) and in part due to the emergence of a free, independent cinema.

How about Sri Lanka? First of all, our film industry was and always will be teetering between two extremes, but I don’t necessarily see anything bad in this. In a small country such as ours it’s only natural that polarities come out more extremely. And how so?

In the nearly 70 years since Kadawunu Poronduwa was made, we’ve seen only one H. D. Premaratne come and go (and thank goodness he came up somehow!). Sure, there was Vasantha Obeyesekere, who valiantly tried to make use of popular cinema as a means of articulating social discourse, but by and by (and I say this honestly) his work eventually tilted to one side of the divide. Sure, we have Udayakantha Warnasuriya, but then again his films, like the films of Chandran Rutnam (who once told me that the key function of movies is to entertain), are all largely atonal. Consequently, his political thrillers are worlds away from his romances and comedies, and for this reason the distinction between artiness and non-artiness becomes apparent even in his cinema.

The best filmmakers, hence, operating for and in an industry like ours, can’t afford to make critically acclaimed works of art all the time. Nor can they always aim at connecting the box-office with the critic. That’s why there are foreign film festivals and of course financiers out there to bait. That’s why producers are hard to find here for a film like Aksharaya, which those inevitable cultural puritans pounded rather too much. That's why even as enlightening a figure as Lester James Peries found it difficult to wed the commercial with the arty, while in his most successful work – Golu Hadawatha, Akkara Paha, and Nidhanaya – he went more than any other director in his time to achieve this task.

My point therefore is that inasmuch as we critique this essential divide, we can’t ignore it in assessing movies which (we feel to be) inadequate and debased. Along the way we glance at the past rather nostalgically. We also yearn for reruns of classics, forgetting that while they’re watched on television by a great many people probably a fraction of that TV audience, who wish these films to be aired again and again, went to watch them when they were first screened in the country.

In short: we need a Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) as much as we need a Christopher Nolan. We need Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man as much as we need him in Chaplin, even though very few Sri Lankans I’ve met even know there was a movie made on that inimitable artist, let alone the fact that it starred the man who’d get to play Tony Stark about 15 years later.

There’s little space for these reflections to take their intended course, and an academic essay is not what I am aiming at here. Suffice it to say that my friend Yohan hit the point rather brutally, coming short of accusing me of being snobbish towards the money-makers. I am not, but it’s easy for people to think I am. Not because I deride entertainment as a key function of the movies, but because I believe that the directors of these films, by transforming the unreality and gross crudities rampant in their work into emotion, are (for the lack of a better way of putting it) duping audiences.

And you know the tragedy of all this? We don’t care. We just seem to go on. If that isn’t cause for sober reflection, I don’t know what is.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Malini Fonseka: A Queen Now and Forever

It was Gamini Fonseka’s last public speech. He was felicitating someone. He spoke about acting and he spoke about how this particular actor he was honouring couldn’t be defined properly. “David Lean,” he remarked, “was once asked about an actor. He was asked what the root of his talent was. Lean explained the best way he could. “But the questioner wasn’t satisfied: ‘What was so special about his talent?’ ‘That extra something which I cannot explain,’ Lean replied. Well, let me tell you all that this lady here has that ‘extra something’ in her, which none of us can explain. That’s the secret to her success.”

There was a standing ovation then, for Gamini Fonseka had just described this actor the best way anyone could. He had put into words what decades and performances had achieved for Malini Fonseka. And for the life of me, there is no better way I can go by way of summarising her. That would be merely superfluous.

Malini is, without a doubt, the “Queen” of our cinema. And rightly so. She has achieved an enviable dexterity in both commercial and serious films which only a handful of actresses have. Through all this, though, she has retained modesty. No false pride has detracted her from delving into different films and different performances. No preconceived notions about “good” or “bad” roles have set her back. Perhaps this is the key to her agility. What is surprising about it is that she didn’t come from an “acting” background: it was purely her love for both stage and cinema which took her to where she is now. That’s achievement, but hardly the romantic “rags-to-riches” story one gets to hear every day.

Her first stints at acting, not surprisingly, had been at the stage, a typical phenomenon among actors here at that time. She was educated at Gurukula Maha Vidyalaya in Kelaniya, which bordered the Vidyalankara Campus (now the University of Kelaniya). Apparently the University was staging a play, but those producing it there were on the lookout for an actress to take the lead role. This had been a problem because the Campus had no female students at the time, only boys and monks.

The dancing teacher at Gurukula was told to find a suitable person for the role. Malini was asked then to take part in the play, but, according to her, “I did not accept it then and there, because I had to ask permission from my parents.” The play was Noratha Ratha, produced and directed by H. D. Weerasiri: it marked the first time young Malini acted outside her school. From then on, the stage would entice her, getting her roles in such plays as Guttila by S. Karu.

Then came 1965. She was acting in a play called Akal Wessa, and would later win the Best Actress
award for it. Among the crowd that had thronged at Lumbini Theatre that night was Tissa Liyanasuriya, by then a two-time film director. He and Joe Abeywickrama were on the lookout for a “new face” to take on the lead role in his next film. She hadn’t been a unanimous choice: “Some people thought that I was far too thin and unsuitable for the film,” she tells me. Liyanasuriya and Abeywickrama, though, were satisfied by her test screening, and took her in.

