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