Saturday, May 28, 2016

Indika Ferdinando's mission

Indika Ferdinando holds a scholarship at the Centre for Theatre and Performance at Monash University.  He also lectures at the University of Visual and Performing Arts in Colombo. Yes, he is an academic, but that really isn’t all that he is. Going by all that he’s done so far, what he’s learnt abroad has given him an impetus to experiment here. He is, as he likes to call himself, a “theatre practitioner”, someone who wants to twist and turn the syntax of the theatre as a way of paying tribute to those he admires. The main focus of his experiment, which he discussed with me some time back, is to apply the traditional ritualistic experience of Sinhalese theatre to contemporary theatre. In other words, to bring about a fusion between the two.

Around the time when the Workshop Players were staging “Les Miserables”, Indika was staging what was promised to be a “fruition” of his experiment, in the form of “The Irresistible Rise of Mr Signno”. As Indika explained to me, the traditional boundaries of Sinhala theatre could be overcome if they could converge with modern theatre. “Signno” opened to rave reviews on this count, but owing perhaps to the allure of “Les Miserables”, it didn’t quite open to the audience that Indika (would have) wanted.

He likes to put out academic jargon in cogent, simple terms. “Signno” was in part his thesis for Monash, fittingly titled “Transposing the Tools and Techniques of Sinhalese Ritual Performance into Theatre Practice”, or, as he likes to put it, “identifying what constitutes the holistic sensorial experience in Sinhalese ritual and exploring ways of applying it into contemporary theatre practice”, all about bringing the two together. Big words, no doubt (I admit that I was taken aback by them), but when Indika began elaborating on them, they were made easier to relate to.

Indika’s main preoccupation with the stage is how traditional theatre revolves around ritual and dance and contemporary theatre revolves around dialogues and music. He argues that while the latter’s audience can be called “viewers”, the former’s audience is largely a bunch of “experiencers”. He differentiates between the two because, according to him, ritual theatre goes beyond the image-oriented thrust of modern theatre and is essentially reducible, at the end of the day, to an assortment of sight, sound, movement, and even taste. He brought an example up to illustrate this: the “gammaduwa”, a low country ritual dance, which according to Indika amounts to a series of acrobatics and pyrotechnics (fire figures in significantly in our rituals).

From what Indika said, this much can be gathered. Contemporary theatre is preoccupied with keeping a distance between audience and performer, but with our rituals and theatre, there’s no such distance. If at all, in a ritual what’s privileged is the audience, and because of this there’s a sustained interaction between the performer and the “experiencer” (borrowing Indika’s term). Again, he brings up an example, this time a traditional musical instrument, the “yak beraya”, and explains that it doesn’t just affect its listener’s hearing, but penetrates his or her mind as well. That arouses the viewer’s empathy for the performance, and Indika sums this up with another jargon-term from his trade: “kinaesthetic empathy.”

All these are words and theories, admittedly, but one can sense Indika’s intense dedication to them. It’s a sign of his love for his trade that he doesn’t inflate what he says or what he’s doing. In any case, “Signno”, which opened at the Asoka Vidyalaya Gymnasium last September, was a play to remember (despite its three-hour duration).

I missed the opportunity of watching “Les Miserables”, and admittedly “Signno” was, despite its bilingual dialogues (teetering between Sinhala, English, and “Singlish”) worlds away from the Workshop Players’ adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic. True to his theory, Indika purposely refrained from having his play staged in a comfy, air-conditioned, Colombo 7 venue. On the contrary, it was staged at a rather open and hot (not to mention sweaty) place, in keeping with the ritualistic, traditional ambiance of its story. I will not explain that story, because Indika hopes to stage it again and it’s best that you see it for yourself when he does. Yes, that’s because it was a roaring success and deserves to be seen again, with its enviable blend of masks, dances, drums, acrobatics, and dialogues (which include some very scatological innuendos).

Indika admittedly has no preferences when it comes to the stage. “You have to accommodate every form and method. You must however be mindful when handling each theatre practice and reinforcing what’s unique to and differentiates it.”

As a way of demonstrating his love for what he’s doing, he recounted an anecdote from his schooldays at St Aloysius’ College in Ratnapura. He had seen a play, one in which both female and male characters were played by boys. This was in Year Six, during the 1980s. The 1978 Constitution was still “new” and untainted, but being a passionate follower of politics he had remembered something J. R. Jayawardene had said: that the Executive Presidency could do everything except turn a man into a woman.

“Watching the play,” Indika went on, laughing, “and seeing the boys playing the female characters, I was convinced that the theatre could do what even the President couldn’t! Needless to say, I was impressed.”

Reflecting on the theatre in Sri Lanka, he lamented a lack of reading among up-and-coming playwrights, hardly compensated for by their sense of daring. “They love to experiment, and I admit they are eager to search for new paths. But without reading up and avoiding self-induced pitfalls in the theatre, how can you improve?”

Indika is opposed to academia and for good reason. Art without artifice needs honesty and outlook, entertaining little to no illusion about the superiority of one art-form over every other. “What Sinhala theatre needs is serious research, not gloss,” he confessed. What he disagrees with however is the notion that research should always mean academia.

“Ediriweera Sarachchandra was an academic, who believed in stylised theatre. Sugathapala de Silva, his biggest rival in his time and someone who believed in the power of dialogues, was also an academic. The man who brought what the two stood for together, who infused stylisation into dialogue-driven plays, was not. But we remember and applaud Henry Jayasena and his play ‘Janelaya’ today, as much as we celebrate the other two and their work.”

When it comes to defining his version of the theatre, the last word should naturally be his: “There’s poetry in theatre and theatre in cinema. But theatre is not the cinema. Nor is it poetry. How do we differentiate? How do we sift? That is my question, one that may never be answered. In the meantime, we can only experiment. It works sometimes and fails as well. We can’t help that. So we can only go ahead, research, and in the end, if what we wanted comes out through our effort, we can only be happy.”

Written for: Night Owls, May 26 2016

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

‘Delovak Athara’: One film, 50 years

Gamperaliya was of course Lester James Peries’ first real masterpiece (on a higher level), but it is another film of his that evokes my interest here: Delovak Athara, Lester’s fourth film, which created another landmark, as the first serious Sinhala film to examine, not village life, but urban life. Delovak Athara, which was released in 1966, celebrates half a century this year. A brief analysis can hardly do justice to its merits, but I can try.

When it was first released in 1966, Delovak Athara was castigated here and proved to be less than a success abroad. In Lester’s own words, this was because of two factors: the film had no proper story which could make concessions to the box-office, and it was made at a time when serious directors here went for and depicted the village. The serious film, in other words, was already preconceived in the minds of both audiences and critics, and when Delovak Athara came out, that blinded them to its aesthetic achievement.