The film was of course Punchi Baba, which would be released in 1968. Tissa Liyanasuriya himself once described her to me: “I didn’t order her around. She was fully aware and involved with what she did, and liked the script, story, and role. Others had wanted an incumbent for the film’s lead. Joe and I were adamant: we wanted a newcomer. Seeing her, we were quite confident that she could do it.” The film proved a launch pad for the budding film-actress in Malini, proved amply by her (relatively) minor role as the sister to Henry Jayasena in G. D. L. Perera’s Dahasak Sithuvili that same year.

Looking back, Malini says that none of the directors she worked with “imposed” their methods on her: “They were all quite respectful of my acting capabilities and the sort of performances I was generally comfortable with.” Most cinemagoers will remember her for those countless commercial flicks which, in more ways than one, lent the “Queen” tag to her career. But she had her share of serious films as well. Akkara Paha and Nidhanaya figure prominently among this crowd, but there were others too. Amaranath Jayatilaka’s Siripala saha Ranmenika, for instance, saw her play a very unattractive wife to Ravindra Randeniya, which won her unqualified praise from Satyajit Ray (“He couldn’t reconcile my character in the film with me!” Malini nostalgically remembers).

She admits that even at this stage, she didn’t entertain any preconceived attitude to “good” acting: “I didn’t come from an acting background. Hence my education was firmly based on what I experienced hands-down.” That, by the way, has been the main path through which giants in cinema have emerged. As she tells me all this, I am reminded of the American filmmaker John Ford, whose legendary directing style all boiled down to one dictum: “Photograph the actor’s eyes.” Echoed in that was Ford’s own underestimation of his real directorial power. I think it’s a case of modesty on her part, but the way I see it, Malini Fonseka’s attitude to acting, though not completely shaped up on a “clean slate” (given her adolescent encounters with the theatre), was almost wholly made up of firsthand experience.

For me, however, and doubtless for thousands of other avid followers of serious Sinhala cinema, she will be best remembered for her association with Dharmasena Pathiraja. From a minor part in his debut Ahas Gawwa to a lead role in his pièce de résistance (and undervalued masterpiece) Soldadu Unnahe, Malini took on the demands of the so-called “socially engaged cinema” with unabated interest. She became part of the repertoire of actors who surrounded Pathiraja, among them Wimal Kumar da Costa (her classmate at Gurukula), Amarasiri Kalansuriy (with whom she was paired in H. D. Premaratne’s unforgettable Apeksha), and Vijaya Kumaratunga.

Malini tells me here that the ’80s proved her most fruitful decade. This may be true, considering the onslaught of colour and the mushrooming of budding, commercial filmmakers following the post-1977 “open economy” policies of the National Film Corporation.

She lists Aradhana among her favourites. It won her the Best Actress award at the Presidential Film Awards ceremony that year. Indeed, her very first directorial effort, Sasara Chethana, an ambitious Western-styled action thriller, was made during this time, in 1984. She has since directed three other films: Ahinsa (1987), Sthree (1991), and Sandamadala (1994).

As the years went by, it seemed as though she took on increasingly matriarchal roles, as evidenced by her acclaimed performances in Punchi Suranganawi (2002), Wekanda Walauwwa (2003), and Ammawarune (2006). It would be unforgivable to omit her role in Prasanna Vithanage’s Akasa Kusum (2009) here, and I think it needs more than a mere mentioning in this article. She won her quite a number of awards internationally, including the Silver Peacock at the Indian Film Festival (which she herself once called the “biggest achievement in my forty years” in cinema).

The role was that of a former film star whose return to fame is marked by scandal. In hindsight, perhaps Prasanna Vithanage was spot-on for having chosen her to play the character. Echoing the “fading film star” motif which has figured in countless films in the West, the film delved into the patriarchal “despotism” that is at the heart of both our country and our popular entertainment industry.

One can spot out a kind of naked austerity in Malini’s performance in the film. There are no attempts at frilling or exaggerating: here, more than in any of her previous films, she achieves a deliberate underplaying on her part. This underplaying is essential for her character of Sandya Rani, whose nostalgic reveries of the past are underscored by a harsh, all-too real present. The clash of personal feeling and class/social realities (especially when she gets involved in the scandal the film centres on) is the epicentre of the film, and she epitomises this clash succinctly. Suffice it to say that it represents the achieving of an overarching goal Malini’s career has revolved around: the removal of the theatrical and the excessively emotional from her acting.

Perhaps this is one way I can explain what Gamini Fonseka said was unexplainable. Malini Fonseka is well aware of her capabilities and potential. She needs no perpetual limelight, however, and purely because we ourselves know her worth. That, at the end of the day, may well be the secret to the fame she has subsisted on throughout all these years and decades, although I still feel we are yet to come up with an indefeasible, indisputable summing up of her value, both as actress and as national icon.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, March 23 2016

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The (flawed) magic of H. D. Premaratne

Not too long ago, a friend of mine, Yohan Cooray, accused me of trying to objectify taste in movies. We were (as I remember) arguing about the gulf between kitsch and art in our cinema, and not surprisingly I was “with” the purists (whom I end up with somehow). My contention was that inasmuch as money-makers are needed to salvage this industry, what they churn out in the name of earning profits and pleasing audiences are so bad that they do not warrant the “film” tag attached to them.

His argument, which wasn’t easy to counter, was simple: stop trashing the money-makers, leave them be, and go on enjoying the movies I’d grown up loving.

