Friday, October 21, 2016

A brief tribute to Bandula Vithanage

Asal Wesiyo may not have been the funniest sitcom aired here, but it certainly was (and is) funny. It depends for the most on coincidence and mistaken identity, the kind of humour that differentiates Chaplin and Buster Keaton from Jerry Lewis and the kind of humour we took to at once. We didn’t have to contort ourselves to laugh and we certainly didn’t consider the characters resident in the series as outside our empathy.

We were, in short, moved to spontaneous laughter, and if this wasn’t enough, we’d remember each and every episode long after they were aired. The characters were real, they derived flesh and blood from whatever situation they were in, and yes, most of them lived on deception. If that didn’t leave room for humour, I can’t imagine what would.

The series, aired in the eighties (the golden era of teledramas, one can surmise), was directed by Bandula Vithanage. Vithanage was, like many from his generation, an aficionado of Shakespeare. He took to the Bard as easily as you and I would take to Herge’s comics, but that didn’t make him blind to the audiences he targeted and that didn't make him blind to the kind of tastes they indulged in.

No one who has watched Asal Wesiyo, for instance, could mistake the subtle coincidences that it thrived on: how the father (Hemasiri Liyanage) parades himself as a lawyer (when he’s just a perakadoru mahaththaya) and how his younger son (Sriyantha Mendis) makes out that he’s an engineer (when he’s just a mechanic). Not only their landlady (played by the inimitable Ellen Sylvester, who left us too soon) but even the perakadoru mahaththaya’s elder son (Suminda Sirisena) is blind to all that until the very end.

Sure, it’s hard to imagine how or assume that such deceptions could thrive on more than 10 episodes, but the truth of the matter may be that Vithanage, whose plays are reputed for their ramrod veneer of refinement, didn’t mistake humour for superficial one-liners and catchphrases. Vithanage knew that humour was at its inception based on flesh and blood, not superficialities. For that reason, the episodes didn’t feel elongated. Not many sitcoms aired here can claim to such an achievement.

He was better known as a playwright but that didn’t stop him from exploring other, less explored paths. He exhibited distaste for the cinema but he ended up playing one or two roles in films that have since gained cult status. He was as capable of playing out a refined monk as he was of playing out cold, menacing villains. He knew the best of both worlds (Sinhala and English) and this opened him up to adaptations of plays that, while not exactly popular, have gained a status in the minds of the (serious) theatre practitioner.

Bandula Vithanage was born on September 11, 1940, at a time when the world had spurned colonialism and countries were striving to reclaim lost identities. Educated initially at the game iskole in Athuruwella in Bentota, and later at Carey College Colombo, young Vithanage completed his A/Levels at Dharmasoka College Ambalangoda. And here he faced a curious anomaly: while his primary education had been in English, he opted for Sinhala in his later studies.

He doubtless revelled in this twilight, bilingual world, and his interest in the theatre was furthered by his encounter with Shakespeare (more on that later). In the meantime, he entered Colombo University and eventually came under the influence of Ediriweera Sarachchandra. This was in the early sixties. His first experience onstage while at University was through P. Velikala’s production of Rathnavali, in 1963. Barely two years later, he produced his first play, Megha Garjana, a translation of Harold Pinter’s The Collection.

His career picked up gradually just as he’d obtained his Master's Degree in Dramaturgy and Acting. Two more plays followed: Simon Navagaththegama’s Gangavak, Sapaththu Kabalak saha Maranayak (which was the first that Vithanage directed and which bagged top honours at that year’s State Drama Festival) in 1971, and an adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s political reading of Becket three years later. Becket had a massive cast, with the titular protagonist (the Archbishop) and antagonist (Henry II) played respectively by Dharmasiri Bandaranayake and Lucien Bulathsinghala.

All these were serious plays, of course. So were his adaptations of the Bard’s work, most notably Venisiye Velenda (which he coproduced with that other impenetrable Shakespeare aficionado, Tony Ranasinghe) and Macbeth but also including Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and A Comedy of Errors. His fascination with 20th century American playwrights got him into adaptations of Thornton Wilder’s work, including Senehebara Dolly (based on a musical in turn based on Wilder’s The Matchmaker) and Hiru Dahasa (based on his Our Town), the latter of which marked his niece Yashoda Wimaladharma’s debut onstage.

He was there when television invaded our country, working up to produce several memorable teledramas for the Rupavahini Corporation (including Asal Wesiyo). Later, much later, he echoed the theme of mistaken identity and trivial coincidences in Allapu Gedara. He didn’t shy away from films, though by his own account he wasn’t a fan of the cinema either: he worked with and assisted Vasantha Obeyesekere in Wes Gaththo, and later acted in Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Ahas Gawwa. Vithanage and Obeyesekere no doubt remained friends after their initial encounter, which probably explains how the latter “staged” Hiru Dahasa as a diegetic element in Theertha Yathra (which coincidentally had Yashoda play the main role, in both play and film).

From all this, the man emerged as a translator. He gained a reputation for making language the only criterion by which his plays could be termed “indigenous”: from Becket to Hiru Dahasa, while the characters speak in Sinhala and engage in experiences that were localised, nevertheless in terms of the sentiments indulged and costumes worn by them, they were more properly located in the source text. We see this curious contradiction in translated plays even today, though that didn’t seem to have bothered Vithanage.

As for Vithanage the actor, as I implied before he could be versatile. He gave the impression of being a man who rarely smiled, was serious to a fault, and could be menacing if he so wished. At other times however, that impression was deceptive, for he could easily show us that men who rarely smiled were as menacing as they were confused, and showed us just that by (how else?) playing out confused, absent-minded, but well-meaning old men. Just as strongly, he could also portray strong, determined men, for more than anything else, he exuded a sense of resolve which could end disputes and privilege reason over emotion in whatever situation he was placed in.

For all those reasons, he naturally became a veteran early on. He indulged in both drama and comedy. He was not entranced by fame the way some of his colleagues would have been. He didn’t or rather couldn’t build a cult to himself as those he worked with and worked under could, but that didn’t bother him. He preferred to experiment. And it worked. After all, no one who has watched his teledramas, in particular Asal Wesiyo, can claim that he couldn’t do the most basic and yet difficult thing a man of his calibre should be able to: make us laugh, and that by neither forcing us to nor resorting to quick, immediate humour.

And you know what? We are still laughing.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, October 19 2016