And what exactly was this achievement? The fact that it didn’t really have a story and the fact that it wasn’t set in the village, of course! By the time Lester got around directing it, he had communicated to his audience the standard he expected them to conform to, and was slowly creating the standard he would be judged on in his work. In it, unlike his earlier work, he almost achieves a distancing effect. Gone are the emotional histrionics which made up much of the Sinhala cinema at the time. Gone are the hero and the villain: we are left instead with flawed, everyday characters. To evoke sympathy for them without revealing their emotions, and to dissect their lives, motives, and thoughts clinically, was Lester’s goal. That he achieved it despite the film’s wafer-thin plot speaks volumes about the man’s ability at narrating stories.

Philip Cooray called it an “intellectual film”, no doubt owing to the emotionless framework of the story, but also perhaps because of the way it was edited. Delovak Athara marked the second time Lester got in Sumitra Gunawardena as his editor, and her prowess shows. In how she cut the film to the music (a feat, considering that we didn’t have film composers at the time), and how this in turn cut to the emotional intensity of a sequence, speaks volumes not just about her skill but that of everyone involved in it, including (without a doubt) the actors. Much of the cast, after all, had been stage-actors before, including Tony Ranasinghe, Irangani Serasinghe, and Jeewarani Kurukulasooriya. That they kept restraint despite their past fidelity to the theatre is remarkable.

Tony, in particular, was a category unto himself in it. There’s a sequence, towards the end, where he’s afforded a close-up onscreen. By that time, he’s at tenterhooks as to whether he should go to the police and confess his crime (the film centres on a car accident) or not. His character, Nissanka Wijesinghe, stares at the camera, lips parted slightly, confused. He cries. He stares down. End of sequence.

And yet, we sense a tremendous grace under pressure in Nissanka. He is crying, yes, but even when he is, the film doesn’t afford us to empathise with him completely. “The scene does not move us. The objectivity is all. We admire and appreciate, from afar,” is what Philip Cooray would write some years later, in his book on Lester, The Lonely Artist. To me, that sums up the clinical, distancing effect the film achieved, almost effortlessly.

That particularly sequence is all the more intense because it gives us a hint as to what Nissanka is thinking. The way the director (and cameraman, for the late Willie Blake’s work in this film deserves more than a footnote) caught Tony in that sequence was virtually insurmountable: the lack of proper emotion registered in his face, and the obvious feeling of anguish we know he is caught in, makes his close-up comparable to an Impressionist painting.

No wonder Cooray called it the “most Western” of his films, a title which stands true even today, if at all because in no other film of his did Lester become so unwilling to depict on the surface his characters’ inner feelings. To watch Tony’s character, even in his most poignant moment (in that sequence where he has a row with his mother, who insists that they frame their servant-boy for his crime), refuse to give up completely to emotion, is to marvel at an actor who would become the very embodiment of masculine fragility in our cinema for the following decade. Lester’s craftsmanship shows, not just in the narrative, but in his actors as well.

That was 50 years back. Since then we’ve seen filmmakers and films come and go here, some winning awards but (not once) winning hearts, and others winning dividends at the box-office without as much as moving a critic. We’ve divided our cinema. But to think of this as a contemporary problem is wrong.

For if we look at our past, take note of those masterpieces castigated by both audience and critic, we will appreciate that the truest filmmakers were those who refused to give in to the box-office, who stuck by their vision and vindicated it in the end. We had a rift between what was serious and what was popular even then, after all.

Lester was such a filmmaker. I mentioned this in my earlier article on Rekava and I will do so again. He loved his audiences and his audiences grew to love him over the years. He was a lonely artist, yes, but as I pointed out in an earlier article, that was true insofar as his people considered him an “outsider”. The extraordinary success of Golu Hadawatha, and the critical and commercial success of the two other films he made for Ceylon Theatres – Akkara Paha and Nidhanaya – proved, as with Delovak Athara and even Rekava, that he could weave stories which were both timeless and common (with the thinnest plot-lines). He remains the father of every film made here. As always, one might add.

And in the end, he wasn’t an outsider anymore. He was “one of us”. Has been ever since.

Monday, May 23, 2016

‘Rekava’: One film, 60 years

Films are made. They age. They are as subject to decay as other art-forms. Explains why, at the end of the day, very few are remembered. Those few, I’m willing to bet, would have been cast aside, marginalised, looked over, and in other ways rubbished, because they were unconventional for their time. Makes sense. People thought Picasso was mad. His paintings don’t fetch for anything less than 100,000 dollars today.

Madness and unconventionality, we can conclude, are hallmarks of genius, in films and paintings and pretty much every other art-form man invented in this world of ours. This is a story of two such films, made here and considered unconventional for their time.

Some say our cinema was born in 1947 (with a “broken promise”, apparently). That’s true. History begins with a whimper, though. History is created, on the other hand, with a bang. That “bang” came up in the form of a group of escapees from the Government Film Unit, “fugitives” you could say, who got together and filmed a story which remains un-erasable from our cultural history. Rekava, the first real Sinhala film to be made on our soil, was released 60 years ago this year.

Rekava, one of those works of art in this country which need no introduction, was footnoted in its day. Time and time again, I have heard of how this simple film, with its unconventional, yet simple theme, was rubbished by both audiences and critics. It curried favour with European critics, however, won for Lester Sri Lanka’s first nomination for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and became a catalyst for the 20 other films he’d make over the next 50 years. And yet, when I see it today, I am neither surprised nor anguished at the fact that our people initially ignored it.

For Rekava was, in the truest sense of that word, unconventional. Not because it was courageous enough to tackle its theme the way it did, and certainly not because it was shot, for the first time, on location and in a natural setting, but because Lester and his crew (this being their debut) were “outsiders”. That shows, sometimes glaringly and sometimes almost imperceptibly.

Lester at Cannes, 1957
Regi Siriwardena, a critic who could write about films and literature with equal vigour, wrote about Rekava 25 years after it was released. He pointed out, correctly I believe, that it was realistic on account of its formal innovativeness, that is to say its natural settings and on-set dialogues (which were not dubbed later on). More relevantly, he pointed out that despite the inherent deficiencies of the plot – which included the nearly theatrical dialogues and the naive attitude of the filmmaker towards the village setting – what came out most powerfully was the relationship between the mother (Irangani Serasinghe) and the son (Sena, played by Somapala Dharmapriya).

That this remains the key strength and emotional circle of the film can be confirmed by a fresh viewing of it: despite the stories of the boy’s friendship with the girl (Myrtle Fernando), the superstitious myths the villagers believe, and that opening, extended sequence of the boy chasing some village thieves, what comes out is the acting of Irangani Serasinghe, who despite her thespian past remains one of the more genuine “facets” of the story. Everything else – the myths, the intrigue, the romance – are swept away, until mother and son are brought together in a scene that does away with almost every other plot-line in the story. What that final scene achieves is an emotional catharsis, but in achieving that it also shows that the other plot-lines were at best ancillary to it, and at worst superficially conceived.