I suppose the problem in our debate was one of aesthetics: what is art and what is not, we constantly ask ourselves. In the context of our cinema this remains as true as it’s going to get, not merely because audiences are going to sustain this distinction for time to come, but because directors, in their efforts at either making profits or winning ego-boosters by the name of awards and accolades, refused or rather couldn’t wed the two. They couldn’t aim at a fusion of the arty and the commercial, in other words.

Not that there weren’t exceptions. Of course there were. But they were few, far in between, and too indiscernible to offer reason for hope. Which is why, at the end of the day, when we look back nostalgically to the past, we talk of reruns of classics and retrospectives of directors who’re either dead or aged. Prime among them are directors who kept audiences alive to the movies they made, of course, and to me, there remains no better name to bring up as the exception to what I pointed out a short while back than H. D. Premaratne.

Premaratne was, to put it pithily, a genius. Only a genius, after all, could have made Sikuruliya, Apeksha, Parithyagaya, and Deveni Gamana, just like that and in that order. These movies captured him at his best, exemplifying his attitude to the cinema (critics would have a term for this: “middle cinema”) in ways virtually no other director in his time could match. Which is why, when we refer to our past and attempt at locating the moorings of popular culture in our cinema, his name remains un-erasable.

Premaratne’s films worked their magic on us long before we began realising it. How?

He was earthy. Down to earth. His storylines, if one looks at them carefully enough, were all rooted in our people, though that does little by way of differentiating them from the stories his contemporaries went for. What distinguished his work, hence, wasn’t just the fact that he went for the ordinary: it was the fact that he could, in film after film, transform whatever ordinary plotline it was into a tool of social and political comment. Premaratne wasn’t an activist the way, for instance, that Dharmasena Pathiraja or Dharmasiri Bandaranayake was. But at the end of the day, he was as allied to the same concern for the dispossessed and marginalised as they were.

What proved to be his strength could, nonetheless, be his weakness. From Sikuruliya to Saptha Kanya there were 11 films, all of which were box-office hits. He was inconsistent in his work: sometimes, as with Deveni Gamana, he infused the political into the aesthetic, pairing the two in ways which did the social issue he was examining proper justice, and sometimes, as with Saptha Kanya, he let go of political realities so beautifully that, like the best American directors, he made us forget the unreality of his stories and made us fall in love with them.

So how did this become a weakness? There is a gulf between the social and the personal, though I don’t mean to say that they are irreconcilable. In Premaratne’s better films, he could bring the two together wonderfully – witness his take on feminist issues in Sikuruliya, the issue of dowry and marriage in Parithyagaya, and of course the theme of virginity and its sacrosanct place in our society in Deveni Gamana. But even in his more commercially successful work, his inability at doing away with this gulf showed. That didn’t mar his image. But it was a weakness.

I am thinking here of Visidela, a film which, like much of Premaratne’s other work, caught hold of an actual political experience and used it as background material for the fictionalised world that he created. The story of Visidela takes place around the time of the bheeshanaya, with its main characters all figuring in the tragedy that leads to probably the most downbeat ending that Premaratne contrived in his films. What we see, understand, and empathise with, is the plight of the characters played by Anosha Sonali and Jackson Anthony, siblings who get carried away by the idealism of youth despite the harsh realities that exist outside (and sometimes even within) their village.

I know what certain critics would have thought of this: that in making the bheeshanaya “background material”, Premaratne privileged the plight of these two siblings, which essentially made the political aspect of the story a mere instrument at the hands of the personal. What this assumes is that this makes the personal “lower” in terms of relevance than the political, an erroneous misconception in film aesthetics. I’d say that the director’s weakness comes up in another form: not when he privileges the personal over the social, but when he dabbles in the two at the same time rather confusingly.

The authors of “Profiling Sri Lanka” write that Premaratne’s films display an uneven quality, which to a certain extent is true. That unevenness comes up strongly in Visidela, and I can pinpoint the exact time when it does come up: when, after Sonali and her lover (Razi Anwer) flirt with each other over Samitha Mudunkotuwa’s rendition of “Gumu Gumuwa Wadule”, we see Sonali’s uncle (played to perfection by W. Jayasiri) making covert sexual advances on her (the theme of incest, I must note here, wasn’t that convincingly portrayed, especially when contrasted against how he treated socially relevant themes in his other work).

I remember talking with a friend of mine about the disjuncture between these two sequences, and I remember pointing at the (random) references made by certain characters to the bheeshanaya in the film. These references (Gnananda Gunawardena for instance, as a buffoonish police officer, summarises what the police are doing in areas of rebellion with a cliché: “We are establishing peace!”) become distracting as the movie goes on, and by the end of the story, when Anthony’s character comes up swearing revenge on Jayasiri, thereby rendering the image of the peaceful, virtuous village a myth, we fail to reconcile the political with the personal.

Contrary to what critics would have thought, hence, what fails in Visidela isn’t its refusal to privilege the political but its inability to conflate its socio-political context with the fictionalised story of Anthony, Sonali, Anwer, and Jayasiri.

Premaratne didn’t direct only Visidela, of course. There were other films, other masterpieces, each as loved as the other. Throughout the 1980s he became more politically committed, and this meant that (out of necessity) he had to do away at least partly with the slickness and romantic idealisations that were part and parcel of his initial work. This culminated in Saptha Kanya, a film which despite its romantic moorings displayed an almost indifferent attitude to its social context.

