Friday, July 29, 2016

Shanthi Lekha: On embracing the mother

There were three actresses who embodied the mother-image in our cinema. The first, Irangani Serasinghe; the second, Denawaka Hamine. What brought these two together was a certain sense of maturity, understanding, and daring which demarcated their characters well. The women that both depicted (in other words), while keeping with the passive, reactive nature of Sri Lankan mothers, had an agency of their own and more often than not took matters to their own hand as independent women. Nissanka’s mother in Delovak Athara (Serasinghe) and Gunadasa’s mother in Sath Samudura (Denawaka Hamine) are good examples of this.

The third was Shanthi Lekha. She was different. The moment you saw her enter a scene or sequence, she exuded a different kind of charm, fortitude, and patience, befitting a different mother. It was this mother that, for the better part of her career, she portrayed: who took in and endured whatever tragedy she and her family faced with a rare sort of equanimity. Her characters displayed the exact same kind of patient suffering Serasinghe and Denawaka Hamine got out of. In large part, it was that voice of hers: a voice which betrayed both equanimity and resolve. A rare combination, particularly in a mother, you have to admit.

She was born Rita Irene Quyn to a staunch Catholic family in Kalutara and was educated at a Convent. Having taken to dancing at an early age, young Rita was fascinated by the performing arts, in particular “bioscope”. Like all other actors and actresses initiated into the cinema, however, she first entered the stage, when she played the leading role in D. T. Fernando’s Shantha Prabha. That was in 1942. Five years later, Rukmani Devi and the Jayamanne brothers would direct Sri Lanka’s first feature film.

In 1953 Dommie Jayawardena requested her to take part in Sujatha, a landmark for its time here and by all accounts a film which wooed audiences. Sujatha had more than 10 songs, I believe, and among them was “Pem Rella Nagi”, to which young Rita danced. By that time, she’d adopted a stage name after her husband, Shanthi Viraj: Shanthi Lekha.

It wasn’t easy, though. Her family, opposed to the idea of their daughter taking to films (by then considered a puerile business rather than an art), attempted to discourage her. Her parish priest had even told her parents that the cinema had taken her to the devil. But all these attempts, sharp as they were, amounted to nothing. Young Rita had been entranced by acting. There was little anyone could do to take her back.

And from then on, her career (for the lack of a better word) bloomed. This wasn’t just because she signed up for role after role, but also because the cinema itself (in Sri Lanka) was changing. She was in Lester James Peries’ second film Sandeshaya, where she was a mother. In Lester’s next, groundbreaking work Gamperaliya, she was chosen to play Matara Hamine when Irangani Serasinghe became unavailable. Serasinghe would play the same role in Bertram Nihal’s TV adaptation, but by all accounts, that was a performance meant for Lekha.

Why? Because Matara Hamine (from what I can recollect) as a mother, wife, and village matriarch was more reactive than proactive. There was a sense of fatalism in her, though she could be adamant at times. When she protested against her daughters, she wasn’t assertive, just weak and insistent (symbolising an old fading order). The Matara Hamine in Martin Wickramasinghe’s novel needed an actress who could epitomise all these qualities well and what’s more, was nuanced in her performance. With a voice that registered suffering, endurance, and equanimity, I believe Lekha was the ideal actress.

I remember Irangani Serasinghe telling me once that despite the fact that she’s known for playing the mother, no two mothers she played were the same. That’s true, but I wonder whether that was applicable to Lekha. Take any of her performances in this respect – in Parasathu Mal, Thun Man Handiya, Eya Dan Loku Lamayek, and Sikuruliya – and you eventually realise that for all her attempts at being assertive, in the end she gets more and more timid, to the point where she silently breaks down and relents. She played out variations of this whenever she was the mother.

In Parasathu Mal (opposite Punya Heendeniya), for instance, she opposes her daughter’s relationship with Tony Ranasinghe’s character and wants her to associate with Bonnie Mahattaya (Gamini Fonseka). Despite her harsh exchanges though, she is defeated towards the end. The same could be said of the mother (to Anula Karunathilake) in Ran Salu: conservative and traditionalist and opposed to her daughter’s affair with an engaged man as she is, she pales in front of her arguments and in the end, gives up on her. And in my favourite performance of hers, in Akkara Paha, she is the perfect Sri Lankan mother: not once does she criticise or berate her son, the well-meaning but wayward Sena, but on the contrary berates her husband when HE takes him to task for abandoning his studies. At that moment, she’s more concerned about his health and welfare than the fact that he’s squandered the money and effort his parents expended on him at the cost of their own livelihood. Like any mother would be, I suppose.

Shanthi Lekha acted in more than 500 films, about 300 of which had her as a mother. That’s a record. I’m not sure whether it’s unparalleled, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact that she acted so much that, at the end of the day, she became indistinguishable from the characters she symbolised. In particular, Matara Hamine.

She died in 2009. She was 79 at the time. Had she lived, she would have been 85. A pity she did not. She certainly mothered the sons and daughters she doted on in her career, a truism which could have been said of any other actress (here and elsewhere) who played matriarchal roles. With Lekha, however, there was something different. She was the perfect mother, not because she was matriarchal but because, like all mothers from this little part of the world, she wanted her way over her children but, owing to their stubbornness and “murandu kama”, eventually relented. That’s how she won us, as consumers of cinema and as Sri Lankans, I’d like to think: by striking a chord with the mother and the child in all of us.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, July 27 2016