Sunday, October 2, 2016

Swarna Mallawarachchi reflects on the moving image

Biographers tend to overreach themselves to the point where they lose track of their subject. Their role should hence be less about inserting frill into that subject and more about delving into the intricate relationship between life and work which he or she has managed to sustain. This, I believe, should be done while inculcating interest in the reader, particularly if the reader knows the person being depicted quite well and especially if that person happens to be an actor, an actress, a star in the conventional sense, a filmmaker, or for that matter any other artiste. Swarna Mallawarachchi would probably agree.

In a country where actors and actresses are remembered by quantity and not quality, it’s probably surprising that Swarna, with no more than 70 films to her name, has become the star she is today. Then again, however, many of those 70 films remain landmarks for their time and what’s more, were sealed for posterity owing to her immense talent. Swarna, I suspect, would know why this has been so more than anyone else.

To start things off I ask her as to whether she took an interest in acting as a child. She flatly denies it. “Back then there really wasn’t much of an opportunity for actresses,” she says, adding that while she had been moved by the performing arts the cinema didn’t figure in her scheme of things. “Of course we had stars in our time, and I looked up to them. Given they were way above us we certainly felt daunted by them!” she smiles. As for her education, Swarna admits she was academically inclined, and these no doubt influenced her literary tastes. Ironically, it was those same tastes which would get her into acting.

Her favourite writer at the time had been Siri Gunasinghe, the father of free verse and an experimenter in everything he dabbled in. Gunasinghe had turned to the cinema by 1965, and his maiden effort, Sath Samudura, needed an actress. Swarna had seen an advertisement for this and had immediately answered it, “mainly because I wanted to meet him.”

Apparently she’d been screen tested by the formidable D. B. Nihalsinghe, the film’s cinematographer, and he had taken her in. “He always said that it was my nose which persuaded them to give me the part in the film, and he used to say of it all the time, ‘The nose which launched a thousand ships!’” Indeed, years later Swarna saw an interview on TV where Nihalsinghe remembered her first audition and where he noted that when he looked at her through the camera, he was immediately struck by that sharp profile.

From then on, she would delve into the first phase of her career. The films she got during this time came up one after the other, in quick succession: Hanthane Kathawa, Nim Walalla, Thunman Handiya, Matharaachchi, and Ahas Gawwa. Among them, I think the most memorable would have to be Hanthane Kathawa, though of course that doesn’t marginalise her other performances.

I remember Sugathapala Senarath Yapa, who directed that extraordinary film (a love story set against the Hanthane Hills and Peradeniya University) telling me how he got Swarna to play out her part. “The entire film basically merged three stories: Maname, Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, and Kurosawa’s Rashomon. What bound them together was the theme of betrayal and unrequited love, with the woman as the focal point. For that reason, I asked her to act out an unreceptive, unresponsive lover, and to this end asked her to watch Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.” When I think back on her performance in Hanthane Kathawa, needless to say, I can note this quite clearly: as the woman at the centre of a tense, if not disconcerting love triangle, Swarna personified confusion and romance the way the story demanded it.

Her first phase ended when she left to England. She returned in 1977. Her second phase, however, would take some time to materialise. I ask her why. “The cinema had changed drastically while I was away,” she replies, “Moreover, I read up on actors and acting in England. I watched films. I came across names I hadn’t before, since I hadn’t been acquainted with the Western cinema while in Sri Lanka. When I returned I realised that our film industry had spawned countless directors experimenting in both the commercial and non-commercial cinema. On the flip side, we also had new faces like Geetha Kumarasinghe, Veena Jayakody, and Nadeeka Gunasekara, among others.”

And there was something else: almost all the offers that came her way demanded that she play a supporting role. “I was confident I could play leading characters,” she tells me, “When I understood that not everyone agreed with me, I thought of going back. But then I realised that I could identify where I stood by watching and taking part in films, with the purpose of letting others know that I was here.” With this in mind, she devoured nearly every local film that came her way, from the great to the good to the not so good. In the end, she was firm in her assessment: she had achieved enough to warrant leading roles.

Discretion is the better part of valour, however, and Swarna, while being mindful of her position, nevertheless “capitulated” and got into supporting characters to establish herself. “I played secondary roles in five films: Biththi Hathara, Ridi Nimnaya, Yahalu Yeheli, Sankapali, and Anjana. The latter of these was a commercial flick, and it remains the only film in which I danced.” Not that she regrets it: “Anjana was, all in all, a good commercial film. It was an enriching experience acting in it, to be honest.”

In the meantime, she hobnobbed with a number of directors who’d emerged while she had been away, among them Dharmasiri Bandaranayake. Apparently one day she had been contacted by Bandaranayake, who after his performance in Vasantha Obeyesekere’s Palagetiyo had toyed with the idea of scripting and directing his own film. “I read the script he’d written, and given that back then our cinema divided women into either paragons of virtue or she-devils, I thought the character I got was dark. I called Dharmasiri and told him this, but he assuaged my doubts. In the end, I was featured in his debut.”

That debut was of course Hansa Vilak, a landmark by all accounts and one which established Swarna in the kind of performances she’d give in the years to come. For her role as Miranda Ranaweera, however, she was only barely recognised by the Establishment. “I was given a Merit Prize at the 1981 Presidential Film Awards. That was it. I wasn’t even seen fit to be nominated for Best Actress, probably because no one thought highly of my acting back then. Now of course things are different, and there are a great many pundits who’d say that my performance was top-notch.”