All this led Siriwardena to claim (startlingly) that while Rekava (and Maname) did not reflect the larger socio-political landscape which unfolded that year (with the election of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike on a populist platform), they nevertheless followed the impulses of a country that opted for change that year. They were instrumental, in other words, in not just changing the social class of those who went and patronised the cinema and theatre, but also those who, in the next few decades, became the choosers of this country’s political destiny – a fact compounded by the nationalisation of our schools and the institutionalisation of free education which followed 1956.

Siriwardena didn’t write about the audience that went to watch Rekava, but he might have found in them a confirmation of what he wrote and implied. For the fact of the matter is, Rekava was aimed at the wrong audience, or rather audiences: it couldn’t find favour with the English-speaking, Colombo crowd because (and we have Lester’s own word for it) their “cultural configuration” blinded them to the inherent aesthetic merit of the film. “They laughed at the wrong places,” Lester would later recount to his first biographer, A. J. Gunawardana, which is to say that they laughed at the larger-than-life, stereotypical characters depicted by D. R. Nanayakkara and Romulus de Silva.

On the other hand, it couldn’t be aimed at the Sinhala-speaking audience either, because their tastes suited, not natural settings or dialogues, but stories spun out of studios. Lester and his crew had aimed, not at the discriminating minority, but the common denominator.

Unfortunately, Rekava, being his debut and having the deficiencies it contained, ended up being aimed at and lambasted by both audiences. The drama, the comedy, the songs, and that heart-wrenching finale where son is reconciled with mother: none of this could have quite compensated for what audiences from both sides of the divide felt to be its shortcomings.

The Colombo crowd had been conditioned to enjoy the Western cinema, and the Sinhala-speaking crowd had grown up professing loyalty to imitations of the Indian cinema. Lester’s debut failed with both, precisely because both were short-sighted in their aesthetic tastes. That the predominantly upper class and “bourgeois” intelligentsia of today enjoy Sinhala films, and crude ones at that (by which I mean crude comedy), is testimony to how far we have developed (and, sadly, regressed) in those same tastes: something not even Lester could have foreseen.

That’s the reason why, incidentally, it fared better in Europe: at a time when even established critics and filmmakers like Francois Truffaut were making snide remarks at Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, Rekava was almost Europeanised in its outlook, which attempted to cater to local audiences but failed to do so on account of the crew’s inability to move with village life. In its depiction of the village, not surprisingly, the film was more continental than local. Lester’s fascination with the French cinema, as he himself once put it, was almost like a motif from a symphony: it returned to him, again and again, in almost every film he made. This shows most starkly in his portrayal of rural life.

More to the point, in Rekava, as with Dharmasena Pathiraga in Ahas Gawwa and Vasantha Obeyesekere in Walmath Uwo, Lester was a newcomer to his field and hadn’t created the standard by which he would be judged in the films he made. He would create that standard two films later, with Gamperaliya, though even then he never quite made it with the box-office. Rekava was a hit or miss, and for its director, it turned out to be neither. As with the masterpieces of the silent American cinema, then, its legacy is still assessed from the standpoint of its formal innovativeness. Whether we like it or not, one can add.

That was 60 years back. Since then we’ve seen filmmakers come and go here. Some wing awards but (not even once) hearts, and others win dividends at the box-office without as much as moving a single critic. We’ve divided our cinema and not for good reasons. But to think of this as a contemporary problem is wrong. For if we look at our past, take note of those masterpieces castigated by both audience and critic, we will appreciate that the truest filmmakers were those who refused to give in to the box-office, who stuck by their vision and vindicated it in the end. We had a rift between what was serious and what was popular even then, after all.

Lester was such a filmmaker. He loved his audiences and his audiences grew to love him over the years. He was a lonely artist, yes, but as I pointed out in an earlier article, that was true insofar as his people considered him an “outsider”. The extraordinary success of Golu Hadawatha and the critical and commercial success of the two other films he made for Ceylon Theatres (Akkara Paha and Nidhanaya) proved, as with Rekava, that he could weave stories which were both timeless and common.

Much of this has to do with the transformation of both village and city, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that our aesthetic tastes (a term which, forgive me, is too wide and open to interpretation) progressed under him. The fact that the bourgeois, English-speaking intelligentsia, hailing even from the cosmopolitan Ithaca of Reid Avenue and Cinnamon Gardens, can enjoy the crude and immediate humour of Udayakantha Warnasuriya, Tennyson Cooray, Bandu Samarasinghe, and Vijaya Nandasiri, certainly reveals that beneath the superficial gloss and elitism of this social class, there is nevertheless a “cultural configuration” which can at times appear both jarring and historically inevitable to the outsider.

That this was partly owing to Lester, who remains the father of every filmmaker here, is fairly true. He thus remains loved and venerated, not as an outsider or “lonely artist” but as one of us. As he always has been, of course.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be contacted at udakdev1@gmail.com His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Ravindra Randeniya: Reflections on Versatility

Most people, having seen one or two key performances of an actor, tend to disregard his other credits, to the point of stereotyping him. I am not suggesting that this is the case with Ravindra Randeniya. But it seems to me that we have, as audiences and film buffs, managed to disregard certain performances of his in favour of those two or three which stood out. There is a reason for this, of course.

Randeniya shone through his career with some of the most villainous, antiheroic roles an actor here could ever get (more on that later). Nonetheless there are other performances and portrayals, which deserve more than a footnote. After all, it is diversity and not typecasting which will vindicate an actor. This is certainly the case with Randeniya. He has taken part in roles which have varied wildly. And remarkably.

He was born in 1945, in Dalugama, Kelaniya. His father, a self-made businessman, had initially put him in St Francis’ School, which was run by the Dalugama Church. Two years later, he was admitted to St Benedict’s College, Kotahena, where he stayed right until his A/Levels. “St Benedict’s was a so-called English-medium school, run in line with other Catholic schools set up across Colombo. Nonetheless, until Eighth Standard, all students were taught in the vernacular, for us in Sinhala.

“There was only one period for English. But the English culture was there, through and through, so there was a sort of Western backdrop. In any case, we were all a mixed lot. There were Tamil, Sinhala, and English classes. There were Tamil and Burgher students. Regardless of this however, we never knew or cared about what our backgrounds were, or what our race or religion was. We were all just one group. Yes, I must admit that the situation is quite different today. But that was a different time, you must remember.”

It was at St Benedict’s where he developed an interest in art, more specifically in literature. This was during the 1950s. “Back then, the trend was to read ‘pulp fiction.’ For me however, the stories of Martin Wickramasinghe, Gorki, and Chekhov were more appealing. I remember being teased around for this.” Acting, by the way, did not figure in his scheme of things: “I was not interested in it at all, except once when I had to take part in a Fifth Standard production of Sigiri Kashyapa, in which I was Kashyapa. That was it.”

