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