Sunday, August 14, 2016

Thank you for all that laughter and joy

Not everyone can make you laugh. Not everyone possesses that rare gift called wit, which in lesser hands gets thrown away, forgotten, or ignored. Not everyone can keep the audience waiting. Not everyone can evoke laughter in a way that’s both calculated and fresh. Those who can are rare. Those who can’t are, if they turn to comedy, pretenders at best.

Vijaya Nandasiri was not a pretender. Didn’t need to be. You didn’t just laugh at him, you understood why you laughed at him. He had a face that betrayed emotion even though he made us think that it didn’t. That face, coupled with a voice which almost tickled us no matter what its tone was, entertained us for more than 20 years. At a time when humour turned over to comedy and comedy, for better or worse, deteriorated to a point where cheap laughs became the order of the day, he represented all that was sane and orderly in a universe resided by the good, the bad, and the mediocre.

He came to us (in particular, my generation) through television. He had a past before that, of course: he was Prince Maname and acted in a host of other plays which were both realistic and stylised (apparently he had been a favourite of Dayananda Gunawardena, who had once insisted on taking him in for a role). There were also various credits in films, especially those directed by the indefatigable K. A. W. Perera. By all accounts however, the man was destined to win us through the punchi thiraya.

And win us through it he did. He ended up playing buffoonish everymen, those who made every mistake in the book and pretended they didn’t. There’s a common thread, after all, that binds Premachandra, Senarath Dunusinghe, and various other protagonists and side-players in those TV series he took part in. They all meant well, they all tripped, but at the end of the day, they surprised us by showing how much they were capable of tact and discretion. And not for nothing: they all led double lives.

Comedy shows have a tendency of suspending disbelief. It plays on that tendency rather absurdly, I should think, when even its own characters hide their real lives, emotions, and gestures to one another. Nandasiri, by all accounts, mastered this and aced it to a point where what we watched didn’t need to be believed. As Senarath Dunusinghe for instance, he hid the fact that he worked with his wife in the same office from his own boss, whereas as Premachandra he tried valiantly to hide his feelings for Mali Nandani from his own wife.

Sure, we didn’t really believe these characters. But we didn’t need to. Nandasiri had his own kind of logic, created his own universe, and took us through that in every episode he was in. He was the kind of man who could look up at disaster and walk away with a twinkle in his eyes, pretending as though he didn’t care and pretending as though we should believe he didn’t care. In the end, when he returned to the cinema, he nurtured that ability of his to near-perfection. Aptly.

Along the way he met some people. Co-stars. He acted with them, always if not often. He gave us a host of films which in more ways than one imitated each other, a sort of inter-textuality if you may: he was the same in Ethuma and Methuma, probably funnier in the former for the simple reason that no two episodes were the same.

It was in these series that he got the character he remained indistinguishable from for the rest of his career: Rajamanthri, the bumptious but essentially weak manthri thuma. Long before the English theatre tried to poke fun at political figures and ended up making fun of the village bumpkin in unseemly ways, Nandasiri’s Rajamanthri taught us everything about politics, politicians, and the art of manipulation without resorting to cheap tricks. He caricatured, yes, but there were moments when caricature gave way to reality.

It wasn’t just that of course. There were other roles. In Sikuru Hathe, his funniest outside the Rajamanthri canon, he was a magul kapuwa, whose main concern when it comes to his occupation is profit. In King Hanther he was a king (who else?) from the past, who adjusts to life in the present and that by eventually climbing up the political ladder. And in Udayakantha Warnasuriya Bahuboothayo, puerile as it was, he was a divine entity who manages to undress himself (metaphorically) while trying to get rid of a she-devil.

They were all funny. And yet, they didn’t only make us laugh. In Sikuru Hathe the kapuwa almost breaks down into tears in front of his wife and daughter, when he laments that what he did by hook or crook was done to earn some bread for the two of them. In King Hanther the protagonist, an idiot on all counts, ostensibly gets killed by a politico who wishes to get rid of him but then emerges without a scratch, teaching his audience that beneath this idiot was a thinking man, someone who could and did observe, note, and infer and could save himself from ruin.

That was the Vijaya Nandasiri we knew. And loved. You didn’t know what was coming. You didn’t know what he’d do. Even as Rajamanthri, the self-centred, indifferent, and essentially unruffled vagabond-politico, he made us know that he could think on his own.

I mentioned before that in his hands caricature sometimes gave way to reality. I saw this in his latest and last film, Suhada Koka, which apart from being a snide comment on the current political context of the country was a brilliant, timeless, and well conceived comedy on all fronts. The film begins with laughs, detours to even more laughs, and almost ends in a confusing way: Rajamanthri, who gets into the good books of the Prime Minister (Sathischandra Edirisinghe) ruins the political career of his immediate Minister (W. Jayasiri), who plots to have him killed. Rajamanthri gets killed, and in the sequence where he does get killed there’s a dirge that’s sung about politicos, the futility of bala thanhava, and the inevitability of death. We almost believe that Rajamanthri’s finally learned his lesson and got his comeuppance.

But no: it was all a nightmare, Rajamanthri wakes up shivering, and resumes his career. Inevitable and irredeemable? I wish I knew.

There was once a famous comedian whose job was to make us laugh. He used every rule in the book, broke it, and became a legend. To his dying day however, he refused to reveal his tricks to anyone, not to critics, not to writers, and not to fans. In the end his magic died with him and it was left to the astute writer to surmise what that magic was. That comedian, incidentally, had a name. Charles Chaplin.

Nandasiri had his own bag of tricks. I don’t think anyone will ever know what that contained. I’m not so sure, however, that we need to. Fact is, he can’t be replaced and shouldn’t be replaced. Like all icons that come and pass away, his memories will survive.

No, I can’t believe he’s gone away. Still. He seemed as immortal as those he poked fun at and caricatured. He seemed larger than life. Maybe he was. I wish I knew.

Last week we lost a giant. Yes, a giant. No more, no less.

Written for: The Island LEISURE, August 14 2016