Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The grand old lady

All things considered, Denawaka Hamine was one of the most formidable character actors we ever had. She was at her best when she was in a story, not merely a film. And why? Because she could salvage a story, which was why, even she was cast in a role that lasted for no more than 10 or 15 minutes, she still added meaning to the script. She was the mother the same way that Irangani Serasinghe and (to a lesser extent) Shanti Lekha were, but unlike them she was not restrained or graceful.

Emotional but not melodramatic, crude but not coarse, she was self-assured in the truest sense of that word. Which could be a bad thing for an actress of her range, of course, but the fact of the matter is, in those 300-odd films she was in, she fitted in whether or not she was scripted properly, and in the end, like Chaplin, Keaton, and Shirley Temple, the image she created crept up everywhere, to the extent of preceding even her.

She once claimed that she could play any character, “even if they want me to play a romantic role.” Perhaps as an afterthought, she added, “I wouldn’t know how the audiences (would) react”, which I suppose meant that she herself had, by the time she’d reached the peak of her career, realised the parameters within which she had to work. She could play out a gossip just as easily as she could a mother, and to me the more interesting of her performances came out when she combined the two, which was what we got in H. D. Premaratne’s Deveni Gamana (which coincidentally had Irangani Serasinghe also in one of her less empathetic roles, as the hostile mother-in-law to the heroine). For in her earlier roles, she embodied suffering (and love), with evil as an external force which she remained oblivious to or which she chose to ignore.

In Desa Nisa, for instance, she was Joe Abeywickrama’s mother – the woman who never understands why half the village are fearful of her son – and she showed us the kind of gracefulness which only someone from the village could. Abeywickrama’s portrayal of Nirudika gains fresh nuances of meaning when we see him in her light, for she is the only person who loves him for who he is (whereas Sriyani Amarasena, who marries him, is blind). When Joe makes sure of her blindness, in a sequence filled that she knows why he did it: all we see is a mother who’s so oblivious to her son’s physical deformities that she doesn’t once consider that when she warns her son to not “harm” his wife again. Desa Nisa remains one of Lester James Peries’ weakest films, but to me its human element comes out poignantly in Denawaka Hamine’s role, and for that reason, the story gains in strength what it loses due to an ending that was edited too quickly to arouse our sympathy.

And to me, that was Denawaka Hamine at her best. She automatically caught our sympathy when she played out the empathetic mother, who doesn’t know why or how the rest of the world is marginalising her child. In Dahasak Sithuvili, one of her first roles, she is more concerned about her daughter (Malini Fonseka) getting married quickly than the love triangle her son (Henry Jayasena) is caught in. When we see her chiding Jayasena, we get the feeling that she knows his dilemma, but all the same is more concerned with a more pressing family matter. It’s not that she isn’t concerned about the son, but that she’s confident that he’ll let go of it – like all mothers, of her time and of our time too, she thinks she knows more than him about him, and like all mothers, she is correct.

Dona Meraya Denawaka was born in 1906 in Imbulgoda, Gampaha. She encountered the theatre (and later the cinema) through G. D. L. Perera, who was so moved by her that he took her in for his play Kandulu. Perera’s next decision was to make her a member of the theatre group he’d founded, Kala Pela. With four plays which had her – Manamalayo, Sakkarawattang, Sama, and Thotupola – she marked herself out as an actress who could reckon with any young actor. Not surprisingly, she came out well when she took part in Perera’s film adaptation of “Sama”, and in her performance in Sath Samudura, she epitomised the long-suffering-and-yet-hopeful-mother image she’d bring out for the next few decades. Apparently the film critic Roger Manvell had been so moved by her acting that he’d taken the trouble of calling a taxi to bring her to meet him. The rest, they say, is history: she got contract after contract in films which varied in quality but which made use of her potential as a maternal figure well.

With Denawaka Hamine, as I pointed out before, you didn’t expect grace or reserve: you saw torrents of emotion, unrefined and remarkably genuine. Which was a good thing, naturally, because then you’d almost swear that this woman who could play the gossip and the mother with equal vigour hadn’t seen a film before, that she wasn’t really acting but playing out characters she’d known or embodied in her real life.

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, because in every one of those roles she didn’t stick to the same image but varied it to make the film more interesting. We didn’t retreat in disgust and fear at her portrayal of a spiteful aunt in Deveni Gamana, for instance, but went as far as to chuckle at the way she connives throughout the film (when she learns that Sabeetha Perera’s character hadn’t proved her virginity to her husband, we see her walking around and whispering to almost everyone assembled, filling their ears with half-truths and gossip, and we couldn’t help but grin). True, that may not have been the greatest role she played but it certainly was one of her most atypical and thus enjoyable ones.

A pity we don’t get the likes of her anymore. Inevitable too, come to think of it. She was more than just a grand old lady. She was, like the best actors, someone who knew the image she’d created for herself and stuck to it till the end. That she succeeded, we know.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, June 8 2016