On the other hand, her supporting roles in those aforementioned films bagged top honours at the OCIC Awards of 1982. “I won the award for the Best Female Performance for Yahalu Yeheli, Biththi Hathara, and Ridi Nimnaya. They combined all three supporting characters in one, basically. That was not only unprecedented, it was also unexpected. Especially for me!” Needless to say, it would be followed by qualitatively superior roles, each adding to a career that remains unsurpassed in the annals of our film history.

Dharmasiri Bandaranayake followed Hansa Vilak with another landmark, also featuring Swarna: Suddhilage Kathawa, scripted and based on a story by Simon Nawagaththegama. Being my favourite film by Bandaranayake, I ask her as to what she felt about Suddhi as a woman, and she replies, “A strong but ignorant woman. She knew she was exploited but didn’t care.”

I then move on to my favourite performance of hers, as Heen Kella in Sumitra Peries’ Sagara Jalaya. I remember watching it as a child and I remember sequences from it even now, no doubt owing to how powerful it was. “Some people brought up parallels between Heen Kella and Suddhi, which to be honest daunted me. Perhaps it was because both stories were written by Simon Nawagaththegama, or because we shot both films in the North Central region, but despite that, I was opposed to audiences thinking they were the same character. For that reason, I did my level best to do justice to my role.”

The end-result is there for everyone to see, I should think, since in my opinion Heen Kella remains the most powerful female character depicted by a Sri Lankan filmmaker. Naturally, this lends as much credit to Sumitra as it does to Swarna herself. I am of course not discounting her other performances (and certainly not those in Dadayama, Kadapathaka Chaya, and Ayoma), but in Sagara Jalaya we come across a different woman, the quintessential Sri Lankan mother.

From here we move on to the present. Swarna acted in Asoka Handagama’s Chanda Kinnari, a film which purportedly signalled the end of her career for quite some time. That was 20 years ago. 20 years later, she’s made her comeback, symbolically through Handagama with his latest feature, Age Esa Aga.

Age Esa Aga polarised audiences and critics, and it would be unbecoming of me if I suggest that you should listen to what they said before you watch it. Suffice it to say that Swarna’s role in the film is powerful, though somewhat different to the kind of woman she has been accustomed to portray until now. To discover that, however, I suggest you go see it for yourself.

What of the present? I ask her as to what she thinks of the cinema of her time. She opens up at once. “First and foremost, back then the cinema transformed. We started out with the likes of Obeyesekere, Bandaranayake, Sumitra Peries, I. N. Hewawasam, Parakrama Niriella, and Tissa Abeysekara.”

I ask her about Abeysekara, and she remembers a film that, in her own words, could have been a watershed in our cinema: “Tissa featured me alongside Vijaya Kumaratunga, Dhamma Jagoda, U. Ariyawimal, and Daya Alwis in a film called Man Mula Wei. It was scripted by Benedict Dodampegama and it could have been a landmark had it been released.” I ask her as to where it is today and she replies, “I believe it’s with the producer, Lionel Aleric Fernando. Wherever it is, I hope it’s salvaged, restored, and shown to our audiences. On all counts, I can guarantee you, it’s a classic.”

And with that she resumes her earlier conversation: “From these visionaries, we moved on to Prasanna Vithanage and Asoka Handagama, in whose films I acted. After them, we had the likes of Vimukthi Jayasundera. They were all serious directors, who went off the beaten track.” I put to her that while these directors were indeed serious and catered to discerning audiences, our film industry today has sought to accommodate both critics and spectators. She agrees.

“We have improved in terms of our commercial and middle-of-the-road cinema. Priyantha Colambage gave us Adaraneeya Kathawak. Indika Ferdinando gave us Ho Gana Pokuna. Kalpana and Vindana Ariyawansa gave us Premaya Nam. Chandran Rutnam gave us Me Wage Adarayak. All four were successful and more importantly, excellent. I believe we need both serious and commercial films and I believe these people have driven that point home. And it’s not just direction. Even in acting and cinematography, we have room for hope. Adaraneeya Kathawak, for instance, featured Hemal Ranasinghe, certainly a promising actor. And among cameramen, I can point at Channa Deshapriya (who shot Age Esa Aga) and Dhanushka Gunathilake. They all have considerable potential.”

What of those institutional problems still facing our cinema, though? “The main problem today isn’t directing a film. The main problem is releasing it. Getting it past the censors. Think of it this way: we are more or less living under a liberal censorship regime, which is why we can get to see films like Age Esa Aga. If we had such a regime earlier, our audiences could have been able to watch Handagama’s Aksharaya or Satyajit Maitipe’s Bora Diya Pokuna more quickly. Freedom isn’t a luxury for the director. It’s a necessity.”

Swarna also observes that we must resuscitate our film halls. She admits that owing to advances in technology we have imported the hall to our own homes, but notes that this still doesn’t compare with the experience of watching films in front of a large screen. “I believe the instinct to consume films this way is still in us,” she tells me, “and I believe the government and the private sector should sustain that. One way would be to create complexes out of theatres, by establishing eateries, bookstores, and other stalls by the hall, not just in Colombo but in remote areas as well.”

All these no doubt have left room for reflection, and as we wrap up our interview I ask her as to what the future holds. “Let’s see,” she says, “I’ve been offered several scripts, and while they appear promising I am not in a hurry. Denawaka Hamine was in her 80s when she retired and Irangani Serasinghe is still at it, so I don’t see any reason to rush things up. My patience brought me to where I am today. I was never in a hurry. I chose films which tapped into my potential. That’s what I would advise today’s actors: don’t go for surfaces, don’t cling on to every offer that comes your way. Practise restraint, practise patience, and all will turn out well.”

Swarna smiles. The interview is over. Her career is not. Thankfully, I should think.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, September 25 and October 2 2016