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