Dhamma Jagoda
Back then, he adds, there was a wider readership for the sort of books he read: “This was true especially because writers like Wickramasinghe touched the ‘common man’. He had his critics, especially from Peradeniya University, but in the end even they were inspired by him.” As for foreign novelists, Gorki and Chekhov, Randeniya remembers, inculcated in him a brief sympathy for socialism. “Everyone’s a Red at 20!” he chuckles by way of explaining this.

His first encounter with acting came through the theatre. Dhamma Jagoda, the enfant-terrible of the Sinhala stage, who together with Sugathapala de Silva was seeking a way out of the stylised form to which acting had got accustomed here, had founded the Lionel Wendt Theatre Workshop. The Workshop was being taught by several playwrights and actors, among them Ernest Macintyre and Irangani Serasinghe.

“Jagoda had gone to America on a scholarship the year before he founded the Workshop. There, he had learnt about Lee Strasberg’s school of acting, which centred on the Actors Studio and included people like Elia Kazan. They were absorbing the tenets of Stanislavsky’s Method. Naturally, when he came back, Jagoda had nothing but praise for this new style of acting.” Method Acting had not, as of then, been institutionalised in either stage or film in Sri Lanka. It was Jagoda, therefore, who took it upon himself to “spread the gospel” here.

Randeniya, however, was yet to learn this gospel. “I did not enter the Workshop to learn about acting. We had to pay an admission fee of 10 rupees. I chose screenwriting, directing, and stage decor as my subjects. Not acting.” Fate, however, ordained otherwise. “Somehow or the other, I found myself in an acting class. This wasn’t entirely surprising, given that by this time I had become drawn to it, little by little. Besides, that class was common to all: regardless of whatever subject you were following, you had to be present for it every day, for at least one or two hours. In the end, I found myself being selected frequently and dragged into various performances.”

Gunasena Galappatty
The course lasted two years. At the end of it, a production was in the offing, which he got involved with. “This was our first studio production: a new adaptation of Gunasena Galappatty’s Muhudu Puththu. The play was quite controversial for its time, considering its theme of adultery. The whole production was a sort of culmination to all our hard work and effort.”

In addition to all this, Randeniya says by way of afterthought, the Workshop provided a rare opportunity to “rub shoulders” with Sri Lanka’s cultural elite. After classes would be over at eight in the night, the Workshop troupe would meet up with the likes of Ediriweera Sarachchandra at the Arts Centre Club, to which the students had access. These early encounters would have had a profound impact on Randeniya, whose interest in not just acting but in the world of art in general would have been sharpened.

After his first performance in Muhudu Puththu, Manik Sandrasagara had come backstage to congratulate Randeniya. Sandrasagara’s first film, Kalu Diya Dahara (1970), marked Randeniya’s foray into the cinema, in the role of a plantation worker who rebels against his superiors. The role got him offers from various other directors. “The fees I got from acting were never a concern for me back then. I remember getting about 2,500 rupees for my performance in Kalu Diya Dahara. That was trivial, however, compared with how I enjoyed the experience.”

Lester James Peries had also been in the audience that night in the premiere of Muhudu Puththu, and this had compelled him to select Randeniya for the role of the morally ambiguous hermit for his next film, Desa Nisa (1972). “My experiences with Dr Peries aboard that film were different from those with Manik. Manik is almost always the commander in the set. That is not to say he was a dictator, but he had his way of asserting himself. With Dr Peries, you are never sure whether he’s there on the set, because when the camera starts rolling, he retires to the background, giving you free rein.”

As Moggallana in The God King
Vijaya Dharma Sri’s Duhulu Malak (1976) was a career-definer on a different level. “The way I played the role left no room for vulgarity. No one thought my character to have been immoral, even though what he was doing was in effect ‘immoral’. The character in the script came across as an irresponsible playboy, not a black-and-white libertine.” To his role he imparted a sustained combination of goodness and irresponsibility, because of which we never feel that he is “bad”. He has his “good” side, though not to a point where we can justify his actions.

Admittedly, the film did indulge in melodrama and histrionics in certain minor sequences, but with regard to character portrayal, Randeniya (along with co-stars Nita Fernando and Tony Ranasinghe) came across convincingly. This is true especially of the way he grapples with the story’s moral dilemma: initially flippant about his tryst with a married woman, little by little he forms a relationship with her, and very adamantly begins asserting himself.

Nonetheless the plot never allows him to become a complete villain: at the story’s end, we see him by the beach, looking crestfallen at the horizon, and then throwing his shoe away by way of admitting defeat. For Randeniya’s character, a sense of responsibility begins to dawn only then.

Randeniya reached his landmark with Amaranath Jayatilake’s Siripala saha Ranmenika (1977), and for a very special reason. “The role of Siripala required a sort of bestiality hard to find among Sinhala film characters at the time. I was compelled to take in what I had learnt with a role I had acted out when I was at the Theatre Workshop. Dhamma Jagoda had adapted Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire with his Ves Muhunu. I was Samson, the Sinhalised version of Stanley Kowalski, in it.

“Seeing it, you realize how much bestiality and savagery you need to impart, if ever you get to play that role. So I practised and researched for my performance, and the experience went with me while I was acting in Siripala saha Ranmenika. That was a personal landmark for me.”

Then came a whole spate of some of the most villainous characters our cinema could conjure up. All of them required enormous reserves of dedication, which were what Randeniya, from his days at the Workshop, had taken in. “There is a way to put forward a character’s attitude onscreen. You need to research well on the character, because regardless of whether he is a hero or villain, he still has a way of looking at things very unique to his character. In other words, no two villains or heroes are the same.”

Looking at these performances of his, one does indeed see subtle differences between them. There were roles in Maya (1984), Janelaya (1987), and Siri Medura (1989). All these were played out with due regard to their human densities: in other words, there is no attempt made at sensationalising them. It is to Randeniya’s credit that they shook us not for shock-value but for their authenticity. This was especially true of Siri Medura, where for the entirety of the film he is a cripple who not only can’t talk but has to move around with a structure attached to his body. To watch how he conveys the subtlest nuances of emotion is to appreciate the man’s astonishing capability, one must concede.

The exception to all this, if you could call it that, can be seen in Janelaya, where he is a mute murderer intent on silencing the only witness to his crime. Here, Randeniya tells me, the script allowed very little in the way of “whitewashing” or “making up for” his evil character: “it rightly presented me as a complete villain, with no room for any complexity.”

In a way, I must admit that the story necessitated this. Randeniya’s entire performance is spelt out through silence, and since no interior monologues are available as would they be in a novel, we never really get to know what his character is thinking. This was, in a way, a bit of a weakness. Nonetheless, if one sees it in another angle, one can validate the performance on the basis of how well Randeniya kept it from teetering down to melodramatic histrionics.

