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