Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Sunil Hettiarachchi and the frontiers of humour

Sunil Hettiarachchi died last December, 2015. He was known to many and ignored, if at all, by a few. The man had a job and career like all of us, and in his case it was to make us laugh. For more than thirty years hence, we laughed with him and he laughed with us. It worked both ways.

Today we don’t seem to get enough humour. The TV, films, theatre, even radio: all these have exploited comedy in every imaginable way. They’ve scripted in laughs, they’ve even scripted in those laugh-tracks which go off whether or not the joke comes through, but in one thing they’re behind: wit. Laughs, after all, are easy to get. Wit is not. Laugh tracks are as easy to get. Timing is not. And Sunil Hettiarachchi, like all humourists, knew both. Again, doesn’t mean every film he was in was perfect. They were not. But that didn’t take away from his career.

He came to us through television too. He was there with Bertie and Annesley and the rest in Vinodha Samaya. He was there in serious productions as well: in Yashorawaya, La Hiru Dahasak, and even Tissa Abeysekera’s Viragaya (where, for a minute or two, he is a beggar who gets Aravinda’s attention by singing a dirge about great men and their inevitable passing away – he could have been singing about himself). He was a bit player, yes, but bit players have a habit of cropping up again and again. Hettiarachchi nurtured and sharpened that habit so much that he retained those little, little characteristics which demarcated him well.

What were these characteristics, though? Were they to do with his physique? Comedies work with juxtaposition, with black and white set against each other, and for Hettiarachchi, the fact that he was thin and the fact that those with him were not made us laugh. Amply.

But like all humourists, comedy wasn’t his only frontier. He took on serious roles. He did not make us laugh in Sagara Jalaya (for which, if I am correct, he was recognised as the best supporting actor of the year at the Sarasavi Awards), but he made us smile (because like all humourists, he needed time to make us adjust to his less than funny roles – the same, to a lesser extent, could have been said of Joe Abeywickrama). He did not make us laugh in Yashorawaya either, but again, it was hard not to.

I find it hard to believe that this man wasn’t scripted properly. He got some of the most puerile film credits an actor of his calibre could have got, a series of credits where he was undervalued and moreover placed below lesser names. He didn’t get enough time for himself in them. He did get what he want (produce smiles and laughs in audiences whenever he came up) but that couldn’t have been enough. He deserved more.

And when 1999 passed and the 21st century came, things got worse. Those who went for humour in their scripts and films, for some reason, thought that comedy was best obtained by forcing you to laugh. Sunil Hettiarachchi’s tragedy was that there were too many of those films, to an extent whereby it was hard to differentiate between scenes that made you laugh and scenes that made you “laugh”. With the latter, it must be said, you needed either a crude sense of humour or someone to tickle you into laughing. Popularity is measured by the audience, and going by that those who patronise and continue to patronise our comedies have misplaced notions of humour.

The thing with Sunil, however, is that (and I am guessing here) he understood where he stood. He knew where to trip and where to joke. He knew where to put out wit and where to be quiet. Because of that he was hilarious even in silence. Had he come to the cinema a good two decades earlier (he came to us in the 1970s), he would have prospered. And as Irangani Serasinghe once told me, “It’s easy to twist and turn when you’re a comedian. True comedians however, do more. And why? Because they know timing.” Sunil knew how to twist and turn, like everyone else. Unlike many of his successors though, he also knew when and where to twist and turn, and when and where to wait. That’s a feat not many can claim, one might add.

He died last December. A few days back, some Sri Lankans on Facebook posted photos, shared posts, and commented about his death. They thought he’d died last week.

My friend Kavindu Rajaguru made an observation about this the other day: සුනිල් හෙට්ටිආරච්චි මහතා අප අතරින් වෙන්වී මාස ගණනක් ගෙවී ගොස් ඇත. නමුත් මුහුණු පොතේ උදවියට එතුමාගේ වියෝව මතක් වී ඇත්තේ දැන් ය. Rough translation: Sunil Hettiarachchi left us several months ago. But his loss has been felt by Facebookers only now.

Sunil Hettiarachchi made us laugh. In more ways than one. True, he didn't stick to being a comedian, but wherever he was, no one forgot him, not his face, not his voice, and certainly not those idiosyncratic gestures which seemed to have a life of their own.

Had Sunil been less 'nondescript', had he been a posh, elegant 'star' from another part of this world, updates would have flown in, fans and even non-fans would have bawled, and tributes would have flown in plenty. Nothing wrong there of course, since there's nothing wrong in celebrating life and mourning death.

But there's something wrong somewhere when we, of our own accord, fail to notice one of our own. Is it some sort of inferiority complex on our part? I wish I knew.

All I know is that Sunil Hettiarachchi died a few months ago and quite a number of Sri Lankans on Facebook (not all, please note) thought he died yesterday. Were these Facebookers born yesterday? Again, I wish I knew.

I know one thing though. Sunil Hettiarachchi is laughing somewhere. At us.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, August 3 2016