Dadayama
Actors have their career-defining roles for which they’re best known. Randeniya is no exception to this. The defining role in his case was, of course, that of Priyankara Jayanath in Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Dadayama (1984), which in his own words came across as the “most villainous and evil” in the history of our cinema.

I couldn’t have agreed more. In this character, there is a striking economy of style, deftly balanced between melodrama and impassivity, but never succumbing to either extreme. The role of Jayanath required dedication of an entirely different order for Randeniya. This was especially true given that the role had been based on a real-life person, Jayalal Anandagoda, who was the accused in the infamous Adeline Vitharana murder case. Randeniya explains further.

“Anandagoda was a very strange and eccentric character, some say. He was a teacher, like I am in the film, and a strict disciplinarian. At the same time, he had no misgivings about impregnating one of his students, the girl on whose character Swarna Mallawarachchi’s role is based in the film. Obeyesekere warned me about taking this role: ‘People may spit on you,’ he said. I took it nevertheless. The result was that audiences were riveted by it, and I won acclaim from almost every quarter.”

Regi Siriwardena, in his review of the film, called Randeniya’s performance a “solid, if less complex, character portrayal.” It is true that, with regard to screen time, Swarna Mallawarachchi dominates the film, but where Randeniya comes in, there is an aura of impending evil and disaster which even Mallawarachchi’s character cannot predict or understand. I am thinking here of the sequence of his first tryst with her: the scenes which precede it are played out with a carefree, romantic spirit, with a score by Premasiri Khemadasa that nearly attributes to them a (false) sense of melodrama.

Seilama
But no: the scenes shift to a hotel room, the music stops, and the melodrama is ended. “Come in,” says Randeniya to a nervous Mallawarachchi as he holds the door open: her troubles are about to begin. To his role, he brought about an enviable blend of cunning, wickedness, and acquisitiveness (symbolised by his red car). I am yet to see a more profound portrayal of a villain in our cinema. It may have been less complex owing to the character’s limited involvement in the story as per screen time, but this does not make it less convincing.

On the contrary, in how he manages to keep us wondering as to his true motives that, from the first time we see him (symbolically wearing sunglasses, eyes veiled), our interest and horror (not to mention disgust) are evoked and kept alive.

What I want to point out at this juncture is that these performances, however remarkable they were, did not compromise on Randeniya’s diversity. His other credits include Vijaya Dharma Sri’s Aradhana (1981), where he played the part of a lover. Then there were credits in Wasanthaye Davasak (1977), Sita Devi (1978), Veera Puran Appu (1979, as the titular hero), Chuda Manikyaya (1979), Sagara Jalaya (1988), and his later performances in Anantha Rathriya (1996) and Wekanda Walauwwa (2005). All these caught Randeniya in a more open-textured canvas. Granted, he continued playing villainous parts, such as in Bennet Ratnayake’s Aswesuma (2001). But these were (for the most) exceptions.

Wekanda Walawwa
For he wasn’t just “the villain”. He could and continued to play other characters. He played the lover in Aradhana opposite Malini Fonseka and in Adara Hasuna (1986) opposite Vasanthi Chathurani. The latter film, short and spare as it was, showed Randeniya as a versatilist, someone who was able to veil his character’s true intentions until the story neared its end. What was even more intriguing was that not only was he able to keep his intentions from us, he kept them back so tentatively that we began to doubt him, until, as with that climatic moment in the film where Nawananda Wijesinghe reveals to Vasanthi Chathurani the true identity of Randeniya’s character, we were only mildly surprised, if at all because Randeniya depicted his character so obliquely.

And then there were those sympathetic performances, where his characters seem to have committed some wrong which they want to atone for. I think he captured this best in Prasanna Vithanage’s Anantha Rathriya, which paired him again with Swarna Mallawarachchi (he had acted with her before in Sagara Jalaya, as a brother-in-law whose offers of help for her protagonist, we are made to feel, aren’t exactly altruistic).

As gripping as Mallawarachchi’s performance was, though, I suspect that Anantha Rathriya was really Randeniya’s show: from the opening sequence, where his character (Suvisal) narrates that he is about to enter a (spiritual) journey, which we think will end in catharsis, to the final sequence, where he stares hopefully at a reconciliation with the woman he wronged years ago, he achieves a balance with his characterisation almost flawlessly, so as to make him the subject of both condemnation and empathy.

This came up in even as simple a story as Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Sewwandi (2006), where his performance as a police officer turned amateur detective, though as solid and “static” as that in Dadayama, retains conviction despite its inflexible, two-dimensional conformity to the script. I shouldn’t be forgiven for not mentioning his miniseries credits, of course, and to my mind none comes close to defining the kind of character he epitomised in them as that in Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Ella Laga Walawwa, where again he’s a “detective” who uncovers the final, hidden secret to the mystery in the plot. There are other credits I can mention here, but owing to spatial constraints that remains an impossible task. I will conclude here, then.

For Randeniya, the truest justification for an actor comes in how well and ably he manages to immerse himself in the character portrayed. This does not mean, he adds, that actors should completely immerse themselves in their roles. This, in a way, explains his fascination with Marlon Brando.

Comparing the one with the other would be quite remiss of me at this point, but let me say here that Brando had, once upon a time, played the role of Stanley Kowalski in Elia Kazan’s film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. That was the character Randeniya had played in Ves Muhunu, and, arguably, what kept propping up in all his gritty performances, Siripala saha Ranmenika onwards. It was this that propelled him to reach his goal: to absorb himself in his characters so well that the effort which he took in doing so wouldn’t show in the final cut. That he achieved this, every film lover in the country knows.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, May 15 2016

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Nightingale who sang

“It is the singer,” the late Professor A. J. Gunawardana once wrote, “that finally makes the song, not the lyric, however meaningful, not the melody, however sweet.” One can of course concede that Gunawardana was making wild extrapolations (is it just the singer’s voice we look out for in a song, after all?), but he can be forgiven, I think, for one good reason.

He wrote that in a tribute to a singer who had just died. This singer, known to and loved by millions, also acted. She acted in a great many films, not all of which were “memorable” in the conventional sense of that word, but which nevertheless acquired a new rhythm and vitality whenever she entered a scene. That vitality and rhythm, so unique to her, didn’t let go. Not once. Which is why, when critics talk about Rukmani Devi, they can’t ignore her voice. Gunawardana may have been wrong, but insofar as he was talking about Rukmani, he was not.