It was almost as if he were trying to deliberately weed politics and social themes out of stories which played around with romantic fiction, as if he were trying to drive home the point that political activism in the cinema couldn’t cohabit with entertainment-frill. When he tried to do away with this distinction with his last film, Kinihiriya Mal, consequently, we didn’t quite feel the full thrust of his magic. Like Visidela before it, hence, his last film remained ambitious and therefore larger-than-life.

These are reflections. They don’t pretend to be anything else. There’s so much to H. D. Premaratne that has escaped the critical eye, if at all because critics who refuse to see anything merit-worthy in directors who bridged the gap between the arty and the commercial are reluctant to do justice to him. “Profiling Sri Lankan Cinema”, admittedly, records his shortcomings, as few as they were. But this is not enough. Premaratne’s genius remains elusive. He gave us Saptha Kanya and at the same time Apeksha and could deftly examine society in ways his contemporaries could not. If we can't acknowledge that, we have failed in acknowledging the man.

What my friend Yohan pointed out above is true. What he implied is truer. If we stop trashing the money-makers and re-assess them, perhaps we’d see reason for hope. And hope, let’s admit it, is grossly missing in our cinema. We have the likes of H. D. Premaratne to thank for having enlivened our industry, no doubt.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, March 16 2016

Monday, March 14, 2016

Something of a reply (to two blog posts)

Sometime back, a friend of mine, who isn’t exactly cosy with the ethics (or the lack thereof) among bloggers, had this to say about commentators parading as analysts: “They present opinion as fact.” To me that sums up everything that can be said about the blogosphere in Sri Lanka, not because it makes evident the major deficiencies of ideologues parading as journalists but because it makes us think of how this profession has been bandied, frilled, and sometimes uprooted by those who (genuinely) confuse opinion for fact.

That was then. Since that time I’ve questioned myself about the inclusion of opinion in articles which are touted as factual (when they are not) and have come to the conclusion that the writer writes while the reader reads (so, for instance, the writer is not required to read the reader’s comment). The reader has discretion. So does the writer. Both are tied or at least used to be tied together by this mutual freedom which the one accorded to the other.

In this universe we refer to as a blogosphere, however, we have the good, the bad, and the mediocre. In my opinion (yes, this is an opinion piece, don’t get that wrong) the latter of these three are just about the guiltiest of perpetuating the kind of intellectual glut I alluded to above, because THAT’s the group which dabbles in speculation while attempting to write facts.

Two blog posts caught my attention this year, in this regard: Vichakshana Arangala’s piece on Ananda College, and Thisuri Wanniarachchi’s piece on Big Matches. I don’t think either of them was (that) mediocre, but that doesn’t help matters. Not one bit.

There’s a world between these two articles. The first (characteristically titled “Ananda College: A Breeding Ground for Racism, and a Threat to Peace, Tolerance, and Secularism”) caught my attention at once because it was obviously written (and the writer, Vichakshana Arangala, admits this) as an affirmation of former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s hot-headed speech against what she called “Sinhala Buddhist schools”.

The second was more nuanced, less direct, but certainly as opinionated. I admit Thisuri Wanniarachchi’s piece on Big Matches (“What Your Schools Didn’t Teach You”) caught my attention more for the themes she selected for discussion than how she discussed them. Her writing was to the point and unapologetic, which is why, over these past few months, I’ve come to appreciate her articles (especially her political articles).

But I digress.

Vichakshana (who describes himself as an “Ex-Buddhist Atheist”) extrapolated more, I admit. He has since taken his post down (and made his blog private), but fortunately I remember sections of it well. The entire thrust of that article amounted to portraying a) Colonel Henry Steel Olcott as a kind of Western agent who castrated Buddhism, b) Ananda College as a repository of Sinhala Buddhist, anti-minoritarian chauvinism, and c) his school-mates there as paranoid, extremist, murderous, and basically every other trait that could justify his paranoia.

The problem with Vichakshana’s piece is that he generalises while trying to make us believe that he doesn’t. Let me be clearer: he makes us believe that the specificity of what happened to him takes on a general character, when it does not. In other words, he commits that classic mistake bloggers and op-ed columnists commit again and again: de-legitimising the wrongfulness of the social ill they condemn by ranting and raving and indulging in wild extrapolations (I couldn’t help raising my eyebrow, for instance, when he wrote that “Anandhism” – a term I have not come across before – was comparable to Tamil schools promoting Prabhakaran, not least because I am yet to come across a Buddhist equivalent of Prabhakaran, literally at least, from the past 50 years).

I have great respect for those who think outside the norm, but there are limits, and those limits are framed not by outsiders but by those who seek to defy convention. Simply put, Vichakshana commits the same mistake others of his calibre do: rationalising paranoia, opinion, and specific events in terms of some conspiracy which (he feels) brainwashes those he opposes. This lends little credence to what he’s trying to say.

But there was one thing Vichakshana didn’t do, and that’s going on a tangent. Thisuri Wanniarachchi did just that.

Thisuri began writing of fraternities between popular schools in this country and then decided to talk of the objectification of female students a la “Big Match Season” and the racism inculcated by Ananda College at THEIR Big Match (of all things)! Unlike Vichakshana’s assertions however, I was jarred by what Thisuri actually wrote. With Vichakshana the problem was with the manner of his presentation. With Thisuri the problem was with WHAT she presented.

