Wednesday, April 6, 2016

He made us laugh and taught us laughter

There are three sequences from D. B. Nihalsinghe’s film Welikathara which I revisit again and again. The first introduces the antagonist, Goring Mudalali, to the audience. The second introduces him properly to Gamini Fonseka’s character, Wickrema Randeniya (an ASP), in Randeniya’s office. The third, the most intense of them all, pits the one against the other in probably the most sustained, tense, and unbroken shot (involving dialogues) I have come across in a Sinhala film. All three are memorable because of one reason: Goring was played by Joe Abeywickrama.

Sometime back I revisited them again. I read Goring’s lines. I remembered the expressions on his face as he delivered them. I grasped one line in particular, which he recites as a reply to a question posed by Fonseka. Fonseka’s character asks, “Why don’t you get into the timber business and start making some beds?” Joe replies, “Of course. But the day I do that, I won’t be making beds. I’ll be making coffins.” Gamini shoots back: “And then you’ll be able to build yourself a coffin for cheap, right?”

Joe’s answer? “The way I die, you won’t be able to bury me in a coffin, sir.” He stares at Gamini. Gamini stares back. They get down to business.

The third sequence is more intense. It happens right before the film’s climax and happens sometime after Randeniya rounds up and arrests nearly everyone in Goring’s mafia ring. Goring intrudes into Randeniya’s house, stares at him, and delivers his threat like a homily. “I won’t use pistols like you do, sir. I won’t shout and scream. I have a better weapon with me. So be careful, hamuduruwane.”

Sequences like this are probably the reason why we still love Joe. Welikathara was a landmark not just because it was the first film shot in CinemaScope or the first film from which Tissa Abeysekara emerged as our foremost scriptwriter, but because it cast Joe against type. Today we have forgotten comedy and we have forgotten drama, and it is to Joe’s capability, both as actor and human being, that we owe our understanding of both in the cinema. He was the man, in short, who made us laugh. He was the man who taught us laughter. Even in the worst films, he shone. As much as he did in the best ones. In the end, that ability, rare as it was, won us all.

Joe was born in Ratnapura and attended Sivali Central College. Time and time again, I have heard testimonies from those who knew him personally, about how he would participate in various plays staged in his village. No doubt these instilled in him a love for theatre, which turned him, in the end, into an instinct-driven actor. He came to Colombo in the late 1940s and joined a studio owned by Sirisena Wimalaweera, who had apparently noted that Joe would make a good actor one day.

That day came with two films he acted in, Devasundari and Saradama, the latter of which had him as an eccentric police-officer. He was, from the word go, a comic actor, who could evoke laughter even in the least comic sequence in a movie. In the 1960s he was usually paired with other actors, and in these performances, I am reminded of Philinte from Moliere’s comedy, “The Misanthrope”. Like Philinte, Joe’s performances in these movies served one purpose – to provide a comic foil to the main character, who almost always was either morose or downbeat (or even both). In both Getawarayo (opposite Gamini Fonseka) and Dahasak Sithuvili (opposite Henry Jayasena), he was there to offer balm to the protagonists, whenever and wherever they were cast down and humiliated.

He was not romantic the way the established stars were. He was not or rather could not be a swashbuckler who crooned for his lover. He was a character actor at his best, and as Irangani Serasinghe once told me with no hesitation, he was the best character actor that we had. Sometimes this could, as with Welikathara, make us forget the relevance of the protagonist of the film, and sometimes, as with Desa Nisa, his presence was so compelling that the director had to cast him as the main player. Desa Nisa was an imperfect film, yes, but even there Joe shone. I believe that the role he played there – as the marginalised, ugly, ridiculed lover – he took to heart 10 years later, when he played the lover to Vasanthi Chathurani, who goes blind afterwards, in the saddest Sinhala film I have seen, Sunil Ariyaratne’s Siribo Aiya.

He had his associations, of course. He was a close friend to Tissa Liyanasuriya, who cast him in all the films he had a hand in shaping – Ran Muthu Duwa, Getawarayo, Saravita (as the unforgettable Sara Aiya), and Narilatha.

By default, some say, sidekicks are loners. Their primary function is to offer balm to the protagonists. With Joe that wasn’t the case. As the years went on and as he aged, whenever he was in a scene of sequence, everyone else there seemed to be dragged to his inexorable charm. Even at his most gruff, rough self, which he brought out as Silindu in Baddegama, this persisted in some strange way, to a point where the entire film’s energy and tension seemed to be concentrated within him. He was not friendless, he was never the loner. As a character actor, hence, he was unparalleled.

But what about those atypical roles, the ones he took even though they were clearly against the kind of character he usually played? If as Goring Mudalali he proved his versatility, his subsequent dramatic roles proved it even more. As Anton Aiya in Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Bambaru Avith, he shook us all with his tantrums and violent fits of temper. As the Colonel in H. D. Premaratne’s Adara Hasuna, he bullied Vasanthi Chathurani with his threats, and in turn frightened us. And as the aged father in Lester James Peries’ undervalued Awaragira, he taught us all that was needed to be taught about the weariness of bringing up children without having taught them the values which, in that process of bringing them up, were inadvertently marginalised.

Notwithstanding all these performances, however, he could still play the defeated and confused. When he grieved over and doubted the death of his son (an army recruit) in Prasanna Vithanage’s Purahanda Kaluwara, and when he broke out in fits and sobs, as he recounted how he murdered three people with his (now dead) wife many, many years ago, in Bennett Rathnayake’s Aswesmua, we were shocked and deeply moved.

In Purahanda Kaluwara he barely speaks, but this man who could convey the slightest change of emotion with his face conveyed to us all his feelings and gestures without uttering a single word. So when, at the end of the film, he stares at some children bathing and frolicking in the river, and he smiles (for what exactly, we are left untold), we smiled with him, heaving a sigh of relief as the story (bleak as it was) drew to a close.

And in a very big way, that is what endeared and continues to endear him to us. He was not fixated on the hero-figure the way some of his contemporaries were. He was just as comfortable with the villain’s part, though he wasn’t fixated on that either. He was, in short and like the best actors, pliable, someone who knew how to blend in without feeling the need to (say) alter the script to his liking. He continues to exert a profound influence over our films and our actors, but at the end of the day (and how else can I conclude this piece?) he remains unsurpassed.

He always will be, I suspect.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, April 6 2016