She hailed from the theatre and it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that even at her best, she was theatrical. She was larger than life, in other words. She could reduce life as we knew it, passing before her, to its barest, simplest essentials, and convince us all that while that she was only acting. Henry Jayasena, in his “Play is the Thing”, in my opinion the best memoir that an actor here has written, frequently observes how her acting troupe, the Minerva Players, would come to Gampaha and enchant audiences. For the kind of theatre that she went for, like her films, were groundbreaking in their day. Not many liked that, as Jayasena himself notes: he was pulled up by his family and more particularly his father for watching her plays, on more than one occasion.

As the years went by though, she became loved. Naturally. Regi Siriwardena, writing on A. J. Gunawardana’s tribute, noted that she was born to the “darkest era of Sinhala music.” That’s another extrapolation, though not without its merits. “Hang the music,” Gunawardana had written earlier, though, and we can say the same thing. Rukmani knew how to play to audiences. Whether it was in her acting or singing, that helped. And at a time when our playwrights and filmmakers pandered to popular audiences, when they invariably went for myths and “the stuff that dreams are made of”, Rukmani won us all the way. A biographical sketch would be quite meaningless.

Films and plays are clean different though, no matter who contends otherwise. I remember a preeminent director telling me of how the first film was made, not here but in India: “Those people thought they could make a film in three days, like a play. Of course they couldn’t, but this goes to show how naive our first filmmakers were.”

That naiveté and simplicity wasn’t the preserve of our first directors and actors, of course, but the point is that for the first 10 years of our cinema, the Minerva Players set the standard by which popular films would be made, judged, and sealed for posterity. People may look at Kele Handa and Kadawunu Poronduwa and get carried away by the obvious artificiality of the sets, the plot, and the acting, but even accounting for all these, there’s a charm in their stories which transcend the narrow confines within which they had to work. Without a doubt, the same could have been said of Rukmani Devi herself.

I wrote of music earlier, and it wouldn’t do to ignore Rukmani’s voice. For her voice, with its unyielding pitch, struck a chord with everyone who heard it. She sang her first song, “Siri Buddha Gaya Vihare”, when she was 13. I have heard of audiences who flocked to watch Kele Handa and Kapati Arakshakaya just to hear (and watch) her sing. “She had a very sensitive and distinct voice which could reveal the shifts of human emotions with ease,” Dhamma Jagoda would later say. With its penchant for deliberate exaggeration and its emotional resonance, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the first 10 years of our cinema owed as much to her voice as it did to her acting.

I know of people who chastise her, however. People who think that by turning the cinema into theatre, she and her troupe did a disservice to our films. Not entirely wrong, but not correct either. I think Sumitra Peries summed this up well: “We find fault with them, pointing at their films and saying that they were amateurish. But if you look more closely, you’ll realise how much they actually achieved, and how much that achievement translated to popular success in their time and ours.” They were driven by instinct, she could have added. The best artists don’t talk of “art”, after all. They don’t talk of “artiness.” In the simplest sense, they tapped into their audiences and then made their stories. Not the other way around. Those who write from ivory towers, not surprisingly, haven’t grasped this.

And to a very large extent, that was Rukmani Devi’s legacy. She was never really realistic or naturalistic. To the best of her abilities, she tried to be in Lester James Peries’ Ahasin Polawata (her last role), but as he recounted to me once, it wasn’t easy. In the end, that emotional resonance which she exuded wherever she was came out even there. For better or for worse, one might add. Didn’t matter. She spoke to our feelings in nearly every role she was in. Her greatest achievement, which anyone could observe, was in how she could transform kitsch into emotion. “Larger than life” is an understatement, but it sums her up well in this respect.

Rukmani Devi died in 1978. Killed, in an accident which could have been avoided. She was 55 at the time. When the news came out (and even before that), the whole country cried. Time and time again, I have heard from people who lived at the time, of how they refused to believe she had gone away. Small wonder.

For in a large way, she hasn’t, because icons don’t fade away that easily. Stars do, and thankfully she wasn’t one. That someone like Dhamma Jagoda, whose outlook on the theatre differed greatly from Rukmani’s, could write warmly of her abilities is testament to how she transcended her limits and acquired a rhythm and vitality she could call her own. “Hang the quality of the drama,” we can hence say, echoing Professor Gunawardana.

No, she didn’t go away. Not by a long shot. Never will either, I am sure.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, May 18 2016

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Vijaya Kumaratunga: Revisiting a Monument

Padmasiri Kodikara, film producer, director, and commentator, knew Vijaya Kumaratunga. He worked with him in several films, but the connection doesn’t end there. Padmasiri knew Vijaya enough to make claims about the man. Several, in fact. Like how people doted on him. Or how he had that rare ability, “conferred” on very few I must say, to look at men as men, as human beings first and as communities second. When I interviewed Padmasiri some years back, he spoke about Vijaya. I doubt there’s another man, alive with us today, who could have spoken about this actor the way he did.

This is not an article about Padmasiri Kodikara. And this is not merely about Vijaya the actor. In his 20-year-old career in the cinema, yes, he had some roles to play and most of them were in films which did little to no justice to his immense vitality. I have heard from those who knew him, though, that he’d deliberately take on offers from directors of populist movies, not because he was clueless about the intrinsic merits of acting but because he knew (as we did) that they would bring him closer to his audience. He was correct and justified, this we realise today. That does not, however, hide the fact of his virility. For the truth of the matter is, Vijaya was more than just a matinee idol.

Vijaya had his notions of acting and all guesses are that not everyone liked them. I know of people who publically wished that he had taken to more serious performances. In his first few roles though, for better or for worse, Vijaya exemplified youth. And adolescence. In his debut in Sugathapala Senerath Yapa’s undervalued Hanthane Kathawa, he showed off a kind of brashness and appeal which defined his forte in the coming years. Even as he aged and matured, he didn’t let go of that forte. Not by a long shot. And in the end, when he combined it with the kind of character he was best suited to play – the urbanised and dispossessed, cut off from familial bonds and wandering about to an uncertain future – he exemplified it so well that his weakness in playing other characters showed, sometimes too starkly.

He was a populist and not in a bad way, for one thing. If you look at his serious performances – in the films of Dharmasena Pathiraja, a director who used him extensively – you will notice how, even in the way he articulates his dialogues, he could appear both brash and serious. In his best performances – in Ahas Gawwa, Bambaru Avith, and Pathiraja’s masterpiece Para Dige, he personified the youth of his time, uncertain of a future they weren’t in control of but at the same time determined to control it. That must explain why in his less successful performances – as Babun in Baddegama, for instance – he wasn’t that convincing.

For this man, with his looks and charms and sense of bravado that was unsurpassed in his time, did what his contemporaries could not (for the most): bridge the gap between performances that were clearly catered to popular audiences and those which were aimed at a highbrow minority, and in the process echo the former in the latter. Vijaya couldn’t really throw out an atypical performance, if at all, because in his worst and best films, he aimed at a common denominator. With other actors, there was a mismatch between what was popular and what was serious. Not with Vijaya. In the end, this reflected the man’s sense of humanity.