I know the usual reply she got to her article: that she was a “Feminazi”, that she couldn’t enjoy her school-life, that she was too “elitist” to enjoy the beer-drinking, socialising, shouting, whistling, and hooting culture of popular schools in Colombo. What these did was to reinforce the image of students from these schools that she had painted: unable to contain criticism and prone to wild outbursts. I don’t think you can blame anyone for thinking that the reactions she got echoed much of what she wrote about those who reacted to her post.

I don’t claim to be a cricket fan (I’m not) and I won’t comment on anything connected with the Big Match. All I know is that at one point her article reeked of the same kind of opinionated biases which two bloggers (Dilshan Senaratne and Ravindu Ariyawansa) took on and exposed. For example: her notion that in the USA only elite Universities organise anything comparable to a Big Match was only half-true and beside the point she herself was trying to make.

The most common quasi-journalistic fallacy is mistaking the particular with the general, and in her article Thisuri effectively conflates Sinhala Buddhists with extremists (I quote: “The Sinhala-Buddhist centric schools conveniently forgot to teach their kids that racism is a reflection of one’s lack of education”). This was admittedly more sober than Vichakshana’s piece, but again, extrapolation has its limits. When those limits are breached under the guise of analysis, hell tends to (metaphorically) break lose. While I don’t agree with much of the comments her article provoked, hence, there was reason and wit in Dilshan’s and Ravindu’s “replies”.

I don’t pretend to know things that I don’t. I don’t know the first thing about cricket and my guess is that I shouldn’t talk about a particular topic unless I’ve “been there, done that”. As Dilshan correctly points out, all it takes is the ability to string two words together and voila! – You’ve got your widely shared, widely circulated op-ed “masterpiece”. The way he unveiled the fatal contradiction in Thisuri’s article – that by railing against the fraternal elitism of the schools she picked on, she used an elite society she’s familiar (the United States) with to provide a point of reference – was a classic on the art of counterargument.

So, to sum up the arguments against both these writers: schools aren’t older than Universities here, people feel justifiably proud of schools because they spent 12 to 14 years there, that is not a sign of immaturity, dressing up as women is probably not equivalent to being biased against transgender people, “Sinhala Buddhist schools” aren’t necessarily bigoted at the outset, students of a particular school DO NOT ALWAYS reflect the values the school espouses, and wild extrapolations paraded as factual analysis help neither the writer nor the reader.

Don’t get me wrong. Assault is terrible. Being drawn out forcibly and interrogated for being an atheist and anti-Buddhist is terrible. And normalising both of these is terrible. They should be called out and they should be condemned. I believe that they are.

But miracles don’t happen overnight. My guess is they never will. That’s where social media plays a role (I think the boy from Kuliyapitiya proved this well), and that’s where reasoned, proportionate judgment will prevail over opinionated bias and prejudice. It wasn’t merely opinion which got that little boy a spot in Trinity College, after all. It was facts. And analysis. Those who ended up calling the villagers of Kuliyapitiya idiots and bumpkins got the boy nowhere, let us not forget.

Whether we like it or not, hence, winning both sides of a debate isn’t as simple as ranting and raving and extrapolating. There’s more that needs to be done. Much more.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Henry Jayasena: A Brief Retrospective

I remember the first time I saw Henry Jayasena. Not in a film. Not on stage. It was in Doo Daruwo, the TV series which first brought to Sri Lankans an idea of what long-running mega-series were. “Sudu Seeya” was a name which kept cropping up, and for some inexplicable reason the actor who played the grandfather in it became indistinguishable from the role. That was how I got to know about him. He was and remains (for me at least) “Sudu Seeya”. Always.

And right until his death more than six years ago, that’s the name I kept on using. I don’t think my generation got to know him through any other way. There were his films and plays. There were those songs he sang. He had his share of ups and downs, of greater and lesser roles. Everybody did. It took some while, though, for me and the rest of my generation to get to fully assess the true worth of the man. Even after all these years, I’m not sure whether we’ve done enough justice to him. Writers can do scant justice to monuments, after all.

Henry Jayasena was not just an actor or a writer. He had the inner conviction of a true patriot to absorb the best of both worlds (East and West) without feeling the need to imitate one or the other. True, there were those who claimed that his acting was a tad too stylised, to the point where he seemed to overact. Perhaps this was a legacy of his stints at the theatre.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Jayasena’s book Play is the Thing intricately details his early years, so I won’t duplicate it here. Suffice it to say that his interest in the theatre, enlivened by visits made to his hometown Gampaha by Rukmani Devi and the Jayamanne brothers, was looked down upon by his father, Albert. Henry’s father had taught him a little, before he was enrolled at Lorenz College (“a kind of poor-man’s school for English,” as he puts it in the book) and later at Nalanda College, Colombo 10 (back then in its infancy).

At both schools, he had increasingly become enamoured of the stage – at Nalanda he had written and produced a play, the first past pupil there to do so within its premises – and, thanks to his father, had had been introduced to W. A. S. Perera (Siri Aiya) of the popular children’s radio program Lama Tiraya, broadcast over Radio Ceylon. His first real job was as an English Assistant Teacher at a school in Dehipe. Jayasena’s first play, Janaki (based on the Ramayana), had been staged here.

It wasn’t at this school, though, that his career really began. Soon after, he was moved to another job, one that would stay with him for the better part of his life and career: as a clerk at the Public Works Department (PWD). It provided Henry with a financial cushion. His film career began in 1959, opposite Punya Heendeniya and Joe Abeywickrama in Sri 296.

