Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The subtle virtuosity of Somasiri Dehipitiya

He made you think that he wasn’t essential to a story when in fact he was. As a result of this perhaps, he remained a supporting player, who at most added to a point-of-view which was of another character but never really made up his own. He was there in the films of almost every director who had an impact on the cinema of this country – most noticeably perhaps, Dharmasena Pathiraja and Vasantha Obeyesekere. In the latter’s films he was likeable, in the former’s films he was not, and in both he showed us that one could be a side-player and at the same time create a mark for oneself.

Like some of his colleagues who took to the cinema in the 1970s, Somasiri Dehipitiya came from a largely working class background, as a civil servant. As an actor he had quite a number of attributes he could be justifiably proud of – he was gruff, he was almost always frowning, he rarely smiled, and perhaps more than anything else, he could appear sturdy and gentle at the same time. No doubt he used all these and more, so much so that it’s truly astonishing that a man of his range of talent and experience never, for one solid moment, became a leading man. He was more or less like Richard Widmark, the American actor who never got beyond half a dozen or so leading roles despite his gruff mould.

That “mould” came up quite discernibly for Dehipitiya in Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Diyamathi. The entire film is really made up of a series of coincidences, plot-twists, and dénouements, which is why it remains Obeyesekere’s most conventional story. Three misfits – an unemployed graduate, a pickpocket, and a criminal who’s just been released from prison – meet and for some reason decide to live their lives adventuring together. Vijaya Kumaratunga played the graduate, Wimal Kumar da Costa played the pickpocket, and Dehipitiya played the criminal. All aptly cast, but seeing Dehiptiya one can sense how he could understate his own strength and hardiness onscreen, which makes him stand apart from the other two.

It’s almost as though he’s realised his potential but is reluctant to impose it on anyone else. So when the other two characters – Vijaya and Wimal were almost always cast together as sidekicks – make fun of him and then befriend him, and when they in turn are befriended by a rich and single heiress (played by Malini Fonseka), you don’t see him exploding with rage or in other ways express anger like you’d expect of a violent criminal. Instead, he’s (purposefully) understated, opting to smile or grin or humour his friends (until of course that final dénouement where his strength comes back to him and he fights away the obligatory “bad guys”). We sense this the first time we see him, out of prison and visiting his wife. We of course get it that the wife (Mercy Edirisinghe) has “moved on”, but we don’t see anger in Dehipitiya’s character. Only acceptance and resentment. Like his wife then, he too moves on.

He used his looks – wizened and quite brusque – to his advantage, and they pay well in sequences where he’s expected to let out his anger but never quite does so. So in Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Bambaru Avith he’s one of Anton Aiya’s henchmen, and in the first half of the story we immediately understand his ferocity and penchant for anger. “I never knew how dirty you’d become, woman,” he point-blank tells Malini Fonseka’s character Helen, who like her mythical namesake forms the centre of the tragedy on account of her seductiveness. When Dehipitiya’s character warns her, we cringe in fear, as if he’s hinted only part of his anger. We expect more as the scenes progress.

But no: in the second half, when Cyril (played by Cyril Wickramage), who’s engaged to marry Helen, is killed or commits suicide (we never really are sure what happens to him), he seems to back down. “What to do, aiye? That was God’s will,” he remarks to Anton (played by Joe Abeywickrama), only to get the enraged reply: “God’s will my foot, yako!” By this time Dehipitiya displays his true potential: as someone who played characters who flaunted their strength but always retreated when time was ripe for those to whom they played second fiddle to assert themselves. In Diyamanthi he reveals his prowess to aid his friends, while in Bambaru Avith he does the opposite to let room for the main player (only momentarily though: when Dehipitiya backs down and eventually leaves him, Anton is on his own, and a few sequences later, he is killed by the servant of his rival in just about the easiest way possible).

He did almost the same thing in Thun Man Handiya, where his role as an impoverished villager to whom Abilin, the protagonist (Abeywickrama), lends all his money is pivotal (in a simplistic way) in showing us the latter’s generosity, when in later sequences we see the same villager (now richer and less in need) demanding money lent to him over a trivial matter from his own previous benefactor. And when he could and did express his outrage or anger of his own will, like in Sumitra Peries’ Yahalu Yeheli, it was almost invariably followed by tragedy (he gets shot not long after he succumbs to anger against the village headman, played by Tony Ranasinghe).

Of course he couldn’t go on for much longer playing characters like these, and in my opinion he got his place in the sun with Sunil Ariyaratne’s Siribo Aiya. But Siribo Aiya spelt out the Dehipitiya who could have been much more, had he lived. On April 27, 1982 he succumbed to alcoholism, leaving us with a veritable bunch of characters who spoke and did much more than what the script allowed. He was scripted in well in almost every film he was in – a feat which not many actors from here can claim – and that came out best in the latter part of his career.

A shame he didn’t and couldn’t live long enough.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, June 22 2016