I think Padmasiri Kodikara knew about this aspect to the man best. “Vijaya not only knew his fans, he insisted on meeting them when shooting had wrapped up,” he told me, “Other actors, even the more popular ones, knew when to cater to their fans and when to be reclusive. Vijaya wasn’t a recluse. He didn’t have to be. He came, he acted, and when shooting ended, he’d even delay lunch to meet those who doted on him.” In a very large way, this explains why he remains an icon even today. For in real life (as actor and later as politician) as in the films he was in, he could and did shatter the barrier between the performance and the reality.

Vijaya Kumaratunga was born in Ja-Ela in 1945. He was educated at De Mazenod College in Kandana and later at St Benedict’s in Kotahena, a school which (call it a coincidence) bequeathed quite a number of actors to our film industry. But as his sister Rupa once told me, he didn’t want to be an actor. He wanted to be a police-officer. He saw offers for two films, though, the first being the protagonist Sena in an adaptation of Madawala Ratnayake’s Akkara Paha and the second being the rival to Tony Ranasinghe in Hanthane Kathawa. By the time he got into contact with Lester James Peries, he was out with the first offer: Milton Jayawardena had already been taken in as Sena.

Lester, recounting this to me some time back, had this to say about Vijaya: “He was youth personified, in his looks as well as in how he walked and talked and pretty much behaved. I regret not having taken him, and I told him then and there that had he come earlier, I would have.” Hanthane Kathawa was of course a different kettle of fish, a love story set against the Peradeniya University. The film is noted for two things: it marked Vijaya’s debut and Swarna Mallawarachchi’s second role, and it brought together a set of actors and technicians who would, for the next decade, collaborate and redefine the cinema of this country, among them Pathiraja, Daya Tennakoon, and Amarasiri Kalansuriya.

He had two strengths in this respect: his looks and his voice. Although throughout the 1970s he had to lip-sync to other playback singers, by the 1980s he was his own man with his voice. There’s little to no doubt, after all, that that drawn out voice of his was the only one which could have done justice to “Ganga Addara”. It was also that which lent colour to, among other songs, Ajantha Ranasinghe’s “Rallen Rallata”, if at all because the man was born along the coastal belt. To hear him reciting those lyrics in the latter is to remember that he was adept at playing the urbanised, and that as Victor in Bambaru Avith he was very much at ease with the fishing community.

Kadapathaka Chaya
His characters could be careless, and they were (in Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Diyamanthi, he is an unemployed graduate who throws his Bachelor of Arts certificate to a dustbin, after being evicted by his landlady). But it was that sense of carelessness and bravado which got him an audience. That was, in part at least, his niche.

I wrote about Obeyesekere two weeks ago, and I mentioned above that Vijaya was incapable of throwing out an atypical performance. The only director who proved otherwise was Obeyesekere. I am, of course, talking about Kadapathaka Chaya, where for the entirety of the film Vijaya is not only a philanderer but a compulsive rapist, who abuses Swarna Mallawarachchi’s character and then marries her off to someone else.

I am not sure, though, whether that film really convinced us of Vijaya’s flexibility, partly because he was so attached to the heroic image people had attributed to him in his films but also partly because there was only one Kadapathaka Chaya in his entire career. But when I see Vijaya in that memorable sequence, where Swarna kills him with acid, I am moved to both empathy and hatred for his character: he is helpless and “impotent” in the truest sense of that word there, but when the woman he torments finally asserts herself, we realise that he had it coming.

There were other roles and films, of course. He didn’t win an award for them (except for one he won posthumously for Kadapathaka Chaya). He didn’t need to, of course. He was our hero long before that was officially acknowledged and even in his political career, that was obvious. So much so that every time we watch a performance of his, are moved by how effortlessly he could assert himself, and smile as he brashly jaunts into a scene or sequence, we feel his loss even more. Padmasiri Kodikara summed him up well: “He looked at you firstly as part of the human race, and then only as part of a race or religion. He measured you by your humanity.” I doubt another actor ever reflected his life with his performances this way. He was and remains as elusive as ever.

See also: Resurrecting Vijaya Kumaratunga

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, May 4 2016

Monday, May 2, 2016

Some reflections on Dharmasena Pathiraja

I met Dharmasena Pathiraja for the first time about two years ago. Back then I was a huge fan of his films, which to me seemed to have come straight from a person who had lived through their experiences. Those experiences seemed so real that I thought they WERE real.

I asked him about his background and education, and when I realised he was not born to the kind of community he would go on portraying in his films (the urbanised), I was surprised. Pathiraja was born in Kandy. He was educated at Dharmaraja and later at the University of Peradeniya. Hardly the kind of person who’d wind up making Bambaru Avith at Kalpitiya years later.

Then I went on to meet two actors associated with the man, Cyril Wickramage and Amarasiri Kalansuriya. Both were delighted and ecstatic when they got to talk about him. Wickramage was more calm in his praise (“he was the only director in his time who got his locations and backdrops right to the dot”) while Kalansuriya, who too was educated at Dharmaraja, was more intense and nostalgic, so much so that while I was able to take down Wickramage’s life story, with Kalansuriya I managed (for the most) to take down his association with Pathiraja. Directors exert a profound influence over their actors, I’ve been told. These two no doubt testified to that.

Just the other day I happened to watch Bambaru Avith again. The story is essentially politicised, though Pathiraja (being the consummate director he is) refuses to turn the political subtext into a political film. Seeing it today, I am moved by its deft intensity, its ability to juggle between its characters in a way which endears us to the central conflict in the story, between Victor (played to perfection by Vijaya Kumaratunga) and Anton Aiya (Joe Abeywickrama in one of his more hateful roles).

On one level this conflict works politically, with Victor representing the rootless, capitalistic bourgeoisie and Anton representing the old, feudal order (he bullies the fishermen into virtual submission). A friend of mine cautioned me against seeing the film this way, though: she asked to me to watch it differently, from a non-political angle. I did, and still the political content of the plot came through.

And to me, that’s the beauty of Dharmasena Pathiraja’s cinema. Even in his other films – Ahas Gawwa, Eya Dan Loku Lamayek, Para Dige, and Soldadu Unnahe – he is able to explore such perennial themes as exploitation and love from a politically textured angle. Para Dige, for instance, at first follows a superficially simple plot: a man and woman (unmarried) conspire to raise money for an abortion.

But look closer, and you will see the “political subtext”, in how Chandare (Vijaya Kumaratunga) has to toil to raise the money, how his and her girlfriend’s friendship with a relatively affluent girl (Vasanthi Chathurani) goes nowhere when she disappears once the first half of the story is done (we are left untold where she is, surprisingly), and how, in that iconic ending, the couple decide to marry rather hurriedly and are left with the question “What next?” as they cross the road.

