Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Remembering (the other) Mercy Edirisinghe

Berty Gunathilake turned 92 last week. Berty, those who listened to Radio Ceylon and those fortunate enough to watch television when it first came to Sri Lanka, was one of three humorists who made us laugh without contorting or inverting our sense of humour, the other two being Samuel Rodrigo and Annesley Dias. They helped us imagine what they talked about and what they joked about so much that when they exited the wireless and entered television, they made that transition as smooth as possible. They didn’t lose their touch, as lesser comedians are wont to. That was true also for those other humorists who joined the trio in their sketches.

No, this is not an article on Berty, Annesley, or Samuel. This is an article on one of other humorists who joined them. Mercy Edirisinghe.

Mercy also could make us laugh. For most of her career, that’s what she did. She ended up portraying stereotypes and funny ones at that. She helped us conjure an image of that stereotype and in the end, it remained virtually hers. Moreover, that image she helped create entranced others so much that they tried to imitate her, with little to no success. Just as well, I suppose, because there were times when she made us believe that she was born to play her signature role: the caustic and posh lady figure, who more often than not meant well but who, owing to certain prejudices and snobberies on her part, could rarely transcend her narrow attitude to the outside world.

But this wasn’t all. Mercy wasn’t just a thespian. She didn’t just dub. She had a career of her own in the cinema, miles away from her signature role perhaps, but considerable nevertheless. They showed up a different actor, one who was capable of dramatic roles so much that no less a figure than Sugathapala de Silva once observed, “ඇය කළ රංගනයන් ගායනයන් වර්තමානයේ අයට ඉගෙන ගන්නට හොඳ තක්ෂලාවක් බඳුය” (loose translation: “Her acting and singing are good lessons for aspiring actors today.”) Silva, from what I’ve heard, wasn’t wont to giving blank cheques. He would have meant what he said.

Mercy Edirisinghe was born in Ambepussa on December 18, 1946. She was the third in a family of nine (by her own admission, the most stubborn). Her father, Don Lorenzo Elvin, worked at the Department of Examinations. Her mother was a housewife and a God-fearing Christian, whose devotion to Christ was almost an obsession. Her husband, Lalith Kotelawala, a Buddhist hailing from Kalutara, predeceased her. They had no children.

She officially entered her career in 1964, when she won a contest organised by Radio Ceylon. Two years later she made her debut, in Walikala Rathna’s Ugurata Hora Beheth. The almost farcical name of that play was a prophecy of sorts: although her subsequent roles were all dramatic, they hinged on humour, predicting as they did her later metamorphosis into a humorist. To this end, in her earliest plays – Ran Kanda, Seelavathi, Vishwa Sundari – she managed to develop what would become her biggest asset: her voice, which hovered between naiveté and sophistication.

M. V. Balan gave Mercy her debut in the cinema with his Hitha Honda Minihek in 1975. By then of course, the cinema had changed and, given our socio-political context, comedy had veered off in favour of directors who took up sharper, more politically sensitive themes. Among these directors was Vasantha Obeyesekere, who noticed Mercy and picked her for supporting roles. Soon enough, she was there in Walmath Uwo (alongside Tony Ranasinghe, Somasiri Dehipitiya, and Namel Weeramuni) and in Diyamanthi (where she is the wife to Dehipitiya’s character, a petty criminal just released from prison who discovers that she’s given up on marriage life with him).

I believe Obeyesekere recognised her dramatic potential. With a pair of eyes that tried hard to hide emotion and feeling and with a face that betrayed probably a fraction of the twists and turns of emotion it held back, she was the ideal actor to play out women who were sexually frustrated and unhinged. It was this which came out almost shockingly in Palagetiyo, arguably Obeyesekere’s most naturalistic film (in terms of its depiction of class conflict). To date, I’m willing to bet, it remains her best role. That is why it compels more than a footnote here.

Palagetiyo is about the conflict between idealism and reality, between sentimental romance and class hierachies. The story of Kusum (Dammi Fonseka), the daughter of a rich mudalali (Henry Jayasena) and Sarath (Dharmasiri Bandaranayake), a village peasant's (educated) son who works for the mudalali, is told through a series of letters the one sends to the other in the first half of the film, with Mercy Edirisinghe (portraying Kusum’s cousin) as the intermediary. The cousin eventually reads those letters, begins to envy their clandestine affair, and dreams of her own escapades with Sarath. Kusum, however, is taken as the prettier and more delicate woman, and the cousin’s attempts at winning him are futile. She hence precipitates their tragedy: by telling them on Kusum’s father, who immediately fires Sarath.

There’s a sequence in Palagetiyo which haunts me whenever I see it. At a time when trysts and sexual affairs were all but completely tabooed in our films, Obeyesekere shows us an encounter between the two. Being the razor-sharp editor he always was, he uses the encounter to illustrate the tension between them and the cousin, and that by constantly cutting it to the feelings of jealousy and spite evident on the latter’s face as she lays awake and as she imagines Sarath and Kusum making love to each other. To watch Mercy’s face is to remember that despite her later forays into comedy, she could and did prove her mettle as an actor of considerable dramatic potential during this time. True, she is a secondary character, but that still doesn’t marginalise the range of emotion she was capable of whenever she was onscreen.

But Obeyesekere the naturalist was soon to retire. In the eighties he went for grittier stories, moving away from the individual and away from the black/white dichotomy which made up most films that depicted class stratifications. His world became harsher, the individual protagonist became submerged in a world that exploited them wherever they were, and Mercy, despite her forays in dramatic roles, found her signature role elsewhere. She hence left drama. And embraced comedy.

This was the Mercy my generation grew up loving. She was paired with Berty, Annesley, and Samuel in "Vinodha Samaya". She was the same woman in every episode that featured her: caustic, posh, elegant, and clearly aiming for something over and above her position in life. She meant well, she could be sympathetic, but there were times when her less than disguisable flaws proved her undoing. Even with the characters she dubbed later on – as Bianca Castafiore in the Rupavahini version of "The Adventures of Tintin", for instance – she brought this out very well. Small wonder then, that when we remember these characters, fictional as they were and are, we remember her name.

Do we remember her all the more for it? Of course. Do we forget her earlier career because of it? Perhaps. Not many will remember her as the jealous cousin from Palagetiyo, but even those who haven’t seen Lucien Bulathsinhala’s Tharavo Igilethi would remember "Made Lagina Tharavan" and the sequence in which Mercy, posing with an umbrella that “inflates” her considerably, declares her sense of worth and import to her audience. That was something lesser humorists could never quite match: observe, for instance, her change of pitch and tone and even facial expression as she sings that song, in tune with her self-contradictory character an at once steely and sarcastic (in keeping with the social position she aspires for) but also fragile (as she realises her actual place in life).

It was this curious synthesis – teetering between two extremes, never remaining in one – which made us fall in love with her. You didn’t need to force yourself to laugh at her. You just needed to watch (or listen to) her, as she came up onscreen or onstage and as she wrought her magic. Sure, there was another side to her, one that could have continued in the cinema after her first few trysts with it. But then we wouldn’t have seen the Mercy we knew. Or smiled at.

For better or worse then, she left behind a prodigious career in films. And we are all the better for it, both as consumers of the arts and as citizens of a country where, inevitably perhaps, the line between honesty and artifice in comedy has blurred.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, August 31 2016