Wednesday, June 15, 2016

D. R. Nanayakkara: From 49 to 94

D. R. Nanayakkara was probably the most enigmatic, mysterious actor we ever had, back at a time when a sense of enigma and mystery could have impeded on appeal. He never really spiced up whatever scene or sequence he was in. Nor did he have a prolific career: for someone who worked for over 40 years in the film industry he didn’t really have as many credits as he should have. A pity on one level, of course, but it was probably meant to be. For truth be told, Nanayakkara was an enigma himself, and there was a certain magic to him which, to my mind, not many directors tapped into.

He could appear both cruel and well-meaning. He could also appear both funny and heartless. The father from Rekava, to give an example, isn’t a complete villain: we feel as the story moves on that he’s the kind of thief or pilferer who means well but whose intentions are scoffed at by a protective mother. He’s the kind of person who’d push you into something new and unknown, but then would soon abandon you when what he pushed you into turns out into a mess, which is exactly what his son (played by Somapala Dharmapriya) lands in. This curious dualism – because of which his characters could appear good and bad at the same time – wasn’t a rare trait among our actors, but the thing with Nanayakkara that sense of enigma and mystery I wrote about earlier accentuated it remarkably.

The thing with him was his face and voice. With almost feline eyes, with a face that seemed to look through you, you never really could get at his motives for anything. When he appears for the first time in Baddegama and in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – no two films could have been more different – you get the impression that there’s something buried in him, which in turn makes it impossible for you to understand his intentions. In Baddegama that sense of enigma turns out to be a sign of his mysticism and wickedness – which lends credence to the fact that he and Joe Abeywickrama were the two most perfectly cast actors in that film – while in Steven Spielberg’s adventure, it adds to his kindly and long-suffering character.

But both these films were made towards the end of his career (and life). There was an earlier phase – the phase where he was less nuanced and more theatrical. That was inevitable, because Nanayakkara had started in the theatre. To see these earlier performances today, even those in Rekava and the films scripted by P. K. D. Seneviratne, is to appreciate someone who was taken into the cinema after having initiated him into stage plays. There’s a sense of explicitness in these films, even in one as seriously conceived as Lester James Peries’ Ran Salu (where his role as the talkative, almost gossipy, and traditionalist servant adds to the story’s mythical image of villagers as pristine and innocent), which quite doesn’t leave him. He brought out this sense of explicitness in the only film in the 1960s which had him as the central figure, Sikuru Tharuwa. As the lecherous, cold, and calculating vidane, he embodied the kind of sinfulness, crudity, and “badness” (for the lack of a better word) which typified the antagonists in P. K. D. Seneviratne’s scripts.

Don Ruter Nanayakkara was born in Kolonnawa in 1915. His debut in films came about in 1949, when Sirisena Wimalaweera, who’d taken him in after seeing him in onstage, adapted his own play Amma. But it wouldn’t be until Rekava (1956) that he’d get any proper attention, from which point directors were enamoured of him. Throughout the 1960s, while he didn’t get too many lucrative contracts, he was fortunate in being cast in films which deepened his image, until, in the latter part of the 1970s, his characters became more and more aggressive. In Ahasin Polawata (1979) he was the devoted servant to the protagonist (Tony Ranasinghe), the kind of servant who isn’t wary of passing insidious hints to visitors and hurting them because he feels that they should be.

Lester James Peries once related the story of how Rekava became successful. It wasn’t easy, he contended, because the kind of audience that watched it in the country was detached from the social environment depicted in it. For this reason perhaps, “they laughed at the wrong places”, by which he meant that they laughed at the larger-than-life acting of the father, played by Nanayakkara. For better or worse then, and for the better part of his career, it was that larger-than-life simpleton-like character, who means well despite his lack of sophistication, which cropped up again and again in whatever role he played.

No one, for instance, would doubt today that the most empathetic character in Parasathumal is D. R. Nanayakkara’s, because not only does every other character indulges in wild outbursts of emotion (including the flawed Bonnie Mahaththaya, played by Gamini Fonseka) but Nanayakkara’s character, the servant, gives the impression of being a secondary character, at best ancillary to the larger story, when in fact it is he who knows and understands his master better than anyone else. In the first few sequences, which end in a party with everyone (including Bonnie Mahaththaya) drunk, Nanayakkara looks around with sorrow and shakes his head. It was when everyone was oblivious to his presence that he let the audience know how sorrowful and sympathetic his character was. When everyone was awake, no one really noticed him.

And for me, that was what embodied this strange, almost otherworldly man. Like I wrote before, he couldn’t spice things up the way stars could, but that didn’t matter in the least. He could churn out characters who were good, who were bad, and who were good and bad at the same time. That this continued throughout his career explains how well those characters of his are remembered today. And how well they will be remembered tomorrow.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, June 15 2016