Like his other films, Para Dige didn’t win dividends at the box-office. But there’s a kind of freshness in it which I have not come across in the films of other directors. This freshness can’t be defined, it can only be seen and experienced. I suppose most directors are spontaneous in their plot-lines, but the truth is that with Pathiraja this spontaneity emerges effortlessly when one sequence shifts to the other.

This was evident even in his debut, Ahas Gawwa, which as Regi Siriwardena correctly noted contained some “technical roughnesses” characteristic of a first film. Notwithstanding those roughnesses, though, Ahas Gawwa virtually redefined the film-going audience in this country. As his later films would show, this was very much because of his fresh outlook on the film-making process.

He at once identified with the community he was portraying. He was also someone who could deftly chisel the politics of whatever he was filming. That explains why, at the end of the day, we can watch and re-watch Para Dige and Ahas Gawwa and still be enthralled by their story-lines, regardless of whether or not we understood the politics embedded in them cogently. With Pathiraja politics and life weren’t clean different. It is to his credit that, contrary to what most playwrights were doing in his time, he was able to mingle the two together in a way which won audiences everywhere, of whatever political denomination.

These are all reflections, of course. They don’t pretend to be anything else. Spatial constraints restrict me from delving into them further, but I will write this: in terms of a political cinema, we haven’t seen many directors tackle social issues effortlessly. All too often, it must be said, their shallowness shows, and because of that their films even betray a crass, one-dimensional reading of whatever that issue is.

With Dharmasena Pathiraja we saw a different director. He was not afraid of exploring. He was not afraid of chiseling politics with what he filmed. True to his outlook, that shows in his films. And true to his outlook, the fact that it shows doesn’t mean that he grafted his politics one-dimensionally, without regard for the common, intelligent viewer, who went to watch and rate a movie not on the basis of his affiliation with its politics but of how well it stood by its own ambition and communicated a live, real experience (with or without politics, of course) to him.

On that count Pathiraja has won. And on that count we still relish his work. Small wonder.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, May 1 2016

Sunday, May 1, 2016

For D. B. Nihalsinghe: A Tribute

Films are built on directors, writers, actors, and technicians. The French turned the director into an author, and claimed (somewhat erroneously) that if he were given a substantial part to play in the shaping of the film in question, that film would be his product as far as ownership went. This theory, popular back in its day, ignored filmmaking as a collaborative art. The late Gore Vidal, in one of his essays on the cinema ("Who Makes the Movies?", rejected it on the basis that scriptwriters, not directors, had a larger say in the making of a film. No wonder. Vidal was a scriptwriter himself.

The point is that the cinema is a dynamic art. The point is that if it could be reducible to one man’s vision, then that vision would “show” no matter what role that man took: as director, scriptwriter, or editor. This is true in the case of scriptwriters who took to directing, of directors who became scriptwriters, of editors who became directors, and of cameramen and cinematographers who became directors. Among the latter, D. B. Nihalsinghe figured in greatly. We lost him last week. In one sense, of course: people like him aren’t easy to lose forever.

Nihalsinghe broke into the cinema with Welikathara, and for most critics that probably is the film most associable with him. Not because it was the first film shot here in CinemaScope. Not because it introduced Tissa Abeysekara as our foremost scriptwriter. No, it was more so because of how the film kept “balance” between rhetoric, suspense, and thrills on the one hand and an intelligent storyline on the other. When we see Welikathara today, it’s not just the story which grabs attention. It’s the way it was crafted and relayed to us, effortlessly and efficiently. Like the best American thrillers, one can add.

To a large extent, this was because he was disciplined. That showed, not just in his first film or his subsequent films, but in those films he photographed. In both Sath Samudura and Dahasak Sithuvili, for instance, you can see his intense, almost zealous emphasis on capturing the characters’ faces, in relaying every shade and nuance of emotion that the story could obtain from them. The superficial technical gloss in Dahasak Sithuvili – the use of filtered camera lenses, a first in our cinema – is, to my mind, at best incidental to the real achievement of that film, where the camera captures the anguish of the protagonist (played by Henry Jayasena) in ways which add depth and meaning to the central conflict of the story.

I’ve heard stories from those who worked with the man. Anoja Weerasinghe, who acted in both Maldeniye Simion and Keli Madala and went on to win the first-ever international award (for a Sri Lankan actor) with the former film, had this to say: “When my name was suggested as the female lead for Maldeniye Simion, both the author and producer were sceptical. They were worried about how well I could fit in a serious setting, when until that time I’d been cast in commercial flicks. But Nihalsinghe was adamant. He wanted me for that role, and if he couldn’t have me, he wouldn’t make the film.” Nihalsinghe wasn’t an “actor’s director”, but he had a knack for identifying actors and even casting them against type. Joe’s performance as “Goring Mudalali” in Welikathara testifies to this. Amply.

There are sequences in his films which demand tremendous reserves of energy and dedication from their actors. You come across countless such sequences in Welikathara, which kept a feeling of tension and conflict with nearly every shot and frame in it. Nihalsinghe was an atonal director, which means that he can’t be judged by the basis of the themes he chose for his stories. One theme stands out, though: his sympathetic, though clinical, treatment of women. It comes out even in as slickly conceived a story as Welikathara, and more starkly in Ridi Nimnaya. Apart from that, his forte, which kept his work alive to generations who followed him, was photography and editing. That shows in pretty much all his work, from the time he received a Bolex camera from his father (the formidable D. B. Dhanapala) when he completed his SSC exams.

He was also a stern administrator. His stint at the National Film Corporation, founded at a time when our cinema needed it, speaks volumes about the man and his dedication. “In just seven years,” he wrote in an article published in “The Island” in 2008, “yearly admission climbed from 30 million to an astounding 74.4 million by 1979 – the best evidence that the audiences were denied the choice by the very cinema moguls who claimed to know that demand and how to cater to it.” In terms of promoting an indigenous cinema, the NFC had a function to play, and Nihalsinghe was there when it performed that function best. We are grateful, especially now, when what little we can claim as “our cinema” no doubt owes its existence to those policies, however restrictive they were, which he championed back in his day.

And in a way, the man remains un-definable. Like the best directors and artistes, he eludes easy capture. There’s little to nothing, after all, that connects his first film with his last (which is why, as I pointed above, he is atonal). He gave Joe Abeywickrama his career-defining role (which transformed him overnight to a serious actor). He gave Anoja Weerasinghe two landmark performances (she called him her “guru”, and not for nothing). He gave us our first tele-drama. And in a very large way, he helped us champion our cinema. He could have done much more, of this I'm certain.

He died last week. He could have stayed with us and we could have, in turned, asked him to revisit a career he left behind a long time ago. He didn’t. The best we can do now, hence, is to sustain his legacy. We can’t add to it, I know. But we can try.

Written for: The Island LIFESTYLE, May 1 2016