A voyage of sorts to Russia and England (through a UNESCO fellowship) would follow arguably his most nuanced role in film, as Piyal in Gamperaliya (1964). Perhaps here I should repeat what Lester James Peries once told me: “Henry came from the stage. So did Trilicia Gunawardena (who played Anula). Personally, I don’t think they played a part in a more graceful, restrained manner than they did in Gamperaliya. Henry himself thought that he was underplaying. That is why, in his later performances, I thought he overacted a little.”

I remember the last scene in the film, where Piyal and Nanda (played by him and Punya Heendeniya) succumb to their repressed feelings. Piyal, unable to veil his jealousy any longer, hurts Punya’s feelings. The restraint he epitomised until then in the film was in stark contrast to this momentary loss of cool. That was when I understood what Peries meant, when he commented that in no other film of his (except perhaps for Nidhanaya) did an ensemble cast prove its greatest strength.

This is not to belittle his other film credits. It’s just that, as Piyal (even in Gamperaliya’s sequel, Kaliyugaya), Jayasena invested his performance with a kind of restraint he did not maintain (out of necessity perhaps) in most of his other performances. There may have been one solid exception. I’m thinking here of G. D. L. Perera’s Dahasak Sithuvili (1968), in which he is a clerk obsessing over whether his love interest is going out with a colleague from work.

There are sequences in the film (for instance, when he comes across photos of his lover and the colleague, frolicking by the sea), where the “grace under pressure” he exhibited back in Gamperaliya almost seems to reach breaking point. But no: at the critical moment, his current of memory is disturbed, and he pulls back just in time.

There were other films, both off-beat and commercial. Of his later performances though, none could quite match his role in Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s Hansa Vilak (1980). In Jayasena’s performance there, we see a fusion of the theatrical and restrained. As the wronged husband to Swarna Mallawaarachchi, who later goes back to her to the fury of Bandaranayake (who’d maintained an extramarital affair with her in the film), he laces his role with theatrical finesse and drama. At times, this becomes too theatrical, but the conviction in his playing strikes through to us anyway.

What of Henry the stage-man? He was always cautious, for one thing. He was the kind of playwright who never turned out to be an aesthete. He wasn’t too overjoyed at castrating his work of any local colour. This was true especially when it came to Hunuwataye Kathawa. Bertolt Brecht had pioneered his own method of drama, called “Verfremdung” (alienation). This meant a stripping off of rhetoric and emotion, achieving a sort of “distancing effect”, with the staging of a play. Deliberately however, Jayasena rejected this approach in his adaptation. He came for his share of criticism, but I think he was right in this.

Perhaps he taught us a lesson here. He knew the theatre, inside-out. He realised that for all the trends the rest of the world had popularised, he still would have to shape and adapt his stories to suit his own people. He understood that we had our own stories to enrich our theatre with. He also understood that it was not imitation, but adaptation, which would develop our stage. That this didn’t mean a local playwright should be divorced from the issues of his time was proved by his next play, Apata Puthe Magath Nathe: the closest thing to a political statement Jayasena came up with. It was based on a true incident, was banned, and was later staged to wide acclaim.

That was Jayasena. Unapologetic. Unbending.

Today we talk of stars and icons. We measure fame in terms of “the moment”, which means that we relegate legends, sometimes erroneously, to the background. I believe, however, that if we all could take stock of those we forgot as icons, those we left behind in order to become part of the culturally uprooted and Westernised, then we can all mend our ways. Especially today, when the English theatre continues to bloom, and the Sinhala theatre continues to be reborn.

We have Henry Jayasena to thank for this, I am sure.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, March 9 2016

Sunday, March 6, 2016

For Ajantha Ranasinghe

I confess that my knowledge of poetry is a little abysmal. I like reading poetry, I like extracting whatever experience there is embedded in it, but beyond that I am, for the lack of a better word, a dunderhead. Now lyrics are different, as in they happen to be poetry strung up and tuned to a melody. But even there, for some inexplicable reason, I tend to forget the lyric and get fixated on melody and tempo.

There was a time when I considered songs which were otherwise rubbish as monumental purely because of their rhythm, but that was way back. Even now though, I am pretty much an ignoramus when it comes to reviewing a poem or lyric.

In the late nineties, when I began responding to music and lyrics a little spontaneously, there were two lyricists from here I usually went for. This wasn’t because of any bias or prejudice on my part, but because these two wrote songs which seemed to be aired whenever I turned on the radio. They were Sunil Ariyaratne and Ajantha Ranasinghe. Ariyaratne’s lyrics tended to veer into satire and even nonsense a tad too much after some time. Ranasinghe’s lyrics were easier and more spontaneous. I liked Ranasinghe more.

And how couldn’t I? Ranasinghe was the lyricist who gave us (and could give us) “Indunil Gangulal” and “Sili Sili Seethala Alle”, who could write of love and of his country’s heritage just like that. He was “rooted” in the truest sense of that word. That showed. All the way. It took some time for me to realise just how integral he had been to my cultural sensibilities, for my knowledge of Sinhala remains at best passable and consequently I didn’t (or couldn’t) respond to Sinhala lyricists the way I could to, say, English poets.

“Integral” is a powerful word, I know. But that’s what he was to me. Always.

Ajantha Ranasinghe came to me with those film songs he wrote. That is how I first “met” him. Listen to these songs today, and you will realise how he transforms the simplest metaphor into a substantive reality. This was him at his best, and this strength was what he kept with him for the most, for instance in “Bodha Meedum”

     බොඳ මීදුම් කඳු රැල්ලේ
     සුරංගනා රජ දහනේ
     ඔබේ සිනා කඳුළු බිඳත්
     හෙටත් වාසනා
     හෙටත් වාසනා...

There was nothing obscurantist about Ranasinghe. He came to us simply and directly. He could write about love in a hundred different ways, I’m willing to bet, and be able to establish the commonalities that bound them together in one go. That this was complemented by his rootedness, that he never removed himself from the bonds which tied him to his humble background, everyone knew. Which was how he entranced us with his pen, particularly with those songs that celebrated love so minimally and yet intensely:

     මාල ගිරා ගෙල
     මාල පොටක් බඳු
     ගෝමර පෙති මාලේ...

     පාට සරුංගල්
     පාට නෙලාගෙන
     රුව දිලෙනා ලීලේ...

He neither simplified nor elaborated beyond what was necessary to evoke fragrance. Like the best among his contemporaries he knew how to evoke spontaneous reaction, to arouse memory and that by distilling what his verses were trying to get at throughout his songs. Even when he wasn’t writing about love and dwelt on other more mundane matters, he showed this pretty well. As with “Indunil Gangulal”, which like the above quoted lyrics moves over its themes in fragments before distilling them in one go:

     සිව් මහා නදී ගලා බැසලා
     රත්තරන් ගොයම් කරල් පැසීලා
     ජාතිකානුරාගයෙන් නැගිලා
     සදා ජීවිතෙන් පුදා රකිව් ලංකා...

I wrote before that I met him firstly through his film songs. I met him again, this time personally for an interview and a biographical sketch. He spoke slowly, with conviction, and went through each and every facet to his career. Ranasinghe hailed from Thalammahara, in Pannala. He drove his point about his upbringing well in that interview, I remember. Only someone who could move with the village, he told me, could have written “Mala Gira”, with those lines and verses celebrating those little, little details that never escape the eyes of those whose bonds with birthplace were unbreakable.

We talked for well more than an hour. Not enough, I should think. Not by a long shot.

He wasn’t a pedant, however. He wrote of love, true. He could appear austere and was rarely ostentatious, true. But he wrote other songs, most of which are marginalised today but which showed his versatility well. The lyrics he wrote for Jothipala, for instance, are sung by everyone. They found their way into our films and those in turn made them even more popular. I am willing to bet, though, that when people sing them they think of Jothipala firstly and whoever composed them secondly. Inevitable, a little tragic, but also a little comforting, since Ranasinghe is remembered more (I’d like to think) for those paeans of love and life where he articulated his rootedness well.

Ajantha Ranasinghe died on February 27. He was 75, I read. A loss certainly, and one which will be felt even more in the coming years. Our cultural firmament had a place for the likes of him. My bet is he’ll continue to occupy our collective unconscious, our unyielding cultural tastes. There’s a reason for this, of course. Ranasinghe wasn’t a pedant. Nor was he a populist. He liked to be a moderate.

I think the last word should be his: “We need to move. We need to progress. We can’t be singing ‘Gal Lena Bindala’ forever. But at the same time, we need to be mindful of form. If we can fine-tune content to that basic form, while keeping in mind that almost everything in culture is evanescent, we cannot flounder.”

Aptly put, I’d like to believe. A pity he left us so quickly.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, March 6 2016

Thursday, March 3, 2016

By way of tribute to Tony Ranasinghe

As I kid I didn’t watch movies because of their directors. I watched them because of their actors. A good movie had a good cast, I reasoned, and perhaps in my immaturity I forgot everything else. The actor after all is what’s “live” on a work of art, at least immediately, and hence what makes that work accessible to the audience. To an extent this was true of our cinema as well, and soon enough some names started cropping up.

That was how I first became acquainted with Tony Ranasinghe. It’s been quite a while, but I’m not sure whether I ever got to understand his performances for what they were worth.

I remember the film critic Christopher Orr, in an article in “The New Republic”, chastising a “New York Times” article on the inimitable Cary Grant. He singled out one sentence for critique: “Grant made more than 50 movies as a leading man, but the only thing that ties them together is that they starred Cary Grant”. He posed this (obvious) question: “It's hard to know what to make of this contention, which could be directed at nearly any prolific actor. Is there something other than Robert Duvall's presence that ‘ties together’ the 80 or so features in which he's appeared?”

I don’t know what the “New York Times” was thinking, but my guess is that it was spot on. What Orr missed (I may be wrong in this, of course) was that inasmuch as all films starring Mr X would be tied together by the fact that they starred Mr X, this self-evident “laurel” would be applicable only to “the best” performers. Not the mavericks. Of course Mr X acted in films which featured him, but it takes a combination of acting, looks, charm, and intelligence (my criteria for an actor, by the way) to demarcate those films particularly for having cast him, a point driven home even more if half of them turn out to be rubbish. No one can say that all of Grant’s credits were as laudable as the ones in The Philadelphia Story or North by Northwest, after all.

Tony was like that. He acted in a great many films. He’s remembered for even the worst among them. Like the best actors, he graced the screen long after the film he was in failed to move us. That’s how actors are, after all. Their performances outlive their personal lives.

I met him more than a year ago, when I was compiling a book on actors and directors from his generation. I got the notion he wasn’t too interested in talking about his life or childhood, not because he disliked them but because biographers, because of their tendency to privilege facts over analysis, preferred glossing over personal anecdotes rather than the true worth of this extraordinary actor. For Tony, acting didn’t (or shouldn’t) just propel someone to fame. It should make him reflect and (more importantly) realise the parameters within which he was working.

He was against Stanislavski, for one thing. Stanislavski, as those who profess acting as a career would know, revolutionised acting. His theories won him an audience on the other side of the Atlantic. While much of Europe celebrated Shakespearean theatre, the USA championed a different mode of acting (“The Method”), which privileged spontaneity over reason, exemplified the most (arguably) by Marlon Brando and James Dean. Tony’s distrust over this was evident from the word go. He used Brando to justify his point: “In Brando’s early years he was superb. But towards the end, he could never play anyone beyond himself. He was always Brando. In his worst films, like The Ugly American, this proved a handicap. That is why I never professed ‘The Method’.”

This not only explained his distrust over “new fads” in acting, both here and there, but also his preoccupation with Shakespeare. There were actors he held to heart – he named John Gielgud, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, and Kenneth Branagh – and my guess is what won him over was the fact that they never tried to over-simplify themselves the way Brando did. They were reason-driven, never prone to emotion, and always mindful of the essential divide between the actor and his/her performance (something those who took to “The Method” often do away with).

And in a way, that’s what made Tony the actor he was. There was a time when he exemplified a certain “image”, which he couldn’t really get out of. He was in Delovak Athara, Parasathumal, and Hanthane Kathawa, three films which represented him at his best, as a hero beset with flaws which in the end undermined him rather tragically. He was also in Ran Salu, as a philanderer who abandons the woman he impregnates. He was a little unnerving in that, but as a villain he predicted and foresaw the kind of roles he would get much, much later.

I think Chandran Rutnam spoke for these performances when, in a phone conversation, he acknowledged that Tony was “our answer” to Montgomery Clift and James Dean, the American cinema’s embodiment of masculine fragility. Like Clift and Dean, Tony’s first few performances followed variations of the same motif: his characters all try to win the day, but some flaw or the other makes them lose their footing towards the end. In Delovak Athara it was a persistent desire to be obedient to his family and associates, in Parasathumal it was a lack of courage to stand up against his landowning “boss” when he starts wooing the object of his love, and in Hanthane Kathawa (which had his best performance from this time) it was an inability to reciprocate love.

In the decades that followed those performances changed. He became more aggressive, culminating in his performances in Duhulu Malak and Ahasin Polawata and then detouring wildly to films which had him as a villain. He was miscast in Baddegama, but that didn’t mean we forgot his Fernando. He was superb in Saptha Kanya (he told me that people had difficulty identifying him), somewhat lacklustre in Prasanna Vithanage’s Sisila Gini Ganee not a little lecherous in Asoka Handagama’s Channa Kinnari. True, he was a supporting character in the latter two, but that didn’t make us forget the man. If at all, he reinforced the defeatist, acerbic outlook they conceded ground to.

He didn’t just act, of course. He wrote. His scripts for both film and television remain among the best written in this country. But Tony was a literary man, who was both a voracious reader and critic. When we talked about a certain film which had him, for instance, he was quick to criticise the way it was scripted, going as far as to show me the gap which existed between the source material (a novel) and its adaptation. For him, what justified a film was how close to what it was based on it was. And he stood by this principle in a great many scripts he authored. Like Awaragira, based on G. B. Senanayake’s last published work and an adaptation which clearly showed a fidelity to its source material (not least by its two-and-a-half hour duration).

Then again he was not a man who marginalised the cinema that easily. He recognised it for what it was and for the pitfalls actors like him could be tripped by. Which was why he never forgot restraint, why he never forgot to instil discipline and sobriety wherever he was. He brought this point up when we were talking about Shakespearean actors. He made his point more specific when he brought up a name: Richard Burton. “When he was at his best, Burton was restrained,” he told me, “but in his later performances, particularly towards the end of the 1960s, he couldn’t control himself. He was and he remained, at his worst, crass.” I’m sure that summed up pretty much everything Tony never stood for: a sense of complacency which undermined and in the end tripped actors of a lesser calibre.

My conversation with the man was short, though. Sadly. Looking back I don’t think our newspapermen or critics did enough justice to his worth. Perhaps they were preoccupied by other actors or perhaps they didn’t have the time. I don’t know. All I know is that with his death we lost the last of the trinity of actors who helped change our cinema (the other two, of course, being Joe Abeywickrama and Gamini Fonseka). I won’t pick and choose or be selective with these three names, however.

I will say this, then. Tony made me fall in love with our films. He rescued me from my visceral dislike of them, inculcated during childhood and not always for good reasons. He won me over personally too, for he was at once restrained and open. Joe was always the man who made you laugh. Gamini was always the “hero” to his last. But Tony occupied a middle-ground. That was what signified all those grins, smiles, glares, and glances which adorned nearly all his performances, I’d like to think.

Tony Ranasinghe died last year. He left behind some great performances. Those will never die. They aren’t meant to. If we can watch them even now and remember the actor behind the character and the man behind the actor, I know we have done justice to him. And I know he would have liked that too.

He was serious, this man. And versatile. He loved his career. Almost as much as we did.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, March 2 2016